Kotzwinkle, William 1938-
KOTZWINKLE, William 1938-
PERSONAL: Born November 22, 1938, in Scranton, PA; son of William John (a printer) and Madolyn (a housewife; maiden name, Murphy) Kotzwinkle; married Elizabeth Gundy (a writer), 1970. Education: Attended Rider College and Pennsylvania State University. Hobbies and other interests: Folk guitar.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Frog, 1435-A Fourth St., Berkeley, CA 94710.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a short-order cook and an editor in the mid-1960s.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Awards for fiction, 1972, 1975; O. Henry Prize, 1975; World Fantasy Award for best novel, 1977, for Doctor Rat; North Dakota Children's Choice Award, 1983, and Buckeye Award, 1984, both for E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial: A Novel; Bread Loaf Writers Conference Scholarship.
Elephant Bangs Train (short stories), Pantheon (New York, NY), 1971.
Hermes 3000, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1972.
The Fan Man, Avon (New York, NY), 1974.
Night-Book, Avon (New York, NY), 1974.
Swimmer in the Secret Sea, Avon (New York, NY), 1975, reprinted, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1994.
Doctor Rat, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
Fata Morgana, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Herr Nightingale and the Satin Woman, illustrated by Joe Servello, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
Jack in the Box, Putnam (New York, NY), 1980, published as Book of Love, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1982.
Christmas at Fontaine's, illustrated by Joe Servello, Putnam (New York, NY), 1982.
Queen of Swords, illustrated by Joe Servello, Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
Seduction in Berlin (poetry), illustrated by Joe Servello, Putnam (New York, NY), 1985.
Jewel of the Moon (short stories), Putnam (New York, NY), 1985.
The Exile, Dutton (New York, NY), 1987.
The Midnight Examiner, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.
Hot Jazz Trio, illustrated by Joe Servello, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1989.
The Game of Thirty, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Bear Went over the Mountain, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1996.
The Fireman, illustrated by Joe Servello, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1969.
The Ship That Came Down the Gutter, illustrated by Joe Servello, Pantheon, 1970.
Elephant Boy: A Story of the Stone Age, illustrated by Joe Servello, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1970.
The Day the Gang Got Rich, illustrated by Joe Servello, Viking (New York, NY), 1970.
The Oldest Man and Other Timeless Stories, illustrated by Joe Servello, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1971.
The Return of Crazy Horse, illustrated by Joe Servello, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1971.
The Supreme, Superb, Exalted, and Delightful, One and Only Magic Building, illustrated by Joe Servello, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1973.
Up the Alley with Jack and Joe, illustrated by Joe Servello, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1974.
The Leopard's Tooth, illustrated by Joe Servello, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1976.
The Ants Who Took Away Time, illustrated by Joe Servello, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1978.
Dream of Dark Harbor, illustrated by Joe Servello, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1979.
The Nap Master, illustrated by Joe Servello, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1979.
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial: A Novel (novelization of screenplay by Melissa Mathison), Putnam (New York, NY), 1982.
Superman III (novelization of screenplay by David and Leslie Newman), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1983.
Great World Circus, illustrated by Joe Servello, Putnam (New York, NY), 1983.
Trouble in Bugland: A Collection of Inspector Mantis Mysteries, illustrated by Joe Servello, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1983.
E.T., the Book of the Green Planet: A New Novel (based on a story by Steven Spielberg), Putnam (New York, NY), 1985.
The World Is Big and I'm So Small, illustrated by Joe Servello, Crown (New York, NY), 1986.
Hearts of Wood and Other Timeless Tales, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1986.
The Million Dollar Bear, illustrated by David Catrow, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
Tales from the Empty Notebook, illustrated by Joe Servello, Marlowe (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Glenn Murray) Walter, the Farting Dog, illustrated by Audrey Colman, Frog (Berkeley, CA), 2001.
(With Glenn Murray) Walter, the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale, illustrated by Audrey Colman, Frog (Berkeley, CA), 2004.
