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'Timmy Failure' feeds Stephan Pastis' success

The 'Pearls Before Swine' cartoonist, who practiced law before finding his dream job, creates an illustrated bestselling novel about a detective, 11.

May 06, 2013|By Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times
  • "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis talks to pupils at Carver Elementary School in San Marino, his alma mater, about his illustrated book, "Timmy Failure."
"Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis talks to pupils… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

The last time "Pearls Before Swine" cartoonist Stephan Pastis walked the halls of San Marino's K.L. Carver Elementary School, he was an 11-year-old, practical-joke-loving fifth-grader with a penchant for irreverent doodling — things like the Ty-D-Bol Man being flushed down the toilet. And he was always talking.

"The very last time I was here, 30-something years ago, I was the kid who would never shut up," Pastis recently told a crowd of third- and fourth-graders gathered in the auditorium. "So Principal Scrim singled me out and said, 'Stephan, I know you're excited because we're near the end of the school year, but you have to stop talking.'"

"Now," the 45-year-old Pastis said, "I can talk as much as I want."

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Pastis, who now lives in Santa Rosa, returned to his elementary school alma mater in late April while in Los Angeles to promote "Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made" (Candlewick, $14.99), a heavily illustrated novel for the 8-to-12-year-old set that focuses on the misadventures of a clueless 11-year-old detective (the aforementioned Timmy Failure) and his even more clueless sidekick (a polar bear named Total). "Timmy Failure" arrived on the bestseller list for the genre in February and has remained on it ever since.

"In my head, when I wrote the book, Timmy's class and playground were here," Pastis told the students. "I had a principal named Scrim, and that name became Principal Scrimshaw in the book.... In my next book I actually name Timmy's school, and it's Carver."

After the squeals of 200 super-enthused students subsided, Pastis said that an already completed second Timmy Failure book is due out in February 2014 and that he plans to write and illustrate a third one this summer.

A spindly third- or fourth-grade arm shot in the air. "How many Timmy books are you planning to write?" the student asked.

"I don't know," Pastis replied. "Five? Six? Seven? What's ['Diary of a] Wimpy Kid' up to? Seven?" To which the hive mind sitting on the floor in front of Pastis burbled briefly in agreement.

Jeff Kinney's "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" could almost be the gold standard of recent kiddie-lit success stories, a seven-book franchise that has resulted in three live-action movies to date. It's small wonder that "Timmy's" book cover closely resembles the first "Wimpy Kid" cover or that Kinney's enthusiastic endorsement blurb ("Timmy Failure is a winner!") appears prominently.

Pastis' mother, Patti Pastis, who lives in Arcadia, was among the dozen members of the extended family on hand during his recent visit. She said she first started buying him pens and pads of paper because she had a hard time keeping him in his room when he was sick as a child. "When he was 7 years old, he looked up at me and said, 'Someday I'm going to be famous,'" she remembered. "And I said, 'Oh, Stephan, I know you are.'"

Although he would contribute comic strips and cartoons to student publications at San Marino High School and UC Berkeley, Pastis' dream job wouldn't be realized until after a detour through law school and a decade-long stint as a lawyer.

"You can't just count on becoming a syndicated cartoonist," he said by way of explanation. "I actually tried to calculate the odds once, and the best I could come up with is a 1-in-36,000 chance. And the odds of getting hit by lightning are 1 in 7,900 — which kind of shows how long those odds are."

So in 1993 Pastis embarked on a career as an insurance defense litigation lawyer. Within a few years he was submitting cartoon ideas to the newspaper syndicates — and getting rejected.

His early submissions focused on an arrogant know-it-all rat (named Rat). Pastis said it was only after adding a dimwitted pig (named Pig) to the mix that United Feature Syndicate tried — and ultimately failed — to sell his strip directly to newspapers. But instead of rejecting him completely, United suggested experimenting with a new approach: posting the "Pearls Before Swine" strip at its website in an attempt to gauge interest.

"It did all right, but I don't think it would've gotten syndicated," Pastis said. But in December 2000, "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams — who, as Pastis points out, "at that time was the biggest cartoonist on the planet" — recommended "Pearls" to readers subscribed to his email blasts. "I remember the hits went from something like 2,000 on a Tuesday ... to 155,000 on a Thursday."

Adams said he saw something novel and different about Pastis' approach: "He's got something slightly subversive about him. It's an X factor, an edge that defies easy description.... He loves to push the envelope."

"Pearls Before Swine" would make its newspaper debut in January 2002, and Pastis has been an enthusiastic and unabashed pusher of envelopes ever since.

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