Author Gordon Korman on how 'the power of humour' can help tell serious stories
Montreal native's 100th book, The Fort, releases this week
Gordon Korman didn't think the 100th book milestone would be a big deal. After all, most writers with reasonably long careers will eventually hit the mark, he said.
But the closer he got there, the more excited he became.
"If I could go back in time … and whisper in the ear of my Grade 7 self who's working on book one, [that] one day there will be book 100, I think that would be a mind-blowing thing," he said.
Korman's 100th book, The Fort, hits store shelves this week. In it, the Canadian-born children's author tells the story of five friends who set up a hideout in an abandoned bomb shelter and help each other through their secrets.
WATCH | Author Gordon Korman reads a passage from his new book, The Fort
He wrote his first book, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, when he was 12 years old in the 1970s.
"I just felt like there's something really, really universal about having your place, your fort, your hideout, your secret kind of meeting place," he told The Current's guest host Nahlah Ayed.
Here's part of their conversation.
When you are able to merge really serious, real-world topics with just flat-out humour, it just creates a really nice kind of combination of flavours for a story.-Gordon Korman, author
One of the characters in The Fort is abused by his stepfather, and another comes from a home where there's been drug use. There's a character that's struggling with [obsessive compulsive disorder]. These are all real-world difficulties that many kids do experience. Why was it important for you to show that in this book?
Well, you know, I've been all over the place in my writing. I sort of cut my teeth on funny books … and one of the ways that my comedy has kind of matured over the years is that when I tackled more serious topics, it didn't negate the comedy. I think the two almost worked together, in a way.
So one of the things that I've been exploring lately … is that when you are able to merge really, really serious, real-world topics with just flat-out humour, it just creates a really nice kind of combination of flavours for a story.
I think it's also just a way to take the enormously serious issues that kids deal with in real life and make them more palatable and entertaining as a reading experience.
You said previously: "Although laughter may not solve anything, it sure makes the bad stuff a lot easier to take." That's quite a lesson to teach a child.
I've always been kind of a humour guy. When I was two years old, the cartoons on TV that were my favourites were the ones that made me laugh.
So many things that are great memories of my own kind of appreciation of the culture have to do with laughing — and I mean, not just laughing sort of introspectively, but kind of rolling-on-the-floor, out-of-control laughing.
So I have always had a great appreciation of the power of humour.
Do you think that kids today read books in the same way we used to?
Maybe not, but one perspective, I think I sort of have having been doing this for so long, is that every single stage of my writing career, someone was bemoaning the fact that kids don't read anymore.
So in the '80s, it was like, "Oh, man, they have VHS tapes now and then and they have Sega Genesis. So what do they need books for?"
And then it was different things, and eventually it was video games and YouTube and the internet.... But one of the things I sort of feel now is that kids probably read now more than they ever did. Certainly the book business is, if anything, stronger than it was back when I started....
When you spend 90 per cent of your time staring into your phone all day, you know, obviously that's time that could be spent reading. But I think somehow or another, by hook or by crook, kids are definitely still reading.
What about you? Has the smartphone generation changed the way you approach the way you write your books?
For me, I'm sort of amazed about the fact that a book never really exists physically now until it's printed. I mean, it's written on a computer. It's submitted by email. The whole revision process is kind of in Microsoft Word.
You don't actually have anything you can hold in your hand until the physical copies are printed.
We think of books as such an integral part of childhood, and yet we see across the United States where you live, a resurgence of book banning both from schools and public libraries. How much does that concern you?
It's rough, I won't lie about that. It's terrible to see.
But you know, what's scary now, particularly in the United States, is that state legislatures are trying to, like, codify it right there...
I certainly hurt for ... all kids who are being deprived of those stories. Because in the end, stories are so important as we sort of construct who we are.-Korman
You know, every book is sort of its own story, and I think that not every book serves the same purpose. Some books just want to be funny and silly and pure escapism. Some books want to tell a really serious story, or deliver a serious message.
I think it's really awful that … in this case, you have to say a really large group of people with a very specific agenda are trying to take over the kind of content that our kids are able to sort of build their cultural childhood out of.
WATCH | Author Gordon Korman on the banning of some books in North America
What does it feel like for you to have had some of your books banned? Because you did actually end up on some banned lists.
I've been lucky. It has not happened to me as much as it has to other writers, and I can only imagine how it feels.
I think that anything right now [that talks about the] history of racism, or [includes] LGBT content ... is under fire so much right now.
I hurt for those writers so much, and I certainly hurt for not just those kids, but all kids who are being sort of deprived of those stories. Because in the end, stories are so important as we sort of construct who we are.
WATCH: Canadian author Alice Munro on banning books in 1979
But, I think that writers shouldn't live in fear; that, you know, my next story is going to be the one that crosses someone in the wrong place and becomes kind of the next cause célèbre that's going to sort of split the state or split the country.
This can happen, and it's probably more likely to happen today than it was even five years ago. But I try to stay positive.
You know, [there are] organizations like CLA — the Canadian Library Association — and American Library Association, which is going on their annual meeting right now. These are groups that fight for intellectual freedom and against censorship. So there are good guys out there, too.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Idella Sturino. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.