When these books passed by my desk, I was so impressed with the writing in both that I knew I had to feature them. Shaun’s WE ARE THE ANTS offers a wry look at a possible apocalypse when Henry Denton is given a choice to press a button and end it all. In a similar vein, VIOLENT ENDS, edited by Shaun, is a collaboration between multiple YA authors providing individual perspectives after a school shooting does end it all.
Henry Denton doesn’t know why the aliens chose to abduct him when he was thirteen, and he doesn’t know why they continue to steal him from his bed and take him aboard their ship. He doesn’t know why the world is going to end or why the aliens have offered him the opportunity to avert the impending disaster by pressing a big red button.
But they have. And they’ve only given him 144 days to make up his mind.
Since the suicide of his boyfriend, Jesse, Henry has been adrift. He’s become estranged from his best friend, started hooking up with his sworn enemy, and his family is oblivious to everything that’s going on around them. As far as Henry is concerned, a world without Jesse is a world he isn’t sure is worth saving. Until he meets Diego Vega, an artist with a secret past who forces Henry to question his beliefs, his place in the universe, and whether any of it really matters. But before Henry can save the world, he’s got to figure out how to save himself, and the aliens haven’t given him a button for that.
It took only twenty-two minutes for Kirby Matheson to exit his car, march onto school grounds, enter the gymnasium, and open fire, killing six and injuring five others.
But this isn’t a story about the shooting itself. This isn’t about recounting that one unforgettable day.
This is about Kirby and how one boy—who had friends, enjoyed reading, played saxophone in the band, and had never been in trouble before—became a monster capable of entering his school with a loaded gun and firing on his classmates.
Each chapter is told from a different victim’s viewpoint, giving insight into who Kirby was and who he’d become. Some are sweet, some are dark; some are seemingly unrelated, about fights or first kisses or late-night parties.
This is a book of perspectives—with one character and one event drawing them all together—from the minds of some of YA’s most recognizable names.
Shaun was also kind enough to answer some interview questions:
According to your website, you’re currently sculpting characters from the comic book within your story THE FIVE STAGES OF ANDREW BRAWLEY. Do your creative outlets feed one another often, and do you have strategies for when your creative well goes dry?
They do. I’m honestly pretty terrible at…well pretty much everything artistic other than writing. I’ve tried to learn to play both the piano and the guitar, dabbled with painting and sculpting. But even though I don’t have any real talent in those areas and most of my attempts will never see the light of day, those creative pursuits help open my mind to unique ways of thinking. Describing a character through words is a different process than trying to build a three-dimensional sculpture. It forces me to use view the world in ways I’m not used to. I’d seen a steampunk inspired keyboard a friend had bought a few months ago. I didn’t want to spend $400 , so I decided to build one myself. It took me a couple of months, a lot of trial and error, and likely cost more than $400 since I had to buy all the tools, but I learned a lot. I love learning, and everything I learn has the potential to become part of a story.
I’ve found the best way to keep the creative well filled is to constantly try new things. Music, books, TV shows, activities. The creative brain is always making connections between random things, so the best thing a writer (or any creative person) can do is give their brain lots of things to connect. The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley was inspired by a song, two comic books I was reading at the time, a news article, a scene from a TV show, and my time training as an EMT. We Are the Ants, on the other hand, was inspired by my mom (and her love of Motown), my own suicide attempt at 19, a few books about space travel I’d read, my best friend, some of my own high school experiences, Andrew Smith’s book Grasshopper Jungle, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The truth is, you just never know where inspiration might come from, so experiencing everything you can is a great way to make sure you don’t miss anything.
An excellent way of putting it–and I was especially drawn to the voice in WE ARE THE ANTS, because it felt so authentic. You give a very thoughtful look at grief, and it’s no surprise that the book has gotten starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. In what ways were you able to tap into Henry’s experiences, and what do you hope readers will take away from the tough choices he has to make?
Thank you! Part of the inspiration for We Are the Ants came from my own suicide attempt when I was 19. I spent a lot of time after that happened thinking about how it affected me, how I could get well. But it wasn’t until much later that I started thinking about how it had affected the people around me. My mom, my best friend, my family. I hadn’t really taken the time to consider what they must have gone through. Which is why I decided to look at how Jesse’s suicide affected the people in his life. But with regards to Henry’s nihilistic view of humanity, I definitely drew from my own emotional state when I was a teenager. High school was nowhere near as difficult for me as it is for Henry, but it felt like it was at the time. It felt like nothing mattered, like nothing I did mattered. So that’s the place from which I wanted Henry to begin his story. But I hope by the end of the book readers will see that even if nothing matters, everything still matters. We may be meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe, but we matter to someone, and that’s what’s important.
I think we all find those empty places, and they’re especially prevalent in high school, when we’re still finding ourselves. I’m sure your experiences will help many teens (and even adults) negotiate through them. In VIOLENT ENDS, multiple perspectives explore the different pieces people have to put together after a school shooting. What inspired this project, and how did it develop?
There was a story a few years ago about a man on a Greyhound bus in Canada who attacked his seat mate with a knife. When the attack began, the bus driver stopped the bus and everyone fled, watching through the windows as the attacker decapitated the victim. It made me start thinking about why each person on that bus fled rather than trying to stop the attacker, and I had this idea of writing 40 very short stories about it. Ultimately, I shelved the idea, but the format stuck with me. Honestly, I don’t remember what exactly prompted me to start thinking about writing a school shooting story, but as soon as the idea popped into my head, I knew I wanted to write it from the perspective of people who knew the shooter. I briefly considered writing all the stories myself, but I decided it would be so much better to get as many different perspectives from a diverse group of writers as possible.
My agent loved the idea, we worked on the proposal and I contacted the writers I hoped would agree to contribute, and my editor at Simon Pulse made an offer 48 hours after we submitted it. Honestly, Violent Ends wouldn’t be a quarter of the book it is without the work the authors did. Their stories were better than I could have possibly hoped for, and any deficiencies in the book are due to my inexperience as an editor. We worked together online to build the world, which was an amazing experience. We talked about characters and places and motives. We read each other’s stories, feeding off of each other’s ideas. It was probably the greatest experience of my writing career.
I’m glad. And what a creative way to explore the domino effect an event like that has. What are some of your current projects?
Well, I have another book with Simon Pulse coming out in 2017 tentatively titled CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE. It’s about a guy named Ozzie whose boyfriend has vanished both physically and from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him other than Ozzie. Oh, and the universe is shrinking. Beyond that, I’m not quite sure. I’ve got another odd idea for an anthology. And I’m working on one book about an android civil war, and another about a girl who was born via immaculate conception and may or may not cause the end of the world. But who knows. We Are the Ants was a murder mystery, a haunted house story, and a sci-fi set on a space station before it became what it is. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to write until it’s written.
That’s definitely reassuring, especially for those of us still in the drafting stage. Thanks, Shaun, for such a wonderful interview!
To snag Shaun’s books for yourself, including VIOLENT ENDS, click the links below. Also check out his bio, told in a fun set of pictures.
WE ARE THE ANTS
THE FIVE STAGES OF ANDREW BRAWLEY