Outliers. For those familiar with statistics, it is a common term used to describe pieces of data that fall outside the boundaries of a main grouping. But for Pete Hautman, author of the National Book Award-winning Godless (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004), outliers are people who live outside of the norm, and they make great protagonists.
“I’m more interested in the outliers. They are simply more interesting, both in fiction and in real life. Some writers prefer to take ‘normal’ characters and have weird stuff happen to them. I prefer my characters to be a bit quirky from the outset. Although I do have some pretty normal kids in The Big Crunch (Scholastic Press, 2010).”
Perhaps Hautman is fascinated by outliers because he is one. He attended college for a handful of years but didn’t graduate. Instead, he went on to hold a series of different jobs in unrelated fields. Finally, he decided to write a novel and in 1993 Drawing Dead (Simon & Schuster) hit the shelves. Today, he has an extensive collection of books to his credit written for both adults and young adults.
“We had lots of books around the house and made weekly trips to the library. I think the availability of books was the most important thing. We didn’t get any direct guidance, and I don’t remember any rules about what we could read. I was raiding my dad’s detective and Western fiction by the time I was ten. Also, when I was reading I wasn’t doing something destructive or dangerous, and my mom liked that.”
Hautman’s interest in reading and writing began far earlier than his adulthood, however. “I think I was eight or nine. It was probably Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (McGraw Hill Book Company, 1965). Or possibly it was The Enormous Egg (Little, Brown, 1956) in which a kid finds a big egg that hatches into a Triceratops. I’ve been pursuing that sense of wonder in my reading ever since. As for writing, I started out making comic books at age twelve. Over the next several years the pictures went away, and I became more interested in the words.”
His fascination with words led Hautman to write several novels for young adults about the angst of growing up and coming to terms with matters of the heart and of faith. “I think everybody should question their beliefs—every day if possible. I try to do so. It’s hard work! Teens question more than adults; I think that is entirely age appropriate.”
“My imagination is little more than the willingness to remember, rearrange, and distort memories. I used to be a teen, and a big part of me still is. I never kept journals (and still don’t), so those memories have been heavily distorted by time. The teens I know today aren’t that different from teens back then. As for teens ‘sharing their angst’ with me…it comes off them in waves of ripe sneakers and Axe body spray. I don’t like to get too close.”
There is one series of books that steps away from Hautman’s usual writing style and genre: The Klaatu Diskos trilogy (Candlewick Press) featuring The Obsidian Blade, The Cydonian Pyramid, and The Klaatu Terminus. Though the three large volumes still address the underlying themes of relationships and religion, the multiple stories, overlapping timelines, and time-jumping adventures keep readers guessing until the end.
“The Klaatu Diskos trilogy took a long time to write, and I’m happy with it. True, it can be challenging to follow at times, and it is not for every reader. No book is. But the story really does make sense in the end, and readers who are willing to climb on board and take the ride are suitably rewarded and, I hope, entertained by the journey.”
“I use my writing to help myself think. More than that, I use it to try to understand how other people think.”
In April 2015, Hautman introduced readers to yet another tale set outside of most people’s experience. Eden West (Candlewick Press) follows a young man who has grown up inside a cult compound. As the pages are turned, readers discover the intricacies of the teen’s world and sympathize with him as he discovers cracks in his belief system and questions his faith and commitment. View Pete’s elaborate and hilarious unboxing ceremony upon receipt of the first bound copy of Eden West.
“I worked on that book for more than a decade, and during that time there was a lot of research on cults and mainstream religions. I re-read the Bible and most of the Mormon scripture and assorted biblical Apocrypha and everything I could find on cults. One of the challenges in writing Eden West was to keep all that research out of the story, but I needed the background to create a coherent epistemology that is mostly just hinted at in the books.”
So what can readers look forward to seeing next from this versatile author? “I just finished a draft of a YA novel about birth order and pizza, and I have a middle-grade book coming out in September: The Flinkwater Factor (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015). It’s a near-future comedy about a girl growing up in Flinkwater, Iowa, home of the world’s largest robot manufacturer.”
“I believe I do my best work when I’m trying something new—when I’m a little bit scared and uncertain—hence the genre shifting. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I’m trying to live and work as if this is my only shot. I’ll set my writing aside when I’m dead, and the last wild rhinoceros will die, and the sun will become a red giant and swallow Earth, and the universe will contract, and we’ll start all over again.”