Interview with Author Dan Gutman

I am back in the saddle working on a series I started years ago…targeting social skills for fourth and fifth grade students. As a result of that I am reading every recommended book for that age group. I lucked upon the work of Dan Gutman, as his “The Homework Machine” appears on multiple lists of the top books for fifth grade students.  Thank you Dan, for this interview.

Dan Gutman, tell us about your background.

I was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel.  Oh, wait a minute.  That was Abraham Lincoln.  Actually, I’ve written more than 160 books for kids.  For the littlest ones, picture books like “Rappy the Raptor.” For beginning readers, the “My Weird School” series.  For middle-graders, my baseball card adventure series.  For more advanced readers, “The Genius Files” and “Flashback Four.”  I live in New York City with my wife, Nina.  When I’m not writing books, I love to ride my bike, play Ping-Pong, and throw Frisbees.

What inspired you to start writing?

I started writing when I was about 25 years old.  I’m 64 now.  I started after I finished college and I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I always enjoyed writing letters to my friends, so I just decided to start writing.  That’s how I got started, at first writing for adults.  I didn’t start writing for kids until my son was born in 1990.

How long have you been writing?

My first book came out way back in prehistoric times—1985.

What about your latest book?

I just finished a book about Harry Houdini for Holiday House.  It’s about a kid in the present day who grows up in Houdini’s house (eight blocks from where I live now) and he communicates with Houdini’s spirit via text message.  It will be called “Houdini and Me” and it will be coming out in 2021.

What influenced the way you tell a story? 

I was not a big reader as a kid, and I think that really influenced me because I know what bores kids.  So I cut all that stuff out!  My biggest strength is that I can relate to reluctant readers.

How do you approach the art of writing?

I’m a morning person, so I do my writing from 8-12 when my brain is most alert.  I never write in the afternoon or at night.  I spend that time on email, research, business work, stuff like that.

Favorite place to write?

Outside!  I live across the street from Central Park, so I take my laptop out there on nice days and do my work there.  Otherwise, I have a little office in my apartment.  I can write anywhere.

Any tips for other writers?

Get a real job.  I have enough competition as it is.  No, seriously, read like crazy.  Be curious about the world around you.  Research your subject well, even if you’re making it all up.  Don’t take rejection personally.  Market and promote yourself and your books relentlessly.

What do you read for pleasure?

Biographies.  And The New York Times.

Favorite author?

Brian Selznick

I have read many of your books now. I am impressed with the way you tackle sensitive issues. The Homework Machine was comparatively light, with issues of homework, friends, teachers, Principals addressed. When I got to “Getting Air” a book I supposed was about skateboarding (the cover!) I was surprised when the story dropped me into the middle of terrorism. I’m now going to take a second look at the baseball card series. How did you decide to handle an issue like highjacking and terrorism? What balance did you feel needed to keep the book from being a political statement? Did you take any “flack” from the public for writing about this topic?

I’m really surprised to hear you ask about sensitive issues.  Because for the most part, I don’t write about sensitive issues at all.  My goal is simply to entertain and get kids excited about reading.  I leave it to other authors who are much better than me at discussing sensitive issues.

However, every so often I have done that, but it is usually just because the story demanded it.  In “Getting Air,” I wanted to write a survival story about a group of kids who are stuck in the wilderness for a period of time.  I figured the best way to do that would be for them to survive a plane crash.  So I decided to start with the plane being hijacked by terrorists.  I didn’t receive any flack at all for that book.

What I HAVE received flack for is my stance on the environment.  I have been concerned about climate change and burning fossil fuels for a long time, and I have written about it in a number of books (The Million Dollar Kick, Roberto & Me, Recycle This Book).  Every so often, I receive an email from an angry parent who tells me that politics have no place in children’s books, and I should keep my views to myself.  I don’t see climate change as a political issue at all.  Everybody cares about their children and grandchildren, and wants them to have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and live on a healthy planet.  So I’ll keep writing about these topics.

Your Non-Fiction genre. I read Election!: A Kid’s Guide to Picking Our Presidentwhich was helpful in understanding our current political mess! I learned some of this many moons ago, but a refresher course in straightforward terms was exactly what I needed. Do you find non-fiction different to market than fiction?

To market, no.

What sort of research is required for non-fiction vs fiction?

I feel that I can play more fast and loose with facts when I’m writing fiction.  The reader suspends their disbelief when he or she is reading a novel.  There needs to be a higher standard of accuracy for a non-fiction book.  So I’m much more careful, and I keep careful notes so if a fact checker questions anything, I can back it up.  With fiction, it’s “all made up” anyway, so it doesn’t matter so much if a “fact” is not entirely true.

Are you as funny as Funny Boy?

I really don’t think I’m funny at all, at least not in person.  I’m much funnier on paper than I am in real life.  On paper, I have time to think before saying something.

Do you travel as research, or do you write about trips you happened to take?

Most of my research is online or in books.  But every so often, when I am writing a scene that takes place in a specific, real place and the scene is crucial to the story, I will go there.  For example, in my series “The Genius Files,” I went to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Museum of American History, Graceland, and the climactic scene takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge.  So I went there, rented a bike, and rode back and forth across the bridge to I could describe the scene as accurately as possible.

Have you driven a Ferrari?

Nope.  I drive a 14-year-old Honda Civic

The names of the characters are unique….I have a vivid imagination, and I picture you going about your day to day activities, shopping, riding bikes, hiking, changing the oil on your car and suddenly, Wa La, a new character named Penzoil is created. Is this what actually happens or am I way off base?

Wa La?  Penzoil?  Sometimes character names are made up, and sometimes I use the names of real people for one reason or another.  The main character in “The Kid Who Ran for President” was Judson Moon, which was the name of my eye doctor.  In “The Genius Files,” I named the main characters Coke and Pepsi because I wanted names that were so familiar that kids would not forget them.  In “My Weird School,” I named the main characters “A.J.” and “Andrea” because my son had a friend named A.J. and there was a girl in my class named Andrea when I was a kid.  I slipped the name “Herb Dunn” into many of my books because he was an old friend and I wanted him to read them.

Thank you Dan! Folks, you can scope out Dan Gutman’s books and follow him. And even if you are sixty-two, you will enjoy his books.

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