Daniel Pinkwater has written a hundred books, give or take. The man who coined the monikers Clarence Yojimbo, Lance Hergeschleimer, and Flipping Hades Terwilliger seems undecided about his own name, sometimes billing himself as D. Manus Pinkwater. Here is a tasting of bios from some of his book jackets:
“D. Manus Pinkwater was born in Tennessee. He went to school, traveled all over the world, and wound up in Hoboken, New Jersey.”—Lizard Music, 1976
“Daniel Pinkwater was completely unknown until the early 1940s. Then he was born. Even then he continued to be known to a very few. In recent years, however, he has become so well-known that to add further facts would be to gild the lily. Suffice it to say that he is never mistaken for anyone else.”—The Snarkout Boys & the Baconburg Horror, 1984
“Daniel Pinkwater is crazy about writing, and has been trying to learn how to do it for 50 years. He thinks The Neddiad is his best book so far—but he always says that.”—The Neddiad, 2007
All of the above may be true. Or not. Facts tend to soften and morph in the wildly imaginative atmosphere of Pinkwater’s universe.
Daniel and Jill Pinkwater live in a 19th-century farmhouse in Hyde Park, hidden from the road by rambling hedges. Jill—redheaded, salty, and vigorous—opens the door of a black-and-white-tiled kitchen. A calico cat blinks on a rug in one corner, next to a wall lined with cookbooks and onions. There’s a wooden Dutch door at the foot of the stairs, against which two dogs hurl themselves, barking and yodeling.
Daniel Pinkwater’s voice—instantly recognizable to NPR listeners—resonates down the stairwell as he appears, a Hitchcockian silhouette dressed in top-to-toe black with a dusting of pet hair. He lets the dogs free.
Lulu, an elegant Inuit sled dog, bays and sings, wagging her tail. The gruffer bark comes from an aging retriever, Maxine. Jill herds them outside as Daniel strolls to the kitchen table, plants himself in a chair, and cheerfully tells the photographer, “I’m not doing a thing you say, so just snap away.” He takes out a pipe he will light and relight during infrequent gaps in his hour-long discourse.
He’s a great raconteur, shaping stories with consummate timing. When he lands a punchline, he opens his eyes very wide and leans forward, flashing a snaggle-toothed grin. “I give a good interview, don’t I?,” he says at one point.
Pinkwater’s kitchen table is piled high with children’s books, some of the approximately 3,000 he receives yearly from publishers vying for one of his monthly review slots on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Jill, also an author and illustrator, culls most of these as library donations, leaving the rest for her husband’s discerning eye. “Fifty percent are a waste of trees,” he asserts, “Which is to say fifty percent of them aren’t.”
Besides books well-adapted to radio, Pinkwater looks for narrative skill. “Many picture books are a showcase for beautiful drawings, but they’re not kid-friendly. There’s no door for a kid to go through.”
The doors into Pinkwater’s own books are many and varied, and kids hurtle through them with glee, romping from picture books like The Big Orange Splot to more complex stories like The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Borgel.
He’s also written a handful of books for adults: the 1995 novel The Afterlife Diet, which paints the great beyond as a tacky Catskills resort for dead fat people; the dog-training guide Superpuppy, co-authored with Jill and in print for two decades; and several volumes of essays, including Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories. “Memoir” may be the wrong word for a book that features a sled dog who speaks fluent Yiddish, but it spins many tales from Pinkwater’s childhood, including a trip on the Super Chief train from Chicago to Los Angeles with his parents, his mortified half-sister, several cages of parakeets, and a Zenith portable radio.
The Wentworthstein family in The Neddiad makes the same voyage, right down to the parakeets. But where the fictional Neddie’s father is a benevolent shoelace mogul, Uncle Boris’s kinsmen were “Jewish thugs.” Pinkwater writes, “I have a photograph of my father and his brothers in those days. They are manicured and pomaded, holding whangee canes and kidskin gloves, wearing flash neckties, and staring into the camera with the expression of cape buffalo contemplating a tourist.”
Pinkwater told an interviewer for the online magazine Fat?So! (www.fatso.com) that he was raised by his elder half-brother and half-sister, who’d “acquired human values” at an orphanage where their ex-chorus girl mother had parked them for a few years because it was convenient. “My actual biological parents were straight out of the Pleistocene.”
