Writing a few books, or even a modest shelf-full, would satisfy most authors. But Todd Strasser’74 recently published his 100th novel. No, that is not a typo. That is an entire bookcase. At 64, Strasser, a writer of young adult fiction, started his first novel as a senior at Beloit. His 100th book, Fallout, differs from the rest by being his most autobiographical. It’s also gotten some of the best reviews of his career: The New York Times called it “…superb entertainment” that “… thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense.”
Fallout is the story of a fifth-grader in 1962 whose dad has built a bomb shelter in the yard of their suburban home outside New York City. Strasser imagines an alternate past for the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the bomb drops, forcing the family to use the shelter.
“For years I’ve been writing about what’s been going on in the present, sometimes the future, and as I turned 60, I began looking into the past,” Strasser says. What he saw was the fallout shelter his dad built under the family’s backyard. It was a controversial move in their sleepy neighborhood, even though President Kennedy was exhorting Americans to do just that at the time.
Before this dip into a semi-real past, Strasser delved into a wide range of genres in the YA category—from ripped-from-the-headlines thrillers to historical fiction to comedy to sci-fi. He writes about almost everything and does it a lot. “Writing is the default activity of my life,” he says. “It’s not that I decide when to write, it’s that I decide when not to write.” Every morning he rises, makes coffee, skims the paper, and gets to it. He often goes from 8 a.m. to late afternoon or longer, with a break for lunch, usually working on three or four books simultaneously from his home north of Manhattan. The ideas keep coming to him late into the night.
It’s part of a creative process that began at Beloit. “In terms of writing, Beloit was kind of the Big Bang for me,” he says. “That’s where it exploded.” English teachers Marion and David Stocking inspired him, along with the “amazingly funny, biting” Bob Ray who was a “Moby Dick fanatic.” In his first year as a student, Strasser started writing for the Round Table, published two short stories in literary journals, wrote articles for the college’s public relations department, and began his first novel.
He continued to write after he graduated, and several years later, he sold a short story to The New Yorker, which helped him publish his first novel, Angel Dust Blues, at age 28, a story based on drug dealers he knew in high school. He hadn’t even heard of the YA category until then.
“I got an agent and she said, ‘This is a YA,’” Strasser says. “For a second I thought YA meant ‘Ya!,’ like it was the Russian way of saying ‘Yes!’ And then she explained that it was young adult.” Judy Blume and others were filling the niche at the time and it all sounded OK to him. Though the category has continued to be a perfect fit for his voice and imagination, people often ask why he writes for kids. “It’s just who I write for,” he says. “Not that I’m comparing myself to him, but did anybody ever ask Miles Davis, ‘Hey Miles, how come you’re not playing classical?’ What comes out is jazz.”
Though at first he sustained his writing habit with a successful novelty fortune cookie company, writing has provided his sole income for decades. A built-in audience for his books—schools—helps. For many years, part of the gig was paid school talks across the country. Now he mostly Skypes with classes. Finding schools more conservative now, Strasser admits to self-censoring a bit. “I no longer use four-letter words,” he says. He also skips writing about explicit sex—and generally avoids both by the time periods and topics he chooses. “When you’re writing in the steam punk world and someone drops something heavy on his foot he can say, “Oh, blast it!”
Being able to write in any time frame has other advantages, like not having to stay hip with the kids. “It’s almost impossible,” he says, especially since his own two kids passed into adulthood. “If you want to write about what they’re doing on their cell phones now, by the time the book comes out they won’t be doing that anymore,” he says. So he sticks to the universals of teendom—insecurity, fitting in, and figuring out what you want to do as opposed to what you’re supposed to do.
With 40 years of experience, Strasser’s advice for aspiring writers is pretty simple: 1) Write. He says people tell him, “I’m going to write just as soon as…” But the time is now. 2) Read. “Teachers say to me, ‘I can’t get kids to re-write.’ And it’s not the kids’ fault; they look at it and think it’s fine. They haven’t read enough to develop a standard of what good writing is.” 3) Keep at it. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it,” he says. Strasser has struggled with spelling his entire life, and even now spell-check doesn’t always help. And yet, “you’ve got to keep trying,” he says. “If you’re a sky diver and you fail, it’s not good. But if you’re a writer and you fail, you don’t die. You just live to write another day.”
But mostly, Strasser has gotten acceptance and international acclaim for doing what he loves. Next up is his longest project yet—a 500-page sci-fi novel he’s been working on for two years that’s a “Moby Dick in space.” Inspired by professor Bob Ray, perhaps?
“I basically sit around and make stuff up all day long,” he says. “I love doing puzzles and writing a book is very much like creating and solving a puzzle. Plus, “It just really beats having a full-time job.”
Valerie Reiss’95 is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She not-so-secretly still loves YA fiction, which she’s excited to share with her infant son in about nine years. Visit valeriereiss.com.