In-depth Written Interview
with Louis Sachar
Louis Sachar, interviewed in his Austin, Texas home on August 24, 2007.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How did your career as a children's book writer begin?
LOUIS SACHAR: I had always been interested in writing and took a creative writing classin high school. For one of the assignments we were told to write a children's story. The teacher didn't like my story, which was odd because she had liked everything else I hadwritten. She thought I hadn't taken the assignment seriously, which surprised me becauseI actually had. I liked the story I wrote. It was about a mean teacher turning kids intoapples. Then I went on to college and I pretty much forgot about that story.
During my last year at college, I earned college credit by helping out at a nearbyelementary school. It turned out to be my favorite class. I used to look forward to leavingthe Berkeley campus every day and being with the kids at this little elementary school.That's when I dug up that old story that I had written in high school. I read it to the kids andthey really liked it. When I graduated college, I thought I'd try writing a children's book and the first story in that book is the story I wrote in high school. The rest of the stories in the book were all based on the kids I knew at the elementary school. That's how Sideways Stories from Wayside School came to be.
TEACHINGBOOKS: How do you interpret the popularity and success of the Wayside School books?
LOUIS SACHAR: I think what is appealing most about the books is the sense thatWayside is a fun place to go to school. Everyone is accepted no matter how quirky theymight be. People at Wayside School like each other. Readers always talk about the goofyand funny things that happen in the books, but I think what really holds it together is thewarmth and the kindness at Wayside.
When I worked at the elementary school in college, I was a teacher's aide in Mrs. Jukes' class. I was also the noontime supervisor which meant that I'd watch the kids on the playground after they finished eating. The kids called me Louis the Yard Teacher,which is what Louis is called in the book. In fact, the kids in the book are named after kids I knew at the school.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Readers often relate to the characters in books, but in this case a reader might truly identify with a student at Wayside School. Have you had anyconnections with your former students?
LOUIS SACHAR: As far as I know, the students aren't aware of the connection. By nowsomebody could have come across this fact from reading interviews with me. However, I wrote Sideways Stories from Wayside School in 1976. It didn't have widespreaddistribution until 1985, so by that time the students would have been too old to have readthe book. On the other hand, I did have a connection with Mrs. Jukes again and that storyis pretty amazing. When I was working on There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom, my editor took me to lunch and invited another children's author. The author was Mavis Jukes. As we were having lunch, I asked Mavis if she was related to a teacher in Berkeley. She said,"Yes, my mother," and I said, "Well, I wrote a book about your mother." I then got her mother's address and sent her a copy of the book. Sideways Stories from Wayside Schoolcame back into print about that time and Mrs. Jukes used to give everybody in her class acopy of the book. Then to complete the connection, in the third Wayside book, the character Mrs. Jewl leaves Wayside because she's pregnant. She returns at the end of the book with her baby and the baby's name is Mavis.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Speaking of stories with amazing connections over time, could youshare how you came up with the storyline for Holes?
LOUIS SACHAR: When I start writing a book, I don't plan ahead. I try to come up with acharacter or a situation that intrigues me and hope it leads to more ideas. With Holes, I had just moved to Texas and was miserable in the hot Texas sun. Texas has thisreputation of being a strong law and order type state. I thought it would be interesting towrite about a juvenile correctional camp. I decided to set the book in a boot camp for kids,but make it kind of fun for kids to read about. I made up the yellow-spotted lizards before Ihad any idea what I would do with them. I also decided early on that there would be buriedtreasure. Once I had those ideas, I just started making up the story as I went along. I hadthe setting created before I ever even had my main character, which was unusual for me.
TEACHINGBOOKS: There are many memorable characters in Holes. How did you develop some of the characters and intertwine their stories?
LOUIS SACHAR: I decided that the treasure was buried by someone named Kissing KateBarlow. Kate Barlow's story became a real surprise to me because when I first made her up, I didn't think she was going to be sympathetic. I initially thought that she was going tobe the great-grandmother of the warden and that maybe she used poison lipstick, just likethe warden uses poison nail polish. It wasn't until the point when I started making up her story that she suddenly became this very likeable character. I switched and made thewarden no longer related to her.
But then I had to figure out how all the pieces fit together—the curse, Kate Barlow, thetreasure, etc. I was worried about the reader. All Stanley does is dig holes every day, andthat's not very interesting. That's when I decided to tell it all from the narrator's point of view and have the stories switch back and forth. While writing Holes, there were days where I'd think, "Boy, this is great! I love how it's all fitting together!" On other days, I'd think, "No one's going to want to read this. It's just not going to make any sense to them."
TEACHINGBOOKS: Stanley Yelnats, the main character in Holes, has a significant and memorable name. How did you come up with it?
LOUIS SACHAR: Stanley's name is a palindrome because I like all kinds of word andlogic puzzles. When I first made up Stanley's name, I didn't do it because I thought it wasespecially clever or anything. I figured I would change it later but then decided I liked it.For one thing, it kind of clues the reader in that even though this is this grim story about akid being sentenced to this horrible place, there's something fun going on. Secondly, itallowed me to slip in the fact that he and his father and his grandfather were all namedStanley Yelnats for a reason. I then had a real reason for name on the suitcase in the end.It was the final puzzle piece.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Holes won the Newbery medal in 1999 and soon after made its wayto the big screen. Can you describe your involvement in making Holes into a movie?
LOUIS SACHAR: Making Holes into a movie was a really fun experience for me. I amhappy with the way the movie came out, although I'm surprised. I didn't expect to like it, even though I wrote the screenplay. It's just because I never seem to like movies as much as I like the book it's based on. However, I had a great time making the movie. I was onthe set almost every day and I became friends with the director. Writing a screenplay andturning it into a movie is a much more collaborative effort than writing a book. With thescreenplay, the producer and director sometimes made comments and notes on the scriptthat I had to change, even if I didn't like it. That's very different than writing a book, when I am the only one making changes to the drafts.
The director liked the actors to ad lib and not necessarily use exact words in thescript, but to say the lines how they thought their character would say it. Jon Voight wasjust amazing as Mr. Sir. He knew the character better than I did. The stuff that came out ofhis mouth would just floor me!
TEACHINGBOOKS: Two characters in Holes saw further development following themovie. Can you discuss how you came to write Small Steps, a companion book featuring X-Ray and Armpit?
LOUIS SACHAR: There was period for about a year when I was working on the movie,when I came up with the idea of writing a book about X-Ray. I thought about X-Rayconvincing Armpit to go see the movie Holes. X-Ray felt cheated because he didn't make any money out of it and wanted Armpit to go to Hollywood with him and demand their fair share. I didn't have the story fully developed but I really liked the dynamics of it. For me, itflushed out those two characters more than they had ever been in Holes, and I really likedthem. I liked how the relationship developed between Armpit and X-Ray. I changed thestory to X-Ray convincing Armpit to loan him money for ticket scalping.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Small Steps won the Schneider Family Book Award from theAmerican Library Association, honoring artistic expression of the disability experience for children and or adolescent audiences in books. Your character Ginny really demonstratedwhat the Schneider committee wrote about this book: "that friendship comes in manyshapes, sizes, ages, and abilities."
LOUIS SACHAR: Somewhere along the line I got the idea of putting in the character ofGinny, based on my friend's daughter named Laura who was born with cerebral palsy. Italked with Laura about what it's like living with cerebral palsy. When Laura's mom read the manuscript to her a year later, Laura's face just lit up. She said about Ginny, "She's just like me!" Laura was just so delighted with the character and that felt great.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Your Marvin Redpost books are wonderfully popular with newlyindependent readers. How did they come about?
LOUIS SACHAR: These are the only books that I've written where a publisher came tome and said they are starting a new line of books just for the purpose of exciting newreaders. Random House asked me to come up with something, but gave no further instruction. Marvin Redpost was to be one of three series in this new line of books, withJunie B. Jones and Magic Tree House being the others.
The general way I write these books is to come up with a problem that Marvingets into and make it so it appears almost inexplicable how he's ever going to get out of it. And then I'd come up with a way out ...
TEACHINGBOOKS: You have described your writing process as being very private. Howdoes it benefit you to keep your story ideas so much to yourself, and not even discuss itwith your family?
LOUIS SACHAR: When I'm working on a book for over a year, it's something I'm thinking about and something that's building inside me. By not talking about it, I stay focused. My energy isn't depleted by sharing what I'm working on with others. Rather, it adds to myenergy to keep it within. The other reason I refrain from sharing is because I can never talk about a book or a story as well as I can write it. It's only after I write it and rewrite it andrewrite it and rewrite it that my vision comes across.
TEACHINGBOOKS: The re-writing process seems to play a central role in thedevelopment of your ideas and books. How do your drafts change from one version to thenext?
LOUIS SACHAR: Because I don't have a plan when I start writing, I take small steps.When I first wrote about X-Ray trying to talk Armpit into doing the ticket scalping scheme, Ihad no idea where I was going with it. I thought it was interesting and I'd see where it went. I end up taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. By the time I finish the first draft,it's completely changed from how I started it. Then when I do the second draft, I have toconform. I have to follow through with what I envisioned in the first draft. However, Ialways get new ideas and things when I'm doing the second draft, so again things will change. It will be one way on paper, but in my mind it'll be another way. No matter what stage I'm at, I'm constantly getting new ideas and changing things around. Teachers loveto hear that I do all these rewrites because they're always trying to get their kids to rewrite.It might not help to hear that I have no plan and no outline in the beginning, but I reallyvalue the re-writing process.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you do when you get stuck?
LOUIS SACHAR: Sometimes I have an idea that intrigues me and I want to see if it will grow. If it if it doesn't grow, I toss it aside and try something else. Other times, I just try towrite anything just get through it, because I know I'm going to be revising it anyway. Sometimes I just don't have enough yet to be able to keep writing. What I think it helps is the fact that I've written 20 or so books, so I have confidence that it will get finished.
TEACHINGBOOKS: Can you describe a typical workday?
LOUIS SACHAR: I have been working on the same book for awhile, so I have a routine.Every morning I get up and go jogging with my dogs. I come back, eat breakfast, and thengo to my office in my house and write for about two and a half hours. Then I either go playbridge or do something else for the rest of the day. I am an avid bridge player. I playcompetitive bridge in tournaments all over the country. Since I'm on the second draft of my book, I'm energetic about my work. While writing the first draft, I write for only about anhour a day because I don't have the energy going yet.
TEACHINGBOOKS: What do you like to tell students?
LOUIS SACHAR: If they are interested in writing, I stress the importance of rewriting,even though I know kids don't like doing that. I tell them I didn't like to it either when I was a kid. The truth of the matter is that I didn't become a good writer until I learned to become a good rewriter. I also like to share with students that whatever you do, hopefully you'll find something that you like to do. It is more important to find something you like thansomething that makes you money.
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