Transcript from an interview with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Watch the video interview with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver here >

Henry and Lin meet, and Hank Zipzer is hatched

There was a lull in my acting career and so I needed help. And so I went to this gentleman who I knew from years ago, he was my agent at another agency and he to talk to everybody you know in the company to see if they were going to represent me. Finally they said yes. And I went back the second time and they were taking the art off the wall as the company imploded.

I finally got somebody to say yes. But in those 90 days that the, that I was there as a client, he said why don’t you write books for children about your dyslexia and I said because I’m dyslexic, I have no sense of self and I don’t believe that I could write a book, period.

One other time he said it, he said this time I’m going to introduce you to my very good friend Lin Oliver who knows everything about children’s literature. And so as Lin said we met, the fish was horrible. But the meeting was great. And we hatched Hank Zipzer right there.

In that meeting Henry told me about growing up with dyslexia and how school had been such a challenge for him and so debilitating really and demoralizing and I related to that, I never had dyslexia but I’m the mother of three sons. And while they didn’t have specific learning challenges they were all difficult in school.

So the idea of creating a character, a hero character who was not, who was happy with himself and always except that he wasn’t successful in school really appealed to me. SO we put all of our life experiences together, our kids are about the same age, and we created the character of Hank who is smart and resourceful and creative…

And funny.

And intelligent and funny. He just happens to stink at school. And, and so that character attached himself to our hearts and existed for the next 15 years in books.

And then realized you write what you know, at least emotionally. You write what you understand. The comedy we, we just have the best time with. We’ll just go anywhere and say anything and do anything in our comedy. And we took that premise, we took that premise of expressing, of writing a story and put it into the, our newest, newest novel which is alien superstar.

That we are all the same, under whatever you think you look like or whatever you, somebody else thinks you look like, don’t just a book by its cover, no pun intended.

Our writing process

I’m just going to say this, I could never have, I wouldn’t be here in this interview, I would never have been able to write a chapter, let alone 35 novels without Lin. Lin taught me the rules, they still frustrate me. We’re writing in the first person, I want to write in the first and third person.

Simultaneously.

I don’t see why you can’t do that. And we, I’m telling you, it’s a miracle because Lin sits at the computer and has a thought and types and I have a thought and talk and then Lin types, and then sometimes she just types and I wait, and then she reads it back to me and then we argue over every word.

And it works. But it is, like…it had to have been meant to be that we would get along this way.

We work really very much as a team and Henry’s instincts are great. Maybe the word-smithing a little bit, you know the fussing around. But in general we do everything together and we see eye to eye on things and it’s a very important part of our collaboration that we are mutually respectful and seek each other’s opinion.

And are satisfied at the end of the process. We go that’s the book we wanted to write. That’s how we wanted it to sound.

And you see that acted out sometimes when we’re discussing, debating, arguing, whatever verb you want to put it. It’s good natured so it’s not exactly arguing but we’ll hang in there with a discussion about a particular word until, ad nauseum sometimes because that represents what we’re doing together which is we want what’s on the page to be what we created together.

Creating a safe, fun space for collaboration

Sure, so we both come out of television. Henry you may have heard…

I’m still in it.

That’s right, that’s right. Would you like to say anything specifically about that?

No. I’m just staking a claim.

Okay. He is an actor, and I’ve spent a lot of years at Universal Studios and at various other studios as a writer/producer mostly on situation comedies, a showrunner. So as a showrunner, you run the writing room so you sit in the middle of the night with some really gelatinous Chinese food and seven or eight or ten other writers and you create the show and you punch up the show and you listen to ideas.

So it’s a very particular kind of collaboration, you have to learn how to hear ideas, how to process ideas and not judge ideas. So I think having come out of that we both have that experience so we can say something that you create a safe place in the room to collaborate and you can say whatever comes into your mind and know that it’s, even if it’s a rotten idea no one is going to make fun of you and, and that the whole is greater than the, than the individual parts.

