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Teachers: Bring the world into your classroom with Scholastic Magazines

 
Live Online Interview With Dan Gutman

Author Dan Gutman with students. (Photo: Dan Gutman)

Kids, and adults, from around the country participated in a live online interview with author Dan Gutman on April 23. They asked him about his books, family, writing techniques, and more. Read to see what the author of The Kid Who Ran for President had to say.

What do you like most about being an author?
Gutman: The freedom! I don't have a boss telling me what to do, I don't have to go to an office somewhere, and I don't have to wear a jacket and tie.

What inspired you to be a writer?
Gutman: I never took a writing class in my life. I went to college, finished college, and didn't know what to do with myself. I thought, 'What am I good at?' I always liked writing letters to people, so I just started writing.

For people who have never read your books before, which book would be a good one to start out with?
Gutman: That's hard to say. It really depends on the person. I write a lot about sports, but not everybody loves sports. My favorites of my books are Johnny Hangtime and Race for the Sky. Race is about the Wright brothers and Hangtime is about a kid who is a Hollywood stuntman.

Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
Gutman: No. Not at all. I wanted to be a photographer, but I wasn't very good at it.

What inspired you to write a book about a kid who ran for and became President? I mean, I know that you're not allowed to run for President when you're 13, you have to be older. What made you think of that?
Gutman: I got the idea back in 1995, when Bob Dole was running for President. I think he was about 72 years old at the time. Some people felt he was too old to be President. I felt if someone could be too old to be President, what would be too young for President? It was such an obvious idea. I thought someone must have written that before, but nobody had, so I did.

What is your favorite topic to write about?
Gutman: I like to take an ordinary kid and put that kid into an extraordinary situation. A kid runs for President of the U.S., or a kid finds the most valuable baseball card in the world. A kid gets the chance to shoot a single foul shot in basketball and if he makes it he wins a million dollars. These are the kinds of things that I think kids fantasize about, so that's why I think they would make good stories.

What are you working on now?
Gutman: A few things. I'm working on my next baseball card adventure book, which is called Abner & Me. That comes out in February 2005. I'm also working on a book about one of my favorite sports—bowling! It's going to be called The Million Dollar Strike. I'm also working on a series of books for second-graders, called My Weird School. It's about a school where all the grownups are crazy. The first book is Miss Daisy Is Crazy. There's going to be seven books in the series.

Do you ever get writer's block? How do you help that?
Gutman: Everybody gets writer's block. What I'll do is I'll take a break—break the rhythm somehow: Go for a bike ride; get a bite to eat—so when I get back to the story, my brain is working again.

Hello from Highland Park third-graders in Austin, Texas! Where are you today? What do you like to do when not writing (play any sports, like baseball?), and what would you like to be if you were not a writer?
Gutman: Where am I today? I'm sitting in my little den in my house in Haddonfield, New Jersey. What do I like to do when not writing? I like to play guitar, go to the movies, ride my bike. I like to travel and I also like to spend a lot of time with my family. If I was not a writer, I would probably get a job working on a newspaper or a magazine or a publishing company.

I just saw The Winning Season on TNT, based on the book Honus & Me, and I was wondering if any of the other baseball books or the Qwerty Stevens books will be made into movies?
Gutman: They would make great movies. So far, I haven't received any interest in making them into movies. Unfortunately, the author doesn't have any control over that. It is up to someone in Hollywood to discover your work and make it into a movie. With Honus & Me, I was lucky, because the producer's 11-year-old son fell in love with the book and talked his dad into making it into a movie.

Are any of the characters in your books based on people in your life?
Gutman: Yes. For the people out there who read The Kid Who Ran for President, you probably know the main character's name is Judson Moon. And actually, Judson Moon is part of my life. He's my eye doctor. I was getting my eyes checked one day and I thought my eye doctor had an interesting name. I asked if I could use his name and he said sure. That's how I named the character Judson Moon.

Will there be another book about Judson Moon?
Gutman: No. At this point, I don't know where the story could go. He already ran for President; he's already been President. There's not much more I can do with that character. I think Judson Moon's political career has come to an end. His literary career as well. I hope kids will read my other books!