Also author of screenplays, including Nightmare on Elm Street Four: The Dream Master and Dreaming of Babylon. Author of screen adaptations of Book of Love, The Exile, and Christmas at Fontaine's. Contributor of short stories to books and periodicals, including Great Esquire Fiction, Redbook's Famous Fiction, and O. Henry Prize Stories, 1975. Contributor to magazines and newspapers, including New York Times and Mademoiselle.
ADAPTATIONS: Jack in the Box was filmed as Book of Love in 1992; Jim Henson Productions has optioned The Bear Went over the Mountain.
WORK IN PROGRESS: More "Walter, the Farting Dog" titles with Glenn Murray and Audrey Colman.
SIDELIGHTS: William Kotzwinkle is a versatile writer who has penned books for all sorts of reading tastes. His fertile imagination has produced science fiction, children's stories, mysteries, and satire. Perhaps the easiest way to characterize his work is to say that it does not fit into any particular category. Even in the realm of writing novelizations of popular movies, Kotzwinkle has excelled. His E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial: A Novel, based on the film by the same name, offers a completely different point of view and a great deal more detail than the film contains. Though better known for his adult novels, Kotzwinkle has written numerous books for children and young adults and has done so throughout his career. In an interview with Publishers Weekly correspondent Walter Gelles, the author said: "I always think I'll never do another [children's book], but something in me keeps bubbling up, the inner child who wants us to reexperience the world in a spontaneous way."
Kotzwinkle was born in 1938 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a mid-sized city near the New York border. He was the only child and enjoyed a warm relationship with his father, a printer, and his stay-at-home mother. A Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor observed: "In describing the beginnings of his awareness of himself as a writer, Kotzwinkle recalls his father on a hike pointing to the Lackawanna Valley as if presenting the richness of the world to him and his mother taking him to a wading pool where a tadpole in his hand seemed, he said, like an 'exquisite jewel.'" Certainly the young Kotzwinkle was taken by the beauty of nature, but he did not gravitate to serious writing until he became a student at Pennsylvania State University. There he began writing poetry and honing his narrative skills in drama and playwrighting seminars.
In 1957, Kotzwinkle dropped out of Penn State and went to live in New York City, where he embraced the bohemian lifestyle so popular then among younger writers. He supported himself by working as a short-order cook, a department store Santa Claus, a promotions writer for Prentice-Hall, and a reporter for a tabloid, among other odd jobs. An old school friend, Joe Servello, helped Kotzwinkle to sell his first book in 1969. That book, The Fireman, is based on one of Kotzwinkle's fondest childhood memories—the day his grandfather, a fireman, allowed him to sit behind the wheel of the fire truck. "After such excitement, no ordinary profession could hold me," Kotzwinkle is quoted as saying in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Kotzwinkle added that he thought the book was successful because it was the first piece of work in which he was able to reconnect with one of the peak moments of his childhood.
Kotzwinkle established himself in the 1970s as a prolific author who never seemed to repeat himself. Some of his best-known adult books were published during this time, including The Fan Man, a lyrical meditation on the Greenwich Village art scene of the 1960s. His 1976 book Doctor Rat was one of the first to denounce scientific experimentation on animals. An eco-fable, Doctor Rat introduces readers to the title character, an educated rat who undertakes experiments on other animals. A movement of free animals of all species attempts to break into the lab and uncage the imprisoned animals. In his Harper's review of the book, Robert Stone called Kotzwinkle an author who is "not afraid to take the kind of risks that are necessary for the production of a serious novel."
It was also during the early part of his career that Kotzwinkle wrote Jack in the Box, perhaps his most autobiographical work. Set in a coal mining region of Pennsylvania, Jack in the Box explores the slow maturation process of one Jack Twiller, who is bewildered by much of what he sees around him and is just as uncomfortable within his own mind. "The novel is an audacious attempt to join the ends of the spectrum of YA literature, the fading wonder of the child's world with the bleakness of a looming adult life stretching onward through decades of boredom," observed a contributor to the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. "Kotzwinkle's narration of Twiller's maturation, full of screw-ups and failed schemes, is an illuminating account of how small gains in self-awareness and a deepening understanding of the world can lead to a construction of the self that can withstand the inevitable further screw-ups and failures of existence."
