About Glenn Murray
An Interview with Glenn Murray
More About Glenn Murray
Glenn Murray is a supervisor for educational technology in Canada where he has also written radio dramas and articles on Canadian history.
You've been a writer and educator for many years. Could you tell me what you taught and to which age groups?
The interesting thing about my educational experience is that I’ve never been a classroom teacher for more than about three months at a time. Back in the late seventies when the first microcomputers came along, as a writer I could already see the value of word processors, so I found out a little about them, and I was running around telling everybody how wonderful computers were. The Ministry of Education in New Brunswick was looking for someone to explain computers to teachers, so they hired me on a six-month contract. Twenty-odd years later, I was still doing it across Canada, so most of my life in education has been about teaching teachers.
I’ve always been interested in what you can do with technology and how you can use it to reach audiences. We had schools on little islands, for example, where there were only thirteen kids. To motivate them to write (when everybody in the room is their cousin), what I did was put fax machines in all these remote schools, and they wrote their stuff and faxed it to other remote schools, and then they got feedback from each other. And that really got them excited about writing. So I was always interested in using technology to motivate writing and reach wider audiences.
What made you want to write children’s books?
I have two sons of my own, and when the first Walter book was written, they were five and about seven and a half. When they were very little, I was like the mom in the house, because their mother was a teacher, and she was at work every day. I was a writer, so I was at home. We were very caught up in a lot of reading and verbal activities. And then when I got involved with the school system, I always had a box of kids’ books in the trunk: Dr. Seuss, Robert Munsch, Shel Silverstein. I would take a moment to read to the little people, because it’s a lot more fun that going back to the office and going to meetings, and also because I thought it was important that they see men reading and enjoying it.
What really happened as far as Walter goes was totally accidental. Everything about Walter has been serendipitous. My co-author Bill Kotzwinkle (better known to most people as the guy who wrote E.T.) and I were working on a screenplay in the winter of 1991. It was loosely based on the Oak Island treasure pit. We were working at his place in Maine. One night over dinner, he told this story of when he used to live in New Brunswick. He went into an office supply store to get some paper for his typewriter one day. He said there was a dog walking up and down in the aisle there, and the dog cut one. When he did, the entire store emptied. It was that bad! I said, “Really?!” and he said, “You wouldn’t believe it!” His wife asked, “What was that dog’s name, Billy?” and he said, “Walter.” As soon as he said it, to me it was blazing across the skies. I said, “Walter the Farting Dog! What a great title for a kids’ book!” And we laughed. You’ve probably had things like this happen over dinner too.
But about two weeks later when we finished the screenplay, we suddenly realized that it was going nowhere. We had this militaristic subplot, jokes about gas masks and all this stuff. And the day we finished it, the first Gulf War broke out. Everything military was about as unfunny as it could possibly be. We were sitting there feeling sorry for ourselves, and I said, “Let’s go upstairs and write that farting dog story.” So this was our way of sort of compensating ourselves, making the best of a bad situation. We wrote about a dog who has to make the best of a bad situation all the time. And it took ten years to find a publisher, and even that was an accident. One night Bill was invited to dinner, and the host knew about Walter. He’s a friend of both of ours. After dinner he said to Bill, “Why don’t you read us all that story?” Bill got out the Walter manuscript, and everybody fell on the floor laughing. One guy there happened to be a publisher from a small publishing house in California. He said, “Well, we’re going to publish this!” They did, and it took off on its own. They never spent a cent publicizing it.
You’ve said several times before that the Walter series helps little boys to take up reading. What about little girls, and how have they generally reacted to the books?
I don’t think there’s a difference there. I’ve met as many little girl fans of Walter as boys. I had an interesting episode in Virginia when I was doing an event at lunchtime. A father and daughter showed up, and the father told me that he got his daughter from school for this event. The mother didn’t know they were there and would not be happy to have known about it! She didn’t realize they owned any Walter books because they hid them under the little girl’s mattress, like Playboy magazines. [laughs] And when it was Dad’s turn to read, they’d close the door, and they’d read Walter.
Some research done in the last couple of years about young guys and reading found a few things—little boys really do judge a book by its cover. It has to call to them from the beginning. One other thing we know about little guys is that they’re very gregarious in their early reading activity. They want to go, “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, check this out!” to their buddy while they’re doing it, and Walter deliberately caters to that. That’s why I’d say it’s got a special angle towards little guys, but really it’s aimed at any reluctant reader. And they don’t have to be little—there are older readers in middle school and even high school. I’ve met high school kids who can’t read. Think of the creativity it takes to get through high school and fool everybody—that’s a lot of energy! But older kids who are struggling readers would not want to be seen carrying books they are capable of reading ... except for Walter. Walter’s cool; it’s okay.
Apart from the obvious humour, what else might kids get out of this book?
Walter is funny with the flatulence stuff, but kids know in their own way that Walter is really about acceptance, patience, and tolerance. This is clear right from the dedication page, which to me is the most important page in the Walter books: “For everyone who’s ever felt misjudged or misunderstood, like poor Walter.” Everyone’s felt that way. The kids get it, and they’ve all got their own little problems, so they can relate to it.
Why do the Walter books require three authors? How are writing duties split between you, William, and Elizabeth?
There's no splitting. It's just that we're friends, and we've been friends for thirty-five years. They are "Betty" and "Billy." When Bill and I get together, it's like two halves of the same twisted brain, and Elizabeth grabs us by the ankles and pulls us down off the ceiling. That's basically what goes on. When we work together, we're physically together. I'm at the keyboard, because they're both troubled by carpal tunnel problems, so they usually use voice-activated software. I just put a big font on the word processor and we all sit there, staring at the ceiling, and we're all dreaming the same dream. It's like watching a movie. [mimicking voices:] "He does this!" "No, no, no, he wouldn't do that!" It goes back and forth like that a lot. Elizabeth tends to be the voice of reason, but lately that's changed a little bit. Bill and Elizabeth have no contact with kids on a day-to-day basis, so there are a few things they don't realize about kids. For example, Elizabeth was saying, "We can't use that word because kids won't know that word." And I said, "No, no, this is their chance to learn that word. You've got to have a few words like that."
