When did you start writing books?
I didn't write my first book until 1967, when an editor had seen a play of mine and asked if I had any stories for young people.
How is writing a novel different from writing a play? Is one easier or
harder than the other?
For me, a play is easier. It's my most basic talent. It differs strongly from a
novel in that nearly all information, all conflict, and most of the plot is carried
through dialogue. The other important difference is that in a novel you can
actually climb inside a character's head. All that has to be conveyed in
dialogue in a play — except for the occasional soliloquy or monologue.
Where did you get the idea for The Effect of Gamma Rays on
The idea of a dominating mother drastically affecting her two children came
from my life. I lived the story. The title of the play came from a girl in my
chemistry class when I was a teacher at Tottenville High School on Staten
Island. She had answered an ad on the back of a comic book, where for a
dollar, a company would send seeds that had been exposed to gamma rays
at Oak Ridge Laboratories. She called the experiment that she finally did for
our science fair "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
and Celestial Cabbage."
How does your background in science influence your writing?
In science I learned the scientific method, which makes one approach
storytelling with a technique. As a writer we often create our first fiction piece
because we've lived it. But after that we have to learn technique. In a sense
my science training really helps me analyze how I did and what I did. It let
me help shape a career. With science I was accustomed to doing research.
Those research techniques have been so useful now that I'm doing some
science fiction novels.
We live in a world of science. We live in a world of computers. Our headlines, our TV news, is constantly framed in terms of science. I think my training has helped me to keep up with the times, and, sometimes translate it effectively into fiction.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is the initial inspiration — when I first glimpse what the
fictional animal might be. It's the moment when I read a headline that
boggles my mind. Or, when a kid tells me about something startling that
happened to him or her. Or when I find myself in the middle of a breathtaking adventure or romance.
What influence did Edward Albee have on your work?
A very strong influence. I was a student at Wagner College when Edward
Albee came over as part of a conference called the New York City Writers
Conference. I took a ten-day course with him. This was at the time when he
was known for his one-act plays, such as The Zoo Story. And The Death of
Bessie Smith. And I knew him during the traumatic and exciting opening of
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I wanted to be Edward Albee. I wanted his
career. I wanted his popularity. And I wanted his money!
What inspired you to write The Pigman?
I was living in a 50-room empty castle on Staten Island. I was minding it for
a real estate firm.I was thirty years old at the time. One day, a teenage boy
trespassed across the grounds. I went out to scold him, but he turned out to
be one of the most interesting young man I'd ever met. He told me a lot of
the exciting adventures that appeared in The Pigman.
I modeled Lorraine after a girl (named Lorraine) who was a student in one of the chemistry classes that I was teaching at Tottenville High School. She was a girl who used to cry anytime anything about death, dying, or war was mentioned. I thought, what a wonderful adventure it would be to team those two life
models for me into a story in which they met an eccentric, old mentor figure.
Mr. Pignati was based on an Italian grandfather that I knew.
Why did you choose to have Lorraine and John both narrate The
Pigman rather than just one of them?
I think there's two reasons. First, I think boys like to read about a male
protagonist and I think girls like to read stories in which a young girl is the
main character. I wanted as large an audience as possible for my book. So, I
chose to use these dual protagonists to tell my story. And, it's worked out
that both boys and girls enjoy the book.
My second reason for using dual protagonists was because, I believe, without knowing it, I was psychologically equipped to record both the male and female point of view for The Pigman.
Are you more like Lorraine, John, or the Pigman, and why?
In order to make any character believable, you have to put a piece of
yourself into each of them. So, there's a part of me that's Lorraine, there's a
part of me that's John, and there's a part of me that's the Pigman. I think this
also gets at what makes for the existence of a writer. Writers are like
chameleons. They don't really survive unless they are able to adjust, change,
and transform into many, many worlds.
How did you come up with the name Pignati? Does it have any special
First, I decided that I wanted the lead character to collect pigs. Second, I
wanted the lead character to be Italian. I realized years later that the reason
was that an Italian grandfather named Nunno Frankie became a surrogate
father for me, my sister, and his own grandchildren. This is a tale I've told in
great detail in The Pigman & Me.
Were you a writer in grade school?
I did create fictional worlds by using puppets and putting on ghost shows —
scary shows which would be inhabited by goblins, ghosts, and elements of life
that would be surprising and startling. It wasn't until high school that I began
to write actual essays and short stories and plays.
What advice do you have for my students who want to be writers?
First, of course, it's wonderful to write about what you know. About your
family, about yourself and your friends. Write about those things that make
you laugh or cry deeply. Start your story with a bang — a good title, a
fascinating opening sentence and paragraph.
Create a lead character that audiences can identify with and will want to go on a journey with. Make certain that there's a villain of equal and frightening strength to create conflict for the protagonist. Make certain that the hero wants something, that he has a goal, or you will end up with a shopping list and not a story. Make certain that there are surprises and reversals, that there are unexpected things that happen. One writer said, when your story is getting boring, make sure you drop a corpse through the roof.
