Frequently Asked Questions

Alan gets a lot of e-mails and letters from fans asking him questions about his books and his life. Below are some of the most frequently asked questions, and his answers. Questions are broken down into categories: personal, the books, and writing advice.

Personal

Where were you born?
Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Where did you grow up and go to school?
I went to middle school and high school at Webb School in Knoxville, then went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for both undergraduate and graduate school. 

How old are you?
I was born in 1972. You can do the math. 

Where do you live?
In a little town called Bakersville in Western North Carolina. 

Do you ever do tours or author visits?
I don’t have any say whether or not my publisher sends me on author tours, but I do many, many school visits each year that are arranged through me. Click here to find out more about inviting me to your school. 

Are you married? Do you have any kids?
Yes, and yes. My wife’s name is Wendi, and my daughter’s name is Jo. 

Do you have a day job?
Yes. It’s writing. This is my full-time job! (Pretty awesome, huh?) And despite what my dad thinks, I really am in my office researching, outlining, writing, or taking care of writing business stuff all day. 🙂

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I was an eighth grade English teacher before I was a full-time writer, so I suspect that’s what I would be doing. My dream job, outside of writing novels? Game show host. I also wish I could draw comics. 

Do you have any hobbies?
Sure. I love playing board games and video games and role-playing games. I also like building things, like chicken coops and woodsheds and catapults. I collect action figures and other toys. Oh, and I read a lot, of course. Books, magazines, and comic books. 

What is your favorite food?
To say that my favorite food is pizza is like saying that my favorite thing to breathe is air. Let’s just leave it at that. 

What’s your favorite baseball team?
Major League Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Japanese Pro Team: Hiroshima Carp
Minor League Team: Asheville Tourists 

Who’s your favorite baseball player?
Sean Casey, aka “The Mayor.” He played for a lot of teams, including the Cincinnati Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Boston Red Sox. He’s retired now, and works as a commentator for MLB Network.

Who were your favorite authors/what were your favorite books as a kid?
To tell the truth, I didn’t read a lot of books when I was a kid. I was more likely to be out building a fort in the woods or inventing a fake country or playing video games. I read books, yes, but I didn’t always have my nose buried in a book all the time the way some people do. I read a lot of classics, and loved books like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I also really liked The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and mysteries like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I do wish I’d read more as a kid though, if only so I wouldn’t feel so very behind with all the great books I want to read now! 

The Books

Samurai Shortstop

Where did you get the idea for Samurai Shortstop?
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, and I was thumbing through a travel guide when I saw a picture of a Japanese man in a kimono throwing out the first pitch at a baseball tournament in 1915. 1915! I had no idea Japan was playing baseball that long ago, so I found a book about Japanese baseball. And another. And another. A dozen or so books later, and I had a story about a boy blending bushido with baseball and . . . well, go read the book! 

Why is that opening chapter of Samurai Shortstop so graphic?
I had two reasons for beginning Samurai Shortstop with a depiction of Toyo’s uncle killing himself. First, I wanted to grab the reader’s attention with something startling. But second, and most importantly, I wanted to scare Toyo, and, by extension, the reader. After his uncle commits suicide, Toyo’s father says he’s going to do it next, and Toyo spends the rest of the novel trying to stop his dad from following in his uncle’s footsteps. The first chapter is the motivation for everything else Toyo does in the book. So that first chapter has to be graphic and scary, otherwise we as readers wouldn’t understand what the big deal is. 

Is Samurai Shortstop saying it’s okay to commit suicide?
No. That’s what Toyo is fighting against the whole time. But ritual suicide among the samurai was a real thing, and there’s no reason to pretend things didn’t happen in the past just because we wouldn’t do the same thing today. Toyo comes to understand his uncle’s decision, but that doesn’t mean he agrees with it. That’s an important difference. The same could be said of modern Japan: they understand why their ancestors did what they did, but they no longer agree with it. Even by Toyo’s time, ritual suicide in Japan was seen as scandalous and sensational. 

Is Ichiko a real school? Are the storms and the Clenched Fist real?
You know those author notes you skipped at the end of Samurai Shortstop? Read them. Then go here. 

