In 2006, Newbery-winning author Louis Sachar participated in two chats with Scholastic students and teachers. Sachar is the author of Holes, the Wayside School books, the Marvin Redpost series, and other titles.
Transcript From 11 a.m. ET Chat
Why did you become an author?
I really began to love to read while in high school, and my favorite authors were my heroes: J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut.
What is your favorite part about being a writer? What is your least favorite part?
I like challenging myself and trying different things. There's a big difference between Wayside School and Holes. My least favorite part is it is very solitary. I work alone.
Have you always wanted to write?
Since I was about 14.
From AZ: What inspires you to write your stories? Are the stories based on life experiences?
I wish I got inspiration. Most of the time it is me just sitting at my desk, like I'm doing now, trying to think of something.
From FL: Have any of your childhood experiences been included in any of your books?
Not really. It's more how I felt as a child. How I viewed the world. What I thought of girls, for example, when I was 9. That kind of thing. But no specific real life instances.
What is your favorite book?
Small Steps, because it is still new to me. I still feel very close to the characters.
From CA: Has there ever been anything you would like to change in your already published book?
All the time. Often when I'm reading aloud to an audience I change a word here or there.
From AR: Hi, my name is Hannah. I LOVE your books. I was wondering, how do you write such interesting books?
I try to make the interesting to me. It takes me up to two years to write a book, and I rewrite it five or six times in the process, so I have to like it, or else I'd be bored.
From NY: How does it feel to be a famous person? -Kara P.
Weird. Most of the time I don't think of myself as famous, but then I remember I am, and it's quite strange.
From Justin: Are there any books that you wish you wouldn't have written? Or written better?
I like all my books. I'm sure they all could have been written better, but I tried my best on each one, and I can't worry it about it after that.
From TX: How did you get the idea to write the book Holes?
I never think of an entire book at once. I always just start with a very small idea. In Holes, I just began with the setting; a juvenile correctional facility located in the Texas desert. Then I slowly make up the story, and rewrite it several times, and each time I rewrite it, I get new ideas, and change the old ideas around. In the end, it's really hard to say how I thought up each part.
From Jeb: Who is your favorite character in your book Holes?
Kissin' Kate Barlow.
Holes is about a kid who gets in trouble because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time. Has this every happened to you?
No. I think everybody feels unlucky now and then, and that life isn't fair, but I was never as unfortunate as Stanley.
Did you like how the movie Holes turned out?
Very much. I wrote the screenplay, and I'm also in the movie for a couple of seconds. Sam sells me onion juice to pour on my head to make my hair grow.
Did you make more money from the movie Holes than the book?
I made more from the book, but the movie helped get people to know about the book. The book sold the most copies when the movie was in theatres. I get about 10% of the cover price every time a book is sold.
You played Stanley's dad, didn't you? -Melanie
No. That was Henry Winkler. I played Mr. Collingwood. Like I said, I was only on screen for a second or two.
What is Small Steps based on?
The main character is Armpit from Holes. It takes place two years later. Armpit is 17 years old, and is trying to get his life together. X-Ray is also in it.
Is Small Steps going to be made into a movie? -Lockhart Elementary, 4th Grade, Tampa, FL
There are no plans at the moment.
Since you have written Small Steps are you working or planning on writing any others in the near future?
I hope to. I doubt I will write any more about the Holes characters.
How many books have you written?
What are the main objectives of your stories? Are they just for pleasure reading or is there a lesson behind them?
I write to entertain. But to me, the most entertaining books are ones that make you think and feel, and so I think morals and lessons are often part of that.
When was your first book published?
Sideways Stories From Wayside School was my first book. I wrote it in 1976.
How long on average does it take you to write one book?
Most of books took about a year to write. Holes took a year and a half. Small Steps took two years.
Other than writing, what activities do you like to do in your spare time? -Mr. Hemming's class, Tampa, FL
I love to ski, but I only do that a few times a year. There's no snow in Texas. I'm also a very avid bridge player. It's a card game. I play in bridge tournaments all around the country.
