Author Louis Sachar at Home in Austin, Texas
Interview by Suzanne Freeman
Q: The first set of questions I am going to ask you came from high school students at KidsPeace, a national hospital for kids in crisis, and their high school English class, that is right outside of Allentown, Pennsylvania. They are reading Holes right now. I asked them to come up with some questions for you that they are interested in because they are loving this book and having a great time with it. So, they want to know where you got the idea for the story?
Meet Author Louis Sachar
By Suzanne Freeman
If you want to get a look at Holes author Louis Sachar, go to the movie and don't blink. Sachar has a role in the upcoming film for about two seconds. His Old West character buys a jar of onion juice from Sam the onion seller, hoping it will make his hair grow.
"That's my favorite thing to talk about," Sachar said of his brief moment on screen, which was hardly a starring roll. "It's kind of like, baseball pitchers always wanting to talk about their at-bats. It was a real short scene."
As the creator of one of the most popular children's books around, Sachar is certainly a bigger star than a movie walk-on. His book was a bestseller, he wrote the screen play and was on the set for most of the filming as a consultant. But his role in life as a big shot author is something he plays down in his day-to-day life.
Sachar spends much of his spare time playing duplicate bridge and tennis. He also skis in the winter with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. He works out of his home with his two dogs Lucky and Tippi in attendance. They are the only ones allowed in the office while Sachar is working.
"They seem to take comfort in being in my office while I am writing and they don't bother me," Sachar says.
They are also with him when he does most of his thinking during early morning walks in the neighborhood. But even the dogs don't know what he's thinking up next.
"I started something a little while ago, but I don't like talking about what I am writing," says Sachar. "Not even to my wife and daughter."
When Sachar starts a book, he writes for about an hour a day. Once he finishes a first draft, he begins rewritingand rewriting and rewriting. Each day, as the characters and story begin to emerge, he spends a little bit longer at the keyboard.
"The most important thing is my routine," Sachar says. "I don't wait for new ideas or inspiration to come out of the sky. I sit down at my desk every day and I write."
The first draft of Holes took about six months. He wrote four more drafts in the next yearthe longest he's worked on any of his books.
The idea for Holes came from the Texas heat. When Sachar left the cool bay breezes of San Francisco behind to live in Texas in 1991, he had a hard time getting used to the heat.
"I came up with this placeCamp Green Lake in Texasthat was so hot even the lake dried up," Sachar said. He decided to make Camp Green Lake a camp for juvenile delinquents. Then he placed Stanley Yelnats in the camp for a wrongful conviction. He decided on a family curse and the rest is history.
"I just sort of put all those elements together, not really knowing what was going to happen," he said. "And as I wrote the story emerged."
His next book, which will NOT be a sequel to Holes, is destined to be just as compelling and successful.
"With each book I always try to learn from what I have written," says Sachar. "I always try to make the next one better."
Better than Holes? We can't wait to find out!
Two Book Reviews of Holes
to Caitlin from Ohio
to Tina from Missouri
Louis Sachar: Well, this is always hard to answer, where ideas come from. Initially, I moved to Austin, Texas, from San Francisco in 1991, and one of the hardest things to get used to was the long, hot summers here. And when I started writing Holes
, I had no idea what I was writing, but it was sort of a reaction to the heat. And I came up with this place, Camp Green Lake in Texas that was so hot that even the lake dried up. And I decided to make it a juvenile, a kind of boot camp, for juvenile delinquents, and into that I placed Stanely Yelnats, the boy who was wrongfully convicted of a crime. And I just sort of put all those elements together, not really knowing what was going to happen. And as I wrote, the story slowly emerged.
Q: Even the complicated, twisted plot of the many-years-ago curse?
Louis Sachar: Right, and somewhere along the line, I got the idea that Stanely's family was cursed. And I am sure when I got the idea, I knew that Stanely was going to end up doing something to break the curse. So it is really hard to remember in what order the ideas came. I only write about, at most, an hour a day when I am doing the first draft of a book. The first draft took about six months. It just sort of developed slowly and gradually. And then I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it about five times, and every time I rewrote it, the ideas sort of changed and shifted and new scripts were added and things like that.
