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Kidsday interviews writers of the ‘Hank’ books

Authors Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver with Kidsday

Authors Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver with Kidsday reporters Hayden Rylott, left, Luca Martinez, Angelina Corbett-Rice and Madigan Teodoru, at Book Revue in Huntington. Credit: Newsday / Pat Mullooly

We met authors Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver when they were at Rook Revue in Huntington recently. Their latest book, “Here’s Hank: You Can’t Drink a Meatball Through a Straw,” is really a good book.

Was it hard to make Hank younger in the new series when he’s in second grade?

Henry: I’m going to say that was Lin’s idea. We had done 17 Hank Zipzer’s “The World’s Greatest Underachiever.” There are 17 of them. They are wonderful, they are funny books. Lin said one day, “Why don’t we write him before he finds out that he has dyslexia?”

Lin: We thought why not address that at the youngest age so that kids could understand that there are adults who understand them and that it doesn’t mean that they’re bad or stupid or incompetent. It just means that we’re all a little bit different and school has to kind of adjust to how we’re all different. Not everybody has to learn the same way.

What made you want to write a book together?

Henry: I was told when there was a lull in my acting career, meaning that it wasn’t going that great, somebody said, “Why don’t you write books for kids about your learning challenges?” I said, “Because I have a learning challenge, I feel that I am stupid. I could never write a book.” Two months later, same guy said, “I’m telling you, write a book. I’m going to introduce you to my good friend, Lin Oliver, who knows all about writing, not only for television but for books.” I had lunch with Lin. We had the worst fish, but the meeting was great.

Lin: So when I had lunch with Henry he told me about how it was for him growing up, that he never did well in school and he came to believe that he was really not smart. But when he was a grownup he found out that, in fact, what he had was a learning challenge that made it hard for him to read. I was very moved by that story, because if you grow up thinking that you’re not a great person, that affects you the rest of your life. I wanted to write with him and I wanted to write about that story for all the kids out there who feel like they’re not quite as good as somebody else, whether it’s about a learning challenge or the way you look or you have braces or you’re too tall, too short or too plump or too thin. Everybody has some challenge, right? So I thought that we together had a lot to say to kids who were facing challenges.

Henry: We’ve written 34 books together. It’s amazing.

What was your favorite memories of acting?

Henry: Acting like my children, I have three children. I have two boys and a girl and I can’t tell you who is my favorite because I would have to lie. But like my children, I love every job. It’s what I dreamt about. Lin dreamt about being a writer and became a writer. I dreamt about being an actor and worked toward that goal. I love every job I do.

After directing and writing, what’s your favorite and why?

Henry: I love acting, directing is second but my proudest moment outside of my children, my family, my grandchildren, our dogs, the books.

Lin: Wait a minute. You’re more proud of your dogs than the books?

Henry: No, outside of my family. Yes I am. My dogs speak. My most wonderful accomplishment are these books. I can’t believe when I first looked down 10 years ago and I saw our names on the book and it said Henry Winkler on a book. I picked it up, I smelled it, I rubbed it all over my body. I couldn’t believe that my name was on a book. I have pictures of my dogs. Linus is a little Labrador. We found him and then he grew into a Great Dane and he sleeps with us, and he sleeps on you like a safety belt. He’s 120 lbs.

Do you guys ever argue about the books?

Lin: First of all, we argue about what’s more important, Henry’s dogs or our books.

Henry: A good partnership is a healthy give-and-take. Here’s how it goes. Here’s what we argue about. I walk around Lin’s office and Lin sits at her computer. Thank goodness she knows how to do that. Then I sit in a rocking chair on the other side of Lin’s desk and we have been talking about her getting me a new cushion for months because it hurts my tush.

Lin: One of the things we argue about most is, Henry wants to keep every word. He thinks every word that comes out of the first draft is golden. And I am trained to rewrite. I’m sure you all do writing in school. So I believe that the best part of writing is in the rewriting. He hates to rewrite.

Henry: Only because what I write doesn’t need to be rewritten.

Lin: According to him. And argue is a tough word. We collaborate, we debate, we challenge each other’s ideas and then we assimilate.

Henry: And out of that came the 34 novels that we’ve written together. I could not have written these books. I could not have done this without Lin, and that’s not a compliment. The partnership is monumental in the creation.

Where do you come up with your ideas for your books?

Lin: Originally, when we first started writing them, our ideas came more from real life then made-up. Henry would say, when I was growing up I had to be in a spelling bee and I panicked and I couldn’t participate. There’s one of the Hank books that’s about a field trip on a boat that’s in the harbor and Hank doesn’t know how to tie the boat down, so he fakes it, and the boat sails out to the sea when it’s supposed to be in the harbor. That came from a real experience that both of our kids had growing up. One of the “Here’s Hank” books is about getting a dog for the first time, going to rescue a dog. And that came from a real experience. So I would say half of the books come from real things that happened and then the other half from ideas that we have that are just made-up. The new book, “You Can’t Drink a Meatball through a Straw” is about Hank participating in a kids cooking show. And it came because we both like to watch the Kids “MasterChef” shows and we thought, wouldn’t that be fun to have Hank in one of those contests. The ideas come from real life, and then we make them bigger than real life.

Do you keep in touch with any of your cast members?

Henry: I do. Do you mean from “Happy Days”? Well, Adam Sandler, I saw Adam Sandler on the street because I did a lot of his movies. Halloween, we saw each other on the street. We were trying to get candy. I spoke to Ron Howard, who played Richie on “Happy Days.” We had dinner. Marion Ross called me just before she went to Kansas to do a play. Don Most, who played Ralph, and Anson Williams, who played Potsie, I talk to all the time. So, yes we do.

Did you meet Henry before the “Happy Days” series?

Lin: I did not. Henry grew up in New York and I grew up in California. And then he came out to Hollywood and got the “Happy Days” series very soon thereafter. The first time Henry and I met, we met because we were each parents of young children and our kids went to school together. So I met him very briefly then. But we didn’t really work together until we started on these books.

How long does it take to write one of your Hank books?

Henry: From soup to nuts? 3 1⁄2 months.

Lin: Yeah about that. Once we get going on a story, we write every day, and we write usually just a few hours in the morning. Because after that, writing is hard on your brain, and after that you start to kind of lose focus.

What was your happiest day?

Henry: My happiest day, oh my goodness, that’s a hard question. I’m going to go with my happiest day[s] were at the birth of each child. So, my happiest day were three days combined. Then when I got “Happy Days” was a very happy day. When our first book came out was a really happy day. Sitting here with you right now, happy, happy day.

Lin: Yeah, I regret everything every day. All day long. As soon as a decision is made, as soon as I order lunch, I should have ordered something else. My husband says I ruin every vacation because as soon as we get someplace I say to him, we should have really gone to the other hotel, not this one. It’s a difference of personality. Henry is constantly, and I spend a lot of time with him, constantly happy and in a good mood.

What’s your favorite Hank book?

Henry: My favorite is always the latest book. Each time we finish a book, I turn to Lin and I go, “I did it, we did it. There’s another book that exists. I can’t believe it.” We start with the blank screen and then slowly but surely, and every day, and there’s some more, and all of a sudden there are 30,000 words locked in Lin’s computer. Amazing.

It’s based on you?

Henry: It’s based on me. Then it’s based on children that we know, but it started because I am learning- challenged because I was bad in math, I can’t spell to this day, reading is hard, history was hard. I was great at going home.

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