Stephan Pastis is the #1 New York Times best-selling creator of the offbeat “Pearls Before Swine,” a comic strip that appears each day in the Hartford Courant. The California native who began drawing when he was child, has just written his first children’s book, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” and yes, it includes characters and drawings sure to make any young reader smile. The lawyer-turned comic strip creator –turned author will be at RJ Julia Booksellers Saturday. But before he arrives in Connecticut, where he hopes to visit the Mark Twain House & Museum as well, he Spilled the Beans with Java, sharing what inspired the funny book featuring Timmy, the child detective, and a story that is full of the trials and tribulations of childhood and the imagination they inspire.
Q: My experience is that when someone writes a children’s book, there is some of their own experiences in there somewhere. What childhood events of your own did you includes in Timmy Failure? And are you Timmy?
A: When I write it there is no intent to put any of my own childhood in there. I don’t write that way. I write in a strange odd way, the way I have done the strip for years and years. I put music on really loud at the computer and I do my best to think as little as possible. But I guess there are things from my childhood in the book. When I was a little kid I was obsessed with my grades, I always had to have good grades. I had an ulcer in fourth grade. So I share that with the character Rollo. I was essentially an only child like Timmy because my sisters were much older than me. So I lived mostly in my own head like Timmy. And when I was in school all of the smart kids were girls so that would be the character Corinna Corinna. And I already wrote a second book and after I wrote it realized that one of the characters’ is a lot like my grandmother.
Q: What components do you think a children’s book needs these days to prompt a child to put down the video games and read instead?
A: Most reluctant readers are boys and I think you can compete but you need a few things. If a page is dense with a lot of words and nothing else, it is boring. A page needs to be more sparse and in my genre funny with some kind of illustrations. One of the best pieces I got was from Jeff Kinney(who wrote “Diary of A Wimpy Kid”) who told me to just be funny. He writes his books by starting with jokes and then builds the plot around those jokes.
Q: Somehow it seems so discouraging, a kid named Timmy Failure…maybe I am not seeing it but there is something a little sad about him, I think?
A: the name, I thought, was funny. Timmy strikes me as one of those 1950’s era kids and that combined with the last name was funny, an attention grabber for the reader. It’s not your average name. It’s not discouraging because Timmy is the relentless optimist. He believes so much in his abilities as a detective. He is the last person to get discouraged. If he can make it, any kid reading the book will think they are in a better place.
Q: Do you have children and do they have any say in the book storylines?
A: I have a 15-year-old Thomas and 11-year-old Julia. And they do have input, especially Thomas. When I wrote the first book I had him read out loud in front of me and every time he laughed I stopped him to ask why. I am sure he found that annoying and probably kept from laughing by the end so he could get through the book. I’ve always considered him my editor.
Q: What authors were your favorites when you were at that 8 to 12-year-old reading range?
A: There was a book called “ A Wrinkle In Time” and “How To Eat Fried Worms, the whole C.S. Lewis series, those were huge. When I was a little older, the author I read was Kurt Vonnegut. He wrote those real simple sentences, he had an impact. He had a book called “Breakfast of Champions” where he actually drew drawings that are part of the narrative. The drawings in my book are not as clean as the ones in my comic strip but it’s because they are supposed to be drawings by Timmy. Sometimes the drawings become part of the sentence in “Timmy Failure.”
Q: Why did you make Timmy a detective in the book?
A: I think it’s every kid’s dream to be a detective. As a child I loved the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and “Encyclopedia Jones.” They all share ridiculously clever characters. They are timeless. I just turned it on its head and had the detective least likely person to solve a mystery but he believes he is the best detective ever.
Q: Have you ever been to Ct?
A: Once, to take a deposition. But I am a huge Twain fan and just finished Ken Burns documentary so I want to find some time to get to Hartford and the Twain House while I am there.
Q: Something no one knows about you?
A: I will sit for four hours on a Saturday night and play Star Wars Battlefront with my son.
Pastis will be at RJ Julia, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison at 4 p.m. on March 2. For ticket information go to rjjulia.com