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Louis Sachar Talks with Roger

Louis Sachar Talks with Roger

Talks with Roger is a sponsored supplement to our free monthly e-newsletter, Notes from the Horn Book. To receive Notes, sign up here.

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louis sachar

While Louis Sachar’s books are frequently tinged with something other than reality (the Wayside School, the curse in Holes, the voices from Beyond in The Cardturner), Fuzzy Mud is a suspenseful blend of straight-up school story and science gone seriously, scarily, awry. There’s a bit of Grimm here, too, as seventh-grader Marshall and fifth-grader Tamaya discover that a forbidden shortcut through the woods can lead straight into big trouble. According to the author, it all began with The Blob; see below.

Roger Sutton: When I first heard about Fuzzy Mud — which was probably a year ago at ALA — it was being hailed as this great new book about bullying. And bullying was definitely the buzzword of last year. Do you think of it as a bullying book?

Louis Sachar: No, I don’t. That’s part of it, but I think of it more as a suspense story, and an environmental story. The relationship between Marshall and the bully, Chad, is what I use to get the characters into the woods in the first place, the predicament. But I never thought of it as a bullying story.

RS: The ecological aspect of the book is fairly terrifying. We’re so used to seeing big dystopian novels about what happens when the world goes wrong, and here we see how that can start on a very small scale.

LS: Right. I didn’t want to write a dystopian novel. I wanted to write one where there was still room for hope at the end, if people would get their act together.

RS: It is a little worrying when Professor Mayfair says in the hearings that the problem is that we have the population increasing, and what are we going to do? What are we going to do, Louis?

LS: When I was a teenager I read The Population Bomb, and it scared me. It’s been on my mind ever since. Of course, that book predicted that by the 1980s we were going to face disaster. Even if the population increase doesn’t lead to disaster, does it lead to a change in what it means to be human? When there’s no room to think and dream and explore?

RS: I wonder if that is already getting circumscribed around us, but because we’re in it, we don’t see it.

LS: I think so. The fact that people live so much in virtual lives online is partly because there just isn’t room anymore, out in the world. It’s just so crowded.

RS: And of course you and I are old enough to remember before September 11, obviously, but I think about the kids who were born afterward, who don’t realize how going to the airport used to be such a different experience. They’re used to it.

LS: It was a different world when I was growing up, where my mother would drop me and a friend off at the beach in the morning and pick us up in the evening and not worry about us. And obviously when she was a kid, the world was even more open.

RS: As a writer, how do you reconcile your own experience of childhood with writing for children today? I had a discussion about this with Richard Peck a couple of weeks ago at dinner. He wanted to know how Instagram worked for a contemporary novel he was writing. And, of course, his own childhood and his own present life had no connection to Instagram whatsoever. How do you make those connections?

sachar_fuzzy mudLS: It’s difficult. I try to come up with ways to avoid those situations. Like in Fuzzy Mud, I made it against school rules to have cell phones or even to use computers for homework unless necessary. I set it in this private school with its own rules because I’m just not familiar anymore with what happens in schools.

RS: They’re very different places from what you and I remember.

I also think that there’s something that can be very elemental about a story. In Fuzzy Mud, as you just said, it’s how do I get these three kids into the woods? And once you’re in the woods, you have an archetypal background to work against. The same thing happened in Holes when you put everybody out in the desert.

LS: We can talk about the world having changed so much, but kids haven’t changed that much. People haven’t changed that much. When I first started writing in the 1970s, I was going to college, and I helped out at a nearby elementary school. That’s what got me into writing for kids in the first place. But even then, at twenty-two years old, I was warned, “Well, kids are different today.” It was, what, twelve years from when I was a kid? And they weren’t different. I still don’t think they are. Just their daily lives are different. So if you can get kids out into the desert, or into the woods, then they just become kids and they can be any generation.

RS: Marshall, in particular, seems to me like a classic Sachar antihero, or underdog. This seems to be a persistent type in your books. Would you agree with that?

LS: It’s a lot easier to identify with the kid being bullied than with the bully. There were some interesting choices to make with Marshall. My editor was a little concerned at first by the fact that Marshall so cavalierly said, “Good, Chad’s gone.” But if someone’s being tormented every day by this person, especially a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, I think that would be a natural reaction.

RS: Especially for a kid. Sometimes as adults we forget how terrifying day-to-day existence can be once a bully gets his eye on you. It seems insurmountable, because you can’t go to adults for help. Adults tell you, “Come to us,” but no kid wants to do that.

LS: No. As soon as you tattle on someone, it just gets worse. Marshall was stuck, and his life was miserable. So when Chad disappeared, that was great. Marshall’s life got better.

RS: One good thing about growing up is that you do start to see more ways out of things.

LS: You’re not trapped, for one thing, having to go to this school every day where you’re getting bullied.

RS: I recently went to my fortieth high school reunion and talked to the kid who had tormented me through two years of school. It was interesting in that neither one of us held onto it. It was a long time ago. It seems so small now. We laughed about it. Back then, though, it was horrible. But when you write a book for kids, you’ve really got to stay in that moment with them.

LS: Yes. You become the character as you’re writing about the character. And so the thoughts Marshall was having were thoughts I was having.

RS: Which part of the book came first? Was it the situation with the out-of-control plague? Was it the kids in the woods? Where did you start?

LS: I started with the kids in the woods. My initial motivation was to try to write a 1950s sci-fi movie–type book. Like The Blob. I knew the kids were going to come across something in the woods, but I didn’t know what it was. I was just experimenting. As I wrote, the story became more than just a 1950s sci-fi, but that was the initial starting point.

