Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Where do you get your ideas?
I like to say that I collect ideas, rather than “get” them, because ideas are everywhere. I carry a little notebook and pen in my pocket at all times. That way, wherever I am, if an idea comes to me—from something I’m thinking or something I observe—I can jot it down so I don’t forget it.
How do you think of your characters and their names?
Characters and character names come pretty easily to me. Often, they just appear and I can’t even tell you where they came from. To help myself think of names, I sometimes look through one of several baby name books I keep by my desk.
How do you think of your titles?
Very often (though not always), I have a title in mind before I start writing a book. I’ll have an idea for a book and a title will occur to me. Sometimes the title will change once I’m actually working on the book, and occasionally I have to come up with a title after the book is finished.
I think one of the reasons I’m a writer is that I love playing around with words, so titles and character names are almost like word games to me. My ability to conjure them has as much do with how my brain works as anything else.
Why do you write for children?
I don’t. I write for myself and hope the children who read my books will like what I’ve written.
What is your favorite book you’ve written?
That’s tough. I’ve written over ninety books, from picture books to young adult novels. If I had to choose just one, I’d probably pick The Misfits, not only because I had such a good time writing it and love the characters, but also because The Misfits is read in many schools and is used as a way to talk about name-calling, bullying, and being true to yourself.
I’d have to say Bunnicula is also a favorite, because it’s my most famous and it was also my first. Also, it was in Bunnicula that I first wrote “as” Harold. I’ve written many books in Harold’s voice since then, so he’s really a part of me. And so is Bunnicula. The other book I’d have to say is a favorite is The Watcher, my only book for older teens. I think it’s my best writing.
Oh, and “Jeremy Goldblatt Is So Not Moses” is my favorite story I’ve written. You can find it in Thirteen: 13 stories that capture the agony and ecstasy of being thirteen.
What is your favorite book you didn’t write?
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.
How old are you?
See “What’s your lucky number?” in Infrequently Asked Questions.
What was your first book?
Bunnicula, which was published in 1979.
How many books have you written?
Over ninety. I’ve lost count. (Okay, fine, I just counted. The answer is 94.) (Except, wait, I've written two more books that are being illustrated now, so make that 96.)
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on how easy or hard it is to get what I have in my head onto the page. On average, I’d say it takes me close to a year to write a novel, and maybe two to three months to write a picture book or short chapter book. There are wide variations in this. The longest it took me to write a book was four years. That was Addie on the Inside. The shortest time was a picture book I wrote years ago called The Day the Teacher Went Bananas. That one took me half an hour!
How many drafts do you write?
It depends on the book. I do a lot of editing and rewriting as I write, so by the time I have written my first draft I usually have a lot of what I want in place. After that, I may revise two or three times.
Where do you write?
I have an office on the third floor of my house. But I write on a laptop, so I sometimes sit on the couch in the living room. This accomplishes two things:
- It gets me out of my office.
- It allows me to sit next to my dog.
What is your writing process?
I start with an idea, often a very simple one—a character or a situation. Then I ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. This is how I “grow” an idea into a story. When I feel that I have enough to get myself started, I plunge into the writing. Well, sometimes I wade in. Finding the right tone or voice for the story is often the biggest challenge and it can take time. During this time, I can easily feel:
- My idea is garbage.
- I’m kidding myself thinking I know how to write.
- Maybe I should go to plumbing school or open a restaurant.
When I finally do find what feels like the right way to tell this particular story, I move forward one sentence at a time, one paragraph at a time, one chapter at a time. I go back and forth between writing notes (asking more questions) and writing the story itself. I like to let the story unfold. I don’t outline or plan things out too much, although I usually have an idea of how the story will end. It’s good to have that in my head as I write, because it gives me a destination to reach.
I try not to talk much about a book while I’m working on it, and I don’t show it to anyone until I’ve finished a first draft—unless I’m really stuck, in which case I’ll bring my trusted editor in and ask her to look at what I have so far and offer some guidance on how to proceed.
Does anyone help you write your books?
My editor helps me, but usually only after I’ve written the first draft. I need to keep other voices out of my head when I’m creating the characters and story. I did write my first two books—Bunnicula and Teddy Bear’s Scrapbook—with my late wife, Debbie, but I haven’t collaborated since then.
Sometimes my cats think they’re helping. They do this by sitting on my desk on top of whatever papers I need to be looking at.
Are any of the things that happen in your books based on events from your childhood?