So our collaboration produces something better than either one of us would be doing alone.

For a lot of people, writing is solitary. I’m not great at that, I am grateful do you know, Lin also has this organization, you know the…

SCBWI.

There you go. And there are people in the office and I get to visit and I bring them cake and there’s now a puppy in the office and you know so it’s a wonderful environment and very, very successful for us.

I also think the kind of material we do, we write comedy and humor and entertainment. So it’s not a miserable process, we’re not looking to sort of engage in misery as some other kind of novelists might.

I leave that at the door.

He leaves his misery at the door, we have a sign over the door. And so you know it’s a very joyful process what we do, so it’s nice to do it together. I also write on my own, also not a miserable process. But when Henry is acting then I’m writing other things and when we’re together we’re collaborating on the work that we do together and it makes it really fun, it makes it go faster for both of us who have a little attention issue. It helps focus your attention.

Writing starts with the outline

Day one of us writing, very important to Lin is to have the outline buttoned down. And so we talk through the possibilities. And if a story is good, the ideas come like, like a volcano. If the idea is not good, you are stumped and then we throw it out. I mean literally just crumple it and throw it in the garbage.

We get an outline, we read every day what the outline is, where we’re going to do go that day in that chapter or in that section. What I have found most surprising thing, is you can have the most detail in an outline and the book will take you where it wants to go.

And I am, I never know when it’s going to happen, just we’re off to the left of the story.

So you get a phrase like let’s put a pin in that one for a minute, have you ever heard me say that? Or just let’s just hold off on that one and explore some other ideas. You know there are ideas, one thing you can do is go down the path of the bad idea and you see where it takes you which is usually nowhere or somewhere you don’t want to go.

Or if you can feel it coming you don’t have to say that is the worst idea I’ve ever heard and what were you thinking? You just say hold that for a minute and let’s explore some other ideas, I think we do that a lot with each other.

We do that a lot. And an individual word sometimes, snorting instead of sniffling, instead of whimpering. To find the word that actually cradles the emotion that alien is having at the moment is extraordinary. I mean you know it, as soon as you hear it, it clicks into place like a puzzle.

One thing we do also is we start every writing session by going back to what we wrote the day before.

And I’m just going to jump in, Lin reads out loud the first, the last half chapter that we have written to get into the flow, what’s happening, where it’s going. I love it. You never outgrow the need to be read to, let me just say that.

And you hear it out loud, you hear it out loud so, and that’s when you can do the fine tuning where you, where you know in that first draft when you’re kind of, if I can use the word barfing, can I use the word barfing?

If you want to.

Barfing, you’re kind of barfing up the story. And so you’re not really worried so much about individual word choice. Once you have the scene down and you know where the action is and where the emotions are then the next day you can go back and polish up the word choice a little bit.

Everything happens through my ear. My whole life, I learn through my ears, I am affected through my ear more than my eye. I can’t always visualize things but I can, I hear it and it, it couples up with whatever is happening at the moment so nicely. Just you hear that, it’s attached.

Creating a series character

I think that’s because we create series, so when you work with series characters, when you’re doing it right the characters start to dictate the story and we know that, we know the characters so well. After doing, how many, thirty Hank Zipzer books? We knew intuitively what he wouldn’t or wouldn’t do. And with our new character Buddy Burger, the alien superstar, it took us quite a while to, oh, here he is.

It took us quite a while to develop the first book because you’re exploring the character and you’re exploring what is or isn’t in character.

And the rules. The rules of an alien, what does he know, what doesn’t he know, what has he absorbed living on the earth, what can he accomplish or not accomplish? Because he has suction cups on his feet you know which is really, really difficult on hot asphalt. He’s also good in 71 languages, he just has real trouble with Hungarian. Because the vowels kill him.

