JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the last of our conversations with winners of the 1998 National Book Award and again to Elizabeth Farnsworth in San Francisco.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tonight we talk to Louis Sachar, who won the Young People's Literature Award for his book Holes. It's the darkly humorous story of a boy's ordeal at a juvenile detention center called "Camp Greenlake" and of fate's role in the young prisoner's redemption. Sachar has written 17 children's books, including the best-selling Wayside School Series of Stories. He got a law degree at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall and now lives in Austin, Texas.
LOUIS SACHAR, National Book Award, Young People's Literature: Thank you very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us.
What led you in the direction of children's, rather than adult literature?
LOUIS SACHAR: Well, it was when I was going to school in Berkeley. For one class I signed up to be a teacher's aide at an elementary school, I just did it because it sounded easy - no homework, no tests, just help out at a school. But I just had a great time. I loved all the kids and it became my favorite thing to do everyday, would be to leave the heavy world of the Berkeley campus and go to Hillside School. And so I thought I'd try writing a children's book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And then your book - first book - was about that school, right?
LOUIS SACHAR: Yes. That was "Sideways Stories from Wayside School."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think there's a big difference between your approach when you write for children, or young adults? What is a young adult, by the way?
LOUIS SACHAR: It's - I write the books and let the market find who reads it. I guess a young adult is anywhere from ten to fifteen.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. So is there a difference between your approach for these kids and somebody who's writing for us?
LOUIS SACHAR: I don't think so. I think what makes good children's books is putting the same care and effort into it as if I was writing for adults. I don't write anything - put anything in my books that I'd be embarrassed to put in an adult book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, I read Holes, and I found it very interesting. Where did it come from? What was the source of your inspiration for Holes?
LOUIS SACHAR: I'd say the first source was just having moved from San Francisco to Texas and being exposed to the heat here. And, in fact, we had just come back from a vacation in Maine to the Texas summer, and I just started writing about the heat and started writing about this camp where the kids have to dig a hole every day under the Texas sun.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why don't you read the first page. It gives a sense of this place.
LOUIS SACHAR: Okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A place where a kid is sent, by the way, for a crime he didn't commit.
LOUIS SACHAR: That's right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's something ever kid can relate to.
LOUIS SACHAR: Right. Although when you first start reading this book, you don't know it's that kind of camp. You just know you're going to Camp Greenlake. There is no lake at Camp Greenlake. "There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland. There used to be a town of Greenlake as well. The town shriveled and dried up, along with the lake and the people who live there. During the summer, the daytime temperature hovers around 95 degrees in the shade, if you can find any shade. There's not much shade in a big, dry lake. The only trees are two old oaks on the Eastern edge of the lake. A hammock is stretched between the two trees, and a log cabin stands behind that. The campers are forbidden to lie in the hammock. It belongs to the warden. The warden owns the shade."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the main character who is sent here has a very scary encounter with the warden. I found this a very disturbing scene. The warden has put rattlesnake venom in her fingernail polish, and she threatens to scratch him. And she scratches somebody else, and he has - he doesn't die, but he comes close to dying. How do you decide what's too scary for a kid, what you can and can't do?
LOUIS SACHAR: Well, I never thought of that scene as especially disturbing. I thought of it as sort of fun, with this rattlesnake venom. I don't know - I guess there were other scenes where I had to really deal with that issue. There was a scene where Kate Barlow, a notorious outlaw, is being tortured by these two people who have captured her to find out where she buried treasure.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That's why they're digging, by the way, because there's treasure.
LOUIS SACHAR: Right. And it was very difficult. I didn't want to get very graphic with the torture at all, but I wanted to - for there actually to be a relief when, instead of being tortured, one of these yellow-spotted lizards bites Kate Barlow and kills her, and, in a sense, she's saved from the torture. So I had to make the torture bad enough that the biting of the lizard was a good thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how do you decide how bad you can make it? Do you use your own child?
LOUIS SACHAR: No. I don't test anything out on my own child. I guess it's just - it's just instinct, I suppose.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, of course, you have this humor going through it all the time, and the kids must pick up that tone. You're very funny too.
LOUIS SACHAR: Thanks. Yes. Sometimes when I start reading, people aren't quite sure if this is a humorous book or not, and they're not sure whether to laugh at first, and then gradually, people start laughing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. I see you're having trouble with your ear piece.
LOUIS SACHAR: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks for sticking with it. What do you think is most important in your books for kids? What do you want them to get out of them?
LOUIS SACHAR: I want them to have fun. I want kids to think that reading can be just as much fun and more so than TV or video games or whatever else they do. I think any other kind of message or morals that I might teach is secondary to first just enjoying a book.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you don't set out - although there is - I mean, there is a moral in this book - you don't set out with that as your goal?
LOUIS SACHAR: No. Morals, I mean, are also - are also fun. I don't mean to say that fun just has to be - you know - being frivolous. People like it when the good guy wins and when good triumphs over evil. You know, I think -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you - I'm sorry, I lost the sound there for a minute. What difference will this award make in your writing life, do you think?
LOUIS SACHAR: It may choose what I - what I write next. I was planning to write another Wayside School Book, and now I'm thinking I may try something more ambitious like Holes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think you'll ever want to write books for adults, or are you just really committed to staying with the children's literature?
LOUIS SACHAR: I may write for adults. I actually started an adult book, worked on it for about two years, and then decided it just wasn't coming together for me, and thought I'll go back to children's books, and almost immediately I started Holes, and it just seemed to take off on me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, I can see why. It's a very riveting story. Thank you so much, and congratulations again.
LOUIS SACHAR: Oh, thank you.