1. How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I was always interested in storytelling -- not specifically writing. As a kid I loved to put on puppet shows, make stages, and scare all the kids in the neighborhood with fright parties.
I wasn't hooked on being a writer until I was a junior at Port Richmond High School on Staten Island. What happened was a friend of mine, Richard Cahill, and I hated our geometry teacher because he was strict and looked like a tall, thin ghoul.
So we wrote an essay about him, changing the name of course, and it was published in the school newspaper, "The Crow's Nest."
All the rest of the kids loved it when the story came out, and from hearing that applause, I guess I realized the pen has power -- so I became a writer.
2. Why did you choose to write for young adults?
A famous writer and editor at HarperCollins, Charlotte Zolotow, saw an adult play of mine MARIGOLDS on TV, and she spotted two teenagers in it. She sensed that writing for young adults was part of my creative voice, contacted me, and asked if I had any stories I wanted to write for teenagers. I had never thought about it before -- but I did. I had been a high school chemistry teacher and I loved kids! They gave me lots of stories and inspiration!
3. Do you like being a writer?
Yes. I love it, particularly since I am compelled to tell stories. One definition of Hell is supposed to be if you find yourself in your early forties in life and don't like you job! Pick the right job, kids. Do what you love. A good idea is to check what your hobby is, and then think how you can make money at it to live a nice life.
4. What is the book-writing process like?
I write, research, or daydream about my book on some level during every waking minute. I write as little as a page or two a day, always in the morning - then rewrite and get out into the world, stumbling about looking for grist and adventure. I always work with a single page outline of my plot so that I never seriously nor permanently get lost.
5. What kind of ideas do I write about?
Whenever possible I write about what I know. I used that tip recently for my memoir, THE PIGMAN & ME, and came up with the best reviews of my life.
6. How do you write such interesting stories?
I try to feel strongly about what I write. Better yet, I try to write about only those things that make me cry or laugh. I try to be honest. I try to be daring and human. I trust my instincts. I ignore critics, usually.
I believe the perfect story is a dream. I believe writing is a startling, complex, and astounding problem-solving process Nature has given to all of us.
7. Do I write about real life experiences?
Yes. I believe about writing about what you know. Even if I was going to write Sci-Fi I'd still base it on some part of myself. There has to be a drop of your own blood in what you write or it sounds hollow.
8. What inspires you to write a story?
There is always something that happens to me that inspires me to write a story. It can be that I meet a terrific person, read a strange headline in a newspaper, or become obsessed with a particular problem. The best kinds of books come when you meet a really great character.
9. Who was I influenced by?
Primarily, by my teachers and schools. Sure, I had a few loser teachers, but most of them were real winners who cared about what I was doing -- I didn't have a great family life.
One of my favorite teachers came to school and was talking to the class when a little furry head peaked out of the top of her dress. It turned out to be a baby chipmunk's head. She had found the little animal lying on the ground on her way to school and knew it needed heat and to hear a heartbeat if it was going to survive.
Great teachers, grandparents, parents, & terrific pals can really inspire you. They did me.
10. How long have you been writing?
I've been a professional writer since 1968 when I stopped teaching chemistry at Tottenville High School on State Island. I had written a few things before that, but nothing had gotten noticed.
11. Why are your titles so strange?
Well, a class of graduate students at UCLA once diagnosed my writing style as being composed largely of hyperbole & bathos. Hyperbole means I tend to exaggerate things, push the envelop of reality in words and story. Bathos means that I tend to also do the reverse, take lofty subjects or words and bring them down to earth. This is my voice. It just happens to be that way because of my childhood and early influences, all of which are subconscious.
Lucky for me, those qualities make me tend toward oxymorons, which duplicate "slang" in a sense, without my using slang. I try never to use exactly what the kids are saying or all my books would become dated. This happened with a lot of young adult books that wrote about the drug culture. The kids soon changed all their language and the adult authors were left with books that went out of print.
12. What makes you think of such weird names for your characters?
I try names onto characters and eventually one sticks.
13. How do you come up with your titles?
I remember when I was going to call a book THE MORTICIAN'S GONE BERSERK. I went into a classroom and asked the kids what they thought of the title. They asked me, "What's a mortician?" I asked if they knew what an undertaker was? They said "yes."
Then I asked them how they liked the word berserk, or do they think CRAZY, LOONY, NUTS, INSANE is better. They said they liked the word BANANAS. I was surprised because I thought that word had disappeared, but they said, NO, IT'S ALIVE AND WELL. So I called the book THE UNDERTAKER'S GONE BANANAS and it was a hit.
14. How many novels have you written that have been best sellers?
Only one adult novel, which was a best seller in Italy. THE PIGMAN is one of the best selling children's books of all time with over 7 million copies sold.
15. We wanted to know what you thought your best book was?
I know it used to be THE PIGMAN. That certainly would be my best novel as kids tell me over and over again. It does have a raw energy and all the reality I had from being a chemistry teacher with a lot of my wild students. But lately I've been starting to think that my favorite book is THE PIGMAN & ME. It's a memoir, and I think the material is emotional and resonant enough for me to write a play about it.
16. What did you win the Pulitzer for?
I won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for a play called THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS. It was eventually made into a movie starring Joanne Woodward directed by her husband Paul Newman.
It was one of the first things I wrote using the concept of "write about things you know." I used my family as the model. Little did I know I had one of the first dysfunctional families since the word was invented.
The play had been originally done at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, but the NY Times critic called it too elliptical. By 1970 that critic had been fired or dead, and when the play was done in NY it was a hit.
17. Why do you always write about love or teenage love?
I analyzed once the things I write about, elements which seem to be in every one of my books. They are things that are of interest and importance to me, emotionally or entertainment wise, but I explored them for teenagers because I found they were important to them too. The elements are:
1)School background somewhere in the novel
2) Parents get small parts
3) Exciting language
5) Short books for short book reports
7) Action and suspense
9) Most are written in the first person
10) Transitional pictures (as in THE PIGMAN 'Help me! A rotten science teacher has given me a drug to turn me into a teeny, weenie, tiny mosquito!')
Love is one of the only items kids and adults are really interested in. I notice in a theater that when a character talks about their relationship, the audience grows silent and truly interested. Me, too. We all want to learn how to find and experience love.
18. Do you think your novels have any influence on young readers? If so, what kind of influence?
Do my novels have any influence on kids? Yes, I know they do. Some kids grew up to write in a style similar to mine and sent me their work. I think many books by many writers influence many kids -- influence their conscious and their unconscious minds. Books are very powerful things. Sometimes we pick up a very small idea from a book. Sometimes we pick up a great deal. Sometimes a book can change a kid's life.
I know that THE PIGMAN has changed many kids from non-readers into readers. I've gotten a lot of mail and heard from a lot of kids and teachers on that score. Other areas I've seen kids influenced by my books include their attitudes toward their parents, responsibility, death, aging, friendship and love, etc.
Having a book read by a whole class can result in a book producing the greatest changes in the students. When a teacher leads a class through a book and provides an opportunity for questions and discussion (and even writing the author) -- these are things a kid doesn't forget.
We have wonderful computers in our brains. Very little gets wasted. Even if a book is used solely for an awareness of its technique--such as point of view, voice, style, use of irony , etc. -- it's a rare book that is totally useless.
19. Do you think it takes an act of bravery to write well & to write honestly?
Bravery is not the first word that comes to my mind when I think of a writer. That is too lofty. I think "compulsion" is closer to the primary quality. I believe most good writers of fiction have to tell their stories or they'd go quite mad.
It is quite simply the way that they solve problems. They take all their questions concerning life and death and good and evil and joy and sadness and assign aspects of the question to characters who then move through a story looking for an answer. Because the answers are usually very important to him/her, it is sometimes a bit terrifying facing that answer when it appears in an epiphany, an insight toward the end of each story.
Somewhere around there, a bit of bravery is needed, because some of the answers are shocking, along with the joyous ones. Sometimes an author is so afraid of the answers he/she must pretend the story has nothing to do with himself/herself personally.
20. You have also worked in Hollywood and have written many movies. Could you tell us all about your experience as a screenwriter, as well as, about some of the movies you've worked on?
I started by writing the screenplay for UP THE SANDBOX starring Barbra Streisand. Many people have asked me what it was like to work with Barbra. It was like trying to have a picnic at the end of a runway. I have several hours of tape form an interview I did with her in which she told me incredible things.
One of the most significant things she told me was that when she was 12 a lot of people wondered how she could sing an emotional love song. She explained that when she was in school the other kids found her so ugly, even some of the girls used to beat her up. She said when you carry around that much emotion and yearning inside you, it's got to come out somewhere.
I worked with Lucille Ball (from the I LOVE LUCY TV show) when I wrote the screenplay for MAME . That was a trip, but she was always nice to me. A highlight for me was when I was walking across a sound stage in Hollywood and she ordered the entire dance company to perform OPEN A NEW WINDOW dance for me.
I never went on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN . I had actually done an earlier draft for Stallone. I didn't meet Jon Voight, the star of the movie, until the opening night party for the movie in New York. The Russian director of the film had brought back cases of great caviar with him which was a highlight of the party.
A mistake in the film was casting Jon Voight's girlfriend as the woman in the control area of the train depot. She couldn't act. All my experiences in Hollywood have been of that sort -- I've not been connected with a film of truly pure artistic vision. For that to happen, I think the writer has to be the director and only the finest, qualified actors and technicians must be used. But I wouldn't have missed a minute of it for the world.
21. All of your books seem to involve death. Why?
You're right, a lot of my stories mention it or have a death in them. Lots of other people's stories do, too, but I think I know why mine do.
Common symbols or exponents are often found in an author's work, and only after a writer writes for a long time and reads a lot of reviews and hears a lot of comment, can the patterns be seen or noticed. It's always good to look to a writer's childhood to see the roots of such frequent themes in his/her work.
I grew up and witnessed a lot of death and dying. Not like living through a war, but what death I saw grabbed my attention and haunted me. I saw a plane crash and kill someone near my back yard.
My mother often killed our pets by having them put to sleep by a vet. She'd often get in fights with landlords and we'd have to move. Sometimes the new landlord wouldn't allow pets, and my mother believed that a pet could never love another family, so she wouldn't give it away. She'd kill it. Once my sister and I had to bury a dog in the mountains and cover the grave with stones so animals wouldn't dig it up.
Also, death is in my stories often because, I believe, my mother was a practical nurse who used to bring dying patients into our home as a way of making money. Several old people died under our roof. In the morning, it was not terribly unusual to see a coroner or undertaker arriving and taking out a body in a rubber bag.
I can imagine how gruesome this sounds to you. Well, it was gruesome to me, too--but at least now you have some idea why death manages to creep its way into my stories so much. My brother-in-law went to see my play MARIGOLDS. The only thing he said about it afterwards was, "OH, PAUL, IN EVERY STORY YOU EVER WRITE SOME POOR ANIMAL KICKS THE BUCKET." And that was one of his better, in depth, reviews.
Also, my mother always thought she was dying. She said a lightning bolt once came hurtling toward her. Another time she said a rat tried to leap for her throat. Also, to frighten my sister and me whenever we'd misbehave, she'd say she was going to jump off the Bayonne Bridge! In my mother's words, from MARIGOLDS: "This long street, with all the doors of the houses shut and everything crowded next to each other... And then I start getting afraid that the vegetables are going to spoil... and that nobody's going to buy anything..."
My mother was always waiting for disaster. I think that kind of thing can rub off on a kid!
22. How do you feel about the emphasis on adolescents as compared to when you were a kid?
Now that you mention it, I don't think there was much of an emphasis on adolescents when I was a kid. I think that was because adolescents weren't such an important part of our society at the time.
Teenagers usually got married early when I grew up. There were no drugs. They'd drink beer and get drunk. They went to work in factories. They had kids early. They didn't cost as much. There weren't so many toys, cars, clothes, CD's, etc. to get them.
I think a lot of them went to work and married early just to get out of the house because there wasn't much else to do. They didn't spend a lot of money, so big business wasn't all that much interested in them.
Now our society worships youth. Now we understand that being an adolescent is a wonderful thing. To be young and healthy and live in a world that is filled with diversion and rich with invention is a grand experience--or should be. Someone said, "Youth is wasted on the young." Maybe not.
Although the teenagers I know do seem to have their share of problems. My son wants to change colleges. A young cousin is miserable over a girlfriend he's having problems with. Jamie, 18, at Harvard is in pain over all the schoolwork and the fact that no one wants to be his roommate. The kid who mows my sister's lawn had his teeth knocked out in a fight and doesn't have the money to put new ones in.
Kids have guns and drugs and they're dying and problems abound, but we're all much more interested in them -- and most of us envy youth. That's why there is so much plastic surgery and women with Thigh Tamers and men in Spandex! We're jogging to be young, and the young aren't so happy. I guess that's the way life always was, but we never noticed.
23. How do you work such details into your characters and dialogue?
Because I write about what I know. If you wrote about your family or friends or people you've known or researched, you, too, would be able to put enormous detail into your writing. It is precisely the idiosyncratic detail that gives dimension and reality to your writing.
24. Which are your most autobiographical books?
A lot of them are autobiographical - especially "The Amazing and Death-Defying Diary of Eugene Dingman - and my memoir, "The Pigman & Me."
25. What is my advice on writing?
I try to feel strongly about what I write. Better yet, I try to write about only those things that make me cry or laugh. I try to be honest. I try to be daring and human. I trust my instincts. I ignore critics, usually. I believe the perfect story is a dream. I believe writing is a startling, complex, and astounding problem-solving process God/Nature has given to all of us.
I write, research, or daydream about my book on some level during every waking minute. I write as little as a page or two a day, always in the morning - then rewrite and get out into the world to stumble about looking for grist and adventure. I always work with a brief outline of my plot so that I never seriously nor permanently get lost.
Write about what you know. Whatever you don't know, research. Remember that CHARACTER = PLOT. If you don't have a story make a long, detailed character sketch about your main character.
When you look over the list of who the character is, you'll glimpse whole scenes of action! Don't write unkind things about kids in your class who have ugly faces. If they get in a fight, they'll have nothing to lose.
Start off your story with a grabber, like "On my first date with Louise Jones I didn't know her grandmother was a ferocious werewolf."
If writing a horror story, don't put too much sauce on the pizza. Never forget that in every fat book there is a thin one trying to get out! And when in doubt, remember that a closed word processor gathers no feet.
Don't give up.
26. If you could give a kid one word of advice on how to become a good writer, what would you say?
The most important advice about writing anyone can ever give is to write about things you know. One of the ways in which I used that recently was by looking into my old family photo albums and making a montage of the most interesting pictures I could find.
The photos awaken memories in me which became a story I had forgotten--about being a kid in Travis on Staten Island. I wrote the story as a memoir called THE PIGMAN & ME.
The other truism about writing I use is the concept that CHARACTER equals PLOT. I often start conceiving a story by fixing upon a character and writing down everything I know about him or her. Once I truly know my character, I am able to glimpse scenes and eventually a plot.
Good luck writing. It is a wonderful way to recreate a joyful, funny, painful, worried, or lonely time in your life. It is a wonderful way to explain, to parody, to entertain, and to get to know ourselves.
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