Rodman Philbrick Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
How is writing a book that takes place in the future different from writing one that takes place in the present?
Well, for one thing, I can create the world that I want, which means I get to use even more of my imagination than usual. I wanted to make the world of The Last Book in the Universe as real as possible, so I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I decided the world would be a very different place, but people would be pretty much the same.
Where did you get the idea for The Last Book in the Universe?
The editor of the book Tomorrowland asked me if I wanted to write a story for an anthology about the future. I thought of the title The Last Book in the Universe first, and then I had to make up a story to fit the title. After I'd finished writing the story, I realized I had a lot more to say on the topic. And decided to write a novel based on the main character of the story.
Where was Spaz's mom?
The shorter answer is “I don't know.” All I know is that his mother died when he was an infant.
Do you think that the future my turn out the way you depict it in The Last Book in the Universe? If no, then how do you think it will turn out?
I had a wonderful time imagining the future in this book, but I sincerely hope that I'm wrong. I think that the human race can learn from its mistakes, and it's about time we started.
How did Spaz's mom die?
I really do have no idea. The reason for that is because I put myself in Spaz's head and tried to live life through his eyes. He doesn't know what happened to his mother, and neither do I. Some things remain a mystery.
How did you come up with all those new words and terms in The Last Book in the Universe?
Well, if you have read Freak the Mighty, you know I'm very interested in words and dictionaries. And I figured that in the future, they would have different words for certain objects, so I made them up. I don't know how I do it.
Why do you think reading books is so important?
It's a very selfish question for me, because books were so important to me and continue to be so important to me. As a kid, books were my great escape and my salvation. And now they're the way I earn a living. And they're still my escape and my salvation.
Why was the movie The Mighty different from the book Freak the Mighty?
Well, unfortunately, the author of a book pretty much gives up control of the story when the producers take over a book to make it into a movie. So, they were free to change the title and to change some of the plot, for cinematic purposes. Actually, I think they did a pretty good job — books and movies are two different things.
Why did you decide to have Freak die in the book Freak the Mighty?
I didn't decide to have Freak die. The character Kevin was based on died in real life. And I didn't think that I could change reality and remain true to the story. The fact is, if the boy who inspired the character of Kevin hadn't died, I never would've written the book. He was someone I knew.
As an adult, how are you able to get inside the head of a kid so well?
The short answer to that is that I vividly remember being short. I have a very keen recollection of being 11 and 12 years old, and I use my own memories of how I felt at the time to create the characters I'm writing today.
Out of all the characters in your books, is there one that has become your favorite? If so, who?
The character that is my favorite is always the character I'm writing about right now. But, to be honest, I have great affection for Maxwell Kane, because he's the one who got me into writing books for younger readers. He was the first character I wrote about.
What was your favorite part of the movie The Mighty?
My favorite part was the ornithopter scene, because it was so close to the scene I wrote in the book.
When you wrote the dictionary in Freak the Mighty, how did you come up with the definitions?
Originally, the dictionary was just supposed to be there to explain the big words that Kevin used. But when I actually started writing it down, I had a lot of fun coming up with the definitions. Actually, I spend almost as long working on the dictionary pages as I did the whole novel. I guess the words springboard from real words — the kid had a great vocabulary and a great sense of humor, so I tried to combine the two.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I am an avid fisherman, and my daily schedule is to write in the morning, and then go fishing in the afternoon. In Maine, I fish mostly for stripers, and in the Florida Keys, I go after all kinds of game fish. I have three boats and I go fishing about 300 days out of the year.
Do you have your own Web site? If so, what do you think about the Web and e-mail?
Well, if you read The Last Book in the Universe, you'll realize that I'm kind of a high-tech kind of guy. I do have a Web site: www.rodmanphilbrick.com. I use the Internet every day and find it very helpful for research. Right now I'm writing a book for the My Name Is America series. It's about the Donner Party, and almost all of my research material was available on the Web.
How long does it take you to write a book? Do some books take longer to write than others?
Yes, some books do take longer than others. Freak the Mighty took less than two months, but Max the Mighty took more than a year. I had to rewrite Max the Mighty several times to get it right. No matter how experienced you are as a writer, sometimes you have to rewrite stories.
What were some of your favorite books you read as a kid?
I must confess that I read a lot of comic books. But I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan stories, and a series about John Carter on Mars. I also read lots of science fiction and Mark Twain. And all of the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts. I also loved A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. And basically any interesting book I could get my hands on.
When you're writing a book, do you share it with anyone as you are writing it? Is it helpful to get advice in the early stages of writing a new book?
I think for young writers it's sometimes helpful to show your work to a trusted friend before you're done. But I wait until I have written “The End” and then I give it to my wife, Lynn. She tells me the truth.
Did anyone in particular inspire you to become a writer? Parents? Teachers?
Both of my parents were avid readers. Both of them would've liked to have been writers. But, what really inspired me to become a writer was getting excited by the books I read. That inspired me. It's like if you're a kid and love to watch baseball, it would be natural that you would want to play baseball. It was a very natural thing for me to go from reading to writing.
Did you study writing in college after high school? Or did you study something else?
I was a fine arts major because I wanted to be a painter as well as a writer. It turned out I wasn't a very good painter, so I was stuck with being a writer. I didn't study writing in college — there were very few programs available 25 years ago — what you took was English.
Did you always want to be a writer when you were growing up?
At various times, I wanted to be a pilot, because my father had been a pilot; I wanted to be a doctor,;I wanted to be President of the United States, but no matter what I wanted to be at any given time, I always assumed I'd also be a writer.
Do you get ideas for your books from children in your life right now?
No, I don't have children. Most of my ideas come from my own memories of childhood. So I go back to the source. I love to hear ideas from the kids who read my books, and I always encourage them to write the stories themselves.
Can you suggest how young writers can get ideas for stories?
I don't know that I have a good answer, except to learn how to be good listeners. Listen to the things that are happening in your own world, and write about them.
Are you in the middle of writing a book right now?
I'm almost finished with a book for the My Name Is America series. The working title is “The Journal of William Deeds, His Ordeal With Cannibals in the Donner Party.” It's a true story. They were some of the western settlers who crossed Sierra Nevada and starved in the winter of 1846 and resorted to cannibalism.
Have you ever put aside a book for a long time before finishing it? If so, why?
The answer is yes I have. Usually because I got stuck in the middle of the story and didn't know how to finish it. I've found, however, that it's very difficult for me to go back and finish a story after I've put it aside for any length of time. So now I try to finish a story, no matter how difficult the writing is.
What inspired you to write The Fire Pony?
My wife Lynn and I drove across the country in the winter of 1993. It was the first time I'd seen the West, except for in an airplane or at a movie, and I was impressed with the awesome landscape, and I decided I wanted to write a story set in that landscape. Fires were raging across the West that year and it seemed natural to me that fire would be part of the story.
Has Freak the Mighty become a popular book with children in other countries?
It's been translated into a lot of different languages, and I do get mail from kids in other countries. Whether it's popular or whether it's homework, I'm not really sure.
Are all your stories based on something from real life?
I would say the characters are all based on people as I know them. Sometimes the situations are complete fiction. For instance, in The Last Book in the Universe, I've never been to the future, so I had to make it up. But the world of Freak the Mighty was right in my backyard.
What do you mean when you say: “Imagination is a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger it gets?”
I mean that if you want to use your imagination, you have to practice with it. If you wanted to be good at basketball, you'd have to practice shooting baskets. If you want to use your imagination, if you want to be a writer or an artist, or do something creative for a living, you have to use your imagination. You have to use it every day. If you do, it'll get stronger and better, just like an athlete will get stronger and better.
As a child, did you daydream a lot?
More than was good for me!
What is your favorite book that you have written?
Well, my favorite book, like my favorite character, is always the one I'm working on now. But I have great affection for Freak the Mighty, because it was the first book I wrote for kids your age.
Do people in The Last Book in the Universe use their imaginations?
That's the problem in the world of The Last Book in the Universe. There's only one person in the world who really uses his imagination when the story opens. And if Spaz doesn't learn how to use his imagination, people will have forgotten how to use their imaginations.