Q: They also want to know where specifically you got the idea for the yellow, spotted lizard?
Louis Sachar: Again, that was something I threw into the mix at the very beginning, figuring it would make it more exciting. I wasn't quite sure how I would use him in the story. But I began by creating what I thought was an intense and colorful setting, and added the lizard just to throw an element of danger in. I figured I would use him somewhere, somehow.
Q: And this is a question I really love from them: Is this a story that has any meaning or is it just for entertainment?
Louis Sachar: It's written for entertainment, but part of my definition of entertainment, especially with reading, is to have meaning. At least the books I love are ones that really make me think and provoke all kinds of feeling. And so there are meanings there. I didn't set out to teach a lesson, I set out to entertain, and whatever messages are there grew out of the story.
Q: What are some of those messages, in your mind?
Louis Sachar: I would say the importance of trusting yourself, standing up for your friends, then the broad issues of racial equality, anti-discrimination, and the importance of learning to read. I always have trouble saying what the messages are because as I mentioned, I don't set out to teach a message. Whatever messages are there are ones that I already believe, I guess, and are just naturally part of the story, so it is just part of the story. So I am almost just going by what other people tell me what the messages are.
Q: Do you have any experience with juvenile facilities yourself?
Louis Sachar: No.
Q: So how did you know how to write about that?
Louis Sachar: It's not a very realistic place. I mean, I don't think there is a juvenile facility where the kids have to dig Holes all day and have such crazy guards and wardens. So it is very fictional. I didn't feel like I had to research it. Since I wrote the book, I actually have visited a few juvenile facilities, but it was never my intention to write a story about a juvenile detention facility. It was my idea to write an adventure story about a boy escaping such a place.
Q: Well, I have to tell you, to these kids at KidsPeace, it's realistic enough to them, I mean, this is a really, really nice facility at KidsPeace, but they feel like they are being made to dig Holes and deal with crazy wardens.
Louis Sachar: Well, I think those feelings are universal. I think even kids in school feel like they have to put up with authority all the time. Teachers tell them what they have to do and some of it seems pointless to them. So I think Camp Green Lake is this sort of extreme of that.
Q: Are your characters based on people you know?
Louis Sachar: No, they are not.
Q: Did you have any say in the making of the movie? They are really interested in what you did with the movie.
Louis Sachar: I was very involved with the movie. I wrote the screenplay and I was there on the set 80 percent of the time, giving my opinions. I didn't have the final say, that's the director's call, but I certainly had his ear. I was also in a scene.
Q: What scene?
Louis Sachar: That's my favorite thing to talk about. Kind of like, you always hear about baseball pitchers always wanting to talk about their at-bats. It was a real short scene. I was on the screen for maybe two seconds at the most. But in the Old west, Sam, the onion seller, sells me a jar of onion juice to make my hair grow, to rub on top of my head.
Q: Well, now, I have seen pictures of you, you are not bald. Do they make you wear one of those bald caps?
Louis Sachar: Well, no, I am not completely bald, but I have a lot more hair on the side of my head than I do on top. It's funny too because every time I look at myself in a picture, you know, people take pictures of me all the time, I always think, "Gosh, am I really that bald?" And then, when I saw the scene of the movie, I said, "I don't look bald in that."
Q: Do you feel the movie has the same impact as the book?
Louis Sachar: I hope so. It's very true to the book. As the writer of the book, I can't tell what the impact is anymore because I know the story too well and I am so involved with the movie. I can't tell what the impact is, except that it has been very well received by audiences.
Q: The last question by the boys is why did Zero admit to Stanely about stealing the shoes when Stanely had no clue that Zero really stole them?
