CHILDREN'S AUTHOR Jack Gantos is regaling students at the Hong Kong International School with tales of drug running, illegal gun ownership, sucking blood out of the eyes of fighting cocks and serving time in prison. This is no ordinary school assembly. But then, Gantos is no ordinary writer. His latest autobiographical offering written for teenagers, Hole in My Life, details how a stint behind bars hardened his resolve to publish novels. It recently won the Sibert Award for young adult non-fiction. His other 39 books include US National Book Award and Newbery medal for two books from his animated Joey Pigza series, about a boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The hero from his first book, Rotten Ralph, still appears in a cartoon series shown occasionally on Hong Kong television. When telling how he was busted in New York in 1972 by a combination of FBI, customs and secret service agents for shipping and selling nearly a tonne of hash, Gantos neither moralises nor preaches. 'I felt compelled to tell my story, not because it would stop people doing the same thing,' he says. 'You feel invulnerable when you are young, but I wanted to show how, just because you make a bone-headed mistake, you're not damaged goods. Don't believe those who tell you you'll go straight to hell. I don't believe that. My story is really all about the power of literature.' Gantos was invited to Hong Kong by Lisa Tam, the International School's librarian, after he had spoken at other international schools in the region. 'Word spreads among the international community of schools - once you get a reputation for both having books that young readers actually read, and for being able to speak about the process of writing books and the value of good literature,' Gantos says. Reading and writing have been seminal forces in Gantos' life. 'When I was young we moved around - a lot. When you go to 10 schools in 12 grades, you lose every friend you ever have. I became a loner and a reader,' he says. For many years, from the age of 10, his writing took the form of personal journals. 'I was a good kid, but a bit drifty,' he says. 'My sister was the smart one. She used to keep a journal and one day I read it hoping it would contain the secret. But you know, it was so boring. I knew life was full of incredible variety, but she had flattened it right out. I thought: 'I could do better than that.'' So far, the 52-year-old American has racked up more than 200 journals that have been a kind of personal anchor in his hectic life. 'They became very important to me,' he says. 'They were a way to reflect on myself, a place I could get a sense of who I was. I knew I wasn't a bad kid.' In high school, the contents became bleaker. 'I think I was depressed,' he says. 'There was not much counselling in those days and my parents worked incredibly hard, so my relationship with them was not real strong.' When his parents moved to Puerto Rico, he was sent to live with friends in Florida, where he finished high school. 'Things were looking up,' he says. 'There I was, a 17-year-old with a car and a job in a greasy spoon, but then I discovered beer - lots of it. I didn't handle it very well. I was a menace as a house guest and they asked me to leave.' Gantos also discovered marijuana. After a spell mixing with the downbeat and the marginalised in a welfare hotel run by Davy Crockett's great, great granddaughter, Gantos had no stomach for the anodyne, antiseptic world of a state university offering an older version of high school. So, he moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to work for his father's construction company - only to find more trouble. 'Things started to tumble downhill,' Gantos says. 'I didn't like construction, I wasn't writing, I was squandering my life smoking [pot] and mixing with a lot of shady characters. Then some black revolutionaries came out on a golf course with automatic weapons and mowed down a bunch of white people, and building work kind of dried up, and money began to flee.' Gantos and his father adapted by making wooden crates for people who were shipping out their belongings. That was when someone he calls Rik approached Gantos to build a crate with a false bottom to hide seven kilograms of marijuana. 'It was wrapped in tinfoil and the guy paid in hash,' he says. 'He guessed I was pretty flexible.' Flexible enough, in fact, for Rik to ask him to crew a boat to pick up the rest of the stash that had been hidden on another island and take it to New York. 'He offered me US$10,000 in cash. Now, at that time, the money represented four years in private college. That was my exit money. I could finally get back on track.' Gantos helped sail the boat with an irascible old salt he calls Hamilton. They reached New York more by good luck than good judgment, running aground several times and sailing into restricted waters. 'It was the worst sailing job you can imagine,' he says. 'We only had a compass and I had no real experience. Hamilton was winging it, but I was young and it was an adventure.' After reaching land, Gantos had a couple of weeks selling the drugs and planning a golden future. What he didn't know was that Rik had been arrested several weeks before when the original crate had been detected. 'Rik ratted out,' he says. 'He had paid for the stuff in counterfeit US dollars in Morocco and that didn't help. We had been watched every step of the way. Those agents did a good job. They waited till we only had 23kg of hash left and threw a net over the whole thing.' Gantos was extremely lucky to be appointed as an X-ray technician in the medium-security prison in Kentucky where he was due to serve a six-year sentence. 'The prisoners were more scary than the guards. But I had my privacy and my books,' he says. 'The trouble was that journals were not allowed as there had been riots there and the governor wanted to avoid bad stories publicising the difficulties.' Gantos' solution was to write his thoughts and stories about fellow prisoners in the margins and between the lines of an old copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. 'Crime and Punishment would have just been too ironic,' he says. 'I did that for about a year and decided I'd had enough of this. So I found a junior college that looked as if it was on its last legs, and was accepted. I was helped by a new case worker who was still hopeful, and he arranged a special hearing of the parole board and that was that.' Gantos says he doesn't regret what he did. 'I'm not saying smuggling is a good thing, but it really jerked me around to take a good look at myself and plan how I was going to get back on track,' he says. He concluded that books were his biggest influence, including the many he had read as a child. And he knew he wanted to write. Gantos transferred to Emerson College in Boston to study creative writing, and there he met Nicole Rubel, with whom he wrote 12 picture books that were rejected before Rotten Ralph was accepted and published. It was eventually animated by the BBC in Britain and has been screened around the world. 'Countries I know about are the US, Japan, Argentina, France, Greece and even Hong Kong. I didn't see it [in Hong Kong], but the children told me it had been broadcast and they had been watching it,' he says. After a stint of teaching, he decided to write full time and has never looked back. Gantos' current project is a novel for young adults, based on the true story of twins born to German parents whose lives revolved around the Eugenics movement early last century. 'They lived with their mother, who controlled them to such an extent that, when she died, they didn't know what to do. The twins were amateur taxidermists and they tried to preserve her. A few situations occur as a result.' Finishing up a two-week tour, Gantos says he felt at home in Hong Kong. 'Like all great cities, you just turn a corner and you find a whole new neighbourhood that's so different,' he says. 'I live in downtown Boston with my wife, Anne, and seven-year-old daughter, Mabel, and I love the way Hong Kong is just like home. You step out and the city kind of mutates as you navigate your way through.'