Have your hero or heroine learn something. Perhaps it will be an epiphany [a sudden understanding of the meaning of something] — an insight into themselves, or an insight into someone else, or into the world. And remember, most people want to read about, and most publishers want to publish, and most movie companies want to buy, stories in which the hero wins against the terrible villain.
Have any of your dreams lead you to write a story or book?
Yes. The dream is the purest story that can be told. Unfortunately,
sometimes we don't really understand the story in its purest form. All of my
books have been based on a subconscious vision — call it a dream — that
surfaces until I can glimpse what it might be about. For example, I wrote a
play called Every Seventeen Minutes the Crowd Goes Crazy. The dream,
which began to clarify itself for me, took the form of a troubled situation in
our society. It was about parents who were not upholding all of their
responsibilities of parenting.
I find most creative writing is really problem solving. Problems enter my mind first in the form of a dream. Then, I leave the dream and change it into various characters who will then, during the course of the story, finally answer the problem. I keep dream journals. I keep constantly looking to them for images, for the uncontrived, and for insights.
Did you keep a journal for your thoughts when you were growing up?
Do you keep one now?
Yes. I keep a journal, like many writers do. But, the journal has changed its
shape. I realize now that a journal is not just a collection of random written
notes. Now, thanks to modern technology, it can also contain snippets of tape
recordings, photos, video excerpts, stills from movies, poems, a myriad of
images and jottings, magazine clippings and newspaper articles. I set down
those things that make me laugh or cry. These all become fodder for
Are you writing a new book? If so, what is the name of it?
Yes, I'm writing a book called Rats, which is coming out this fall. It's based on a true incident in which a town on the Hudson River covered over its garbage
dump with asphalt. The rats at the garbage dump got very angry. They dug
their way out into the Hudson River, and then swam up the town's sewer
system and began to pop out of toilets in the town's homes. I was born on
Staten Island, which is the world's largest garbage dump, so in my new book
I had that dump covered over with asphalt. And now I have a billion rats with
their eyes on New York City for revenge.
Through your years of writing, what skills have you learned? Has your
writing process changed over the years?
Yes. What I've learned is, one, you cannot write a great novel or play or any
work of fiction without extraordinary technique — something you learn in
school from teachers and librarians; and two, at some point in the creative
process you must forget the technique and fly. I've learned that great writing
— which I hope to achieve one day — has to be a combination of those two
things — of extraordinary technique and courageous chaos.
When you are writing, do you have to sort of think like a kid to be able
to really get into the heads of the children in the book?
Yes, the best young adult and children's writers have portions of themselves
that are still very much back at the age they're writing from. I've never met
a young adult or children's writer who has fully grown up. They retain the
ability to at least be childlike.
Do you think you will always write?
Yes! Everyone else gets to retire. Writers never retire, because their minds
are constantly needing to create fictional worlds in which they can become
alive. Writing is a dream; it doesn't stop until death. And even then, maybe it
still goes on!
Have you ever written or published any poetry?
No. I have no talent as a poet. I need to express myself in very long terms
— as you may have noticed during this session! I look to poets for titles and
for powerful images, which are not my strong points.
Is it sometimes hard to think of a story?
Yes. I don't believe in writer's block. I believe in "writer's abyss." That means
that you have to fill yourself back up again. The way a writer does that is to call friends, go see movies and plays, take trips to Tahiti and Borneo, eat
plenty of ice cream and pizza, and have a wonderful time. So, the next time
if any kid is late with their assignment, they should tell their teacher that they
need a bigger budget in order to refill. Sometimes a trip to a museum or
reading a wonderful book is in order.
What other books do you like to read besides your own books?
I have to read a lot of books in preparation for writing a novel. This past year I've read a lot of books about rats. I'm working on another book about the
atomic bomb. So, I've had to read a lot of books about Los Alamos, on
radioactivity, on fictional and true accounts about the development of the
atomic bomb. I've had to read extensively about World War II. I've had to
read about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President Harry Truman and
Adolph Hitler. When you decide to write a book, along with it comes a lot of
research that you must do.
For pleasure, I read books about topics that really interest me. I read books about male and female relationships. I like reading other young adult writers — Patricia MacLachlan, Paula Danziger, Liz Levy, for example. Along with them I read people like Tom Wolfe and any topic that grabs my interest and attention. I also like reading books on fishing.
Paul, do you have any final words for the audience?
I'd like to thank you all for your wonderful questions. I thank everyone who
reads my books, because I do write for an audience. I want kids and teachers and anyone who wishes to look into my books and share my adventures and worlds. And I want very much for them to find those worlds interesting. Publishing in a global market is something for which I need to thank the publishers and editors and vast number of forces that go behind an author in order to help bring those worlds alive. I don't think it's something that a writer can do single-handedly in the modern world. Your questions have helped make me think about myself and what I'm doing and make me want to do it better.
Back to top