Pete Hautman is a prolific and celebrated author who has won, among other prestigious awards, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his novel Godless in 2004. He has written a dozen works of fiction for adults, twice that for tweens and teens, and more than one hundred nonfiction science and nature books for children under the pen name Peter Murray.

Pete Hautman (photo credit: Kaia Nao)

His latest release, Slider, was my first Hautman read, and it won’t be my last. Slider is a quirky, warm upper middle grade novel about a (sort of) regular kid named David Miller, who, untrained, can eat an entire pizza in less than 5 minutes and who lives his life sandwiched between a needy, overachieving sister and an autistic little brother, who the family refuses to label as autistic so they call him “Mal.”

There’s a lot going on in Slider. From eating contests and getting duped by cheaters to caring for a special needs brother to watching young love take shape, Slider offers a mixed bag of storylines. Somehow, though, Pete ties it all together. Beautifully.

Candlewick (September 12, 2017)

Reading Slider is a little like hanging out with your best friend—there’s comfort and safety, meandering conversations, absolutely no judgment passed, sparks of insight, juicy gossip, and endless dry and quirky humor only understood by the two of you.

Engaging in a conversation with Pete Hautman is as delightful as reading his book was. I interviewed Pete recently via email. The interview follows below.

You can purchase Slider and all of Pete’s books at booksellers nationwide and online.

An Interview with Pete Hautman

Kristen You’ve shared that your characters have a piece of you in them, a piece of people you know, or they arise in your dreams. The characters in Slider are magnificent. David, his friend HeyMan, brother Mal, and the troupe of random food-eating contestants are the type of oddball individuals we all love to love because they are so deliciously imperfect and peculiar. So, what are they—a piece of you, people you know, or characters you dreamed up?
Pete All of the above. The question I ask myself is, “If I were this person/creature/entity with that personal history and worldview and ethic, what might I do in his/her/its situation? For example, in Slider, there is a character named Egon Belt, a competition eater. When I conceived Egon, my first thought was of Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats from the movie The Hustler. But Egon does not really resemble Fats, except in his level of expertise and his personal vanity. So I create a history for Egon (which does not appear in the book), and I try to put myself inside him: If I was a widowed seventy-year-old former farmer with a talent for eating fast, fastidious grooming habits, a rigid set of moral principles, living in a small Iowa town, etc., etc., what would I do or say if I were him?

In that sense, I am Egon Belt, but Egon Belt is nothing like me. It’s very much like acting. In fact, when young people ask me how they can become a writer, I often recommend that they get involved in theater.

Kristen I’m picking up on a theme. The best marketers immerse themselves in understanding their audiences—they observe, they listen, they build personas and use these, in turn, to build products and services aligned with their customers’ needs. Similarly, actors immerse themselves in their characters—they research, shadow, role-play, and more so that they can effectively bring their story to life. Writers profile their characters and “interview” them using tools specifically to jump into the head, heart, and body of their character.

The ability to understand the feelings of another—empathy—is what differentiates the greats from the grunts in each of these professions. It’s no surprise to me that your characters are so magnificently developed and unique. You engage in the best practices of the best empathizers.

Pete Thank you for that!
Kristen How formal and comprehensive are you in creating character histories? Do you use structured character-profile development worksheets? Character-interviewing tools? Do you do the heavy lifting on paper or in your head? And, importantly, does Egon’s last name, Belt, have any reference to his girth or girth-expanding line of work?
Pete I am not at all formal in the way I build character histories. They grow organically, and evolve according to the demands of the story and the plot (and vice versa). By the time I finish a book, I know who my people are and how they got that way. I do sometimes write out a character’s history—just a few pages—but in most cases their histories remain entirely inside my head. Frank Lloyd Wright claimed that he would not touch pencil to paper until a structure was fully formed in his imagination. I would not go that far, but I understand what he was saying: once you write something down, it becomes more psychologically difficult to make changes. Therefore, I resist writing out histories until I’m pretty sure I’m on solid ground with a character.

As for Egon Belt, it just sounded like a solid, memorable name.