Something Rotten and Something Wicked

Where did you get the idea for the Horatio Wilkes mysteries?
I like telling people that Horatio is as old on paper — in my notes — as he is in Something Rotten. That is, he’s seventeen years old in Rotten, and I’d been writing about Horatio Wilkes since I took a Mystery and Detective Fiction class in college seventeen years before he ever made it to print. We had to create our own detectives for that class, and that’s when Horatio was born. He didn’t start out as a teenager though — at first, he was a thirty-something forensic scientist who taught at a university. I never was interested in doing research into forensics though, so Horatio went through a lot of changes over the years. I always liked his character, but never found the right story for him until I started writing young adult novels, and had the inspiration to make him seventeen. It was a perfect fit. All I needed then was a story for him. I had borrowed his name from Hamlet because I liked how down-to-earth and practical Hamlet’s friend Horatio was, and I figured if the character was good enough to steal, so was the story. 🙂 I had always loved Hamlet and was looking for a way to turn it into a contemporary murder mystery, and everything came together. After that, I chose Macbeth as the inspiration for a second Horatio mystery because I’ve always loved its villains — Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. 

Are there going to be any more Horatio novels?
Alas, I don’t think so! I had planned to at least do a third book in the series, one called Something Foolish, which loosely followed the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — but the series never sold well enough to write it. I have ideas for lots more Horatio books — including a Julius Caesar take-off that has Horatio solving a murder at a fraternity toga party during a college visit, and a version of The Tempest in which Horatio spends a summer as an intern at a Disney World-like amusement park — but I think something crazy like Horatio getting made into a TV show would have to happen before a publisher would pay me to write those. 🙁

The Brooklyn Nine

Where did you get the idea for The Brooklyn Nine?
My terrific editor wrote to me one day and asked me what I would do with a story about baseball and different generations of a family, and I came back to her with the idea of nine innings — nine generations — of one American family and their connections to baseball throughout the decades. I had particular eras I wanted to hit — like the women’s leagues during World War II and the “Gentleman’s Agreement” to keep black players out of professional baseball around the turn of the century — but otherwise I left the stories up to the research. I was always able to find some story I wanted to tell for each generation — often more than one story — and I enjoyed reading up on American and baseball history along the way. 

How much of The Brooklyn Nine is real?
You know those author notes you skipped at the end of The Brooklyn Nine? Read them. Then go here. 

Fantasy Baseball

Where did you get the idea for Fantasy Baseball?
When my daughter was very little, she wanted to wear baseball jerseys like the ones I was wearing. But she didn’t really like baseball, and didn’t have a favorite baseball team. My wife is great at sewing, and said she could make my daughter a baseball jersey. But what should she put on it? As a joke, I suggested we pretend there were baseball teams in famous kids books, like the Neverland Lost Boys from Peter Pan, or the Oz Cyclones from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Wendi made a couple for Jo, and they were a hit. I said, “You know, somebody ought to write a book where all these teams from kids books are real and are playing in a huge fantasy baseball tournament!” And then I realized I write kids books, and so I wrote it.

Prisoner B-3087

Why did you choose to write about Jack?
Jack and his wife Ruth took his story to Scholastic, and they immediately saw that it would make a great book. But neither Jack nor Ruth are writers, so Scholastic asked me to write the book. Once I heard Jack’s account of his time in the camps, I couldn’t resist—it was such an incredible story! In particular, I liked that he survived. So many stories of the Holocaust of course did not end so well.

Did you ever get to meet Jack?
I worked on the book for a while before I ever met Jack in person, using what he and his wife had told Scholastic about his experiences in World War II and doing a lot of research on the concentration camps on my own. Then, about halfway through writing the first draft, I got to fly to New York and meet Jack. We spent the afternoon at the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, where some artifacts of Ruth’s time during the war are on display. I’m pleased that I was able to write something that brought the past to life again for him, even if a great deal of that past was painful. Jack is one of the bravest people I’ve ever met.

It says Prisoner B-3087 is a novel. How much of it really happened?
You know that author’s note at the end you skipped? Go read it. Beyond that, I can tell you that almost everything that happens to Jack in the book is real. Sometimes I had to fill in the blanks in Jack’s memory, which is why it’s a novel, not a non-fiction memoir. But yes, all the big stuff really happened to him. All the camps are real. Some of them were in Poland, some of them were in the Czech Republic, and others were in Germany itself. And yes, the kapos and Nazis were the ones he really dealt with. You can look the place and people up online to learn more about them.

