Sangeeta Mehta: You spent 20 years as a designer and creative director at various publishing companies before becoming a writer. You also worked as a children’s book editor. How did these different jobs lead you to where you are today? Did working with books from a design and editorial perspective help inform your writing?
R.J. Palacio: I’m not sure being a designer and an editor helped inform my writing, but it did make me more open to the editorial process, taking input from my editor and proofreader, working with designers, understanding what other people in different departments do. Book publishing is a collaborative process in so many ways—and it’s been wonderful being able to experience that collaboration from both sides of the publishing process.
SM: Your path to getting published is unique in that you were already a publishing insider when you landed a book deal. Was the acquisitions process more or less what you expected? The editing process?
RJP: I knew what to expect with regards to the acquisitions process and had fairly realistic expectations on how the book might be received. What you can never know or predict is how, once published, the public will respond to a book. Some mysterious combination of stars seem to align for some titles. Who knows why? One can’t simply say, well, it’s the book. There are lots of great books published every year that don’t find their readerships. Why do some work and others not work on a commercial level? Who knows?
SM: You made your literary debut at age 48 and began writing only a few years earlier. As you say on your website, “I always wanted to write. . . [but] realized that the perfect time would never really present itself. It’s never the perfect time to start writing a book.” In fact, when you were writing Wonder, you had a demanding day job and two young children to tend to, and you likely still have many of the same responsibilities you had back then. Were there any advantages to beginning your writing career later in life?
RJP: I actually have been writing my whole adult life—bits and pieces of novels, lots of stories, and mostly ideas for books, screenplays. But I never carved out the time I needed to have to follow through on these ideas. I’m so glad that I had all those years to quietly hone the craft without feeling any pressure to share it. If the whole 10,000 hour thing is true, then I can say that I’m sure I’ve spent that much time and more practicing—but without having to monetize it or make a living out of it. Believe it or not, this was actually a conscious choice I made when I was in college: do I want to make a living as a writer, or as an artist? I chose to pursue art and become an illustrator exactly so that I wouldn’t have to write for anything other than my own pleasure.
SM: You grew up in Queens surrounded by books. What else can you tell us about your childhood? Your heritage? You’ve said that your mother was a voracious reader and strong influence. Growing up, did you read the works of writers who were part of her literary circle back in Barranquilla, Colombia, along with classic and popular American writers? Do you still have your mother’s tattered copy of Mientras agonizo (As I Lay Dying) that was given to her by Gabriel García Marquez?
RJP: I was so lucky to grow up with two parents who were always—ALWAYS—reading. They had very different tastes, though. My father was more of the Marcus Aurelius type. Pascal. Confessions of St. Augustine. Will and Ariel Durant‘s History of Civilization. You know, tomey works. My mother’s tastes were more contemporary. And while yes, she loved Colombian and Latin authors, her big loves were Oscar Wilde and William Faulkner. And she had a thing for Germans, too: Gunter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann. We also, as a family, loved those big epic books that were so popular in the 70s. James Michener. James Clavell. Leon Uris. My father gave me a copy of The Agony and the Ecstasy when I was 12, and I devoured it. Now, looking back, I don’t think it was exactly age-appropriate, but it’s what I loved.
SM: You’ve said that the character you most relate to in Wonder is Charlotte, who’s “nice enough.” “She’s a good girl, but she’s not quite brave enough to act on her good instincts… She represents the difference between simply being nice, and choosing to be kind, which is the main theme of the book.” You also suggest that Charlotte will mature from a bystander into an upstander. Based on your school visits, and your observations of your own children and their friends and classmates, are you finding that middle school-age children today are brave enough to be upstanders? To at least take the “choose kind” pledge? Do you consider yourself an upstander now?
RJP: I am so impressed by the kids I meet in schools. I’m blown away by their beautiful desire to do good. But of course I know that I’m only seeing one side of them during these school visits, which are usually arranged after the kids have read Wonder, so they’re perhaps more primed to act a certain way. I have always been an optimist, though, and a believer in the goodness of people. I’ve always thought that most kids are truly noble to their core, and that, when given a chance—and a push—nobility can manifest itself in the most surprising times and ways. That’s one of the most touching things about being around children: their ability to astound you with the most unexpected things, their ability to empathize. But I honestly don’t believe that empathy is something that can be taught. It can only be inspired. So we have to be careful about preaching HOW to be good—be an upstander, don’t be a bystander—without sparking the internal desire to WANT to be good.
SM: Rights to Wonder have sold in 32 countries, including Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Thailand. Wonder was also shortlisted for the Carnegie medal, the UK’s most prestigious children’s book prize. Is school-age bullying as prevalent a problem in other countries as it is in the US?
RJP: Bullying is one of those terms that can be loosely interpreted, and every culture may have a slightly different nuance for the definition. I can’t speak to whether bullying is a problem in Bulgaria, for instance. But I can say with some certitude that “unkindness” is something every culture can recognize. Wonder is more about unkindness and its direct opposite, kindness, than it is about bullying. It’s really mostly about being different. Every kid can relate to that—the feeling of being different. And what they realize when they read Wonder is that everyone has a story. Everyone feels different. We all have something we wish we could change about our lives. That’s a universal feeling.
SM: According to Mr. Tushman, “The best way to measure how much you’ve grown isn’t by inches or the number of laps you can now run around the track, or even your grade point average—though those things are important, to be sure. It’s what you’ve done with your time, how you’ve chosen to spend your days, and whom you’ve touched this year. That, to me, is the greatest measure of success.” Is that also your personal measure of success?
RJP: Absolutely. Tushman gave the speech I wished someone would have given my son’s 5th grade class. There are so many awards for sports, and academics, and we drive everyone insane making sure our kids test well; but what about their character? Are we spending enough time making sure our kids know that we value the content and intent of their hearts as much as we value the output of their work? That’s what Tushman meant by “measuring” success. It’s hard to measure what we can’t see.
SM: When you made the switch from being an art director to an editor, your designer colleagues teased you for “crossing over to the other side.” What do these same colleagues say to you now?
RJP: Everyone’s been very happy for me. It’s been such a crazy journey, going from a designer to an editor to an author, and my friends and co-workers have experienced it along with me. You have to remember: I didn’t give up my day job. I’m still working where I was working, in book publishing. So my friends and colleagues know more about Wonder than I do. If something good has happened to the book, some nice new review, some industry news—I get emails from all my friends in different houses.
SM: In order to write Wonder, you would go to sleep at around 10 p.m., wake up at midnight, and then work until 2:00 a.m. before getting in a few more hours of sleep before breakfast. Now that your novel is not only published, but has held the #1 spot on the New York Times’ middle grade bestseller list for almost a year, do you still write in the middle of the night? If not, what is your current writing regimen?
RJP: Well, I’m happy to say I haven’t gone back to that crazy schedule. But it’s hard to find the time. Before I could also write in my spare time. Now my spare time is devoted to doing Wonder-related things, like this interview 🙂
SM: You’ve said that you won’t be writing a sequel to Wonder because you don’t think it is the kind of book that warrants a sequel. Are you working on another middle- grade novel about similar themes? Another book altogether? What is next for you?
RJP: I am working on another middle-grade novel. I’m not sure it’s about the same themes exactly, but the same things will always be important to me as a writer: what kind of person are you? I have always loved the notion that inside everyone is the capacity to be a hero—or not—and my books will always explore that duality of the human condition.
Click here to read Sangeeta Mehta’s feature piece on R.J. Palacio.