Seven Impossible Interviews
Before Breakfast #80: Daniel Pinkwater

h1 February 25th, 2009 by Eisha and Jules

Jules: Here is the the semi-fictionalized version of author Daniel Pinkwater (from his 1993 title, Author’s Day, which he also illustrated). It’s a bit daunting to introduce Pinkwater this morning — and not just because he’s staring so intently at us here. He puts the very “pro” in prolific, not to mention we’re super-geeky fans of his books and have been for years.

And, since we at 7-Imp consider ourselves advocates of—to put it bluntly—children’s books that don’t suck (you’re welcome for that moment of eloquence), we’re also happy for his NPR-musings: As many of our devoted readers surely know, he is commentator over there at NPR’s All Things Considered and Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon, often promoting—with much passion and, at times, that irreverent wit we love—new children’s titles. (To be clear, he also comments on “the caprices and vagaries of life,” thank goodness, as his NPR bio puts it.)

“Pinkwater’s books are designed to be understood by children aged six to 14, but are read by people of all ages,” the bio adds. Ain’t that the truth. His fans are not only wide-ranging in age, but we are rabid, I say. Mention his name around one of us serious Pinkwater devotees, and you’ll hear hoots and squeals and hollers — followed by a long list of beloved Pinkwater memories. I’d say we’re cult-like. The Bad Bears books, illustrated by his wife, Jill (I covered one of those titles here back in ’07 when our images were tragically small); the Fat Camp Commando titles; the Werewolf Club titles; The Neddiad and its sequel, The Yggyssey, Pinkwater’s newest title, which opens with the ghost of Rudolph Valentino smoking a cigar in a little girl’s bedroom, and both of which Pinkwater made available online to read free-of-charge; and oh-so much more, including the ones we reminisce about below — they’re quick-witted, wonderfully far-fetched, entertaining, and flat-out funny-as-hell adventures. And we love ’em all. There. How’s that for adoration?

Eisha, I’m wondering if you have a Favorite Daniel Pinkwater Memory. Well, you know. I don’t mean that time we had drinks and sang karaoke in Cozumel. It’s not like we’ve been chillin’ with him. But I feel sure you have some favorite memories related to his books.

As I told him before I sent him these questions, here’s my very favorite memory: When I was the librarian at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, I used to head down to the elementary building every Wednesday to read to the third-grade reading group. These particular students were big book-lovers, and I always looked forward to these story hours. The teacher would read the book, and I’d interpret it into ASL. We read a lot of great books that year, including Frindle and a handful of Magic Tree House tales. But they were WILD about The Hoboken Chicken Emergency — the hysterical tale, as you well know, of Henrietta, a 266-pound chicken with a mind of her own (published in 1977). You know how great it feels as a librarian to read such a kickin’ book to children, one that totally engages them and makes them hee-haw laugh? That’s how this was. I’d flap my hands around wildly, and they’d beg the teacher for more at the end of every chapter. I’ll never forget those days.

Your turn. (And then—ooo! ooo!—our readers can contribute their favorite memories. Wouldn’t that be fun? You. Yes, you reading now. Contribute away!)

Eisha: Ooh, I’ve got plenty. I’m a Pinkwater fan from way back, you know. I got a paperback copy of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency through the good ol’ Scholastic Book Club when I was maybe eight years old, and loved it So. Very. Much. There’s nothing funnier than chickens… and a giant chicken? Named Henrietta? C’mon. Even the title is hilarious, and to this day I still giggle when driving through New Jersey and happening upon a Hoboken exit sign.

The Big Orange SplotAnother good Pinkwater Experience happened more recently. While I was a children’s librarian in Cambridge, MA a couple of years ago, we did our summer reading program theme on construction, since our main library building was going through renovations. The Big Orange Splot ended up on our recommended reading list, and I had a blast reading it to several roomfuls of kids while promoting the program in our neighborhood K-8 school. It always generated fun discussions of which houses were the kids favorites, and what kind of fantastic homes they’d like to design for themselves.

Also, have you read the Larry books? You should. Young Larry, the first one, is probably my favorite, but they’re all wryly brilliant.

All this to say, I’m all twitterpated over this interview. Daniel Pinkwater is one of the pioneers of deadpan irreverent humor in children’s literature, and I’m so grateful he’s willing to share a bit of wit with us. Aren’t you?