Are you following the election? What do you think would happen if a kid joined the race?
Gutman: I would love for this to happen! Because you know, the future of our world is going to depend on kids. Sometimes people my age can't really make tough decisions; for instance, like finding an alternative source of energy like oil. We can't seem to get past what we've always done. I'd like a kid to shake things up a little bit.

When you were a kid, did you ever want to run for President?
Gutman: No. That's probably the hardest job in the world. I don't think I would be very well suited to it. I wanted to play left field for the New York Mets instead of Cleon Jones.

What inspired you to be a (computer and other) magazine writer for 15 years before writing books. Were you worried when you wrote your first book?
Gutman: I kind of fell into that field when the video game phenomenon took off in 1981. That's the year when PacMan became a huge sensation. I started a magazine about video games and suddenly I was an expert in video games. I started writing about them and computers. All for grownups. It took me a long time to realize that writing for grownups was not my thing. It took me a long time to realize that what I was good at was writing for kids. As far as being worried, I don't think I would say worried was the term. I was anxious to publish my first book. My goal was to have a book published by the time I was 30 years old, and that was the year my first book came out. That book was called I Didn't Know You Could Do That With a Computer.

How long does it take you to write a book?
Gutman: I usually spend about three months or so on a book. Some books take longer. I worked on Race for the Sky for nine months. And my newest book, which is for kindergarten kids, I probably wrote in less than a week. That's called Babe Ruth and the Ice Cream Mess.

My class has an idea for a series of books. How about stories where kids go back in time with former Presidents? You could call them Lincoln and Me.
Gutman: Interesting. In Abner and Me, the kid is going to travel back through time to 1865 and try to prevent the Lincoln assassination—but that's a good idea.

What is the most difficult part about writing a book?
Gutman: Probably the hardest part is rewriting. I know a lot of kids hate rewriting. It's difficult. Often you think the first time it's perfect, and you read it over again and you see it's not perfect. Your editor will point out where there are problems. Sometimes that's harder than the original writing process.

How do you get ideas for your books?
Gutman: From all different places. I read the newspaper every day. I watch TV. I listen to the radio. I go to the movies. I visit a lot of schools, where I have lunch with a small group of kids and they give me ideas. I have two children of my own, and they give me ideas. I'm constantly keeping my eyes and ears open for things I can make into an interesting story.

What other children's writers do you like? Do you read any Daniel Pinkwater?
Gutman: Yes. I think he had a book called Fat Guys in Outerspace. My favorite authors are Gary Paulsen, Peg Carrot, Gordan Korman, Joanna Hurwitze. I like the Lemony Snicket series. There are a lot of others, too.

Do you use any family incidents or people as characters in any of your books?
Gutman: Actually, my son has given me a lot of ideas that I have used in my books. For instance, for those of you who read The Kid Who Became President, there's a scene where the President of the U.S. decides that instead of having a war, he'll play a video game against a foreign dictator. So, no soldiers have to die. That whole idea was my son's idea. I would be nowhere today if not for my son, Sam.

How do you pick the title of your books?
Gutman: Sometimes the title is obvious. Like what else would I call The Kid Who Ran for President? Other times, the title is not so obvious. I wrote a book that I titled Mr. Perfect, but the publisher didn't like the title. They wanted to call it The Cyber Kid. I didn't like that. We compromised and titled the book Virtually Perfect. I'll come up with a whole list of titles and when the book is finished, my editor and I will sit down and decide which one is best.

Does your son read your books before they are published to give you any advice?
Gutman: Sometimes. Not always. Sam is 14 now and I think he feels he might be a little too old for my books. But he has read lots of them and his favorite is, I think, The Secret Life of Dr. Demented, which is a story about a kid who lives down the street from a professional wrestler.

