FROM TEACHERS & KIDS
What made you decide to become a writer?
I think from reading. My favorite authors became my heroes, and I
wanted to be like them.
How do get the ideas for all the silly things that go on at Wayside
I sit at my desk and I just try to think. It may be because the life
of a writer is somewhat boring, sitting alone in a room, in front of a
computer screen. It forces my mind to come up with crazy ideas.
Would you ever like to write a scary book?
I think it would be fun to write a scary book. I may write one someday.
Who are your favorite characters from your books?
I've got a lot of favorite characters. It's interesting because when
I write and work on a book for a year or so, the characters become very
real to me. Some of my favorite characters are Bradley from There's
a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Angeline from Someday Angeline
and Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, Kate Barlow from Holes, and Louis
from the Wayside School (he's based on me).
Are the things that happen in your books things that happened to you?
No, but I try to draw on the feelings I had as a child, or those
that I still have, and capture those same feelings in the characters in
my books, but under different circumstances.
Since smoking is bad for you, why do some of the characters in Johnny's
in the Basement try it?
When I was growing up, kids were very curious about cigarettes. We
knew they were bad for us, but they didn't have the same sort of stigma
as they have today. And so, kids would often experiment and try them.
So, Donald experiments and tries cigarettes, as do Donny and Valerie.
But they're awful. It wasn't meant to encourage kids, but to discourage
them from trying cigarettes.
Have you ever considered writing a sequel to There's a Boy in the
I have considered it, and I may write one someday.
Is Mrs. Gorf, the teacher at Wayside School, a real person from your
My third grade teacher. No, actually, I wrote the first Mrs. Gorf
story as an assignment in a creative writing class in high school. And
my teacher didn't like it. In fact, she thought I hadn't taken the assignment
seriously. But I always thought it was a good story. When I worked at
the elementary school in college, the kids liked it. And that's what made
me think I might be a writer, or write longer stories.
If the Wayside School is falling down, why is D. J. is always so happy?
The Wayside School isn't really falling down. And D. J. just has
a really happy personality.
What is your favorite thing about writing?
I think it's a tremendous feeling of accomplishment that I get from
starting with nothing, and somehow creating a whole story and setting
What's the worst part about writing?
Most days, it just feels like I'm not accomplishing much. I write
for about two hours a day, and most of it just seems like a waste of time.
It amazes me how after a year, all those wasted days somehow add up to
something. Another thing I don't like is that it's a very solitary profession.
I think it would be nice sometimes to go to an office and see people every
day, instead of just sitting in my room.
After many years, does writing sometimes seem like just an ordinary
Well, it's not fun when I can't figure out what to write. Usually,
when I finish the book, I look back and think it was fun to write, but
while I'm writing it, it's not really fun at all.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading the most?
I like to read different kinds of books. It mostly depends on the
authors. When I find an author I like, I usually read everything that
author has written.
Were you ever troubled by a bully when you were in school?
Not really. Maybe a few minor instances, but for the most part, no.
Were you a daydreamer as a kid?
I imagine I daydreamed quite a bit. I still do.
Do you have hobbies?
I'm an avid bridge player. I play duplicate bridge in tournaments
all around the country. I like to ski in winter and take my dogs for long
Are you working on a new book now?
I never tell anyone about what I'm working on. Not even my wife or
daughter! I do that for self-motivation more than anything else. By not
allowing myself to talk about it, it forces me to write it.
Did you like writing stories when you were a kid?
It was okay. When my teacher assigned stories, I think I enjoyed
writing them, but it wasn't something I did on my own.
Do you go to schools to find characters for your stories?
No, not now. When I was in college in 1976, I got college credit
for helping out at a nearby elementary school. I got to know the kids
in the class really well, and that's what led to the kids in Wayside School.
But now I can no longer visit a school like that. When I go to schools
now, I'm treated like a celebrity. And it's different.
Do you ever get ideas for your books from your dreams?
No. I wish it were that easy!
What would you tell a young person who wants to be a writer?
Read, find out what you like to read, and try to figure out what
it is about it that makes you like it. And you have to rewrite. My first
draft of anything I write is really awful.
What was your hardest grade when you were in school?
I had a really mean fifth grade teacher. She just seemed to pick
on me. So that was a difficult year. Academically, my hardest grade was
my first year of law school.
