Jerry Spinelli has been writing award winning published novels for nearly 40 years, many of them landing, and staying, on New York Times Best Sellers List for months and years.
He is not only the recipient of the coveted Newbery Award Medal and Honor, but has also received recognition from Publishers Weekly for Best Book of the Year (you guessed it, for Stargirl), and has won the Parents Choice Gold Award among a series of other very notable honors. That he took the time out to answer our questions is a distinct honor for us.
VV: Thank-you so much for agreeing to this interview, Jerry. We want you to know that our readers have been eagerly looking forward to it since we made the announcement last week.
JS: Thank you. The pleasure is mine.
VV: Before addressing Stargirl and Grace’s involvement in the Disney film adaptation of your novel, I’d like to discuss with you your impressive catalog of successful award winning books, and how and why you’ve crafted the stories and characters you have over the last 36 years. What is your process when developing a novel? Does it start with a plot outline, and a set of characters that will inhabit the story, or do your stories evolve more organically? Does each book necessitate a unique approach?
JS: I guess your word “organic” is as good a word as any. There’s no formula, no routine. Ideas have come from everywhere; a recollected schoolyard chant (“Fourth Grade Rats”) to a 1950s pop song (“Maniac Magee” via “Dancin’ in the Streets”), to newspaper stories (“Wringer” & “There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock”). Once the idea comes, I interview it; “What makes you tick?”, “How should I write you?” That’s what I listen to, the story and how to write it best, not the market or reading level or whatever. Then it’s a matter of making notes until the pile reaches a critical mass that seems to say: “OK–Now–Write!”
VV: You seem to love strong willed and independent girls for the protagonists in many of your novels, such as “There’s a Girl in my Hammerlock” and, of course, the Stargirl series. What was it that has inspired you to write such characters? Are they based on real figures in your life?
JS: Well, specifically speaking, my wife Eileen was the main inspiration for “Stargirl”. More generally, I usually do really like my girl characters and I guess in part it’s just that affection coming through. Also, I like to see girls–human and fictional–fully realize themselves, not spend their time primping and waiting for the next car full of boys to come by.
VV: In “Loser”, the follow up to Stargirl, a book nominated for a Mark Twain award no less, your protagonist, much like Stargirl, is an unlikely hero, one with no heroic aspirations, but due to the content of his character cannot help himself. It’s a great archetype, but your characters never feel archetypal, but rather come across as very real and relatable. How do you strike that balance between dabbling in the Cambellian “Hero’s Journey” type of story and grounding them the way you do? Is it a conscious decision, or something that just naturally evolves as you develop your novels?
JS: A good question that would take a few hours thought for a good answer. Offhand, I’m remembering something I read way back–I want to say in a commentary on Dostoevsky by Andre Gide–to the effect that in fiction the story is paramount. Sounds like a no-brainer, but violators are common. When story takes a back seat, what you wind up with is a tract or sermon. So yeah, I simply try to keep it real. Maybe also motivated by my greatest fear: being boring.
VV: In “Smiles To Go” you really did a wonderful job portraying Will’s battle with his own neurotic need to control his own personal cosmos. Your novels always, at least from my perspective, inspire aspirational motivation, not in a temporal, or petty way, but on a fundamental character building level. Many other novelists wouldn’t work as hard as you do to build character through the journeys you create for them. What, or who, inspired you to inspire others in the way you do through your writing?
JS: Nobody. I try to just write and let the rest take care of itself. I see myself setting a bowl on the porch, filling it with milk and retreating inside the house. From then on it’s whoever comes to drink. Writing needs to be just that: writing. Not thinking about the market or the audience or who may or may not become inspired. That’s self-consciousness. That’s seeing yourself as “the writer,” not writing. And for the writer–for any artist–self-consciousness is poison. And thank you for the kind words on “Smiles to Go”. It’s a personal favorite.
