Hobby inspires Louis Sachar's new book: "The Card Turner"

May 16, 2010 10:00:00 PM PDT
Newbury Award-winning author Louis Sachar grew up watching his parents play bridge and now plays in tournaments across the country. His passion for the game and its ability to teach invaluable life skills inspired his new novel, THE CARDTURNER.

With his incomparable flair, humor, and inventiveness, Sachar tells the story of 17-year-old Alton Richards. The summer after junior year of high school, Alton is told by his parents that he must accompany his great uncle Lester to bridge club four times a week. Alton's uncle is old, blind, very sick, and very rich. Intrigued by the mystery surrounding his uncle, the game of bridge, and a new love interest, Alton finds himself in a more complex and life-changing situation than he ever imagined.

In his new book, the best-selling author of Holes and Small Steps covers new territory. Sachar exposes teens to a classic game played around the world. He believes bridge is much more than a card game; it is relevant to strategic thinking, learning to take risks, building trust, business acumen, and other life skills.

While the game of bridge traces its origins to the 16th century, Sachar says it is not to be mistaken for a game of the past. It is a game that teaches strategic thinking, business lessons, and essential life skills including judgment, patience, decisiveness, and trust.

For readers new to bridge, Sachar incorporated a concept that gives readers the capacity to choose how much detail they want to read about game play. A whale icon denotes a passage that contains ridge details, signaling that one can choose to read on for the play by play, or skip over to a summary box.


BEST SELLING AND BELOVED AUTHOR: Sachar's Newbery Award? and National Book Award?winning Holes (1998) has sold over 8 million copies worldwide. Holes was a fixture on the New York Times bestseller list for over 175 weeks, and Small Steps was a New York Times bestseller as well.

WHO PLAYS BRIDGE? Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are two of the most active proponents of the game and regular tournament competitors. Other avid participants include leaders in government, entertainment, and business including the late Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine; Peter Schneider, Tony Award?winning producer of The Lion King; and Supreme Court Justice --and American Contract Bridge League (ACBL) Life Master--John Paul Stevens.

YOUNG PEOPLE and BRIDGE. The ACBL sponsors "Youth 4 Bridge", an organization that helps bring the joy of bridge to youth. More than 4000 youngsters participate each year in schools throughout North America (youth4bridge.org).

Author and Bridge player. Louis Sachar schedules bridge into his daily routine and can be found at his local bridge club or playing in national tournaments when he is not at his desk.


Louis Sachar lives in Austin, Texas, where he writes and plays quite a lot of bridge. He is the author of the award winning Small Steps and the New York Times #1 bestseller Holes--winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award--as well as Stanley Yelnats' Survival Guide to Camp Green Lake. His books for younger readers include There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, The Boy Who Lost His Face, Dogs Don't Tell Jokes, and the Marvin Redpost series, among many other books.


Tonight at 7 p.m.
Barnes & Noble

Tomorrow at 7 pm
Anderson's Books

A Conversation with LOUIS SACHAR

When did you take up bridge? Is this an interest that was sparked as a young adult or later in life? How often do you play?

I learned to play when I was young by watching my parents. They often had other couples over for a night of bridge. They would occasionally let me sit in on a hand. Nobody my age played the game, and I didn't play again until I was almost forty. I continued to read the daily bridge columns in the newspapers, however. When my daughter was in kindergarten, we became friends with her friend's parents. The mother had a sister who liked to play "duplicate bridge" and said she was always looking for new partners. I'd read about duplicate bridge in the bridge columns and was always intrigued by it. A few weeks later I played my first game with my daughter's friend's aunt. (We won, and I didn't realize what a big deal that was.) I've been hooked ever since. I now play about four days a week, and occasionally travel to tournaments.

Can you explain the concept behind the whale icon found throughout THE CARDTURNER?

The greatest difficulty in writing this novel was trying to figure out how much bridge the reader would want to try to understand. Obviously all readers are different. The whale icon was chosen by the narrator, Alton, since he had trouble getting through Moby Dick in his English class. He gives the reader permission to skip the bridge if he or she finds it too boring or confusing. I doubt if too many readers will actually skip it, but it at least lets the reader know that the author recognizes this part is difficult, and it's okay if you don't understand it. It is followed by a summary box, which gives a shorter version of what the reader just read.

For you--and the main characters of THE CARDTURNER-- bridge is clearly more than just a game. What lessons do you take away from bridge that you see as applicable in every day life?

A good bridge player learns to think things through, plan ahead, gather information, and make changes in the plan if the situation changes as the game progresses. It takes judgment. You have to know when to be daring, and when to be patient. Most importantly, bridge is a partnership game, and a bridge player has to rely on and trust his partner, while being a trustworthy partner himself. Finally, bridge is a highly ethical game. It's not like other sports where players try to get away with whatever they can, so long as the refs don't catch it.

What do you hope young readers will come away with when they read THE CARDTURNER (other than a possible new interest in bridge)?

I never set out to teach a lesson in a book. To me, a good book is one that allows both the writer and the reader to explore different boundaries of our minds. I hope when the reader finishes the book she feels like she's been somewhere she's never been before.

You've said you see yourself in Alton's character. How so? We heard that your daughter had a different take on that than you did, can you explain?

