Paul Zindel ‘walks tall’ literally, with very straight back and extremely careful step. And he talks as he writes – theatrically, outrageously, shockingly, disarmingly – brimming over with enthusiasm for everything, mischievously shrewd about everyone. Yet in all his movements, and his words, there is a strong inner control, as if he were measuring responses and warily observing everyone around him. (His voice is soft, his frequent laughter loud.)
There is a reason for that iron control, and for being wary of life and of people. Bizarre as are the characters and events with which Zindel’s novels are crammed, he exaggerates only slightly when he claims to write ‘only about the things I know’.
His childhood was a solitary one: two years after his birth in 1936, his mother was left by her husband to bring up Paul and his elder sister single-handed. She had to work at a variety of jobs (including nursing the terminally ill), which meant constant moving, few friends, sometimes even living in other people’s houses. (Some of this experience is recorded in Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, the writing of which brought him close to a breakdown.) Worse: I missed a father, and in many senses I missed a mother, because back then the fashion of what it was to be a divorced woman was very destructive to a child.’ His mother, sadly, died before she could enjoy either his success or the financial help it would have enabled Paul to give her.
Teachers in school, therefore, were very important to him, and it is a teacher whom he celebrates in his new book, A Begonia for Miss Applebaum. She is a composite of three biology teachers, all women, who inspired Paul to do his ‘very best’. ‘One of them, Miss Wilmot, she was a poetic biology teacher. She had an enormous amount of delicateness, sweetness, understanding of humanity and yet with the grip of knowing the solid base of science.’
His schooling was interrupted when he was fifteen by an eighteen-month stay in a TB sanitorium – this was just before the discovery of drugs to cure the disease-but then he took a degree in chemistry and taught in high school for ten years, all the while writing plays. One of these was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds and when this was shown on TV Charlotte Zolotow, an editor at Harper (and still his mentor), wrote to suggest he try his hand at a novel for teenagers. This was twenty years ago.
‘When I was asked to write a Young Adult novel, I didn’t know there was such a thing. I asked the kids in school and they said they hadn’t read any. They read comics, they saw movies, they didn’t read any books. But if they had read a novel, it was Catcher in the Rye, because their girl-friends made them read it. So I looked at the book and I realised what the author had done. He was speaking close to the way that kids spoke in the school where I taught. And after that I just responded to those things I saw in the kids I taught. So The Pigman is simply the truth laid out with a modicum of knowledge of storytelling. Recently I read the book again and I was amazed because I really never quite knew why anybody thought whatever they did about it. In my mind it was some vague collection of adolescent incidents, but when I looked at it I saw such highly condensed prose. It was filled with images. It was outrageous. There was an audacity about it that had to be true.’
After that first book, Paul went on to write ten other teenage novels; he has written plays for the theatre (he won the Pulitzer Prize for Marigolds in 1971); he has written many screenplays for Hollywood (from 1978 to 1985 he lived in Beverly Hills). But his new book is different in tone from the earlier novels. For so long it seemed that in his novels he was bombarding his readers with all the most awful things that can happen to anyone. ‘There is an element that is similar in all of the books. It has to do with what I would call “Amulets against the dragon forces”. I think that life is a fairly tough battle, a tough adventure. There are some of us who say no to the adventure and turn our back on it. In Harry and Hortense I was talking a little bit about that. But l, frail as I think of myself, in real life when there’s an adventure, when there’s adversity, I rise to the occasion. I have amulets that save me. It’s like I have a lifeline built into me and that lifeline, ironically enough, is linked into the school system. In Marigolds, in Miss Applebaum, you will see a child who really doesn’t have much support or magic given from the family but one given through the school. I am saved by the school! That’s why school is so very important: because children somehow get to meet a variety of teachers – some mad, some quite magical. and some inspirational.’
In 1973 Paul married Bonnie Hildebrand, whom he had met some years before through his work in the theatre, and the wedding took place in London. David and Elizabeth, their children, are now teenagers: David is quiet and self-contained, Elizabeth more outgoing, a self-possessed twelve-year-old who resembles her mother and who now sings in the children’s chorus at the Metropolitan Opera. Paul is very proud of them both. ‘You want your children to have the things you missed, that you know you missed so much. I try to give them successes, and not to be jealous of anyone in the outer world who is able to bring them other stepping stones. My son is growing away from me now and learning strengths and enjoyments outside of the home. I guess its just to let them do it when they’re ready. But I also hear the other voice saying “Oh, I don’t want anybody else, I don’t want any other adult for my son to look up to, I want to be the sole teacher.” You see so much of yourself living through the children, but to know that you can glory in and relish their growing up and away from you is wonderful. I think sometimes writing all my books has helped me in that.’
