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A Conversation With Barry Hoffman
An interview with Lisa DuMond
January 2003

© Barry Hoffman
Barry Hoffman
Barry Hoffman
Barry Hoffman was born in New York. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and Temple University. After college, he moved to Philadelphia to get into the Teacher Corps. He's been there since 1968 but still thinks of himself as a New Yorker at heart, returning whenever possible. He is perhaps best known as the publisher and editor of Gauntlet magazine. His Gauntlet Press produces editions of classic books the way their authors intended them.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Curse of the Shamra
SF Site Review: Judas Eyes
SF Site Review: Born Bad
Cemetery Dance
Gauntlet Press

Curse of the Shamra
Judas Eyes
Born Bad

Many people who have read your horror novels are going to be very surprised by this foray into Young Adult territory. Did you write Curse of the Shamra with your Author-In-Residence project in mind?
No. It was only after I wrote the book did I think it might be a unique experience for students to read a book with the author visiting to discuss the book with them and to answer questions. I began the book 30 years ago, while I was a relatively new teacher (and novice author). The main character was named Dara and my then wife and I named our first child Dara, after the main character. Three years ago, Dara was pregnant with my first grandchild and asked if she could have the book so she could show her child how Dara got her name. I began typing it over and saw that it needed rewriting. It was completely rewritten with new characters added and a new ending. It's now a book that has my voice. And it's not all that different from my adult books. Okay, there's no profanity. And the closest to sex is a crush one character has on Dara. But I've never been over the top with violence so the action scenes are little different than what I'd write in an adult book, as far as blood spilled. And like my books for adults, Curse of the Shamra is character driven.

After teaching fifth- and sixth-graders for so many years you certainly must have a unique insight into their minds. Did the students who participated in your program react as you expected to the book?
Pretty much so. What I've found over the years is that, due to TV, movies and video games, today's children want far more action and violence in what they view and read than kids when I started teaching. I remember, in my early years of teaching, my students loving stories by Ray Bradbury. Kids the same age today would yawn because there's not enough action. Part of the problem rests with the media, but they're not the main culprits, in my opinion. There's plenty of blame to go around. Parents today don't read to and with their children enough and don't provide their kids stimulating well-written books. Hell, too many of today's parents spend little time with their children. You often have 12-year-olds babysitting younger children in the evening. Without parenting, children lack guidance and direction. Teachers are so into standardized tests that they don't educate kids to appreciate or critique what they read. It's all preparing for the test. So, I definitely see a difference in children today, which is one reason I initiated my program. I found that, with a little prodding from me, the kids DID take a closer look at the characters -- not just their personality, but also how they changed throughout the book. We discussed choices characters were forced to make and the consequences of those choices. And we then talked about alternative choices. When I walked in the second time, I introduced figurative language and the kids had some trouble grasping the concept. After two more visits, I'd walk into the class and kids would come up to me showing me figurative language they'd found in Curse of the Shamra. Kids CAN learn, if they're taught. The question is just what is being taught? The kids also enjoyed learning how the book was written (from its start 30 years earlier to the bound copy they were reading). I asked the kids to find errors and damn if they did. As much as the book was proofed, there were STILL errors. To find them the kids had to REALLY read the book. I told them about a series of short stories that will be the basis for a prequel and discussed with them some ideas for the sequel. This kind of inside information works wonders with kids. They definitely want to read more about Dara and her adventures.

Curse of the Shamra has a strong female protagonist with an even stronger companion in Tyler, Dara's droll symbiont. How did the boys in your program respond to a heroine, instead of the usual dashing hero?
Good question and I'm not sure that I have a sufficient answer. The boys seemed to enjoy the book. One of my problems (this is a program that I hope to adapt, as I want to continue to use it. I'd go in with these plans and leave finding that I'd only covered half of what I wanted) I encountered was getting everything accomplished in a one or two hour period of time each visit. I recall one visit where I worked with the kids for two hours and I wasn't aware it had been that long. The kids wanted to continue, but they had to go to lunch. One question I had, but didn't have an opportunity to pose was how they felt (the boys) about the book revolving around a female protagonist. Most of the kids, even the boys, seemed to like Tyler. To a large number, she was their favorite character because she had an "attitude." I think they accepted Dara and Tyler as the main characters. There were male characters they could also identify with. Heber, who accompanied Dara on her quest to find an army. Tomas, who helped nurse Dara back to health when she lost her memory. Meeko, a wise ruler Dara encountered. So, while the book centers on Dara and Tyler, there are males the boys could identify with.