Jules: Color me twitterpated, too. Let’s get right to it, especially since I love his answer to my misfit question and think it pretty much sums up his appeal as a writer. Many thanks to Daniel for stopping by to chat.

* * * * * * *

Daniel Pinkwater7-Imp: What inspired you to make both The Neddiad and The Yggyssey available in serialized form—and for free—online? What has reader reaction been to that kind of publishing?

Daniel: The two novels I had written before The Neddiad (Looking for Bobowicz and The Artsy Smartsy Club) were inopportunely published — or maybe just nobody was interested. I was pretty happy with The Neddiad and didn’t feel like waiting more than a year to find out that nobody was reading it. I wanted to find out that nobody was reading it right away. I don’t think I had any more of an idea than that. It was a pleasant surprise when Houghton Mifflin agreed to let me do it. I had no idea that I was maybe the first author who gets published on paper who had ever given a brand-new book away on the internet and not tried to charge money — this caused quite a stir and lots of interest. The book sold quite well from the first day of publication, so the publisher was not unhappy, and I like my readers, so I was happy to provide it.

7-Imp: For those who haven’t already been reading The Yggyssey online, can you give a sense of what’s in store with this sequel?

Daniel: If I could do that in a brief answer to a question, what would the point have been in writing a whole book? I’d suggest that an interested party read a couple of pages and decide if there was a reason to go on.

7-Imp: School Library Journal wrote that your version of 1950s L.A. in The Yggyssey is “authentically and delightfully kooky.” What was your research like into establishing the tone of the old-fashioned Hollywood adventure saga of both that book and its prequel? (And do you think that in the current economic climate one could perhaps make a fortune in the shoelace business, as Ned Wentworthstein’s father did? Hmmm…it’s worth trying, right?)

Daniel: Much of the research was simply remembering my own experience as a kid in Hollywood in that period. The internet filled out outlines, filled in gaps, and suggested things. Some of the research was particularly gratifying, such as finding out that there really is an old Ford Trimotor that still occasionally operates over the Grand Canyon like the airplane I had already written, and that the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff where I wanted a ghost is famous for having them. And, many fortunes were started on a shoestring.

7-Imp: To what do you attribute what Publishers Weekly calls your “one-of-a-kind comic sensibility”? Were you the class clown in school, by chance, and did you write a lot as a child, too?

Daniel (pictured here with his dog, Lulu): I was never a clown, but I did like to write, starting in 4th grade — and as a one-of-a-kind person, I would assume my “comic sensibility” would be equally unique.

7-Imp: What specifically draws you to feature misfit protagonists in your writing?

Daniel: I have never gotten to know any human who did not turn out to be a misfit — so they are average protagonists.

7-Imp: This is a three-part question: You have influenced generations of children with your books, and—as Salon put it—you “acquired a cult following among current and former children.” Do you still enjoy writing? How do you keep the ideas flowing? And, though you probably get asked this all the time, what would be the most valuable piece of advice you would give to aspiring authors? (By the way, if you start an actual cult, I’ll join. Eisha, too, I’m sure. As long as there are good snacks.)

Daniel: I have had many adventures, including being stranded at night in the Serengeti, living on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, meeting many remarkable people, being in the right place at the right time over and over…and none of those are as much fun as writing. As to keeping the ideas flowing, like everyone else I have sixty ideas a minute. The trick is to pick the ones that are least lousy out of the flow, and what do do with them once you’ve picked.

Once again, the semi-fictionalized Daniel Pinkwater from Author’s Day

7-Imp: There are sooooo many books to ask you about, on account of you being a mighty prolific writer, but I’ll try to exert some self-control here and pick just one: I have to say, I’m particularly fond of Bear’s Picture (and also adore D.B. Johnson’s art work; I’ll be interviewing him soon in my seven-questions-over-breakfast illustrator interview series, but I digress). Can you talk about what prompted you to write that tale? At the great risk of sounding like Barbara Walters, who is determined to make you cry, were your creative efforts when you were young ever thwarted or discouraged, as Bear’s are in this title?

Daniel: I once saved up money so I could buy a Junior Artist’s kit consisting of some Hunt’s Crow Quill pens, a bottle of India ink, some nice paper, and a little “how to draw” booklet. I went to work and had good results at once. I showed my drawings to my sister-in-law, who went to art school at night, and she accused me of trying to pass off an older kid’s work as my own, marched me into the living room, and told my parents that I was growing up to be a liar and a criminal. My parents were watching television and, without looking up, told me not to aggravate my sister-in-law. I got at once never to let these people know what I was doing, and not to let just any adult judge my work. And I did my best to grow up to be a liar and a criminal. D. B. Johnson is a genius.

7-Imp: A lot of our readers like to hear authors talk about this. If, by chance, you hate this question, just promptly ignore it: Talk a bit about your writing process (starting wherever you like: getting the idea, starting to write, under deadline, etc.). Do you outline plot before you write or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

Daniel: I let my muse lead me on until I am completely confused and in trouble, and then I make an outline.

7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors influenced you as an early reader?

The Goon ShowDaniel: Mad Comics; Mark Twain; all the authors in The Subtreasury of American Humor; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; The Goon Show, on shortwave from BBC in the 1950s {pictured left}; Kurt Vonnegut; Herman Melville; Jules Verne; Charles Dickens; and Alexander Dumas.

7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Daniel: I am nice.

7-Imp: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Daniel: Not a one. I have learned my lesson–never meet an artist whose work you admire (and that includes me). I’d rather have a coffee with a smart lawyer or engineer or surgeon.

7-Imp: What’s next? Anything new on which you and your talented wife are collaborating, too? Any plans to illustrate your own titles any time in the future?

Daniel: I quit illustrating when Jill started–why bother to try when I have someone so very much better than I am? Right now, she is illustrating Beautiful Yetta (the Yiddish Chicken), forthcoming from Feiwel & Friends, which I had the honor to write. She is also working on a novel. She is amazing.

7-Imp: Do you think there are any more comic strips in your future? And is there any hope that Chinwag Theater will ever be revived?

Daniel: I would be happy to write a comic strip…well maybe not–the newspaper appears to be fading into history..but I would love to write some new kind of comic book, and Scott Simon, our wonderful producer Sarah Beyer Kelly, and I have all said we would like to revive Chinwag Theater if anyone wants to pay us a reasonable wage to do so.

7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you – but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Daniel: No, you’re doing fine–please continue.

Jules: This is an image of Pinkwater created by James Gurney (whose blog I recently discovered, thanks to one of our readers, and I ADORE IT, but I digress). Here’s the link to James’ great post about it, in which he explains he did this live sketch of Pinkwater in 1999 at an author event in the basement of a library near where James lives. Can you see the quote James included in the sketch: “I have an unerring instinct to avoid prosperity.” I love that.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Daniel: “Freedom.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Daniel: “Rules” (as in, “rules of fiction-writing”).

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Daniel: Laughter.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Daniel: Good intentions.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Daniel: “Critic.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Daniel: Crows cawing.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Daniel: Crows cawing at 6:00 a.m.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Daniel: Optician.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Daniel: Chimney sweep.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Daniel: “Did you bring the list of suggested design improvements for the human body?”

* * * * * * *

For more online information about Daniel Pinkwater (this list hardly claims to be comprehensive) . . .

..and more interviews are archived here at The P-Zone: Aileron’s Unofficial Pinkwater Website.

24 comments to “Seven Impossible Interviews
Before Breakfast #80: Daniel Pinkwater”

  1. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » Seven Impossible InterviewsBefore Breakf… […]

  2. Super Geeky fan here. I’ve gotten so much enjoyment from Pinkwater’s work and I’m happy to see this interview. The first time I read Author’s Day I laughed so much that I nearly burst. I love that book. Wow! Just wow.


  3. THANK YOU so much for this interview! I love what he says about following his muse (until it totally trips him up) and that he tried his best to grow up a liar and a criminal. I really do have to try harder on that score.

    My memory is of The Big Orange Splot – Reading that to my sister was very amusing — we were supposed to be helping my mother cull the books from her school — oh, that one stayed. But first, we had to read it. Aloud. Following that, we broke out the markers and drew, getting nothing much more done that afternoon.

    Good fun.