Being funny, with a heart

You know I think we had a great connection right away, notwithstanding the fish. Once we recovered from the lunch. I think we have just a really good chemistry, you know my first go to is always funny and I think Henry’s is too. And also a certain kind of funny, you know a funny that has heart and empathy. I think our values collide in a really wonderful way.

You know our feelings about how people should be in the world, about kindness, about friendship. I think that those are, those values are at the core of what we write. So even though we’re writing something that might be slapstick or wildly funny, at the heart of it, it’s about kids being friends and being kind to each other and accepting differences.

Right, well the new book is not only the importance of culture and art and the sound of music and light in your life, but also don’t judge a book by its cover. You don’t know who’s inside. And it seems, one thing I know, there are sections of books that when I read them out loud at a school or wherever it is, I still get teary.

And children say to us how did you know me so well? And I’m telling you, I don’t know how we do that, we just write what you know, what you’re feeling and if you’re authentic it’s like an arrow right into a child’s heart.

I don’t think either one of us ever thinks oh kids will like this, I think if it… we laugh in the room. And if we’re not laughing, it doesn’t go in.

Right.

And if we’re laughing we say that’s funny, it’s going to be, the same thing is funny to a nine year old is funny to us.

Right, except nine year olds do love the word diarrhea, don’t know why, it’s true.

I’ve seen you laugh at the word diarrhea.

I have laughed at diarrhea. Yeah.

Role of the book editor

And I will tell you as a writer, it’s amazing the difference in personality of the notes on the side of the page when it comes back from the, from the book company, from your editor. There are some notes you’re reading and you’re going, you said what? I’m, Lin, we’re not doing that, I cannot do that, that’s like meshuga, that’s crazy.

And then there are times when honest to god, you go wow that makes sense. Wow, we didn’t think of that, actually we could do that and then we rewrite the section and think it’s better.

So it’s a really welcome process, you know doing revisions when you’re working on a book. In television it’s not always so. So you have to be, when you work in television, you have to be a little more defensive otherwise you’ll wind up with something that’s created by 19 different people and doesn’t resonate with anyone.

Well, that is true, you have got to make instant decisions as an actor and a lot of times you just say wow, yeah, wow. And then do what you know is right. Because if you’re going to go down in flames, and this is as an actor, as a writer, if it’s not going to work then at least you want it not to work and your confident that you did what you thought was right.

If it goes down in flames and you gave in and it was against the very nature of your emotion, then you will never forget that as long as you live. You go if I only, if I only had just stuck up for it. If I only, I knew I was right about that, do you know what I mean? So you have to struggle to find the balance between the two.

The joy of school visits

We go into a classroom, we ask anybody in this classroom, and 500 children sitting on their tushies on the floor. Anybody know what they’re great at? Every child knows what they’re great at. Some of them are great at logarithms, I say that makes one of us. Some of them are great at making friends.

One kid said he was great at soccer, one kid was great at plastering. They all know, and if you tell them I was told that I would never achieve, and I’m here to tell you, they don’t know what they’re talking about. 500 kids from kindergarten to seniors, and all they want to do at the end of our presentation is hug us.

They just, and it is, I don’t know what it is, it’s like one of the greatest happenings on the earth outside of our own families.

What you see with kids is they want to be seen, and they want to be seen and not judged. So we come in to classrooms, we’re friendly adults, we don’t have an expectation of them. They don’t, we’re not giving them a grade, we’re not raising them, we’re just expecting them to be themselves and to be authentic and they feel that and they love it.

And we are happy to be with them. So there isn’t any judgment, it’s really fun for us to be with the kids.

Oh it’s fun. And what is interesting is that if you say something that connects the room is abuzz, they now have forgotten that you are standing there, they are talking and all we do is say you know what, can I just say one thing, I’m just talking to Clarice, I can’t hear Clarice because there are so many of you and only one of her.

And all of a sudden, they get it. Please, ask your question, boom.

