Louis Sachar wrote his first children’s story as an assignment for a high school creative writing class. As an added bonus, the class would have the opportunity to read its stories to local elementary school children. All except Sachar. His teacher admonished, “You obviously didn’t take the assignment seriously. If you don’t want to write a children’s story, that’s okay; write something else.” Generally, he’d always done well in the class and loved writing, so he was puzzled by her reaction. And remains puzzled even today. He speculates that his teacher objected to the short story format versus the picture book format many other students turned in, or perhaps the fact that the main character was a mean teacher. Through the intervention of his friends, Sachar did visit the elementary school to read his story aloud. “The kids were hanging on every word,” he remembers.
Sachar didn’t give writing for children a second thought until he graduated from University of California, Berkeley in 1976. During his last year he volunteered to help out in a second/third grade class at Hillside Elementary School. Although his motives sound altruistic, he freely admits he did it for three easy credits without tests and term papers. Affectionately known as “Louis, the Yard Teacher”, his time at Hillside soon became his favorite part of the day—and the most important part of his college career.
Sachar’s first book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, was inspired by his time at Hillside. His characters are composites of several of his former students, and Mrs. Gorf, the villainous teacher from his high school creative writing assignment, has a starring role.
Books begin with seemingly insignificant details, according to Sachar. For instance, one of Sachar’s friends had a nine-year old son who was asked to baby-sit a neighbor’s dog. Using this basic premise as a springboard and adding a dash of humor, Sachar wroteMarvin Redpost: Alone in His Teacher’s House. Marvin baby-sits his teacher’s aging dog and is surprised to find she lives like a normal person, but Sachar complicates things when the dog dies.
In 1991, Sachar moved from San Francisco to Austin, Texas. Cool ocean breezes and fog were replaced with an incessant hot, dry heat. So Sachar created Camp Green Lake—a desolate, dry, dusty lakebed. “The best ideas come when I’m writing,” he says, one thing triggering another. Soon Camp Green Lake was inhabited by yellow-spotted lizards, juvenile delinquents, and their warden—the memorable setting of Holes. “I put Stanley into it—an innocent kid sent to prison—and made it up from there.” Sachar slaved away atHoles for 18 months (precisely the length of Stanley’s sentence at Camp Green Lake), but the effort garnered him the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Because Sachar’s high school friends christened each other with nicknames, all of the characters in Holes also have nicknames. Sachar was known as Wolfman (probably because of his wild hair, he says), and he hung around with Jarhead, Cool Breezer, and Little Red.
Sachar also wrote the screenplay for the movie Holes, but the production company sometimes brought in other screenwriters to rewrite scenes. “I was frustrated with the direction the movie seemed to be going,” says Sachar and he thought Armpit and X-Ray, two characters from the book, would be, too. Sachar could hear them in his head, “Hey, they stole our story. It was nothing like that. Let’s go to California and get our due.” Ultimately, Sachar says, “The movie went the way I wanted it to go, but I liked the dynamic between X-Ray and Armpit. Stanley and Zero had a magical experience at Camp Green Lake, but Armpit didn’t. He did his time and was released.”
In his latest book, Small Steps, Sachar juxtaposes Armpit’s story with that of rock star Kaira DeLeon—a technique reminiscent of Holes. “I have this far-fetched premise of Armpit falling in love with a rock star, but I wanted to create a feeling of the reader wanting them to meet—a feeling of inevitability,” says Sachar. “The happy ending for Armpit is not getting the girl and living the celebrity life, but taking his small steps and making a life of his own.”
Sachar’s writing life is solitary. Most writers share their manuscripts, frustrations, and problem scenes with critique groups who offer advice or a shoulder to cry on. Not so with Sachar. He never shares his stories with anyone—not even his wife and daughter—until he’s ready to submit them to his editor, preferring to keep the story bottled up inside him so it has no choice but to come out through the written word. He generally writes about two hours each day, but feels like most of it is wasted time. He doesn’t outline or create complex character notebooks to start a story; instead he sits at a blank computer screen and begins typing. And deleting. He often equates the writing process with digging holes. “It amazes me how after a year, all those wasted days somehow add up to something,” he says. Small steps. Perhaps Sachar and Armpit have something in common.