June 2005

Pete Hautman explores power and pain in haunting teen novels

By Pete Hautman
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For National Book Award-winning author Pete Hautman, the experience of writing his latest young adult novel, Invisible, was an intense and unusually speedy one.

The author says most of his books take several years to write, but when he got the idea for Invisible, I wrote the first draft in five weeks. I was almost obsessed. He adds, In a sick, depressing way, it was a joy to write. That’s quite a caveat, but an understandable one: the narrator of Invisible is Doug Hanson, a witty kid with a knack for model-railroad building and a host of disturbing hobbies and behaviors, including an unhealthy fascination with fire and an unsavory habit of spying on a female classmate. Despite Doug’s moral lapses and odd behaviors, Hautman succeeds in making him a sympathetic character. Young readers will surely relate to Doug’s feeling of adolescent invisibility, his exasperation with the seemingly clueless adults he encounters daily and his singular focus on his best friend, Andy. Nearly every kid has someone they call their best friend, Hautman says. As you get older, friendship becomes more complex, it changes. I wanted to write about that kind of pain, about a kid who lost his best friend and couldn’t make that transition. Hautman launched his writing career in 1993 with a mystery, Drawing Dead, and followed it with a series of crime novels. His first book for young adults was Mr. Was (1996), and he went on to write four other inventive teen novels, including Godless, the National Book Award-winning story of a boy who starts a religion by worshipping the town water tower. The author says his young adult works come from a different emotional and intellectual place than his adult books. In my adult books, I’m writing for the reader I am when I read a popular novel, I demand to be amused, and that justice is done in the end. I don’t want to have to ponder the book after I’m done with it. In writing for young adults, Hautman has a different goal: When I’m writing YA [young adult] books, I’m interested in vicariously experiencing the emotions and drama the world has to offer. As a teenager, I wanted ambiguous endings, books that perplexed and made me think. He adds, I think of YA as coming-of-age stories about kids taking on adult responsibilities for the first time, in terms of friendship, sex, violence, any number of things. It’s about discovering your personal power, and how you can affect the world. The collision of Hautman’s curiosity about personal power and a wrong turn in a shopping mall resulted in the creation of a key element of Invisible Doug’s intricate, time-consuming model railroad, made from thousands of wooden matchsticks. In a mall somewhere in Arizona, late at night, I ended up in a room filled with an enormous model railroad, Hautman recalls. I talked to the three old guys there, members of a model train club. They were so proud of what they’d done. The experience stuck with Hautman. I became fascinated by the kind of mind that embraces this hobby and the notion of imposing yourself on a miniature world, making yourself God. It is just this sort of imposition that proves impossible for Doug to maintain. His destructive actions are ultimately revealed, culminating in a scene that is at once astonishing, sad and thought provoking but definitely not for the faint of heart.

On a lighter note, Hautman and his wife, poet Mary Logue, are co-authoring a series of middle-grade mysteries. Another adult mystery is due out next year, plus a YA book titled Rash. Hautman will work on these projects from his home in Golden Valley, Minnesota, which he shares with Logue and two toy poodles.

And, in the wake of his National Book Award, Hautman has been traveling and giving talks at schools and conferences. It’s really nice to be acknowledged as a writer. It’s given me a lot of new readers, he says. We writers are all desperate for attention. We hide in our rooms and hammer away on our keyboards . . . and we really want the world to come to us.

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By Pete Hautman
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9780689868009

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