How do you come up with the titles for your books?
The title is often the last thing I think of. I'll finish a book, and then try to think of what to name it. I try to think of something that fits the story, but also would intrigue a would-be reader.
How do you come up with the names of characters?
I just make them up. Sometime a name just comes to me and seems to fit, like Ginny in Small Steps. Other times, I'll keep changing a character's name until I finally come up with one that seems okay.
Did you just write nonstop when you write your books? Or did you take a week off and then start again?
I wrote for about two hours a day, every morning.
Is writing books like another hobby that you take up, like skiing???
I think I thought of my first book that way. When I wrote Sideways Stories From Wayside School I never expected it to be published. It was kind of a hobby. Now, it's a job, but it's a job I like very much.
With Sideways Stories From Wayside School, did you get some inspiration from any place?
Yes. During my last year at college I helped out in a nearby elementary school. All the characters in that book were inspired by kids and teachers I knew at that school. Louis, the yard teacher, was based on me.
I loved the Wayside School stories. Are you planning on writing any more? -Lindsay T.
I don't have any current plans to do so, but I imagine I will someday.
Do you have any tips for anyone who wants to start writing?
You have to be willing to rewrite. I didn't become a good writer until I learned how to rewrite. And I don't just mean fixing spelling and adding a comma. I rewrite each of my books five or six times, and each time I change huge portions of the story.
Have you ever started writing a book, then decided to never finish it? -Lindsay T.
Yes. Like I said earlier, I never think of an entire book in my mind. I start with a small idea, and as I write, it grows. Many times the story just doesn't seem to grow, so I'll try something else. Usually I'll know after a week if the story is going anywhere, but there have been a few times where I've worked on a story for several months, and then gave up on it.
Does traveling across the country to promote your books inspire your writing? -Draven B.
I think seeing all the people who like my books, inspires me to write more.
Did it take longer to write Monkey Soup than a chapter book? Is it easier or harder to write a picture book?
It took a few days to write Monkey Soup. Then it took the illustrator a long time to draw the pictures.
From Max: Have you written any historical fiction?
From Brett: What is your favorite genre to write?
Fiction, and humorous fiction.
You mentioned that Small Steps is your personal favorite. What other book of yours is special to you? -Devin F.
All my books are special to me. Each one represents a piece of my life.
From Kunaal: In Chapter 7 of Wayside School, how did you decide to write a whole chapter backwards?
I thought it would be funny.
From Peyten: In Wayside School, why did you skip Chapter 19?
Because there was no 19th story. But I made up for it in Wayside School Is Falling Down, where there are three Chapter 19s.
From NY: How do you make the Wayside School books so funny? How did you come up with the names of the characters? How did you decide what the characters would look like?
I wrote what I thought was funny. The characters are all named after the real kids I knew when I helped out at the elementary school. I'd picture them in my head and describe them. The illustrator then drew the pictures, which looked nothing like the real kids I knew.
From Becky: In Wayside School, who is your favorite character?
It's hard to pick a favorite. Maybe Todd.
From Grant: In Wayside School, there was a teacher who was a witch. Have you had any bad teachers?
I didn't like my 5th grade teacher, although she wasn't quite as bad as Mrs. Gorf.
What are some of your favorite books written by other authors (classics or contemporary)? -Nashliee N.
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. None of those are books for kids. My favorite kids books are Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
Have you ever written a book that is similar to something else you have read?
I don't think so.
What was the first character you ever created?
Who was your least favorite character in Wayside School?
I like them all.
From Aaron: Who did you base the characters in Holes on?
The Warden was based on a bridge playing friend of mine. All of the other characters were completely made up.
How hard was it to keep three storylines going in Holes?
It was difficult. I worried that the reader would lose interest in Stanley's story, if I kept switching away to other time periods.
From Nicole: Have you ever wanted to do something else besides writing?