Seeing the world through a child’s eyes

Without, without thinking about it. It just is, who we are and what we did and then realizing that you can deny that who we are and what we do works, do you know what I mean? When we first started this I had no idea what it was going to be like, we just said what was on our mind.

I have many theories, Henry makes fun of me for my theories, but I have a very strong feeling, the theory about this, in terms of writing for children. I think the most successful people who write for children are ones who are not nostalgic about their own childhood and trying to reminisce but they’re right in there with it, you know so.

I think that we both do that, you know if you want to clear a room of children you say when I was young and you know they’re out the door, my own children included. So if you’re writing in the present tense with kids, if you’re really seeing the world from their shoes, from their point of view, then all of that stuff goes away. All the judgment, all the lecturing, all the, you know sort of heavy handed teaching goes away and you’re right there with them and you’re empathetic, you’re feeling what they’re feeling.

Which is usually some kind of powerlessness, and some kind of responsibility to be something they’re not. So once you get rid of that and you’re right there at the same level with them, it all becomes joyful.

And there is tremendous power in a child being heard. That they say something, you go, oh, I never thought of that, oh, that’s interesting, oh, let’s explore that. A heard child is a powerful child.

That’s really, say that again.

A heard child is a powerful child.

Wow. Yes.

Henry Winkler: a tough childhood

Our youngest son is a director and his first film he asked me to come with him on some interviews and he was using me like a garden tool. And one of the things he said is I was loved too much, that was his problem, that was his…

His cross, yeah, that I loved him too much. And I said I would do it all again because the alternative is hideous.

My parents were very tough. Not just strict, they, they didn’t care to see an individual outside of who they were and how it translated to their, their life you know. Yeah. That’s no way to live.

The nickname that my parents had for me dummer Hund which if you don’t speak German means dumb dog. You know so, when Alan Berger, the man who said you should write books for kids I thought hm, I don’t know what he’s talking about I’m a dumb dog, because you carry it with you. If you say to a child, if you make fun of them or call them a name or say don’t be a moron, you should know this by your age.

They, those kids are listening to every word and it helps to knit the fabric of their self-image, every time you do that.

I don’t know, I don’t know how I, I carry it with me. I still have some resentment, I still have feelings of not being worthy enough, of not being perfect enough. But with age, you can use like a sander, like sandpaper and take away the rough edges and go about your business and I’m having a great life.

Mr. Donald Rock was the head of music at McBernie’s School for Boys, blue blazer, grey slacks, tie. And he said to me really one sentence I remember in my entire McBernie’s School for Boys history was “Winkler, if you ever do get out of here, you’re going to be okay.”

And I thought maybe I have a shot. You know my joke is that I held onto those words like DiCaprio held onto the wood when he slid off the boat, you know into the cold water.

It’s something that we all should be thinking about all the time, that every interaction you have with a child no matter how casual is recorded by that child, adults are really powerful. Kids look to adults to, you know to validate themselves.

Every child has greatness inside

I would say, I would say to any child who would listen, you have greatness inside you. And your job, your only job, is to figure out what that is, dig it out, and give it to the world. Because if the world is going to survive, if the world is going to maintain this, this awe of existing, it will because of what you contribute.

Because you cannot do math, because it’s hard to read, I still cannot spell. It has nothing to do with the tea in China, it has nothing to do with living. Your contribution as a living, breathing being on the earth, your joy, your enthusiasm, your humor, your vision is what counts. Bottom line, period, end of story.

Do you know what I realize is really important is the courage to say you know what I will try. I did not know I could do this, I was pretty convinced, and this was only 15 years ago so I don’t know how old I was, I was in maybe my late 50’s, right, maybe my late 50’s.

I didn’t think even then I would be able to write a book. The guy doesn’t know me, the person who suggested it. I will try. And just those three lines, just those three words, all of a sudden you can find out that you can do something you never thought you could do in a million years.