How does it feel to be a published author and to have lots of kids read, love, and admire your work?
Gutman: That's really the best part of what I do. As I said, I visit a lot of schools. I'll walk into a school and the kids will start to whisper, 'There he is,' like I'm a big celebrity. It makes me feel really good. Especially when kids tell me, 'I used to hate to read and that now all I want to do is read your book.' I was not a good reader myself when I was a kid. And I think I'm sensitive to kids who don't like to read. They are the kids I'm really aiming at. So, it's a really good feeling to think that I could be turning some kids on to reading.

How many books have you written?
Gutman: My 48th book comes out this year, and that will be the Million Dollar Strike.

Did you like to read as a kid?
Gutman: No. I hated to read as a kid. I thought reading was boring and hard to do. My mother used to buy me comic books hoping it would get me interested in reading. It didn't really work. It wasn't until I was about in fourth grade or so and I became a big sports fan. Suddenly I wanted to know everything about sports, so I had to read about it. That's what got me interested in reading.

How old is your daughter Emma, and has she ever been the inspiration for any of your stories?
Gutman: Emma is 8. She's in second grade, and yes, she is definitely the inspiration for the whole series My Weird School. She helps me and reads these books as I write them. The whole series is dedicated to her, too.

Where is your favorite place to write?
Gutman: In my backyard on a nice day. I take my laptop out in my backyard and that's my favorite place to write. It's a pretty standard, suburban backyard, with the kid's swing set out there. We've got a picnic table and some trees and probably as soon as I'm finished here with this, I'm going out there to do some work.

Have you been to the White House?
Gutman: Yes. When I wrote The Kid Who Became President, Sam and I drove down to Washington. This was before 9/11 when you could wait in line and take the tour of the White House, and we took the tour of the White House together.

I love your books. Are you going to write another book about Presidents?
Gutman: No, I think I'm going to move on to other things. But I'm glad that you liked those two books. I just want to say that people who read one of my books and are interested in my books, should go to my Web site sometime. It's www.dangutman.com, and you'll find out a lot about, not just me, but also about my books. If you're doing a book report on one of my books, you'll find a lot of information there that will be helpful.

Did you get to meet the President when you went? Who was President then?
Gutman: I did not get to meet the President. Bill Clinton was President then. I did ask a Secret Service agent if the President was home. He said no, the President was not home.

I am a media specialist in Tennessee and we have a third-grade class reading The Kid Who Became President. There are five computers at our school logged into this chat. This book really has the students fired up about reading, and the opportunity to ask you questions live is wonderful. Thank you for your time!
Gutman: You're welcome. I really wrote the President books just for laughs. I wanted to write a funny book, but then I started hearing that schools all over the country were using the books to teach about government. Since then I tried to find other subjects that kids learn about in school and I tried to sneak that information in my stories.

I love to write books.
Gutman: To those of you who like to write, I have some advice. First, go to my Web site and click on "Tips for Young Authors." Don't try and imitate some other author. Don't try and write the next Harry Potter—try to develop your own voice. There are a whole bunch of magazines and Web sites that accept writing by kids and these are great places for young writers to start. You should ask your school librarian where you can go to submit some of your writing—including Scholastic.com.

Do you write anything other than books for kids?
Gutman: Not anymore. I started out writing just for grownups. About computers and about sports. Then my son was born in 1990 and I started reading a lot of children's books for the first time since I was a kid. I thought it was so much more fun and I was so much better at it, that I decided to write just for kids from now on.

Which is harder to think of: the beginning or the ending of a book?
Gutman: Neither, the hardest part is the middle. I usually have the beginning and I have the ending from the start. Filling in everything that goes in between often is more difficult.

What is your middle name?
Gutman: Edward.

Do you have any brothers or sisters?
Gutman: I have one sister. Her name is Lucy. She is a librarian in Medford, Oregon.

What do your kids want to be when they grow up?
Gutman: Sam would love to be a professional skateboarder. Emma probably would like to become a professional dancer.

