Todd Strasser has written over 140 books, including award-winners Boot Camp, Fallout, and The Wave. Strasser’s latest novel, The Beast of Cretacea, is a modern take on the classic Moby Dick. Setting his book in the future, Strasser puts an awesome twist on the original story; whether you’ve read Moby Dick or not, you’re bound to love The Beast of Cretacea.
Jonathan Halpern: Moby Dick is a classic, but teenagers rarely read it today due to its complicated style and language. How do you think The Beast of Cretacea appeals to today’s audience?
The writing in my book isn’t nearly as complex or difficult. I’ve borrowed from Melville’s plot but not his language and style. I’ve tried to make The Beast updated page-turning excitement, complete with virtual reality technology and monstrous sea creatures.
“Call me Ishmael” is the iconic first line of Moby Dick. What’s the most iconic – or memorable – part of The Beast of Cretacea?
A writer takes a risk whenever he or she steps outside the rigid boxes labeled genre. As Publishers Weekly said in its review, The Beast of Cretacea is “equal parts Moby Dick retelling, environmental cautionary tale, and coming-of-age story.”
So in The Beast I think I’ve combined genres in a way I haven’t seen before. The fact that PW calls the book a “fantastical SF epic [that] blends disparate pieces into a harmonious whole,” is a huge relief for me. That disparate blending into a futuristic climate-fiction adventure whole is what I hope will make the story iconic.
A lot of your writing is inspired by real events, studies, or other existing literature. What part of Moby Dick most directly inspired you to write your own version?
In a way, Moby Dick was a novel about the environmental and moral issues of its day. Those aspects inspired The Beast in the sense that it can be considered an environmental dystopian novel about today’s most dangerous and lethal invasive species – man.
Many of your books, including The Wave and Give a Boy a Gun, are taught in classrooms so that students can think about today’s issues. What’s a current issue that might inspire you to write a book?
I hope that my next book will be about the insanity of war. The United States won its independence about 240 years ago. Since then it has been involved in wars of one type or another for nearly 224 of those years. It’s a fairly open secret that we are currently involved in numerous armed conflicts around the globe, only our government no longer calls them wars. They have new names like special ops, military engagements, and armed conflicts. But it doesn’t change the fact that young American men and women are fighting and killing and at times being killed. As activist-songwriter Phil Ochs famously put it, “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, always the young who fall.”
Generally, you write fiction. Do you enjoy writing nonfiction?
Writing fiction is my life. I live and breathe for the opportunity to put together novels about issues that are important to me and, I hope, important to young people, whether it’s school shootings, social inequality, or the destruction of the environment. I actually write nonfiction for fun. I have a series online called the Kid’s Books: The Kids’ Book of Gross Feats & Facts, The Kids’ Book of Weird Science, The Kids’ Book of Really Stupid Criminals. They make me laugh while I write them.
Many authors shape protagonists based on their life experiences. Do you include your personal life in your characters?
Only occasionally. Fallout is certainly the most autobiographical book I’ve written. I’m Scott in that book, and all of Scott’s friends are based on the friends I had at his age. But otherwise little of my personal life goes into my stories. After all the books I’ve written, I’ve got nothing left!
Many authors are touched by fan mail. What’s your favorite or the most interesting you’ve received?
The letters that have meant the most to me are from students who say my books have changed their lives. It could be a young person who didn’t think anyone else was feeling what he or she felt. It could be from a bully who never stopped to think about the impact of his actions on his victims.
You’ve written over 140 novels. Which is your favorite?
I’m glad you asked because I can honestly say that The Beast of Cretacea is my favorite. I’ve never worked on a book for as long (three solid years) or as intensely. While I’ve always been a huge fan of science fiction, this is my first venture into that field. I cherished the opportunity and freedom to create the world, Cretacea, where much of the story takes place.
How long does it typically take you to write a book? Can you describe your process?
I don’t have a typical length of time. I start with a fairly detailed outline and then get lots of ideas as I write. I incorporate those ideas into the story, which means making changes to the outline, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in profound strokes, but always, to my mind, making it a better story. Generally, by the time I’ve finished the innumerable revisions, the resulting novel bears little resemblance to the original outline.
Was this the case with The Beast?
Definitely. The original the idea grew out of a news article I read about the problems and dangers of space debris – spent rocket stages, old satellites, and fragments from disintegration, erosion, and collisions – that orbit our planet. At first I was going to write a novel about space junk collectors. I envisioned space trawlers sailing on solar winds and towing gargantuan nets in which they’d gather up space junk. (Even though I eventually changed direction in The Beast of Cretacea, that still seems like a pretty cool idea for a book).
But there has to be danger in a story, so I thought the threat of space pirates might be exciting (I’m a big fan of “Pirates of the Caribbean”). Around that time I happened to listen to a book called Why Read Moby Dick, basically because it was a question I’d wondered myself. The next thing I knew, I was thinking about a sort of Moby Dick in space story, which eventually led to The Beast of Cretacea.
What inspires you when you have writer’s block?
I think that’s one of the great reasons for taking the time to create an outline. If I get writer’s block I can always skip to another place in the outline and pick it up from there. Often I’ll later discover that the thing I was blocked on really wasn’t germane to the story. Another trick I employ for writer’s block is to take a break from writing and do some research. I find there’s always something to research in my stories, and doing this helps
get my brain out of that tunnel-vision-writer’s-block thingy.
What advice would you give to teenagers who aspire to be writers?
They must write. That sounds obvious, but I’ve met so many people who said they wanted to become writers and were going to start writing just as soon as … fill in the blank. Writing is like playing the piano. It’s a lot easier if you practice every day than if you sit down and try to play once a month.
The second and equally important step is that they must read. Because before you can improve a piece of writing, you must have a sense of what better writing is. How do you get that? By reading other writers’ work. This sets the standard by which you judge your own writing, and, hence, how you know what to rewrite. So reading is crucial to the writing process.
Third, you need a certain amount of blind faith, and a tough hide. Because you’re going to be rejected repeatedly, and yet you have to find a way to keep trying. I still get rejected. It hurts, but it’s all part of being a writer.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.