School Days, Michael F. Shaughnessy, EducationNews.org
1) Douglas, it seems that your writing is a big hit with middle school kids- What is your secret?
When I first set out to write thrillers for kids, I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. Believe me, I wasn’t working to any secret formula. I just knew I wanted to write science fiction in the tradition of Asimov or Clarke. I felt that while young readers today had plenty of fantasy to choose from, there wasn’t much hard science fiction available for them. So I decided to write the kind of fast paced, mind-expanding adventures that I had loved as a kid, and hope for the best. My goal was to write books that would keep kids glued to the page while sending their imaginations soaring. When the first book came out, I had no idea if it would be loved or loathed. Happily, the reaction from kids has been positive beyond my wildest dreams.
Why is this so? I’ve come to believe there are a number of factors that contribute. First of all, for me, the plot is everything, and I take great care to deliver intelligent, tight plots with complex mysteries at their centers. The books are fast paced with lots of action, the chapters are fairly short, and most of them end with cliffhangers, so I intentionally make it difficult for kids (and, surprisingly, adults) to stop reading.
My young heroes are bright and determined, and get to outthink and outwit brilliant and very competent adversaries. The books are G-rated and fun. Finally, my writing style is straightforward and unadorned—Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine called it “cinematic” and SFReader.com, “crisp and clean”—so the books are fairly streamlined.
2) Tell us about the Prometheus Project and what is involved with it.
The Prometheus Project is an ultra-secret team of scientists exploring the greatest discovery ever made: an abandoned alien city, filled with advanced science and technology—as potentially deadly as it is wondrous. In the first book, Ryan and Regan Resnick inadvertently discover their parents are on the team, become trapped in the city, and must find a way to save their mother’s life against impossible odds. In the second, the city is captured by a brilliant alien and his team of mercenaries, the adults are taken hostage, and Ryan and Regan must find a way to free the prisoners and outwit the alien. In the third, the kids are stranded on a hostile planet. But even when they miraculously survive and return to Earth, they must defeat a ruthless adversary who controls an unstoppable alien weapon.
Because the books contain accurate, mind-expanding science, they have been endorsed by the California Department of Education, the AAAS, the Science Teachers Association of New York State, and numerous other such organizations in the US and UK (but you probably don’t want to tell this to the kids J).
3) It seems that a lot of readers are TRAPPED into reading your books. How do you get them hooked?
When I finished the first Prometheus Project book, Trapped, I read it and decided I really loved it. And then I gritted my teeth and cut it in half. Why? I was determined that the introductory book in the series hook the kids from page one and never let go. I was determined that it be an effortless read, and as short, streamlined, and unintimidating as the plot would allow. The first version had three protagonists, a brother and sister and their friend. I jettisoned the friend and found a way for the action and mystery to begin on the very first page. Yes, it was painful, but now I couldn’t be happier that I made this decision.
4) Now, your most recent book “ The Devil’s Sword “ seems to be jumping off the shelves faster than the Harry Potter series- what is involved in this book and why is it different from your others?
The Devil’s Sword is extremely unique. There are precious few mainstream thrillers for kids, and the book is set against the unique and fascinating backdrop of the sport of fencing. Kids have an innate love of sword fighting, and fencing is one of the fastest growing sports in America. Fencing is insanely fun to watch in person, and amazingly interesting, so I became determined to capture the essence of the sport in a fast paced, action packed novel. It took six months of pulling out my hair to come up with the plot, but I think it was worth it. In the book, three friends fencing at a tournament at Nellis Air Force Base become mired in a plot by brilliant terrorists to steal a satellite-based laser weapon. The book has been praised by Olympic fencers and book critics alike, which is extremely gratifying.
5) How do your books help to overcome “reading reticence”?
I didn’t set out to write books to appeal to “reluctant” readers, but parents and educators have reported this to be the case. I think this is so because they are streamlined, action-packed, mind expanding, and cinematic. This is especially true of Trapped, which has also been used as a read-aloud in numerous classrooms across the country. Oddly enough, Trapped not only appears on lists of books for reluctant readers, but on lists of books for gifted students as well.
6) Your books seem to be “action packed “. Do your books speak more to boys than girls?
On average, boys are more difficult to get excited about reading than girls, and I couldn’t be happier that my books appear on several lists of “great books for boys.” I think the action and cinematic qualities may help in this regard. This being said, the feedback from girls has been just as positive. I have extremely brave, bright, and talented girl protagonists in each of my books. When I wrote the first book I named the main characters after my eight and ten-year-old children, Ryan and Regan. I didn’t know it at the time, but this decision ensured that both kids were equally brilliant and heroic. If Ryan saved the day too many times, my daughter would complain, and vice-versa. If you were to count how often Ryan saves the day, and how often Regan does, over the entire series, it is identical (believe me, I’ve done it).
7) Do you have a web site where people can learn more about you and your projects?
Yes, my website is www.douglaserichards.com . I’ve actually found it to be easier to provide quick updates on my newly established Facebook page, Douglas E. Richards Author, so I also encourage everyone to friend me there.
8) In 2010, in recognition of your work, you were selected to be a “special guest” at San Diego Comic-Con International. Can you tell us about this?
It was awesome! It was an incredible honor to be invited along with the likes of Ray Bradbury, Stan Lee, and Rick Riordan. I signed books for hundreds of kids, which was great fun, although I was too busy to see attendees like Angelina Jolie, Bruce Willis or Harrison Ford. Interesting story: my daughter doesn’t like sci-fi, fantasy, or comic books, so when I was invited, she only wanted to go to see my presentation. I told her she would get VIP treatment, have a special badge for the entire four days, etc., but she still didn’t have any interest. A week later she learned that Glee would be there. This is her favorite TV show, about a high school glee club. Suddenly Dad was a hero. But a few weeks later we learned that Glee and I were scheduled at the exact same time. What are the odds? I told Regan she should go to Glee, since she could always see her father, but she wouldn’t do it. She said she wanted to be supportive. I was really touched by this.
Michael F. Schaughnessy is Senior Columnist at EducationNews.org
Used with the permission of EducationNews.org