1. What did you want to be when you grew up?
First an astronaut, then a U.S. Marine, then a stand-up comedian, then a rock star, and finally a writer. Once I figured out writer, I was done. Because once I was a writer, I could be anything.
2. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer/illustrator?
When I was fifteen, I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and before I’d even got past the second chapter I knew I wanted to be a writer. That first night I wrote my first short story, The Dreamer, which I still have a copy of, and which is awful. But I wrote another story and another, and haven’t stopped since.
3. What’s your first childhood memory?
I think my earliest memory is a bookcase tipping over on top of me when I was four or so. My older sister was vacuuming and the cord got caught on the bookcase and knocked it over. It was a small bookcase, so I was okay. Funny, I never thought about the bookcase connection until just now. Maybe that’s why I became a writer.
4. What’s your most embarrassing childhood memory?
When I was in sixth grade, we used to have music once a week in Miss Shamblin’s class. And the class got to vote on which songs we wanted to sing that day. There was a horrible song about Lewis and Clark—“sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest,” was the chorus. There was a girl in my class named Debbie Clark, and so the class always chose that song, and when we sang it, they roared out the names Lewis and Clark, just to embarrass us. That went on all year, and I’m not sure the teacher ever figured out what was going on. I just put my head on the desk until it was over.
5. What’s your favorite childhood memory?
When I was a kid, we had Matchbox cars, little metal cars, about two inches long, that came in these cool yellow boxes. Every Friday was pay-day for my dad, and he’d take me to the hobby shop and I got to pick out one. I had about a million of them at one time. Well, not a million, maybe a hundred. But I loved going to the case in the hobby shop and picking out a new one. So cool.
6. As a young person, who did you look up to most?
That’s easy: my dad. We were great pals, and he was always a great teacher. He’d spent most of his life as a deep–sea diver in the Navy, which was very cool, and we got to go diving a lot together. And he’d also worked on a ranch when he was a teenager, and on farms, and moving from job to job around the country during the Depression. He used to take me out of school—my mom never knew—and take me to all sorts of cool places. He died when I was 12, and I still miss him every day.
7. What was your worst subject in school?
Easy: math. Just couldn’t get the hang of it. Funny, though, later, when I was working in bookstores and in publishing, I found I kind of liked math. But back then---eewww.
8. What was your best subject in school?
English, hands down. I also loved History. The best thing about studying English is that you spend most of your time reading books. What’s not to like?
9. What was your first job?
When I was fifteen, I became a dishwasher at the restaurant in the Miracle Mile Casino, a card club in San Jose, where people played poker, low-ball, and a game called Pan. It was a dirty job, sure, but I saw all sorts of cool, and often scary things—criminals with guns, fancy cars. It all felt very glamorous and adult to me. I quit after a couple of years when someone was shot, Mob-style, in the parking lot. Too scary.
10. How did you celebrate publishing your first book?
My friends David and Susan threw a big surprise party for me, with dozens of people, and we had a book signing right there in someone’s house. A big cake shaped like the book, even fake Cliff’s Notes for the book. And I was really surprised. I hate surprise parties, but that was so much fun.
Before then, though, I bought a really expensive coat—still have it—and took a trip to Prague.
11. Where do you write/illustrate your books?
My desk is stuffed into the corner of our living room, which looks out over the street, a fairly busy street in San Francisco. I pull the blinds shut, put up a curtain between me and the rest of the house, which I hang on these little hooks, and write during the day when my daughter is at school. My wife, who’s also a writer, works in our bedroom at the other end of the house. My desk is pretty small, but I’ve got a nice bookcase next to it, which is always filled with the books I use for research. On the wall in front of the desk, I put up pictures and maps and quotes that help me think about the book I’m working on.
12. Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
By staring out the window. I have to think about a book a lot before I start writing it. The idea for Steinbeck’s Ghost first came to me in 2004, when I heard that the John Steinbeck Library in Salinas, its public library, might close. I was really depressed to think the library might close—that any library might close—and I had been to that one several times. I thought, hmmm, that’d make a good book, a character who tries to save the library. But I didn’t start writing a word of the book until 2006. Then I read books—about libraries and Steinbeck Country—and then I took notes for six months, and then in January, 2007, I finally wrote the first word, which is, oddly enough, Finally.
13. Which of your characters is most like you?
I try to write about characters who aren’t like me. But in Steinbeck’s Ghost, I suppose that character is the writer Ernest Oster, who befriends the main character, Travis. Like Oster, I had a long long time between my first published book and my second. The publisher of my first book did not like my second one, and so I had a long road ahead of me to get my second one published. And like Oster, although in a completely different way, I was lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury once and spend the afternoon with him. He’s a great writer, we all know that, but an amazing and generous human being, too.
14. When you finish a book, who reads it first?
My wife Julie usually reads it first, and then she and my daughter Maddy read it together. Then my editors.
15. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Our family goes to sleep early, well, my wife and daughter do, and I stay up much later and stare out the window a lot. And read. And listen to music. And think. But I do most of my work in the mornings. So, I guess I’m a morning person and a night owl. I get very sleepy in the afternoons, when I can often be found taking a nap.
16. What’s your idea of the best meal ever?
Burgers and fries with my family at our favorite hang-out in San Francisco, Kezar Bar and Restaurant. We sit in the big window and watch everyone and their dogs come and go, and chow down on the best burgers in the city and the finest french fries in all of the universe. You’ve never had fries like these. They alone are worth the trip to San Francisco.
17. Which do you like better: cats or dogs?
Dogs. I grew up with dogs—Sparky and Eki—and my wife did, too—Crackie. We’re on the verge of getting our first family dog, in the fall, when we’re done with summer vacations. We’re gonna go to the pound and rescue the dog that looks at us in that way. We’re all a little dog crazy around here right now.
18. What do you value most in your friends?
People who can make me laugh. And friends who hang in there with you, even when you’re acting a little crazy.
19. Where do you go for peace and quiet?
A long walk in Golden Gate Park, half a block from our house, is a beautiful peace and quiet.
20. What makes you laugh out loud?
Monty Python and America’s Funniest Videos. I like silly voices and people falling down.
21. What’s your favorite song?
Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum. It’s a very old song.
22. Who is your favorite fictional character?
Meg Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time, followed closely by Charles Wallace. They’re both very smart and fearless and not afraid to be who they are.
23. What are you most afraid of?
Heights, I’d have to say. As long as I’m moving, like on a roller coaster, heights don’t bother me. But standing at the edge of building and looking down, yoiks, that makes me want to faint.
24. What time of year do you like best?
I love autumn the best. In California it’s not the orange and red leaves time of year, not at all. But it signals the return of the rain, which we don’t get at all in the summer in California. I love Halloween and the shortening days and the beautiful color of evenings then.
25. What’s your favorite TV show?
The Simpsons, of course. I’m also a huge fan of the Antiques Roadshow, especially the British version, and Law and Order: Criminal Intent.
26. If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want for company?
My family, no doubt about it. Who else would I want to be stranded with. Or maybe Shakespeare; he’d be fun to have around.
27. If you could travel in time, where would you go?
Hmmm, a hard question. I love hot showers and modern medicine, so going back in time has never really appealed to me that much. But since it probably won’t happen, I can give a place without too much worry. As horrible a time as it was for most people, I suspect I’d be thrilled to go to Victorian London, around the time of Charles Dickens—I love crowded cities.
28. What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing/illustrating?
Steinbeck once wrote in a letter to a young Peter Benchly (who went on to write Jaws): only a fool is willfully obscure. He meant: be clear; don’t try to impress people. Tell the story. And Ray Bradbury, who I met by chance when I was a freshman in college told me that writers should always eat sandwiches for lunch, so you could read while you had lunch. That’s a solid piece of advice because writing is mostly about reading.
29. What do you want readers to remember about your books?
I suppose the sense of place I feel in them—what it’s like to be in Steinbeck Country, or Dickens’s London, or Mark Twain’s time in San Francisco. What it’s like to live in another world. And if a reader can do that, they can imagine, I think, how to live in other peoples’ lives, as well. That’s important.
30. What would you do if you ever stopped writing/illustrating?
I would love to be a painter. I can’t paint at all, can’t even draw a straight line, or an interesting crooked one, but I love paintings. And painters get so many cool tools to play with—paints and canvases and brushes and knives and stuff.
31. What do you like best about yourself?
I’m a very loyal friend.
32. What is your worst habit?
I chew my fingernails. Yuck, not recommended.
33. What is your best habit?
I’m very tidy. My desk is always clean. I’m also always on time for things, never late ever. But that can be kind of annoying, if you know what I mean.
34. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Aside from raising a daughter who’s smart and funny and curious? I suppose it’s being my daughter’s basketball coach for the last two years. I don’t know anything about sports, much less basketball, but no one else volunteered, and so I did, and I threw myself into it, and we’ve had two great seasons.
35. Where in the world do you feel most at home?
On any California beach. I grew up near the water, and will always live there. Once I lived in Wyoming for six months, and it was gorgeous, but I couldn’t stand being away from the ocean that long. I used to go to the top of a nearby mountain and look out over the valley and pretend the valley was the ocean and I was sitting on the beach.
36. What do you wish you could do better?
I wish I had better penmanship. Oh, I wish I was a better guitar player, too. I’ve played bass off and on since I was a teenager, and I still play a little with friends, but truth be told, I’m not very good.
37. What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
That in high school I had hair down past my shoulders.
38.Do you collect anything?
I have a lovely collection of bookmarks from bookstores around the world. And I also collect float-y pens, those pens with little moving figures in the barrel.
39. Who was your favorite teacher?
I’ve been lucky and had a ton of favorites. But I suppose my favorite was my French teacher, who I had through all four years of high school. Sally Galbraith. Mlle G. She was more than a teacher, she was a great friend—a good ear and an encouraging presence in my life. It’s not surprise that in Steinbeck’s Ghost and The Haunting of Charles Dickens, and in my plans for the Mark Twain book, that the main relationship is between a kid and an adult, each one teaching the other.
40. Why do you write in longhand first instead of directly onto the computer?
I love the silence of the pen, the way it glides across the paper. It’s also much quieter. If you sit in a room with a computer on, and no other noise, then turn it off, you’ll be amazed to discover how much noise a computer actually makes. Also, when you write in longhand, you have to make a commitment to every sentence you write. You can’t just go changing it because you got bored. It helps me think better.
But don’t get me wrong. Having computers makes typing of the manuscript a lot, lot easier. When I first started writing, we didn’t have computers in our homes, and everything was typed on a typewriter. Too many mistakes there.