Transcript from an interview with Sid Fleischman

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Sid Fleischman, divided into the following sections:

Sid Fleischman

The basics

I'm Sid Fleischman. Through some miracle I became a writer from abject ignorance. I have won the Newbery for a book called The Whipping Boy. I've written, however, other books. In fact, I've lost count. I stopped counting at about 60. You may wonder how could he possibly have written 60 books?

It's easy when you're as old as I am. I never rushed when I write, but if I get a book out about every year, sometimes two a year. So they stack up. I am so grateful that my books are so well read, so heavily read. They're translated into nineteen or twenty languages. I think I just hit the 20th with some strange language I've never heard of before.

It's a very happy life, I live in Santa Monica near the ocean, so I feel very fortunate to have had a successful and still have a successful career. So I know what I'm going to do when I get out of bed every morning.

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Ideas are everywhere

One of the most frequently asked questions of an author is where you get ideas. I used to think maybe you could get them in the Yellow Pages, I tried that, though they're not there. That's really not the problem for professional writers that it seems to be, ideas are simply anywhere.

The problem is figuring what to do with the idea after you get it, that's where the trouble begins. I will sometimes get an idea for a book and it will take me years to find a way to deal with it. For example, "The Whipping Boy" which is a short novel that won the Newbery, I spent 10 years off on the wrong track.

I had the idea but I had the wrong concept for it and it just wouldn't go, wouldn't work with what I was doing. And I tried it over and over again for 10 years and finally… I should mention here that if you're not persistent as a writer, if you don't keep trying, you'll never get anything finished because there are always problems.

I just felt this was a problem that I would eventually solve, which is true. So I had to go Europe and I made up my mind when I came back, I would try it once more time and if it didn't work out, I would burn every manuscript to get it out of my system.

But this time I just let the story write itself instead of trying to impose myself on the story, let it write itself. And out came The Whipping Boy that those of you who have read it, read. That's pretty much the story of ideas. Some ideas just don't work and some do.

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The process

I put my greatest faith in chaos, that's the way I research while I'm writing. You would think that the smart thing to do would be to do the research and then start your writing. Well I do everything in a contrary way evidently because I find that doesn't work for me, even writing biographies.

I'm writing in the daytime and researching at night, that's the way I'm keeping everything fresh as I go and then when I find out things, I have to go back and change. I'm not very good, I can't deal with three by five cards that research, others can, you know we're all different.

I just do the best I can with whatever skills I have. For example, I'm going to give you some bad advice. For those of you who are interested in writing and listening to this, don't take my advice, I'll lead you astray. But I don't plan my novels in advance.

I've tried that, I find that I can't do that very well and that my best procedure is just to get a beginning with a few characters that give me some hope of conflict or story, just start and then improvise, as we improvise our daily lives. And I improvise the story day-by-day, never knowing the ending.

You would think you would have a heart attack worried about will you be able to tie it up, I've never lost a story because I couldn't tie it up at the end. I've lost a couple because they turned to ashes in the second or third chapter, but I know that once I get into a novel, I will be able to finish it.

That keeps me very fresh when I'm working on a novel, but I don't recommend you do it unless that works for you. I've run into authors who feel liberated when I tell them that I work that way and I found out that many famous authors worked that way including Henry James.

Many Newbery authors have worked that way but most are smarter than we are, they outline first.

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Advice for young writers

One is often asked about advice for young people who want to become writers and generally the advice I hear others writers give, is well you have to do a lot of reading, well that's obvious cause you develop a certain word sense.

But that's not the advice I give, mine is just as… really more bad news than good news because I have to use the word practice, who wants to practice? Let's stop for a minute and think, if you want to be an artist, you know you have to draw all the time, that's practice.

If you're going to play the violin, you know you've got to practice the scales if you're going to be any good. If you want to be average, don't practice. And so it's the same with writing, if you want to be a writer, it's one of the arts, you have to practice writing.

That means trying writing stories, it doesn't matter if they're good or not, they're finger exercises at that point. Write in a diary just to become accustomed to writing good sentences, write letters, do any sort of writing because it has to be practiced, that's the advice I'd give.