Many paths to learning

Well first of all there are lots of pathways to learning, reading is one of them but not the only one. So to realize that there are different kinds of modalities in the way people learn and to accept all of them, it’s fine to learn online, it’s fine to listen to audio books, to watch television documentaries. There are lots of ways to process information, that’s first.

And the other thing that I think is the most important thing for teachers and parents of kids with learning challenges it to play to their strength. So we always say when we’re talking to people if your child has a reading challenge, don’t stress the reading tutor get them an art teacher, get them a music teacher. Go to, every person wants to be great at something and not everyone is going to be great at that standardized test route of reading, repeating, taking tests.

So the thing to do in raising children whether you’re a teacher or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle or a parent, is to see the child, to see what they love, to see where their talents and enthusiasm are and provide that for them in their environment, that’s crucial.

The importance of school librarians

The other thing that I see that is really interesting as we travel. A librarian in a school or a librarian in the main structure of the library, has the time to go oh wait a minute, I know who you are. I’ve got this book that I think is perfect for you.

A teacher, one of the most important human beings in your child’s life, is underpaid, has too many children in the classroom, cannot pay attention to Deborah when Ace is, is having a problem. And when Lou-Lou really needs to understand something you know but Jules is asking for all the attention.

And she or he, they’re pulled like salt water taffy and they don’t, they can’t hone in. We have to give them the ability to hone in on the children who are in their classroom. Do you know? That is the, the difference that I have noticed when we travel with our books between the librarian and the teacher.

Introducing Buddy: Alien Superstar

Buddy Burger. So Buddy Burger has an enhancer of his senses, a sensory enhancer on his back. It’s like a little trunk. He’s 13 years old, he lives on a planet, the red planet, he has suction cups, he has six eyes, he can move any of them or all of them to any part of his head to see really what’s going on.

At 13, that sensory enhancer that enhances taste and smell and color and sound and emotion is…

Deactivated.

Disengaged, it’s deactivated by the higher ups so that he then becomes part of a society that doesn’t make trouble. They’re just bland. Grandmother says I want you to meet your destiny. She has collected all of the seepage of everything that is transmitted all over the world, television, movies, music, art and some of it leaks out into the universe.

She has captured it and it is against the law so she holds all of that in a subterranean cellar where she and her grandson watch and enjoy all of this incredible culture from all over the world. The only address they know on the world, from the movie’s they’ve watched, is Universal Studios.

So his rocket ship is programed to land on the backlot. Who’s going to question a rocket ship on the backlot of Universal? He comes out, the sun just glares you know, it just is so intense. He’s got five glasses, he’s got one eye that doesn’t have a sunglass, he takes the top of somebody’s Slurpee and puts it over his eye.

And I don’t know how this happens but he becomes a regular, on a situational comedy, on stage 42, as the alien in Hollywood.

Exploring another planet – the Hollywood backlot

Well the character, Henry and I both worked for years on sound stages, I in fact produced a show called Harry and the Hendersons which was on stage 42 at Universal Studios. And when you’re a writer at Universal on a show you’re actually kind of part of the tour. So our bungalows where we wrote and produced the show was right next to the King Kong exhibition so every half an hour there would be a giant roar and the smell of banana breath because the tour bus was going by King Kong and when he roared his breath was scented like bananas.

So that became just kind of normal and then every once in a while you’d look back and you’d think well this isn’t normal, most people are in offices without banana breath, without tour buses going by. And so when we started to talk about what our next character would be after Hank we thought it would be wonderful to use our experience living, because when you’re doing a television show you’re essentially living on the backlot.

And it’s a little world unto itself. Universal in fact is called Universal City, the backlot is a city with a mayor and a population of one. So the idea that this stranger in a strange land, the Earth, would come to a really strange land, which is the backlot of Hollywood, was really appealing to us as a way to tell a story, a classic fish out of water story but one that we felt all our readers would relate to because nobody knows that world either.

And would like to be part of it.

Yeah.