RS: And then your menace kind of overtook the story.

LS: Right. As well as my own sensibilities about the environment and overpopulation. And the characters, as I wrote about them, became real, and they took the story in their own direction too.

RS: Whose idea was it to do those brilliant spot illustrations at the start of each chapter, with the increasing number of organisms?

LS: It was a combination. Initially somebody at Delacorte came up with it, but at first they didn’t have them multiplying that quickly. It was one ergonym the first chapter, and two maybe the fourth chapter. When I saw that, I said, “It would be good if the ergies increase more quickly and actually start overflowing out of the petri dish.” And then I was surprised to see them cover the entire page.

RS: Pretty quickly, too. I love the way that you introduced that reproductive cycle in the book, because it sounds pretty innocent when you say one times two is two, two times two is four. It doesn’t really seem like that much. But then you see just how terrifying it can get.

LS:It doesn’t take that long. And then at the end I apply it to the human population.

RS: Tell me something about the human population of Fuzzy Mud.

LS: Tamaya was a challenge to write. It seems like most books with girl protagonists feature spunky, sassy kinds of girls. It was a challenge to write a girl who is just trying to be good, who is shy and quiet and often gets overlooked. I really like that about her.

RS: In that sense Tamaya is a very typical character for you, in that she’s one of those people who says, “If I just lay low, I can get through this.”

LS: It’s not even that. I think it’s more like, “Well, the teacher says no talking, so I’m not going to talk” — partly to please, but partly because this is what Tamaya was taught she’s supposed to do. Listen to the teachers, listen to her parents, do what they say. And around her are friends who have maybe been doing that all their lives too, but now that they’re fifth graders, they’re starting to get more rebellious and independent. Suddenly it’s bad to be the good girl. She doesn’t know when that happened.

RS: Then when Tamaya does take action and stands up against Chad in the woods — when she throws the mud at him — disaster strikes.

LS: Yes, and she blames herself for that later, but at the same time, even in that situation she’s doing the right thing. She’s got a lot more courage and strength than any of her friends who make fun of her for being a goody-goody, because she actually has the courage to throw the mud in Chad’s face, and later to go out in the woods to look for him.

RS: But she also sets off all these unintended consequences. A lot of what happens to us is out of our hands.

LS: Yes. In an earlier draft, Chad actually died.

RS: Yikes.

LS: Part of the story was Tamaya dealing with her guilt and trying to come to terms with it — is it her fault for throwing the mud in his face? When I start a book, I don’t know where I’m going with it. So I do a lot of drafts and go off on a lot of tangents that I end up saying no to. That was one of them for this book, Chad dying. But that feeling of it being her fault is still there, to a lesser degree.

RS: It must be tricky to decide how far you want to go. You do want to show the consequences of a character’s actions, intended or not, but if Chad had died, you would have had a whole different book.

LS: Right. I didn’t like where that book was heading, so I changed it.

RS: Those choices are tough in this kind of book. I don’t know if you saw my review, but I compared it to William Sleator.

LS: I did see that. I like his stuff a lot, so I was happy to see the comparison.

RS: Both of you, you in this book and Sleator in several of his, have this question of how do I make this exciting, suspenseful story that involves a real-life problem, that, one, doesn’t turn into a morality tale, or two, doesn’t become a horror story that overwhelms the fun a kid will have in reading it.

LS: Right. I wanted to make the story threatening, but I wasn’t going to start writing about people being killed.

RS: I would have been upset if you’d killed the dog, much less the people.

LS: My style of writing doesn’t lend itself to cavalier death, where the bad guys and the good guys fight and people are being killed right and left. I try to keep it small in that sense, so that every hurt is felt. Even the fact that there are some deaths reported, deaths that we don’t see, was hard for me. My editor Beverly Horowitz suggested we need to make the threat feel more dangerous. So I put that in, that five or six people died from the ergies.

RS: No one we had actually met.

LS: Even that I hated. Part of me didn’t like being that flippant with people’s lives, even if they are just made-up characters that we don’t see.

RS: I think Beverly is right that if there is no disastrous consequence someplace, then what’s the big deal? That’s a tough line to navigate.

LS: It was also tough to navigate just how badly affected Chad and Tamaya were by their exposure.

RS: How much do you work on a book before you show it to an editor?

LS: Quite a bit. I think it goes back to the days when I was struggling to get published. I’d try to make a manuscript as perfect as possible before I’d ever show it to anyone. I still do that. Fuzzy Mud I considered close to finished, if not finished, when I first showed it to Beverly.

I always tell writers who are trying to get published, don’t expect an editor to see the gems buried in there and bring out your brilliance. You’ve got to show them. You’ve got to make it sparkle yourself. You can’t count on someone seeing that in there.

RS: What was it like for you after the mega-success of Holes? It won everything it could win, it was really popular with kids, everybody loved it. It was a huge book. Is it harder or easier to move on from a success like that?

LS: At the time I thought it would be easier, because I got confidence from it and felt like I could take on bigger challenges. Not so much from the awards, but just from my feeling that I tackled something difficult and succeeded at it. But, looking back, writing became more difficult because I had greater expectations with my next book, and so did my audience. It added pressure.

RS: It’s nice that you’ve switched directions a couple of times since then. Even with the companion to Holes, Small Steps, you didn’t try to write another Holes, for example. And The Cardturner was completely different, as is Fuzzy Mud.

LS: With Fuzzy Mud I’m getting back to my roots. I’ve done The Cardturner. I’ve done Small Steps. And now I’m getting back to writing about middle-school kids again.

RS: Well, we’re certainly glad you’re still doing that. I think you’re going to have a big hit here.


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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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