The 51-year-old Austin author on the long-awaited sequel to Holes, ideas that don’t go anywhere, knowing what kids like, and writing for Hollywood.
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 part-time legal work. I figured at one point that I was going to have to get a job, that I wasn’t going to make a living as a writer. There would be many days when I would think, “You know, I’m wasting my days away, and twenty years from now I’m really going to regret all this wasted time.” Now it’s 25 or 30 years later, and I don’t regret it.
ES: But you did work for a while as a lawyer, and before that, famously, you worked at a sweater factory in Connecticut, until you were fired for not having enough enthusiasm.
LS: If I had been more into the job, I probably wouldn’t have been fired. I was put in charge of four or five people. I would get the orders from stores and give them to people called the order pickers, who would then go through their racks and fill the orders and take them over to the stores.
ES: That’s a job anybody could have had. No special skills required.
LS: Right. Except I was lousy at it. The orders kept being wrong even though I wasn’t the one filling them. I wasn’t very good at managing people to make sure that it was getting done right.
ES: It was during this time that you started writing.
LS: I started writing Sideways Stories From Wayside School the summer after I graduated from Berkeley [in 1976]. During the day, I worked the sweater factory job, and at night I would write. My favorite part of the day was coming home and writing. I had my doubts that it would ever be published.
ES: How’d you do it?
LS: When I finished the book—it was maybe a week or two after I was fired—I made ten photocopies of it and sent it to ten different publishers. All but one turned it down, but that company went out of business a couple of years later. So two years after it was published, I had to start all over again.
ES: What happened after the first book came out?
LS: I began getting fan mail almost immediately—tons of it. They were telling me it was their favorite book at school, but it was only in a few places. In Texas, the Katy school district discovered it, and I was getting letters from there.
ES: How did you know how to write for kids?
LS: The last year at Berkeley, I was an aide in a classroom. I knew nothing about teaching. I just had a great time with all of the kids. In fact, all the kids in Wayside School are based on the kids I knew. I pictured them in my mind and wrote stories about them.
ES: It must be hard having grown-up interactions all day but putting yourself in the mind of a kid when you write.
LS: It used to be with these stories that I would pretty much think back to myself when I was that age, and that’s what I would write about. Kids don’t think of themselves as little kids; they think of themselves as people with problems or things they want to do. But now that I have a daughter who’s grown-up, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten older, when I think of kids that age, they just seem like little kids to me. I might have trouble writing for them now. I’d have a harder time seeing them as protagonists.
ES: With Holes, was there a conscious decision to graduate from that period of your life and write a book for older kids?
LS: Not necessarily. Again, I was trying to write a story that I liked and to keep it accessible to as young an age of readers as possible. And then Holes ended up being read by everyone from third-graders to adults.
ES: What was the last number that you’ve heard on how many copies of Holes have been sold?
LS: I think it’s over six million.
ES: That may not be Harry Potter territory, but it’s up there.
LS: And it’s in just about any language you can imagine.
ES: Could you ever have predicted that?
LS: No. I had severe doubts about it. It’s about a kid who digs holes—that’s all he does—and there’s all this traveling around in time, which people were going to find confusing. Was it going to make any sense at all to anyone?
ES: How exactly did the movie happen? And how did you get to write the screenplay?
LS: Shortly after the book came out, I started getting phone calls from people saying that they were producers in Hollywood. I remember I was out one day, and my wife took a message that someone named Andrew Davis called and was interested. She said something like “Yeah, yeah, he’ll call you back”—you know, that kind of attitude, though I’m sure she was more polite than that. Later we figured out that he was the person who directed The Fugitive, so it was pretty exciting. I liked him from the start. There was an auction for the rights, but I was kind of leaning towards Andrew, so we told him what the highest price was—could he meet that? And he got the rights.
As part of my contract, which I didn’t even ask for, I got veto power over the screenwriter. I got three vetoes, and then after that they could get anyone they wanted. So they started sending me scripts that people had written for other movies. I liked them all but one, and that was the one they wanted to hire, so I said, “No, I don’t want that guy.” Then Andrew flew me out to Santa Barbara, where he lives, to discuss things, and there was one screenwriter that I was really leaning towards; he had written Crazy in Alabama, which turned out to be not nearly as good as the screenplay. They were having trouble getting in touch with the guy, who lives in Costa Rica or someplace like that half the year, so Andrew said, “Why don’t you write it?” I said, “Well, I don’t know how to write a screenplay. Here’s my first book being made into a movie, and I want it done right. I’d rather you get someone who really knows what he’s doing.” And he said, “You write it, and if it’s no good, we can get someone else to do it.”
ES: Did the characters on-screen look as you had envisioned them?
LS: No. I was worried, for example, that Stanley wasn’t overweight like he was in the book, not because it hurt the story in the movie but because I was afraid that people would think, “That’s not Stanley,” and be immediately put off. But they wanted to go with the best actor, and also they wanted a good-looking person in the lead. You can’t have everything.
ES: So you didn’t feel proprietary about it?
LS: Does it cease to be yours once it’s no longer in book form? The book is always mine. The movie, though, ceases to be the book. In the end it became, “I want to make a good movie. It doesn’t have to be the book so long as the movie is good.”
ES: You grew up in New York and California and arrived in Texas only fourteen years ago. Why’d you come here as opposed to someplace else?
LS: My wife wanted to move closer to her family in Oklahoma, and so I finally agreed to look at Texas. There’s this big prejudice against Texas on the coasts, and sad to say, I bought into it. But everyone said, “You should go to Austin.”
ES: It’s a lot like Berkeley.
LS: Austin is to Texas what Berkeley is to California.
ES: One difference is that Austin has a huge community of writers, although from what I can tell, you’re not really interested in that aspect of it.
LS: No. In fact, I guess, I don’t even know the world you’re talking about. I know that writers live around here, but are there events where they all get together?
ES: Oh, sure. But a lot of people don’t know you’re here. You aren’t a big bold-face name. I’m wondering if that’s a deliberate decision.
LS: I don’t feel the need to be identified as a writer. I wouldn’t be averse to going where other writers are, although I’m not real big on cocktail parties.
ES: My point is that someone with the number of books you’ve published, with the success you’ve had, who’s written Holes, which everyone has read, and has seen it made into a very good movie—that person is a celebrity whether he wants to be or not.
LS: I know. But that’s what I’m saying: I don’t relish that. I don’t care about being a celebrity.