Author James Sulzer Dishes on “The Card People”

The Card People, a brand-new adventure for middle-graders that unfolds at the intersection of nanotechnology and magic, is now available and is already receiving enthusiastic praise! Recently, we interviewed Fuze author James Sulzer about the book. Read ahead for a riveting look at what sparked the idea for this ingenious thriller, the science behind the story, and what’s next for James.

1. Tell us about The Card People, your first book for middle-grade readers. What was the aha! moment that inspired this intriguing story?

The story of The Card People was inspired when I was on an overnight camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my fifth-grade class from Nantucket New School. After a long day of hiking, we had arrived at the Mizpah Hut on the shoulders of Mt. Washington, and the kids asked me to tell them a bedtime story. One of them said, “Yeah, tell us about the oogly-booglies.” With no further thought, I began, “What you call the ‘oogly-booglies’ were more commonly referred to as ‘the card people.’” A story came into my head about a brave band of plucky card people and their brutal enemies, the scissors people. This bedtime story ended up being just a short chapter in the finished story, but it gave me the outline of the card characters and their enemies. Over the next several months the details of their unique civilization and quest began to develop in the back channels of my mind.

Later—over the next year—I began to figure out the human characters and their own quests and griefs. It took a while to merge the two stories, and even after I wrote the first novel-length form, I had to revise the first half of the novel several times, over several more years. In my opinion, I didn’t get it right until last winter (February 2016).

2. The book delves into the fascinating field of nanotechnology. Can you explain a little bit about this subject, and how you became interested in it? How did you feel when the Nobel Prize was awarded to three scientist pioneers in nanotechnology?

A few years before I started The Card People, a friend lent me a few books on nanotechnology. (FYI, one nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) I found the whole topic fascinating—the idea of using tiny particles such as hydrogen atoms to make tiny machines, and to use their quantum, wavelike tendencies to fashion mini-computers of incredible power and sophistication. One of the (admittedly farther out) speculations in one book was that these computers could be used to create consciousness in apparently inanimate objects. With this thought, I came up with the idea of a “nanodust” that could “nanimate” (a term I believe I created) objects, bringing them to life and consciousness. I also visited a number of official sites on nanotechnology and made sure to include in my story some of the important safety measures that international scientists have agreed upon, including the stipulation against self-replication by nano-robots that might conceivably go awry and create a “gray goo” that fills up the visible world. One of the heroes of my story, the genius scientist Samir Kapadia (father of Paul and Sam), puts an additional safeguard on his nanodust: any of his nano creatures have a built-in desire to help existing biological forms of life. However, the scissors people were created by a form of nanodust that does not feature these safeguards.

I love it that the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2016 was given to three pioneers in nanotechnology. How exciting! It shows that progress is fast coming—but it also reminds us that we must be careful to put into place adequate protections against the dangers of this new, potentially very powerful technology.

3. What were the biggest challenges writing for middle-graders?

In my opinion, writing for middle-graders is not a lot different from writing for adults. True, you tend to steer away from too-large, too-abstract words—but that’s good advice when writing for adults, too. What I mean is, it is possible to be clear, direct, and impactful without resorting to any form of oversimplification. It is also important not to condescend to your audience.

As always, I find I write better when I am entirely in the moment. What are characters seeing, hearing, feeling? Be specific! And find the rhythm of a voice and go with it, let it sing.

4. We hear many of your students have read the book. Please share some of their comments!

I have comments from a number of students, but here are some comments from the very first group—the fifth graders to whom I originally told the story. I had completed the first draft of the novel by the time they were in sixth grade. Since then, I think I’ve improved the novel a lot, but here are their initial reactions to that first draft:

The Card People is a wonderful book, filled with action, adventure, betrayal, heartwarming moments, brotherly love, oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened scenes, laugh-out-loud scenes, and some romance.” —Luci

“It is the first in the series, and is sure to be an instant best-seller. There are many twists, mysteries, and surprises around every corner! This book would be great for people grades 4–8, but also for high-schoolers and adults too!” —Sophie

“I think that someday, this book (or should I say these books) will be passed around for generations to come. I love the characters, the plot, just the whole book!”—Skyler

“Sulzer’s new novel is a captivating and interesting read that will keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end. A royal flush!!” —Nathaniel

“The book can be read by both boys and girls and equally loved. This book is another version of The Indian in the Cupboard but has more depth. The story is as much about a family crisis as it is about a science experiment that went terribly wrong.” —Mia

The Card People is a fantastic amazingly stupendous book by James Sulzer … This story is about a deck of cards that comes to life and changes the life of Paul, Nim, Sam, and Lex forever, as in danger, adventure, and twists in the plot. I would give this book a 5 out of 5 star review.” —Antoine

5. What books inspired you when you were growing up?

Many, many books inspired me when I was growing up. When I was in fourth grade our teacher read us a version of Homer’s The Odyssey, and that story of travel and struggle and loyalty left a huge impression on me. Like many boys in the early sixties, I enjoyed reading The Hardy Boys series. I liked a lot of sports books. And one book—I can’t remember the title or author—but it was about someone starting on an adventure, and he had to choose between two paths, one that looked easy and one that looked difficult, and he chose the easy one—and of course, it wasn’t what it seemed. That thought resonated with me throughout my childhood and it appears, in a sense, in The Card People when there is confusion about which scientist is the boys’ true friend.

6. What’s next for you? Will there be a follow-up to The Card People?

The Card People series will be a trilogy. The second part, which is just about finished, is currently entitled Identity Swap. The third part, which I have begun to sketch out, is currently entitled A Father’s Gift. All three parts will follow Paul, Sam, and Nim as they work with the cards to defeat not only the scissors people, but the forces of evil who are trying to harness the powers of nanotechnology for destructive purposes.