Everyone’s an Alien in Hollywood: Talking with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

The writing duo behind the Hank Zipzer and Ghost Buddies series has a new middle-grade series launching this fall: Alien Superstar. In the first book (out October 1), kid alien Buddy Burger escapes his hostile home planet, only to land in Hollywood, California, where hilarity ensues. Want to know more? Check out the interview below for the inside scoop.

You can also catch Henry and Lin live (along with Russel Ginns, Celia C. Perez, and Alicia D. Williams) at Booklist’s middle-grade author panel at ALA’s Annual Conference on Sunday, June 23 at 2:30 p.m. Honestly, while you’re at it, you should come for our first panel at 1 p.m., where I’ll be chatting with Alexandra Bracken, Jake Burt, Tami Charles, Kayla Miller, and Sandy Stark-McGinnis. See you in DC!

Art & Soul

SMITH: I had a chance to read your new book and it is too fun! Where did the idea for it come from?

OLIVER: We’ve learned that if we can tap into our own lives—still making it funny and dramatic—that gives it a little extra kick. And both of us have worked in television most of our lives, Henry of course as an actor and I as a writer and producer. So we thought that given the interest that everybody has in celebrity life and film- and television-making, we could use our experiences to tell an inside story about Hollywood—

WINKLER: —that sounds completely authentic. We know what it is like to be caught in the excitement of Hollywood. It can trick you and overwhelm you and meet your dreams. We’ve both seen it from every side and have dealt with the personalities of not only the crew, but also the cast, the studio, and the network.

OLIVER: We like writing ensembles, since both of us came out of half-hour comedies, which are usually ensembles—like Happy Days and Harry and the Hendersons, which I produced. For this series, though, we wanted to do a family comedy but bend it.

When Buddy arrives at Hollywood’s Universal Studios, it gives kids a chance—he’s really supplying the point of view of kids, you know—to identify with him and see the world as somebody from another universe would, because Hollywood is itself another universe.

WINKLER: And as for its underlying themes, there are two that jumped out. One is that you need art and culture in your life, whether it is with a painting or music or making entertainment. You need it in your soul in order to negotiate this world. And the other is, don’t judge a book by its cover. Buddy, who understands some earthly emotion, is accepted even though he looks so different.

Lin always says when we talked to kids and to parents, if your kid is having trouble in school—say they’re struggling with math—get them an arts tutor. Because you never know what it’s going to open, not only in terms of their creativity but their ability to absorb.

OLIVER: The other thing that we observe as we go around schools is the heavy emphasis is on STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. That’s great for society, so everybody can prosper and earn a living and be part of the information-technology realm. But we can’t ignore what makes us human, which is music and art and inspiration and the mysterious parts of our personality. So this is a comic reminder that we have to value these things as much as we value coding—which is important, we all know that—but you might want to play some music while you’re coding.

WINKLER: But you know what I’m really proud of? Not only that these books exist, but that no matter what country we’re in, almost all the readers say, “How’d you know me so well?” And all we were writing is what our experience was. We are all the same.

Make ’em Laugh

SMITH: You both have touched on this a little bit, but I wanted to tease it out a little more: the importance of humor in your books.

WINKLER: We believe that humor is the gateway for the reluctant reader. That’s another thing that we hear from parents and teachers, that all of a sudden, a boy or girl who wouldn’t read—it was too difficult, or they were embarrassed or they felt they couldn’t—somehow got one of our books. And from there, they read five.

SMITH: For the humor in this one, you had a lot of opportunity to play on Buddy’s literal interpretations of language and his trouble understanding figures of speech and aspects of the culture.

WINKLER: We would continually discuss whether or not Buddy would understand something. Would he know it from the secret cave, where his grandmother showed him all these old Hollywood movies? Did he just hear it around on his one or two weeks on the Earth?

