Welcome to my weekly author interview. This week I talked to Lawrence Tabak who wrote the great gaming novel In Real Life.
Fifteen-year-old math prodigy Seth Gordon knows exactly what he wants to do with his life—play video games. Every spare minute is devoted to honing his skills at Starfare, the world’s most popular computer game. His goal: South Korea, where the top pros are rich and famous. But the best players train all day, while Seth has school and a job and divorced parents who agree on only one thing: “Get off that damn computer.” Plus there’s a new distraction named Hannah, an aspiring photographer who actually seems to understand his obsession.
While Seth mopes about his tournament results and mixed signals from Hannah, Team Anaconda, one of the leading Korean pro squads, sees something special. Before he knows it, it’s goodbye Kansas, goodbye Hannah, and hello to the strange new world of Korea. But the reality is more complicated than the fantasy, as he faces cultural shock, disgruntled teammates, and giant pots of sour-smelling kimchi.
What happens next surprises Seth. Slowly, he comes to make new friends, and discovers what might be a breakthrough, mathematical solution to the challenges of Starcraft. Delving deeper into the formulas takes him in an unexpected direction, one that might just give him a new focus—and reunite him with Hannah.
THE FIVE QUESTIONS:
1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?
When my second son was in middle school he rather suddenly decided that there were no longer any books of interest. Keep in mind this is within the confines of a house where bookshelves are everywhere and space on shelves is short. His main interest at the time was video gaming so after some back and forth he reluctantly agreed he’d give a book about a video gamer a shot. We tried the local bookstores without much luck — while there were a few very good science fiction type books that centered on gaming (Ender’s Game, for example) we couldn’t find a contemporary novel about kids obsessed with console controllers or mouse clicking. I was surprised, since in my experience, gaming was central to the lives of young boys. We could find any number of books about young basketball players, young football players, young hockey and tennis players. But not one about gamers. This was at a time when professional gaming was beginning to emerge domestically, and was already well established in South Korea. So I decided to write that book.
2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?
I don’t work with a written outline, but do spend considerable mental energy laying out the general course of a book before I start. I once read a profile of best-seller thriller writer Harlan Corben in which he describes spending months lying around, dreaming up his intricate plots, which he finally pens in a frenzy of writing. I haven’t achieved this sort of mental discipline, but do tend to write fast once I get into a project. That said, I find that my storylines tend to twist and turn in composition as events fall into place in a way which seem more true to satisfying fiction than life.
3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?
I’ve been drawn to writing about younger protagonists more than writing for younger readers. As such, I’ve been most impressed with YA writers whose seem to be seeking to write the best possible books about young adults without tempering their composition for accessibility — what is sometimes called literary YA writing. The best of these writers are producing fine novels — not just fine novels that are geared for younger readers. Examples include A.S. King, Gayle Forman, and John Green. I’m also been knocked out by some modern writers when they delve into the lives and minds of younger protagonists. I’m thinking of the teenage Theodore and his dissolute friend Boris living as virtual orphans in the ruins of suburban Las Vegas in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Or the story Victory Lap which opens George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December. In a book I’m reading currently, Nathan Hill does an amazing job of capturing the passion and intensity of the emotional lives of eleven-year-olds in The Nix.
4. Do you listen to music when you write?
I often write with music on my headset, particularly since I like to work in semi-public places (coffee shops, libraries, student unions). I will usually just leave my song list on random, since once I get into the writing I’m not consciously aware of what songs are playing.
5. What are you reading right now?
I often have a couple books going at once. I’ve currently set everything aside to finish The Nix, a riveting 2016 novel by Nathan Hill. As I’ve mentioned, the sections devoted to his characters’ younger years are particularly stunning, as well as harrowing. It’s also a novel rich in political relevance, as it bounces back and forth between naive anti-war protestors in 1968 to a contemporary crisis involving a modern demogogic politician. I’ve got a bookmark in a just-translated volume of stories by Israeli Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, A City in Its Fullness, all set in the small Ukrainian city where he had spent his youth. And another bookmark in The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s story of how a 15th century book hunter found the last extant manuscript of a Roman poem by Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, and in doing so, helped trigger the Renaissance.
Lawrence Tabak started out on Candy Land but soon hit the harder stuff (Pong, Tron, SimAnt). His first job was playing knock hockey with ten-year-olds as a playground supervisor in Dubuque, Iowa. He graduated to jobs in pizza assembly and door-to-door solicitation before settling into a series of tennis jobs in Iowa, California, New Jersey and Kansas. Most recently he’s worked in the marketing communications side of finance in Kansas City and Madison, Wis. His freelance writing has appeared in numerous national magazines and journals including Fast Company, Salon.com and The Atlantic Monthly. He and his wife have raised two game-obsessed boys, mostly in Wisconsin. Among their accomplishments are stints on the pro-gaming squads of SK Gaming and Fnatic and helping launch the live-streaming gaming site, Twitch.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Lawrence! If you have a teen who is obsessed with video games this is the perfect read. Watch for great new things to come from this author.
Get In Real Life here: Barnes and Noble Amazon