Frustrated by a learning disability that made reading difficult, Ahmet Zappa, son of legendary rock musician Frank Zappa, dropped out of school in eighth grade. So nobody is more surprised than he is about the release of his first novel, The Monstrous Memoirs of A Mighty McFearless (Random), a heavily illustrated story about monster hunts, a kidnapping and a daring rescue. Disney has already snapped up the movie rights, with Jerry Bruckheimer signed on to produce the live-action film.
Zappa, 32, is working on the second book in a planned trilogy, but still thinking about the “really sweet librarian” at his grade school who tried to help him overcome dyslexia. Wait ‘til she finds out he still has one of her books.
So what’s it like for the kid who had trouble reading to become a novelist?
I get really emotional about thinking about it. I mean, I’m not trying to do this “Oh, woe is me,” thing, but school was traumatic. I felt like I was the only kid in the world who couldn’t do my own work. Reading was just an impossiblity and reading out loud was the most embarrassing thing.
And yet, you loved the school librarian.
Well, it didn’t hurt that she was really pretty. She knew I picked books by their covers—the worse the cover, the more I wanted to read it. To this day, I collect things that just look retarded. And there was this one book, Bunnicula [by James Howe]. This book, it nearly killed me. I wanted to know what was in that book in the worst way, but I just couldn’t read it.
How did you cope?
When we had to do book reports, I would pick a book that no one read and just make it up and turn that in. I got praised for my imagination.
How did you eventually conquer your reading problem?
Comic books made a huge difference. There was one about Craven the Hunter and Vermin the Man-Rat, eating people in the sewers. The way it was drawn, it really roped me in. I read that book over and over because the images were telling a lot of the story. There was also something about discovering it on my own, and something about the pacing, but it changed reading for me in a way a regular book couldn’t. There was something about the thickness of a book, that would just kill it for me. A fat book? That was kryptonite.
Mighty McFearlessis easy on the eye—lots of illustrations that you did yourself.
The photo illustrations were done by me and my friend, Clay Sparks, but all the drawings are mine. Originally, the idea I sold to Random House was an illustrated recipe book on how to defend yourself against monsters. The way this whole novel thing came together was I sold them one bill of goods and then didn’t communicate very well, and my editor, Chris Angelilli, was under pressure basically for multiple things that are all my fault like not turning things in on time. I think he was going to pull the plug because he needed artwork and I think he thought I hadn’t done any of it. I sent him a flood and then he said, “I think we need a little bit more of a story.” That made me ill. I had pictures, my recipes—I was done. But without him saying, “I need more,” there never would have been a book, and once he said it, it made me realize it was really important to me to write this book.
So was it smooth sailing from there?
I was off and running, but at a slow place. My book agent, Helen Breitwieser, would get my chapters first. I would send her things and beg her not to send them to Chris because I was so paranoid. I am like Captain Run-on Sentence, but she made it very comfortable for me. I really feel like we did this together. This has been the greatest adventure of our lives.
That’s saying a lot, since growing up as Frank Zappa’s son was probably pretty adventurous. What would he think of the book?
I think he’d be really proud of me and I think he’d be really moved. It’s really a big “I love you” to my Dad. I miss my Dad [Zappa died in 1993]. My Dad loved cheesy monster movies, so we’d have Godzilla movie marathons. Those are some of my favorite memories, laughing at how the monster outfits were so bad, like black garbage bags for heads.
But maybe those monster movies are why you were scared of monsters as a kid.
Oh, yeah. I would see monster faces in my window, see them out of the corner of my eye. These recipes would have been very useful to me. I had this whole ritual with my mother making the bed with me inside it so I would be invisible.
And you have more recipes—this is the first of a three-book deal, right?
That fills me with dread. I’m in the middle of book two, but stalled. When I was in trouble with book one, I was writing a chapter a night. Now I’m writing a paragraph a day and the manuscript is due to Puffin [U.K.] in September.
The press release that came with your book is the first I’ve ever seen that describes the author as “unhinged.” That doesn’t offend you, does it?
No. I think I am.
Final question—have you ever gotten around to reading Bunnicula?
I don’t like to admit this but I haven’t. I have the book. I don’t like to admit this either, but I stole the copy from the library, the only book I ever stole. It has an old book smell. I’ve tried to read it, but I get really emotional just looking at it.