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Differences in writing fiction and non-fiction

Yes, there's a big deal of difference between writing fiction and non-fiction and it might not be apparent from the surface. Having done both, I can tell you, that I regard non-fiction, that is biography and autobiographies as a cinch, up to a point.

If you're going to do a novel, think what you have to do. You have to create a plot and tweak characters, maybe six or eight or ten characters. You have to create scenes, you have to write dialogue. And when you write a biography, all of that's given to you, so that's much easier, you don't have to do that.

But there are other problems in writing… biographies that you don't have in fiction. For example, in writing biography, you can't get out on a roll. When you write a novel, say you're writing a scene, you can get on a roll and, my gosh, the scene develops and it really goes.

This is just like mosaic work, it's so slow because you have to stop and look that up and stop and look that up and get that spelling right and get that quote exactly right, where the quotes go and where the commas go. It is slow, slow, slow work. So it's quite a difference in the writer's approach to it.

I enjoy doing them both. The one is a refresher from the other.

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After the Newbery

It's wonderful to win the Newbery, it changes your life and it changes your writing life as well. I've talked to other Newbery winners and they haven't all had the same experience. Mine was after I wrote it, the next story I cowered because I thought oh, I thought that the Newbery Committee was looking over my shoulder.

I go, well I can't let that line go through and I can't let that line go through and it was really paralyzing me and it took me months and months and months to get over that feeling and just be able to loosen up and write. But it gives you great visibility, your readership jumps enormously.

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Nothing up my sleeve

It was kind of hocus pocus from a magician to a writer because I didn't quite realize it was happening, I didn't have an aspiration to write in the beginning at all. In high school I was a very skilled magician and I was giving shows and in college I put myself part of the way through college giving magic shows.

I traveled with a magic show, I was in vaudeville and so forth. And I discovered a certain knack for inventing magic tricks and so forth. And I began writing them up once and I had a thin little book and in the world of magic, we have our own publishing industry, publishing books just for magicians, secrets and so forth.

I sent one of these publishers this book and it was accepted. And I was offered $50, not even in cash, in trade. I grabbed it. I was 19 when the book was published, I wrote it in high school, I was 19 when it was published. That was an awful long time ago, that was more then half a century ago.

And that book is still in print. Now I sold all rights for this $50 so there were no products involved, but I really wish that the book would go out of print because I could write a better magic book then that today. And when I saw that book and saw my name on the jacket, spelled right, which is a miracle, it ticked something off in my head.

I thought that's kind of exciting and I wrote another magic book and I wrote five magic books, almost in a row. And then I realized you've got to invent the tricks and all and so I began writing short stories, the O'Henry type of short stories that had those trick endings, that the Maupassant stories and the O'Henry stories, they were like magic tricks to me.

And then I thought well, a mystery novel is just a magic trick, you know, how did the murderer get away with it, but the authors… they're nice people, they explain at the end, magicians are rats, they don't explain it, that was the only difference.

I wrote a mystery novel and published my first novel. And a friend of mine just bought a copy on the internet, it cost him $60, it came out (unint.), that's really what started me writing.

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Books matter to kids

Books matter to kids, they don't matter that much to adults, they're just too many adults books are just a way to use up time, but they affect the lives of children. It has such an affect on boys, it's turned a lot of boys into pretty good magicians, I'd meet them.

They'd tell me, oh that was that book that turned them on and your other books do the same things. They will write and tell me how the books affected them. You don't get those books very often, occasionally, but you don't get them from adults. And believe me, nobody writes a screen writer, I don't know how many movies I've written.

I don't think I've ever received one letter and I have a lot screen writer friends, none of them have ever told me they got a letter from anybody

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Finding humor

I would like to talk just a bit about the nature of humor. People don't stop to realize that humor is tragedy, but it's tragedy wearing a putty nose and slap shoes. After all the Greek masks are equal, humor and tragedy. My novels have a tendency to be rather comic on the surface, they're all really very serious underneath.