Kristen Slider has a lot of awesome, cringe-worthy moments—it comes with the territory of speed-eating gorge fests! What makes you cringe?
Pete I cringe a lot. I cringed when my neighbor told me he had purchased a leaf blower. I cringe when I hear Donald Trump speak. I cringe when a bird hits my window. As for speed-eating performances, the one that really made me cringe was the mayonnaise-eating contest.
Kristen The main character in Slider, David Miller, can eat an entire pizza in less than 5 minutes. He’s clearly not driven by the sensory pleasure of it. What’s your favorite sense? Which of your five senses would you keep if you could only keep one.
Pete Umami.
Kristen Your Eden West Unboxing video on YouTube is unexpectedly hilarious. I choked. No, I really did—I choked on my Werther’s when the video cut to your driveway. What makes you laugh more than anything? Or who makes you laugh more than anyone?

Pete I like jokes that remind us that we are animals. Especially if they take a few seconds to hit home. Is that too obscure? I like Sarah Silverman, and the jokes of Emo Philips. Also, I think my answer to the previous question is hilarious.
Kristen Me too. And the glowing review of Slider on Amazon from Charlie Hautman is pretty ingenious.

You’ve written over one hundred nonfiction books for children under the name Peter Murray, covering everything from An Inside Look at Skeletons and Gorillas to The Space Shuttle and The Story of Marie Curie. The breadth you covered is astounding—I can only imagine the interesting factoids that effortlessly pop out of your mouth at any given moment. I’m jealous—truly jealous. It makes me want to read every one of them. But I’m curious: why does a guy who doesn’t finish college then go on to research and write dozens of books on essentially every topic in the physical world?

Pete The two things are related. I spent seven years in college, but did not graduate because I kept jumping from subject to subject: studio arts, anthropology, botany, philosophy, and so forth. I am curious but easily distracted. As a consequence, I know a little bit about almost everything, but a great deal about absolutely nothing. I might do well on Jeopardy.
Kristen There’s a quiz to test that.
Pete Six out of eleven. Who could know that Yuri Gargarin was launched into space from Kazakstan? Not me!
Kristen You’ve said that ideas are everywhere; the hard part (and the fun part) is figuring out how to turn those ideas into a story. What’s your trick for turning an idea into a story?
Pete It’s mostly trying stuff until something works. Let’s say your idea is a man slipping on a banana peel. To make it into a story, you need a point of view (The man? An observer? A sentient banana?), character histories, an event sequence, a conclusion, and so forth. It can be treated as a puzzle. Some people are more intuitive and are able to arrive at a satisfying assemblage quickly. Others need to try dozens or hundreds of approaches. I’m somewhere in between. I try lots of things that don’t work. You have to be willing to fail.
Kristen Do you work sequentially, taking on one idea to completion before turning to the next? Or do you tackle multiple ideas at various stages of development concurrently? When you say to yourself, “GOT IT!” is it a eureka moment or just a quiet knowing?
Pete If “tackle multiple ideas at various stages of development concurrently” is another way of saying “utter chaos,” then yes, that’s how I work. When I figure something out, my usual exclamation is a Homer Simpson-ish “Doh!”
Kristen You have the capacity to think like an adolescent. I imagine with your (high) empathy level, you probably have the capacity to think like anyone of any age. But today you mostly write for youth. What was the moment you left childhood behind? And when did you return?
Pete I attempted to leave my childhood behind during high school and spent years suppressing my childhood memories in an attempt to become an adult. I learned to fake it pretty well.

In 1996, I wrote a time-travel novel (Mr. Was), which covered about seventy years of the protagonist’s life. Most of the action happened while the character was a teen. I was advised that I had written a “young adult” book. I didn’t know what that was, but fine—I had published a YA novel. This led to some school visits, and for the first time in thirty years, I entered a middle school. It was, frankly, terrifying. Memories! All those awkward, painful years I had worked so hard to forget came crashing back. And with them came the good memories. I began thinking about the experience of reading as a child, as a teen, and how the books I read back then shaped my thinking and my worldview. I thought, I would like to be a part of that. I would like to write for the kid I was.

Kristen What were the books that shaped your thinking and your worldview? And what are the gaps/opportunities you now seek to fill? Or is it less about market gaps and more about touching/reaching the soft underbelly of that awkward tween or teen that we all once were?
Pete Every book I’ve ever read has shaped my thinking somewhat, though most of them have done so in a vanishingly minute way. I don’t think about market gaps, per se, but I do actively avoid writing in areas that I believe have already been mined by other authors.
Kristen No artist can or should try to appeal to everyone. You claimed once that every now and again you’ll say, “This reader is an idiot. I don’t need this reader; this isn’t an audience that I’m writing for.” Who is the person that you write off? What are their characteristics?
Pete Did I really say that? “Idiot” is rather strong. Allow me to equivocate. I think what I meant is that a writer must accept that his or her audience is limited. That is, every book is not for every reader, and if some reader does not “get” one of my books, I need to accept that and move on.
Kristen Does every book you write have a distinctive audience in your mind? What differentiates some of the audiences? Is there a common thread that unifies them all in terms of characteristics, beliefs, or values?
Pete Because my books range across so many genres and styles, I believe my audience is those who are willing to consider, or at least tolerate, my idiosyncratic worldview, whatever that might be. I’m still trying to figure it out.
Kristen The reward for you is being able to put something down on paper that will have a specific impact on someone who reads it. What do you hope people walk away with when they read your books? Which of your books do you think impacted others the most and why? Which impacted you the most and why?
Pete Judging from my emails, Godless has had the most lasting impact on readers, but that might simply be because it sold the most copies. I recently received a novel by a young man who read Godless in middle school back in 2005. He said it inspired him to become a writer. Score!
Kristen WOW. Melt.
Pete The book that impacted me the most would probably be Mr. Was, because that was the book that brought me back the world of children’s literature.

As for what I hope my readers take away from my books . . . I suppose I want to give them a glimpse of reality as seen through my eyes, in hopes that on a “cosmic” level it will bring us closer together. It’s my way of reaching out. I think that’s what art is for.

Kristen “Shut up and listen” was some of the best advice you got because it forced you to listen to how people perceived your work—the good and the bad. And it forced you to step outside of your head. You learned to perceive writing as an act of communication versus an act of self-expression. How much has this mind shift contributed to your success?
Pete For me, it was all-important. I could not write well until I accepted that story rests upon an unspoken pact between the writer and the reader. A writer can’t wedge the contents of his or her mind into the mind of a reader. It’s not like gavage (the force feeding of geese to enlarge the liver for foie gras). It’s more like a good kiss.
Kristen I want to unpack what you just said. (Or push back—I respectfully disagree.) I understand that there’s an unspoken pact between the writer and the reader, but when you write—when anyone writes—you give the gift of yourself. Your art. The art that only you can create. And underscoring that are your values, beliefs, pains, hopes, and dreams. You, Pete Hautman, are feeding us like no one else can—with your authenticity, quirkiness, and imperfection along with your compassion, tolerance, hope, wit, and wisdom.

It’s not like gavage. We gladly consume.

You are a highly successful genre-buster. What advice would you give writers who want to move from one genre to another?

Pete If commercial success is your desire, Just Don’t Do It. Genre-hopping is fun, and it keeps me interested, but most readers find it frustrating. How would you feel if, after the first seven Harry Potter books, J. K. Rowling had moved on to writing adult mysteries? Oh wait—that actually happened. And most Harry Potter fans did not like it. That said, the YA and middle-grade categories allow for genre-hopping to some extent, in part because the reader turnover is rapid: a new crop of seventh graders every year!
Kristen Is there a genre that you haven’t written that you want to? What’s that book percolating inside that you must get out someday?
Pete Horror. I’m working on something now, a story based on a recurring nightmare that plagued me throughout my childhood.
Kristen We all have a special gift—something we do better than anyone else in the world. What’s yours?
Pete Writing Pete Hautman books?

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Pete!

Kristen Heimerl
Kristen’s business career spans 20+ years serving the biggest brands in industry and the biggest hearts of start-ups and entrepreneurs. She holds a master of science in eCommerce from Carnegie Mellon University, an MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, & a BA from the University of St. Thomas. Learn more about Kristen!