Author Pete Hautman on 'How to Steal a Car'

Pete Hautman
Pete Hautman says he hadn't thought about writing a book about car theft until a teenage girl said it was a story she'd like to read. His new novel is called "How to Steal a Car."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Twin Cities novelist Pete Hautman's new book for teens examines life through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl who's an expert at stealing cars.

Hautman's novel, "How To Steal a Car," isn't really a how-to book, but it is aimed at a teen audience.

His research for the book was a bit out of the ordinary.

"I went into one of the local Mercedes dealers and I said, 'I am writing a book about how to steal a car, and I've got a character that steals a Mercedes, and you know, can I take one of your cars for a test drive?'" Hautman said. "The guy looked at me for a long, long time. And then he reached into his desk and pulled out a key, handed it me and said, 'Bring it back.'"

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Hautman has a knack for writing for teens. He won the 2004 National Book Award for Young People's Literature for his novel "Godless."

He's said that book's central character, a young man who invents a religion, is based on experiences he had as a teenager. The same is true of "How to Steal a Car."

"I certainly didn't steal cars to the degree that my characters do in the book," he said. "But I had a little joyriding experience that still frightens me when I think about it."

Hautman said he hadn't thought about writing such a story until he was chatting with a group of teenagers about books they wanted to read.

'How to Steal a Car'
"How to Steal a Car," the new novel for teens by Twin Cities writer Pete Hautman.
Image courtesy of Scholastic

"This one girl said, 'Well, I'm 14 and my life is really boring. And I just want to read a story about a girl like me who goes out and steals a car.'"

Hautman described it as a revelatory moment.

"There was this flash in my head, [that] this is bringing the teen reading experience down to its most basic element."

Hautman says teens and adults read differently, and they seek different things. He says adults often look to fiction for affirmation in their lives, but teens are after something else. They are looking for experiences.

"They want to know what it's like to go to war, what it's like to have an adult relationship. They want to know about dying, about transcendent joy, and all that kind of stuff," Hautman said. "And because our teenagers here in America lead relatively cloistered lives, they get that information by listening to, or watching, or reading stories."

In "How to Steal a Car," readers experience life through Kelleigh, a 15-year-old Twin Cities girl spending her summer vacation hanging with her pals, visiting well-known stores around the metro, reading "Moby Dick," and boosting cars.

Kelleigh's life as a thief begins by accident, but she gets hooked on the adrenaline rush. She also begins to see how she is different from her longtime friends -- and relishes that.

"I don't offer a moral coda at the end. And adults, especially adults reading teen books, want that."

"Friendships that are made in childhood don't need to be based on anything except proximity," saids Hautman. "But as we grow older and develop more interests, and one person gets interested in field hockey, and the other gets interested in reading books and the other gets interested in smoking crack, interests diverge and it tears these friendships apart."

"And that is part of what Kelleigh is experiencing. She's entering a larger world, but she hasn't found it yet."

When asked how he, as a man, can so convincingly write in the voice of a teenage girl, Hautman says he believes there are actually very few real differences between teenage girls and boys. They have different attitudes and viewpoints on certain things, and he's worked hard to capture those on paper. Otherwise, he says Kelleigh is just a female version of the kid he was at that age.

He says he knows he has it right when he reads reviews. So far, most of those for "How to Steal a Car" have been from adult readers who got advance copies.

Hautman says when half the adult reviewers are upset by the novel, then he's probably hit the right note for his teen audience.

"I don't offer a moral coda at the end. And adults, especially adults reading teen books, they want that," said Hautman. "They want to think that this is somehow a useful tool for their child. But kids should get a lot more credit than they do for being able to figure things out."

Hautman will read from "How to Steal a Car" at the Red Balloon bookstore in St. Paul on Friday evening at 7 p.m. He'll read on Saturday Sept. 26 at noon at the Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis.

Next up for Hautman will be a romantic comedy for teens, to be published in 2011. St. Paul filmmaker Ali Selim is also working on a screen adaptation of "Godless."

Hautman says it takes him five to eight years to finish a book, but he always has several on the go at once. Given he was spending all this time on car theft, was he ever tempted by one more joyride?

"You know, I thought about it..." he said, adding that just thinking about it was as far as he needed to go.