Evan Smith: Small Steps, the sequel to Holes, took nearly eight years to come out. Did you always know you had another book in you?
Louis Sachar: Oh, not at all. Who knows where my thoughts come from? I was very much involved in working on the movie [version of Holes, which was released in 2003]. That’s one reason why I haven’t written anything sooner—the turmoil of that whole experience. Although in the end I was really happy with the movie, there were times when I was exasperated with everyone. When I was writing the script, [the producers] gave me all kinds of notes. They would say, “Why don’t you try writing it this way? Why don’t you have the characters do this?” Unlike writing a book, when you write a screenplay, you take orders from other people. So there was a moment when I was feeling really down about the movie, and I remember coming up with this idea in my head for a book about Armpit and X-Ray [two characters from Holes]—about the real X-Ray talking the real Armpit into going to Hollywood because they didn’t get compensated for the movie.
ES: Kind of a metasequel.
LS: You know, they were going to demand payment, plus they didn’t like the way their characters were portrayed. I was toying with that. But I ended up liking the movie, so instead I thought I would just write a story about them—about X-Ray talking Armpit into investing all his hard-earned money in a ticket-scalping scheme.
ES: Were they always going to be the focus of any sequel?
LS: Yeah, I was done with Stanley and Zero [the main characters from Holes]. I never thought I wanted to write about them anymore. They had reached a good place.
ES: At what point did you know that you had enough of an idea to sit down and write the new book?
LS: My process is to start with something even if I don’t know if it’s enough of an idea. I start a lot of books that don’t really go anywhere. Well, I wouldn’t even really call them books. I sit down and think, “This might be an interesting situation,” and then I start writing. If it’s not going anywhere, I start writing something else.
ES: Most people who want to be writers will probably be shocked to hear that a successful author has the same kinds of fits and starts as the rest of us.
LS: Any idea you can think up and plan out isn’t going to be that good. There’s no way I could have thought up all of Holes beforehand, not with all of those interconnected stories. You start writing, encounter problems, and ask yourself how you’re going to solve those problems, and then new ideas spring up that are better than what you started with. A lot of what unfolds is really bad, too. But I rewrite and rewrite. I do at least six drafts of every book.
ES: How different is one draft from another?
LS: Extremely. Especially the first couple; they’re very different.
ES: Do you have someone read the drafts as you go along?
LS: No. First, if you show someone your work and they say, “Oh, I really like that first page,” you’re really afraid to change it, even if you decide it’s not right. Also, I find that if I talk about it, it lets the energy out. For the two years I was working on Small Steps, it was like this whole thing built up inside me until the end, when it was just sort of exploding within me; it just keeps me focused and becomes the center of my universe.
ES: The legend is that your wife and daughter didn’t even know what you were working on until it was finished.
LS: I may have told them at some point that I was writing about Armpit, but they got the details only when they got the manuscript.
ES: That doesn’t make for a very happy home. “How was your day?” “Can’t tell you.”
LS: They’re used to it. We just don’t talk about it. Although there was one day—I was four or five months from finishing the book—when we went out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I can’t remember if it was my fortune cookie or my daughter’s, but it said, “Small steps will lead to a great fortune.” I said, “Wow,” and then I told them the name of the book I was writing.
ES: How much time do you spend writing each day?
LS: I write just a little bit a day—at best, two hours.
ES: How can that be enough time to add up to a book?
LS: That’s what’s amazing: It is enough time. If you ask me on any given day, I’d say, “Oh, I just wasted today.” After two hours, I’m losing it. Either I hit a wall—writer’s block—or I may be on to something that I’m really enjoying but I feel like I’m no longer giving it my best effort, not giving it enough thought. I can feel the fatigue. I can feel that it’s not going to be as good as when I’m fresh.
ES: What do you do with the rest of your day?
LS: I waste a lot of time.
ES: No, seriously.
LS: I’m serious.
ES: I know you’re a bridge player. It must be hard to get a game at two o’clock on a weekday.
LS: No, actually, that’s when you get them. There’s a bridge club in Austin in which I’m now a shareholder that has games every afternoon.
ES: So that’s it? You play bridge and goof off? A whole lot of people are going to want to know how they can get a job like that.
LS: I remember when I was in my twenties and still struggling as a writer. I had graduated from law school, and I was doing some