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January 13, 2010

Chatting with Uncommon Thinker and Best-Selling Author, Robert Fulghum

By Joan Brunwasser

You suddenly look in the mirror and think "Why, I are a writer now. "And if they'll take that stuff,maybe if I put my mind to it, I could write something else." So, the second book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It came along. And they traded #1 and #2 at the top of the NYT best-seller list for months. And so I thought, "Well, this is something I can do." Well, it'd be crazy not to see how far it would go.


Originally Published on FutureHealth

Recently, I spent a delightful hour with Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Already Learned in Kindergarten. Here are excerpts from our conversation. Welcome to OpEdNews, Robert.

I read on one of your book jackets that you have had many colorful jobs - from singing cowboy to bartender to minister to artist, and I'm leaving out a few. The only one that didn't seem to fit was your stint as an IBM salesman. Do you think it's a coincidence that all the other jobs have an observant or contemplative component?

Well, that's quite right. Not only did I not feel the fit at IBM; they didn't feel [it] either. But I put that list down for a reason. If you've got a job and you were paid for it or you volunteered for it, whatever it was. If it was making beds, working as a waitress, digging ditches. I know people who don't want others to know that they once had a job as a trash person or washing toilets or whatever. And my response is that that's part of what makes you who you are. None of them were crazy things when I was young. But the point is, I did them for a period of time and they made an impression on the human being that I am and that's not to be dismissed.

I agree. My own kids are tired of hearing about how, when I was in college, I picked garbage in Yellowstone Park and got struck by lightning. But it's true and it did make a big impact on my life.

IBM was very interesting, to me. I happened to be there just before the punch cards came to an end. It was a great era and IBM was riding high. And I was there at that particular intersection of technology. I was very young but I learned a lot.

You're always running into offbeat characters and beguiling, thought-provoking stories. What makes a person or a story compelling?

I have found it to be profoundly true, that everyone's got some stories. And if you look at people who are a little bit outside the norm to start with in some way, carrying a flag that I'm a little bit different and if you're genuinely interested and got your notebook out, people will tell you their stories. Even ordinary people have amazing stories.

I just finished this week a manuscript for a new novel called If You Love Me Still, Would You Love Me Moving? It's a book built around a dance venue in Seattle called the Century Ballroom. I was given free reign of it for a couple years because I've been learning to dance tango. I got interested in all the other things that were going on there. So, I could ask anybody on the staff, personnel, and pretty soon the word got out among the dancers to tell me a story about the Century Ballroom. And I simply enjoy being in that kind of environment. It's fascinating to me what people will do and know and are about.

Agreed. Your first book Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten evolved in a meandering, inadvertent way. Yet, once it was published, it became an overnight sensation. Beforehand, you had the luxury of being incognito, but afterwards, you were outed as a writer. Did that success make it more difficult for you to write subsequent books?

Well, yes and no. People like to be around celebrities and so if you are one, whether you want to be one or not, you have a little more entrée into people's lives. It does give you access and certain privileges that you wouldn't have otherwise. It gets you a better table in a restaurant sometimes whether you ask or not. But I find a good part of my life is that I was the person that I pretty much hoped I would be and had pretty much the things I wanted most in life by the time I was 50. By then, you ought to have your wheels pretty much on the track and mine were reasonably so.

So that when fame and fortune came along unsought - I did not put up a manuscript and send it to a publisher; the representative came looking for me. And then, all of a sudden, what you've done, because it's already history, becomes acceptable then you suddenly look in the mirror and think "Why, I are a writer now. And if they'll take that stuff, maybe if I put my mind to it, I could write something else." So, the second book, It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It came along. And they traded #1 and #2 at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for months. And so I thought, "Well, this is something I can do." But I never thought of making a living as a writer. That's very hard to do, as you know. And, I was lucky enough to now have that as a job. Well, it'd be crazy not to see how far it would go.

And you're still going.

Well, yeah. I've got a new book of essays and stories coming along. I guess that's what I do. I tell stories and I ask about stories and lay them down. It's okay. I'm 73 this year and I can't see stopping or quitting or retiring. It's too exciting.

Good for you! Over the last twenty years, you've written eight best-sellers. You have millions of books in print in dozens of languages. Third Wish is your first novel. It was initially published in Czech, Hungarian and Slovak, I understand. It's only now coming out in English. That's a tad unconventional. Why did you do it that way?

Well, you dance with them that ask you to dance. And for God knows what reasons, my books were extremely well-received in the Czech Republic. When I started writing this novel, I never thought that I would publish it actually. It started out as an adventure of my own. And my publisher in New York put me in a box and said, "You're a non-fiction essayist, inspirational writer and if you try to write novels, we'd have to reposition you. Please don't do that."

So much for spontaneity!

Yes, well, that says something about the shape of American fiction and American publishing, but that's another story. And so my editor in Prague wanted to know what I was up to. And I said, "I've just been working on this novel." So she said, "Send it to me. I'd like to read it." I sent it. She said, "Edit it, revise it and we'll publish it." And I said, "You've got to be kidding. You're out of your mind. No, this is very complicated. It's got illustrations and music in it, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." And she said, "We're going to do it." And so I said, "I think you're crazy. But, here's what I'll do."

And I swear to God, this is the truth. It's on my wall in my office in Seattle. The entire contract to do that book said, "Publish my book, the novel, well. And if you make some money, send me some." And they said they would. And that was the whole arrangement.

Now, you've probably seen the contracts that an American publisher will put out. They're like telephone books. So, one line, in Czech! I always say that the reason my books have always done so well in the Czech Republic is because my translator is a hell of a better writer than I am! A wonderful guy whom I've gotten to know very, very well. So, they published it. And it was a best-seller for months and months in the Czech Republic and they got it. An American publisher, whose name I won't come up with, said to me, "Why did you want to do that? What do they know about literature?" And I said, "They were publishing books when we were still eating dirt in the trees here. Come on!" So, that says something else about our attitude.

The American publisher said, "Well, we'll have to completely revise this." And I said "No, no. You don't understand. It's been published. You can take it or leave it.\ But you don't revise somebody else's because you've got a better idea. You wouldn't think of them doing it the other way." So, anyhow, now the next phase of this novel, which is very interesting. American publishers didn't want to touch it - too big, too complex. Czechs had no problem with it. Americans' attention span is too short, la la la. Every excuse you can imagine not to do it. And then, I happened to come along in the time when Amazon was trying to really push its Kindle. And so Amazon agreed to take the novel and, as an exclusive, to publicize and sell it. But also, to put it as premium on its Kindle because it has music and has illustrations.


And so, instead of having to go through all that jazz in New York, they took it as published and there it is. It hasn't had the success here yet. Although I think something will happen to it over time. The new novel that I just finished which is only 188 pages has characters in it from the former novel. If you haven't read the Third Wish, the big one, then it'll stand alone. But if you've read it, you'll realize that it all hooks back to that. And then it becomes a richer experience. We'll see. But I wrote it because I believed in what I was doing and if it never sold, I was quite content to have one "book in a box." There's a picture on my website of the first novel which is just a whole bunch of pages in a box.

What you want in life is to have adventure. And what you want is to grow and be richer and wider and deeper as it gets shorter. And the novel, the Third Wish, really made that for me. It was a great adventure. And, if it didn't work out, well, we all go off in wrong directions. We'll see.

Let's pause here. When we return, Robert will talk with us about recording his books, his semi-nomadic life and more. I hope you'll join us.

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and