- What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a southpaw from Long Island, I dreamed of pitching for the New York Mets.
- When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
College, at Oneonta, New York.
- What’s your first childhood memory?
I vividly recall hiding under a table – and refusing to come out – when my grandmother visited from Queens Village. She was old and wrinkly, with pointy glasses, and wore a dead fox around her neck. Terrifying.
- What’s your favorite childhood memory?
I’m the youngest of seven children, so what I remember best – outside of the manic joy of Christmas – was the chatter and clatter and spilled milk of dinnertime together. It was like a nightly hockey game, complete with thrown elbows, clutching, grabbing, and roughing penalties.
- As a young person, who did you look up to most?
Do you mean I’m not a young person anymore? I had four older brothers – each remarkable and mysterious in his own way. Neil was the resident genius, who passed on to me his love of Bob Dylan; Bill was the motorhead, working in gas stations, and always the friendliest; John played guitar and had “Popeye” muscles; Al was, and still is, the stable easy-going one. And I was the pup, lapping it all up.
- What was your worst subject in school?
- What was your best subject in school?
Gym and recess.
- What was your first job?
Jones Beach concessions, West End Two. Great times.
- How did you celebrate publishing your first book?
- Where do you write your books?
I usually write at my computer, in the basement of my house. Someday I dream, like the rat in The Tale of Despereaux, of reaching the light, the light!
- Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Since I usually write realistic nonfiction, I strive to begin with an accurate understanding of a child’s world, usually by sitting in on various classrooms in my community. I have three children, ages 7, 8, and 14, so that helps me stay connected. Importantly, memories often come bubbling unexpectedly to the surface – matters of the heart – and that is the ore I mine.
- Which of your characters is most like you?
- When you finish a book, who reads it first?
It varies, and depends on the book.
- Are you a morning person or a night owl?
I’m a lunch and snack time person. But as a father in a busy house, my strategy has been to try to outlast everyone. Then the house is mine, all mine! The older I get, the tougher that becomes.
- What’s your idea of the best meal ever?
A little green pill that I could pop, fill up, and move on to other things. I’m not a big fan of fuss . . . or dishes.
- Which do you like better: cats or dogs?
- What do you value most in your friends?
- Where do you go for peace and quiet?
Excuse me? Peace and quiet? What in the world are you talking about?
- What makes you laugh out loud?
Will Ferrell in “Old School.”
- What’s your favorite song?
Lately I’m obsessed with all things Dylan, most recently “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” I dream of doing a children’s book on him someday.
- Who is your favorite fictional character?
Atticus Finch. I also like Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s novels, Rabbit from John Updike’s series, and just about everybody in Go, Dog, Go!
- What are you most afraid of?
Not being able to pay my bills.
- What time of year do you like best?
Spring and autumn, the transitional seasons.
- What’s your favorite TV show?
New York Mets baseball.
- If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want for company?
My wife and children.
- If you could travel in time, where would you go?
This changes all the time, but generally it’s not the way I think about things. I’d say that I’m most fascinated by the late 60’s.
- What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start another one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval.
- What do you want readers to remember about your books?
That for a time they came along with me for a ride – and that they were in good hands.
- What would you do if you ever stopped writing?
Edit. Books are my life’s work, and I’d love to be able to play the role of an editor, help writers realize their talents, giving them the support and the opportunity that is so hard to come by. I think many of us are capable of great things, sometimes all it takes is someone in your ear, saying, “You can do this. I believe in you.” I have that now at Feiwel & Friends – thanks to Jean Feiwel and Liz Szabla – and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened in my career. So much of life is people putting limits on you, defining you, placing you in convenient boxes. It’s so great when the possibilities open up. Part of being a great editor, with few exceptions, is giving up the dream of writing for yourself. The job is to serve the work, another writer’s work, and I’ve never been able to give that up completely.
- What do you like best about yourself?
Oh, dear, please, no. Unpretentious, I guess. I certainly hate pretentiousness in other people.
- What is your worst habit?
Does insomnia count? I think concentration is the key to performing well in just about anything. It’s kind of why I think all of today’s talk about “multi-tasking” is malarkey. I often lack a laser-like focus that is so essential to my job.
- What is your best habit?
I read a lot.
- What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
My life as a father.
- Where in the world do you feel most at home?
Is this a trick question? At home! But outside of that, I’m always happy on a hiking trail, somewhere in nature. On trips to Ireland I’ve felt connected in ways I can’t fathom or explain. And I love – even to this day – sitting out in centerfield during a ballgame (note: I play in a men’s hardball league), searching the sky for high-flying baseballs. I think it connects me to something innocent and pure, chasing a round white ball under a blue sky.
- What do you wish you could do better?
Hit a curveball. And also – and this maybe too corny to say – but to love with true selflessness.
- What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
That I am so ordinary, so . . . unsurprising. On school visits, especially back in my early days, I was often troubled when teachers/students sort of put “the visiting author” up on a pedestal. I’m not comfortable with that role – at all, at all. So then I found the solution: My task was to show them how utterly ordinary I was, that authors are no more special than doctors or architects or any one else. I’m just another guy who works hard and does his best.
38. Do you experience writer’s block?
I don’t believe in it, frankly. It’s one more of those “mystical” things that writers are supposed to endure. I have a lunch pail attitude to my job, since I don’t have the luxury – in time or money – to sit around waiting for the muse to descend. I’m trying to pay the bills, you know? So I make things up. What I have learned – and what I will concede – is that there are times when the energy fails. (Writing, to me, requires great enthusiasm and energy.) I realized a while back that it was usually a sign that I was boring myself: That the story I was writing, or the specific scene, was flawed somehow. I was on the wrong path – and boring myself to tears. When the writing is right, I am fully engaged. When bored by my own words, I need to walk away and rethink things. Usually it means honing in a little closer to the rumblings of my own heart.
- Why children’s books?
Good question. I guess, like much in life, accident played a significant role. Out of college, knowing that I wanted to write . . . I became a waiter at Beefsteak Charlie’s. A year later, I moved to Brooklyn and got a job as a junior copywriter at Scholastic, pulling down $12,500 a year, writing for the K-1 SeeSaw Book Club. My job was basically to read a ton of books and describe them to teachers and kids. It required two different voices. For teachers: “In this classic tale, H.A. Rey’s mischievous monkey . . .” For students: “YIKES! That crazy monkey is in trouble again!” I met a lot of great books in that job, and the dream took hold. Anyone who works with children – or, for that matter, any parent, or anyone who has ever spent time with children – knows that kids give back. They respond, purely and directly. You get that immediate reward with children that is so satisfying. Today I get fan letters on a regular basis. It’s amazing. At some point they figure out that the book in their hand was written by a real person (not, as I once believed, beamed down from another planet). They are awed. Sometimes I’ll walk into a classroom and can see it in a few sets of eyes: A reverence. I am not foolish enough to believe that they are in awe of me -- I’m just a guy – but they love and respect books, and writing one to them seems like such an impossible, miraculous thing. My goal is just to de-mystify the entire process. And in short order, after spending only a few minutes in my presence, the awe (I am relieved to say) quickly fades away.