Film director Steven Spielberg became acquainted with Kotzwinkle's work by reading The Fan Man. While preparing the movie E.T., Spielberg invited Kotzwinkle to Hollywood and asked him to write the film's novelization. Novels based on movies are generally done quickly and without much attention to style or substance, but Kotzwinkle was quite taken by the character of the empathetic extra-terrestrial. His adaptation of Melissa Mathison's screenplay was written from E.T.'s point of view, stressing the evolution of love and humanity on the character's home planet. Kotzwinkle is quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as saying that E.T. "is definitely not human….[He has] a quality of humanity that is yet to come, and it has to do with love."
E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial made the best-seller lists and has sold more than three million copies. The contributor to the Dictionary of Literary Biography observed: "The public accepted it as a separate work of art. In a sense, it is the culmination of Kotzwinkle's previous writing for younger readers; he presents E.T. as a manifestation of humanity's undeveloped cosmic consciousness that finds its expression in imagination and fantasy but which can be objectified because it is so much a part of common human desire." The critic added: "Kotzwinkle uses E.T. to present the positive side of his environmental concerns through a figure whose strength and appeal comes from his symbiotic bond with every sentient organism in the universe…. Kotzwinkle is emphasizing his belief that environment is life and that proper care and concern for the planet is essential for the survival of every form of life, as well as a source of nourishment for the soul."
In his Publishers Weekly interview with Gelles, Kotzwinkle said that his book version of E.T. communicates, to adults as well as children, "a powerful archetype that is dawning for humanity, the little helper from the stars. UFO visitations represent the alien within us. The alien is a missing link for us, a missing piece of our awareness."
Together, Spielberg and Kotzwinkle plotted another E.T. story that was published as E.T., the Book of the Green Planet: A New Novel. In this book, E.T. has returned to his home planet but longs to go back to Earth—"the green planet"—to visit Elliott and help him through adolescence. According to Jill Grossman, who assessed the book in the New York Times Book Review, Kotzwinkle's "strong suit here is his imagination and playfulness with language." The Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist wrote of the novel: "Even more than Doctor Rat, it is a revealing allegory relating human nature to aspects of biodiversity."
It is no coincidence that Kotzwinkle feels so strongly about environmental concerns. Since the early 1970s, he has avoided big cities, preferring to live in rural seaside Maine with his writer wife. He rarely does book tours, does not keep a Web site, and does not court celebrity the way some authors do. In a rare People magazine interview, he told Brenda Eady: "I want children to think the guy who wrote E.T. is weird."
Kotzwinkle has a low opinion of much of children's literature, as he explained to Gelles: "When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island there was no such thing as 'children's books.' But once they became a separate category, it unleashed a river of trash. So much of this writing is condescending, permeated with an austere sense of looking down at the child." Critics rarely note these tendencies in Kotzwinkle's work. Some of his adult novels could easily be understood by younger readers, and some of his children's books provide diversion for adults. Trouble in Bugland: A Collection of Inspector Mantis Mysteries, for instance, borrows from Sherlock Holmes for a series of stories featuring a praying mantis detective who solves crimes in the insect world. While the insects in the stories speak and act somewhat like people, each different species behaves according to its characteristics in the natural world. It is no surprise, then, that Inspector Mantis is calm and calculating, able to detect other insects' weaknesses.
"Initially, Mantis and Hopper resemble the anthropomorphic equivalents of animated cartoons, cute creatures with human attributes," observed an essayist in St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers. "As the tales progress, the characters, especially Mantis, assume an allegorical ambiguity closer to the complexity of human nature than the single-trait dominance required by children's books. The struggle to overcome evil and seek justice has an essential appeal to any reader not consumed by cynicism, while the satisfaction inherent in seeing a riddle revealed is an important element of a story for young adults discovering the increasingly ambiguous nature of almost everything." In her New York Times Book Review assessment of Trouble in Bugland, Ann Cameron concluded that readers of all ages would "appreciate the book's sly mock seriousness and flights of rhetoric and imagination."
