FIRST SEVEN LINES:
“My situation is desperate. I have crash-landed on an inhospitable world. Communication with my commanders has broken down. My shields have been compromised. I am critically short on vital supplies. I am isolated. Adrift.”
Shelf Unbound: What interested you in writing a Middle Grade novel?
Michael Merschel: To be honest, I did not actually set out to write a middle-grade novel. I had a germ of an idea—a science fiction-obsessed kid who copes with his problems as if he were a character on his favorite TV show—and decided to see how far I could push it. It wasn’t until I sent it to the person who became my agent, and she said, “I’d be happy to represent your middle-grade novel,” that I knew what I had done.
I’m thrilled with the label, though. When I was in my middle-grade years, I didn’t just read books, I inhaled them, absorbed them, hard-wired them into my nervous system. To me, it’s a huge honor to be on the shelf with my old favorites.
Although I’m proud of the fact that several adults have told me—the book works for them, too.
Shelf Unbound: Clark Sherman is a great kid. How did you go about creating this character?
Merschel: Well, when I tell my longtime friends that I wrote a book about science-fiction-obsessed nerd struggling to find his way through middle school, I have to quickly add, “It’s a novel. Not a memoir.”
I did, in fact, move to a school that is an awful lot like Clark’s when I was in seventh grade. I did watch a lot of Star Trek in the afternoons. Girls did tend to act as if I were surrounded by a force field.
But if Clark sprouted from seeds of reality, he quickly became his own thing. Very little of what happens in the novel actually happened to me—my own life was really pretty dull. So when I started putting Clark in tough situations, he had to start figuring his own way out. Each time he did, he did so in a way that was slightly different from what I might have done myself. (Case in point: Until I started writing this book, I had never, ever considered the possibilities of strategic regurgitation.) By the end of the book, he’s definitely his own man. In my mind.
You can tell that he became three-dimensional to me by the fact that I refer to him in the third person. It used to annoy me when writers did that. Not anymore.
Shelf Unbound: This novel is an homage to nerds generally and Star Trek/Star Wars nerds in particular. I assume you’re a sci-fi fan?
Merschel: Yes, but with some qualifications. You’ve heard that saying that “the Golden Age of science fiction is when the reader was 12?” That was very much me. For several years, sci-fi and fantasy were not just my favorite type of reading, they were my only type of reading. In my late teens, I began to read more broadly. The result being that to people who don’t read science fiction, I am an absolute geek. To people who actually read it regularly, I am absolutely clueless.
I mean, I have friends who collect movie props and decorate their cars Mad Max-style. Who drove for hours to appear as extras in Starship Troopers. A guy I went to college with now is an actual writer of Star Trek novels. A junior high friend has organized major conventions. Where the people go to talk about shows I have barely heard of. If you were assembling a Zombie Apocalypse team and needed a guy who would be able to bail you out of any situation requiring knowledge of sci-fi trivia—you would pick me last.
But I do still own one Spock ear (part of a set I wore to a convention in high school), and I repeat the story of the time I interviewed William Shatner as often as I can get away with it.
And the book is, in many ways, a love letter to the power of science fiction to inspire. And unite. Which I hope helps me maintain my nerd cred.
Shelf Unbound: What is it about middle school that makes many kids feel like aliens?
Merschel: Good question. You know, part of the inspiration for this novel was the realization that everyone —at least in my generation—has a story of something horrible they endured in middle school. My theory is that it’s at least partly biological: It’s an age when we’re beginning to separate from our families, but we don’t yet know exactly who we are. So everyone feels lost and adrift. Even if you’re not a new kid in town. Although that certainly amplifies the issue …
The other part of it is perspective. Older people tend to mock young teenagers for their intensity. The way everything is either “the best ever” or “worst of all time.” Thing is, when you are a young teen, you’re going through experiences that are entirely new. So, say, if your heart gets broken, of course it’s the worst heartbreak of all time—because it’s the worst you’ve ever experienced.
Clark is kind of in shock about his new school even though Festus Middle School is not really the most horrific place imaginable. But it’s certainly the hardest thing he’s ever had to face.
Shelf Unbound: Will we see Clark Sherman in a future novel?
Merschel: I didn’t envision a series, but if thousands of people demand more, who am I to say no?
Shelf Unbound: You’re an editor at The Dallas Morning News. What has being an editor taught you about writing?
Merschel: Oh, probably everything. Or everything I know, at least.
I started off as a copy editor. It’s a job that teaches you the value of each individual word and punctuation mark. I spent a lot of years looking at pieces of copy that needed to have several inches snipped out, quickly, without changing the meaning of the story. You learn not to waste words. Or even letters.
When I became an editor who works directly with reporters, I learned from watching really talented writers at work. We would talk about the shapes of stories. We would talk about finding details that revealed character. We would look for ways to pace stories that compelled readers to read further.
I learned that in writing, everyone’s first draft needs work. In fact, on all the best stories I have edited, the magic did not usually happen until the fourth or fifth rewrite. I used that knowledge in particular to liberate me from pressure when I started to write what became Revenge of the Star Survivors. I began with the simple goal of writing a lousy book. I knew I could do that—and that as an editor, I could take my bad writing and make it OK. And then, if I was lucky, take OK writing and make it into something worth sharing with other people.
Finally, I learned that writing works best as a collaborative process. And this is where I have to give a shout-out to two editors who helped me find my way: Sarah Burnes, my agent, was able to quickly zero in on key flaws in the first manuscript; without her, I would not have made it to publication. And Kelly Loughman of Holiday House was an editor who would raise issues and then gave me freedom to find answers that worked for both of us. The book is much, much better for having been lovingly scrutinized by each of them. And many others.
Shelf Unbound: What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?
Merschel: One of the things that kept me going in the dark years when I thought I would never finish was the idea that somewhere out there is a kid who is struggling at a new school, or maybe at his or her old one, and wondering if he or she is going to make it. I want that kid to know—it gets better. There is intelligent life in the universe. You’ll find it. Or maybe it will find you.