The League of Seven series

Where did you get the idea for The League of Seven?
One night I was sitting around talking with my wife and I told her that for my next book, I wanted to write a book that was full of awesome. I said, “I want to write a book that is so full of awesome that when I was in school and I went into the library and saw this book sitting on the shelf, I could not help but check it out. It would be so full of awesome that my head would explode from its awesomeness.” My wife said, “That sounds great? What’s it about?” And I said, “I have no idea.” So I went into my office the next day and cleared off a big board I have where I outline all my books, and I took a stack of notecards and a pen and I started writing down ideas to pin up there. Right in the middle, the first card I wrote said, “FULL OF AWESOME,” just to remind me that everything that went up on that board had to be full of awesome. I wrote down stuff like airships, rayguns, secret societies, Native Americans, giant monsters, mad scientists, clockwork machine men, and brains in jars. When I was done, I had a big board full of awesome stuff, but what I did not have was a book. So then I sat back for the next couple of weeks and stared at that board, trying to find the connections between all those awesome things. And eventually I came up with the characters, setting, and plot that became the League of Seven trilogy!

Code of Honor

Where did you get the idea for Code of Honor?
The idea for Code of Honor came from trying to write a contemporary thriller with a seventeen-year-old hero. Could I write a book with lots of action and adventure and intrigue and still have a kid solve the problem? Because why isn’t an adult taking care of a terrorist threat? So I came up with the idea of the codes, so Kamran can’t help but be involved. He’s the only person on the face of the planet who can figure out his brother’s clues!

Where did you get the idea for the clues and codes?
I used to make up stories for my little brother at bed time, and act them out with our action figures. We would go out in the back yard and have adventures pretending to be our favorite characters from movies we liked too. Kamran and Darius do the same thing, only they add in the adventures of Rostam, because those are the stories their mother told them at bed time.

Is Code of Honor based on a true story or real people?
No. I made it all up!

Are you going to write a sequel to Code of Honor?
I don’t have any plans to right now, no. But never say never! If I do, I’d love to tell a story about Kamran solving a mystery at West Point Military Academy…

Projekt 1065

Where did you get the idea for Projekt 1065?
One of the chapters I ended up cutting from Prisoner B-3087 was a scene where Jack runs into a kid in the Hitler Youth. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to write a whole book about the Hitler Youth, but I didn’t want to have a Nazi as my main character. Then I learned that Ireland had been neutral in World War II, and so they had diplomats and ambassadors in Nazi Germany–diplomats and ambassadors who were really working as spies! Then I realized I could have an Irish kid as my main character, but because he was thirteen years old, he would have to be in the Hitler Youth, and would be my hero.

Were Michael or any of the other characters real people?
Nope. All the history is real–about the Hitler Youth, and the Edelweiss Pirates, and Operation Paperclip, and Projekt 1065, and Irish diplomats being spies…but I made up Michael and Simon and Michael’s parents and the rest of the characters.

Why is Projekt 1065 spelled with a “K”?
It’s a typo! Just kidding. (I think we would have noticed that one, since it’s on the cover!) “Projekt” is the German spelling of the word “project,” and Projekt 1065 was the real code name for the world’s first jet plane–the Messerschmidt 262Me. So I spelled it the German way. (Also because it looks really cool with a K in it!)

Refugee

Where did you get the idea for Refugee?
Refugee started for me with the story of the MS St. Louis. It was a real ship, and it was famous back in the 1940s, and has been ever since. There have been books about it, and movies, even an opera! But there wasn’t a book about the MS St. Louis for young readers. So I decided to write one!

I was in the middle of figuring out who my main character would be and what the story would be when my family and I went on a vacation to the Florida Keys. One morning we got up to walk on the beach, and we found a raft refugees had taken to come to the United States. No one was on board, and I still don’t know where it came from, but my best guess is that it came from Cuba. It made me think–why was I writing a book about Jewish refugees seventy-five years ago, when there were refugees right here, right now, I could be writing about?

And of course at the same time, I was seeing images on the news and on the Internet about the Syrian Civil War, and the millions of Syrian refugees looking for some place of safety. I couldn’t decide–which book should I write? They are all important stories! And then I realized–why do I have to write three books? What if I just wrote one book, and combined all three stories? And that’s how Refugee was born.

Are any of the three main characters in Refugee real people?
No. But every single thing that happens to them really happened to a refugee at some point. So each of my main characters and their families represent many different refugee stories, all of which were real.

