An Interview with Henry Winkler
Barnes & Noble.com: Tell me about the Hank Zipzer series. What inspired you to start writing these books -- and why now?
Henry Winkler: Somebody asked me, "Hey -- did you ever think of writing a children's book?" and I said, "No, actually I didn't," and they said, "Well it might be really interesting -- especially if you write about your dyslexia." They then suggested I meet Lin Oliver, who is in the children's book world, and we had lunch at a pretty bad restaurant and hit it off. After we met again and started to put the series together, I went to my agent and she put it out to six publishers: Three said yes, one said "Absolutely!" and two said no. The "Absolutely!" turned out to be Debra Dorfman and Penguin Putnam, and I think things couldn't be better. She is smart and supportive and funny, and it has been a really incredible experience so far.
B&N.com: What do you want kids to take away from these books?
HW: One is that yes, Hank Zipzer does find out he has learning challenges, but his friends are these wonderful kids who are funny and inventive, and they get themselves into these incredible adventures. So I want kids simply to laugh. I think the books are touching, and I want kids to feel for the characters. I want them to have a great time. I also want those kids who do have learning disabilities to say, "Oh my gosh! That guy knows how I feel! I'm not alone." But we wrote for the parents who read the book to their children. We wrote for the kid who just picks the book up and wants a funny read. And we wrote for those children that are really smart and just learn differently -- kids who have a real identifiable experience with Hank.
B&N.com: How much like Hank were you when you were a kid?
HW: I was maybe not as charming! When I write, I don't shy away from being emotional or writing from my memory of being so frustrated…so "Why can't I do this? I'm ready. My pencils are sharpened. My reinforcements are on every hole of my looseleaf paper. I'm ready. Why can't I remember what I learned last night?" I truly know what it feels like to be Hank.
B&N.com: Did you have a Mr. Rock -- someone who supported you and made you feel better about your failures?
HW: Mr. Rock actually was the music teacher at McBurney School for Boys in New York, where I went to school. I was in the bottom 3 percent of the school, and Mr. Rock was the one who was very supportive. There was also my American history teacher, who said, "Winkler, if you ever really get out of here, you're gonna be great." But they thought I'd be in high school for the next 10 or 15 years. They said I wasn't trying hard enough…but I was.
B&N.com: I've read that you were labeled "lazy, stupid and an underachiever" as a child. Despite this, you succeeded at Yale and reached your goal of becoming a successful actor (and more!). How did you get past the negative feelings? What made you believe in yourself and pursue your dreams?
HW: You know that's an interesting thing, because you don't get over the negative. You buy it. You just think that's it -- it must be the truth. I am stupid. And so there are certain things you won't do. There are certain conversations you won't enter. There are certain friends you don't think you can have because they're smart and you're not. You forget that just being alive on this earth might be a really good reason why you can be friends with anybody.
But somewhere in me I knew what I wanted. And I would lie awake at night dreaming about it. I would eat my breakfast thinking about it. I would brush my teeth thinking about it. Every breath I took, I kept thinking about where I wanted to be. There is a dichotomy there because on one hand, you keep moving toward your dream, and on the other you think this can't possibly happen because I'm not good enough. And like a pinball in a pinball machine, those two thoughts collide in your brain and you just keep going…putting one foot in front of the other.
B&N.com: How and when did you realize you were dyslexic?
HW: When my stepson was tested -- when he was in the third grade and everything they said about him made me think, Oh my god! Oh my god! That's me. And then I got really angry, because all of that grounding, all of those parties I missed, all of that television I didn't watch, all of that stuff that happened when I was a kid wasn't necessary. I wasn't stupid. I had a learning challenge.
B&N.com: Being dyslexic clearly set you back in school, but how did it affect your acting? How did you deal with reading scripts?
HW: Well that's a good question. I picked a profession where reading is paramount, and I had to work myself up to it. I just steeled myself. I would walk around this pile of scripts that I, as a producer, had to read -- it was like I was getting ready for an Olympic event. And then I would just be like, OK. Sit down…pick up the script and -- GO!"
