Interview with Tom Leveen

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Tom Leveen is an award-winning author of nine young adult novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and others. His book Hellworld is a Bram Stoker-Award Nominee, and his novel Zero was an ALA/YALSA Best Book of 2013. His newest novel, Mercy Rule, is told from multiple-points of view about the weeks leading up to a school shooting. He has more than 20 years of theatre experience, has been the Artistic Director of two theatre companies, and trained for five sessions of actor training at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

Sierra Jackson & Cheyenne Lopex: You wrote your first story in the second grade. What was it about?

Tom Leveen: I believe my first story was based on Raiders of the Lost Ark. I seem to recall a lot of swinging on vines through a jungle. But I also remember very clearly writing a story about giant black widow spiders–entitled, oddly enough, The Black Widows—and seeing them climbing over Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. I know I later gave that story to my grandmother. It was one of those two stories, I’m sure.

SJ & CL: What got you interested in the horror genre?

TL: My parents raised six other kids before me, so by the time I came around (I am the youngest by about ten years), they’d sort of given up policing what I was watching and reading. The TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow (a classic!) I must’ve seen when I was five or six, and it gave me nightmares for years. Not long after that I saw the horror movie Tourist Trap (another classic that Stephen King enjoys) that gave me even more nightmares. So I think those two films left an impact, to say the least. By fifth grade I was reading Stephen King’s short stories and writing my own versions of them. I was not a particularly brave kid, and I knew it, so it might be that horror allowed me to pretend to be heroic, to have the Final Girl experience without being in real danger. I think horror movies and fiction gave me a sense of never giving up, no matter how terrible the odds. In a sense, horror stories may have played a part in my own ambition, which is not to be “rich and famous,” but to do what I want on my own terms. I’ve been able to do that most of my life, and thinking about it, I wonder if the “Goonies Never Say Die” element of horror aided me in that.

SJ & CL: Some of your earlier books such as Zero, Manicpixiedreamgirl, and Random all address several of the hardships students may face throughout high school. How did you make the transition from writing about the horrors of everyday life to writing about the horrors of zombies and demons?

TL: Zombies and demons are great stand-ins. Good horror stories tend to be about something else, something deeper than the plot (though certainly this is not always true!). The plot of Hellworld is about a global apocalypse with Lovecraftian monsters and undead family members—the usual stuff. Except that the theme of the novel is, “What do you do when your world goes to hell?” In my case, I was writing about Alzheimer’s disease; my father-in-law had early-onset and it was horrible for the family. Alzheimer’s is one of those diseases where as of right now, there is no hope. Not even a chance of “remission” or anything like that. So you know that tomorrow is going to be worse than today. What do we do with that? Hellworld, under the surface, is just a story about me trying to answer that question (and it is answered at the end of the book). Zero, Manicpixiedreamgirl, and Random certainly do deal with real-world “horrors” like love and crushes and failure and bullying and so on; those books are geared for readers who might need to know they are not alone, that they aren’t the only person to ever have these huge feelings or problems. Horror does the same thing, it just comes at it from a different angle. Sick is about racism and war; it was easier to write about those topics with zombies as the bad guys.

SJ & CL: What are the different thought processes between writing a horror story and writing a realistic novel about high school?

TL: With horror, I am asking myself what freaks me out. What’s an image or idea that just terrifies me? With realistic fiction, I tend to be more focused on nostalgia and either re-living something I found fun and/or a turning point in my life, or else giving myself a do-over. Mike in Zero is a pretty darn good boyfriend; I never was. I was more like Tyler in Manicpixiedreamgirl, and for that I am terribly sorry! But even he makes better choices than I did. Realistic fiction can sometimes be an emotional exorcism, whereas horror can be about an actual exorcism with real demons who want to eat your face. But the thing is…that describes how high school feels sometimes, too.

SJ & CL: What has inspired you to write both types of novels?

