Actor, Writer to Visit Madison Feb. 12
Whether you recognize him from his iconic role as The Fonz on Happy Days, as the hilariously inept Attorney Barry Zuckerkorn from Arrested Development, or as the author of 30 children's books, there's one thing you can't deny about Henry Winkler: He's successful.
But success didn't always come easily to Winkler. He struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia during his childhood, and it made him feel inadequate and "stupid."
For the past 10 years, Winkler has been channeling those feelings into the Hank Zipzer books. These-as Winkler affectionately describes them-"scrumptiously" illustrated children's books center around a main character based on Winkler himself and his comical antics in and out of the
"They're not self-help books. They're not 'Oh, woe is me-he's got a learning challenge," says Winkler. "They're comedies."
Winkler writes the books with Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Most recently, the two have crafted four Here's Hank books, which introduce fans of the Hank Zipzer series to a younger, 2nd-grade Hank. These "genesis" books serve as a bridge to the older Hank Zipzer and focus on the character before he is diagnosed with dyslexia.
On a break from his busy schedule-Winkler has a current role in TV's Parks and Recreation and is playing a teacher in the new CBBC series based on the Hank Zipzer books-Winkler spoke to Living about his writing and his acting career. He and Lin Oliver will visit Madison's First Congregational Church to read and sign their books on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6 p.m.; the event is presented by R.J. Julia Booksellers.
Let's start with the development of your children's books, which you started writing with Lin Oliver 10 years ago. I understand you had no intentions of writing when you first sat down with Lin. How were you convinced to start?
You know what, I wasn't convinced-I took the courage to just try. A friend of [Lin's] who was my agent at the time suggested during a lull in my acting career that I write children's books about my dyslexia. Being dyslexic, you think you're stupid. I didn't think I could write a book; I didn't think I had anything to say.
The second time [my agent] mentioned it, I said, 'You know what, I'll meet your friend.' He introduced me to Lin and we had lunch, and out of that came the character Hank Zipzer-Hank is short for Henry, and Zipzer was the name of a woman who lived on the fourth floor of my apartment building [growing up], and I thought it was a zippy name.
We just received the go-ahead from our publisher, Penguin Putnam, to write four more young Hank books. We now have written a new set of novels about Hank in the 2nd grade before he was diagnosed with dyslexia. We've just gotten the go-ahead before they hit the stands [Feb. 6] to write four more, which will bring our grand total...to 30 novels for children. Now...I say that to you in a very clinical way...[but] emotionally, I've just fallen off my chair.
What is your writing process like?
We've written every novel in Lin's office in West Hollywood...I walk around her office, a lot of times, in my socks, trying to fit my feet inside the planks of her floors without touching the lines-which is impossible because they're too narrow, but I try...She sits at the computer. I talk; Lin types. [When] Lin has an idea, she types; I wait. She reads it back to me, and we argue over every word. And we have written that way [since the beginning]...We both come from television backgrounds...so that is a very collaborative area...and we've just moved it over to these wonderful books.
The tagline to the Hank Zipzer books is that he's "the world's greatest underachiever." Is that tongue-in-cheek?
Yeah...the underlying message is that every child is powerful. The way I describe Hank is that his cup is half-full; he just spills it everywhere.
So in a way you're trying to redefine what success means for kids.
Yes, and that success is there for you. You know, I ask children all over the world-the second Hank Zipzer was just published in Italy-and no matter where I go, I ask the children...'What is your gift; what is your greatness?' and some of them say, 'I'm a great writer; I'm a good friend; I'm a great runner; I can play sports; I'm good at math,' and, you know, they say it with pride-they know what they're great at. They also know what they're not great at, and so we don't have to spend any time in any way, shape, or form telling a child they're not up to snuff...They know that all on their own. Our job is to make sure that they're self-image is buoyed and strong. That's our job.
Do you write with a specific audience or reader in mind?
Our objective is to make the audience laugh. The two things that kids write to us no matter what they're language is are, 'You're hysterical'-which must be a 4th-grade word, because that's what they all say: 'hysterical'-and the other things is, 'How did you know me so well?' because we write the emotional truths. When I'm reliving the scene of trying to get something done or trying to remember spelling words it's as if I'm eight again in Lin's office. It comes out of me like a volcano.
You were diagnosed with dyslexia later in life. How did that come about?
I was never diagnosed. What happened was my son Jed-he came into my life when he was four-when he was in the 3rd grade we had him tested, and everything they said about him I went, 'Oh my God. That's me!' I realized by osmosis, by elimination, that I wasn't stupid; I wasn't lazy; I literally had a learning challenge; I had something with a name.
It sounds like it changed your perspective a lot.
Well, the first thing you do is I got really angry, because I thought all those arguments, all that grounding, was for nothing. You know, my parents thought for sure if I stayed at my desk long enough I was going to get it, and my brain just wasn't programmed like that; it just wasn't wired like that. I mean...even today spell check sometimes can't even figure out what I'm trying to say.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
That they laugh first, and they say, 'Oh, there's more than one way to solve a problem, and I have the other way in me.'
How do you pick your acting roles?
My tummy. I swear to God. Here's what I've learned in my life: Your instinct knows everything. No matter how smart you are, your head knows only something.
So you just get a feeling.
I do...and sometimes I'm scared. Even at this stage in my life and with this much work under my belt, I'm petrified and I then have to say, 'You know what, I've got to try this. I've got to go and do this...Just throw caution to the wind.' Because I can talk my way out of anything. Somebody will ask me or invite me to do something and I'll say, 'You know what, I can't do that,' and then I've missed out on...a most wonderful experience.
Do you find that now there are people who recognize you more as a children's author, or from, say, your great role as an attorney on Arrested Development, as opposed to knowing you as The Fonz from Happy Days?
Here's the greatest thing: I honest to God-and it amazes me-I never know what the human being [who approaches me as a fan] is going to say...A 10-year-old boy came up to me on the street in New York City and he said, 'I'm your fan!' I said, 'Oh, that's so great! You read Hank Zipzer?' and he said, 'No, I love you on Royal Pains.' There is a whole group of human beings all over the world who want to talk to me about Arrested Development. There's a whole group of human beings who want to talk to me about Scream. There's a whole group of human beings who want to talk to me about The Waterboy. There's a whole group of human beings who want to talk to me about The Fonz...And now the kids say, 'You know, my parents showed [Happy Days] to me on YouTube.' I'm very grateful is what I am. It's just fabulous.
Is there anything else you'd like people to know about your books?
They just make me happy, and I hope they make the readers happy. I just love the joyfulness of the illustrations of Hank.
They're very vibrant.
That's a great word. I hope that the reading experience is vibrant.
Henry Winkler and co-author Lin Oliver will read from and sign copies of Bookmarks Are People Too!, the first installment in the new Here's Hank series, on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. in the First Congregational Church of Madison's Hubley Hall, 26 Meetinghouse Lane. One book purchased from R.J. Julia is required per household in lieu of a ticket to the event. For more information, call 203-245-3959 or visit www.rjjulia.com.