Julia Eccleshare meets the author of Holes, ‘one of the best books of the last ten years’, Louis Sachar.
I first met Louis Sachar on his debut author tour in the UK. Holes had won the coveted Newbery medal in the US and had instantly attracted readers in the UK, children and adults alike, in droves. Three years later, Louis is again in the UK, this time for one day of precisely timed interviews. Installed behind a barricade of locked doors in a suite of rooms in the Dorchester with myriad minders (nothing to do with his publishers, this was film company business), he is on a world wide tour – four days in Australia, next stop Paris – covering the globe to mark the film release of Holes for which he also wrote the screenplay. Louis has been transformed from a rookie author to a superstar. He looks neater, trimmer. His hair is cut close. He’s camera ready. And he looks like he’s loving every minute of it.
But Louis isn’t that easy to talk to. He doesn’t do small talk and that’s not just because the time is limited. I had been warned by a leading US children’s book expert that he could be hard going. He wasn’t, but he wasn’t a pushover either. More disconcertingly, he’s not easy to press on his life, giving clear ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ signs when asked about his childhood and family, or even his writing. A brief biography could read: happy childhood, good school student, economics major University of Berkeley, California, writer.
In the most courteous way possible, Louis doesn’t give much away. He’s charming and he’s absolutely sincere with occasional flashes of humour. Yes, he always wanted to be a writer. He’s loved writing ever since high school. No, he has never been a teacher but to gain credits during his degree course he signed up to be a teacher’s aid because he thought it would be an easy option. He still grins rather wickedly as he remembers what obviously felt like a bit of a student scam – ‘you just had to turn up – there was no extra reading or writing.’ He liked working with the children: ‘I loved their bright-eyed optimism.’ He loved it enough not to think he’d like to teach them but that he’d like to write for them. He wrote his first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, set in a school built with thirty classrooms one on top of another after an architect’s mistake. In it he uses the witty device of telling thirty short stories, one for each class, to convey the unlikely things that happen – including the turning of Mrs Gorf, the meanest teacher in the world, into an apple. It was published. What, no rejections? No wasted duds? Louis bristles slightly: ‘I rewrite many times before anything is finished. I’ve been writing for years and I always try to do my best.’ And he did work in a sweater warehouse while he got started.
Before Holes, there were eighteen books published in the US including a number of follow up titles in the ‘Wayside School’ series and the excellently titled There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom but none of them were brought over to the UK: ‘They were said to be too American.’ Louis is still slightly baffled and rather hurt by this past overlooking: ‘But kids from all over the place enjoyed them, whether they were American or not.’ And Louis is properly respectful and appreciative of those kids as readers. ‘It’s important to think of children as individuals with real characters. They are smart readers who hate to be talked down to.’ Though different in detail, almost all Louis’s books have a school setting with its codes and practices and lots feature boys, including sensitive boys, such as David in The Boy Who Lost His Face (which was published just after Holes) who juggles the complexity of friendships, being cool or not cool and his love for his little sister. ‘Lots of people think that if you write about boys you have to make them crude and tough. Boys are that way, but they are other ways, too.’ Louis is also excellent at humour, using it rather than heavy-handed moralising to make his points. He doesn’t like to be classified as a humorous writer and winces slightly at the idea as if that meant cheap or crude but he does agree that his books are funny. ‘Humour is strong in my books. I’m a lot funnier and more thoughtful on paper than I am in life.’ When pushed, he allows, ‘that’s because in a book I can redraft the humour and make sure that it works.’ And he even laughs when he says it.
Louis writes a regular two hours a day, pushing a story along. ‘I don’t write any plan or outline. The starting point for each book is different. Usually it’s an incident, something that happens. Sometimes it’s a character.’ Characters matter a lot to Louis and he thinks that authors become their characters which is part of why he mostly writes for boys. ‘I do many drafts and then usually I reach a point where I can’t do any more.’ At this point he hands over to his wife who is always his first reader. ‘She is a good judge because she responds as an average reader would, not as a trained critic.’ Grinning he adds, ‘She’s also a teacher so she corrects my spelling.’
