Exclusive Interview with Alan Gratz, author of REFUGEE

Refugee, Alan Gratz

Often, a hometown brings a writer to you. Alan Gratz’s colorful YA books scream out from the shelves of my local bookstore in the mid-grade section, but I was dazzled to see Gratz’s name also in the YA section. His books are full of amazing characters–and have won the author amazing accolades, such as the 2014 YALSA BEst Fiction for Young Adults. Mr. Gratz was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest book, Refugee.


SRJ: I am so excited about this new book of yours–the story of three refugees braided into one strong narrative. You also used this technique in The Brooklyn Nine. Is it hard to keep everything straight? What is your technique for working in this way?

AG: Yeah, The Brooklyn Nine was nine different main characters–successive generations of kids in one family, from the 1840s up through 2009. With that one, each of the kids essentially had their own short story, and the only thing that really linked the kids was family. It was a lot to keep up with, but each of those stories could really be pulled out and worked on individually if it needed a rewrite. (Which is what ended up happening with two or three of them!)

For Refugee, even though I was telling the story of three different kids in three different eras and three different parts of the world, I wanted their stories to be inextricably linked. They weren’t going to have the connection of family the way the kids in Brooklyn Nine did, so I needed to work even harder to make connections between them.
It turned out though that those connections jumped up at me during the research. Each of the stories began with violence–The Night of the Broken Glass in Germany, when thousands of Jewish homes and synagogues and businesses were targeted, the 1994 food riots in Havana that turned into a clash with the Cuban army, and the Syrian government’s attacks on Aleppo. Each of the three stories involved a dangerous water crossing. Each group of refugees were turned away again and again. And each of the stories was unified by a shared hope of a better, safer future. I ended up finding parallels all over the place.
Once I saw the parallels, and had enough scenes to begin forming each story, I set up a detailed outline on a big board I have in my office. Every line of note cards was one chapter from each of my three protagonists–Josef, then Isabel, then Mahmoud. I built their stories one at a time–first Josef all the way down, then Isabel beside him, then Mahmoud, using each of the previous stories as the touchpoints for parallel story points.
Alan Gratz
Alan Gratz
Once I had my outline on my board complete, I moved the outline over into my computer. Then I went back through my research one time, and moved all of it into the appropriate chapter outlines. So when I was ready to write, I opened my word processor to the chapter outline, had my research for that chapter right there, and started writing! The whole process, from research to outline to finished first draft, takes me about three months of working days–longer because real life and school visits are always worked in there too!

SRJ: How did you start writing this book? Refugee crises have been in the media a lot lately: did that start the book?

Refugee started with the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story and still thinking about who Josef would be and how he would handle that situation when my family and I took a trip to Florida on vacation. One morning we went out to walk on the beach and found a raft that people had used to come to America from somewhere in the Caribbean. It was a shocking moment–the day before, while my family and I had been reading books in hammocks and playing in the pool, a group of people had been risking their lives to escape their own country and come to America. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, but now I wanted to write a book about people like this, making this incredible journey to freedom! And then, as you point out, the Syrian refugee crisis was on the news every night. And I saw THAT situation, and I wanted to write a book about that! And then I realized–why don’t I write a book about all three? That’s when Refugee was really born.

SRJ: How does this book feel different to you from your other books? Is there something that sets it apart, either as you were writing it, or thematically?

AG: Well, I certainly think it’s the most important book I’ve ever written. I hesitate to say that, first because it seems so boastful. My book is important! But it’s certainly important to ME. When I looked around and saw what was happening in the world, I wanted to DO something about it. My family and I already give money to refugee aid organizations, but I felt like that wasn’t enough. I have a platform as a writer of books for young readers, and I decided to use it to help bring visibility to these people and their struggles. If I can make young readers SEE what’s going on, the way that raft on the beach made me see again what was happening while I was sleeping, I will have succeeded!

SRJ: What is your writing process typically like? With the historical fiction, do you plot a lot beforehand?

AG: I talked about it a bit before, but I start with a general idea of the story–A Japanese kid in Meiji Japan blends bushido and baseball to prove to his father there is still room for samurai in the new world! An Irish ambassador’s kid is a spy in the Hitler Youth! Three different refugee families from three different eras and parts of the world try to get to freedom! Then I go to the library. I do a lot of research to understand the time and place, and I build a scene “wish” list. Things I think would be exciting and interesting to happen. Once I have enough scenes, I start building an outline. I make things up to fill in the gaps between real things that happened, and begin to see the characters I’ll need. I do another round of research to fill in any blanks in my knowledge, and then I’m ready to write! It’s a process I used to write my first book, Samurai Shortstop, and I’ve used it for every book since, honing it and refining it as I go.

SRJ: What’s next for you? You seem like an author who always has a next project in mind!

AG: Oh yes! Things move relatively slowly in publishing, so if you want to write a book a year, you’ve got to start thinking about things well in advance. Right now I’m working on a book called Grenade, about the Battle of Okinawa. I visited Japan seven years ago (trip of a lifetime!) and while I was there I met an old man who told me he was a boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded. He said that the Japanese army pulled all the Okinawan boys out of middle school, lined them up, and gave them each a grenade–with instructions to not come back until they had killed an American. That’s my first chapter, and I go from there! That book is slated to come out in fall of 2018. I’m writing it right now! In between traveling to promote Refugee, of course. 😉

Thanks to Alan making time in his busy tour schedule for this interview. You can buy the book from Alan’s own hometown (and The Passed Note’s hometown) bookstore, Malaprops, Indiebound, or Amazon.


Alan Gratz‘s first novel, Samurai Shortstop, was named one of the ALA’s 2007 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults. His second novel, Something Rotten, was a 2008 ALA Quick Pick for Young Adult Readers, and was followed by a sequel, Something Wicked, in October 2008. His first middle grade novel, The Brooklyn Nine, was one of the ALA’s Top Ten Sports Books for Youth and Top Ten Historical Books for Youth, and his middle grade Holocaust novel Prisoner B-3087 was one of YALSA’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Readers and has won seven state awards.  His latest novels are the YA thriller Code of Honor, a YALSA 2016 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and The Monster War, the third book in his middle grade steampunk League of Seven trilogy.

Alan Gratz


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