Young Adult author Scott Bergstrom paid a visit to Second Star to the Right Children’s Bookstore on Saturday, February 18 to discuss his hit novel “The Cruelty”. After sharing a passage from the book, Bergstrom took part in a Q&A with Second Star’s high school staffer Aspen Coates in the store’s Rumpus Room.
Bergstrom: My mother was a diplomat with the State Department, she was stationed in Paraguay and one day she called me. She was skyping with me here in Denver and told me that she had gotten her assignment for the next year and I said ‘Oh, where is it? She said Baghdad and I thought well this is a terrible, we have to find some way to get you of this and she said actually I volunteered for it. The idea of your mother going off to Baghdad, this was years ago when it was still a pretty awful situation even for diplomats there so I was kind of terrified as her son. That kind of planted the seed for the plot of the “Cruelty.”
Coates: How was Gwen influenced by your family and how did any members of your family influence the characters or elements of the book?
Bergstrom: A lot of fiction writers, their characters are kind amalgams of different people that they know. At the beginning of the book when Gwen is very unsure of herself, that’s totally based on me. Then the cool Gwen at the end is based on my wife. Right down to a lot of the physical details like Gwen’s trademark shoes, which are these red Doc Martins and my wife used to wear red Doc Martins. It was those kind of aspects of her that went in to the character. I wrote “The Cruelty” several years ago and Gwen is a gymnast at the beginning of the book and she learns martial arts along the way. Since that time, my youngest daughter has gotten in to gymnastics and my older daughter is in to martial arts so I thought that was weirdly serendipitous. There’s all sorts of weird ones in there too like Bella, an older man who lives upstairs from Gwen in New York, is based on my father-in-law. The main bad guy, physically, not in any other way, is based on a friend of the family who is this slender, elegant looking guy. He’s the sweetest guy in the world and he actually doesn’t know that he’s the bad guy in the book but he is.
Coates: When you initially planned the book, what were your intentions and did they change while you were writing it?
Bergstrom: When writers talk to each other, there’s a phrase called plotter or pantster. A plotter sort of plans things out and a pantser just flies by the seat of their pants. I definitely fall in to that plotter category where I will take an idea like – the diplomat father is kidnapped, the girl has to go get him. Where do you go from there? You have to keep adding elements to the story. I’ll tell you one interesting story about the specifics of the plot. I had that idea about my mother going to Baghdad but I didn’t quite know where it was going. I was taking a train from Berlin down to Prague and the train was going very fast on this straight away and I was looking for the bathroom. I was walking down the corridor of the train and I get to the end, I look up and there’s an emergency brake handle. We were going very fast and I wondered what would happen if I pulled that. That scene is still in the book where Gwendolyn pulls the thing on the train and it’s right in the middle of the book and everything that come before that and everything that came after that is from that one point of origin. It’s kind of a neat of example of how you can take a story out of any incident. Once you have that scenario to put in, then you need someone to do it. So who’s your character to do it? Why did they do it? How do they get on the train? What happened before the incident that caused them to get on the train? What happened afterwards and then you start adding those pieces together like legos and suddenly you’ve got a plot there. It’s a nice way of breaking it down in to bite sized elements.
Coates: Did the book turn out as you intended it to as you put these pieces together?
Bergstrom: More or less. What surprised me is that my whole goal for thing was to do a couple of local readings. I hadn’t anticipated that it would have been picked up by publishers in Europe for example or by Paramount. That was more that I’d hoped for.
Coates: The Title is “The Cruelty.” What does that mean to you personally and how do you think it connects to the book?
Bergstrom: That’s a good question. The thing is that the cruelty is a reference to a thing that Gwendolyn finds inside her. This capacity to be cruel in a world that’s being cruel to her and the people that she loves. It’s sort of her uncovering her capacity to deal with people in that way. It isn’t per se a value judgment meaning that cruelty equals being bad. It’s just an ability to do something hard and possibly gross and violent if you have to and that’s what she sort of uncovers herself.
Coates: Did you write a book to your specific liking of novels or did you write something you wouldn’t usually read yourself?
Bergtrom: The joke is that I sort of wrote it for the 17-year-old me. I grew up in Minnesota in a very rural town. We didn’t have cable so the world news came on at 5:30 p.m. So every night at 5:30, I would watch the national news and I would see these great things, interesting things happening. At the time, I remember I was in junior high and the Berlin Wall was coming down and it was fascinating to me. I could see there was this whole world out there with all these abstract things like politics and ideologies and nation states, all of these big abstract ideas, and there you could see it with all these individuals going out and becoming overjoyed as they were tearing down this wall. All of those abstract things affect individual lives.