The author is also at home with more conventional picture books for the youngest readers. In The Million Dollar Bear, a valuable teddy bear—the first ever made, in fact—is languishing in the locked safe of a stingy business tycoon. Eventually the bear escapes and finds its way into a home with children—and a grandfather who proclaims it worthless and allows them to play with it as freely as they wish. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Michael Dirda concluded: "All in all, this is a very good picture book….If you find the moral a tad sappy, well, you'll just have to grin and bear it."
Walter the dog has quite another problem in Walter, the Farting Dog. His gas attacks have landed him in the pound, and the family that has just adopted him discovers that they, too, cannot stand the stink. Just in time to save himself, however, Walter foils a burglary at his new home with his secret weapon: flatulence. A Publishers Weekly reviewer declared that Walter's antics "should have children rolling in the aisles during read-aloud." Booklist's Ilene Cooper likewise felt that children would find the book "hysterical."
The success of Walter, the Farting Dog has only verified what Kotzwinkle wants his audience to think: that he is weird, unpredictable, and very much in touch with what makes children laugh—and think. Though he is uncertain of what books may lie in his future, Kotzwinkle told People interviewer Eady, "I know I'll end up a little old guy telling stories on a mountain somewhere."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Beacham's Popular Fiction Update, Beacham Publishing (Washington, DC), 1991, pp. 693-704.
Children's Literature Review, Volume 6, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 180-185.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1976, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 35, 1985.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 173: American Novelists since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 98-107.
St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Atlantic, May, 1974; June, 1976; July, 1977.
Booklist, February 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Walter, the Farting Dog, p. 1020.
Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1989.
College Literature, spring, 2000, Robert E. Kohn, "The Ambivalence in Kotzwinkle's Beat and Bardo Ties," p. 103.
Harper's, June, 1976, Robert Stone, review of Doctor Rat.
Listener, July 22, 1976.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 22, 1984, p. 8; June 14, 1987, p. 10; April 30, 1989; November 19, 1989, p. 8; September 11, 1994, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Swimmer in the Secret Sea, p. 6.
Nation, November 4, 1996, Dan Wakefield, review of The Bear Went over the Mountain, p. 31.
New Republic, March 2, 1974.
Newsweek, May 31, 1982, p. 63.
New Yorker, March 25, 1974; July 25, 1977.
New York Times, April 9, 1971, Thomas Lask, "Of Elephants and Air Strikes," p. 29.
New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1974; November 2, 1975; May 30, 1976, Richard P. Brickner, review of Doctor Rat, p. 8; May 1, 1977; November 9, 1980; July 11, 1982, pp. 31-32; January 1, 1984, Ann Cameron, review of Trouble in Bugland: A Collection of Inspector Mantis Mysteries, p. 23; May 5, 1985, Jill Grossman, review of E.T., the Book of the Green Planet: A New Novel, p. 24; January 4, 1987, p. 33; May 10, 1987, pp. 1, 38; May 14, 1989, p. 27; February 25, 1990, p. 13.
Observer, January 8, 1978.
People, April 22, 1985, Ralph Novak, review of E.T., the Book of the Green Planet, p. 26; May 27, 1985, Brenda Eady, "From Any Angle, E.T.'s Biographer William Kotzwinkle Is Not an Alien to Success."
Publishers Weekly, November 10, 1989, Walter Gelles, "William Kotzwinkle," pp. 46-47; October 16, 1995, review of The Million-Dollar Bear, p. 60; October 8, 2001, review of Walter, the Farting Dog, p. 63.
San Francisco Review of Books, spring, 1985, R. E. Nowicki, "An Interview with William Kotzwinkle," pp. 7-8.
Saturday Review, May 29, 1976; April 30, 1977.
School Library Journal, February, 1984, p. 74; January, 1996, Patricia Pearl Dole, review of The Million-Dollar Bear, p. 86.
Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1983, p. 13.
Village Voice, September 15, 1975; June 28, 1976, Anne Larsen, "Did Doctor Rat Sell Out?," p. 45; August 24, 1982, Ariel Dorfman, "Norteamericanos, Call Home," pp. 39-40; August 8, 1989, p. 49.
Washington Post Book World, October 1, 1995, Michael Dirda, review of The Million-Dollar Bear, p. 6.
Writer's Digest, July, 1992, Michael Schumacher, "The Inner Worlds of William Kotzwinkle," p. 34.*