Louis Sachar: Zero felt guilty all along. When Stanely got there and Zero found out that he was there because he supposedly stole these shoes, and Zero realized from the beginning that he was innocent and it was all his fault, he kind of felt a responsibility to Stanely. But you can see he kind of was too conflicted to just go right out and say, "You didn't do it, I did." That is a hard thing to do, so it was just bubbling inside him all that time. He felt guilty about it. That's why, when Stanely got in trouble for stealing the seeds, Zero finished digging his hole for him. And then when Zero finally admitted everything to Stanely, Zero thought he was going to die. Zero was really sick and he wanted to get it off his chest before he died.
Q: The rest of these questions are mine. When Holes won both the '98 National Book Award and the Newberry Medal, which was the first children's book to do so, what did that mean for you, personally and professionally?
Louis Sachar: It was a great satisfaction to be recognized like that, but awards don't mean as much to me as just people liking the book. You know, it means some committee likes the book, and that is nice, but it also means more if kids like the book.
Q: What do you think makes Holes so special?
Louis Sachar: I think it is a very entertaining story, very exciting story, thought provoking, and a puzzle. And it's not written down to kids, I write for my enjoyment, things that I like, so it respects its readers, treats its readers as intelligent, caring, smart people, and I think it brings out the best qualities of the reader.
Q: What do you mean it brings out the best qualities of a reader? That's an interesting statement.
Louis Sachar: Well, some children's books I feel try to pander to kids, make, you know, jokes that are somewhat in bad taste or, I mean, it's hard choosing a word, let me think about it a minute. I think it is the attitude the author has of its reader, it presents characters that caring people should care about. And the book is a puzzle that intelligent people will enjoy solving and the humor grows out of the story and is not directed at any of the characters. They're not laughing at the people. So the qualities it brings out are people's natural compassion for other people and imagination and intelligence.
Q: I've read that you don't write for an audience, but for yourself. What do you mean about that and how would you apply it to what you were just saying?
Louis Sachar: What I mean is I don't think, "What will kids like, what will kids think is funny?" I write what I like and what I think is funny. Now it's not 100 percent that I don't write for an audience. I am aware as I am writing that this is going to be read by a kid, and so I have to make sure that it is accessible to kids of many ages.
Q: What made you start writing children's books?
Louis Sachar: I think I was 22 when I started writing. I was right out of college. I guess I would have been 23. But anyway, it was my last year of college, I had helped out at an elementary school. And when I signed up to do that, I did it, not because I had any interest in kids because I didn't have any kids. I just did it as an easy class my senior year of college. But it turns out I just loved it. My favorite thing to do every day was to be with those kids, and so I thought I'd try and write a children's book. I had always been interested in writing before that, I just never considered young people.
Q: Had you written anything before that that was published?
Louis Sachar: No. I had written lots of short stories, basically for creative-writing class.
Q: While you were in law school and still struggling with the question of whether you were going to write full-time or study law, what kind of law were you studying?
I worked for a criminal-defense attorney after my second year of law school. So I may have been leaning in that direction, but so many people in law school, it kind of depends on who you happen to work for the first few jobs is where you head, especially somebody like me who really wasn't all that interested in pursuing a law career. I just went to law school because I wasn't sure what else I wanted to do. And writing was always my real interest, but I didn't expect to make a living as a writer.
Q: Do you find that having a second degree helped you out with your writing? What I am really trying to get at here is encouraging kids who want to be writers to get an education and what kinds of educations, how has it helped you to have been involved in both education and law?
Louis Sachar: I think the more you can experience and the more you can learn, the better writer you will be. I draw on my law background because that is something I have. If I had spent years working on an assembly line building cars, that would be something I would draw on. There is this other writer, I forgot his name, who used to work building cars. I think everything you do in life helps you add to your knowledge, your experiences, and that is what you draw upon when you write. So law helped, but any other field would help as well, and work experience helps.
Q: Do you have a favorite children's book?
Louis Sachar: Charlotte's Web.
Q: What is it you like about Charlotte's Web?