Dara and Tyler are worthy role models for girls. Did the girls in the class feel a connection with the female characters? Did it change the way any of the students thought about the qualities of a leader? The face of courage?
I think girls need role models like Dara and Tyler. Sure, there are series of books with girls as the protagonists, but far too many are poorly written and the female characters are one-dimensional. And most adventure/fantasy books have males as the lead character. What the girls enjoyed about Dara was she was flawed. She doubted her ability to lead. She learned on her quest just what it meant to lead. They identified with the how she changed. They were in tune with her often conflicting emotions. And I think they also identified with how females in the Shamra culture were to be submissive and here was Dara who wouldn't behave as others demanded. Then it's Dara who takes the lead by default. I think they learned that there are no true heroes. There are leaders who are imperfect. I just saw the second Lord of the Rings film and while the main characters are males, what jumped out at me is that the heroes were flawed. They succumbed to temptation. They had doubts about their struggle. The whole idea of a ring with so much power that tempts so many is crucial and I think Dara in particular embodies similar character traits and growth. On the other hand, I only saw the first Harry Potter film and in that one you have your heroes and villains. I don't think there is near as much growth and I don't think the characters are nearly as fleshed out as they should be. I think Curse of the Shamra is an excellent book for girls from anywhere from 5th to 12th grade. Keep in mind that it's around 8th grade that girls start doubting their abilities (or so studies say). I think Dara could be a fine role model for kids who are beginning to doubt their self-worth. And whenever a teacher tells a girl there is something she CAN'T do, there is Dara who was told the same, but did it anyway.

Curse of the Shamra comes along at a time when every news outlet seems to be breaking the news, and none too gently, of another possible war that would involve the United States. How often did the Shamra's fight bring up questions about conflict in the real world?
Actually this was something that wasn't discussed. As I said before, this was my first time using the book with students. As a former teacher, I am very much aware I am a guest in a class and I wouldn't presume to dictate to a teacher how to run her class, just as when I was a teacher I wouldn't want someone to tell me how or what to teach. Ideally I would have visited the class weekly. Initially I was supposed to make just three visits over a two month period. That changed to five, but still there was so much more I wanted to do, but couldn't because this wasn't my class. So equating the enslavement of the Shamra with conflicts in the world today was not discussed. I did discuss how portions of the book are based loosely on the fight for freedom of Haitians who were enslaved by the French during Napoleon's rule. But, because of time constraints, I couldn't get into the present. At the same time, the kids were allowed to ask me questions at any time and they didn't bring up present conflicts in conjunction with what occurred in the book. So, maybe that says something about what today's kids are taught and the lack of parenting at home. I plan to be a bit more assertive when I use the program the next time. Like Dara, I am learning and growing. I learned as much as the kids.

The Shamra's oppressors, the Troc, invade and then occupy the Shamra land. Was the fear of an actual invasion ever discussed? Did that appear to be a very real threat to the students?
I don't think students feel there is any danger of an invasion of this country and I'd tend to agree with them. What with the Soviet Union no longer in existence, I don't think invasion is a threat. Terrorism is something which is a far greater threat to kids today in this country. And again, because of a lack of time, I wasn't able to explore that with the class. Next time, I will ask the kids if Dara's resistance movement is anything like terrorists whether it be attacking the U.S. or, say, in Israel where terrorism is a daily threat.

Introducing a fantasy novel to children might spark an interest in the genre that will remain with the students throughout their lives. Was this a first exposure for some children? Was there discussion of further titles for interested students to explore?
I think students are aware of fantasy novels. Isn't the Harry Potter a fantasy series? And while 5th and 6th graders won't be reading Tolkien, I'm sure many saw the two films and are aware of them as fantasies. I think the problem rests with teachers and standardized testing. Lloyd Alexander, Joan Aiken and Susan Cooper have written some wonderful fantasy series, but few students are exposed to these in schools today. Clive Barker's Abarat series should become required reading by older students, but I don't see it happening in today's atmosphere where test-taking skills is stressed at the expense of true education. I did list other books students could read, but a lot depends on their teachers. It's like my exposing students I taught to Bradbury, Matheson, Bloch and King. How many teachers do this? NONE in the school I taught in for over 20 years. How many are allowed with the emphasis on learning skills so they can pass standardized tests? It's my feeling that this emphasis on standardized tests will breed a culturally illiterate generation. Schools are getting rid of art and music teachers so they can hire more teachers who can teach test-taking skills. I find this abhorrent. And I think too many teachers are either unaware of or don't care for fantasy. Fantasy and horror both looked down upon by far too many educators. But the success of the Harry Potter series shows they're wrong. Kids love fantasies. Unfortunately school districts I'm familiar with don't encourage genre reading. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

You are concerned about the falling away of creative arts programs in schools. After your discussion did it seem to you that some of the students were sparked to create fiction of their own? Could you detect any future authors within the class?
On my second visit, one student had written a poem about Dara's strength of character which she gave to me. It was an assignment. The book spurred her to write poetry. I couldn't have been more pleased. I think I sparked their interest. On the other hand, even though these students come from affluent families, I saw that their writing skills were woefully inadequate. Again, it wasn't my class so there was just so much I could do, but in the next class I work with I will insist that students have something written for me each time I visit. The writing component is crucial. We discussed writing (from figurative language to ending a book with all questions resolved or, in the case of Curse of the Shamra, with a lot of questions unanswered). But the teacher did not have the students write much, even though I did all I could to encourage her. I can't say I saw any budding authors in the class (I'd have to see more of their writing). The one girl who wrote a poem on her own I think could be a budding author. But just like anything else the only way kids will write is if they write. If it were my class, I would have had them write a good deal more. If you make writing enjoyable kids will be eager to write. I did get the sense that the kids had stories of their own they might want to write and having learned how I wrote the book, that may inspire them.