    I really do love Daniel Pinkwater’s work. I keep feeling like we have tons in common. This is almost as good as sitting with him in person, thank you.

  4. All the while I was reading this I could hear Pinkwater’s voice in my head. There are actually days when William and I go to the NPR web site to listen to him and Scott Simon read a children’s book. Such fun!

    Thanks for the fab interview.

  5. My memory is a wild fit of laughter while reading Lizard Music. He had gotten me so good I simply couldn’t process it mentally and I wound up hurling myself headfirst at the sofa.
    That was 30 years ago, but unforgettable. Amazingly, I now like the book even better than I did then. It’s the greatest mid-grade ever…

  6. I think my first Pinkwater experience was the Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. I kind of accidentally stumbled upon this book because I loved his last name.
    Also because of the avocado (you know me).

    From then on, I started to laugh whenever I saw his name on a book cover, even before I read the book. With my penchant for bears, I’m addicted to the Larry books and the Irving and Muktuk books. Plus, the muffins. What can I say?

    Thanks so much for this awesome treat!!

  7. I’ve never had the pleasure of reading (experiencing?) a children’s book by Pinkwater — time to catch up; they look astounding! — but have always been a fan of his NPR work. This interview, while unpredictable in the specifics, lived up to my general expectations when I saw his name in the title.

    Laughed out loud at the one thing which most people do not know about him. 🙂

  8. What a terrific interview. Thanks, imps!

  9. I know that Daniel advises against meeting authors you admire, but I’d still like to meet him!

  10. I love The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death too! I read it over and over when I was in elementary school. I imagined that when I was a big high school kid I would get to sneak out at night, eat buttery baked potatoes and drink beer, and solve crazy mysteries with a cast of oddball characters. Well, it turned out that I got to drink beer, but didn’t like it much. I did turn into an avocado lover though, so go figure.

  11. My first Pinkwater book was The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, which I didn’t read until I was getting my MLS. I was so sorry I hadn’t discovered his work earlier.

  12. Yay the goon show!

  13. Mr. Pinkwater is one of two children’s authors responsible for pulling me into writing for children. The Snarkout Boys, Young Adult Novel, and Lizard Music were like shining beacons that showed me what was possible, and I always felt some weird kindred spiritship with him.

    Nice catch for the Imps, another great interview.

  14. A while back, the copy of Pinkwater’s Mush, a Dog from Space that we’d checked out from the library disappeared. As soon as we’d paid for the lost copy, it almost-too-conveniently reappeared in our home. I’m not saying I was scammed by one of my own children — but if I was, I take comfort in knowing that great literary taste was involved.

  15. Every time I reread Alan Mendelson and the Boys From Mars, I weep with laughter. I can relate to Sam Riddleburger’s reaction to Lizard Music, though I think I would have wiped out had I thrown myself against the sofa. We never had soft sofas in our house.

  16. […] Michelin. This book is beautiful. As I read it, Daniel Pinkwater’s words from 7-Imp’s February interview with him rang in my head: “D.B. Johnson is a genius.” In this fifth book of the series, Don […]

  17. […] when I had that wonderful moment, years back, of having Music Over Manhattan praised on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and Scott Simon, one of the things Scott Simon said was that it was refreshing to read a picture […]

  18. […] Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, Daniel Pinkwater. Pinkwater’s Lizard Music was the first book I remember reading for pleasure (though it was […]

  19. I heard you on ETVR

  20. Mr. Pinkerton’ stories are whacked! What a great interview you gave. I don’t know how his creative muse works. Do you think that he had any influence on the author of “Dad, the Tooth Fairy Didn’t Come?”

  21. […] Books’s recently-released collection of Edward Lear poems, “masterminded” by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Calef Brown. The link will be […]

  22. […] Lear’s nonsense poetry, as “masterminded” by Daniel Pinkwater (who visited 7-Imp here in 2009) and illustrated by Calef Brown (who visited with his elephant that same […]

  23. […] about the utterly charming Bear in Love (to be released by Candlewick in mid-August), written by Daniel Pinkwater and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand. That is here, if you missed it last week and are so inclined […]

  24. […] Seuss for sure. He was read nightly at our house. But I was a huge Daniel Pinkwater fan, too (still am)! The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death — genius!! Then there’s […]

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