We met “Wonder” author R.J. Palacio before a recent speaking engagement in Manhattan.
If you could pick your favorite character in “Wonder,” who would it be and why?
That is a really tough question. It is almost like asking your mom who is your favorite child. Auggie is my favorite character, but I love Via. I would love to hang out with Via. I think she would be really cool and spend time with her. She is really nice. I really like Justin. If I was 15, I would totally have a crush on Justin. Jack is cool, and Summer — oh!
If you had one job that you would be terrible at, what would it be?
I am a terrible dancer. So don’t get me on “Dancing With the Stars,” or ballroom dancing or anything like that. I am so bad.
How long did it take you to write “Wonder”?
It took me about a year and a half to write the first draft, and then it took me another six months to whip it into shape, and then after you write the manuscript you give it to an editor — sort of like giving your homework to a teacher. And then the editor marks up the manuscript. Circles all the things you got wrong, and then you have to take the manuscript and then incorporate all the editor’s suggestions and edits. That took like another year.
Is it ever frustrating with the editing?
It can get really frustrating. There are times when you really don’t agree with the words the editor wants to change. You have to take your ego out and think if this is the right thing to do. You have to kind of feel why she is suggesting it. Nine out of 10 times, my editor was right. It is frustrating at times, too, when you think: Why didn’t I think of that? It is actually great working with a great editor.
When you wrote this book, did you write it thinking about other kids who are different?
I did. I wrote it with the idea of trying to inspire kids to just be nice to one another, be kind to one another. One of the best ways to inspire kids is to tell stories. If you tell stories about a really cool kid that you can relate to, and then you hear about kids being mean to that kid, then you feel what it is like to walk in his shoes. And you think, that is not right. I think the best way to write is to want to build empathy for your characters. You want the readers to feel the things they are feeling.
Why did you decide to write the book from different characters’ perspectives?
At first, I was just going to write from Auggie’s perspective. I was at the Halloween part. At that point, I was getting really curious about Via. I thought, She is a really cool girl. She has a lot to say. And it was then I thought I should tell Auggie’s story from outside of his head. I don’t have to stay in his head; let’s hear from Via and some of the other characters, and they can all inform the reader about Auggie’s journey. I liked that in the movie, every time they would go from one view to another, a door closes. Remember the locker door closing, and with Miranda it was the elevator closing? That wasn’t my idea, it was the director’s idea, and I thought it was really great.
Do you ever wish that your book wasn’t so successful, so you wouldn’t have to talk about it all the time?
That is a great question, and no one has ever asked me that! I am so grateful that the book is as successful as it has been. Having said that, I get asked — and this is why this interview is so great, you are asking me questions other people don’t usually ask — what do you think is the No. 1 question I get asked? Yes, what inspired me to write it. I have told that story 150 times, maybe more. That is the only story that I think: Do I really have to tell that story again?
When you wrote “Wonder,” did you plan on writing “Auggie and Me”?
No. When I first wrote “Wonder,” I thought I would have a chapter from Julian’s point of view. At first, I was writing the book with Julian’s point of view, because I knew why Julian was being such a jerk. So I put it in “Wonder,” but it didn’t really fit in “Wonder.” Ultimately, “Wonder” is Auggie’s story, and Julian didn’t really have anything to contribute to Auggie’s story. I really wanted to be able to explore Julian. I knew I was going to write the Julian chapter at some point, which is the first story in “Auggie and Me.” Originally I had a chapter in “Wonder” from Charlotte’s point of view. The graduation scene? That was originally from Charlotte’s point of view. My editor thought there were one too many voices in the book and she thought I should take Charlotte out. I think she was right to do that. It should start with Auggie and end with Auggie. I really wanted to explore the events in Auggie’s life before “Wonder” started, when he was a little, little kid, so I thought using Christopher, who was his first friend, was a really great way to introduce readers to how Auggie was when he was very little. I kind of knew that I would be writing a sequel of some sort.
Do you think there will be a movie “Auggie and Me”?
That, I don’t know. I think the movie people would really like that. So, I am not going to say no, but we haven’t discussed what it would be. I thing what they would love is for me to write another book. I think they are waiting to see what I am going to do.
What are you working on?
Julian’s grandmother tells him the story of when she was a little girl — I am turning that into a graphic novel. It is going to take place in the 1940s. We are going to meet her when she was 12 years old, being in the woods and the barn and all that. I am taking that little snippet and making it into a whole big story. My husband, Russell, is helping me with it, and we are co-authoring, and he is an artist. We are working on it together, and it should be a lot of fun.
Were you in the movie “Wonder”?
I was. Briefly. He was too [her husband]. He was sitting right next to me. In the graduation scene, we were right behind Julia Roberts and he was right behind Owen Wilson. And right behind Via and Miranda were my sons — Caleb and Joseph.
What was more difficult for you: turning in your novel to your publisher or being in the movie scene?
Without a doubt, being in the movie!
Are you proud of yourself making people cry?
Yes, I guess! I made myself cry. There were times when I was writing my book and there would be tears in my eyes. It is kind of fun to be able to write something that makes people cry. I didn’t do it on purpose, but it is kind of nice when people are showing emotion, when people are afraid of letting their feelings take charge.
How does it feel to have so many people inspired by your book?
A really amazing feeling. I always dreamed of becoming a writer when I grew up. And now you can really see, your dreams come true. I like writing for kids your age because you are much more open to being moved by books. You are so much more receptive to feeling things for other people.
Did you think you had to put Daisy dying in the book?
Yes, I know it was sad but really necessary. What is really funny, I get so many complaints from people saying, why did the dog have to die? And nobody has said, why did the grandmother have to die? Here is why I thought Daisy had to die. Throughout the first part of “Wonder,” Auggie is always talking about wanting to be like an ordinary kid. Having a dog, or a cat or a pet die is something, unfortunately, that a lot of kids have experienced. And I thought it was important that Auggie experience something that a lot of children experience and he could kind of share those experiences with kids. Via is right: Auggie is kind of spoiled. Like the world does revolve around him, and when Daisy dies, he sees his mom and dad upset and crying and it has nothing to do with him. He sees his mom comforting his sister, and she has almost forgotten about him, and he is not the focal point. It is the first time he goes to bed by himself, and for him it is a real growing-up moment. You notice in the book that he changes a little. Auggie becomes a little more mature.
Have you ever been bullied?
No. I have been lucky that way. We have to be careful what we call bullying. I call it real bullying when people who have power use that power against someone who doesn’t have power. I think that is different from what many people have experienced, which is unkindness. I had a group of friends who stopped being my friends, and I didn’t know why. That is not really bullying — that is kids choosing not to be kind. Luckily I can say I have never been bullied.
Meredith Marin’s fourth-grade class, Birch Lane Elementary School, Massapequa Park