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Interview: Judith Viorst on Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

February 15, 2015

By John Corrado

The World Premiere of Disney's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" - Red Carpet

The acclaimed author of the classic children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst seemed to be having a good day when I spoke to her on the phone, and there’s no reason why she shouldn’t be enjoying herself.

First published in 1972, her picture book has become a beloved classic of children’s literature, followed by three sequels.  Most recently, her story served as the inspiration behind the enjoyable Disney film of the same name, which just got released on Blu-ray last week, and was the reason for our interview.

Moreover, the weather was sunny where she lives, a fitting contradiction to all the snow we have here in Toronto right now.  “I do love Toronto,” she told me when I said where I was located, “I was only there once, but I think it’s a knockout of a city.”

But when I mentioned the harsh winter we’ve been having, she good-naturedly responded “I’m glad I’m not there right now,” sympathetically ending our conversation with “good luck in Toronto, and keep the snow by you, don’t send any down to me.”

Like many people, I grew up with the books, and one of the things I really liked about the movie is how they kept the original essence of your story, even though there were some changes.  My first question is, were you heavily consulted on the screenplay?  No, I was not heavily consulted on the screenplay.  I think I was very lucky in the screenwriter (Rob Lieber) that they picked, somebody who had a real feel for family, and for how little kids behave.  So even though he added a lot that was not in the book, it was something about the sensibility and the values that really did remain the same.

And how closely were you involved in the actual production of the film?  Very little.

Okay.  So were you on set at all?  No, I actually was in California.  I was invited to the set, and I couldn’t make it.  So no.  My first real encounter with the whole experience was going to the premiere in Los Angeles, which was pretty heady.

Yeah.  And I think it turned out pretty well.  Yes.  Yes, indeed.  The premiere was certainly everything that a premiere should be.  Actually with a red carpet, and walking down it, and photographers.  And I was able to come with my husband, with Alexander and his wife.  Alexander is now a middle aged man, with a gorgeous wife and three kids.  I tried to get Disney to let me bring all seventeen of the Viorst family, but they thought that was overreaching.

That’s too bad.  So there’s a featurette on the Blu-ray where we are introduced to your real life son, Alexander.  Can you talk a little bit more about how your family life inspired the characters and story?  Alexander was somebody who always had bad days, more than his share of bad days.  He was a daredevil.  I mean, he is the only kid I know who came home from school moaning about hurting his knee.  I thought it was in soccer, but he was wriggling so much he fell off his chair in story time, which isn’t the way you’re supposed to get a knee injury.  You know, climbing up trees fifteen minutes before going to Europe, and breaking his wrist.  And the only kid we ever got called into for a kindergarten conference, at that, because of whatever his wicked behaviour was at five.

He has cleaned up very nicely, but because he had more than his share of bad days, I thought that this book would cheer him up.  It didn’t.  He was really annoyed that I had given him the bad days, instead of giving it to his brothers.  But he got over that.  And my theory is that in later years, he was using the children’s book in his bachelor years the way nineteenth century guys used etchings.  “You wanna come up and see my pictures, honey?”  “You wanna come up and see my children’s book?”  So he got over being mad at me for writing it.

That’s good.  I think the story nicely captures the “grass is greener on the other side” feeling in a way that pretty much anyone can relate to, and I’ve always wondered, is there any special significance behind Alexander’s fascination with Australia?  Australia is the opposite of everything bad.  It’s the other side of the world.  So if it’s black here and bleak here, and rotten here and imperfect here, you go to the other side of the world, and it’s going to be the opposite.  It’s going to be sunny, balmy, beautiful days.  No snow, all good news, all wonderful things happening.  It just represented the opposite, the other side of rotten now and here.

Another one of the most iconic elements from the original book are the illustrations by Ray Cruz.  How did that collaboration initially come about?  Oh, yeah.  The illustrations are just wonderful.  When you’re a children’s book writer, as the years go by and you get more successful, you get to have a lot of say in who your illustrators are.  In the beginning, and this was pretty much in the beginning, the publisher picks out the illustrator.  You’re so grateful that you are being published, you would take anybody.  I was just blessed I had this wonderful, talented man do the art.

And even though Alexander is not a redhead, the feeling of Alexander as a little boy, and the feeling of the little boy Alexander in the illustrations, are so close.  The body language, everything.  It was really a match made in heaven.  And I met Ray once, this book came out in 1972, but we’re pen-pals, we write letters to each other.  Old fashioned, on the paper letters to each other, and we’ve been doing it for decades.  And I just love and feel so grateful to him for what he created.

The latest book, Alexander, Who’s Trying His Best to Be the Best Boy Ever, was just published this past year.  Can we look forward to any more stories with Alexander?  I’m not thinking of any yet.  It took me a long time to come up with that one.  I really, really try to sort of be true to my first book, and not write anything that I’m going to think of as lesser.  It may not be as popular, but I need in my heart to feel that it’s up to those standards.  And there’s a little question in my head that goes, is this book necessary?  And I have to answer yes, before I’ll put it down on paper.

Have you been approached about any more film adaptations?  Not yet.  Perhaps we will, but not yet.

Because growing up, I obviously loved the first book, and also the second and the third, and was delighted last year when I found the latest one and the movie.  What advice would you give to aspiring writers?  I’ve run into this a lot.  You know, I’ll go to a party, and somebody will say to me, “you’re so lucky that you’re a writer, I want to be a writer.”  And I say, do you want to be a writer, or do you want to write?  Because if you want to write, nobody can stop you.  You sit down, and you write, and you keep on writing, and you keep on writing.  A writer is a label, writing is something you do.

I started writing when I was seven, I didn’t get a word published, or really even send out stuff when I was little.  I didn’t get a word published until I was in my thirties, but I couldn’t not write.  I needed to write, and if you need to write, you’ll keep on writing.  I have a dear friend, I think she just turned seventy or she’s in her early seventies, and has been writing since she was a teenager, and is having her first book of short stories published, because she can’t not write.  So you have to hang in there, you have to keep doing it.  One person once said to me, “I want to be a writer, but I really have trouble with rejection.”  I said, “honey, find another line of work.”

I understand.  Because you’re going to get a lot.  Because presumably you’re a writer, you’re writing this story, right?

Yes.  So you too must have encountered rejections at some point in your career.

Oh, yeah.  For sure.  And you have to be able to tolerate it, and say I’m going to keep on doing it anyway.

Exactly.  You have to take yourself seriously.  Even if it’s fifteen minutes a day that you give yourself some time to write.  And the other thing, which sounds very stuffy, but is absolutely essential, is you have to read.  You have to know, outside the absolute pleasure of reading which is one of the great joys of life, you read and that’s how you learn all the things you can talk about and all the ways you can talk about them.

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