Have you ever edited a novel?
From the outsider's perspective
Tanya Lieske. Morton Rhue, you were born Todd Strasser in New York in 1950, what are those two names about?
Morton rhue: My first book was a novel called Angel Dust Blues, and shortly before it came out, my publisher asked me to write the novel "The Wave" and then both books should come out at the same time. But since I was a new and as yet unknown writer, my publisher fears that people would only buy one of the two books, so he suggested a pseudonym for me. My first name "Todd" sounds like the German word "Tod" and "Strasser" like "Straße", and that's how I got the idea to translate both into French. I became "Morton Rhue".
Lieske. Which books does Morton Rhue write and which does Todd Strasser write?
Rhue: Morton Rhue writes the good books, of course, and Todd Strasser serves the mediocre! Jokes aside, Morton Rhue writes on serious social issues and they are translated into German. I also write funny books for children, which are very popular in France, but the French don't want my serious books. Only in America are all of my books translated.
Lieske. How did the sixties affect you?
Rhue: The sixties were a time when people had a great social conscience. That shaped me, my serious books deal with burning social issues. In the sixties we wanted to change and improve the world.
Lieske. Do you always write from the perspective of the outsider?
Rhue: Until recently, I didn't even realize that I always take the outsider's perspective. When I grew up, I was always an outsider, I never belonged to the insiders, the cool kids at school. The thoughts of outsiders always come to me. I was reading in Denver recently, and on the way back my hostess asked me if I would go with her, she wanted to stop by a homeless shelter and deliver something to eat there. I said "of course" and at first didn't understand that it was a homeless shelter for teenagers, because teenagers lived on the street! This then became my book "Asphalt Tribe". And that's exactly how it was with "Ghetto Kidz", I read in a school in a black ghetto in New York City and saw how horrible everything was there, and these children had absolutely no interest in learning anything! And this experience gave me the inspiration for "Ghetto Kidz".
Lieske. Does your biography also include the fact that you worked as a street musician and ship steward?
Rhue: Yes, that's right, that was in Denmark. I was still going to university and wasn't sure what was going to become of me, and then first of all I went on a big trip around Europe, and in Denmark I looked after a ship and I also played street music.
Lieske. Some scenes from your novel "Ghetto Kidz" remind me of the West Side story!
Rhue: No one has ever come up with this comparison. But it's true, the problem of gangs and gangs has never been as big as it is today. There are gangs everywhere, which is why I wrote the book. It has to do with the disintegration of the education system and society as a whole in the United States). Young men who grow up in the ghettos simply have no other perspective than to take on some miserable job; they then work for wages on the verge of subsistence. You do hear of one or two rappers or athletes who have made it, but there are still millions of others who just have no way out. And so they have to join a gang, how else is a young person supposed to get to a car or other status symbols such as jewelry or money to take a girl out. The gang, that's the easiest way, you push drugs and do everything that's hip.
Lieske. Your main character Kalon is a lovable, intelligent child, and yet he gets on the wrong track.
Rhue: This is exactly what my story is about. In the ghetto, the gangs not only recruit the losers, but also good children who simply have no perspective, in the best case scenario they could become caretakers, and these children will also join a gang at some point. There have always been those stories of ghetto children who make it big, but I wanted to show the reality, most of them don't make it. Therefore, I am writing about a child who under normal circumstances would never pursue a career as a criminal, and I show how hopelessness leads him to join a gang.
Lieske. How can you break the cycle of violence?
Rhue: You know, it's not just about the vicious circle of violence, it's about hopelessness, about poverty, the violence is just a consequence. Above all, it is about the misery of the education system. When a young person visits a school in the slum and he can see that everything is broken, the books torn up, entire pages are missing, it just doesn't work at all, then the feeling arises that nobody here feels responsible. If nobody cares about the school and the students, why should a child care? You have to rebuild these schools, the children have to go into their school and feel that someone is looking after them! In the United States, the better teachers work in good schools, in nicer cities, in the suburbs. If you want to create a better education system in the ghettos, then you have to pay the teachers better to keep them there! These two things should be done! But when I watch the news about the financial crisis, all my hopes sink.
Lieske. You are very well known in Germany as the author of the novel "Die Welle", he has been reading a class here since 1984. Have you ever spoken to the teacher who carried out the fascism experiment?
Rhue: I never spoke to Ron Jones, it just didn't work out. But I spoke to students who took part in the experiment. And now, so many years later, the experiment doesn't seem to be the most important thing anymore, what matters is the message, the story that grew out of it. I am very happy that they updated one.
Lieske. Have you seen the movie?
Rhue: Yes, I saw the film and I think it's very successful. This version enables today's teenagers to identify with it. Also, the film's writers answer the question of what happened to Robert. There is this boy who is completely lost in the end, after all, he was the teacher's bodyguard. And the directors invent a violent ending for his story. Even if I don't entirely agree, I like trying to tell his story to the end. With me the boy was hanging in the air, and it was not entirely clear what would become of him later.
Lieske. Your book and he film say that fascism can happen anywhere. Do you still stand by this thesis today?
Rhue: I think there was an exceptional historical situation in Germany in the 1930s. I do not believe that people who are satisfied and who have enough to live on come together to form such an emergency community. But when people are unhappy, when they are in a bad way, when inflation is looming, things are different. In many ways, this is what we are seeing in the United States right now. Now all of a sudden the bankers are to blame for everything. Maybe they missed something, but still there is now almost something like a pogrom mood in America, times are bad and we need a scapegoat now. We look around and find the culprit. So now it was the bankers! I believe that this is human nature when things are going badly for them.
Lieske. Do you see yourself challenged as a writer in this situation?
Rhue: So, I think I'm just one of many people who worry, but of course I have a forum in my readers and I can draw attention to things like that. I write for young people because the future lies with them and because they are still growing into the world.
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