The family surname was minted on Ellis Island, probably an amalgam of Pinchus and Wasser. Philip Pinkwater was a rag man by trade, with a thick Yiddish accent. “My father took me to his office when I was little,” Pinkwater recalls. “I’d sit at his desk and play with the things in his desk drawer. He had two blackjacks. I asked why there were two. ‘Deh black vun is vit deh gray suit, deh brown vun vit deh blue suit.’”
Born in Memphis, Daniel grew up in Chicago, with several sojourns in Hollywood, where he attended a military school filled with children of movie stars and studio executives. His best friend was Sean Flynn, son of Errol; another classmate’s father worked for the Clyde Beatty circus, and invited him to dinner with the Faceless Man and the Fat Lady.
All this found its way into The Neddiad, perhaps the most widely accessible novel on Earth. Pinkwater made a groundbreaking decision to serialize it online, one chapter each week, starting nearly a year before publication. Unhappy with the marketing of his last two books, Looking for Bobowicz and The Artsy-Smartsy Club, he took matters into his own hands with The Neddiad. “I didn’t want to wait two years to have nobody read it. I wanted to have nobody read it now.”
Pinkwater was the first prominent author to serialize free of charge. (Some, including Stephen King, have released chapters on a pay-per-download basis, and aspiring authors may serialize to build buzz, but this was the first time a book already in the publication pipeline was previewed this way.) It seems an especially appropriate strategy for a novel that celebrates the golden age of movie serials and radio drama.
Long before Pinkwater started airing commentaries on “All Things Considered” (in 1987) and hosting “Chinwag Theatre” (1998-2002), he had a yen for broadcasting. At 17, he and some friends talked a Chicago TV station into letting them produce a variety show, “The Magic Toyshop with Uncle Otto.” “I was Uncle Otto, of course—the advantage to being Orson Welles is you get to give yourself the lead.”
Pinkwater attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, where he spent most of his time acting, smoking, and joking. One day, his father appeared in his dorm room. Channeling his dad, Pinkwater’s voice turns to gravel: “So I looked around, deh kids here is crazy. I talked to deh dean, I said, ‘Gimme two veeks, I’ll get dis place in shape for you.’” (The shell-shocked dean apparently reported, “He would’ve, too.”) Threatened with expulsion unless he stuck to something, Pinkwater majored in art.
After three years apprenticing with a Chicago sculptor, he decided to crash New York’s art world. His mentor’s parting words? “You’re not going to be a sculptor, you know.” Even worse, he told Pinkwater what he would be: a writer.
“Since I’m nine, everyone’s telling me I’ll be a writer,” he complains. “I didn’t want to be a writer. It’s a sissy occupation. I wanted to do things where you attack big stones.”
Artistic success eluded him. He taught art at a school for troubled teens and traveled to Tanzania. Back in New York, he met an editor at a party who needed artwork for a book of African folktales for children. She also needed a writer; Pinkwater wore both hats. Even after this first publication, “I didn’t think I was a writer. I thought I was a beatnik working a scam.”
In 1969, he married a fellow artist and teacher, Jill Schutz. They moved to Hoboken, where they lived for 12 years, eventually buying a loft building with an indescribably filthy restaurant downstairs. After its demise, the Pinkwaters, who’d joined the obedience-training circuit with an incorrigible Malamute, used the space for a dog-training program.
After years of dealing with canine and human eccentrics, they wrote Superpuppy: How to Choose, Raise and Train the Best Possible Dog For You. Its success paved the move to Hyde Park, where the animal population swelled to include an Icelandic horse and 11 cats. They’re currently planning a cat book—”There isn’t as much to know, but we know it”–and often collaborate as author and illustrator. “I basically do my thing and then hand it over to Jill,” says Daniel. “I get to make suggestions and she gets to top them.”
Of his writing process, he claims, “I don’t know what I’m doing. My books are all flawed. I don’t outline, I don’t rewrite, and I don’t allow editing. I hand it in, it goes to the copy editor, and God have mercy on all our souls.” He finds picture books hardest, noting that while novels permit digression, “A picture book is just like a poem. Every syllable has to make sense or the whole thing collapses.” He creates stories for children by writing “something that would have delighted me at that age.”
Asked about his books’ tendency to levitate into fantasy realms, he says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just see myself as a reporter of the everyday,” adding that a friend once called him “a weird magnet.”
“A unique magnet,” Jill corrects. Daniel Pinkwater shrugs, unimpressed. “Everyone has the same life, they just don’t notice it.”