|Frequently Asked Questions
1) How would you contrast Immanuel Kant’s epistemological phenomenalism with the subjective idealism of George Berkeley? (I get this a lot, usually from a girl in the front row who introduces herself as Alicia.)
In Berkeley’s view, things do not exist except as subjectively perceived bundles of sensations. Kant posits the existence of noumena which are not knowable by experience.
2) Where do you get your ideas?
Think of my head like a garage sale. Inside it is everything I have experienced myself – my past – and also everything I’ve seen and heard from other people – their past. I get ideas by going through the items for sale, and picking the interesting ones.
3) How did you ever think of Norbert?
Norbert, the tiny but loud-mouthed alien who comes to live in Alan Dingwall’s nose in The Nose From Jupiter and its three sequels, is a bit of a mystery. I knew all about him before I had a chance to write about him. I knew he came from Jupiter, drank cocoa, and had a girlfriend named Nerissa. I knew he was a smart-alec. And I knew he wasn’t afraid. Now I needed a place to put him. And the opportunity came about when Claire Mackay, a funny lady and friend of my mom’s, asked me to write her a story for a book she was editing called, Laughs. I wrote “introducing Norbert.”
4) How tall are you?
I’m about five foot ten, but I slouch a bit, so I might seem shorter.
5) How much money do you make?
When you buy one of my books at a bookstore, I get 10%. The more books you buy, the richer I get. So far, I am not looking at any yachts for sale.
6) Are you always this funny?
No. Sometimes I’m that funny. Seriously, I can’t help looking at things from a slightly off-centre perspective. I believe there is humour in the strangest places. My last adult book features a crazy old lady on her death bed talking to God. The book is sad, and scary – but, darn it all, it’s funny too. You can find out more about it in the Mythic Passages interview.
7) What’s your favorite book?
That I’ve read, or written?
7A) That you’re written yourself.
One answer is: my next one. It’s the one I’m thinking about right now. It’s called Into The Ravine, and it’s supposed to be out this fall. Another answer might be Still Life With Children. Maybe not my best book, but almost certainly my funniest. It’s the most like me, and it was the easiest to write since a lot of it is actually taken from like. Too bad it’s out of print.
7B) All right then, what’s your favorite book that you didn’t write?
Frog And Toad All Year, by Arnold Lobel.
Maybe not really. There are so many choices. On my bedside table right now I have a detective story by Lawrence Block, a historical novel by Patrick O’Brian, and Pride And Prejudice.
8) Where do you get your ideas?
Think of my head like a sponge. I soak up images and feelings and ideas – my own, and other people’s – and then wring myself out on the printed page. In the fertile wet season, I’ve got lots to say. In dry seasons, it can seem awfully hard to find any interesting moisture, and I have to wring myself pretty hard. Gee, that sounds painful.
9) If you get ideas from other people, isn’t that stealing?
Yes. What’s your point?
9A) Isn’t stealing a bad thing?
No. Of course I don’t steal anyone’s words – that would be plagiarizing, and a very bad thing indeed – but I’m always on the lookout for a good idea. When I come to a really interesting bit in a book or a movie, I think: How did the writer do that? Then I try to figure out a way to use the idea myself.
10) What does Norbert look like?
The stories don’t ever tell you what he looks like – and that’s on purpose. I want YOU the reader to participate in describing him. Norbert is an important character – he’s that tiny part inside all of us that is not afraid. So he looks like your version of him, because our fears all look different. (I have to confess, there is a brief description of Norbert in The Boy From Earth, but that story takes place inside Alan’s mind, so what you’re seeing is Alan’s version of Norbert. Your version is more accurate.)
11) Georgette is three times as old as Imre was eight years ago, and their combined ages add up to 32. How old will Georgette be when Imre is the age Georgette is now.
12) Does Grandma really say the swear words?
Jane Peeler’s Grandma shows up in The Way To Schenectady and Of Mice And Nutcrackers. She is not like your grandma – I hope. She smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and cusses like a pirate. Are the bad words actually written out on the page? Well, what do you expect me to say – read the books and find out.
13) Are you writing something now?
I’m always writing something now. At the moment I’m working on a book about zombies. And I’m rewriting and editing a book about the afterlife.
14) How does Immanuel Kant differentiate between "Transcendental Aesthetic," and "Transcendental Analytic" in his Critique of Pure Reason?
Not now, Alicia.
15) What’s your favorite food?
My mom does a stew with chicken and onions that’s pretty good. I like spare ribs and rice pudding and sausages – spicy ones – and stuffed peppers and black licorice. I love Chinese food, and Indian food. And Greek food. And French. And … you know, come to think of it, the only foods I don’t like are creamed corn and rice-a-roni. Favorite favorite? There was a time in my life when I wanted to eat all the salted peanuts in the world. I still feel a bit like that.
16) Who’s your favorite tyrant? (I had never been asked this question until last month, when it came up three times at three different schools. I figure it’s a trend, and I’d better deal with it)
Tyrants are bullies. I hate bullies. Mind you, there is something cool about a mountain of eyeballs (I think Genghis Khan is supposed to have made one of those). And there’s something hilarious about a two-year-old bossing the family around. Babies are pretty tyrannical, come to think of it.
17) What advice to you have for someone who wants to become a good writer.
This one is easy. In order to write well, you have to read well. Art is derivative. Your teachers are right when they tell you to Write what you know, but part of what you know is what you read, so I’ll say: Write what you read. If you love science fiction, try writing a science fiction story like our favorite author. Read everything. If they tell you to read a book, give it a try. If you like it, read some more by the same author. (If they tell you not to read a book – read it anyway. I’m no good at censorship. Hate literature is evil, but I figure you’re smart enough to spot it when you come across it.)
All right, I have time for one more question …..
18) Where do you get your ideas?
Think of my head like a department store. I go through it floor by floor and pick out what I need to furnish my story. 1st floor: painful camp memories, humorous lunch-room episodes, first love, Christmas Eve, going to the beach. 2nd floor: yesterday’s newspaper, last week’s visit to the dentist, favorite books, meals, Simpsons episodes, dance moves. 3rd floor: that weird thing my friend Fuzz found in his attic, my aunt’s memory of the great depression, grandpa’s best birthday ever, and so on. You can do this too. Your selection will be different, but the process of idea collection is the same. Don’t forget the Bargain Basement, where all the really scary stuff is.