Printz and Newbery Honor winner Gary Schmidt (Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy) mined his Long Island childhood for his latest book, The Wednesday Wars (Clarion). Bookshelf caught up with Schmidt while he was on the road, talking to school kids about his books.
Though you never mention the name of the town in The Wednesday Wars, I'm guessing it's Hicksville, right?
Right! But I can never use the real name, because who would believe I'm actually from a town called Hicksville?
Did you graduate from Hicksville High School with its other famous son, Billy Joel?
I graduated in 1975 and he was before my time, but my mother was a teacher, and she remembers he used to cut classes to play piano.
That must have been while you were still in junior high diagramming sentences, like Holling Hoodhood, the hero of The Wednesday Wars.
I even remember the textbook. I think it was called Robert's Rules of English. The thrust of it was that by diagramming sentences you would be moving all the parts of the sentence around and in that way you would learn grammar by knowing what each part did.
So is a lot of The Wednesday Wars autobiographical?
Some of it is straight out of my own past, I just heightened it. We did have classroom [pet] rats, and I really was the janitor for a while because there really was a Mrs. Baker and she really did resent me being there when everybody else was either at Hebrew school or catechism. She could have had two hours off if I hadn't been there. The thing that's not true is that the real Mrs. Baker never came to like me.
Is there any chance she's going to read this book?
That was a long time ago. I thought I should really change the name, but a lot of the names in the book are actually from my childhood. There was a Sweiteck, but he was Glenn, not Doug, and Danny Hupfer is an amalgam of Danny Schmidt and Ernest Hupfer. The bakery in the book is Goldman Bros.; that was really the name of the sporting goods store on Main Street in Hicksville.
That's interesting because—did I read this correctly?—I don't think you even mention Holling's sister's name until very late in the book, when it comes up with a telephone operator as he's trying to find an address for a bus station in Minneapolis.
Yes, that's right. It's meant to suggest that they're moving into a new relationship, where they see each other in a different way. It isn't until that point that Holling calls her by her name. Doug Swietick's brother, on the other hand, never gets a name because from Holling's point of view, all he is is Doug's brother. Holling doesn't know him beyond that.
Okay, so how about Holling Hoodhood? Why so unusual a name?
Well, my middle son actually has a friend whose last name is Hoodhood. It's such an inherently funny name. And I gave him Holling, in part to honor Holling Clancy Holling, who wrote children's books in the 1950s, and because I liked the alliteration.
I'm surprised your editor didn't object.
She did. My editor, Virginia Buckley, said, 'No, no, no. No one is named Holling Hoodhood.' So I sent her some of my class lists from Calvin [Schmidt has been a professor of English literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., since 1985] and pointed out all the incredibly funny and odd names, and that convinced her.
It seems like a lot of this book is based on direct experience.Tell us about the inspiration for Holling's father, Mr. Hoodhood. Is he based on someone you knew?
He represents the whole idea of suburbia to me. Everything is planned all the way to the grave. Nothing bold or unusual should happen. He's not evil—he does what he does to provide for his family. Building this architectural firm that he can hand down to Holling, having this whole pre-planned idea of what Holling's career will be, he thinks it's a gift. He can't imagine that Holling would have a different idea. But there's a moment in the story, following the assassinations [of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy], when you see a gleam of complexity. There's a glimmer that he understands something fundamental about the world has changed.
In addition to the assassinations, the Vietnam War also plays a large role in this story, although I have to say, this is the only Vietnam War story I have ever read that not only has a happy ending but that is truly funny.
Virginia calls it a comedy about serious things, and I think that's right. I was working with the notion of the classical comedy, like Much Ado About Nothing. I wanted to end with characters overcoming blocking elements large and small, and a reunion. But, yes, there are some really heavy elements in this. In 1968, 250 Americans were coming home every week in body bags. There's no way to make that funny. And there is plenty of sadness. I think I make it clear that the war is still going on and it's going pretty badly. But some soldiers did come home, did have that happy endings, and I chose to end with this life-affirming chapter. I wanted to leave [Holling] during this very violent time in our country, with some hope.
This book is really a departure for you. It's so different in style and tone from Lizzie Bright, and from Anson's Way.
That was a conscious decision. I really don't want to write the same book time and time and time again. I really wanted to be sure that the next book was not Lizzie repeated. And many people have said to me, 'You write such sad books.' So I said, 'All right. Let me try humor.'
That worked! One line I really loved was when Holling's father is outraged that the Mets are planning to pay [shortstop] Buddy Harrelson a yearly salary of $18,000 "for a player who can't hit the ball out of the infield."
I remember my father saying that!
Is that really what they paid Harrelson in 1968? Eighteen thousand a year?
Yes. All those little details about the Mets, and the quotes from President Johnson, I took out of the New York Times. To prepare for the book, I read the entire New York Times from Sept. 1, 1967 to June 30, 1968. All those facts, about Tom Seaver, about the game at Yankee Stadium, all of that is right out of the Times.
That is quite an undertaking—were you able to read it at the college library?
Yes, but on microfilm, which is not exactly fun.
You deserve a medal. Which reminds me to ask you, has winning the Newbery and Printz honors for Lizzie Bright changed your life?
That's a hard question. I live a pretty full life. I have a big family [Schmidt and his wife, Anne, have six children, ages 10 to 23]. I live in a 150-year-old house. I teach fulltime. So the routine of my life hasn't changed one bit, and that's good because our family is happy. But I have this stronger sense that I better not mess around, that I've got some responsibilities to my audience, and I need to take that responsibility very, very seriously because what I want to talk to them about are things like hope, and community, and you can't be screwing around when you're talking to kids about hope.