In his first novel since Small Steps, the 2006 sequel to his Newbery-winning Holes, Louis Sachar focuses on a subject rarely explored in fiction for teens: the game of bridge. The Cardturner centers on 17-year-old Alton, who spends a summer accompanying his blind great-uncle Trapp to his bridge club, where the boy acts as the bridge whiz’s “cardturner” and finds himself drawn into the game, the mystery surrounding his relative, and a new love interest. Delacorte will release the novel with a 250,000-copy first printing.
Is it safe to assume that this story grew out of your interest in bridge?
Yes, it is. I’m an avid bridge player, and had been thinking of trying to come up with a way to introduce bridge to a whole new generation. I thought if I could make digging holes interesting, I could make this game that I love interesting. But it was actually my editor, Beverly Horowitz, who suggested working bridge into a novel—not exactly something you expect an editor to suggest.
Did the story then come pretty easily to you?
It took me a while to figure out how to come at it, but then I got the idea of having a teenager assist his blind great-uncle as he played bridge, and that idea worked. It took me about two years to write the novel.
Was it difficult to weave the rules and strategies of bridge into the fiction?
That was actually the biggest challenge. First of all, it was hard to fit in all the bridge stuff without boring readers to death. Second, I know the game inside-out and I had to try to understand what someone who’d never seen bridge played before would be able to understand. There was a lotto figure out there. Fortunately, Beverly has never played bridge, so she was a big help telling me what she could or couldn’t understand. I had to rewrite the bridge parts over and over, until I finally was able to strike a balance so that the novel would still have meaning as a book about bridge and at the same time not go over readers’ heads.
You distill the game on two levels, using a symbol of a whale to signal that Alton is about to delve into bridge details. And then you provide a shortened version of the bridge play in summary box. Why these the dual tracks?
The whale device, which Alton thinks of using because the many whaling details Melville included in Moby Dick made him stop reading the book when it was assigned in school, gives readers a choice. They can skip over the details of the bridge play if they want, and just read the summary boxes. It lets them know that yes, this game is hard, and if you don’t understand it all, don’t worry. The summaries also give them a chance to check and see if they got it when they read the detailed accounts—the boxes might let them know that they did in fact understand the longer version after all.
Did you get hooked on bridge at an early age?
My parents played bridge, and I remember being fascinated watching them. I sometimes got a chance to sit in on a hand, which I loved. But then I didn’t actually play on my own for about 30 years.
And what re-sparked the interest?
I had remained interested in the game over the years, and had faithfully read the bridge column in the newspaper. And then when my daughter was in kindergarten, she had a friend whose aunt played bridge and mentioned to me that she was always looking for new people to play with. We agreed to play one time and I realized how much I loved it.
What role does the game play in your life now?
Actually, probably too big of a role! I write in the mornings, two or three hours every day, and then at least four times a week I play in a duplicate game at a bridge club. I try to go to tournaments three, four, or five times a year.
What is it about bridge that is so engaging—maybe even addictive?
I think a big part of it is that it’s a partnership game. It’s you and your partner against the world. When you’re bidding, you and your partner are speaking in what’s almost a foreign language, communicating to each other what cards you have and figuring out how high to bid. That’s a fun part of it. Then when you actually play the cards, each hand becomes a challenging puzzle unto itself. And I’ve always liked puzzles.
Aside from its entertainment value, what benefits does bridge deal out teens?
It teaches you to plan ahead and cooperate with your partner—the more you can cooperate the better you’ll do. You also need to use good judgment, especially in the bidding, and there’s a lot of logic involved. You have to develop good thinking skills. Also, I think it’s a good way to get kids away from staring at their computer screens. Playing bridge is much more social.
Have you launched another book project since finishing The Cardturner?
I’ve been busy with a play adaptation of Small Steps, which just opened at the Oregon Children’s Theater in Portland. I wrote the play, as well as the lyrics for the music.
What’s it like to bring your books to life in another medium?
I think of a book and a play, or a book and a movie, as two separate things—I don’t think of it as my novel having a new life. I wrote the screenplay for the movie of Holes, too. And when I was writing that, and when I was writing the Small Steps play, I just concentrated on making them a good movie or a good play.
Did you find writing for the stage or screen a very different challenge than writing a novel?
All three are very different, I’d say. I’m much more comfortable writing novels. This was the third play I’ve written, so I’m getting a little better at it. With a novel, I do five or six drafts before I let anyone see it, but with a play I can’t do that because I don’t know as I write what is or isn’t working until it’s actually in rehearsal. A play will go through many changes right up to opening night. I might think I’ve written some clever dialogue, but then it can turn out to be too tangled for an actor to say. A lot of things come up that we have to adapt for. The best thing about doing a play is that it’s such a team effort and I love working with so many creative and talented people.
So what’s next on your writing agenda?
I go on a three-week book tour beginning on May 11, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that. I’m always excited when a book first comes out and happy to go on tour. But I’m facing a bit of a challenge trying to figure out how to present The Cardturner without having kids think that a book about bridge is a turn-off. But after the tour finishes up, I’ll have the time to stop and think about what I’ll write next.
The Cardturner by Louis Sachar. Delacorte, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-385-73662-6