April 12, 2019

Andrew Smith

“Humor is the best way to challenge accepted notions.”
Interview by

Award-winning author Andrew Smith talks about his debut middle grade novel, The Size of the Truth.

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The Size of the Truth is Andrew Smith’s first foray into middle grade fiction. The Michael L. Printz honoree’s latest madcap tale follows Sam Abernathy, a claustrophobic eighth grader who bridles against the stifling expectations of his parents, the identity his small-town has foisted on him, and his reemerging memories of the three days spent at the bottom of an abandoned well taking counsel from a wise and acerbic talking armadillo. Eccentric and entertaining, The Size of the Truth is for anyone who’s ever felt boxed in. We caught up with Smith to talk about forging your own path, the power of humor and more.


Sam, the protagonist in The Size of the Truth, is trapped. As a young child he was physically trapped, having fallen down an abandoned well, and now he finds himself trapped in a more existential sense—trapped by his parents’ and town’s expectations of what he is or should be. Did anything make you feel trapped when you were young?
One of the issues I tend to obsessively examine in my books is the idea of boxing (not the fighting kind) and labeling—and how external constraints and expectations on young people produce so much anxiety and unhappiness. The good news—and this may be purely anecdotal, coming from someone who’s spent the majority of his life working with kids on a daily basis—is that things are loosening up and getting better for kids, but the labelers and box-makers among us still have a lot of progress to make. I came from a very strict, regimented family, and my parents definitely started grooming me at a very young age for the future they had in mind for me. I bought into it, I suppose, until I was about 14, but after that, I was determined to go my own way. They were against my idea of becoming a writer, but that was all I really wanted to do from about that age on, so I just did it.

And how did you break free from others’ expectations of you and blaze your own path?
Or was he pushed? I don’t think I broke free so much as grew up on the outside of everything. Like Sam, I was much younger than my classmates, having been put ahead in school (which I thought was a terrific idea for about one school week). So I never fit in, and I think my peers’ expectation was that I would always be an outcast. There were no other paths but the one I had for myself, and I had no sense of what succeeding at what I desired to do would look or feel like.

I really loved Bartleby, the talking armadillo who provides Sam with words of wisdom. Did you have someone like Bartleby in your life growing up? If so, what did you learn from him or her?
First of all, I would love to have a talking armadillo, but I’d want him to be nicer than Bartleby. And I suppose the closest thing I had to him would have been a few of my favorite teachers: Miss Haines (she taught history in middle school); Mrs. Veith, who taught geometry in high school; and my favorite, Mrs. Beaubien, my high school English teacher. Mrs. Beaubien was one of those teachers who every kid was terrified of. She was brutally demanding and an impossibly hard grader, but she gave me a love for literature and writing.

Both Sam and James want to pursue careers that, to a degree, challenge stereotypes of masculinity. What made you want to focus on issues of masculinity and gender in this book?
I’ll be totally honest here—I never thought about gender roles and gender conformity when I was writing the book. I mean, James does mention the pressure society often imposes on boys who dance, but what I mostly wanted to examine and have readers question is the idea of success and the prescriptive future that so many parents construct around their children. Sam’s parents and James’s father have already mapped out for their sons what being successful and fulfilled in their futures will look like, without ever really considering what those things mean to Sam and James. As a high school teacher for going on 30 years, this is one of my biggest frustrations today. In narrowing down the fates of our children, I also see a constriction of opportunities to build a happier future for society and the world as a whole. As I often tell my kids, you only get so many trips around the sun—do you really want to spend them doing something that makes you unhappy?

Your books are, in my view, zany, off-the-wall and consistently hilarious. What draws you toward the humorous and the absurd?
Humor is the best way to challenge accepted notions of certain status-quo practices and ideas without instantly drawing dividing lines and creating enemies. And I think nearly everything has tipped toward the absurd, especially in the past few years, so we may as well just ride that wave and see where we end up, right?

Why do non-traditional characters and themes play such a large role in your writing?
Whenever I begin a new project, I like to challenge myself to come up with something that won’t be like anything else that’s out there, so I try to explore story elements and sometimes technical components of storytelling that defy the conventional. And since I like to have fun doing what I do, humor is always going to be there—even in some of my most serious work.

What’s up next for you? Do you have more middle grade books lined up, or are you back to YA?
I’m currently finishing (I swear I’m almost finished) another middle grade novel about Sam Abernathy. Then I have the young adult novel Exile From Eden, the sequel to Grasshopper Jungle, coming out in September. And I’ve also been working on a graphic novel with my illustrator friend Matt Faulkner called Once There Were Birds, which we’ve been collaborating on for more than a few trips around the sun now. I don’t envy the amount of work for Matt—illustrating is really hard! I drew the illustrations for Exile From Eden and doing it gave me panic attacks. After that? Who knows? I’m going to write some poetry for National Poetry Month in April, and one of these days I’m sure I’ll finish this adult novel that I’ve been kicking around, too.

 

Autho photograph © Kaija Bosket

Get the Book

The Size of the Truth

The Size of the Truth

By Andrew Smith
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781534419551

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