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Transcript from an interview with Avi

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Avi. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Jon J Muth

Writer's block

I talk to kids all the time. And inevitably, somebody will say, "Did you ever suffer from writer's block?" I don't know why everyone knows about writer's block, but they do. Do they ever ask an actor, "Do you have actor's block?" Or do they speak to their mailman and say, "Do you have mailman block today?" But writer's block is a common question. And I say to them, "Well, what do you mean by that?" Because it apparently means different things to different people.

They say, "Well, you know, you don't know quite what to say next." I say, "That happens a hundred times a day," because you don't [know] – as opposed to sort of a state of depression, which is a much more complex thing: when a writer truly cannot write at all. But not knowing what to put down for the next sentence is what my life is all about in the sense that you're always struggling to make sure it's right, it's well written, and what comes next. And that's not writer's block; that's writing.

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Symptoms of dyslexia

What I would discover years later as an adult was that I have what is known in the reading world as "symptoms of dyslexia." Not dyslexia, but "symptoms of," which means letter reversals, pretty bad spelling, and what looks on the paper like sloppiness. This was throughout my early schooling and high school – I have some of these papers. You can see it. It says, "Your work is very sloppy. Why don't you proofread?" And, in fact, this was me. It wasn't being sloppy. It was just this nature.

And my parents would appear to have known this. Or, they had me tested at some point, but never chose to tell me or any of the schools that I attended. I think it was a time when parents were sort of embarrassed by this sort of thing. So, I didn't know about it, and maybe it's a good thing; because I just thought I wasn't doing very well. And if I kept working at it, I might get better.

But the result of that is that when I finally got to college, I was so sick of being criticized and being told "sloppy" and "careless" that I didn't take any English classes. I didn't take any of those requirements. But I was reading and writing voraciously. I sort of just didn't know any better, and kept going.

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Kids are wonderful readers

Kids are wonderful readers. They read very differently than adults do. They're fully engaged. They identify with the stories. They live through a story in a very different way. Adults are much more analytical, even critical, and objective about what they read. Kids lose themselves in a story and become part of the story. You can't ask for a better audience than that. They're wonderfully loyal and they're very direct. You know? They don't hedge. If they like the book, they read it. If they don't like it, they don't. It's very simple. They're not sophisticated readers, thank goodness. They just suck it all up and take pleasure in it.

The other thing that differs them from adults is they give back much more. If you're a reader yourself, think: when was the last time you wrote to an adult author and said, "Hey, this is a cool book. I really like this. Thanks for writing it, your favorite reader."? But kids do that all the time. Insofar as they do that, it's a great giveback, sharing your work and their lives and putting them together and saying, "This is good," "This is real," "This gives me pleasure." And that's a great gift, because you write a book, and you send it out there. And, sure, you get reviews; but there's not a lot of feedback that you get.

But kids do give you great feedback. Kids are, in that sense, wonderfully supportive of writers.

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Embracing change

I read history as a matter of course. There's a philosophical notion in it, I think, that lies somewhere in the midst of all this. And that is: if you have a vision that the world was different than it is today, that embraces the notion of change. And if you accept the idea of change, then there's going to be change in the future. And you then become part of the process of change in one way or another, or you're aware of the process of change. So, that's basic to the way I think, to begin with. But history, to me, is story. And there are great stories everywhere.

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The challenges of historical fiction

There are a number of problems when you write historical fiction, particularly something like that (Crispin). You have the question of language. Then you have the question how people thought. Then you have the material world, the clothing, the houses, and so forth. And, finally, you have to tell a story that fits that period of time. If you write a medieval story and then the telephone rings in the middle of it, it doesn't work – right?

In terms of thinking the way people do, that's perhaps the most difficult to do. You have to get into people's heads, and you have to understand how things work. Here's a good example of that: I was at a planetarium a couple of weeks ago. And when the lights went down and the stars came up, there was a voiceover that was doing the lecture. He said, "There comes a time when everybody begins to understand that the earth is not the center of the universe." And I'm thinking, "Boy, if you said that 600 years ago, you'd be called a witch." You know, you'd be a heretic. So, you couldn't say that at that time. That's a very modern view.

So, you have to understand when the character from 500 years ago looks up at the sky, the character does, indeed, think that they are the center of the universe. Well, that's a very different vision than I would have or, perhaps, you would have. The notion that the world is a tiny speck in the universe is very different from thinking, "I am the center of the universe."

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On teaching writing

I can't tell you how many schools I have visited all over the United States, and I've never been in a school that teaches writing the way professional writers do – because they can't. When I write a book, before it's published, it's rewritten 60 or 70 times. You're not going to get a child to do that. It would be a form of abuse, for goodness' sake. The great problem in teaching young people to write is that there's a tendency to respond to the child's work as a whole. And I think that the only effective way to teach writing is to break it down into its constituent parts. "Let's talk about the ideas. Let's talk about the story. Let's talk about characterization, talk about spelling, talk about grammar." All of that's useful, but not all at the same time.

If this kid has poured his heart out in a poem, and then to say, "Wow. It's okay, but there's a dangling participle in paragraph two," what does that do to the child's writing? It's not to say that there's not a dangling participle. And don't ask what a dangling participle is, because I don't know. It's that the child's first response is, "I've tried to do something emotional, and I'm trying to communicate." And you need to respond on those levels first, and you need to respond generously.

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Winning the Newbery Medal

What I felt was an enormous sense of relief. I mean, there was surprise and joy and everything positive you can think of. But at the same time there was this undercurrent of absolute relief. And it wasn't as if I was aware that there was some anticipation. I do believe in the unconscious. So, a sense of affirmation that was wonderfully powerful and a sense that, "Gosh, somebody thinks I can write well." And you work all your years, and you always want that. And if you had said 24 hours before, "Do you think you're a good writer?" I would have said, "Yeah, I write some good stuff from time to time." I think that's the way most of us feel all the time. And then you get this enormous – I hope it's not to trivialize it – vote of confidence that says, "You're really good." And what can that be, but nothing but gratifying?

But it doesn't change anything. It doesn't help me write the next book. It maybe makes me a little bit more patient, I hope, or more generous to other people. I don't know. Maybe I tip more at the restaurant. But, basically, it says the world seems to think you write well.

The other side of it is that because you get the award, other people assume you write well. I'm not so sure all the time. It's good – there's nothing wrong with it.

But there are new books to write. Writing's still hard. My 15-year-old – being a 15-year-old – still hasn't read the book; and that's fine, too. My life is rooted in my family; and family life, with all its pleasures and stresses, still lies at the center of my life. And every day I work, the way everyone else does. My work is being a writer, and I've been lucky. And I work at it, and it's okay. There it is.

Listen, if you have five kids, there's no way you can retire. But the good news is one of them is going to go on to medical school. So, by the time I retire, she'll be able to take care of me on the cheap – she'd better!

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"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them." — Lemony Snicket