No. I feel very fortunate that I can make a living doing what I like to do.
Do you still feel as passionate about writing now as you did when you first started? -Nadia G.
Yes, but I think it's getting harder to come up with new ideas.
What did you do with the money the first time you sold a book?
I don't remember. It wasn't a whole lot of money. Maybe I bought a sandwich.
Have you written any books that have not been published?
When you started writing your books, where did you go? Did you have a special place away from everyone??
I lived alone then. Later on, when I got married, my wife and I lived in a very small apartment. My wife would have to leave the house for couple of hours every morning so I could be alone to write.
From Peyten: Do you plan on writing any science fiction?
I don't know what I'll write next, but even if I did, I never talk about a book until after it is finished. Not even my wife knows what I'm working on until I'm ready to send it to the publisher.
Why did you write There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom?
A friend of mine told me about a time when he was in fifth grade, and there was a kid in the class nobody wanted to sit near. That gave me the idea for the book. At around the same time I met a school counselor, named Carla.
Where did you get the idea for Sixth Grade Secrets?
I have no idea. I was just trying to come up with something, and somehow I had an image in my mind of a girl with long hair and a cap that said "Pig City."
From Nicole: Have you ever tried to put a family member on any book covers?
No. I have nothing to do with the covers. That's all done by the publisher.
In the book Holes, you said that the Warden was a friend of yours. Why did you make his character mean?
The Warden has wasted her whole life out in the dried up lake bed looking for buried treasure. That's what made her mean. My friend is very proud of the fact that the Warden is based on her.
When you think about dedicating a book, who do you think of?
I dedicate my books to people in my family or my close friends. In Small Steps, Ginny is based on a girl I know named Laura. That book is dedicated to Laura and her mother, Nancy, who taught me to play bridge.
Could you give our class two tips for beginning writers?
Write what you like, and I hate to say it again, but you have to rewrite.
Dominique H. from Mr. Hemming's class: Do you have any plans to retire?
No, I'm already doing what I like to do.
Transcript From 7 p.m. ET Chat
From MO: How many hours of sleep do you get, with writing all those creative stories? -A 4th grade fan of yours
Sleep's not a problem. I've been writing books for almost 30 years, so even though it seems like I write all the time, I only write a couple of hours each day. I usually get about eight hours sleep a night.
From CO: Do you keep a writer's notebook? If so, did you get any ideas for any of your books from it?
I don't keep a writer's notebook.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
I just try to get through it. The hardest part is just thinking up the beginning of a story. If I get stuck in the middle, it doesn't bother me that much, because I know I'm going to rewrite the story at least five or six times anyway, so I just try to get something down, and hope to get past the part I'm having trouble with.
From Cristian: Do you have any kids at this moment?
I have one daughter. She's 19 and away at college.
From MO: Have you ever written a book about your daughter? -A 4th grade fan
When she was 4 years old I wrote the first Marvin Redpost book. Marvin's sister is 4 years old. That's not a coincidence.
Do you get most of your book ideas from personal experiences and can you give examples?
No, my personal experiences are kind of boring. I have to make up what I put in my books. However, I did work at a school while I was going to college, and that led to me writing Sideways Stories From Wayside School. All the kids in that book are named after kids I knew there. But all the stories are made up.
From OK: Mr. Sachar, I am a student at a University in Oklahoma. We are doing author studies. I have chosen you and your work. I know you write your books mostly for student enjoyment. If you could pick one word to describe something you would like students to learn from your books, what would it be?
If I could write it one word, I wouldn't need to write 200+ page books. But I think a recurring theme in all my books is that kids should be happy with who they are, and not try to be just like everybody else.
From Cristian: Have you ever thought of trying a different career?
I went to law school, and became a lawyer, but I never really liked it. At the time I didn't know if I'd ever get a book published, or if I'd be able to make a living as an author. I always wanted to be a writer, and once my books started selling well enough, I quit being a lawyer.
