Teen Idol

Austin’s Rob Thomas takes his young readers seriously: What a novel idea.

ROB THOMAS IS ONE OF TEXAS’ busiest, best-regarded novelists. The 31-year-old Austinite’s debut effort, Rats Saw God, won the 1996 Austin Writer’s League Violet Crown Award for best fiction as well as two honors from the American Library Association, and over the next year he has three books coming out. But don’t look for them on the shelves next to the works of, say, Larry McMurtry. Thomas writes in the young-adult genre, penning honest, comic, and topical stories of life in the high school trenches. The pigeonholing is really just a matter of semantics: His teenage vérité has just as much literary merit as “serious” novels with teen protagonists, like Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone or C. D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt.

Take Thomas’ newest book, Slave Day, which unfolds from the point-of-view of eight characters during a high school’s annual student auction. It’s a vivid, racially charged work that is reminiscent, in both its multilayered structure and its lightly angst-ridden tone, of Richard Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused. Like Rats, it’s also filled with realistically foul language and references to drugs and sex—the reason, perhaps, that Thomas is seen as a radical by the generally staid young-adult literati. “I didn’t think I was writing a young-adult book,” he says of Rats. “I knew my central character was an eighteen-year-old. If I was thinking in terms of an audience beyond myself, it was my musician friends in Austin, so I didn’t alter anything.” Besides, he says, “teenagers don’t live profanity-free, sex-free, drug-free lives.”

Thomas has lived most of his life in Central Texas; he briefly attended Texas Christian University in Fort Worth before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a teaching certificate. During and after college, he spent his free time playing in the Austin bands Hey Zeus and Public Bulletin. The transition to writing came in Los Angeles, while working for Channel One, the teen news network. “My job was boring,” he says, “so if I was going to waste creative energy, it was going to be at home.” He worked on Rats from five to nine in the morning every day, finishing it in nine months.

To get the book in print, Thomas sent out 33 letters to various literary agents until one bit, and then sat back as Simon and Schuster won a mini bidding war among publishers. After Rats sold 20,000 copies, Thomas landed a multibook deal: He will soon release the novel Satellite Down and the short-story collection Doing Time, and six more books will follow, including a four-book teenage superhero series called The Gifted. He has also ghostwritten a couple of X-Files novels under the pseudonym Everett Owens (combining the names of his two dogs) and has a few film projects going, including a possible adaptation of Slave Day.

Such success suggests Thomas might soon want to graduate to an older audience, but he has mixed emotions. “You go to the bookstore and my books are always near little kids’ books or Sweet Valley High —all these things I don’t want to be next to. Those are aisles where no self-respecting teenager would go. But I feel like the big fish in the young-adult pond.”

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