B&N.com: It's a great feat for someone who's dyslexic to become an author. What's the writing process like?
HW: Well, first of all it was tough for me to read a book, and now I've actually written a bunch of them. It's amazing. But I'm very, very fortunate in my writing partner. She is unbelievable because she sits at the computer and I sit in the rocking chair in front of her -- or bore a hole in her rug walking in a circle, or lie on the couch on the other end of her office. And we literally act out the characters. It is just a stream of consciousness -- a stream of the characters, stream of situations, stream of emotions that come pouring out. And her fingers go flying across the keyboard. Then we read what we've written. I either read it to her or she reads it back to me, and we argue over every comma. It's true! Because there's a rhythm, and sometimes I hear the rhythm differently than Lin does. Sometimes I write a chapter in longhand, while going on a plane somewhere, and I give it to her and she somehow translates it into English and types it up. And sometimes she writes a chapter and faxes it over to me, and then I look at it and add something -- or don't add anything because it's perfect the way it is. So it really is a wonderful collaboration. We make each other laugh. I think the books are very funny.
B&N.com: No matter what you do, you'll always be Fonzie to the general public. Does that bother you?
HW: No. First of all, I had the most wonderful time playing that guy. We had a great time on and off the set. For instance, we traveled all over the world playing softball. Now, here's another thing…I don't have eye-hand coordination, so playing ball when I was younger was completely out of the question. But then I was on the Happy Days set, and Ron Howard bought me a mitt, Anson Williams bought me a bat for my birthday, and the dialogue coach taught me how to pitch in between scenes. I became the pitcher of the Happy Days team, and we traveled all over the country, all over the world, and it was just extraordinary! We played for the troops in Okinawa, and we played for our American troops in Germany. Now, that was 1983, and in 2001 I was in Washington, D.C., working on a Neil Simon play before we went to Broadway. One day I was at the Lincoln Memorial, and a guy came up to me with his wife and said, "Hey! I played ball against you in 1983 in Okinawa!" Wow. Believe me, I've had a great time being the Fonz.
B&N.com: Your life is full of so many accomplishments -- actor, producer, director, father, now author. How do you juggle it all?
HW: All of it -- except for being a father -- came from my fear: I never wanted to be a flash-in-the-pan. So I became a producer when the acting roles weren't coming so fast because I was typecast as the Fonz. And directing came because I was walking down the Paramount lot, and the producers of Happy Days were doing Joanie Loves Chachi, and they couldn't find a director. I said, "Hey, I'll do it," and they went, "OK." I said, "No, no! I was just joking! I was just being, you know, flip." They said, "No, we think you'll be OK." And so that's how my directing career started.
B&N.com: What's next for Hank…and for Henry?
HW: What's next for Hank? Well, Lin and I are in the middle of the third book. And Hank's sister's pet iguana lays eggs in the cable box. You see, Hank opened the cable box because he couldn't read the words going by on the TV screen. So he figured, "Look -- there's a knob for everything. There has to be a knob to slow down the words." And then the iguana gets inside the cable box.
As for myself, we're casting the pilot for Young McGyver. I am having the most wonderful time executive-producing Hollywood Squares. And we're waiting to hear about this wonderful show I'm executive-producing on the Game Show Network called Win Tuition, where you win $50,000 toward your college education.
B&N.com: Can you name a few of your favorite children's books?
HW: Well, I love Holes (and was lucky enough to spend time with Louis Sachar while acting in the Disney movie). Mostly what I'm really able to read now are thrillers. So that's what I read. And I have to own every book I read -- so they're all on my shelf when I'm finished. Each one is a triumph. But when I'm asked to read young children a book, I always read The Big Fat Enormous Lie. Or Stop That Pickle!
B&N.com: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
HW: Just that we are so proud of the Hank Zipzer books and can't wait to see if we're right -- you know, if the kids respond. Because you never know. But it's all very exciting!