From Canberra, Australia: What made you want to study law at Hastings College of the Law?
I was 23 years old, and didn't know what I wanted to do. I hoped to get my book published. I went to law school because I didn't know what else to try. It wasn't a very good reason.
What book do you think you did the best writing on?
They're all so different, it's hard to compare Wayside School to Holes or Small Steps.
How many drafts do you normally do of each story?
Five or six. And there are big differences between the drafts, especially the first two or three.
How long did it take to write Holes?
A year and a half.
Did you write Holes by yourself or did someone help you?
I wrote it all by myself. I also wrote the screenplay for the movie, and I had help from the director when I did that.
From MO: How did you feel when Holes was going to be a movie? -A 4th grade student from John Weldon
I was excited but also worried. I don't usually like movies made from books I like.
From NJ: What do you say to people who think that writing about children who commit crimes is bad for kids?
I've never heard anyone say that. I think kids find the characters in Holes interesting, but it's a very moral story, and I can't imagine that the book would be a bad influence on anyone. I think people who say that have very low expectations from kids.
Do you ever think about writing a book called Holes 2?
No. Small Steps is the closest I think I'll get to writing a sequel.
When did you first get the idea for Small Steps?
While working on the movie. A lot of the actors wanted to know more about their characters. That got me thinking about Armpit and the other boys.
How did you get the idea for Ginny in Small Steps?
I have a friend named Nancy in Austin, who has a daughter named Laura who had cerebral palsy. I interviewed Laura and Nancy about it. Ginny was inspired by Laura. The book is dedicated to them.
From FL: Are they planning on making a movie version of Small Steps?
There are no plans, but the director would like to do it if we can find the right studio to produce it.
Does your daughter read your books?
Yes, she likes them.
What advice do you have for young writers?
You have to be willing to rewrite your stories. I didn't become a good writer until I learned how to rewrite.
From MO: I really like Wayside School Is Falling Down. How come there is no 13th floor in the school? -A 4th grader from John Weldon Elementary
There is no 19th floor. I started writing a story about Mrs. Jewls giving Calvin a note to take to another teacher. I didn't know what was going to happen it. Then I got the idea that the teacher didn't exist, and the floor didn't exist either. It doesn't make sense, but I think it's funny.
Where did you come up with the idea for the Wayside School books?
While going to college, I got college credit for helping out an hour a day at Hillside School, an elementary school. I had a great time. After I graduated, I thought I'd try writing a kid's book, and I'd picture the different kids I knew and make up stories about them. Louis, the Yard Teacher, was based on me.
From MI: In the book Wayside School Is Falling Down, there is a chapter in the book that is talking about a guy that got a tattoo on his ankle of a potato. Out of all the things that you could have made him get, you made him get a potato. Why?! And right when you were talking about him getting a potato tattoo, you change over to talking about a blue bird and I swear I have read that chapter about a hundred times and I still don't get about the blue bird.
I don't know about the blue bird. Maybe the pages are out of order in your book. I chose for him to get a potato, because it was simple, and he liked it, even though nobody else did. Last month, while I was on a book tour for Small Steps, I met a young woman, who was about 22 years old, but had read Wayside School when she a young girl. She now has a potato tattoo just above her ankle, just like Calvin. I was amazed.
Do you have a timetable for when you write?
No. I just try to do the best job I can do, no matter how long it takes. But it's kind of like reading a good book. As it gets closer to the end, I can't wait to finish it, and then when I do finish it, I'm kind of sad that it's all over.
Do you like to write?
Yes, very much. It's wonderful to start with nothing, and create a whole story, with characters and situations that seem very real.
Have you ever thought of teaching kids to write?
I wouldn't know how to do that. I'd be better at teaching adults to write for kids.
What time of the day (or night) do you write?
Usually from about 8:30 in the morning to about 10:30. I'll often go jogging first.
If you had all the time in the world how many hours would you write?
The same amount.
We're in Canberra, and we're wondering where you are writing from this interview from.
