Perhaps best known as The Fonz on television's Happy Days, actor, producer, director and writer Henry Winkler is making a splash with a new generation of fans. Not only is he appearing in the movie Holes, based on the Newbery-winning book by Louis Sachar, but he has also launched a new series of books featuring a learning-challenged fourth-grader, Hank Zipzer: The Mostly True Confessions of the World's Best Underachiever (Grosset & Dunlap), co-written with Lin Oliver.
PW: How did these books come about?
Henry Winkler: My former manager suggested I write a children's book about my learning challenges—I was and still am dyslexic—and introduced me to [co-author] Lin Oliver. The two of us went to lunch at a restaurant in Hollywood. The food was terrible, the worst meal I'd had in a long time, but out of it came this agreement that we would give it a try.
PW: How does the collaboration work?
HW: I write my chapters longhand because I don't use a computer. I just can't wrap my head around it. I go to Lin's office, and she sits at her computer and I walk around or sit in her rocking chair, and we start to write. I'm always amazed that when I walk in, there's a blank computer screen, and when I leave there are five or six pages that made us laugh.
PW: What is it like to write a series specifically for children?
HW: Although we knew that we were writing for a younger audience, we didn't try to tailor it. We just wrote what we thought was true and funny, and we didn't talk down to kids. The books are not written for kids with learning challenges, they're written for everyone—to make them laugh.
PW: How much of you is in Hank Zipzer?
HW: The emotional kernels of the situations come from all over my life. I was very verbal when I was younger, but I could never transfer it. Hank says at one point, "It's on the tip of my brain." It's that frustration of "I know what I'm supposed to do, I know what's required, I just can't get it out." It's a killer.
In one of the books Hank has to play softball, and he doesn't have good hand/eye coordination. His embarrassment is just excruciating. I learned to pitch when I was part of the Happy Days softball team. But I still couldn't catch. If there was a ball hit full speed at me, I turned and stopped it with my body. For seven years I was black and blue up and down the left side of my body! So I just put that to Hank.
PW: At what point in your life was your dyslexia diagnosed?
HW: My stepson is now 31, and [when he was] in the third grade we had him tested [for dyslexia]. Everything they said to him,
I thought, "Oh my goodness, that's me!" I realized [that I had the same learning disability,] that I was not stupid, I was not lazy.
I really did try to live up to my potential, but my brain just didn't work that way.
PW: What is the setting for the books?
HW: It's my old neighborhood in New York City, and my old elementary school [P.S. 87]. In fact, last week, I visited the school, and talked to the fourth graders there, which was just wonderful. Hank's mother's deli is located where the deli was when I was growing up, and Harvey's pizza place is at Broadway and 78th.
PW: How many books will there be in the series?
HW: There were four originally, but when the sales reps started to sell it, the response was so great that our publisher changed it to 10.
PW: Of all the hats you wear, career-wise, do you have a favorite?
HW: They're all my favorite. Each one is a creation, and I love them all. Somebody asked me recently, 'If you could go back and rewire your brain and do it over again, would you?' I thought for a long, long time about this, because in some ways I hate my brain—in fact, in one of the books, Hank says he hates his brain—but I decided I wouldn't. Because whatever it was that made me fight to get here, got me here. And I like here.