It’s aspirational, you know children think about wanting to be a star, wanting to be on TV, wanting to be in a glossy magazine and you find out it’s not so easy. Not so easy.

An alien living in an alien world

The first thing Buddy discovers is that he has the potential to be a star, but it’s completely foreign to him because that whole celebrity culture doesn’t exist on his planet. He comes from a repressive planet where everybody is meant to be similar and flattened and so he starts to discover the power of being a star, and also the vicissitudes, the difficulties of what comes along with celebrity.

He realizes, he finds out, that the avocado is very, very important to his health. That the avocado contains everything that he needs to exist in, or it has something that was on his planet but he could never find it, he didn’t know it here. So he loves guacamole, so do I, I love guacamole.

And he has to keep his true identity secret because if the world were to find out that he really is an alien, then his whole purpose of being on earth, which is to experience life as a human, would be changed. He would be sought after, he would be experimented with, he would be pursued. So he has to keep that secret and that’s hard, it’s a little hard to keep secret when you have seven fingers and suction cups on your feet and your skin is cobalt blue and you have six eyes…

And you bleed purple.

And three lungs and two stomachs.

And you don’t speak Hungarian, I’ll tell you.

He has, with his grandmother, Grandma Wrinkle, who is 987 years old, he, you know he’s, she has helped him create a human skin that he can keep when he’s not playing the character for only a little while.

He has to rejuvenate himself by soaking, water is very important, otherwise it starts from his suction cups and now he’s a quarter alien and the rest is human. He makes some friends, how will they accept him? How will they accept him if they know the truth? And so that is a dilemma that I struggled with and that I would imagine a lot of children struggle with.

It’s also, it’s also a commentary on our age of quick celebrity. Where people become celebrities not necessarily from talent, just because celebrity is a thing. So he has to kind of wrestle with that in terms of, and our readers get to wrestle with it, what actually makes you a celebrity? And then when you are a celebrity what that life is like, what you sacrifice in terms of privacy, the strain it can put on friendships.

So all of those are really important themes, meanwhile it being basically a comedy about an alien living in an alien world and what could be more alien than the backlot of Hollywood. His best friend is a stroller in the guise of Frankenstein, there’s a Woody Woodpecker stroller, there’s an overbearing agent manager.

A stroller is someone who wears the costume and walks around the backlot and takes pictures with people. The Woody Woodpecker stroller has a big, big problem because the beak is very irritating on the inside and scratches his nose at all times.

So there’s a lot of fun, there’s a lot of the fun of touring a backlot. But one thing that’s great is when he’s walking around in his alien self on the backlot he’s completely accepted as normal, because people assume that that’s one heck of a costume. Even when his sensory enhancer goes nuts, which it does frequently because when it detects a great aroma or great music, something that involves the senses…

Or Skittles.

Skittles. It has kind of a life of its own and so he has to come up with ways to explain why his costume is overreacting.

A diverse cast of characters

We also had the opportunity to create a diverse cast of characters. So his best friend, Cassidy, who is his co-star is biracial. There’s another star of a show, a kid named Ulysses Park who’s Korean. Now to him, he’s cobalt blue, so he is essentially colorblind and culture blind, everybody is weird, so it gives us an opportunity to you know weave this cast of characters together that come from very traditional and nontraditional character types.

So we have Ulysses Park who is a multitalented impressionist and there’s a girl on the set named Martha Cornfoot who is like a little Bette Midler who sings everything you know…

In a musical comedy.

Ulysses is a great mimic and is doing, in one of the shows that they’re filming, is Joan of Arc until he realizes that they burn her at the stake, at which time he wants to change character, he’s not really good with flames or smoke, you know.

So, and there’s the handsome co-star who is very jealous of our character Buddy. There’s Cassidy’s mother who is a kind of overbearing manager who is mostly concerned about her body image and her weight. So we’re deal, there’s a chance to weave in very sort of contemporary issues but in the guise of these comic tropes, comic characters.

"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio