The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Rodman Philbrick -

Interview with Rodman Philbrick

1. Many people are hesitant to write sequels to novels, knowing that many end up unsuccessful. What made you want to take the chance of writing a sequel to Freak the Mighty? Were you satisfied with the results?
Within a year or so of finishing Freak The Mighty I realized I had more to say about Maxwell Kane. In particular I wanted to give Max a chance to be a hero, and to have the 'happy ending' he was denied in the original story. But I didnít decide on what story, exactly, until after I had completed The Fire Pony. By then many young readers wrote to me suggesting ideas for a sequel, which helped confirm my original instincts, and I eventually came up with the story for Max The Mighty.

2. What resources do you utilize to come up with ideas for stories? They say to write what you know, so do most of your ideas come from real life experiences or imagination?
I would say that most if not all of my characters come from real life, in that they undoubtedly contain elements of real people I have known or observed. The plotlines I use are pure fiction, although grounded in the real world. I would argue that even The Last Book In The Universe is grounded in the real world, insofar as it concerns human behavior.

3. Are you (or anyone close to you) afflicted with diseases that may have affected you and by extension, your writing?
At this writing I'm a healthy man of 52 years and have never spent a night in a hospital. However, I have known a number of friends with serious afflictions. The first being Jack McGill, one of my father's best friends, who from adolescence was confined to a wheelchair with rheumatoid arthritis. Jack was also a novelist, although none of his novels were ever published. I was about 12 when he died in his mid-thirties. In high school I had a friend named Harry who used crutches for his polio-damaged legs. Polio pictures - images of children with really cool braces and crutches - were very prominent when I was a young kid, as the vaccines had just come out. And the boy who helped inspire Kevin in Freak The Mighty had Morquio Syndrome, which I had never heard of before we met his mother and became friends.

4. How was the vocabulary for The Last Book in the Universe first conceived? Was it in any way a "jumping off point" for the novel itself? (i.e. proov, deef, zoomed out, bork me off, etc).
It seemed to me that language would have evolved and changed, and that hints of it would help the story seem more real. yes, certain words did serve as 'jumping off points', in that I thought of the words before I came up with a context or function in the story. The idea itself - new words - probably came from A Clockwork Orange, which I read in high school. The author created a number of words that were supposed to be combinations of Russian and English, but the concept - new words to describe familiar objects - appealed to me, and I hoped it would appeal to my readers.

5. Is The Last Book in the Universe your own view of distopias and redemption?
Yes, but only one variation of my views. To be honest, I was unfamiliar with the term 'distopia' before I wrote the book. Utopia I was familiar with, of course. But the idea of a ruined or degraded civilization has been around since long before I started writing, whatever we choose to call it. Although I later drifted away from it, I read a lot of sci-fi when I was in middle school, and always retained an interest in fictional ideas about what may happen in the future. The redemption part is even more important than the setting for me. All of my main characters get a chance to redeem themselves, one way or another. Which makes me a very old fashioned story-teller, despite the contemporary settings.

6. Are you trying to liken the effects of television and video games to the mindprobes in the book? If no, why not?
Yes, I think that's fair to say, although I am not one of those who believe that, say, violent images leads to violent behavior. I also wanted to write about something that was, in effect, an addictive drug that destroyed the physical and mental health of the user. A rather obvious parallel to any number of 'escape' type drugs, I suppose. Not so very different from what happens to opium or heroin addicts, from Thomas DeQuincy on.

7. The book REM World parallels very closely to the Wizard of Oz story. Was this intentional, and if so, why?
It was not intentional, other than the part about wanting to get home, which impressed me greatly when I saw the movie as a kid. Others have pointed out the parallel, so I am sure it exists, I just wasn't consciously thinking about The Wizard of Oz when I wrote it.

8. What originally interested you in writing books for children and adolescents as opposed to adult novels?
It was purely accidental. I had no interest in writing for younger readers and had never attempted to do so until I came up with the idea for Freak The Mighty. The same essential story could have been told for an adult audience, but once I assumed the voice of the main character it just seemed natural that Max would be speaking to readers his own age. And the whole thing felt very natural to me, too, in that the writing itself seemed relatively effortless. Frankly, the response to the book is what made me want to continue writing for younger readers. I'm still woefully ignorant of what other writers are doing in the field, in that every teacher I meet seems to know a lot more about adolescent literature than I do!

9. It seems that a lot of your characters have either no father or a bad father. Does this relate to your own life experience in any way?
It does and it doesn't. I loved my father dearly. He was an ex-Navy pilot, a small town boy bright enough to graduate with honors from Harvard, and a man with a creative streak he never quite got under control. He loved books and loved to read and gave me that. But he was also a functioning alcoholic, and when he was drunk he frightened or angered me, not because we were ever physically threatened or harmed, but because his personality changed. The old Jekyll and Hyde deal, familiar to any child of an alcoholic. I imagine children of parents with mental illness have a similar experience. But beyond that, characters somehow need to be freed of their parents to make the story interesting. Huck Finn and Pap, for instance. Obviously The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had a huge influence on me as a young writer. And a couple of my characters have lost their mothers, too Maxwell Kane being the most obvious. It's also the Charles Dickens technique of taking vulnerable kids and putting them in dramatic situations where they must rely upon themselves.

10. You've been successful writing in several genres. Which do you like best? What are you currently working on? When will it be published?
Although I continue to write for adults as well, I have more fun, and more creative satisfaction, writing for young readers. I just finished Lobster Boy (no idea if the title will stick) about a boy from a small fishing village in Maine who goes out to sea in a very small boat and a stolen harpoon, hunting for the giant blue fin tuna that will rescue his family from poverty. Parallels to Hemingway should be obvious, although this is - trust me - quite a different tale from The Old Man & The Sea. My current project is The True Adventures of Homer Figg, set at the time of the Civil War. When his big brother is drafted into the Union Army, Homer runs away from home (such as it is) in pursuit of his brother, and has many exciting adventures along the way, in the periphery of the war. Eventually the brothers will meet at Gettysburg - one fighting for each side, of course - but this will not be a highly reverential depiction of the war or those who fought it. Here's the first draft of the opening paragraph:

from The True Adventures of Homer Figg

1. The Meanest Man In Maine

My name is Homer P. Figg, and these are my true adventures. I mean to write them down, every one, including all the heroes and all the cowards, and the saints and the scalawags, and them stained with the blood of innocents, and them touched by glory, and them that was lifted into Heaven, and them that went to the Other Place. I say my Ďtrueí adventures, because I told a fib or three to a writer once, who went and put it in the newspapers about me and my big brother Harold winning the battle at Gettysburg, and how we shot each other dead but lived to tell the tale, and thatís only partly true, and like my Dear Mother used to say, a thing thatís partly true means the Devilís in your mouth and will turn your teeth as black as a rotted stump.

Telling the truth doesnít always come easy to me, as you shall see, but I will try, even if the Truth isnít as true as a fib sometimes.

Questions prepared by
Jason M. Bloom
Jared Breedon
Leanne Dube
For English 212, Spring 2003

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