When my father was about fifty years old, and I was about seventeen, I remember him telling me that he was often surprised by the face he saw when he looked in the mirror. He said that on the inside, he still felt the same as he did when he was eighteen. I'm not sure I quite believed him. I do now.

The Cardturner is a book about, among other things, the relationship between Alton, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Trapp, his seventy-five-year-old great-uncle. It is told in the first-person by Alton. As I was writing it, I felt that Alton was very much me, although I tried my best to disguise him. When I finally finished the manuscript, the first two people who read it were my wife, Carla, and my daughter, Sherre, who was probably about twenty-one at the time. After Sherre read it, she said to me, "He's a lot like you, isn't he?"

I was disheartened that it was so obvious. I thought I had done a good job of turning Alton into his own independent character. "You mean Alton?" I asked.

My daughter looked at me like I was nuts. "No, Trapp," she said.

Can you talk about the fantastical elements in THE CARDTURNER? Was this something you envisioned from the beginning, or did it develop as you wrote?

It's always difficult to remember what ideas came when. Initially, I simply threw Alton and Trapp together, and waited to see what developed. However, I think the idea of using the fantastical elements came to me fairly early.

We see seventeen year old Alton at the center of many key relationships. Can you comment on the role that family dynamics play in the development of his character?

Alton, like many seventeen-year-olds, feels disconnected from his parents. He's figuring out who he is. That's one of the main reasons I write about young people. The world is wide open to them, and they are trying to figure out their place in it. While Alton and his parents seem to clash at every turn, Alton has a younger sister who is smart, sweet, and brings real heart to the family.

What's next? Is there a chance that you'll revisit Alton's story?

I don't know. Until I get caught up in a new novel, I can't tell you what the next book will be about?and then, once I am caught up in it, I won't tell you.

Where do you get inspiration for your writing? You have such an enthusiastic fan base. Do they ever inspire ideas?

Inspiration, what little there is of it, comes from within. I simply try to come up with something that interests me enough to want to explore it a little more. In The Cardturner that was simply the idea of having a seventeen-year-old boy turn cards for an old blind bridge player. At first, I knew nothing about either of the characters, or what brought them together. Initially they weren't related. The real inspiration comes as I'm working on that idea, day after day after day.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

In high school, great writers were my heroes: J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Steinbeck. I remember being thrilled when I found out that in my English class we'd be reading something by Faulkner, or Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, not because I knew anything about these authors, but because I had heard of them before, and now I was going to get the opportunity to read their books. I wonder if there are high school students who still feel that way. To me, there was no higher achievement than writing a great novel. And even now, when I finish writing a book, there is a great sense of having completed something meaningful. People ask about what it was like winning the Newbery or having Holes made into a movie, but nothing comes close to the feeling of accomplishment I get from the actual writing of a book.

Words from Louis Sachar

I was born in East Meadow, New York, on March 20, 1954, and lived there until third grade. My dad worked on the seventy-eighth floor of the Empire State Building, and maybe that somehow inspired Wayside School, who knows? When I was nine years old, we moved to Tustin, California. At that time, there were orange groves all around, and the local kids would often divide up into teams and have orange fights. The "ammo" hung from the trees, although the best ones were the gushy, rotten ones on the ground. Now most of the orange trees are gone, replaced with fast-food restaurants and big box stores.

I enjoyed school and was a good student, but it wasn't until high school that I really became an avid reader. J. D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut were the authors who first inspired me. Some of my other favorite authors include E. L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, E. B. White, Richard Price, and Kazuo Ishiguro.

After high school, I attended Antioch College in Ohio. My father died during my first semester, and I returned to California to be near my mother. During that time, I had a short but surprisingly successful career as a Fuller Brush man. For those of you too young to know what that is, I went door-to-door selling cleaning products. I returned to college, this time to the University of California at Berkeley, where I majored in economics.

On campus one day, I saw the unlikely sight of an elementary school girl handing out flyers. I took one from her. It said: "Help. We need teacher's aides at our school. Earn three units of credit." I thought it over and decided it was a pretty good deal. College credits, no homework, no term papers, no tests?all I had to do was help out in a second- or third-grade class at Hillside Elementary School. Besides helping out in a classroom, I also became the noontime supervisor, or "Louis the Yard class,

Teacher," as I was known to the kids. It became my favorite college and a life-changing experience.

When I graduated in 1976, I decided to try to write a children's book, which eventually became Sideways Stories from Wayside School. All the kids at Wayside School were based on the kids I knew at Hillside. It took me about nine months to write the book. I wrote in the evenings. In the daytime, I had a job at a sweater warehouse in Connecticut. After about a year, I was fired (my enthusiasm for sweaters was insufficient), and I decided to go to law school. Sideways Stories from Wayside was accepted by a publisher during my first week at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. I finished law school, graduating in 1980, passed the bar exam (which was required to practice law), and then did part-time legal work as I continued to write children's books.

It wasn't until 1989 that my books began selling well enough that I was finally able to stop practicing law and devote myself fully to writing. My wife, Carla, was a counselor at an elementary school when I first met her. She was the inspiration for the counselor in There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom. We were married in 1985. Our daughter, Sherre, was born in 1987. We live in Austin, Texas, along with our dog, Watson. I write every morning, usually for no more than two hours a day. I never talk about a book until it is finished. In my spare time, I like to play bridge. You can often find me at the bridge club in Austin, or at a bridge tournament somewhere around the country.

Load Comments