Tom Angleberger is the author of the bestselling Origami Yoda series, as well as Horton Halfpott and Fake Mustache, both Edgar Award nominees, the Qwikpick Papers series, and the Inspector Flytrap series. He lives in Virginia, with his wife, who is also an author and illustrator, Cece Bell and their two children.
In his new book Fuzzy, you follow the adventures of a girl named Max who is in middle school and becomes friends with a robot named Fuzzy. With the new Robot Integration Program, Max helps Fuzzy learn everything he needs to know about surviving middle school, the good, the bad, and the really, really, ugly. Little do they know that surviving sixth grade is going to become a true matter of life and death, because Vanguard has an evil presence at its heart: a digital student evaluation system named BARBARA that might be taking its mission to shape the perfect student to extremes.
I had the great pleasure of chatting with Tom about the new book, fatherhood, and his favorite Star Wars film of all time.
Art Eddy: Let’s first talk about your new book called Fuzzy that comes out on August 16th. I love the concept of the book. It focus on a girl named Max, who gets paired up with a new student. That new student is a robot. You are known for your Star Wars books and sci-fi books. Tell me what inspired you to write this book?
Tom Angleberger: I appreciate you saying that. I can tell you what exactly inspired me. I was a newspaper reporter. That has led to several of my books. In this case when I first started at the newspaper there was a fella named Paul Dellinger. He had been at the newspaper forever. He was the guy who could turn in ten stories a week. He was the super reporter.
I was not surprised when I found out he was a science fiction writer. He sort of had that vibe. I found out that he was writing science fiction stories before I was born. He retired and I thought here is a chance. Let’s work together. We started shooting ideas around and we came up with this idea that neither one of us would have ever had.
The basic idea was that someday in the future robots will be everywhere. At a school there will be a lot of robot employees. At some point in the future there will be a robot student, who is not there to educate, but to he is there to be educated. We started with that idea and be like why would you do that? You could just dump encyclopedia size information into his head. Why would you send a robot to school? That is where we started. Then eight years later we have a book.
AE: You see a lot movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakes where Rey is the main character. In books you see the main character be a girl. For a dad with two daughters I love to see this trend. Why did you select the main character to be a girl?
TA: I am totally, 100 percent behind this new wave that you are talking about. I love Rey from The Force Awakens. She is so great. She is super. What a perfect choice they made there. Paul and I started this way, way back. I can’t remember why we decided it would be a girl. It was just very natural that they were going to dress up this robot to look like a boy. Then a girl would be assigned to work with him.
There would even be this bizarre question of could there be some kind of romance. As the book turns out that is just simply something that her friends just tease her about. The whole concept of just another book with just boy characters is like no thanks.
AE: What do you hope that readers will get out of this book?
TA: I kept telling people that it is supposed to be a science fiction thriller, but I am not sure if you will find it thrilling or not. I really hope people do. I hope it is a page turner. Beyond that I do like doing what science fiction books did when I was a kid. What they did for me was to make me think about where we were headed in the very near future.
I don’t know if you remember Max Headroom. It was set about twenty minutes into the future. That was something what we wanted here. It is not that far away that we will be dealing with some of this stuff. Another book that I will have coming out next year from my Rocket and Groot series is all about self-driving cars. That feels like an area where we are just plunging into the science fiction a lot faster than we really meant to.
AE: Yeah, I can see that. Too bad we didn’t have the flying cars like we saw in Back to the Future II. That time line was for 2015.
TA: Yeah. It is funny. In some ways things are going too slow. In other ways as soon as something new happens we are like whoa too fast. We are not ready for auto pilot mode yet.
AE: I was watching a few interviews you did where you shared with the audience your love for reading and how it started out at an early age. You also said your parents were storytellers. At what point did you know that you wanted to become an author and at what age did you start pursuing that dream?
TA: That is interesting. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t crazy for books. I had vague memories of when I started to read, but I know my mom started reading to me way before then. The first time that I really started telling stories was in the sixth grade. There was some type of Halloween poetry competition. Mine was a story. I supposed it rhymed, probably really badly.
It was a story about some kind of Halloween thing. I must have won a contest with it or something. I was like wow I can write a story. It was that simple. If I hadn’t won the contest I might have believed that I could not write a story.
By the eighth grade I was trying to write a novel, which was of course a total disaster. I realize that I have a giant string of complete disasters as far as books and comic books. As soon as I got out of college I was trying to get those things published. That didn’t go anywhere for a long time. I think a lot of people want to tell stories. It is really hard to get started. It took me fifteen years from my first submission to getting my first book published.
Now I am just so lucky that if I come up with a story idea I can send it straight to an editor and say do you like this idea or not. Unfortunately they still say they don’t sometimes, but at least I can find out fairly quickly and move onto the next thing.
TA: I felt very inadequate about it. I was worried that I was going to mess something up really badly. It was scary. In some ways I am still scared. (Both laugh.)
AE: What are some of the core values you look to instill in your kids as they grow up?
TA: I would like them to not have that moment where I was talking about where I didn’t really realize until I won that poem contest that I could write a story. I don’t want them to have that thing where they don’t know that they can do it or they do something and they don’t think that it is good enough. I really hope that they keep on being creative and that they don’t have to win a contest for a reason to write the next story.
AE: Your wife is an author and illustrator. You kids must think that is pretty cool. What do your kids think about their parents’ profession?
TA: They are not as excited about it as you might expect. They are very good supporters. There are certain books that are my competition out there. They are very good about being on our side and complaining about the competition books. (Both laugh.)
AE: What advice do you have for new dads?
TA: Try different sleep solutions. If you try one and it is not working you need to bail out quick and try something different.
Life of Dad Quick Five
AE: What is your favorite family movie you guys like to watch together?
TA: (My Neighbor) Totoro is our all-time favorite movie. We just saw The Secret Life of Pets and thought it was amazing.
AE: Do you guys have a favorite song that you all like to sing and dance to as a family?
TA: My children do not sing and dance, but I sometimes do. My favorite thing to dance to is old time music. I would go with Mountain Dew by Grandpa Jones.
AE: Describe the perfect family vacation.
TA: Last year we went to comic con and had a ball. We had a great time. So it would be comic con, but not so crowded.
AE: What is your favorite Star Wars film?
TA: The Empire Strikes Back.
AE: Did you have a favorite book that you read over and over when you were a kid?
TA: I would say Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater.