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
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
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
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
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
YCV: How about trying a different style of novel?
GK: A different genre, or an adult novel?
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
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