VV: In “Milkweed”, a very serious novel that explores a young boy’s experiences in Warsaw during World War II you really dove headlong into a heady and historically accurate story that your other novels haven’t concerned themselves with. Did you enjoy writing such a gritty and realistic novel? Is it something you would do again?
J.S.: We’re all asked, “Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?” My answer: Write what you care about. (I always underline “care.”) In writing “Milkweed” I simply followed my own advice.
VV: Moving on to film adaptations of your works, you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you were not necessarily pleased with the Maniac Magee movie. Did that experience somewhat sour you to Hollywood approaching you to adapt your other books?
JS: Not necessarily, but since then I have made a point of having myself as consultant looped into contracts. I understand that I can’t call the shots, but at least now I’m in the conversation.
VV: How do you choose to option your novels for adaptation? Do you have a set of criteria that a studio/producer must meet before you agree to the rights sale, or do you trust that they will know how to bring your stories to life in a new medium?
JS: Who I trust is my film agency, The Gotham Group. I figure they know movies, I don’t. I put these things in their hands. We discuss every step along the way, for both film and stage productions.
VV: Was there a specific story related to the sale of “Stargirl” that you’re willing/able to share? I’ve read that both Dakota Fanning and Taylor Swift had at one point had been interested in starring in adaptations.
JS: That’s true, and there have been plenty of others, pre-Grace. There was film interest the day the book came out in 2000 and continued with a parade of producers, studios, writers, directors and actors for eighteen years. That’s the story really, a fitful, crazy journey lasting almost a fifth of a century from book to film.
VV: How familiar were you with Grace before hearing that she was auditioning for the role?
JS: It must say something about how pervasive her appeal was from the start, for I never watched “America’s Got Talent” and yet I was aware of her–thanks in part to my local supermarket, which piped in her music as I pushed my cart down the cereal aisle. Of course, I quickly made the connection between her ukulele and Stargirl’s–and mine. When I was twelve, influenced by TV’s Arthur Godfrey, I had a uke of my own. (No, I never took the next step and learned to play. Did I somehow know someday two girls would take over?)
VV: What are your impressions of Grace, and do you feel you have seen enough of her interviews and performances to form an opinion regarding how you feel she might fare in the role of “Stargirl”?
JS: Once I became aware of Grace and saw her perform she became my choice for the role.
VV: Grace has been a fan of yours and Stargirl for nearly two years now, just before she became famous. Have you spoken to Grace since her casting?
JS: No, I haven’t. Maybe that will happen if Eileen and I visit the film set.
VV: You recently said in an interview that you have been in direct communication with screenwriter Kristin Hahn who adapted your novel, can you give us any hints about the kinds of suggestions you made that were incorporated into the screenplay?
JS: Y’know, I’d have to go back through our emails to remind myself of my own suggestions. A variety of things from start to finish. Because of my background and interest in sports, Kristin likes to think of me as the project’s sports guru. We’ll see.
VV: Kristin Hahn also wrote the screenplay for the abandoned adaptation that would have been helmed by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke for another studio. Has the screenplay been altered significantly for new director Julia Hart’s, and Disney’s, take on the story?
JS: I can only say I don’t think so. I try to make a virtue of not pestering movie-makers.
VV: Julia Hart seems like a very passionate and intellectual writer/director and her previous films indicate, at least to me, that she will treat the story of Stargirl with all due respect and love. Have you had a chance to discuss the project with her or her partner and collaborator Jordon Horowitz?
JS: Yes, I’ve spoken with Julia, and we certainly seemed to be on the same page.
VV: Grace VanderWaal fans are beyond excited to see Grace play the role of Stargirl and we couldn’t imagine a better symbiotic progression for both your novel and Grace’s debut as an actress. The universe rarely aligns events and people with perfect symmetry in the way that seems to be happening with this project, and we can’t wait to follow its production and to watch the final product. Thank-you so much for taking the time to answer our questions.
JS: Must be that ukulele-destiny thing. Terrific questions. Thank you.
This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETrWtSNSQKM&lc=Ugwo8nufmMO4E0OOJyR4AaABAg