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Spaceships, Movies, and Why I Blame the 80s for Everything I Write

by Kari Anne Holt

In January of 1986, I stood outside on a beautiful sunny day with my 3rd grade class, and watched as the Challenger space shuttle rocketed into the sky. Living in Florida, we were lucky kids, having been able to vie

w many shuttle launches. So when the Challenger’s smoke plume made a weird Y-shape in the sky 73 seconds after launch we knew something was wrong.

In February of 1986, my dad came home from work well after midnight (as he did every night – he was an editor at the Tampa Tribune). He woke me up, woke up my little sister, woke up my mom, and packed us all in the car. We drove to the Museum of Science and Industry, stood in an epic long line, and took turns looking through an even more epic telescopic. It was a middle of the night journey to see Halley’s Comet.

In September of 1986 I turned 10.

Later that year, I met Paula Danziger, whose book This Place Has No Atmosphere had just been released. She signed a napkin for me that said, “Never stop writing.”

1986 burns like a supernova in my brain.

In that hallowed year spanning third and fourth grade, that year of tragedy and wonder, of science invading everyday life, a little trap in my mind clicked shut, preserving everything in memory-amber.

People often ask authors about their greatest influences, and every time I’m asked this my palms get a little sweaty. Why? Because my answer is really long (see above), but also because I feel very guilty that my greatest influences are not all writers or books.

I could say that my inspirations and desires to write come from just having been a kid in 1986, and that would be partially true. But here’s my really dirty secret – the heart of my drive to write good books for kids: movies. Specifically, the movies of my childhood.

In the span of 1984-1986, these were just some of the films that premiered:

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984)

The Neverending Story (1984)

Gremlins (1984)

Goonies (1985)

Explorers (1985)

Enemy Mine (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

Legend (1985)

Space Camp (1986)

Short Circuit (1986)

Labryinth (1986)

The Manhattan Project (1986)

When I sit down to write, the first place my brain goes is back to 1986. I ask myself how I can convey the infinite possibilities of adventure that vicariously sustained me as a kid. From seeing the space shuttle in real life to watching kids build a spaceship in their Big Screen backyard. And more than that, how can I translate this wonder and excitement to a generation of kids who have a different foundation than I did?

My friends and I would ride our bikes to the convenience store – with no adults. We would stop at the neighborhood retention pond and watch the alligators, then we’d pedal off into a construction site and pretend a half-built house was a half-built spaceship.

The times have changed, though. And the argument over whether kids should have more freedom to roam is one for another essay. However, when I start a new book, I have to realize that if this book has a contemporary setting, I can’t just send a pack of kids off on their bikes to investigate the woods behind a convenience store.

Or can I? What holds the adventure for current readers? Is it the mere fact that a story revolves around kids who are unsupervised? Do we even need spaceships and video games that come alive when the simple act of being outside of the house without a parent is titillating enough?

These are the questions I mull as I write. And from these questions I tend to create stories where the parents are present—but distracted. It’s a common enough occurrence these days, and something I’m guilty of as a mom. If a troll clomped through the living room and up into my sons’ bedroom, would I miss it because I was busy tweeting about the piles of laundry? (I hope not, but you never know…)

I guess my point is that, as a writer, you take your greatest influences and you mold and adapt them until they transform into something that has your own mark on it. When I sit down to write, my natural voice is a thundering, skinned-knee, bike-riding, sweaty, smart-mouthed 10-year-old. This is a good starting point, but voice isn’t the only thing a writer needs to make a story work. In fact, you can’t make a story work if you have no story. And that’s where my dirty secret comes in. I don’t read craft books about inciting incidents, I watch Bastian steal a book and hide in his school’s attic. I watch goofball boys get suddenly serious when they’re threatened with the loss of their home. I watch a guy crash his spaceship onto a planet, finding himself trapped with his worst enemy. I think of the wonder I felt when I looked out the school bus window and still saw the shifting smoke trails of a space shuttle. I think of the palpable excitement of a crowd as they shared doughnuts and reverence over a once-in-a-lifetime comet.

These are my inspirations and outlines and craft manuals. This is how a 36-year-old woman writes sci-fi for 10-year-olds. This, and coffee.

So the next time you sit down to write and you have trouble figuring out how to get your characters into (or out of) a mess, I suggest finding a nice snack and a copy of pretty much any movie for kids created between 1984 and 1986. Movies were not politically correct then. There weren’t cleansed of danger and language and kissing. There is excitement and adventure at every turn. There are hard edges. There is a lovely lack of computer-generated homogeny. Don’t be afraid to let movies influence you. And I promise to stop being afraid to admit it.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary Anne Lewis December 12, 2012 at 1:09 am

I was nine years old in 1969, during the first moon landing. So I can relate. Somehow looking up at the moon and knowing someone was walking around up there will always stay with me. And if you want to see “hard-edge,” check out some of the cartoons from the 1960s. It was different back then. And each decade that has passed since then has changed it, “cleansed” it even more.

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