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Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.
Young adult novelist Tom Leveen stumbled upon the genre quite by accident.
"When I wrote my first real full-length novel, it was my first year of college, so I was writing about things that were happening to me and my friends. When I got my first agent with that novel, I was told it was ‘young adult,’ ” said the recent Arizona State University graduate, who lives in Scottsdale. “I didn't plan it that way; it just sort of happened.”
Leveen also didn’t plan on majoring in family and human dynamics in ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, but that’s where he found himself after considering how closely the school’s subject matter aligned with his own fictional work. He graduated in May.
Leveen is a frequent speaker at teacher and librarian conferences and conventions, bringing 22 years of theater experience to his presentations. Most recently, he traveled to Germany in September to speak on the dangers of online bullying, the subject of his book “Random.” The book is based the real-life story of a teenage girl who committed suicide, with the district attorney arguing that her classmates had bullied her to death.
Leveen also serves as faculty for the “Your Novel Year” certificate course through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing Family at ASU. You can catch him Oct. 16 and 18 at the Comic & Media Expo in Mesa, where he will speak on several panels. He will also be teaching a writing class at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott.
Leveen took some time to discuss his work, his opinions on online bullying and what it’s like to live the young adult novelist’s dream.
Q: You recently graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s in family and human development, yet you are a writer by profession. Was there a specific reason you chose to major in family and human development instead of writing?
A: I was accepted into ASU’s creative writing bachelor program, but then switched to family and human development for a few reasons. One of which was I felt it might be more attractive to schools and social-service-type conferences and organizations because one of my favorite parts of my job is speaking to students, particularly high school and junior high students. Also, I felt like I had a lot more to learn from sort of a psychology and sociology perspective about adolescence, since that was my target audience for most of my novels.
I definitely enjoyed and got a lot out of the creative writing program while I was there, and I think it’s fantastic that ASU has a four-year offering in it, but my career was starting to grow in directions other than just writing, so that helped me change my mind.
Q: In what ways has your time studying at ASU influenced your work?
A: Tough question because there are so many. I enjoyed the upper-division work I got to do in my sociology classes for sure; studying adolescence in a more scientific or clinical manner than merely by anecdote has helped inform my work, I think. Then there are the contacts I’ve made, such as learning under Dr. Jim Blasingame, who is one of, if not the, top minds in young adult literature. Knowing him and getting to walk among some of the biggest and best writers of YA lit today has given me a new appreciation for the craft of writing as well as the responsibility we have as writers of and to young adults.
Q: Online bullying is the focus of your book “Random,” which is based on a real-life story. What about it inspired you to write the book?
A: The real-life story was inspired by the tragic and very public events surrounding the suicide death of a teenager in Massachusetts back in 2010. The website Slate.com did a long series of articles about the case, written by Emily Bazelon, which followed the story of how several students were accused of essentially “bullying her to death.” It became a national story because at the time, the prosecutor seemed to want to make an example of these students. Well, unsurprisingly, those students in turn got bullied by people angry at them, so this vicious anger cycle just went on and on. I was curious about what might make an otherwise normal kid suddenly end up on the front page of newspapers for being a bully.
Q: Do you have any personal experience with online bullying?
A: I don’t have a lot of personal experience with online bullies, though I’ve certainly seen them at the worst on a number of sites. Reputable places, too, not those “dark web” sites. The things people feel they can type on a message board are just disgusting sometimes. I wonder if we as a species were ready for the Internet, because it often doesn't feel like it. Many years ago I got into an online exchange with someone where I spouted off “common knowledge” designed to shut down his argument. And I got “schooled” by (gasp!) actual facts. I made my apologies and slunk away, and since then have not made it a habit to engage on message boards or comments sections.
Q: Do you think online bullying is worse than in-person bullying?
A: The question of whether online or in-person bullying is worse I think underscores the basic problem with both: People who do it online don't seem to think it “counts,” or that typing is somehow less damaging than speaking (or hitting, etc.).
