John Irving has accumulated a large fan base over the span of his prolific career, but not among readers under age 12. That's because he's never written a book for kids -- until now. Here, the novelist shares the unlikely origins of his new children's book, A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound, first told in his novel A Widow for One Year (now a motion picture titled The Door in the Floor).
Q: Why did you decide to write a children's book?
A: I'm not really a children's book writer. Because the character in my novel A Widow for One Year was a children's book author (Ted Cole), I needed to write some children's stories and attribute them to him [in the novel] -- stories, for the most part, that are creepy and strange. There's always been a children's literature of that kind. Reading to my own children, now 38, 34, and 12, taught me to be on the lookout for such stories. So I wrote A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound to give credibility to Ted as a children's book author. Tatjana Hauptmann [the book's illustrator] and my German-language publisher thought up this idea [to publish it on its own].
Q: This story is different from those that the character Ted Cole usually writes -- tales that scare kids. Can you explain?
A: Ted Cole steals the title line from his 4-year-old daughter. It's how she describes a sound she thinks she hears at night. He uses it to tell an instructive and gentle tale about a mouse crawling between the walls. There's nothing inherently frightening about that, provided you know what a mouse is. One of the children in the story doesn't know, and he lies awake trying to imagine it.
Q: Where did you get the idea for this story?
A: Two experiences with my now grown children helped me to understand this idea. I incorporated one of them into my novel The World According to Garp. Two kids are playing at the beach, and their father tells them to watch out for the undertow. The younger of the children mishears his father. He hears "Under Toad," a creature in the breaking waves. He's too afraid to go in the water.
[Another time] one of my kids told me he was afraid of the bathroom in an old house we were renting. I went in the bathroom with him and discovered there was a sound every time you turned on the faucet because the water pipes were old. They would knock for a while before the water ran freely. I said, "It's just the water pipes." He still wouldn't go in the bathroom. Months later, we were looking at the Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are. There was a half-man, half-animal hanging from a tree [on one page]. "Oh, what's that?" I asked my son, pointing at the frightening creature. "Water pipes?" he said.
Q: You write in the introduction to your children's book that this story helps make sense of nightmares. What is the message of the book, and how does it relieve kids' nighttime insecurities?
A: The message to children is that if there's something you're afraid of, maybe it's no big deal. Maybe, if you understood it, it would be no more threatening than a mouse.
The other message in the book is that there is no safety or assurance in words if you don't know their meaning. Parents should be clear in trying to brush aside their children's fears. Often when they think they're being clear, kids still don't understand. That's the message in the book for parents.
Q: Do the book's illustrations fit the visual image you had in mind when you wrote the story? What do you like best about the artist's rendering of the text?
A: Tatjana Hauptmann's drawings are wonderful-old-fashioned, European, realistic compared to many American children's book illustrations. I think they're perfect.
Q: Do you plan to write any more children's stories in the future?
A: I probably won't write another children's book. In a way, I didn't really write this one because I wrote it for a character. Novels and screenplays for adults are my obsession, but I'm proud of A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound. I think it's a good book for kids and their parents.
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