Riding The (5th) Wave

Rick Yancey

Rick Yancey wanted to be a playwright until an English professor at Roosevelt encouraged him to write prose. Today, the 1987 alumnus has best-selling novels and movie deals.

Following on the huge successes of The Hunger Games and Divergent, popular adventure novels made into blockbuster movies, comes The 5th Wave, an apocalyptic survival story by Roosevelt University alumnus Rick Yancey. The book is currently being adapted for the big screen.

A preeminent author of books for young adults, Yancey was on the New York Times Best Seller’s List for 40 weeks for The 5th Wave, which has been published in 35 countries. Now, actor Tobey Maguire is producing a movie version of the novel for Sony Pictures. It is scheduled for release in January 2016 starring actress Chloë Grace Moretz.

Yancey (BA,’87) intended to be a playwright when he moved from Florida to Chicago in the mid-’80s to major in English at Roosevelt. Today, the 51-year-old is the author of 13 novels and a memoir. “My Roosevelt experience mattered to me,” he said. “In some ways, it set me on the road to where I’m at today.”

The 5th Wave, published in 2013, is a science-fiction thriller whose female heroine, Cassie, navigates a world inhabited by aliens resembling humans. She trusts no one as she tries to find her little brother, until she is rescued by the mysterious Evan. Its sequel, The Infinite Sea, published in September, has also been a hit with young readers. Both The Infinite Sea and a yet-to-come third book in the series could also be made into movies.

“Dystopian novels—and movies—are a huge phenomenon right now in our culture,” remarked Gary Wolfe, a Roosevelt University professor of humanities and one of the world’s leading critics of science fiction writing. “Everyone seems to want a good story with a take on what a world in trouble might look like 100 years from now. Rick Yancey is definitely one of the writers making a name in the genre.”

The-5th-Wave book Cover

The son of a central Florida prosecutor and politician, Yancey as an adolescent liked to write stories that imitated books he was reading. “I recognized early on that the emotions I had reading novels were more powerful than anything I was experiencing in day-to-day life,” he said. At age 12, he wrote his own version of the novel Jaws, substituting a bull run amok in the swampy woods near his Lakeland, Fla., home for the shark that terrorizes a beach resort.

To The Big Screen

Yancey first thought he found his voice as a Florida State University student writing plays, including one influenced by John Steinbeck’s books The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, which was successfully produced for the stage in Lakeland.

However, he left Florida State for Roosevelt University with the intention of breaking into Chicago’s theatre scene as a playwright. “I chose Roosevelt because it had small class sizes that allowed me to interact closely with the professors, and it was truly a wonderful experience,” he recalled.

At Roosevelt, Yancey met John “Jack” Foster, an English professor who helped change the course of his writing career and was the catalyst for Yancey’s shift from script writing to fiction writing. “I remember Professor Foster telling me, ‘You need to forget about your drama writing. You need to be a prose writer,’” said Yancey, whose first novel, A Burning in Homeland, began as a story he wrote in a one-on-one creative writing seminar taught by Foster.

Jack Foster

A Lasting Impact: Roosevelt University English Professor John “Jack” Foster had the foresight to ask Rick Yancey to autograph the student manuscript that would become Yancey’s first novel. Foster died in 2011.

As a scholar, Foster translated ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic literature into English. Old-fashioned in his teaching approach, he had a reputation for reading aloud in class, particularly the poetry of Ezra Pound.  Foster taught at Roosevelt from 1966 to 1994.  He died in 2011.

“He was demanding and steely, always giving us a lot of pointers,” recalled Roosevelt alumna Sarah Hamilton (MA, ’87), who had the English professor for several classes. “But he was the  perfect gentleman and kind when it came to our writing.”

In Yancey’s case, Foster was so kind that he once asked his student to autograph the story that would become Yancey’s first novel. “I remember him saying ‘I want you to sign this for me. Someday it’s going to be something, and I will need your autograph,’” Yancey said.

After completing his Roosevelt degree and returning to Florida, Yancey remembers thinking a lot about Foster and his pointers. “He used to say ‘You’re not just writing for yourself,’” Yancey said. “I found myself asking as I wrote, ‘What would Dr. Foster connect with?’ He got me thinking about audience, and that influenced me in terms of the creative choices I began to make as a writer.”

