If you haven’t already heard of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle, you soon will. The award-winning Young Adult adventure story follows Austin, an Iowa teen in the grip of sexual frustration: he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, but he also just kissed his gay best friend. Even as people in town start turning into blood-thirsty praying mantises, Austin just can’t figure out what (or who) he wants.
Grasshopper Jungle is brand new to paperback this month; you’re gonna want to get on that now because Edgar Wright (director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is making the movie, which is a bullseye in his wheelhouse of fearsome horror, eccentric comedy, sudden trapdoors of deep emotion, and a shocking sensitivity to male/male intimacy. Smith’s novel of two boys realizing they’re in love at the end of the world already has an 80’s movie quality in the vein of gruesome good times like Gremlins or Goonies (hey, this could be the third G!)
One of the most striking elements of Grasshopper Jungle is in how free it is from time. There is an interweaving of past, present, and future that reminded me of Watchmen. The mistakes of the past and the inevitability of the future create a horrible dread in the present (and in the reader). By the start of the book, the end of the world has already happened. Our trio’s bleak-but-hopeful future blends together with present action and a wide swath of history, both familial and global. The story is as much about a bird named Baby in the 1930’s as it is about Austin and the Giant Mantises.
Midway through, in a three-page scene seemingly irrelevant to the plot (but vital to its magic spell), Smith interlaces the birth of the Mantises with a tale of the doomed relationship between Austin’s great grandfather and another man. At first blush, it’s a chapter that screams, “I don’t belong here! Cut me!” But as the novel rockets forward and the modern world quickly dies, I couldn’t stop thinking of Austin’s great grandfather. How society failed him and his lover, and consequently how he failed the wife and child he didn’t love, all feed into The End of Man. Shut it down. We screwed up. Start over.
What Smith does with character in Jungle feels like a miracle. Take a scene early on where Austin sleeps over at his friend Robby’s place: They’ve already kissed, already feel crummy about it (Austin’s girlfriend has no clue), and they plan to get drunk together for the first time. (The end of the world is still only a few hours old) Austin takes his mother’s Xanax along with wine and experiences a happiness and closeness with Robby that he’s never felt with anyone before. A lesser novel would have had them step up their intimacy by making out sloppily or sleeping together. Instead, Austin and Robby fall asleep next to each other and their bare feet touch. That’s it. That’s all the boys need to feel a monumental trespass has taken place, albeit a trespass that makes them happy. Austin is cold to Robby in the morning and takes a shower. While the water runs, Robby silently weeps into his hands.
O, the Gay Boy Feelz in this book!
I caught up with Andrew Smith to ask him about his process, the forthcoming movie, and to see if I could get some closure for my precious characters! (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)
SASS: Was the interwoven structure of the writing something that was pre-planned on hundreds of notecards or was it more free associated?
SMITH: I never outline my work ahead of time. If you could see my office (and I'm very happy that you can't), it's like a three-dimensional interpretive sculpture of my brain: stuff is stacked in great heaping piles all over the place, but I know exactly where everything is. So when I write, even when I’m doing something as directionally convoluted as Grasshopper Jungle or The Alex Crow, I just sit down and go. And when it's done, I can look at all the clutter and be satisfied that everything is in its proper place.
SASS: How did you know when Grasshopper Jungle was “done”? Did it go through many iterations or did it spring forth fully formed?
SMITH: In the emotional and horrible scene when Robby and Austin are driving through burned-out Ealing, on their way to rescue Robby's mother, I knew exactly how I was going to end the book, but I don't think I had any clue until right about there. And when I got to those last few lines in the epilogue, there was such a sense of satisfaction and closure for me. When I talked to Julie Strauss-Gabel (my editor) about the novel some time later, I think she was pretty surprised to hear that the novel was written one-time-through--what some people would call a "draft," which I do not believe in--from start to finish, which is how I write.
SASS: Edgar Wright’s announced his intentions to direct this film, which is thrilling because Grasshopper Jungle: The Movie will absolutely be one of a kind! What elements of your story are you most excited to see translated?
SMITH: Edgar and I talked about how certain things would be presented in the movie. I can't wait to see what he does with the bugs--the Unstoppable Soldiers--but I especially want to see (and live in) the underground bunker he creates.
SASS: Austin's fluctuation between Shann and Robby seemed intentionally frustrating but absolutely in line with his character. Was there any editorial pressure (from yourself or from your publisher) to make Austin’s sexuality more definitive?
SMITH: Oh! Absolutely not! That's the wonderful thing about Austin, isn't it? I desperately wanted to capture the confusion and angst of a curious and questioning teen, and writing that character made me live in that mindset, which was kind of disturbing and awkward at times. I also wanted to do a love triangle, just because people were getting so sick of love triangle books, but I thought: what if I gave them a love triangle like they'd never seen before? And what if it was seamlessly believable and genuine at the same time?
SASS: I'm sad for poor Shann, but I am a card-carrying Austin/Robby shipper. Even in the epilogue, our main guy seems content to keep Robby hanging on. I'm dying to see if their relationship progressed any further! Any chance we'll get a glimpse someday at their further adventures?
SMITH: I'll tell you, I get asked so many times what ever happens with Robby/Austin or Austin/Shann, and my answer is always that all the information is there and the reader will have to figure it out. In my mind, I have a clear idea of what happens with Austin and his heart, and I hope it agrees with the reader's. Also, I would love to write more about Austin, Robby, and Shann. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Grasshopper Jungle is now on paperback. Smith is currently on his Keep YA Weird Tour to promote his newest, The Alex Crow, hitting shelves both real and digital this Tuesday March 10. I strongly suggest you follow Andrew Smith @marburyjack.