OLIVER: What we’re playing with is sort of a classic trope, the fish-out-of-water story. And one reason it’s so much fun is because if you were to go to a sound stage in Hollywood, you would also be a fish out of water. It’s a unique little culture. So we feel like the kids get to identify with Buddy, that half of what he’s seeing, they haven’t seen before either. That’s a natural for comedy—to be the stranger in a strange land.

SMITH: There are a number of funny alien stories in middle-grade lit. Did any of these inspire you, or did you just decide to do your own thing?

WINKLER: Well, for me, you know, reading is difficult. I am Hank Zipzer; I am dyslexic and didn’t read a book until I was 31. So, for me, I’m just going and having fun with my imagination and Lin in this world.

OLIVER: One of my favorite books of all time is Bruce Coville’s Aliens Ate My Homework. I love his writing, and I’ve seen how that book changed my sons’ lives. I think Coville, more than anyone else, combined that sort of outer space longing we all have with fantasy humor.

SMITH: Well, that is something you both managed so well here. For Buddy, you have dreamed up an out-of-this-world appearance, and his sensory enhancer is the source of some truly hilarious scenes. But there’s also a serious aspect to it: he’s escaping his planet so that his sensory enhancer won’t be forcibly removed. At one point, it’s described as being what allows Buddy to feel and sense things deeply. Can you talk a little bit about this?

OLIVER: When there are repressive governments, the first people they go after are the artists and intellectuals, always—people who have ideas and feel things about justice and equality. In the society that Buddy’s escaping from, the first thing that the squadron wants to do is take away people’s ability to feel and sense things. That action will jeopardize the artists, the creators, the creative thinkers, the people who could resist the government. We weren’t intending to write a political treatise, but we hope that the basic notion comes through that when the arts thrive, society thrives, and when the arts are repressed, society gets repressed.

So that was the genesis of it. Then we thought, let’s make this sensory enhancer out of control. Which is where the comedy comes in.

We now pause this interview to bring you some hilarious E.T. Reads:

Team Work Makes the Dream Work!

SMITH: I would love to hear about your collaborative process.

WINKLER: Lin sits at the computer and I sit on the other side of the desk; and I will start a sentence and Lin will finish it. Then, Lin will read it back to me, and we’ll argue over every word until we get the phrasing and rhythm exactly right. Or we’ll go to Google and look up what Saturn is really like. Our abilities fit like cogs in a wheel; it just seems to be a match made in heaven.

SMITH: Now, I don’t know a lot about the collaboration process, but it seems rare that you two are actually in the same room, occupying the same space as you create.

OLIVER: Well, we both come from television, so I think we’re used to that. When I worked in television, I ran the writing room, where all the rewriting and touching up is done collaboratively.

WINKLER: Sometimes 5, 9, 10 people are in a writing room, where everyone is yelling out a joke and another person is typing every word that’s said. So, if you’re not collaborative, you’re not in that room.

OLIVER: It makes the process so fun and social, which is great for both of us, too, because we’re both social people. It makes writing together really pleasurable and um . . .

WINKLER: Rewarding.

OLIVER: Rewarding. Yeah, that’s a good word.

WINKLER: What will never cease to amaze me is that I’ve been coming to this office since 2003. I get up; I drive across the city thinking, “Oh my God, I have no idea what we’re writing today. I have no idea where this story is going to go.” We go into the office; we chat about our lives for a little bit; and then, when I leave, there are six pages that were blank when I walked in—and I’m telling you, it’s like, I’ve discovered a gem, a diamond out of the earth every day.

About the Author:

Julia Smith is a senior editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. She is a graduate of the MLIS program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is also an aspiring aerialist. Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaKate32.

1 Comment on "Everyone’s an Alien in Hollywood: Talking with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver"

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  1. How fortunate that these two brilliant and creative people found each other. The results, in the Frank Zipzer series are funny and charming. Alient Superstar, a young adult work seems to be topping on the cake. Thanks for this delightful article. Can’t wait to read the book.

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