Interview with Award-Winning Author Jerry Spinelli

Get to know Jerry…

One day in second grade Jerry Spinelli dressed up in his cowboy outfit, complete with golden cap pistols and spurs on his boots. He went to school that way. It was not Halloween. When the teacher asked if he “would like to do something for the class,” he got up and sang “I Have the Spurs that Jingle Jangle Jingle.” Shortly thereafter he ceased to be a singing cowboy and decided to become a baseball player. In eleventh grade he wrote a poem about a high school football game. It was published in the local (Norristown, PA) newspaper. He traded in his baseball bat for a pencil and became a writer. The story of his life to that point is told in his memoir Knots in My Yo-Yo String. His sixth novel, Maniac Magee, was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1991 for “The Most Distinguished Contribution to American Literature for Children.” His eighteenth book, Wringer, received a Newbery Honor. Several are optioned for film. Jerry Spinelli’s books appear in more than 40 languages. Anti-apartheid forces in South Africa recruited Maniac Magee to their cause. Stargirl is translated and distributed throughout the Middle East to encourage peace between Arab nations and the West. Stargirl Societies are springing up. Village audiences in rural Japan view stage performances of Loser.  The author graduated from Gettysburg College. Jerry Spinelli lives with his wife and fellow author, Eileen, in Wayne, Pennsylvania. They have six children and—at last count—16 grandchildren. For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

You just completed HOKEY POKEY. Can you tell us your inspiration for writing this book?

I was making notes for a science fiction story but it just wasn’t coming together, and suddenly I found myself writing what turns out to be the first page of HOKEY POKEY. And before I knew it I was writing about childhood–not as a time but as a place. A place where there’s no tomorrow. A place inspired–since you ask–by something almost every post-kid has uttered at one time or another: “Kids–they live in their own little world.” 

What parts of the writing process for HOKEY POKEY surprised you?

I guess the extent to which I found myself writing what others may want to call “fantasy,” in view of the fact that I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy. I think of HOKEY POKEY as told from a particular point of view–in this case, kids’–so complete and absorbing and real to them that, if I had to call it anything, I’d say “alternate universe” rather than “fantasy.” 

Who was the hardest character to develop? Easiest? 

None of the characters was especially hard to develop, as I’ve been living with them all my life–as playmates, as kids, as grandkids.  

What did you learn while writing HOKEY POKEY? 

I learned that mixing the florid melodrama of the old pulps with an Old West setting was just right for “their own little world.” 

How did you celebrate your first book being published? Has the excitement worn off with each book you publish? 

I spiked my ballpoint pen and did an endzone TD dance. I still do. 

What is the easiest part of the writing process? Hardest? 

I guess dialog comes easiest for me. Hardest? Maybe puzzling out the plot. 

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre? 

I don’t. Because I’m allergic to sales pitching in all forms and am all too happy to let my publishers do it. 

Do you come up with your book titles? 

For the most part, yes. Two exceptions: SPACE STATION SEVENTH GRADE and WHO PUT THAT HAIR IN MY TOOTHBRUSH? On the former, I originally called it STUFF. The editor didn’t like it, said send me another. I sent him 23 other titles. He didn’t like any. So the book to this day 30 years later carries his title. Different editor but similar story with TOOTHBRUSH. They were my first two published books, and two of my own favorites. 

Best part of today was: 

Remembering that tomorrow we’ll get a visit from the newest granddaughter: two-year-old Lulu. 

If today was your last day to live, what would you do? What would you say? 

I’d stuff myself with chocolate almond ice cream and snuggle up with Eileen (Stargirl’s inspiration, by the way) and say secret things to her. 

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