Louis Sachar: I like the way E.B. White writes. I think it's funny and tender and it draws you in. You really care about Wilbur. And then there are sort of the satirical comments on society as well in there: If you see something in writing, then it must be true, even if it is written by a spider on a web.
Q: Of all the books that you have written, do you have a favorite?
Louis Sachar: Holes is my favorite.
Q: And why is that?
Louis Sachar: It was a much more challenging story to write; it was a much bigger story than my other books, and by bigger, I don't mean longer in words. I mean it spanned four generations. Part of it took place in Latvia, part of it in the Old West, part of it in current day. Lots of characters, the plot was kind of a great adventure with people escaping from prison and digging up buried treasure. Most of my other books are more character studies rather than big, plotted books. There's There's a Boy in The Girls' Bathroom, which is another one of my favorites, which is really about the story of a troubled kid in school.
Q: Are you going to tackle another one that big?
Louis Sachar: I think so. As I write, with each book I always try to learn from what I have written. I always learn while I am writing. I always try to make the next one better.
Q: Are you working on the next one already?
Louis Sachar: I started something a little while ago, but I don't like talking about what I am writing. Not even to my wife or my daughter.
Q: I know, but I thought I would try to trick you.
Louis Sachar: I do have a book that has just come out.
Q: Oh yeah? What is that?
Louis Sachar: It's Stanely Yelnats's Survival Guide. As you can tell from the title, it's not a big novel, it's sort of a companion piece to go with Holes. But it's very funny.
Q: How do you prepare yourself for writing? How many hours do you spend writing, compared to what you spend thinking about it? I want you to talk to kids a little bit about the art of writing and your writing habits. How important is that to actually producing something?
Louis Sachar: Well, to me, the most important thing is my routine. I don't wait for new ideas or inspiration to come out of the sky. I sit down at my desk every day and I write for about an hour a day. That is when I am doing the first draft of the book. I am making up the story, trying to figure out who the characters are and what happens and how they get from place to place and chapter to chapter. With each subsequent draft, and I normally do about five drafts of a book, I am able to write longer. I know the story better, and so the second draft, I might write an hour and a half. The third draft, I might write two hours a day, then maybe three or four hours a day for my fourth and fifth drafts.
Q: I understand your dogs don't let you write for too long.
Louis Sachar: Well, they have changed me now. It used to be after two hours they would say, "Okay, it's time for a walk." But now they have taught me to take them for a walk before I even begin writing. When things are going well, when I am really excited about what I am writing, I usually think about what I am going to write while I am on the walk.
Q: So how much thinking do you do, compared to writing?
Louis Sachar: It's hard to answer because I don't just sort of sit in a chair and think. When the story is going well and I am really into it, part of my mind is thinking about it all the time. And probably even when the story isn't even going very well, I'm sure part of my mind is thinking about it all the time, because I will often be stuck at a part and not quite sure know what I am going to write next and don't consciously think about it. But the next morning when I wake up and take the dogs for a walk and sit down to write, suddenly I have all these ideas and I have to wonder where they came from. So clearly some part of my mind has been working on that problem.
Q: Do you write early morning or late afternoon?
Louis Sachar: Early morning.
Q: What advice would you give to kids who are interested in making a career in writing, how to get started, even at an early age?
Louis Sachar: Well, the best advice I can give is what they don't like hearing, and that is you need to rewrite. I understand, I used to hate rewriting when I was their age. But my first drafts are absolutely awful. I would be embarrassed to show them to anyone. It's not until I start really knowing the story, rewriting it to make it better, that it turns into something.
Q: Do you ever get bored with your story while you are working on it?
Louis Sachar: I imagine there are parts that are boring, especially during the first draft, where I am just trying to figure out what happens, when I'm taking the character through the daily process. I know he is going to do this today and then he is going to do that. And so I have to kind of put it all down. And then when I rewrite, I might decide to skip past a day and just go right to the good part. But that first draft, I'm kind of not quite sure when the good part is going to happen or what is going to turn out exciting, so I write a lot of mundane stuff that sometimes bores me.