Rise To Stardom

When Yancey started out as a novelist he initially wrote for an adult audience. A Burning in Homeland is a ‘Faulkneresque’ Southern gothic tale of love, betrayal and murder; Confessions of a Tax Collector is a memoir of Yancey’s experiences while working, after graduating from Roosevelt, for the Internal Revenue Service; and his Highly Effective Detective series has adult detective Teddy Ruzak as its main character.

Unable to initially publish the detective series, Yancey, on the advice of his book agent, rewrote the series to feature a 15-year-old protagonist, spawning The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp series, which was named by Publishers Weekly as one of the best children’s books in 2005. Since then, the series has been sold in 20 countries. He followed the Kropp series with The Monstrumologist, a book that won the Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in the Young Adult (YA) genre.

“It’s been incredibly fun channeling my 15-year-old self into my writing, but the transition into YA hasn’t always been easy,” acknowledged Yancey, who initially envisioned himself as a prose writer doing serious writing for serious people. At Roosevelt, Yancey remembers reading serious authors like Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He also recalls the University’s commitment to social justice and is aiming today to make a positive difference in the lives of his readers, many of whom have their whole lives in front of them.

To The Big Screen: With an all-star cast including Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maika Monroe and Liev Schreiber, The 5th Wave is scheduled for release on Jan. 29, 2016

To The Big Screen: With an all-star cast including Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Maika Monroe and Liev Schreiber, The 5th Wave is scheduled for release on Jan. 29, 2016

Yancey’s Cassie, for instance, is a fighter. In The 5th Wave series, she gradually develops a strong voice, growing from a self-centered teen to a mature leader who strives for what’s right and good in a world of darkness and evil. “There are writers out there who may be trying to cash in on the current popularity of the genre,” Yancey said. “But there are also some of us who want to change for the better the way that kids today think about themselves and the world they live in.”

Yancey has been a consultant on the Atlanta movie set for The 5th Wave, which was adapted for film by award-winning Erin Brockovich screenwriter Susanna Grant and is being produced by Maguire, the star of Spiderman. “One day you’re cleaning your pool, and the next, you’re having lunch with Tobey Maguire,” Yancey joked.

“There are writers out there who may be trying to cash in on the current popularity of the genre. But there are also some of us who want to change for the better the way that kids today think about themselves and the world they live in.”

The writer said he’s really been surprised by all of the hoopla, including bids by Maguire and other Hollywood movie-makers for the rights to The 5th Wave trilogy—even before all the books were published. To be sure, the Hollywood experience has changed his life. “Everything that’s happened since then is like a dream,” he said. “It’s been like Christmas morning for me every day.” Yancey’s wife and son have been with him much of the time on set during the movie-making process, and he recently told the Wall Street Journal that he’s “included in every major decision and very important people actually return my calls. But I understand and respect a fundamental truth: I write books; they make movies. They don’t tell me how to do my thing and I don’t tell them how to do their thing. They collaborate with a vast team of very talented people to put together art. I collaborate with a vast team of demons inside my head.”

Rick Yancey (BA, ’87) has been a consultant on The 5th Wave movie set, where he has gotten to know actress Chloë Grace Moretz, who stars as Cassie.

“This is a project that belongs to others now,” Yancey said. “It’s done and I’ve had to let go of it.” Yancey has vowed to continue writing “until they pull the keyboard away from my fingers.”

Before Foster’s death, Yancey reached out by letter and email to his Roosevelt professor, filling him in on his early success as a novelist. “He was there for me when I was struggling to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do with my life,” Yancey said. “And he was there to get me over the hurdle that most writers struggle with, which is self-doubt.”

In their communication, Foster assured Yancey that he remembered his former student. “He told me, ‘I always knew you had promise.'”

Yancey: An Accomplished Novelist

Rick Yancey has penned three Young Adult novel series, a detective series and a memoir recounting his experiences as an Internal Revenue Service tax collector. Yancey’s first novel began as a student manuscript at Roosevelt University. Learn more at rickyancey.com.


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