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Louis Sachar's Odyssey

The Best-Selling Author of 'Holes' Failed at Bookkeeping, Succeeded at Law School and Then Decided to Do What He Really Wanted--Write Books for Children Who Think

January 05, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds last wrote for the magazine about vampire Goths.

Louis Sachar was a 22-year-old economics major at UC Berkeley with a single job prospect after his 1976 graduation: managing the books for a sweater warehouse in Norwalk, Conn. After eight months, he was fired--not for insubordination but "incompetence." Could making money, he wondered, ever be fun?

He knew what he wanted to do. During his senior year in college, Sachar had worked as a teacher's aide in an elementary school and discovered that he liked children. Maybe even that he preferred children to adults. Certainly that he wanted to write books for children.

But Sachar worried about making a living, so after the sweater warehouse debacle, he applied to law school. He mailed his applications at about the same time he mailed a manuscript for a children's book he'd been writing on the side. One week after his classes started at UC Hastings College of the Law, Follett Publishing Co. agreed to release "Sideways Stories From Wayside School," which appeared in 1978. (After Follett went out of business, Sachar sold the rights to the book to Avon, which re-released it in 1985.)

Still, Sachar was not convinced that he could survive by writing children's books. After he graduated from law school, he found part-time legal work and continued to write on the side, experiencing modest success as a children's book author.

Then, in 1998, came Sachar's 18th book, "Holes," the story of a boy who is wrongly accused of theft and sent to a camp for juvenile delinquents. "Holes" has sold more than 1 million copies and has been translated into more than 25 languages. A movie version starring Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight is scheduled to open in April. The director, Andrew Davis, thinks so much of Sachar that he asked him to write the first draft of the screenplay.

His status as a best-selling author-turned-screenwriter would seem to rank as a major literary achievement, and yet Sachar remains one of the most successful authors you've probably never heard of. Unless you happen to be 10.

Louis Sachar is not a man given to epiphanies. At 48 he is slight, neat and polite, even querulous. We are eating lunch in his personal trailer, parked by a dry lake bed in the Mojave Desert, where "Holes" is being filmed. "You gonna eat that?" he asks, pointing with his fork to the remains on my plate. His 15-year-old daughter, Sherre, who joins us, rolls her eyes. Sachar, who lives with his family in Austin, Texas, has been reading to students in his daughter's classes for years. Sachar remembered his teacher reciting "Charlotte's Web" to his fourth-grade class; when Sherre was in fifth grade, he read "Holes" to her class. The kids ate it up and made Sherre a minor celebrity in her school. "There's nothing like the power of a teacher reading to a class," he says, and Sherre agrees. Then he adds: "I never discuss a book until I've finished writing it, and then Sherre is my first reader." Father and daughter, judging from the conspiratorial looks they exchange, have a close relationship. In fact, Sachar seems much more comfortable talking to children--the boys on the set or his own daughter--than he does to adults.

Perhaps that is the secret of his success. Ask any sentient fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grader about "Holes," and they will tell you that it is one of the best books, if not the best book, that they have ever read. For some young readers, it is the first encounter they have with an author who believes his audience is intelligent and discerning. There's only so much "Goosebumps" and "Mary-Kate & Ashley" kids can read before they start to wonder if characters, like people, are not all good or all bad, and if evil is found in places other than underground lairs and haunted houses.

"I don't compromise, writing for kids," says Sachar. (The very presence of Sherre, who monitors her father's conversations for untruths and hypocrisies, would seem a guarantee of that.) "I never simplify. I don't constrict my vocabulary. If a reader doesn't know the meaning of a word, he can look it up."

"Holes" is set in a juvenile detention camp in the middle of nowhere in Texas. "Camp Green Lake is a camp for bad boys," Sachar writes as the story opens. "If you take a bad boy and make him dig a hole every day in the hot sun, it will turn him into a good boy. That was what some people thought. Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, 'You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake.' Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before."

So Stanley joins a parade of boys who are forced to dig holes in the desert that are 5 feet wide and 5 feet deep. But he is not a child who simply accepts his fate; he is determined to find out why.

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