The current push for drilling for standardised tests has children learning to write lifeless, checklist prose. Do you think programs such as your Author-In-Residence experiment can help to counter the dulling effects of such rigid instruction?
Most definitely. I KNOW because I taught when standardized tests were being given. I DID teach my kids the skills they needed to do well on the test, but I did it in a way so they also had produce quality writing. When students can work with and question a published author and get the lowdown on how a book was written I think that encourages them to be creative. I remember telling the students the first day how I used nicknames of my own children in the book. They thought it neat and, when I came the last time and discussed one character who hadn't made an appearance until then, one of the students remembered it was the nickname of my youngest daughter. My problem was always teaching the necessary skills the way I wanted rather than how the principal, district or state guidelines mandated. It's what ultimately drove me out of teaching. If I had to become a robot, which is what is occurring, I would have gone mad. As it was, my principal was no fan of mine. Still, my kids did well on standardized tests, so you can teach the necessary skills and encourage creativity at the same time.

As this was your first time implementing the program, were you surprised by any of the reactions of the students? What comments or statement caught you off-guard?
What surprised me most (also disappointed me) were the reviews I was given at the last session which I wasn't able to read until I was at home. Many of the kids enjoyed the book but wanted MORE violence. At the same time, it was a bit ironic that one child who wanted more violence was upset that one of heroes died. Can you have it both ways? This is not Rambo where Stallone kills hundreds (thousands?) of the enemy and walks away with some superficial wounds. That some kids wanted more violence is something I would have liked to address with the class. I was also pummeled with questions about the lack of control an author has when a book is published or made into a movie. We discussed this for a good half hour and I had to move on or the discussion would have continued. I had an artist I commissioned provide cover art and three interior illos. The kids were surprised that, if the book sold to a mass market publisher, I would have little or no say in the artwork. And there was the same shock when they asked if the book would be made into a movie. I explained (and gave examples) how an author gives up most rights to their book when it's optioned. I explained how authors like Dean Koontz and Stepphen King have been unhappy with the adaptation of their material (with Koontz it was The Watchers and I told them how King went to court to get his name removed from The Lawnmower Man.) The kids demanded to know why I wouldn't have more say in a film adaptation of Curse of the Shamra. It opened their eyes.

I was a bit surprised, but deep inside thrilled, that the kids liked Tyler so much. Tyler was not in the original book (started 30 years earlier). My granddaughter's name is Tyler so I added that character (and others). I really enjoyed creating her. She is wise and courageous, but ornery, cranky and grumpy. Like the kids said she had an "attitude." And I liked the fact that the kids identified with Dara.

Of course, the long-term effects on the children in your group are yet to be known, but were the students' and teachers' reaction a spur to carry the program to other classes? Other schools?
I was thrilled with the reaction of the teacher, students and administration. The superintendent of the school system was there the last day and he commented to a reporter how such a program is important. Kids need to be given quality literature to read he said and to have the author there gave even greater life to the book. One parent put a comment on my bulletin board on Horror World that her daughter enjoyed the book. The teacher was flexible enough to allow me to come five times rather than three. And I gotta be honest, it's the best of all worlds for a former teacher. I enjoy working with kids and my passion is writing. I got to do both, BUT at the end of the two hour session I could leave and not have to worry about a lesson plan for the next day or some kid misbehaving. I think the kids enjoyed the experience, got something out of it they will remember long after they've left this school and I can adapt the program to make it even stronger. Now that I'm in Colorado, I'm going to put a proposal together and visit some local schools. Just like anything else, there's a bureaucracy that you have to go through, but I am confident that other schools will be interested in this Authors in Residence program.

What do you most hope the children in the program carried away with them?
A love for reading outside of school, since the material they read in school is so bland. As I'm not a household name, I also think they will be motivated to write. "If he can do it, so can I," they'll think. Lastly, I hope these kids will look more critically at what they read. If they don't like a book, I want them to figure out WHY it sucked. Was it bland characters? A boring plot? Poor writing? But if all they do is read on their own and write I'd be thrilled.

Copyright © 2003 Lisa DuMond

In between reviews, articles, and interviews, Lisa DuMond writes science fiction, horror, dark realism, and humour. DARKERS, her first novel, was published in August 2000 by Hard Shell Word Factory. She is a contributing editor at SF Site and for BLACK GATE magazine. Lisa has also written for BOOKPAGE, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, Science Fiction Weekly, and SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE. You can check out Lisa and her work at her website hikeeba!.

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