I received Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman to review, but I had never read the first book Scythe. Normally, with so many books on my shelf, I don’t bother with sequels, but the cover was elegantly intriguing, so I read the back. Whoa, very intriguing. Against my norm, I contacted the publisher to ask for the first book. When that arrived I read both books back to back because I was completely hooked!
Scythe was reviewed by GeekDad Chris Wikersham, and he and I had a great conversation about Thunderhead. He decided to do a podcast about it, and I decided to interview the author, Neal. I had three times as many questions, but decided not to bother him too much or he might not have time to write the third book, which I am anxiously awaiting.
One question was about diversity in the series, both gender and ethnicity. Neal is one of the rare authors that takes utmost care about this important aspect of fiction, and he talks about it below.
GEEKMOM: Reading both books back to back was an intense experience, and I can’t say always a comfortable one. Death is not a general topic of conversation in America. As this book is a YA, what conversations about death are you hoping to achieve with young people?
NEAL: It’s more questions about life that I’m interested in. What does it mean to be alive? What would life be like if we had virtually no struggles and few fears? How would we live if both physical and emotional pain was removed from our life equation? So much of our societal goals involve defeating disease, extending life and the quality of life, and mitigating suffering. These are all worthwhile goals, but what happens to us when we attain them?
GM: Both Rowan and Greyson have a similar arc of being abandoned/betrayed by their parents and mentors, but try to continue to hold on to their beliefs, even if they think they might never make a difference or survive. What is the core difference between these two and how will that affect their challenges in the next book?
NEAL: I was very mindful to differentiate Rowan and Greyson as much as I could because they run the risk of treading the same territory. By Thunderhead, Rowan has become a sort of dark knight, and knows his purpose, or at least he thinks he knows it, but Greyson’s character arc is just beginning. The biggest difference is their relationship to the Thunderhead. Greyson has an important connection to it, whereas Rowan can have no connection to it at all.
GM: I appreciate the amount of diversity in your series. How careful are you in making decisions on representation of gender and ethnicities of characters?
NEAL: Extremely careful. Every choice is pondered over. And that goes for all of my books. When it comes to gender, I try to split a story almost evenly between a male and female lead. If I’m writing first person, from a single character’s point of view, then I try to make sure there’s a strong character of the opposite sex as an important part of the story. When it comes to cultural diversity, it’s a delicate balance, because I don’t want to be guilty of cultural appropriation in any way, but at the same time, I want to make sure that everyone can see themselves in my characters.
The hardest part is that all characters are flawed, and the moment you give a character an ethnicity AND a flaw, whatever that flaw is, you run the risk of offending someone. What makes it worse is that there are a number of bloggers out there who thrive by finding fault and creating controversy. When you’re writing any ethnicity or social group that’s not your own, the slightest cultural miscalculation or misinterpretation of your meaning can get you condemned. That said, I prefer to write stories about the human race as a whole. Many times I don’t even mention the ethnicity of a character, because as I said, I want readers to see themselves in the characters, regardless of race. In Scythe, there are no races anymore. At most, people “lean” toward a certain ethnic background, but since there’s no racism in a perfect world, I wanted to paint a world where the very concept of racism was foreign to its people.
GM: The “good” scythes choose their apprentices by their innate compassion as we see with Rowan and Citra. The “bad” ones choose theirs for the lack of. Through Volta and Rowan, you show that compassion cannot be turned off, even if actions seem to show otherwise. Rand’s arc never learns compassion, although she feels love. The Thunderhead thinks it is compassionate, but it is really patronizing; it only loves humanity when it is doing exactly what the Thunderhead believes is right. What is the difference between love and compassion? Patronizing love and real love? Is it possible for compassion to be taught?
NEAL: Love plus empathy equals compassion. You not only have to care about someone, but also understand how they feel. Rand does not learn compassion… although there are hints that she might. We’ll see if she does in book three. As for the Thunderhead, I beg to differ with you! The Thunderhead isn’t just artificial intelligence, it is nearing the point of being an artificial God—and in the most positive sense. It loves humanity unconditionally no matter what humanity does. It feels compassion, pain, and empathy when we make mistakes that hurt us. It will, by definition, never hurt us, otherwise it’s just another evil AI. We’ve seen that already. I wanted to create the opposite: an AI that really was the best thing we’ve ever created. An AI that is all about serving humanity to the best of its ability, and with incorruptible compassion. As we get to the end of Thunderhead, however, it comes to realize what any all-powerful being must realize. Humanity cannot be coddled if it is ever to grow…
GM: There is an epic amount of death in this series. Yet you are able to keep it YA by not focusing on the gory details. How do you decide what to include or not in each death scene? How do you keep each and every “glean” powerful for the reader?
NEAL: The good scythes are all about compassion. They are providing a service to society—and I’ll add that they are far kinder and more compassionate than nature is when it comes to the ending of life. The bad scythes, however, are the opposite. So when they glean, it’s more violent by nature. I personally abhor blood and gore, so I always find ways of making it clear what’s happening, but showing the least amount it. Even in those scenes, it’s never about the horror, it’s always about something bigger, so I keep the story focused on that. For instance, there’s a chapter in Scythe where we first meet Scythe Goddard’s group. They’re going to glean an entire airplane. The story is told from the point of view of a passenger who knows he’s going to die but finds a way to completely deny Goddard the satisfaction he seeks. The chapter is not about what’s happening around him on that plane, it’s about that man finding his dignity, and his triumph in a situation he knows he won’t survive.
GM: How involved are you in the making of Scythe the movie? What are you most concerned they get right?
NEAL: I am a producer on the project, and as such, I get to consult with the other producers, the studio, the writers, and eventually the director. Right now the script is still being worked on, and I’ve handed in my notes on the latest draft. The most important thing in any adaptation is that the film captures the way you felt when you read the book. I’m less worried about specific scenes as I am about capturing the feeling.
GM: What character or theme are you most passionate about in the next book?
NEAL: Hmmm… hard to answer that without giving spoilers. If I had to pick one character, however, I’m most excited about Greyson, and where his story goes—because after the end of Thunderhead, his entire life is going to be very, very different!
GM: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Neal! I highly recommend Thunderhead for YA and up.