SWhile in part one of our interview with My Teacher Is an Alien author Bruce Coville we focused on the gadgets of the series, we had to ask a few questions more specific to the literary aspects of the book. We didn't want to stick this in part one for our more general readership, but if you're familiar with the series, read on for the stuff you'll never read on the book jacket.Tell me about how you assembled the series. In terms of structural influence, there was a series when I was a kid called the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. There wasn’t a lot of science fiction available for kids then (or now) and she had this great trick of finishing off a story but leaving you with an unresolved image that you couldn’t stop thinking about. I picked up that particular trick and applied it to this series. This was not meant to be a series. It was meant to be a standalone book, My Teacher is an Alien. The thing where Peter goes off and Susan goes out and looks into the sky, wondering what’s going on, was meant to give the reader something to continue the story in their own head. But the book became so unexpectedly popular. Literally, it sold as many copies as my first 20 books all put together had sold in the previous 13 years, and I was getting a lot of letters from kids demanding to know what happened next. The publisher, of course, wanted to take advantage of this too. I actually wasn’t that enthusiastic about doing another book. I got a lot of pressure and I was listening to Jonathan Kozol speaking in New York. I realized the only reason to do this kind of book was to see us from the outside. The reason I like writing this alien stuff is because when you’re in your own mess you can’t see it. You’ve probably seen this with friends. You know they’re in a horrible romance. You can see it. All their friends can see it. But they can’t see it because they’re inside of it. We can’t see our own mess when we’re inside it, but the aliens can look at us from the outside and say, “There’s enough food an people are starving. I don’t get it,” and make us look at it too. The publishers were just looking for a sequel at that point and I said, “We’ll do two more books, and for me to keep it interesting as a writer, I’ll do the next book from Duncan’s point of view and the last book from Peter’s point of view. And what happened was the third book got so long and complex that I had to split it in half. It took as long as the first three books put together to write the fourth book. I kept stumbling on how to do it. I’d done each of the main kids, so I thought, who’s going to narrate the fourth book. Oh, I’ll have it be Broxholm narrate it. But that didn’t work because Broxholm was an adult and as soon as soon as he starts to narrate it, it became an adult book, not a kids’ book. The other thing I tried was to have all three kids narrate it in alternating chapters. But that didn’t work because sometimes one kid was having a lot of adventure and another kid was having nothing going on. I was trying to force stuff in that didn’t work. And finally I realized, the fourth book was really simply the rest of Peter’s story. But I could not have written the fourth book—which actually sold the most of all of them—without the first three books. I mean, the publisher would not have let me go where that book goes because people wouldn’t think that kids were ready for that. What do you mean by “could not have written it”? It’s very dark and it’s very direct. The kids see torture and they see a starving baby. This was light paperback fiction. But the sales of the first three books bought me permission to go where I wanted to go in the fourth book. Do you feel like that philosophy going into the fourth book, where you had more liberty and pursued content that might be heavier for kids, has followed you through the rest of your career? Actually, I think the fourth book is the farthest step going in that direction. I consider the fourth books a secret between the kids (now the young adults) who read it and me. Because the books were paperback originals, they didn’t receive much review attention, especially as the years went on because the review media tend to pay attention to new hard covers. So when you’re writing paperbacks, it sort of circumvents the review world and a lot of adults had no idea what was going on in that book. It was me and the kids in a conversation with each other. [Bruce Coville] Back to Part 1
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