|photo: Elmore DeMott
At age 16, Jerry Spinelli finally capitulated to the reality that he could not hit the curveball and thus surrendered his dream of becoming a Major League shortstop. He traded in his bat for a pencil and began dreaming of life as a writer. Twenty-five years would pass before publication of his first novel, Space Station Seventh Grade. That was 38 books and 38 grand-/great-grandchildren ago. The newest one (novel, that is) is Dead Wednesday (Knopf Books for Young Readers). Spinelli lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, poet and author Eileen Spinelli.
On your nightstand now:
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. I read murder mysteries for fun and this is one of my favorites. It also has the rare distinction of being a book whose film is just as strong.
Favorite book when you were a child:
The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. I never tired of my mother reading it to me. It probably gave me my first sense of "story."
Your top five authors:
Eileen Spinelli: When You Are Happy would be anybody's ticket to the Hall of Fame. But there are other gems: Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch; Feathers; Someday; Wanda's Monster; and more. While I was still floundering, years from publication, she had two poems in the Saturday Evening Post. She was a kid!
Loren Eiseley: My favorite author outside the family. And his day job was head of anthropology and history of science at the University of Pennsylvania. Rarely have writers written as well as this scientist. If you want the Big Picture, read Loren Eiseley. Among the lessons he taught me: even as we are, we are becoming.
Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov did it for me. It's my favorite novel ever. Every page trumpets, "LIFE!"
John Updike: Rabbit, Run was one of the few unassigned novels I read in college. To this aspiring writer, it was a revelation. He wrote with the precision of a surgeon, in one case (in another novel) splitting the sound of a vase breaking on a floor into three sections. Favorite quote from Of the Farm (narrator returning to his parents' home): "I found myself so abundantly memorialized it seemed I must be dead."
Michael Connelly: As I've said, I read murder mysteries for fun, and my go-to guy is Connelly. His prose doesn't sing. It's unadorned, frills-free. Blunt, concise and clear--like a police blotter.
Book you've faked reading:
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Early English Novel course at Gettysburg College. (Sorry, Dr. Pickering.)
Book you're an evangelist for:
When You Are Happy by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Geraldo Valerio. Every bookcase and coffee table should have one. For its three main components--text, illustrations and message--I call it the World's Most Beautiful Book.
Book you hid from your parents:
There were no books to hide. As a kid, I read almost nothing but comic books and sports sections outside of class. This continued even after I decided to become a writer. Smart, huh?
Book that changed your life:
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. In my ivory tower, I smugly believed a book could not possibly be both popular and well-written. This novel showed me otherwise.
Favorite line from a book:
"Consciousness collapses the wave function," from The Quantum Revelation by Paul Levy.
Five books you'll never part with:
When You Are Happy by Eileen Spinelli. It's only a 32-page picture book, but never before has so much humanity been packed into so few pages.
The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. His words speak to me, sing to me. About once a year I read "Fern Hill" aloud to myself. I still haven't reached bottom.
Jean Giraudoux: Four Plays: Volume One. Ondine is my all-time favorite play, which is saying something since I've never seen it performed. For humanity, it rivals When You Are Happy. Besides Eileen herself, it was an inspiration for the Stargirl character.
The Outsider by Colin Wilson. For years this book was a kind of bible for me. When asked what I write about, I've always answered, "People." The Outsider is supremely insightful about people.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. Not many people know this unique novel, which puts the English language through paces seen nowhere else. How special is it? T.S. Eliot wrote two introductions to it at different times. It too partly inspired Stargirl.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Reversible Errors by Scott Turow. For the unlikely romance between attorney and disgraced judge.
Advice for young writers:
Write what you care about.