How can I help refugees?
You can help refugee families by donating money to one of the many groups who help refugees through every phase of their three lives. Some nonprofit organizations have very specific missions, like rescuing people fleeing the Middle East by boat or battling disease in refugee camps. Two of my favorite organizations work specifically with refugee children around the world. The first is UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, which is working to keep Syrian children from becoming a “lost generation” by providing life-saving medical services, food, water, sanitation, and education both within Syria and wherever Syrian refugees have fled. The second is Save the Children, which works with a number of corporate partners and individual donors here in the United States to offer emergency relief to children whenever and wherever it’s needed around the world, including a special campaign for Syrian children.

Both UNICEF and Save the Children spend 90 percent of every dollar they raise on services and resources that directly help children. Donations to either of these terrific organizations can be earmarked for specific regions and conflicts, or be used to help refugee children worldwide. Learn more at www.unicefusa.org and www.savethechildren.org.

Ban This Book

Have you ever had one of your books banned or challenged?
Not that I know of. But the American Library Association estimates that 85-97% of all book challenges and bans in the United States go unreported. In 2016, more than 300 books were challenged or banned–which means that thousands more happened without anyone ever hearing about them. So it’s quite likely that one of my books has been challenged or banned, and I just don’t know!

Were all the books in Ban This Book really challenged or banned?
Yes! Every one of the books Mrs. Spencer and her friends remove from the library shelves at Amy Anne’s school is a book that has been challenged or banned somewhere in the United States within the last thirty years.

General Questions About My Books

What’s your favorite book you’ve written?
The League of Seven! It’s the kind of book I would have loved when I was in middle school. (And still do!)

Has anything or anyone in your life ever inspired something in your books?
Yes. When I was sixteen years old, I watched my favorite uncle commit ritual suicide. I’m kidding! I’m only kidding! The real answer is: not much. The pollution angle in Something Rotten is loosely based on the Champion Paper controversy that was all over the front pages of the Knoxville newspapers when I was younger, and the setting for Something Wicked is based on my trip to a Scottish Highland Festival, but none of the characters in my books are based on people I’ve known. Oh, and Horatio’s car is my best friend’s old hand-me-down car.

I did write one novel that uses a lot of my own experiences from high school in it, but that novel hasn’t sold and I haven’t returned to it in some time. If I ever did sell it, I think a lot of people I once knew would recognize themselves in it, and they’d probably sue me for defamation of character.  

Are you like any of your characters?
I share a love for baseball with most of my characters (even Horatio). I also share a lot of the emotions and frustrations of my characters at times, but I’m not Toyo, or Horatio, or Jack, or Kamran, or any of the characters in The Brooklyn Nine or The League of Seven. Horatio and I do share something of the same fashion sense, and I suppose there’s a little part of me in all of my characters, but none of them is all me, or vice versa. And there are characters in Refugee who share some of my characteristics–like Josef, all I wanted when I was a kid was to be a grown up, and like Mahmoud’s father, when things go bad I like to joke around. But none of my characters is ever completely me. When I write, I try to create characters who have lives of their own. 

You write a lot about baseball. Are you a big baseball fan? Did you ever play baseball?
You can’t write baseball books and not love baseball. (Well, I guess you could, but why?) So yeah, I’m a fan. But I’ve always been a greater fan than player. My greatest Little League moment: I misplayed a long drive to left field, then absolutely launched the ball, trying to throw a runner out at the plate. The ball sailed over the pitcher’s mound, over first base, over the fence, and into the bleachers, where it hit my little brother in the arm. All the runners scored. After the inning was over, the coach told me I had a good arm. He also told me not to come back. 

Did you create the cover images for your books? Do you have any say about them?
I wish I was that talented. No, I didn’t create the covers to any of my books, and no, I don’t really have much say (if any) about what they look like. But covers are terribly important. People say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but we all do, don’t we? Here’s how it works: when the writing is finished, my editor sends a description of my book and some thoughts about what kind of tone or look she wants the cover to have to the designer who’s gotten the assignment, and then she works back and forth with the artist and the art editor to create something they hope will say what the book is about, stand out on a bookshelf, and sell copies. I’ve been very lucky to have gotten terrific covers for each of my books — a testament to the talents of my publishers’ art departments! 

If you didn’t write your books, would you want to read them?
I get this question a lot, and it always surprises me. Maybe it’s because I write books meant for young readers and I’m not “young” anymore? I guess what some people don’t realize is that a lot of adults — including me — still read young adult novels. So yeah, I’d read my own books even if I wasn’t the author. I can’t imagine writing a book I wouldn’t read! I write about only those stories and characters I’m interested in. If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t write about them — especially since it takes such a long time and such a lot of work to write a book. If I didn’t like what I was writing, it would be awful — and the books probably would be too! 

What are you working on now?
A bowl of popcorn. But seriously, if you want to know about my latest books, the best place to stay up to date is my monthly e-mail newsletter! You can sign up for that here.

Writing

Did you always want to be a writer? When did you decide to be a writer?
My original dream was to be a Jedi master. Unable to master the Force, I quickly turned to writing. When I was in grade school I produced a newspaper called the Blue Spring Lane News for my street, and by fifth grade I had written my first book. It was called Real Kids Don’t Eat Spinach, and it was a play on a popular humor book at the time called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. I kept writing stories and newspaper articles all through middle school and high school, and studied writing in college. I guess I should have seen this coming. 

Where do you get your ideas?
All over the place. In line at the grocery store, reading a magazine, surfing the internet. There are stories everywhere if you’re looking for them. My favorite writing teacher showed me the trick of keeping an idea book, a journal where I can scribble a good piece of dialogue, an idea for a character, a random quote — anything. I’ve filled five and a half books in fifteen years. Not everything in my idea books will turn into a novel, but they’re great places to experiment and have fun without the pressure of turning them into a real story. 

How do I become a writer?
Well, you sit down at your computer and start writing. If you want to write well, I suggest you a) spy on your friends and family and listen to the way people talk, b) keep your eyes open and watch everything that happens in the world around you, c) always start in the middle of the action, d) make sure your story has a beginning, middle, and an end, e) read a lot and imitate your favorite authors. Note I didn’t say copy what they write — just how they write. And did I mention you actually have to sit down at your computer or your notebook and start writing? 

When and where do you do your writing?
I write on a computer. I love writing by hand, but it just takes too much time. I find that my thoughts get ahead of my ability to scribble, and then I lose whatever it was I was thinking about. Typing on the computer is so much faster, and allows me to cut and paste and rework with the words right in front of me. As to where I write, my family and I live in a house we designed and built (a lot of) ourselves, and I have a small office with a nice view of the woods. When I’m working on a new book, I research, outline or write from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every week day.

How long does it take you to write a book?
The research on historical novels actually takes longer than the writing. The idea for Samurai Shortstop had been percolating for a month or two when I thought of the title and a rough story idea. Then I hit the library, and for the next few months I only did research. When I felt like I could construct a chapter outline of my story, I stopped reading and started building the story. The outline probably took me a month to refine (it was very detailed!), and then I began writing. Once I begin writing, especially when I have a detailed outline that tells me where the story is going, I can write a chapter a day, sometimes two if I’m really cruising. At that rate, I can have a first draft in about a month — but then begins the long editing phase. I rewrite things that are choppy or don’t work, bounce the story off trusted early readers, and then go through another round or three of corrections. From idea to final draft, it probably took me about nine months to write Samurai Shortstop. After it sold, I spent another year doing more research and going through even more rounds of revision with my editor. A year to a year and a half is about my average for most books now.

What do you do about writers block?
I used to suffer from writers block all the time — I’d be sitting at my computer, ready to write, and have no idea what I was going to write. The clock would tick away, and with it would go the time I had to write that day. Then I’d come out of my office mad that I hadn’t gotten words on the page. Then I learned to outline, and that’s made all the difference. I now outline every novel I write, chapter by chapter, before I ever write the first word. If I hear a scene in my head, I scribble it down — when the muse speaks, you listen and take notes! — but I never try to push past the inspiration in the outline phase.

Once I know in detail what is going to happen, I sit down to the keyboard and try to figure out how to tell it. Those are two very different processes, but most writers try to tackle them both at the same time. Separating them was a real breakthrough for me. I still get writers block (of a kind) when I can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next during the outline phase, but at least then I don’t come out of my office thinking that I’ve wasted time by not getting words and paragraphs and chapters written. Once I have the outline finished, I never get writers block — which is important when you’re in a mood to knock out first draft pages. I look at my outline in the morning, read what’s going to happen, and then start writing it.  

Do you belong to a critique group?
I have a critique group of one–my wife, Wendi. She reads everything I write, and gives me good, honest feedback on it. Sometimes too honest, and I don’t want to talk to her for a few days, but then I get over it. Usually.