And then came Holes. (Luckily, Louis does like to talk about Holes – a bit, anyway.) It was different from the beginning. It was fought over by a bunch of US publishers, went on to win the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award and then the rest. It’s through Holes that Louis is now classified in reference books. It’s the book other authors choose when asked, ‘what book would you like to have written?’ It’s the original, hard to classify book that has grabbed readers of all ages through a combination of its audacious originality and heart-warming story delivered without any preachiness. It’s hard in the midst of all of that for Louis to know now just how and why it was such a leap away from his previous titles. He’s pretty sure it’s not to do with what it’s about. As he says, ‘the hardest question I’m ever asked is what is it about? There isn’t really a simple answer. Part of the fun is trying to work out what it is about.’ And he seems genuinely as unsure as any new reader might be. He thinks it could be to do with the scale of the book. ‘All my other stories are about kids in schools. They’re as funny as Holes but they’re not on such a scale. It’s got a lot more plot and it’s the back stories that give it so much texture. I started by creating the story of the hidden treasure. Then, the story of Kate Barlow just grew on me and I had the idea of the curse from the beginning. And kids are fascinated by a juvenile delinquent centre – and by the idea of escape.’
That was the working out. The inspiration for Holes came from Lake Travis in Texas, near to his home. It’s a beautiful lake with sparklingly clear water but Louis chose to reinvent it as something completely different. ‘I imagined it had dried up and I invented the scenery that would be created if that had happened.’ So important is the lake that Louis sees it as the main character in Holes, though he’s clearly very fond of his human characters, too. ‘I wasn’t trying to moralise about the boys in Holes. I was trying to show that the idea of discipline, of digging a hole every day was pointless and that it wouldn’t make a person different. The strange thing was that, as I wrote the story, I found that the boys did change. They developed a sense of pride in themselves. I hadn’t expected that.’ Louis’s own surprise at the book seems totally genuine. He is, in some ways, in awe of Holes and what it has done for him. He knows that it should have given him the confidence to write more books and, by implication, better books but the reality is that it’s been very difficult to write the next book and Louis certainly doesn’t want to talk about the one he’s working on at the moment. All he’ll say is that Holes ‘crossed-over and the new one will be more crossed-over’. He has filled the intervening years by writing around Holes – the film screenplay, and titles such as Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake. Meanwhile, for UK readers, Bloomsbury have been rolling out the previous eighteen books to keep his readers satisfied.
Time’s up. Louis Sachar, superstar one-book author, can notch up another international interview before moving on. Holes, the film, is stunning and will bring new readers to his remarkable book. The celebrity treatment will continue. But whether it will help Louis to write his next remains an enigma. Sadly, it seems as if a man who has an apparently natural gift for understanding and writing for the unglamorous nine to twelve readers – and boys at that – without the obvious hooks of football, bullying or the rest may be lured into apparently more sophisticated territory.
And then, when he thinks I’m gone.
Louis, complete with baseball cap reappears. Suddenly he’s set free. Away from the chintzy sofa he looks like he’d relate to Stanley, Zero and the rest. There is a boyishness that they’d understand. Louis, shall we start again? Forget the fame and glamour of Holes, the movie and the rest. Just remember, Camp Green Lake and that story that gave us one of the best books of the last ten years.
(published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books)
Holes, 0 7475 4459 X, £5.99 pbk, 0 7475 6366 7, £5.99 pbk (film tie-in), 0 7475 5755 1, £6.99 pbk (adult edition)
Stanley Yelnats’ Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake, 0 7475 6365 9, £4.99 pbk
The Boy Who Lost His Face, 0 7475 5528 1, £4.99 pbk
Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes, 0 7475 5524 9, £4.99 pbk
There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, 0 7475 5257 6, £4.99 pbk
Sideways Stories from Wayside School, 0 7475 7177 5, £4.99 pbk, and four other ‘Wayside School’ titles
Eight ‘Marvin Redpost’ titles, £4.99 each pbk
Julia Eccleshare is children’s book editor of the Guardian and co-director of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.