We were huge, huge readers in my house and my mom loved those 1970s thrillers, Robert Ludlum and stuff. We could have wallpapered the house with the pages of these books if we wanted to but I would read them instead of wallpapering with them. They were fascinating to me and I loved all the exciting adventure stories.
Coates: If you didn’t write an action adventure novel, what genre would you have written in?
Bergstrom: I used to not know the answer to that, but last winter, I went to the Caribbean for the first time. We were in St. Thomas and I thought I just want to live here and write romance novels. After I get back, I told my editor and she said ha ha ha, very funny. I said no seriously, I’m thinking about doing a romance novel. She said you have to do the sequel first and then we can talk about romance novels. I think that would be really interesting.
Coates: Who was your favorite character or which was the character that was the most fun for you to create and to develop?
Bergstrom: I think the character of Bella. Again Bella is the older gentleman that lives upstairs. He runs a stationary store right now but he was an Israeli spy for 30 years. Before that he had grown up in Europe and had been active in the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and during childhood he experienced World War II. As I said before, he’s loosely based on my father-in-law and it was developing that kind of character that you can really delve in to.
Did you guys ever study the Hero’s Journey in school? It’s this idea that all the world’s stories are kind of the same, that they all follow the same basic line. Bella is sort of the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi saying “you do have the power.” This is what you need to do to get out and utilize it. I had a good time with him.
Coates: What was your writing process? How long did it take you? What order did you write the book in?
Bergstrom: It took two years roughly, but that is a kind of a lie. There was a year break in between. Real life and full time jobs would get in the way and you’d shelve things for months and months at a time. It’s painful to do that and sometimes there’s these bouts of self doubt and I hate writing, I suck. I’m never going to write again and then you come back to it. It really requires perseverance. It took me about a year to write the first third and then I took some time off just doing a job and it was exhausting. It was put to bed for six to nine months, something like that. It took me probably six months to write the next two thirds of it and then maybe six months to get it in to some kind of shareable not awful form.
Coates: What kind of research did you because there’s a lot of different cities that are involved?
Bergstrom: That’s one of the goals I had with it. Two of the countries in the book are Germany and Czech Republic and those are two countries that I just love to travel in so when I would go around and I would see these interesting things, I would think I have to save this for something, some kind of story in the future. So that’s what I ended up doing. I’m also a photographer so I’ll take pictures a lot so I have good references and architectural details, things to go to. For example, there’s this scene in Berlin where she discovers sort of the Bad Guys Headquarters, for lack of a better word and it’s in this old warehouse. That building is right where I say it is in the book. You can actually follow those subway directions to get there and you will find this building there. It’s very exact to the place.
As a thriller writer, you have to do all kinds of weird research that might get you put on a watch list. What do you do if your AK 47 jams, that’s kind of stuff. With my mom being in Iraq, I could actually skype with her and she would tell me all this cool stuff. What do you do if a Molotov Cocktail explodes on your car? And she’d say, “Well, what they train you is this.” So one day we’re talking about this kind of stuff and in the background I hear this siren going off. It was like a tornado siren but way more urgent. It was like a you better pay attention siren. I said “Mom, what is that?” She said, “Oh it’s a rocket attack on the compound.” I said, “Oh, well do you need to go?” She said “No, it’s on the other side. It’s fine.” It kept going on and it somehow managed to sound even more urgent and I said, “Mom, that sounds really bad. Don’t you need to go in the bomb shelter? And she said, “Are you kidding? It’s filthy in there.” It was such a Mom response.
Coates: You mentioned a sequel. How is that going?
Bergstrom: Well it’s with my editor so the draft of it is done. My editor and I are in the middle of dealing with it and figuring out how to make it not suck. It’s an interesting thing because when you’re working with an editor, what’s great is that you have two minds working on the same problem. That’s a wonderful thing to have which you don’t have the first time around when writing a book. You do but not at such an early stage. So that’s a pretty great treat actually. The second one is called “The Greed” for the same reasons that “The Cruelty” was called “The Cruelty.” So if it’s her discovering her capacity to be cruel in the first book, “The Greed” is therefore her capacity to be greedy. I think I’m going to work my way through all the seven deadly sins. The next one will be sloth maybe.