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Interview: September 2010

September 2010

Celebrated author Walter Dean Myers is back with his latest novel, THE CRUISERS, which follows a group of talented, teenage misfits as they try to redeem themselves after publishing a controversial article in their school’s alternative newspaper.

In this interview, Myers sheds light on the issues and experiences that inspired him to write about a place like Da Vinci Academy, elaborating on his own difficulties as a student and the importance of striking a balance between censorship and free speech in the classroom. He also describes his idea of an ideal teacher, reflects on the techniques --- and the books --- that have helped him become a successful writer, and unveils his future plans for his new heroes. Your latest novel, THE CRUISERS, is about a group of gifted eighth grade students who attend an elite school, yet they are not achieving their potential. What was your inspiration for the book? 

Walter Dean Myers: I believe there are many ways to measure whether or not students are achieving their potential, and I want to explore them.

TRC: Most students at Da Vinci Academy for the Gifted and Talented are obsessed with good grades and personal achievements. A group of students called the Cruisers, who are not living up to their potential, believe that life should be more about balance and less about achievement. What are your feelings about the pressures put on students, especially gifted ones, to excel and achieve good grades?

WDM: I think that sometimes the pressure overlooks the needs and circumstances of the individual. As a student in an elite school I did very well for a while, but my grades nosedived when my family life became dysfunctional.

TRC: To reinforce a class project on the Civil War, eighth grade students at Da Vinci Academy are divided into two groups --- Union sympathizers and Confederate sympathizers. As a last chance for the Cruisers to prevent themselves from being expelled, school principal Mrs. Maxwell has assigned them to negotiate peace between the North and the South. The Cruisers quickly discover their task is not an easy one. Tempers flare on both sides, as the issue of racism gets up close and personal. What do you hope young readers will take away after learning about the Civil War, as experienced by the students at Da Vinci Academy?  

WDM: History is not just a record of what happened --- it is also our perspective and understanding of what happened. The Civil War was a marvel of complexity, with many issues driving both sides. Some of the issues, such as race and slavery, can still be emotionally volatile today depending on perspective.

TRC: The balance between freedom of speech and freedom from inflammatory or racist remarks plays a big role in THE CRUISERS. The Cruisers have published an alternative newspaper called The Cruiser, which challenges the school's policies. A guest editorial in The Palette, the school’s official newspaper, written by soccer goalie Alvin McCraney --- who assumes the role of head of the Sons of the Confederacy --- has inflamed feelings among eighth grade students. Words become powerful weapons in the newspapers and in the halls. How much freedom do you believe students should have to express their opinions before being censored by school administrators?

WDM: All speech can be painful, and the school should understand the vulnerability of the students. Words can be easily sent out and less easily withdrawn. School administrators should not allow students to be hurt by insensitive remarks.

TRC: Zander Scott, the main character and leader of the Cruisers, is a tall and an athletic eighth grader attending a school for gifted students. English is his favorite subject, and he wants to write screenplays when he grows up. Zander's mother plays a big role in shaping him as an independent and a brave young man. Is Zander a bit biographical, based on someone you have known, or a totally fictional character?  

WDM: Zander is, as are most of my characters, a composite of biography and fantasy. His mother, however, is a copy of an actress/model I knew as a teenager.  

TRC: At Da Vinci Academy, there are good teachers who understand and encourage students to learn and grow, and there are some who are more focused on grades and achievement. How would you describe an ideal teacher? Were there any special teachers who influenced you to become a writer?  

WDM: Although some teachers focus on grades, I think they are just as important as teachers who take a more personal approach. All of them want the student to do well. I perceived most of my teachers as excellent because I was so eager to learn everything. One teacher, Ms. Baron, convinced me that I had writing ability and also steered me to the right books. She helped make me a reader and a writer.

TRC: The characters in THE CRUISERS are vivid and real, especially Zander. How do you capture the essence of your characters so well?

WDM: I think I like my characters so much that I’m drawn to finding out everything I can about them. I go through hundreds of photographs looking for just the right character and then post the picture on a board behind my computer. Every morning I sit down, and my characters are there to greet me.

TRC: Please describe your writing process. Do you use an outline or plunge ahead?

WDM: I use an outline, which I flesh out over a period of one or two months.  

TRC: Which of your books has brought the most response from your readers?

WDM: FALLEN ANGELS and MONSTER bring the most responses.

TRC: You've received numerous awards for your work, including two Newbery Honor Awards, a Michael L. Printz Award, five Coretta Scott King Awards and dozens of others. Does any award hold a special significance?

WDM: I write by myself, alone in my lonely garret, with just an unfeeling computer to comfort me. The awards tell me I’m doing something right.

TRC: How has the Internet changed the way you connect with your readers?

WDM: I get emails from readers, and I’ve done workshops with students across the country.  

TRC: What are some books that have influenced your life?

WDM: The books I read in high school --- PÈRE GORIOT, PENGUIN ISLAND, THE LOWER DEPTHS and the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, Yeats and Coleridge --- told me that there was a world of literature that I needed to find.

TRC: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received, and what advice would you give young readers who want to become writers?

WDM: The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to read as much as possible and then write as much as possible. The two go hand in hand. Every book I read influences my writing to some degree. I would advise all young writers to read classic literature.

TRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

WDM: I’m currently working on a third book in The Cruisers series. The second book is due out in 2012, and this one is scheduled for 2013.