Are there days that you sit down to write and know that it won't happen that day? Or can you write every day?
Yes, there are days like that, especially during the first draft of a book.
Do you ever write random paragraphs that you might be able to fit into your work somewhere?
What were some books you read as a kid?
Charlotte's Web was my favorite. I read a lot of sports books, and books with animals in them. I remember one was called Yellow Eyes. I think it was about a cougar. I remember reading the Encyclopedia Brown books too.
Why did you decide to make Holes into a movie. I'm in Canberra, Australia, and our class is studying the book.
It was an exciting and interesting experience, and I got paid for it, too! It was fun being on the set, and I was also in the movie for one scene. Sam, the onion man, sells me some kind of onion potient that I'm supposed to pour on my head to make my hair grow.
In Holes, you put in issues like bullying and racism. Did you do this on purpose or did it just grow with the book?
It just grew out of the book.
What's your favorite kind of books?
I mostly read fiction. I like books where I feel some kind of connection with the author. Like we see things the same way. Once I find an author I like, I'll usually read other books by the same author.
Have you ever been able to solve an Encyclopedia Brown mystery without giving up and looking at the answers? I know I haven't.
I don't remember, it's been a long time. Probably not.
Do also write books for adults as well as children?
I write what I like, so adults often like my books as well, but they have all been children's books.
From MD: What made you want to make books?
While in high school, I really started loving to read. My favorite authors were my heroes: J.D. Saliinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Dostoevsky. It was what I wanted to do.
When do you think you will stop writing books?
I don't want to think about that. I like writing, and hope to continue for as long as I am able.
How did you feel when your first book was going to get published?
I couldn't believe it. It was very exciting. It was hard to believe that my name would be on a book, and that a real illustrator would draw pictures based on what I wrote.
Are your books mostly aimed at a certain age level?
No. And I don't think about that when I write. I write stories I like, that just happen to have young people as the main characters.
Did you enjoy story writing in primary and secondary school?
Sort of, but I wasn't one of those people who like to write all the time, and keep journals, and that sort of thing. But if a teacher asked us to write a story, I think I enjoyed it.
What primary school did you go to?
From kindergarten to third grade, I went to Barnum Woods in East Meadow, New York. From 4th to 6th grade I went to Red Hill School in Tustin, California. (Bradley Chalkers in There's A Boy In The Girls' Bathroom goes to Red Hill School, too.)
Which did you like coming up with first in the Wayside School series, the word plays or the math puzzles?
What do you mean by word plays?
Like how Mrs. Gorf's name is frog backwards and Drazil is lizard backwards.
The word plays were fun to do. Did you know that all three Wayside Books rhyme at the end?
What's your favorite book that you wrote? Or have you reread any of your books and were surprised how much you liked it? Which one?
I can't reread my books for enjoyment. I know them too well. But when I read them aloud to a group, I'm able to enjoy them. I recently read the story about Joe in Wayside School to a group of teachers and was surprised by how much I liked it. I wrote it over 25 years ago.
Do you have any favorite children's book authors?
Katherine Paterson. She wrote The Great Gilly Hopkins and Bridge to Terabithia. (I probably spelled that wrong.) I also like Lois Lowry.
Is there an illustrator you want to do the pictures for your work?
Most of books don't have many pictures. I've never chosen the illustrator. The editor does that.
Do you get times where you just can't concentrate?
Sometimes a neighbor will be mowing his lawn, or using an electric saw, or something like that, and it wrecks my concentration.
How old were you when you first started to write? -Valeria l.
I was 22 when I started my first book. Sideways Stories From Wayside School.
How long does it take you to think up a subject for a book?
Sometimes I get one right away. Other times I can go from months and can't think of what I want to write about.
What advice would you give your daughter if she decided to start writing books?
Don't worry about how your stories compare to what I write. Just write the best you can. I should add that my daughter is a very good writer, and I think she'd be good at it. But she's more interested in science.