For the most part, the things that happen in my books are made up. I’d say my books are based more on the feelings I had as a child than on the events of my childhood. But there are certainly pieces of my life in many of my books. Some of Joe’s stories in Totally Joe are mine from when I was his age and younger. And a number of the Pinky and Rex books are based on my life.
For example, in Pinky and Rex and the School Play, Pinky is forced to wear a leftover cat costume from Halloween as his monkey costume in the play. He feels really bad about this— and about the fact that he’s a lowly, nonspeaking monkey, when he wanted to have the main part. But when the other children in the play forget to stand up at a crucial moment, Pinky hops all over the stage, acting like a monkey, and whispering stand up, stand up, stand up in everyone’s ears. He saves the day! Well, that all happened to me in the fourth grade. Here’s a class picture of me in the fourth grade with one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Kubrich.
In the Bunnicula books, is the wirehaired dachshund puppy Howie named for you?
No, he is named for his father, Howard. Howard was named for one of my favorite uncles. Besides, “Howe” and “Howie” are not pronounced the same way. If you want to know how to say my name, listen here:
Is Bunnicula really a vampire?
I’ll leave that to you to decide. All I can say is, if he’s not, I don’t know how he gets out of his cage and turns all those vegetables white!
Will you write any more Bunnicula books?
After writing seven Bunnicula novels and two related series (Bunnicula and Friends and Tales from the House of Bunnicula), I think I’ve done about all I can do with these characters. I won’t say “never,” because I could still get a great idea and decide to write another book, but in all likelihood I’m done writing about Bunnicula, Harold, Chester, Howie, and the Monroes.
Which character in The Misfits is most like you?
Joe Bunch. Totally. But there are pieces of me in all the main characters. The only one of the Gang of Five I always said I didn’t resemble is Skeezie Tookis. Then when I saw the cover of Also Known as Elvis, I was reminded of a photo taken when I was Skeezie’s age. Whoa, back when I had hair I was a lot more like Skeezie than I realized!
Cool cover! Is that really Skeezie? And who’s the dog?
“Skeezie” is really a thirteen-year-old actor and model who lives in New York City. And that’s my dog, Lily! Here are a couple of pictures of the photo shoot:
Why did you write Addie on the Inside in poems?
I felt it was the best way for Addie’s character to reveal the inner thoughts and feelings she might not have the words to express otherwise. Poetry is a sort of pure language. It gets to heart of things. I read a lot of poetry and began writing it for my own pleasure before writing the poems in Addie on the Inside.
Will you write any more Misfits books?
I intended Also Known as Elvis to be the fourth and final Misfits book. The first three, in order, are The Misfits, Totally Joe, and Addie on the Inside. But when I finished writing Also Known as Elvis I started missing them as if they were my friends who were moving away. So I guess the answer is: I don’t know. Maybe, if the missing becomes too strong.
Have any of your books ever been turned into a play or movie?
Bunnicula was made into a TV cartoon many years ago. And the exciting news is that it is now a cartoon series on Boomerang.com. It's also being shown on network television in over twenty-five countries worldwide. There are two play versions of the book. One is a play with music (meaning there are several songs in it); the other is a musical (meaning there are many songs in it). Both versions are produced in theaters all over the country. I hope you’ll have the chance to see one sometime.
The Misfits was turned into a play by the Omaha Children’s Theatre. And Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores was made into a mini-musical by TheatreWorks, the same producing outfit that created the musical version of Bunnicula.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I read. I prefer fiction to nonfiction, though I read both. I also read and write poetry. I see movies and plays and go to hear live music. I sing and make music. I play the cello, which I started studying a few years ago. With my husband Mark, I write songs and we arrange and perform them, singing harmonies, as Old Dogs New Tricks (Mark on guitar, me on cello). I go to museums to look at art and I draw. I travel, though not as much as I wish I could. Mark and I spend time in Vermont. We love Vermont. And we enjoy visiting Zoey in Boston. Her apartment is one block away from the apartment I lived in when I went to Boston University many years ago!
Much of my non-writing time is spent with friends. Friends are very important to me, which is why friendship is so important in my books (think of Harold and Chester; Pinky and Rex; Horace and Morris and Dolores; Houndsley and Catina; the Gang of Five in The Misfits). I take long walks with Mark and our dog Lily. I hang out with the cats. I take photos. Lots of photos. (It’s kind of a family joke.) And wherever I go, I take my little notebook with me, because a part of my brain is always tuned to ideas that might be out there waiting for me to find them.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Read. Daydream. Carry a little notebook. Write what matters to you. Write what makes you happy. Write because it’s fun to write. Play with words. Take walks. Look around you. In the words of Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets:
Tell about it.