Ellis Weiner’s writing has been making kids and grown-ups laugh for more than 30 years. Ellis skewered popular culture at NATIONAL LAMPOON and SPY Magazine, and entertained the preschool set as a writer for such beloved TV shows as BEAR IN THE BIG BLUE HOUSE, READING RAINBOW, and EUREKA’S CASTLE. He is the author of several humor books for adults, including YIDDISH WITH DICK AND JANE, and ARFFIRMATIONS: MEDITATIONS FOR YOUR DOG. In addition to his busy writing schedule, he teaches humor writing at UCLA and performs frequently with his jazz band, The Status Seekers. Ellis, you’ve been an editor for NATIONAL LAMPOON, a columnist for SPY, and the author of such titles as DROP DEAD, MY LOVELY and HOW TO RAISE A JEWISH DOG. Oh, and you used to write for TV, too. So what made you want to become a middle grade novelist?
It occurred to me that very few adult “comic novels” actually made me laugh—a fact that led to me to believe that anything I would write in terms of adult (i.e., for adults, not…you know…sex) humor would have a hard time getting published.
This happened around the same time that I absorbed through the cultural atmosphere the sense that Lemony Snicket was writing the kind of thing I wouldn’t mind either reading or writing. (He had been at it for years, but his work had only recently caught my attention.) So I read his first three, and was delighted to see that my sense of what one could get away with, when “writing for kids,” was decades out of date.
I knew I could amuse myself—not to mention indulge my inner pedant—by writing about smart kids interacting with oblivious adults. All I needed was a basic framework. When I thought of the Professor, and the idea of treating different colleges and academies as various enclosed microcosms, I knew I had it.
It’s sort of like STAR TREK, now that you mention it: the crew—professor, kids, dog—go from planet to planet, pursued by twin Romulans. Let’s talk about THE TEMPLETON TWINS HAVE AN IDEA. Whose idea was it for you and the Narrator to team up on this project?
Well. It was my idea, although The Narrator does have an antecedent in my previous writing.
In around 2006 I decided I needed to have a web site. But I didn’t want to present a disingenuous, self-centered thing in which I pretended I wasn’t promoting myself. So I looked at other writers’ sites, and saw that Ian McEwan’s was written and maintained not by him, but by an academic.
So I invented an academic named Renee Willis (an anagram of my name), whose ostensible role was to curate a web site about Ellis Weiner. Except that when you read the descriptions of my books, my bio, and everything else on the site that he’d “written,” you realized he hated my guts—probably for having rejected his attempts to sell freelance material to the NATIONAL LAMPOON years before.
This worked better than I’d expected—more than one person wrote me emails, asking if I was aware that some maniac was insulting and mocking me on a website supposedly dedicated to my work.
Willis turned out to be a touchy, snide, superior, fussy, condescending jerk—does this start to sound like someone we know? I’ll leave it at that. Kirkus Reviews said, “The scene-hogging narrator steals the show in this clever series opener.” Ellis, how do you feel about the Narrator hijacking your novel?
Grudgingly reconciled. He’s funnier than I am, although I don’t think he is aware of that fact. If, in order to continue to secure his services, I have to agree with him that he is smarter than an 11-year old, I’m happy to do so. Moving on: your twin protagonists, John and Abigail Templeton, are kidnapped by your antagonists, another set of twins, Dean D. Dean and Dan D. Dean, with a grudge about a bad grade. Did you write this in response to the ever-increasing emphasis on grades as a measure of success?
False answer: Yes. This book, and the entire series to come, is in fact a withering critique of the American educational system.
True answer: No. I just needed something to turn Professor Templeton’s nemesis against him. Each chapter ends with “Questions for Review” that call on the reader to think critically about the story, but also give the Narrator a platform to taunt the reader a bit. How do you predict young readers will react to these unorthodox quizzes?
I think they’ll laugh at a lot of them and not quite fully get some of them, but if they consult with their parent, guardian, or academic advisers, all will become clear.
By the way, I don’t think the Questions for Review call upon the reader to think critically about the story, since most of them require the reader to think adoringly and worshipfully about the Narrator. But I do think the act of reading the book itself is an act of critical thinking.
It would be nice, in fact, if some readers have the reaction to the book that I had when, at the age of 13, I read my first MAD magazine. I thought—or at least felt, maybe in a nonverbal, visceral way—“I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.” Come see Weiner at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention in San Antonio, Texas! He will be participating in the author panel, “And Then What Happens?! The Enduring Appeal of Series Fiction” on Monday, April 22, 2013.
© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Jamie Thomson (DARK LORD: THE EARLY YEARS) and Dirk Lloyd Books that Make Us Linger