Exclusive Interview with the Newbery Medal–Winning Author of Loser
by Traci Swain
Loser. Stargirl. Wringer. Maniac Magee. What do these books have in common?
Besides being written by the incredible Newbery Medal–winning author Jerry Spinelli, they all also focus on a character who is in some way an unlikely hero. And that’s just one reason why Jerry loved writing Loser and discovering how Donald Zinkoff—the titular “loser”—becomes a hero in his own right.
Read this Scholastic Book Clubs–exclusive interview with Jerry to find out what inspired him to write Loser, his journey as an author, his inspiration for the character Zinkoff, and more!
You describe the first 15 years of your life as your “big research project.” Can you tell us about your years of “gathering material” growing up in Norristown, Pennsylvania?
I was “gathering material” simply by leading the full life of a kid in Norristown—aided greatly by my Roadmaster bike, which I rode everywhere.
I certainly didn’t know I was gathering material, but I just as surely noticed things, one of them being that Norristown, which at the time was said to be the largest independent borough in the world (population 38,000), seemed to have just about everything big cities had: two shopping centers; termini for two railroad lines (Reading and Pennsylvania); four movie theaters; three hospitals (four if you count the state mental health hospital, whose buildings and farmlands occupied a quarter of the town’s area); a brewery; a cigar factory; a sprawling park; a zoo; and a creek. Who needed Philadelphia!
I absorbed all this and more with no notion that I was storing memories I would someday draw on as a writer. Because during most of those first 15 years, I did virtually no writing and reading outside of the classroom. My dream was to become a big league baseball player.
What was the inspiration behind Loser?
Loser became the fictional expression of a talk I had long been giving to audiences at schools and conferences and other public events. It focused on the value of losing: the idea that the extent to which we finally achieve our goals and dreams has more to do with our failures than our successes.
As I put it metaphorically (something I often literally did at Stony Creek*), “It is on the stepping-stones of our failures that we eventually cross the creek.”
The title of course is ironic. Zinkoff is identified as a “loser” by his schoolmates, who are seduced by society’s obsession for being number one, when in fact, in the game of life, he’s quite the opposite—a winner.
Why did you decide to write in present tense?
I’ve been beguiled by the present tense ever since I read John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in college. I suppose it had been done before, but it was new to me and devilishly clever. Since then, it’s become one of my first questions as I begin a new story: Is this a good fit for present tense?
As you were writing the character Zinkoff, did he teach you anything or begin to write himself? Did he take on a new direction than you had originally planned?
A hard question for me to answer. I wrote it over 20 years ago. So memory is fading. Also, it’s been my habit to determine the start and finish of a story and then day-to-day build the bridge between the two. So there’s no outline, only a stack of random notes. And it doesn’t help that I’ve never actually sat down and read Loser (at least not since reviewing the galleys).
That said, I loved Zinkoff from the start. I love his heart, his attitude. I love that he gives away his only trophy. I don’t think I’ve ever loved any of my characters more. I myself was a winner: spelling, grades, sports, etc. What a treat to celebrate—and yes, to some extent discover—all those “losers” who trailed me to the finish line.
You wrote Loser right after you wrote another really well-known book of yours, Stargirl. Do you feel like your books influence each other?
No doubt I do, but not for the most part intentionally. Occasionally I’ll note that something I’m writing is similar to something I did five books ago. If something in me keeps showing up on the page, I must not be finished with it.
You’ve been writing for a long time. What is the most important thing you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Wow, why don’t you ask me a hard question? Rather than take hours or days digging for the perfect answer, why don’t I just make it the first thing that comes to mind. Which is: the faster I wrote, the better I got. I’ve learned that precious perfectionism has no place in art.
It breeds self-consciousness, and to an artist, self-consciousness is poison. I remember once laboring for three months over one metaphor—while writing one of my first four novels, none of which was published. When I sent an agent the first chapters of my fifth book, her agreement to sign me on incited me to rip off Space Station Seventh Grade in a few months.
*Jerry is referring to the time he spent as a youth at Stony Creek: “When I was a kid I spent hours exploring Stony Creek in my hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania.…It was a shallow creek with lots of rocks. One of my favorite things was to cross the creek on the stones, stepping from one to the next. The stones were often slippery and not always accommodating to a kid’s Keds. Still, I always made it to the other side–but never, not once, without getting my ankles wet.” (https://gettysburgian.com/2019/05/full-text-keynote-commencement-address-by-jerry-spinelli-63)
Jerry Spinelli received the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honor for Wringer. His other books include Smiles to Go, Loser, Space Station Seventh Grade, Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush?, Dump Days, and Stargirl. His novels are recognized for their humor and poignancy, and his characters and situations are often drawn from his real-life experience as a father of six children. Jerry lives with his wife, Eileen, also a writer, in Wayne, Pennsylvania.