What dreams do you have for the future?
I just hope to be able to write another book that excites me as much
as Holes did. And I'm hoping to do well in my next bridge tournament!
Of all the books you've written, which is your favorite?
Holes. It was the greatest challenge to write, and I feel
like I met that challenge.
What character was the hardest to create?
It's hard to remember. I know I had problems in Holes, developing
the minor characters and trying to distinguish one from the other.
What question do you get most often from kids?
Many students want to know where my ideas come from. And that's the
hardest to answer because it's a mystery to me!
If you could recommend only one of your books, which one would it
It would depend on the age of the person, I suppose. But I think
Holes is my best bookÑmy most well written book.
How do you think up such imaginative titles for your books?
The title is usually the last thing I think of. Although the whole
time I'm writing the book, I'm trying to think of what I'll call it. But
I discovered how important titles were with the success of There's
a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. Prior to that book, I hadn't been that
successful. And that title got people to notice. I'm not always sure about
the titleI didn't think Holes was a very good title. The
other title that I considered (and that my daughter wanted me to use)
was Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Kid.
Which children's book authors are your favorites?
Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, Avi, William Sleader, and Walter
Do you ever get writer's block?
I get writer's block a lot. Usually I just try to get through itto
write anything, because I know I'm going to do four or five drafts of
a book. So, maybe the next time I get to this point, I'll have a better
idea of what to do. So, I just do anything just to get through it.
Do you enjoy traveling? Where do you like to go the most?
I enjoy skiing every year. We usually go to Colorado every year for
a week. I like going to the beach, California usually. And we always try
to leave Texas in the summer to go someplace cooler.
How did you think up the problems in Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside
They were fun for me to make up. I like doing puzzles of all kinds.
It was a real puzzle to make up those problemsÑas hard as they are to
solve, they're even harder to make up.
Have any of your books been published in other countries and other
Yes. Holes has been published in Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
It's going to be published in about 20 countries, including Korea, Israel,
China, and Turkey. There's a Boy in the GirlsÕ Bathroom has been
published in Japan and it's going to be published in Italy. And the Marvin
Redpost books have been published in Germany, and the Italian publisher
wants to do that one as well. It's fun for me to get these books published
in different languages, even though I can't read them!
What accomplishments in your life are you most proud of?
I'm proud of each and every one of my books. I think that nothing
else comes close to that.
If you could say anything to your readers, what would it be?
I'm glad they like my books! It was in those early days when I was
struggling to make a living and didn't know whether to be a writer or
lawyer that the fan mail from my readers kept me going.
What process do you go through in arriving at a final draft?
I usually begin a novel with just a little idea, perhaps no more
than a character trait. That idea will lead to another until it snowballs
into a full-blown story. Since I do not plan or outline beforehand, I
normally don't know what's going to happen next. I go through several
drafts. The first draft is very unorganized, often with ideas at the end
that are inconsistent with those at the beginning. In the second draft,
I organize it better because I now have a pretty firm grasp of who the
characters are and what is going to happen to them. By the time I get
to the last rewrite (which may be the fifth or sixth pass), I try to convince
myself that the story is all true, and that I am simply telling it, not
making it up. After numerous rough drafts, I send the final copy to the
publisher, but that's still not the absolute final copy. I then work with
an editor, and I may do some more rewrites.
With each draft, the story changes and the ideas are transformed. I
may initially have a real clear vision for different parts of a book.
I know how I'm going to handle this problem. I know what I'm going to
do here. And then I kind of get lost. What amazes me is that most days
feel useless. I don't seem to accomplish anythingjust a few pages,
most of which don't seem very good. Yet, when I put all those wasted days
together, I somehow end up with a book of which I'm very proud. Somehow
I've now written eighteen books. I'm always amazed when I finish a book
and realize, hey, this actually is what I set out to do.
What were your favorite authors as a child and which influenced you
I think as a child, my favorite author was E. B. White (Stuart
Little, Charlotte's Web). I think he was a big influence on the way
I write. But most of my favorite writers who influenced me are those I
read in high school. Those include J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, William
Saroyan, and E. L. Doctorow.
How do you create the characters in your books, and how do you think
up their names?