And I came forward, for years, I wanted to do something on the Holocaust. My father lost his entire family left in Europe, he grew up in Southern Russia and the Ukraine. When the Nazis came through, they marched everybody to the forest and machine gunned them, they're all gone.

So for years I've been wanting to do something not so much with the Holocaust as with the million and a half children who were murdered, which is really just an unconscionable figure, which has not really been dealt with, we're dealing with the six million, but not the million and a half children who perished.

And the idea knocked around in my head for really decades and I couldn't find a way to tell the story. Again, I said, there's an idea for a story but what do you do with it, what do you do with it? Other books have been written on the Holocaust and for some reason I'm thinking of the dybbuk which is a Jewish ghost who comes back to possess someone.

And once I got that idea, then I could see in a flash what I had. I grew up with magicians and many of them are ventriloquists, I knew a lot about ventriloquism, the dummies and all that stuff. And I thought, I'll have him possessed, he'll be non-Jewish and I'll have a Jewish dybbuk of course, a child, who was murdered in the Holocaust who comes back to gain revenge.

And possesses the ventriloquist because he would become the mouthpiece for what's happened. So once I had that, I knew I had it. And as I wrote it, funny lines were coming, but they were lines of very bitter humor. But I was very worried as I wrote it that people would be offended to dare have a line or two of comedy in a book dealing with the Holocaust.

I set the story five years after the war and I waited until the reviews came out and every review commented on how welcome those flashes of humor in that grim subject, were. It is my favorite book of the books that I've written and I felt that I brought all of my skills to that book.

I couldn't have written that book 20 years earlier, it took everything I had to write that book.

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Name the character

First of all, let me say that I keep a name book, in fact I have more then one. And anytime I find an interesting name I put it in my name book because when you're writing, you need to name a lot of characters and names resonate, you have to get the right name.

I was writing a book called Chauncey and the Grand Rascal, a novel. And I had a liar's contest in the story. And originally McBroom was about three-quarters of the page long. I thought, that's a big waste, that's too good an idea. I ripped it out of that novel, put it aside.

I finished the novel, then I went back and to see what I could do with this idea, this very rich farm, a one acre farm that was 88 acres deep. And I had a story of about 15 pages, so that was the first McBroom and the question is, where did I get the name?

McBroom, a farmer, McBroom was the right name. It was in my name book otherwise I would never have found it. Now I've heard there are families named McBroom's, there are enough of them that they have their own little mini-convention every so often. I often will hear from McBroom's, they're pleased as can be to be immortalized in those 10 McBroom stories.

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What's next?

I'm undertaking the life of Charlie Chaplin who was, when he was alive and to show how good he is, the most famous funny man in the world. His stuff was so well known everywhere, in South America, in Africa, in China, everywhere, they know Charlie Chaplin.

It's a great rags to riches story because he grew up in the slums of London, completely impoverished, in a workhouse at age seven. He lived on the streets as a very young child, washing out of the horse troughs. And within 10 years, he's in Hollywood, the most famous star in Hollywood, living in a mansion, with gold fixtures in the bathrooms.

So it was a great rags to riches story, very dramatic.

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Unraveling the story

Sometimes, if you write biographies, people expect you to be an expert on the subject. Well in a way, you do become an expert, but when you start you don't know very much and for example, with the Charlie Chaplin biography, as well known as he was and at one time… he was the most famous man in the world.

I mean he was as famous as anybody and he's still quite famous. I didn't know an awful lot about him, I knew a certain amount. But when you read about someone, you find out that there are certain things that don't quite add up. And as a biographer, it's not your job just to repeat what everybody else said.

But if you find holes in the story, you have to think about them and see why… try to figure it out. An example, he was a very tiny man, he was only about five-two, maybe five-three, he says five-four, but they always exaggerate, he was very tiny.

He had a rather dark complexion, it was kind of Mediterranean complexion, dark curly hair, that's not what his father looked like or his mother. He looked like either one of them. And he looked at his… and his father skipped out when he was very young which is why he had this childhood.