It’s a flawed logic to say there is a difference between something happening online and something happening in real life. I’m on the computer, I’m thinking of things to say, I’m typing them, I’m reading people’s responses … that’s all very real. Just because someone is an [expletive] on a comment section or social-media site doesn’t mean they’re not an [expletive] “IRL” (in real life). So I don't personally see a distinction between the two. Both are dangerous, and both need to stop.
Q: Why is spreading awareness about the dangers of online bullying important?
A: The so-called “digital natives” don't get a break. I read somewhere that back in the good old days, if you were being pushed around at school, at least you got a break from it when you went home. Now we can carry our bullies around in our pocket. They can reach us 24 hours a day, if we let them. Advice to young people to “just turn off your phone" is absurd. How many adults can and do turn theirs off? Exactly.
Furthermore, why punish the victim and take away his smartphone when it's someone else being antagonistic? Bringing the consequences of online bullying to the table is crucial because it’s one more piece of the puzzle that is leading to suicide and other violent acts. They are not “just words.” Words are always, always, always the first step toward physical violence. The good news is, they are also the first step toward peace. That’s why the conversation is important, to me anyway.
Q: What drew you to want to write for the “young adult” genre?
A: I like to tell people that my adolescence had its fair share of drama — heartache, loneliness, fear of the future, all the usual stuff. But the truth is, I had a great experience in high school. I think of junior high and high school as our “origin story,” like how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. In those years, we are learning our powers. We’re learning our weaknesses. We’re becoming who we’re going to be, and that’s interesting to me.
I don’t write about things that happened to me, but I do write around them. I might use a detail or two that is true, or base a scene off an emotional memory, but nothing that's flat-out autobiographical.
… I found out that being a YA author means meeting a lot of young adult readers, at school visits or libraries, that kind of thing. And you know what? All these years later, teens are asking the exact same questions we did when we were their age. “Does she like me? Does anyone care? Am I alone? When will I see Mom/Dad again?” And suddenly, the bad stuff — the real, legitimate bad stuff me and my friends faced back then, not the fun drama stuff — all came back, and I wanted to help. I wanted to make sure no teenager ever had to feel the way I felt or be treated the way I was treated at home, or school, or church or anywhere. That’s my heart now. Our kids deserve better than a lot of them are getting.
Q: How does your background in theater inform your roles in life as an author, a man, a father, a teacher?
A: I started acting in eighth grade, was very into drama in high school, and by a couple years after graduation, had started my own company in my backyard. That company, Is What It Is Theatre, lasted for thirteen seasons. Then we opened up Chyro Arts Venue in Scottsdale for three years. Then it was time to step back and raise a family!
I've been in about 30 productions over 22 years, and directed more than 30 shows on top of that. I encourage all fiction writers to spend a season with a theater company, because watching how actors and directors build characters with words only really helps add to the writer's tool kit. You learn a lot about dialogue, which is my strong suit as an author. You learn new ways to build characters and structure plots. I never made a living doing theater, but I never set out to. I was more interested in telling good stories and working with good people, which I did. Theater folks are a close family (sometimes too close, in all fairness), and there’s a shared history and work ethic among them that is first-rate.
Q: What is it like being a faculty member for the Your Novel Year certificate course? What is your favorite part?
A: The best part of being on the YNY faculty is reading manuscripts from unpublished writers who are learning faster than I ever did. There have been a few already that I've read and thought, “Well, in a perfect world, this one’ll sell quickly.” And it's a pleasure to be a part of that.
Dr. Paul Cook, who also teaches at ASU as well as for Your Novel Year (his science-fiction class is excellent, by the way) says that new or younger writers are apprentices. He’s absolutely right. The YNY students are always hungry, always anxious to take their craft to the next level, and serious about this art and this business. So being able to share the things I’ve learned is not only fun, but I end up learning more about my own craft while doing it. Like they say, there’s no better way to learn something than to teach it.
Leveen’s sixth and seventh novels, “Shackled,” and “Violent Ends” (an anthology), were just released. His eighth novel, “Hellworld,” will be coming out in 2017. For more information, check in with him on Facebook at facebook.com/AuthorTomLeveen or on his website, tomleveen.com.
The deadline to apply for the 2016 "Your Novel Year" certificate program is Oct. 31. Find out more information here.