Are you worried about the future of books?
I would say that I'm not worried about the future of books. They may not look like the books you're used to reading, but I think people will always be interested in reading stories in whatever format. I've published a novel for adults in the electronic format and expect that I will be doing so for my younger readers in the near future. I'm just assuming that publishers will be starting to offer e-book versions of things pretty soon — they'll have to.
Are you friends with any other children's book authors?
Yes. Kathy Lasky is a good friend of mine, and she's written many books for young readers. When I wrote Freak the Mighty, I didn't know who to send it to, so I called Kathy, and she suggested I try an editor she knew at Scholastic. She used to write adult mysteries and I did too, so I knew her as a mystery writer. She doesn't live far from us.
We are reading A Wrinkle in Time right now. What is your favorite part of that book?
Hey kids, I read the book 35 years ago — I remember I liked it, I don't remember which pages specifically!
What do your parents think of the writing you have done? Do they have a favorite book that you have written?
My father died just before Freak the Mighty was published, but I'd like to think that would've been his favorite book. My mother continues to be a big fan. And if she didn't like one of my books, she'd never tell me.
Do you read children's books now as an adult?
I hate to admit this, but I don't read all that many kids books. Because I'm not a kid!
If you could travel back in time to your childhood and neighborhood and create a book from that visit, what would your subject be?
That's an interesting question. I'm not quite sure what story I'd find there. The fact is I might not want to come back and write it. But then again, maybe being trapped again in my own childhood isn't such a good idea. I'd probably find that things weren't as I remembered them.
Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens?
I don't really get writer's block, I get lazy. I usually have plenty of ideas, but find that sometimes I don't have the powers of concentration necessary to put them down on paper. So, I do what I always do when I don't know what to write — I go fishing.
Have you ever written a book based on yourself?
Do you have a favorite passage from one of your books?
I think that the chapter about the attack of the mountain lion in The Fire Pony is one of the best things I've ever written. It's only six or seven pages, but it's very vivid.
What is your favorite part of the writing process? Is it like any other job?
I don't think it's like any other job — sometimes it's easier, sometimes it's harder, but my favorite part is thinking up the stories. Sometimes the writing down part of it is like a regular job. But that's all part of the process. You have to work for anything good.
Do you have any heroes?
My hero was my father's friend Jack. He was confined to a wheelchair by arthritis as a teenager. He wrote many novels, and none of them were ever published. I never heard him complain about it, he just kept writing. He's my hero.
Is there an author you haven't met that you would like to interview?
I would love to meet Mark Twain. I can imagine us both smoking cigars and sitting on a porch in our rocking chairs and trading stories.
Is there anything you wish you could change about any of your books?
It's always a temptation to go back and read your old material and see where improvements could be made. But once a book is published, that's it. You have to go on to the next book. The only thing I'd change is the number of copies sold!
How long have you been writing books?
I started writing when I was about 12. I managed to finish a novel-length piece when I was 16 — although it was another 12 years before I finally got a book published!
Do you draw your own illustrations?
My covers have been done by a couple of very fine commercial artists. Freak the Mighty and Max the Mighty (soon to be published) were painted by David Shannon. The Fire Pony was done by John Thompson.
What medical disorder does Freak suffer from?
Freak's illness is called “morquio syndrome.” It's a fairly rare form of dwarfism, but there are a number of kids in the USA who were born with it. I've heard from a few. It may be a coincidence, but the morquio kids I know are all highly intelligent and very creative.
Why did you have to kill Freak in Freak the Mighty?
First, please understand that even though I'm the author, I didn't “kill” Freak. He died of complications from a very real disease, as did the real boy who inspired the character.
What is the hardest part about writing a book?
The hardest part about writing is developing the necessary discipline — getting in the habit of writing every day, then learning to rewrite and improve upon your material. The art of rewriting and self-editing is what separates the pros from the amateurs.
What college did you go to?
I briefly attended the University of New Hampshire as a dual Fine Arts/English major. I took off a semester to write a book - and somehow I never went back, much to my embarrassment.
Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?
Yes. What I always say to my readers: KEEP READING!!