You’d think if you won the John Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children’s literature, you might take a break from writing and bask in the glory for a while. Not prolific Steamboat Springs author Avi (yes, just the one name), who won the prize for Crispin: The Cross of Lead in 2003. He’s penned more than 10 juvenile novels since then, bringing his total works to 79—the same number of years he’s been alive. His latest book, The Player King (out October 17), follows the plight of a kitchen boy—based on a real person—who’s tricked into believing he’s the heir to the 15th-century British throne. We chatted with the local legend about his inspiration, his regrets, and how he came to write the real-life saga of Game of Thrones.
You started your career trying to be a playwright and began writing children’s books in your 30s, after you had kids yourself. Why does the genre appeal to you?
A good children’s book demands really good writing because you have to create engagement with the reader very quickly. You have to create some level of reality that the reader can identify with and then a story that compels the reader to turn the page. If they don’t turn the page, they don’t go forward. They have to care. That’s one of the things that’s special about kids—as readers they care about what happens in a way that you and I may not so fully absorb.
Where do you get your diverse ideas?
When you read a great deal, you begin to look upon the world in a sort of narrative context. I read history just for pleasure, and [with The Player King], I saw a footnote about this one moment in British history, which is mostly ignored. I immediately sensed, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a story there!’ ”
What was that footnote about exactly?
Game of Thrones is sort of based on the Wars of the Roses that took place in England in the 15th century between all these contesting dynasties and families. One claimant who emerges is Edward, the earl of Warwick and nephew of the now-dead Richard III. The real Edward was allegedly imprisoned, but a peasant boy named Lambert Simnel bears such a close resemblance to the missing boy that he’s tricked into believing he’s actually the heir, and he succeeds in convincing the masses of his right to the throne. My story is really about that kid, the one who has no understanding of what’s happening to him, how he’s seduced into trusting this lie, and then how it all falls apart and crashes around his head.
Although your stories are technically fiction, you incorporate a lot of historically accurate facts into them. Why do you include so many real details?
The facts give it a reality that I couldn’t possibly invent. In this book, for example, when Lambert’s carried on the shoulders of the tallest man in Dublin, that’s a recorded fact. It’s odd, but it seems to have made an impression on people.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently with this book?
The title is slightly wrong. I wish I had made it plural: Player Kings. It would more establish what the book is about, that everyone is a pretender.
Now that The Player King is hitting shelves, will you slow down a bit?
I published a book in May called The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts; I’m now writing the sequel to that. I have a book I have to rewrite for another publisher that’s sitting right here looking at me, and I’ve agreed to write another book next year, so I’m thinking about that.
Aside from royalties, I’m essentially not paid until the book is done, so there’s always the pressure to finish. That’s just the way I’ve lived for many years.
Where does the name Avi come from?
My real name is Edward, but my twin sister came up with Avi. My parents were very much opposed to my becoming a writer. Not because they thought writing was bad—because they thought my writing was bad. My revenge once I started writing was that I didn’t take the name they gave me or the family name. I chose a name that was mine.
How did you become a writer?
I come from a family of writers: My sister’s a published writer and a poet; my parents wanted to be writers; my grandparents were writers; my great-grandparents were writers. That said, I am what is known as dysgraphic. You’ve heard of dyslexia—dysgraphia involves left-right confusion and makes writing difficult. One of my English teachers told my parents I was the worst student he ever had. But in the world that I lived in, writing was considered important, and I fastened on this with a stubbornness. At some point, I was living in New York and trying to be a Broadway playwright. I wrote a lot of bad plays and had one produced off Broadway, but I eventually became frustrated so I gave up. Then I started writing prose, and children’s books came about when I had children. I imagined the world of my first book, Things That Sometimes Happen, for my oldest son, and it stuck with me.
Have you ever written anything that’s set in Colorado?
Once, one of my boys was reading some fantasy, and it struck me that his book was primarily predicated on European fairy tales. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to write a fantasy that was set in Colorado. I invented this whole world with rabbitlike creatures with long feet so they could ski down the mountains. And recently I published a book called Old Wolf. The story is set in the forest here where I live; the illustrator came up and photographed the area and used the locations for inspiration.
What do you hope people take away from your books?
At the moment, we are living in such tumultuous times, and I think it’s helpful to get a sense of history because we can’t understand the present unless we have some sense of the past. It presents the possibility of change and evolution and maybe even progress—though it’s hard to believe sometimes.