Q&A: Allan Stratton

Allan Stratton is the author of BORDERLINE. A young-adult novel about fifteen-year old Sami Sabiri, a funny, gutsy fifteen-year-old stuck at a private school where he’s the only Muslim kid. But things are about to get a lot worse. When Sami catches his father in a lie, he gets suspicious . . . and he’s not the only one. In a flash, the FBI descends on his home and Sami’s family becomes the center of an international terrorist investigation. Now, as his world unravels, Sami must find a way to save his father, his family, and his life.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Allan Stratton regarding his novel and his thoughts on the writing process below. He was more than happy to speak to me, and also added that for any teachers reading, he enjoys school visits and Skype sessions regarding his books. He can be reached at his website here. ~Aisha

ACS: I couldn’t put this book down for a number of reasons, but the biggest reason was how fond I grew of the main character, Sami. He was completely relatable and felt so real. Is Sami based on someone you personally knew?

Stratton: Short answer: Yes, me… All my characters are based on parts of me.

Longer answer: I started my career as an actor/playwright. For every character, I ask myself, “What do I want? What will I do to get it?” It takes me places both joyful and frightening. As human beings we each carry a full spectrum of wants/needs/possibilities. I use my approach because it takes me inside the head of characters with whom, superficially, I may have no connection; just as an actor playing King Lear may not be an eighty-year-old demented pre-medieval king with children who have betrayed him and left him to howl on a heath.

ACS: Given the suspenseful nature of this book as Sami’s father is whisked away for a crime he may—or may not have—done, you could have easily written an entire book focused exclusively on this mystery and hooked a reader completely. What made you decide to also include other dimensions to the story such as bullying, and the relationship Sami has with his high school teacher?

Stratton: No matter what crisis we may be dealing with, our lives involve multiple aspects not directly connected with our crisis. I try to flesh out my fictional characters to reflect that. I also see parallels between Islamophobia and other forms of bullying and fear of the Other, such as the homophobia used by the bully Jason to attack Sami’s gay teacher and the fattism/anti-Semitism used to bully his friend Marty. I also thought that having one of Sami’s best friends be a Jew and his favorite teacher a gay man in a long-term stable relationship fought stereotypes about Muslims.

ACS: What has been the response of young people who have read this book? Has anyone told you this book changed the way they perceive Muslims?

Stratton: I’ve had an extremely positive response and the book has been up for many awards both in Canada and the States; it’s also out in Germany and France. People love Sami because of who he is. That ability to see a human being without descriptors like Muslim/male/etcetera – in other words to enable readers to see the humanity in each of us – is the way hearts are opened.

ACS: In your acknowledgements you thank a number of Muslims and Muslim organizations for their help with this book. Many aspiring writers often are advised to write what you know. As this book, and your other books Chanda’s Secrets,  Chanda’s Wars and Leslie’s Journal reflect, you certainly don’t limit yourself to writing only about things you personally experienced. What are your views on this oft-quoted piece of advice? What might you instead advise aspiring writers?

Stratton: I agree with the advice but not in the careless way in which it’s often interpreted. “What you know” isn’t simply the facts of one’s life story; otherwise we’d have nothing but autobiographies. Instead, write what you know emotionally. We’ve all been bullied and been bullies at some point in our lives. We’ve been better than our best selves and worse than our worst selves. We’ve been greedy, generous, hateful, kind, loving, heartless, etcetera. Get in touch with that, the good and the bad, and write the truth about human nature as you’ve experienced it in your heart.

ACS: Do you have any advice for writers of non-majority literature?

Stratton: I’d go back to my answers to questions one and five, with one additional note. In addition to personal research, work with the communities you describe and give your work to members of those communities to review for errors of fact and for insights into cultural nuance you may have missed.

ACS: What is next for Allan Stratton?

Stratton: I’ve just had two Middle Grade novels out about the power of imagination: The Grave Robber’s Apprentice and Curse of the Dream Witch. A comic novel for adults, The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, is coming out this spring with raves from Booklist and Quill and Quire and terrific blurbs from Giller Winner Will Ferguson and Bill Richardson. And my next Young Adult novel, The Dogs, about a boy and his mom on the run from an abusive father, is coming out next spring in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands and Italy.

Thanks for inviting me onto your blog. Great questions.

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ALLAN STRATTON is the internationally acclaimed author of CHANDA’S SECRETS, winner of over twenty-six awards and citations including the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and Booklist’s Editor’s Choice. The film adaptation, LIFE, ABOVE ALL, won the Francois Chalais Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival, 2010, and was South Africa’s official entry for the 2011 Oscar for best foreign language film.

Allan’s other YA and children’s novels include: CHANDA’S WARS, winner of the Young Adult Canadian Book Award, 2009, and a Junior Library Guild selection (USA); the American Library Association Best Fiction novels BORDERLINE and LESLIE’S JOURNAL; and the Junior Library Guild selection, Governor General’s Award nominee, and Times of London Book of the Week THE GRAVE ROBBER’S APPRENTICE.

Allan is published in the USA, the U.K., Italy, France, Germany, Korea, China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Italy, Israel, Brazil, and Australia. He has safariied in Africa; hiked the Great Wall of China; swum with sharks; flown over Cappadocia in a balloon; seen moai on Easter Island, penguins and volcanos in Chile; and explored pyramids in Egypt, temples in Cambodia, Incan ruins in the Andes, and Viet Cong tunnels in Vietnam. He lives in Toronto with his partner and four cats.

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