TL: Party, which has 11 chapters with each chapter being told from a different character’s POV, actually came from some short stories that I had the idea to stitch together, and one of those stories was supposed to be a horror short. (I’ve never told anyone which chapter!) So inspiration can be a fickle thing. My inspiration comes from many different places and tends to skew dark, whether that’s realistic or supernatural. In horror, I think my monsters tend to come first; an idea for a monster or other villain takes shape and I build a story around that, whereas for contemporary, the protagonist tends to come first; something about his or her voice appeals to me and I write to see what story it is they want to tell.

SJ & CL: What are the difficulties, if any, about writing a protagonist of the opposite sex?

TL: I have not found too many. Frankly, there are certain physical differences that I tend to avoid discussing in detail in the books because, one, it’s not necessary, and two, I just literally cannot understand those differences because I’ve never lived them. Beyond that, though, I want to write compelling characters with authentic and interesting voices, and frequently, women are more suited to that, in my opinion. I’m not going to say “All men are dumb,” because that’s not true, but yeah, my guys will veer toward the more sensitive end of the spectrum because feeling things deeply and being able and willing to talk about them simply makes for more interesting fiction. Having said that, for whatever reason, many of my protagonists are female from the outset. Random and Hellworld both, however, were initially male and my agent recommended I change them, and I think that was the right call. Beckett in Party was the first voice I “heard” for that novel. Overall, it’s really about the character.

SJ & CL: For any of your books, are there any particular scenes or types of scenes that were hard to write?

TL: The last few chapters of Mercy Rule were not easy, for reasons that hopefully are clear when they are read. First and last chapters in general are the most challenging because of the weight of them. First chapters need to accomplish so much, and last chapters—last words, really—need to land so well. I end up putting a lot of time into those last words of a book, trying different iterations and punctuation, spacing on the page…everything. I’ve gotten a lot more deliberate with how words flow and fall on the page with each successive book.

SJ & CL: Hellworld has a very interesting and fresh take on an apocalyptic story. Where did the inspiration behind this type of apocalypse come from? What kinds of literary research did you do?

TL: I became fascinated with the intersection of science and faith. I was raised on a steady diet of alien abduction shows, ghost hunting shows, things like that; then I became a fairly die-hard skeptic later on in life, but I missed the sense of awe and wonder (and fear) that came with supernatural claims—I felt like I’d lost some of my imagination. Cross-referencing science with history and religion made for some interesting combinations, and I studied all three quite a bit as I worked on the plot for Hellworld. The idea that there is so much out there in the universe that we don’t yet know, and that it could be either malignant or benign—or both at the same time—fostered many ideas, a lot of which ended up “on the cutting room floor,” but it was great fun to weave all these elements together.

SJ & CL: Where did the inspiration for your newest book, Mercy Rule, come from?

TL: Mercy Rule is, strictly speaking, a prequel to another novel I was working on called 53rd & 3rd (which will make sense while reading Mercy Rule). In that book, a group of “outcast” students takes over a public street corner every weekend as their own little sanctuary, which then gets thrown into turmoil when one of them brings a “popular” student there. It’s a novel about how easy it can be to become the thing we hate. I got to thinking about the history of this street corner, how these students came to hang out there, and that gave me the first inklings of Mercy Rule. Like many of my books, the original idea for Mercy Rule was much different—it was going to be more of a thriller, where the identity of the murderer wouldn’t be known until the very end. However, what I discovered during the brainstorming of the novel was that the stories from each of these very different characters were more important than writing a genre novel. You can still see traces of that idea in the book, because virtually all of the characters have what we might call a motive or reason (in their own minds) for committing a horrific act like a shooting. And that’s the point: These are students who are under a tremendous amount of stress from all corners. Everything in here is some combination of stories I have heard from very real teens and teachers, which is one reason I think the novel can and should be used to spark conversations about violence, about stress, and about being dismissed by the people who are supposed to be caring for us most.

Missed our review of Tom Leveen’s Hellworld? Check it out here!

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