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Transcript from an interview with William Joyce

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

William Joyce

Math Anxiety

Apparently I've always drawn. And always loved to draw. I would work things out in drawings, you know. If I was having trouble with something at school I would, I would draw a story that amplified it. You know and, and there was so much math anxiety for me growing up so. You know, I had stories and drawings or had attack of the vengeful number 5's. And, you know, there's be this kid being chased by a giant number 5's down the street with swords and stuff like that the kid had a giant eraser cannon that he would shoot at these vengeful numbers and eradicate them. And so, I guess I was like working stuff out, you know, with these stories and these drawings.

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Billy's Booger

The first book I ever wrote was in fourth grade and it was called "Billy's Booger." It was an autobiographical piece about a kid who was really bad at math. And in my story this kid named Billy was terrible at math and then one day he gets hit in the head by a meteorite and the meteorite gives his boogers super powers. And they're also very good at math, these super boogers, and so they teach Billy the ways of mathematics. And so in no time he can do, you know, fractions even.

But they also are crime-fighting boogers, so whenever the call is put out that someone is in need, Billy would blow his nose and out would come these super boogers to save the day. But when grownups or teachers came around — because these guys were secret and their secret fortress stronghold was in Billy's sinuses — Billy would just whoop them back up into his nose where they came from. It was done entirely in green crayon and it was for a contest at my school to see what kid could write and illustrate the best kid's book. I did not win and in fact I was called into the principal's office for a consultation with my parents. But that was the beginning of my literary career.

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Stirring things up

William Joyce has embraced his mischievous tendencies, and openly admits that he's on the side of the kids.

I've always liked getting away with just a little bit of what you're not supposed to. Like my first book, Billy's Booger, got me in trouble with the principal's office. It was an interesting thing because the teachers got upset and the principal got upset, but everybody in the class thought it was great. So to me it kind of just turned an interesting little knob in my brain. It was like, all I did was draw some pictures of a booger and write fiction about these boogers' adventures. And I managed to endear myself to all my classmates, but drive the grownups crazy. And that was interesting to me. I liked that and so I've continued that tradition or whatever you want to call it in my work. I like stirring things up. I'm on the side of the kids more than I am on the adults. And occasionally I find some adults that have that same mischievous streak, so I don't get in too much trouble.

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King Kong in Reverse

There is so much of Wild Things and King Kong in George Shrinks. I just took the idea that King Kong was too big for everything and reversed it and put George in a land of giants, which is basically what every kid goes through anyway — that, you know, the world is made for grownups, for tall people, for the giants. And once I shrunk him down, I even used some things that happened in King Kong and just reversed the situations.

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Teachers

I did have great teachers that saw that I loved to tell stories and saw that I loved to draw and encouraged that. And my parents encouraged that and that is probably the one lucky thing that I had growing up. I have known lots of adults who enjoyed similar enthusiasms as a kid and weren't encouraged and then didn't go anywhere with it and so they're unhappy in their jobs as adults. And if somebody had encouraged them and someone had said, "Yeah you can do this when you grow up. This is a job that you can do," then they would have taken that path. And I was lucky enough to have teachers that really, really looked out for me and really encouraged all that. And in rural Louisiana, that was a rare thing back then. So, it was nice to have that encouragement. And I don't know if you'd be interviewing me here today if it hadn't been for those teachers.

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Rolie Polie Olie

Rolie Polie Olie for me has always been a combination of several things. It's like "Leave It to Beaver" with robots and a little bit of Mickey Mouse. Early Mickey Mouse is very, very simple and he's kind of mischievous too — but with a really good heart. So I wanted to do that same sort of thing. I wanted to do this blue skies and perfect days and robots and to do a show where you got to like do stuff you can't do in real life. You know, create this world that's very much like our world — sort of a 1950's suburban world which probably isn't really like our world — but this idealized 1950's picket fence world. But it's completely metallic and friendly.

So if you're a robot and you're living on this planet, you can do things that you can't do in real life — things that you wished you could do: like fly; like have a car that flies; like have furniture that is alive. When I was a little kid, I kind of perceived everything as having a life of its own. You know, chairs and furniture and stuff. I take that in Rolie Polie Olie and exaggerate it. Even their forks and spoons are alive and can help out. Their toys are alive and can sometimes come to their aid, or get lost and Olie has to find them. They go to other planets. They go to the ice cream planet. I mean, it's made entirely of ice cream! You go sledding on ice cream slopes and you can just reach down and eat whatever's there. That's not every kid's dream, but certainly a dream that you can sometimes have — or, wouldn't it be cool if. I guess Rolie Polie Olie is a show entirely made up of "wouldn't it be cool if."

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George Shrinks

The good thing about George is, and the good thing about my arrangement with Nelvana and even with PBS is that I control it. They've been completely supportive of me designing everything and overseeing all the stories. I even wrote the theme song for the show. So you know, I'm in there every day and making sure that it's what it should be, and giving it that sort of nth degree of "wouldn't it be cool if-ness" that I have so much fun with. And so George like Olie is filled with wouldn't it be cool if. That was the origin of the whole thing.

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A Day With Wilbur Robinson

Almost everything in A Day With Wilbur Robinson has some basis in truth. And yes, my sister did pay me to feed her grapes while she talked to her boyfriend on the phone. In the book, it is a frog with a turban that's feeding the sister grapes while she talks to her boyfriend on the phone. My grandfather had false teeth and a glass eye as well as a missing thumb. So I left the thumb part out, but the grandfather in A Day With Wilbur Robinson is missing his false teeth and that's what they're looking for the whole time.

I raised frogs every spring in our house from tadpoles and by end of summer our house was overrun with frogs. So, in A Day With Wilbur Robinson there are frogs all over the place and they can sing and dance like Louis Armstrong — that didn't actually happen at our house, though our house was full of frogs. But we were often listening to Louis Armstrong records, being in Louisiana as we were. So I just combined the two. Yes, I had an uncle who swore he was from outer space. And he was so convincing. I was like, "Why would a grownup lie about that?"

He didn't like overdo it. It was very matter of fact. It was like, "Well, you know, when I was traveling intergalactically last week and met some of my friends on Mars… They may come visit this weekend." It was very matter of fact — like he was taking a trip to the country. It just sounded very believable. And I'm like, "Why would he make that up?" It seemed perfectly plausible. So I celebrated him in that book by making the uncle genuinely being from outer space and re-arriving in his spaceship. It's all that stuff that happened. I just sort of exaggerated a little bit and in some cases didn't have to exaggerate it very much at all.

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Advice

You know, I hate to give advice because my life has been so odd that almost nothing that's happened to me can apply.

But if you really love to write and you really love to tell stories and you really love to draw, you just have to keep doing it no matter what anybody says. I sent my stories off to publishers for five years and got a good jillion rejection slips — and for all these different reasons: "you can't do books about boogers," "you can't do books about dinosaurs," "you can't do books about this." And you know, it all turned out to be wrong.

If you really want to tell stories, do it and don't be dissuaded.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase