Excerpted from a 2008 interview


How long did it take you to write The Whipping Boy

More than ten years. I got off on the wrong track and was very slow to discover my mistake. Once I came to my senses, the story wrote rather quickly. Six or seven months, as I recall. 

What did it feel like to win the Newbery? 

It was as stunning as being struck by lightning. I didn't know my novel, The Whipping Boy, was being considered. Suddenly, early one morning, when I was in the shower, the phone rang. The 1987 Newbery Award was being awarded to me. What excitement around our house! And the phone hardly stopped ringing for months. The hardest part was writing the acceptance speech to be delivered before the American Library Association in San Francisco. I spent weeks polishing up every sentence. 

Did you have anything to do with the movie? 

Alas, yes. Although the screenplay is credited to Max Brindle, I wrote it. When the producers made a structural change in the second half of the story, a change that I thought was absurd, I filed for a pseudonym with the Writers' Guild of America. Max Brindle was a fictional character in my first novel, and he took the rap for me. 

How many other books have you written? 

I don't know. Fifty or sixty - something like that. But not all were written for children. When I was a young writer, and didn't know any better, I wrote novels for adults. My first published book was for magicians. I still write occasionally for the sleight-of-hand crowd. 

Does it always take you ages to write a book? 

Some writers are fast. Some are slow. Most of us are both. Each new book confronts the writer with story problems he or she may never have faced before. A wonderful and famous American writer, Eudora Welty, once explaned that each novel teaches her how to write it, but not the next one. So, you kind of start your career over again with each new book. Sometimes everything works and the writing gallops along. My tall tales about the McBroom family, each fifteen or so typed pages, take me up to three months - that's galloping for me. When I start a novel, I know that I'm going to be at the computer for the next year or two or three. 

Where do you get your ideas? 

I wish I knew. They seem to be everywhere and nowhere. The problem, when you find one, is figuring out what to do with the idea once it takes posession of you. My favorite story in this regard is about the famous French short story writer, Guy (pronounced Ghee, by the way) de Maupassant, who bragged that he could write a story about anything. His friends challenged him to write a story about a piece of string. A piece of string! Not a very promising prop for a story, one would think. but de Maupassant sat down and wrote one of the greatest short stories in world literature called - A Piece of String. 

How about you? 

I sometimes find story ideas in odd folk beliefs. The absurd notion that if one were born at the stroke of midnight, he or she would have the power to see ghosts set me off on a highly successful comic pirate novel, The Ghost in the Noonday Sun. Triskaidekaphobia, the superstitious fear of the number thirteen, caught my imagination and off I went on a time travel story, The 13th Floor. 

You write with a lot of similies and metaphors. How do you think them up? 

Imagery is wonderful short hand, enabling me to describe in a few words what might otherwise take several sentences. I try to visualize what I am trying to describe. What does the wrinkled old face of that witch look like? How about the inside of a walnut? Got it! Figures of speech are hard to think up at first, but they get easier. You develop something like muscles for them. But it's still hard.