Shadow of the Unknown: An Interview with William Kotzwinkle

George Salis: While I haven’t read many novelizations of movies, I suspect that most of them are boilerplate. However, your treatment of E.T. subverts expectations and is beloved by many readers. How did you approach writing a novel in this way, seeing as it was based on Melissa Mathison’s original screenplay, or did she give you free rein? In 1985, you wrote a sequel to the film/novelization based on a story by Steven Spielberg, E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet. Have you ever considered revisiting that world?

William Kotzwinkle: I was intrigued by the prospect of writing a book in which story and dialogue were already supplied. Melissa Mathison had written a great story and the dialogue was excellent. What hadn’t been supplied was the content of everyone’s mind, including E.T.’s. Since the characters were substantial, I realized their mental play on paper would add a dimension that the movie couldn’t provide, because movies move quickly and a character’s inner life slows a movie down. The pace of a novel is determined by other rules, which include room for a mind at work. E.T.’s mind provided comic opportunity and so did the mind of a mother handling the running of a household with kids, a dog, and an extraterrestrial. I told Melissa what my approach would be, and she thought it was the right one. And so I dove into it. Some readers thought the family dog ran away with the book. Spielberg said, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.”

And Melissa sent me a sweet note, thanking me. She was a lovely person. I’m sorry she’s gone.

As for revisiting that world, when we first discussed The Book of the Green Planet, Spielberg was thinking of filming a sequel, but then he changed his mind. There were just a few things he wanted in the book and one of them was a character who “looked like a bunch of floppy socks.” This set the tone, which was playful, and let me invent some remarkable extraterrestrial characters. I saw Spielberg’s spark at work when I was on the E.T. set. The art director came up to him and said, excitedly, “Steven, I know what the ship looks like. It’s like a teardrop of mercury.” Without missing a beat, and seeming to pull it right out of the sky, Spielberg said, “No, it looks like a Victorian Christmas tree ornament.” I suspect that’s the first time he’d given it a thought, but it was perfect, and that’s how I described it in the book.

GS: Kurt Vonnegut was a fan of your second novel, The Fan Man, and even wrote a foreword to it. Did Vonnegut’s work act as a guiding star for you? Did you ever get a chance to meet him?

WK: I met him once, at a memorial service for our late publisher, Seymour Lawrence. Vonnegut was an original and wonderful writer, but he wasn’t one of my influences. However, very early in my career he sent a letter to Knox Burger, my agent at the time, who was a friend of his. Vonnegut was concerned about my progress in the literary world and wrote that what I needed to learn was how to court editors and publishers. He must’ve sensed I had no idea how this was done. But Knox never sent the letter to me; I don’t know why. It might have helped. I was hanging out on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with painters, musicians, and actors. It never occurred to me that I might hang out with people who could further my career. Only decades later was the letter given to me by the executor of Vonnegut’s estate.

My progress in courting the publishing world was not improved by my first experience there. My editor at Random House was Jon Eisen, who didn’t talk about publishing, but about the turtles in his bathtub. He’d rescued them from Chinatown where they were going to be ingredients for soup. They were growing and he didn’t know what to do with them. I said, “We’ll take them to Harriman State Park,” which was on the other side of the Hudson River. We drove up there and hiked to a lake I remembered having gone to once. We released the turtles into the lake. As they swam away, with their little heads bobbing above the water, we could feel their joy.

Shortly after that, Jon quit Random House and moved to New Zealand. And I, with a few publishing dollars in my pocket, moved to the far north woods and any opportunity to interact socially with the publishing world was over. I was hiking, snowshoeing, and interacting with lumberjacks who taught me how to live in a harsh unforgiving climate. I continued writing, of course, but I was a long way from the movers and shakers of publishing.

GS: I first discovered your heartbreaking 1975 story “Swimmer in the Secret Sea” when it was mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Sweet Tooth of all places. Can you reflect on this deceptively slim volume? Is this your most personal work?

WK: I wish fate had not handed that little book to me. But I had no choice and had to write it in order to lift some of the burden weighing on me. From letters I’ve received over the years it’s clear that it has helped to lift the burden off other couples who lost a child at birth.

It’s certainly the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.

GS: Your work is delightfully varied, from fantasy to science fiction and more. Is this bounty of genres and styles an active attempt at avoiding a pigeonhole or are your interests and tastes simply eclectic?

WK: Gradients are formed in the mind, probably over a long period of time. Then one day they’re personified in a figure from our past. I’m thinking of my short story “Marie,” which takes place in the second grade as the school year is ending and summer is just outside the window. The teacher is out of the room and Marie performs a little can-can dance for me and two other boys. Maybe it’s the summer breeze inspiring her, but very delicately she takes the hem of her skirt and lifts it up. A divine moment, as it happens, because in remembering it, I realized Marie was love itself, come to call in a second-grade classroom. The teacher returns when the dance has already ended. But she knows something is up and has to get to the bottom of it. Her inquisition freezes one of the boys, and to save himself he squeals on Marie, crying out, “Marie showed us her panties!” And the goddess of love flies away.

Behind this memory was a celestial force, and that force shimmered through my brain as I sat at the typewriter, quickly stringing words to capture the divine moment when love came calling for us in the second grade. A memory was transformed into a memorable story, because the goddess of love herself had said, Look. I looked, and understood we were acting out a cosmic drama. Our young ages didn’t matter, because the ageless goddess was playing with us. Then she wrapped me in forgetfulness for 20 years, until she twitched the veil of memory aside, showed me that classroom, and in one magic instant made me an artist. They say that luck favors the prepared, and I was prepared by many previous hours of concentration, wrestling with sentences, trying to write a real story, never successfully. Enchantment was required, though I didn’t know this, only knew something was missing. And then, out of nowhere, there it was—enchantment. I didn’t generate it, I witnessed it with enough capacity for self-expression to capture it. It became my first published story and the critic John Aldrich read it to the entire Bread Loaf Writers Conference, as an example of a completely new story form. He was enchanted by the enchantment that had enchanted me.

So—there’s no source I can call upon deliberately in order to produce a uniform body of work. Quite the contrary, something calls upon me, and I’ve named it enchantment. Sometimes it’s emotionally binding, quick and decisive, as with “Marie”. Other times it’s spread out over a long work, even those that seem examples of realism, as with my Tommy Martini books, about a Benedictine monk who wants to live in peace and prayer but is drawn into a world of sex and violence. The enchantment is softer there, in dialogue that turns unexpectedly, in scenery that has a soft pulsation, but all along it’s the product of my being guided by a kind of sonar system, a pinging I can hear when the words are reflecting a solid architecture back to me. Predictable dialogue, predictable action is architecturally weak because the writer’s detection system is using clumsy signposts rather than the soft pinging heard by one employing psychic radar. Hemingway uses a forceful image to describe this, saying a writer must have a built-in shit detector. But it comes down to the same thing. You can only write what you hear, but it’s not ordinary hearing you’re after.

GS: You’ve mentioned in the past how you have a wish list of things you want to write about and you simply move from one item to the next. What else is on your wish list? Have you scrapped anything from that list and, if so, which ideas?

WK: I think from the above it’s pretty clear that the list was wishful thinking. I go where enchantment takes me.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read and thinks deserves more readers?

WK: Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes. It’s one of the great love stories.

The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. It has one of the best heroines in fiction. Sarah Layton, a young memsahib is aware of the contradictions in Empire. I don’t know of another heroine in literature who thinks as deeply about herself and others. Scott’s unusual intelligence continually amazes me; his is a subtle mind moving on a very high level. I judge a book by how often I can return to it, and I’ve returned to all four books of the Raj Quartet many times, each time learning more about character development and narrative structure. The Audible recording of it is performed by Richard Brown, a marvelous actor who completely understands the subtlety of the Quartet and its characters. You can enjoy weeks in British India.

And I recommend anything by Isaac Bashevis Singer, because of his incredible driving energy. Great plots and characters, no wasted motion, and everything crystal clear. He was a force of nature.

GS: Your novel Jack in the Box (1980) was adapted into a film titled Book of Love (1990). From being too faithful to being not faithful enough, what would you say makes a good film adaption?

WK: The 1941 film of The Maltese Falcon is a very successful adaptation because John Houston saw that the action would carry the story without a lot of the narrative detail and meandering dialogue Dashiell Hammett had put in the book. Houston cut ruthlessly and then cast perfectly. When you have Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorrie in the marvelous mood that black and white cinematography produces, you can’t miss. When John Houston read the book he knew what would play and what was dead.

I met him during the filming of Night of the Iguana in Mexico. He got what he wanted without saying much; he didn’t have to. He had a dream cast, and they understood their parts. Side note: the romance of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was the hottest hardest thing in tabloid journalism and I was young and writing for a tabloid at the time. Burton starred in the film and Liz came along to keep him company. My job was to get a story about their tempestuous love but when Liz came to watch filming, she sat on the sidelines, knitting. Not exactly the stuff of tabloid journalism. Between shots Richard Burton entertained the journalists. His beautiful voice, sense of humor, and quick mind were mesmerizing. Talent like that requires little direction. Second side note: I was riding through the Mexican jungle in the back of a Jeep with Ava Gardner. She turned to me and said, “Kotzwinkle? What the hell kind of name is Kotzwinkle?” A staggering question when asked by one of the most seductive women in the world.

Proving that he was human like the rest of us, John Houston struggled with at least one of his movies. While making The Bible he said, “I don’t know how God managed, but I’m having a terrible time.”

Other good adaptations from a book are The Godfather and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Again, when you have tremendous actors like Brando, Pacino, and Jack Nicholson, the book’s narrative can be cut drastically. With a single glance, these actors can convey pages of emotional description.

Another good adaptation is The Exorcist. The book and the movie will both scare the gentle reader/viewer but through different mechanisms. My childhood friend Jason Miller played Father Karras, a Catholic priest who helps with the exorcism. It was perfect casting. Jason had been an altar boy, was a devout Catholic, and a deep, thoughtful actor. He was Father Karras, intense, brooding, conveying much by saying little. Too much talking would have diluted his character. The screenwriter and director knew that, and it’s one of the most important aspects of filmmaking.

However, in all of this something should be kept in mind, and it was made clear to me in a phone call I had with Spielberg after the book of E.T. became a worldwide bestseller. He said, “The reason it’s so successful is that the public sees it as a separate work of art.”

Therefore, one should go to a movie in the expectation of being entertained by its magic, not the book you have in the back of your mind. Otherwise, you might spend two hours complaining about what was left out, distorted, or destroyed.

E.T. avoided any such disappointment because the book was an enhancement of the film, a deliberate companion piece to be enjoyed by those who wanted more.

GS: Who would you want to direct an adaption of your 1976 novel Doctor Rat? Tim Burton, perhaps? Wes Anderson?

WK: Not to take anything away from Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, but Sylvain Chomet is my first choice. He directed The Triplets of Belleville, and he would be perfect for Doctor Rat. His animation is wonderful and wild, just what the good doctor needs.

GS: From insects to bears, you’re no stranger to writing from the perspective of animals other than human beings. Do you think other writers could benefit from getting outside the head of their species?

WK: Extreme acts of the imagination are usually beneficial. I started with insects. It dawned on me that these little alien beings were flying around, not as abstractions, but as residents of the earth. Buzzing from flower to flower and living on nectar might be an ecstatic existence. We have no way of determining this because we’re sealed in the human form. The most that is open to us is bold speculation. But when a butterfly goes by me in its seemingly erratic flight, darting left and right, I think its view of life might be utterly dazzling, perhaps even magnificent.

In the desert when the shadow of a large bird passes over me, there’s a momentary sense of intersecting with the unknown. I try to construct my books so that the shadow of the unknown will dance through dialogue, and then through entire scenes. I do this for myself, to overcome the obvious. My assumption is that the reader will prefer to be startled by the shadow of the unknown.

GS: You’re also no stranger to the satirical side of fiction. In times that seem stranger and stranger, to say the least, do you think satire is losing its power or is there always a way to take it to the next level, as it were?

WK: We live in a time that satirizes itself so I understand why you ask the question. What is a satirist or comic to do? It’s difficult to satirize a satire. The best bits have already been used. Vigorous comic contortions would be required in order to rise to the level of satire and this might result in an incomprehensible performance.

One of my most popular books, The Bear Went over the Mountain, is considered a satire. However, when I wrote it that was not my intention. A bear steals a writer’s manuscript, looks it over and decides it’s not bad. Once you buy into this, everything the bear does from that point on is funny. He heads for New York to get the manuscript published. He answers every question as a bear would if he had only a small vocabulary. He’s big, he’s gruff, and he doesn’t say much, so he reminds people of Hemingway. He goes on tour, and interviewers find his simple approach refreshing. I’d been on tour so I knew the questions he’d be asked. I just let the bear answer in his own way. Yes, it can be seen as a satire on publishing—if you have a product, a publisher will push it even if you’re a criminal, a greedy politician, or—a bear. But really it’s the bear’s character that makes the book, not my view of the publishing world. I could take him anywhere, introduce him to anyone, and he would play funny just by being a bear.

GS: Felonious Monk is your first new novel since The Amphora Project in 2005. What filled the gap there?

WK: I did a couple of screenplays, worked on a musical comedy with Lieber and Stoller, and wrote three novels which have yet to be published. One of them is ready to go. The other two need work. Time is the great teacher so hopefully all three will see the light of day.

GS: What inspired Felonious Monk? Did it all stem from wordplay with a certain famous jazz musician?

WK: I love the work of Thelonious Monk. He composes with the shadow of the unknown.

As for the novel, the hero goes into a monastery to avoid a felony wrap. So he’s a felonious monk. It was my agent, Richard Curtis, who came up with the title. When he said “Felonious Monk,” I laughed out loud.

As for what inspired me to write the book, I’ve always been interested in religious cult leaders. I’ve met a few of them and looked into their dark hearts.

GS: In a 1996 interview with Ron Hogan, you ask the following rhetorical question, “How do you write to reach the most people? What’s the simple message that will liberate them from their misery, enlighten them in some way?” Could you attempt to answer these questions now?

WK: First, a great idea is necessary. How about a magic school for kids? With a likable hero kids can identify with. And kids lined up outside bookstores for hours to buy the book. I’ve been on tour in bookstores where it was just me and the cheese and crackers for an hour.

Secondly, you have to hit the zeitgeist just right. The zeitgeist right now is in a grotesque phase, so maybe some truly grotesque dystopian novel will wake up the sleeping reader.

Final ingredient: After a great idea that matches the zeitgeist, lightning has to strike. And that’s the thing no one can predict. Did the Muses in charge of the lightning look down at a single mother on welfare in England, writing about a kid wizard, and say, “There she is, send down the lightning.” By her own admission, J. K. Rowling was under treatment for depression at the time and had no idea her book would sell. Now she’s the most profitable writer in the world.

Many years ago, when writers had to buy typewriter ribbons, my wife and I used to shop at a small Canadian stationery store. It was owned by Paul Burden, a Canadian fighter pilot who’d flown combat missions in World War II. When he came back from England he brought a bull mastiff with him, and replaced him with a series of bull mastiffs, all named Walter. We used to visit with Paul in his office. Walter the bull mastiff sat under the desk farting. And one day Paul said, “Walter, you could have been our secret weapon in the war.”

Twenty years later my wife and I were reminiscing about that stationery store. And suddenly we said, “Walter the Farting Dog, it’s a children’s book.” But none of the New York publishers thought so. “Yes,” they said, “it’s funny but there’s no market for a book like this.” Then one night around a campfire in Maine I met the owner of a small West Coast publishing house. I told him Walter’s story and without hesitating, he said, “Let’s do it.” And it sold two million copies. Three major movie studios have optioned it.

GS: What about your second rhetorical question from that interview with Hogan: “What’s the simple message that will liberate people from their misery, enlighten them in some way?”

WK: It’s from a play by Noel Coward. “Grab every scrap of happiness while you can.”

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Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, William Kotzwinkle has sold over ten million books. Two-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Fiction, he came to prominence with his cult classic The Fan Man. His novel Doctor Rat won the World Fantasy Award, and his children’s series Walter the Farting Dog sold two million copies. Movie credits include Book of Love and Nightmare On Elm Street 4. He also wrote the narration for Michael Jackson’s E.T. record, which won a special children’s Grammy. His books have been praised by such diverse luminaries as T. C. Boyle, Ian McEwan, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Joanna Lumley, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ram Dass. He divides his time between rural Arizona and the coast of Maine. Learn more at

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at

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