How many books have you written that were not chosen to be published? How long does it take for a book to get published?
Gutman: I have written a few books that publishers rejected over and over and over again. I wrote this very cool science fiction story called The Day TV Saved the World. Nobody wanted to publish it. I haven't given up on it. I hope to get it published. Even though I might write the book in a few months, it usually takes the publisher about a year to do everything they have to do. When I write something today, it usually doesn't come out for quite a while. By the way, some of my published books were rejected too. Honus and Me was rejected 10 times. The Edison Mystery was rejected 12 times. Johnny Hangtime 12 times. The Kid Who Ran for President was rejected once.

How do you make your books funny?
Gutman: It's easy when you have the maturity level of a 10-year-old.

Do you like your own books?
Gutman: I like some more than others. But I don't dislike any of them. I've been amazed at one of my books (They Came From Center Field); I never thought that book was very good. But kids love that book.

Do you make lots of money from your books?
Gutman: Good question. When you go into a bookstore and you spend $10 on a hardcover book. The author doesn't get $10. The author only gets about $1. When you buy a paperback book for a few dollars, the author gets as little as 5 cents for each copy sold. So you really have to sell a lot of books to make a lot of money. I consider myself lucky to do what I do without having to get a regular job.

Do you visit schools to talk about your books?
Gutman: I spend about 80 days a year visiting schools. It's a great experience for me. I inspire a lot of kids and kids inspire me. I get paid for my time and I sell lots of books and make lots of fans.

How old were you when you started writing books?
Gutman: I started writing when I was about 25. My first book came out when I was 30. I'm 48 now.

Do you have any pets? If so, what kind and what are their names?
Gutman: I have one pet. She is a cat. Her name is Scrumpy. She is an old lady. She's 17 years old and we named her after a brand of apple cider. She was our first born.

What do we have to do to have you visit our class?
Gutman: You should have your librarian or PTA people contact me after looking at the Web site under school visits. I live in the Philadelphia area. I try to get to several schools at a time so I don't have to fly across the country for just one day.

Do you think reading books helps people become better writers?
Gutman: Sure. Anything you read is going to make you a more knowledgeable and interesting person. That goes for anything else you do. Traveling or going to the movies. You learn about the world around you. The best way to increase your knowledge is to read.

How did your parents splitting up effect you?
Gutman: When I was 12 years old, my father dropped me off at my little league game one Saturday morning and I didn't see him again for 10 years. He abandoned my family. Some people might notice in a number of my books the father is absent or magically reappears in the last chapter, and I think that probably has something to do with my own background. I know a lot of kids out there come from families whose parents are divorced. It's not the end of the world. You can overcome obstacles like that.

How did you get the idea for time-traveling kids?
Gutman: It started with the baseball card adventures. I knew a lot of kids collected baseball cards and I knew a lot of kids are fascinated by time traveling. So I thought: Is there a way to combine those? Yeah! I'll write a story about a kid who uses a baseball card as his time machine. I realized that time travel is not just fascinating, it's a great way to teach history.

How did you like the movie?
Gutman: It was really exciting to have one of my books finally made into a movie. It was really cool to see my name up on the screen. But I was really disappointed that so many changes were made from my book. I thought my story was better than the movie.

What does your wife do?
Gutman: My wife is a graphic designer. She creates charts and maps and graphs on the computer. That's how we met, actually. When I used to work for a video games magazine, she was hired to draw the games, like PacMan and Donkey Kong. We met at Times Square in New York and I took her to a video arcade to show her what needed to be drawn. And the rest is history.

Do you enjoy your work?
Gutman: Mostly, yes. Sometimes, it's lonely working by yourself. But for the most part I really like what I do and it certainly beats getting a new job.

Do you have a particular writing schedule each day?
Gutman: Yes. After the kids leave for school, that's my best writing time. From say 9 a.m to noon. I get my best work done then. Often, in the afternoon, my time will be spent checking my e-mail, making phone calls, or going to the library to do research for my books.

What kinds of books do you like to read?
Gutman: Most of the books I read are for research. Right now I'm working on the next baseball card adventure, which is going to be about Satchell Paige. So I'm reading just about everything I can get my hands on about Satchell Paige. Unfortunately, most of my reading is not for pleasure, it's for work—but most of my work is pleasure so it's okay.