Q: What do you consider the good part?
Louis Sachar: It's just what strikes me as interesting to read. The part that, when I rewrite it, I am going to center that section around. It's the focal point.
Q: So it's not necessarily the action?
Louis Sachar: No. It could be how the character is feeling, it could be, it tends to be action, but I don't think in those terms, I just think in terms of what's interesting to read, how I am going to get the character. I have a basic story of: This is going to happen in the story, but somehow you have to get from the beginning to the middle to the end to keep the reader interested without jumping to the end. So it is whatever those things are that keep things interesting.
Q: And backing up to your routine, you have two dogs?
Louis Sachar: Right.
Q: And they are the only people you let, or the only living things, you let into your office?
Louis Sachar: Yeah, I like to speak to them as people.
Q: I do that with my cats. So tell me about your dogs, their names, and how they help inspire you. Why are they the only ones you let in there?
Louis Sachar: They're Lucky and Tippy. Lucky is 12 years old and Tippy, I think she is 5, maybe 6.
Q: What kind of dogs are they?
Louis Sachar: We got them both from the pound, so they are not any particular breed. I don't know that they really inspire me. They just come in and they seem to take comfort in being in my office while I am writing and they don't bother me. I think I say that when I put that in my bio that they're the only ones allowed in my office as sort of humorous. But the main thing is that I can't write with somebody I know, you know, a person in my office. And it would be impossible if my wife or my daughter were sitting in the corner reading a book because it would be too distracting. And I guess, maybe it's because the dogs don't have any clue about what I am doing. To them, me, sitting at my desk, writing is no different from sitting in front of the TV and watching a show. They both are meaningless to them, but they don't question it.
Q: Are your wife and daughter fans of your work?
Louis Sachar: Yes.
Q: How old is your daughter now?
Louis Sachar: She's now 16.
Q: What do you do when you are not writing?
Louis Sachar: Well, my biggest passion is bridge. I play duplicate bridge, usually two or three times a week. I often will also go to tournaments around the country.
Q: How did you get into that?
Louis Sachar: I have always enjoyed games, and I met someone after moving to Austin. I met someone who played duplicate bridge, which is a lot different than regular bridge. It is a lot more competitive. I mean, everyone who has played is very serious about the game. And I used to play in chess tournaments. Bridge tournaments are a lot more fun and equally as challenging.
Q: How do you relate to Stanely Yelnats and why do you think kids relate to him?
Louis Sachar: Well, I think every kid, especially when you are in middle school or high school, you feel like it's just a real hard time. You feel like you are not cool enough or you are not smart enough or you are not good enough in sports or you are not good looking enough. And Stanely is sort of the epitome of that. He is an unpopular kid; he has bad luck. Bad as everyone else in his family and he has it worse because he has been convicted of a crime he didn't commit and sent to this horrible place. But you can tell from the things he thinks that he is a nice kid, a smart kid, funny. So I think people can identify with him, and when he rises out of his situation, people rise with him.
Q: Has your idea of what a hero is changed since 9/11?
Louis Sachar: No, no it hasn't. Heroes are just everyday people, just like Stanely or just like the firemen or the policemen.
Q: Any chance of any of your other books becoming movies? Is there talk about that?
Louis Sachar: There is talk about Wayside School becoming a television show, a cartoon. But I don't know if it will happen or not.
Q: Wayside School is actually at a lower reading level, right?
Louis Sachar: Yes, but what surprises me is all my books have a wide range of readers. Like, Holes is read in some third-grade classrooms and is read in high school classrooms. And Wayside School, maybe the youngest is second grade or first grade. I mean, probably there are kindergarten classes that read it. But I still get letters from kids in middle school who read it there or write book reports on it in middle school and occasionally high school.
To learn more about Louis Sachar and his book Holes, go to Scholastic.com's Authors and Books.