Allen Zadoff’s new young adult novel I AM THE MISSION is a finalist in the Young Adult category for this year’s Thriller Awards. It is the second book in his acclaimed series about a teenaged assassin.
Zadoff wrote four stand-alone books, a memoir, and three novels before his smash series about a clandestine organization that recruits kids to commit crimes normally associated with organizations like the CIA or the KGB. The Unknown Assassin (or Boy Nobody) persona is perfect for a hit man (or, in this case, a hit boy): No name. No past. No remorse. Just a youthful killing machine who can blend in with others his age, ingratiate himself, and then take out the targets selected for him by characters called “Mother” and “Father”—no his real parents.
Zadoff, a Boston native (and, later, resident of upstate New York, Manhattan, Los Angeles and Tokyo) is a graduate of Cornell University, the Harvard University Institute for Advanced Theatre Training, and Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. He shared these insights into his series and his life with THE BIG THRILL.
What, exactly, triggered the idea for the teenaged assassin of I AM THE MISSION who floats about on assignment anonymously? Did it come to you in a dream? What?
The Unknown Assassin came to me, not in a dream, but on a whisper of inspiration. Often ideas come to me in the form of character, and in this case the character was a sixteen-year-old boy. He told me he had no name, that he traveled from place to place, assuming a new identity on every mission, and his job was to befriend the children of high-value targets so he could get close to and assassinate their parents. I was shocked. When a character with such an intriguing story begins talking to a writer, the writer is wise to listen.
Both I AM THE WEAPON and I AM THE MISSION comment on politics. (“People do what’s expected of them, and nothing changes. The system stays broken.”) What is your personal take on the status of politics/government?
I feel that anything interesting I have to say about politics is best expressed through my novels. So I’ll just say that the hero of I AM THE MISSION is grappling with questions of loyalty vs. personal responsibility. What happens when a soldier begins to doubt his mission? Can he find the courage to break away from the system and go in a different direction? And how will the system react to such disobedience?
If you could change one thing about yourself with absolutely no effort, what would it be?
I’d look more like George Clooney and less like Allen Zadoff.
You convey the message in the book that “all actions carry risk,” that “life is about risk.” What do you feel has been the biggest risk you have taken in your life so far?
There have been so many risks, and each one was the perfect risk at the time, the risk I needed in order to grow. Right now my creative risk is about writing and finishing this series. I wrote four stand-alone books before this, a memoir and three novels, but The Unknown Assassin is my first time staying with a single character over a period of years. Lately I’ve been comparing it to the difference between falling in love and being married. When I write a stand-alone, I have to fall in love. It’s an enormous leap of faith and a surrender, but it’s passionate and I’m all in. But now I am in the fourth year of writing the Assassin series, and I have to develop different qualities like commitment, persistence, staying the course when the glitzy excitement of beginnings is done. The challenges and rewards are very different than writing a stand-alone book. I’m interested to hear how other series writers experience this.
Your early writing (prior to the BOY NOBODY character), were often wryly humorous books. Both of the assassin books are relatively humor-free, except for some slight teenage badinage. Do you ever see yourself going back to writing humor? Was it a conscious choice to quit writing books like FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE? Do you enjoy switching genres?
“Humor free”? Ouch! I’m going to have put some ice on that. But I get what you mean. These books are thrillers and though the characters are witty, they are not comedic. On my part, it was less a conscious choice to change genres than it was an organic one. I had the idea for a thriller series and it came on so strongly and with such certainty that I had very little choice. At first people who knew me were astonished that a humorous contemporary fiction writer was handing them hard-boiled prose. Now, nobody is surprised. But on a personal level, I’m delighted that the books have received so many great reviews, and readers who experience my work for the first time experience me as a true thriller writer. That’s very high praise as far as I’m concerned.
Here’s a quote from the new book I AM THE MISSION: “He has a masterful way of using truisms to support his ideas. One can easily agree with the truth of the surface statement without questioning the ideas themselves.” This line cries out for commentary. Can you expand on that thought as it applies to the United States today?
The most effective lies are the ones based in truth, don’t you think? But again, I defer to the books rather than give you my personal opinion. If that quote interests readers, I highly recommend watching two documentaries that deal with this subject: The World According to Dick Cheney, directed by RJ Cutler, and The Fog of War directed by Errol Morris. It’s always my goal as an author to write what I call a “worthy antagonist”. I’m not passing judgment on the men portrayed in these films, but I will say that the most interesting bad guy is at least as interesting as the good guy—preferably more so. And these are two very interesting men.
In I AM THE MISSION you say, “The difference between a hero and a villain is a very thin line.” Television’s Dexter comes to mind. How would you rank Boy Nobody, the hero of both I AM THE WEAPON and I AM THE MISSION on the hero/villain scale if a “10” is a hero and a “1” is a complete villain? Feel free to explain your number(ed) rating more fully and let us know if it might change in the course of future books.