For instance, William Steig, author of Shrek, will use any word at all, some of them quite elegant and Victorian, almost. If you don’t know it, figure it out. And you have to do that to expand vocabulary. This is one of the issues I’m most concerned about because we know now that the typical fifteen-year-old in 1946 had an average working vocabulary of 25,000 words, and the typical fifteen-year-old today has an average working vocabulary of only 10,000 words. They’re “cool” words but they’re all the same words. They got them from The Simpsons and MuchMusic. But that’s a problem because words are all we have to “get” the world. I don’t mean comprehend it, I mean just apprehend it. You know how when you learn a new word, suddenly you see it in five places the next week? What did you think, it wasn’t there before? I’m shocked by this loss, and I don’t want to see it continue.
New Line Cinema will be producing a live action film of Walter the Farting Dog. Could you tell me a bit about that? Does the story follow the books?
They bought the rights to the first three books, and no, the story is not going to follow the books except thematically and character-wise. I remember the day we wrote the first draft of the first Walter book. There’s a page in that book that says, “Walter got the blame for everybody else’s farts. If Uncle Irv let one slip, all he had to do was stand next to Walter, and he’d say ‘Wal-ter!’ and everybody would look at poor Walter.” I remember rolling on the floor and laughing. I said, “Some day there’ll be a movie, and Marlon Brando will play Uncle Irv, and he’ll want six million dollars just to say that one word!” I don’t know who will play Uncle Irv in the movie, but that’s the main part—he’s not a one-word character anymore. He’s become the kids’ babysitter, sort of like Uncle Buck in the John Candy movies. So they have all these hijinks with Walter. I’ve seen the treatment—at the moment they have a team of comedy writers punching up the humour. Then it will be ready to go into production. The last thing we heard was that they were signing Jack Nicholson to be the internal voice of Walter, which I hope goes through. I heard he’s a Walter fan.
If you were to play a character in the movie, who would you be?
No, no, I wouldn’t—I would just be some guy who wanders onto the set and wanders off, with a blank look on my face. [laughs] Like Spielberg, he’s been in a bunch of movies. It’ll be something like that, some small thing.
I hear that you’re Walter’s unofficial spokesperson. How does Walter feel about being so famous based on his gas problem?
Walter is a dog. George Carlin once said, “Do you ever wander into a room and forget why you went there in the first place? Dogs live like that all the time!” Walter is only interested in what’s for lunch. Is there a nice place where I can curl up? Is there somebody’s hand that I can lick? It’s just total dog stuff. He loves people, and he loves being around them. I try to represent him authentically in that way if I can, and I don’t have to feel nervous. It’s not about me; it’s about Walter. The world needed a farting dog, and we gave it to them.
There is a little spider that appears in almost every illustration. Is that a friend of Walter’s?
That’s the second most common question I get! Audrey, our illustrator, doesn’t have kids of her own, but somebody told her that kids like looking for things in pictures, so she put spiders in, except for one page that she forgot. It’s just a little, whimsical thing. Actually, she made a huge effort with it in the first book, but now it just turns up occasionally. There’s no deep reason for it or anything. But here’s the thing about Audrey that you need to know: you know how you are either a dog person or you’re not? Audrey is not. So in the first book, for instance, her cat is on the cover, and on every single page in the book. Even in the vet’s office, there’s a picture of Stevie, her cat, on the wall. And of course, Stevie’s gone on a cruise with Walter in the new book too. There’s never a mention of a cat anywhere in any of the stories, but this is the kind of thing you can get away with in kids’ books.
I also have a few questions from the kindergarten students of Florence Nightingale Elementary in Vancouver:
Why do dogs fart?
Well, this is a combination of chemistry and physics. Of course, it depends on what they eat and how much air they gulp while they eat and all sorts of things. There are complicated chemical reactions that take place in the digestive system, and they produce methane, which is the perpetrator here. The original dog that my co-author Bill met was a 150-pound mastiff. His owner fed him beer and doughnuts. Clue number two! [laughs] I’ve done whole hour-long radio shows with people calling in about their farting dogs. I had no idea about the extent of the problem! You won’t believe how many people feed their dogs Timbits, Big Macs ... these are not meant for dogs!
Will you write future stories about Walter in any of the following settings: a library, a zoo, or a fantasyland with kings?
Anything is possible! The next story about Walter is called Banned from the Beach. It’s set in a beach resort area. The one that we’re working on now is set in the desert of the southwest. But we have lots of other ideas for Walter. There seems to be no end to what you can do with an imaginary farting dog. We are working on a project with a company that produces scratch-and-sniff books and places sound chips in the pages. That’s about Walter’s family history—his family tree. It goes back all the way to the days of King Toot and Farticus.
Is Walter ever going to be a dad? And if so, will his puppies fart too?
There are many kids who have asked about Walter having a girlfriend. He has to have a girlfriend before he can become a parent and that would obviously have to be a female dog with extreme tolerance and patience and acceptance. We’ve given it a lot of thought, but we haven’t gone there yet. But as I said, there’s a great appetite for stories involving Walter, so we’re not seeing it as something that has to stop soon. There’s a lot of consideration being given to the idea of Walter having a girlfriend. Anything could happen after that.
Lastly, does Walter have any special messages for his younger readers?
I think his message would be, “Keep reading and keep tooting.”
Readers can contact Walter the Farting Dog at email@example.com
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