I am incredibly thrilled to bring you an exclusive interview I recently conducted with one of the writers who has most influenced my life–Edward Packard, creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that these children’s books from the 80s were a huge influence on me and my writing, and I’ve reviewed many of them. I never dreamed I would have the chance to talk to the man behind it all, but I did, and it could very well be the single coolest thing I’ve ever done on this blog up to this point. This is literally a dream come true for me and I can’t tell you how excited I am about it!
This interview is going to run in two sections, one tonight, the second tomorrow night. Without further do, I give you Edward Packard, author, educator, former attorney, and creator of one of the coolest concepts in fiction of the last several decades. My questions are in bold.
Mr. Packard, first and foremost, thanks so much for being willing to do this interview. My first question, I suppose predictably, starts at the beginning. We all know (because it’s in the “About the Author” of all the Choose Your Own Adventure books you wrote) that you came up with the concept while creating bedtime stories for your children. My question is, how did that concept become a book series?
I obtained a literary agent, who submitted Sugarcane Island, my first book, to several major publishers, who all turned it down. Years later I found a small publisher, Vermont Crossroads Press, that agreed to publish it. I sold my next two books to Lippincott, which published both of them, headlining the first, Choose Your Own Adventure in the Wild West, and the second, Choose Your Own Adventure in Outer Space. Subsequently, Ray Montgomery, who owned Vermont Crossroads Press, found an agent who made a deal with Bantam Books to start a series following my format with six books, the first and two others to be written by me, two to be written by Ray, and one by another writer working under Ray’s direction. Even though Lippincott invented the phrase “Choose Your Own Adventure,” they failed to claim or register the trademark, so Bantam was free to do so, and they decided to give the series that name.
Sugarcane Island was actually the first CYOA book you wrote, right? What do you remember about actually writing that book, the “maiden voyage,” so to speak? What was your life like then? Did you have any conception, at that time, that you were starting down a road that would be so important to your life and career?
I thought of the idea for the book in the course of making up bedtime stories for my children. At the time I was commuting by train from my home in Connecticut to my job as a lawyer for RCA Records, and I worked out the flow chart and wrote the various plots and endings on the train on the way to and back from work. I thought I’d hit on a great idea and was surprised that major publishers didn’t recognize its potential.
Rereading the early books again, I have two suppositions about how they were created, and here they are. (1) Most of the first ten books were intended as “demo” volumes, to show what the series could do within particular genres—you’ve got time travel, an undersea adventure, two space/science fiction adventures, a spy story, a western, etc. (2) You and R.A. Montgomery split up the first ten books between you, each taking a certain number of demo concepts. How close, if at all, are these suppositions to reality?
Bantam Books ordered a certain number of books from me and Ray each year, half of them to be supplied by me and half by Ray. We submitted proposed titles to Bantam independently and they approved them. In each case I chose a topic and title that interested me and I thought would appeal to our audience. I never thought of the first ones as “demos,” though I can see how you might have guessed that they were because of the diversity of subject matter.
I’m aware of how interactive books like this are written—I wanted to enter the “write your own CYOA book” contest that they had about 1985 or so, and I ordered and read the pamphlet about how to write one, plotting out the story on a decision tree, etc. Anyway, how often, while you were writing a book, did you deviate from the outline or the decision tree? Would new endings or choices just come to you on the fly sometimes, and did you work those into the stories?
I would only rough out the plot lines and endings, because I always thought of new directions to take and twists to introduce while writing.
Part of the charm of the books, especially the early ones, is the illustrations. I’m thinking of Paul Granger/Don Hedin’s comic book- like characters with their wide eyes and huge chins, Ralph Reese’s over-the-top pictures that explode with kinetic energy, or in the later books the more understated but equally great work of illustrators like Frank Bolle and Ron Wing. How closely did you work with the illustrators? Did they get ideas or cues from you, or perhaps even vice-versa?
Bantam assigned an illustrator for each book. I did not work with the illustrators, though occasionally I would ask that an illustration being corrected to better match the text.
You created the series’ most endearing recurring character, Dr. Nera Vivaldi, and she makes her first appearance in my favorite book, The Third Planet from Altair. Is she based on someone real? How did you think of bringing her back?
She was not based on anyone. I gave her a name that I thought was memorable and somewhat exotic. Since all the other CYOA books I wrote were self-contained, I thought it would be interesting to have a character who appeared in more than one book. I like the idea that Dr. Vivaldi’s specialty was interspecies communication, a subject that still interests me. I recently read a book by a woman who has spent her career trying to communicate with dolphins. We still don’t know a lot about what they’re “saying.”
No, this is not Edward Packard; it’s Jorge Luis Borges.
The Third Planet from Altair, and to a much greater extent Hyperspace, deal with alternate realities, crossing over into other universes, time looping back on itself, and such. You also wrote a children’s science book called Big Numbers. It seems you have an interest in infinity, time, and the limits of reality and the universe— just as I do. I sense at least a little bit of a Jorge Luis Borges influence in some of your writing. Did his work influence you, or am I just seeing what I want to see there? (Borges is one of my all time favorite authors).
I don’t remember when I first read Borges’s work, but it intrigued me. It was only after the CYOA series was well underway that I came upon his story, The Garden of Forking Paths. You are right that I have an interest in cosmology. On clear moonless nights in August I like to step out on the deck late at night and gaze at a blurry patch almost directly overhead: the Andromeda galaxy, about fifteen million trillion miles away.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the conclusion of this amazing interview! Thanks again to Mr. Packard for being willing to do it. I’m thrilled!