I would call The Unknown Assassin an anti-hero. He works for an organization that sends children to quietly get rid of adults who they believe are involved in treason or terrorism. To do a job like that requires an emotional coldness and a skill set that is less than heroic. On the other hand, I have enormous sympathy for the Assassin because he’s a sixteen-year-old kid who has been trained to follow orders, and he believes those orders are just, even patriotic. Sometimes he seems like a villain, and sometimes a hero, but I often hear from readers who are amazed that they were rooting for him. They finish the book and write to me to say, “How in the world did you have me cheering for a teen assassin for three hundred pages?”
There are two female “leads” in the two books and—without giving your plots away—let’s just say that things do not go smoothly with either girl. Will the Unknown Assassin ever have a romance that endures? No “Spiderman” and Gwen Stacey? No Lois Lane and Superman? (Oh. Wait. Things didn’t end well for Spidey, either.)
What kind of a thriller hero would he be if he didn’t have woman problems? But as you so delicately put it, things do not go smoothly in the first two books. I think it’s part of The Unknown Assassin’s emotional journey. He is an absolute lone wolf at the start of this series, and over several books he is learning to trust others. I think he’ll have love when he is open and vulnerable enough to accept it in his life. Until then, people are dangerous to him. And women are extra dangerous.
The character Howard is one you seem to identify with, and one of the few who appears in both books. If Howard, the computer nerd, were a real boy, where would you see Howard in ten years’ time? What would he be doing?
I love Howard! He’s my inner geek, and he’s the kind of character who would have been the lead in my previous novels. (Spoiler alert: You’ll see him again in Book 3.) Howard is starting to come into his own as the series continue. He’s gaining in confidence, and it’s a lot of fun to see him growing up and toughening up. In the real world, brilliant young tech guys like Howard can be drawn by the siren song of app development or the startup community, but I think Howard is more ambitious than that. I don’t see him in the private sector. I see him using his immense tech skills to defend the United States. In fact people like Howard are the tech warriors we will rely on more and more in the future. In ten years he may be leading a new kind of cyber-defense agency.
Are you an “outline” kind of guy or a “wing it” kind of guy when you write?
Definitely an outline guy, but I don’t work out every plot point. I need to know the major points and a have a sense of what’s in between. Then it’s a dance between planning and improvisation.
Do you have a specific routine (time/schedule/place) when and where you write?
Most definitely. For years I taught English as a Second Language to an adult population of mostly undocumented workers. I began work at 8:15am. I wanted to write beforehand, and that meant getting up about 5:30 in the morning, going to a coffee shop, having breakfast and getting in an hour or an hour and a half of writing before the day started. I did that for years before a publisher bought a book from me. I found that I was very focused early in the morning before the day had begun and before the distractions mounted.
I’m a full-time writer these days, but you’ll still find me in a coffee shop between 7 and 11am. Then I take a break and set up for an afternoon session at home. If I spend all day alone at home, I go crazy, so it helps me to break up the day into different sessions and different locations.
If you are writing, what would you be drinking?
Coffee most likely. It’s my jet fuel.
If you were drinking, what would you be writing? (Not really a trick question, but it seems to fit)
I can’t drink alcohol and write. I don’t know how Hemingway managed it. I need all my faculties to write. Maybe he had more faculties than me, so he could afford to lose a few and he was still great.
Do you still stay active with the theater? You attended the Institute for Advanced Theater Directing at Harvard after years as a theater guy, and wrote MY LIFE, THE THEATER, AND OTHER TRAGEDIES. Do you remain active with theater now, other than as a consumer?
The theater was my life until I was about twenty-eight years old, and I still have a deep and abiding love for the theater and theater people. These days, I’m a happy consumer of theater, no longer a creator or director. I won’t rule it out entirely because I’ve got serious theater chops as a writer and director. That’s our little secret for the time being. But my life and my creative journey took me in another direction, and I’m at peace with that. I’ve got a great life today, and I’m grateful.
Sony Pictures and Will Smith’s production company have bought the rights to your ITW 2014 YA Finalist series. Do you think the plan is for Jaden Smith to play the protagonist in your novels?
I’m thrilled that Sony and Overbrook are on board with The Unknown Assassin. It was sold to the studio with Jaden in mind, and I think it would be a great role for him, and we’d be lucky to have him. But ultimately it’s up to him to decide if it’s the right part at the right time. By the way, I’ve recently read the screenplay version of the book (It’s currently titled BOY NOBODY like the original hardcover), and it is an amazing adaptation of the book.
Book #2, I AM THE MISSION, is considerably longer than Book #1, I AM THE WEAPON. Was that a conscious decision, or did you just feel you needed it longer for plot purposes?
The length wasn’t conscious. I was trying to write a big, exciting, action-packed second book that took the character in a deep and interesting direction, and this is what came out. I figure if I’m having fun, the readers will, too. And I AM THE MISSION is a jaw dropper.
Allen Zadoff is the author of the THE UNKNOWN ASSASSIN series as well as several acclaimed novels including FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE, winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and a YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults. Allen is a graduate of Cornell University and the Harvard University Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. His training as a super spy, however, has yet to be verified.
To learn more about Allen, please visit his website.