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Interview With Gordon Korman

By Matthew Butcher and Toby Tsuchida

A novelist at 12, and published at 14, Gordon Korman has

gone on to write more than 20 books for children and

young adults. Korman was born in Montreal in 1963; his

mother was a journalist, and his father an accountant. His

first novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall,

began as a seventh-grade writing assignment. Two years

later, it made him a best-selling author, and he has

continued to write about a book a year ever

sinceÑsomehow finding time along the way to finish high

school and receive a B.F.A. from New York University's

film school. Korman's comedic novels have garnered many

awards, including the International Reading Association's

Children's Choice Award and (three times) the American

Library Association's Best Book for Young Adults award.

He now divides his time between New York City, Thornhill,

Ontario, and Pompano Beach, Florida.

 

Young Canadian Voices: First off, what advice do you have

for young writers?

Gordon Korman: It's very hard for a young writer to get

started. It's hard to find a publisher, and even worse to find an

agent. They want you to have an established body of work

beforehand. You need a portfolio. And actually, it's probably

easier today to publish a novel than a short story, because

there's just no market for short stories. I'm hooked up with a

society of children's book writers, and probably two thirds of

the members are trying to get published.

YCV: Did you run into problems yourself?

GK: My story was really lucky. I don't know if you remember,

it was 20 years ago, I had a grade seven writing project. The

teacher was a track and field coach. He was a great guy, but

he didn't have any experience teaching English, so he more or

less gave us carte blanche to do what we liked for the period

all year. So I wrote this story, and sent it off to a publisher.

What do you know about publishers in grade seven? I sent it

to Scholastic Canada, who send those advertising flyers out to

the schools, Arrow and Tab. I actually sent it to the address on

the back of the flyer. And they liked it. I started publishing with

Scholastic in Canada, exporting to the United States, and then

a few years ago I switched to the parent company in the U.S.,

and now the books are imported into Canada. That was a big

symbolic difference, because now I'm there with their company

instead of someone they picked up from a distributor. They

take more of an interest in you that way. I'm very happy with

the promotion they've given me.

For instance, this year is the twentieth anniversary of Bruno

and Boots. The first book was This Can't Be Happening at

Macdonald Hall. The new book, Something Fishy at

Macdonald Hall, was coming out, so we had a contest. Most

of the contest was fairly easy triviaÑit wasn't like how many

buttons are on Elmer Drimsdale's shirt; you know how some

fans can recall the most obscure minutiae. This was easy stuff.

But the tie-breaker was, you had to invent a new character for

Bruno and Boots. Anyhow, the point is, I was very lucky to

get hooked up. Most writers wouldn't be fortunate enough to

have that sort of relationship with a publisher.

Have you ever worked with grade seven kids? Their first

question is always, "How much money do you make?" Which

is legitimate. With the Blue Jays' new pitcher, Joe Slobotnik,

his salary's on the sports page. But with writers, kids don't

know. Children's books are a really good market. Right now

the best-selling writer in the world is R.L. Stine, who does the

Goosebumps series. He sells more than Stephen King, Tom

Clancy and John Grisham put together. A lot of people call him

a sell-out, because he writes a lotÑa dozen books a yearÑand

he started out writing serious books. I can't do that. I can only

do one book a year, maybe one and a half. But you've got to

understand that to make a decent living at $4000 a book, as a

full-time writer, he had to train himself to write a lot.

YCV: What's the reaction in the publishing world to electronic

forms of publishingÑthe Internet, web pages, that sort of thing?

GK: There's interest in that direction, but they're also scared.

Electronic forms of publishing are much easier to copy.

Publishers have been lucky in that they haven't had to go

through growing pains like other industries. Record companies

had to deal with the fact that you can make nearly perfect

copies of CDs. Same thing in the software industry. Up to

now, though, it's been cheaper to buy a book than to

photocopy it.

In picture books they've tried a lot of interactive things, but

they're really likeÑdo you remember the old Choose Your

Own Adventure books? That kind of thing. Click on a picture

of a dog, and it says woof. Click on a picture of a cat, and it

says meow. That might be great for a two-year-old, but I

haven't seen it done well with a novel yet.

Mary Pope Osborne, the president of the Authors Guild, lived

in my apartment building when I was in New York. Electronic

forms of writing are very important to her. Mostly the Authors

Guild has just been about freedom of expression, you know,

"You can't take the word Ôshit' out of that book." But

Osborne is looking at that kind of thing. I think the big

breakthrough will probably come from someone who isn't a

novelist, because to really take advantage of what a computer

can do, you need a different kind of creativity.

My own computer is just an old IBM PC, but my fiancee

MichelleÑshe's a third grade teacher in Long IslandÑhas a

Macintosh Performa. She's always saying stuff like, "Do want

a little graphic up there?" Which is amazing, but the publisher

has its own graphics department, and they don't care if you

have a picture of a bird in the corner or not.

YCV: What writers influenced you when you started writing

your early school stories? Had you read, say, Kipling's Stalky

& Co.?

GK: No, not really. I'd read some of the British boarding

school books. My favourite series, though, was John D.

Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. But I was very influenced by

movies and TV, because it was so visual. Disney movies, with

Don Knotts dangling on a rope from a flagpole. That sort of

thing. It's pretty stupid looking back on it now, but as a kid it

was great stuff. So when I started writing Macdonald Hall, I

saw it as a movie in my head.

YCV: Do you still do that?

GK: No. I'm still very visual, but I don't construct it as a

movie. I've been doing this a long time now, so I've learned a

few techniques. Still, I'd do it all in dialogue if I could.

YCV: Did you concentrate on English all through high school?

GK: I obviously must have had some sort of knack or talent

for writing, but if you look at my grade thirteen courses, I took

Functions and Relations, Calculus and Algebra, and only one

English course. I was a big math-head. Not a huge math-head,

maybe, but I did well in math contests and that sort of thing.

Math was always my strength. And I get a lot of letters from

readers who are good at math and in the chess club and so on,

and I think the connection is there. These are young kids who

are into math, chess, and fantasy and science fiction. They've

read all of Terry Brooks by grade eleven, and The Hitchhiker's

Guide to the Galaxy and Lord of the Rings in the fourth grade.

There is a huge connection there, but people still tend to

classify you either as a literary type or a math type.

YCV: Had you decided by grade thirteen that you were going

to be a writer?

GK: Yes, I knew, because I had a few books out by then;

three, probably four, and another in contract. The money was

marginal, but I knew that was what I wanted to do. I actually

went to college for a year and a half; I was in film school at

NYU.

YCV: The Tisch School of Arts.

GK: Yes. It actually took me a year and a half to figure out

that I can't hold a camera steady. But that's how I got into

"dramatic writing." I was lucky to be there at a period,

1983-84, when there were a lot of creative people who later

became famous. Spike Lee, for instance. And not just writers

and directors, actors too.

YCV: So you've thought about going into film?

GK: Well, yesÉI've had a few of my novels optioned, but the

film industry is so weird. When I was a teenager and I got my

first film option I thought, "Yes! Now I'm set!" And I was very

disappointed when nothing ever appeared. Students always

ask me if there will be movies of my books, and I always used

to say that one would be out before they had their first-born

male child. But by now, several of them probably already have

kids.

One thing I learned at NYU is that writing for the screen is

fundamentally different from writing novels. There are people

who are good at both, but it's a different kind of talent. I can

actually watch a movie and tell if a novelist wrote it. A

novelist's script has too many scenes, in a way. It's very

episodic.

YCV: How about trying a different style of novel?

GK: A different genre, or an adult novel?

YCV: Sure.

GK: I've thought of writing science fiction or fantasy for a long

time. I'm not sure how good I'd be at it, thoughÑcreating an

entire world can be daunting. I do plan on writing an adult

book somedayÑwhen I have an adult idea!Ñbut I don't have a

specific agenda. The adult book business is a little unforgiving.

Children's books have time to sit around and find an audience.

An adult book comes out, gets maybe three reviews, and then

either it sells or it's gone. People who write stuff, even if it's

fluffy and light, you live that book for six months while you're

writing it. When my dad talks about an old car, I think, That

was back around Son of Interflux or No Coins, Please. It's

like the way some people associate a particular song with

some year, like 1977. It's very depressing if a book comes

out, is around for four months, and then it's gone.

YCV: With your latest novels, though, there's been a bigger

emphasis on social and environmental issues.

GK: Well, yes, maybe, but I've never been a big issue guy. To

me, entertaining is more important than enlightening. I don't

have a problem with issues, but it's gotten a little out of hand.

We've become very high concept in the kids' book business.

You know, you have the book where a kid's brother gets

leukaemia. Or sometimes his parents get divorced. It's like

they say, if aliens came to Earth and evaluated us by our kids'

books, they'd go away thinking that the most traumatic thing

that could possibly happen to anyone is having your dog die.

Would I ever write a book about having your dog die?

Maybe, but the story would have to drive the book, not the

issue.

I've thought about it, though, and I think there is an underlying

theme in every one of my booksÉ I had it down to a

nicely-worded sentence, and I can't remember it now, but

anyhow I think the theme underlying all of my books is

individuality. For want of a better word, there is a coolness in

individuality. And even a glamour. And a nobility. Did you ever

have a friend that nobody else could stand? I wrote a book

once, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag, about that sort

of relationship, a guy kind of like George on Seinfeld. My guy's

name was Raymond. He's the sort of guy, if you described him

to a friend, he'd say, "You hang out with him?" He's really

annoying, but you can see something about him that's almost

noble, definitely cool. There's not so much of that in the Bruno

and Boots books, but there's still an emphasis on kids taking

charge of their own destiny. Child power. I have a book called

The Twinkie Squad, about the kids in what's called a "special

discussion group" at high school. And as you know, any kids

who get the word "special" attached to them like that become

a target for the other kids, and this group gets called the

Twinkie Squad. But the kids in it manage to turn that around,

and it goes from being a joke to the coolest secret society, and

everyone's trying to join it. That's really my thematic focus right

now, but again the emphasis is on the story rather than the

issue.