Do his children read his books’? ‘I decided that I really don’t care whether or not they read my books now. I do want them to read my books when they’re thirty or forty and find there all my little clues to how my life was and the values I pulled out of it for myself and how I found my amulets. That’s what I wanted – but my poor kids have reading forced on them. At their school, Zindel is required reading! One of the most touching things in my life was when I found my daughter in tears after finishing The Pigman. I never made any comment. That she could detach herself enough from me to see that…’
The new novel, in theme, is very near to The Pigman, but the differences pinpoint very clearly the sociological changes of the last twenty years. In the first book there is teenage drinking and smoking, there is even a bomb – though not a dangerous one – and the text is peppered with four-letter words, though they are spelt in symbols. In Miss Applebaum the teenagers drink nothing except frozen hot chocolate, they don’t smoke, there is no bad language, and – most important of all – Miss Applebaum is not separated from the younger characters by anything but her wisdom and her love of life that she is determined to pass on to them. What had changed?
‘Well, for the first time the main character spoke to me. I’d never had this happen. I knew about character possession, but I just didn’t think things happen that magically. I was a chemistry teacher; I always try to define things and I can explain every event and so forth. It was on a drive to Atlantic City with Bonnie that the voice of Miss Applebaum came into my head. What she said was “Bury me in the park”. I got such a chill from that line because, I guess, it tipped off what the iceberg, the whole iceberg was going to look like. So it was, in a sense, returning to when I didn’t know anything else – the structuring, the academic approach, the symbols, these values against those – it was like returning to the same kind of energy that I didn’t think was possible.’
So where did that energy come from? The amulets must have been strong indeed for him to preserve that infectious zest for life.
‘Oh, that goes right to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it? If I knew the answer to that… Let me try. We are all many people. I always assume I’m a quiet person, I’m not exciting, I’m not funny. I think of myself as a suppliant, “Oh please like me, please make things go nicely for me” kind of person. But something happened early on that showed someone quite different. When I was twelve and wanted to start out sending off stories for publication, I had stationery printed up with my name in giant block letters-PAUL ZINDEL, STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK. So there must have been quite a bit of life in me. And some part of me thinks the best is yet to come.
‘All of life seems to be made up of two energies that are going at one another. There’s a struggle between the suppliant and the aggressive, and when those alternating energies no longer exist, that’s when life stops.
‘I’ve seen most of life as problem-solving, so the demand for an answer that becomes positive is really my way of a happy ending.’
And what about that ending’? Death comes into a number of Paul’s novels; it comes to Miss Applebaum. He doesn’t believe you can protect children from the knowledge of their mortality. That’s why, he thinks, readers cry over The Pigman.
‘Everywhere you see these buttons now – Life is horrible, Life is bad, You’ve got to pay taxes, and on the end of this And then you die. My son said a few months ago, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got the project. I’ve got the homework, and then I die.” Just like that. And that is something I think most parents have to come to grips with. You realise the enormity of the responsibility that you’ve brought children into the world, and if you don’t like life and what you’ve given them is something you don’t like, then it’s a terrible thing. So I think there is a big responsibility that you pass on to the children a sense of faith, that life is good, that it’s an adventure and that it’s something to be chosen over oblivion. And if you do that, then it’s the ultimate achievement for a parent. Now I don’t know how I’m going to do that, but I think future books may show us.’
(in Collins paperback. unless otherwise indicated)
The Pigman, 0 00 671768 3, £2.25 pbk
I Never Loved Your Mind, 0 00 671769 I , £2.25 pbk
My Darling, My Hamburger, 0 00 671800 0, £2.25 pbk
The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas, 0 00 671698 9, £2.25 pbk
Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball!, Bodley Head, 0 370 11025 0, £4.50 hbk; 0 00 671904 X, £ 1.95 pbk
Confessions of a Teenage Baboon, 0 00 671951 l , £2.25 pbk
Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, Bodley Head, 0 370 30838 7. £3.95 pbk; 0 00 672554 6, £1.95 pbk
The Amazing and Death-Defying Diary of Eugene Dingman, Bodley Head, 0 370 31128 0, £4.50 pbk; 0 00 672872 3. £2.25 pbk
The Girl Who Wanted a Boy, Penguin Plus, 0 14 03.2496 8, £ 1.95 pbk
The Pigman’s Legacy, 0 00 672977 0, £2.25 pbk; Penguin Plus, 0 14 03.1454 7, £1.95 pbk
A Star for the Latecomer (with Bonnie Zindel), Bodley Head, 0 370 30319 9, £4.50 hbk; 0 00 671787 X, £1.95 pbk
A Begonia for Miss Applebaum, Bodley Head, 0 370 31268 6, £2.95 pbk