Well, the books and the characters and stories and settings all develop
together. I start with a small ideasmall piece of a character or
setting, and as I write, all aspects of a story develop from there. Names
are always a little difficult. Right before my daughter was born, my wife
and I got a book called 10,000 Baby Names, and I still look through that
book when I look for names. The kids of Wayside School are all named after
kids in an elementary school where I worked while going to college. And
then the nicknames in Holes were just fun names to think of. Although,
I came up with the name Stanley Yelnats (Holes) because I didn't
feel like figuring out a last name. So, I just spelled his last name backwards
and figured I'd change it later. But I never did.
What role do real kids play in giving you your ideas?
I get a lot of fan letters, and I visit schools fairly often, all
of which helps me to keep in touch with kids somewhat, but to tell you
the truth, this contact is mostly superficial. I don't really get to know
these kids, as I once did when I worked as a grammar school teacher's
aide. Many of my ideas come from what I remember doing, feeling, and thinking
as a child. Also, I was married in 1985, and my daughter was born in 1987.
I get some ideas from her. The boy in The Boy Who Lost His Face
has a one-year-old sister, and my daughter was one at the time. When she
was four, I wrote the Marvin Redpost books and Marvin's four-year-old
sister was based on her. The central themes of the Marvin Redpost series
flow from children's fantasies. For instance, the main character believes
he was kidnapped at birth or becomes convinced he's really a prince. I
try to write plots that revolve around things that most kids have thought
about at one time or another.
When you write, do you seek feedback and opinions from others?
No. I never talk about a book until I'm finished writing it. And,
I like to be alone when I write. It took me a year and a half to write
Holes, and nobody knew anything about it, not even my wife or my
daughter. I think that is helpful for writing, as well as for anything
else that takes a lot of self-motivation. The more you talk about something,
the less you tend to do it. By not permitting myself to talk about Holes,
I was forced to write it. The story was growing inside me for a year and
a half, and I had no other way to let it out. I write mostly for myself.
I can never imagine my readers. I just try to write books that I would
enjoy reading. I figure if I like them, the kids will too.
Do your books have a moral?
Yes, in the sense of thinking about right and wrong. But mainly my
books are written to make reading enjoyable. That's my first goal with
all my books, to make reading fun. I want kids to think that reading can
be just as much fun, or more so, than TV or video games or whatever else
they do. I think any other kind of message or moral that I might teach
is secondary to first just enjoying the book. But, I don't mean to say
that fun is necessarily frivolous. If a book is well written, communicating
a moral can also be fun. People like it when the good guy wins and when
good triumphs over evil.
Did you ever get discouraged when you were starting out?
My first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School was not
distributed well when it first appeared in 1978. The book was difficult
for parents and teachers to find. It never sold very many copies, but
I got lots of fan letters that greatly encouraged me. Still, even though
I was uplifted by the attention, supporting myself as a writer still looked
like a rough proposition at the time.
What is the difference between writing for children and writing for
I don't really believe that writing for children is very different
from writing for adults. What makes good children's books is putting the
same care and effort into them as I would if I were writing for adults.
I donÕt write anythingput anything in my books that I'd be embarrassed
to put in an adult book. The literary world often places children's literature
below adult literature. But looking back through the ages, the really
classic childrenÕs books have all had beautifully developed plot, structure,
I've always believed that I learned to write for children by reading
books written for adults. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus
and William Goldman's The Princess Bride influenced the way I wrote
Holes. I liked the way the opening chapters of these books were
sort of short and jumpy, and how they led into the story. And The Princess
Bride had these colorful characters and this bizarre setting, and
that's sort of like Holes.
Is there a big difference in your approach when you write for children
versus writing for young adults?
I write the books and let the market find who reads it.
When did you choose to write for children rather than for adults?
Well, it was when I was going to school in Berkeley. For one class,
I signed up to be a teacher's aide at a local elementary school. I just
did it because it sounded easyno homework, no tests, just help out
at a school. But I had a great time. I loved all the kids. Before long,
leaving the heavy world of the Berkeley campus to go to Hillside Elementary
became my favorite thing to do everyday. And so I thought IÕd try writing
a children's book.
Will you ever write books for adults?
Or are you fully dedicated to writing for kids? I may write for adults.
I actually started an adult book, worked on it for about two years, and
then decided it just wasn't coming together for me. At that point, I decided
to go back to children's books, and almost immediately I started Holes,
and it just seemed to take off on me.