And then his mother went mad so that's why he had this tragedy in his life. But he looks at this man who is presumably his father and realized, he can't be my father, I don't look anything like him. I'm not built like him and that haunted him for the rest of his life, he was never too sure.

So who was his father? Now he got tired of this, he would say that in one interview that he was that his father was Jewish. Another one he would say, no, there's not an ounce of Jewish blood in him. Another he'd say, he was, he wasn't, so he didn't know. But to put an end to it, when he was in his 30s he announced that his mother… his grandmother was half gypsy to explain the dark hair and the curly hair and the short stature.

I have figured out who his father was, it's deductive reasoning, but I've eliminated this, I've eliminated that and I think it is obvious, in a way, who his father was, it fits all the elements. So you have to come up with some things, you should come up with some observations.

I'm not saying absolutely, but I think I have a more interesting and convincing case of who his father was then any of the other biographers and he has a couple of very good ones. But they took the easy path out, the gypsy path out which to me is just baloney.

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Excerpt from The Whipping Boy

Yes, this is The Whipping Boy. Let me say first of all, there was very common expression when you (unint.) someone as a whipping boy, that is someone who takes a punishment for something he didn't do, he's just the whipping boy.

I didn't realize there actually had been whipping boys in royal households in the past. And I thought that's certainly an idea for a story and when it occurred to me at first, I thought it just had the muscle power of picture book story, I couldn't think it had the importance of a novel which got me into trouble.

But when I let it write itself, out came this short novel. So here she goes. Every so often if I can get some thought on them, I will write little captions and this one is chapter one, in which we observed a hair-raising event, you'll see.

"The young prince was known here and there and just about everywhere else as Prince Brat, not even black cats would cross his path." And once I had that line in, I knew I was on my way. One night the king was holding a grand feast, a grand feast. Sneaking around behind the lords and ladies, Prince Brat tied their powdered wigs to the backs of their oak chairs.

Then he hid behind a footman to wait. When the guests stood up to toast the king, their wigs came flying off. The lords clasped their bare heads as if they'd been scalped, the ladies shrieked. Prince Brat, he was never called that to his face of course, tried to keep from laughing.

He had both hands over his mouth, then out it ripped, a cackle of ha-ha-has and ho-has and he-hees. The king spied him and he looked mad enough to spit ink. He gave a furious shout, 'Fetch the whipping boy!' Prince Brat knew that he had nothing to fear, he had never been spanked in his life.

He was a prince and it was forbidden to spank, thrash, cut, smack or whip a prince. A common boy was kept in the castle to be punished in his place, the whipping boy. The king's command traveled like an echo from guard to guard, up the stone stairway to a small chamber in the dreary north tower.

An orphan boy named Jemmy, the son of a rat catcher, roused from his sleep. He'd been dreaming happily of the ragged but carefree life before he'd been plucked from the streets and sewers of the city to serve as royal whipping boy. A guard shook him fully awake.

'On your feet my boy,' Jemmy's eyes blazed up. 'Ain't I already been whipped twice today? God, what's the prince done now?' 'Let's not keep the great folks awaiting lad.' 'In the main hall,' the king said. '20 whacks 'til finally biting back every yelp and cry, the whipping boy received the 20 whacks.

Then the king turned to the prince and let that be a lesson to you. Yes poppa, the prince lowered his head and said… as if to appear humbled and contrite but all the while he was hearing a growing exasperation with his whipping boy. In the tower chamber, the prince fixed him with a scowl.

'You're the worst whipping boy I ever had, how come you never bawl?' 'Don't know,' said Jemmy, with a shrug. 'A whipping boy is supposed to yell like a struck pig. You dress up… we dress you up fancy and feed you royal, but don't worry, but it's no fun if you don't bawl.'

Jemmy shrugged again, he was determined never to squint a tear for the prince to gloat over. 'You bellow next time, hear,' said the prince, 'or I'll tell poppa to give you back your rags and kick you back into the streets.' Jemmy's spirits soared, much obliged, your royal awfulness he thought.

I'll take me rags and I'll be gone in a half blink of an eye." And that's the end of the first chapter.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl