From Pulitzer prize-winning playwright to young adult fiction writer, American author Paul Zindel (born 1936) turned his real-life turbulent teens into fictional stories to show teenagers that their lives and feelings do matter.
Paul Zindel did not choose to become a playwright, a screenwriter or young adult fiction writer. In fact, Zindel told Teaching PreK-8 interviewer Diane Winarski that he was "wired" to become a writer: "I like storytelling. We all have an active thing that we do that gives us self-esteem, that makes us proud; it's necessary. I have to tell stories because that's the way the wiring went in." However, Zindel also survived a childhood where his tales were born. From his mother's inability to keep a job to his search for his own "Pigman," Zindel has told his stories in ten plays, seven screenplays, and over 20 young adult fiction books. As quoted in English Journal, Zindel believes that his writing reflects how he sees the world "as a problem-solving situation, and the solution of those problems through fiction seems to be the adventure that I've chosen for myself."
Paul Zindel was born on May 15, 1936, in Staten Island, New York. His father, also named Paul, left Zindel, his older sister Betty, and mother, Betty, for a girlfriend when Zindel was just two years old. This event began Zindel's early adventures. After his father left, Zindel's mother started moving from town to town and from job to job. From ship yard worker, to a Lassie-type dog breeder, Betty Zindel always seemed unable to keep any job. Yet, Zindel in his autobiography, The Pigman and Me, offered a sort of compliment to his mother, "but what mother lacked in money, she made up for being able to talk a mile a minute." Zindel's mother, however, also constantly threatened suicide. As quoted in Morning Telegraph, Zindel described his home as a "house of fear." He coped not only by creating a fantasy life, but also by wishing he was abducted by aliens.
In 1951, when Zindel was 15, his wish to escape from his home was granted-although not by aliens, but by doctors. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Since tuberculosis was a highly contagious respiratory disease, he was confined to an adult sanatorium for 18 months. Zindel believed that, as he told Scholastic Voice writers, "being the only kid in an adult world has done things to me I don't even know about." However, it was in the sanatorium where Zindel wrote his first play.
After recovering, Zindel graduated from high school and left home once again, this time to attend Wagner College in New York. Zindel did not receive a degree in English, literature, or writing, but in 1958, received his bachelor's degree in chemistry and education. In 1959, he also completed a masters of science degree in chemistry. Zindel, as quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, had "a great love … of microcosms, of peering at other worlds framed and separate from me." Following college, Zindel found work as a technical writer for a chemical company. After six months, he quit and became a chemistry teacher at Tottenville High School in Staten Island, New York. In his free time, he continued to write plays such as Dimensions of Peacocks and A Dream of Swallows. In the early 1960s, both plays ran on-stage in New York City. However, years after becoming a successful playwright, Zindel told Teaching PreK-8 interviewer Diane Winarski that he "finally realized that teaching has a very real connection to show business. You have to learn to perform in front of an audience; … you must lead your students to illuminations or epiphanies. You're doing five one-act plays a day! That's a lesson plan."
In the mid-1960s, Zindel wrote The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. It was chemistry and not any other play that inspired this production. Zindel told Time reporters that he remembered "thinking that all carbon atoms on earth had come from the sun. The idea of being linked to the universe by these atoms, which really didn't die, gave me a feeling of meaning." Gamma Rays tells the story of Tillie, a teenager who feels smothered by her critical mother and epileptic sister. However, Tillie finds hope for her life when the marigolds she exposed to radiation for a science project, bloom. Zindel won many awards for Gamma Rays, including the 1971 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Zindel, as stated in the forward to the Bantam Edition, said of this often-awarded play, "I suspect it is autobiographical, because whenever I see a production of it I laugh and cry harder than anyone else in the audience."
After viewing a televised version of Gamma Rays, Charlotte Zolotow, an editor at Harper & Row publishers, suggested to Zindel that he write a young adult fiction book. Zindel published The Pigman in 1968. The Pigman told the story of a betrayed friendship between two high school sophomores, John and Lorraine, and a widower named Mr. Angelo Pignati. After an illness forces Mr. Pignati, the "Pigman," out of his home, he entrusts John and Lorraine with its care and his cherished ceramic pig collection. John and Lorraine betray this trust and the Pigman's friendship, however, by throwing a party where his collection is accidently smashed. With this book, Zindel not only continued collecting awards, including the American Library Association's Best Young Adult Book citation, but also praise. Horn Book contributor Diane Farrell declared, "Few books that have been written for young people are as cruelly truthful about the human condition. Fewer still accord the elderly such serious consideration or perceive that what we term senility may be a symbolic return to youthful honesty and idealism."
Over the next two decades, Zindel not only continued writing young adult fiction and plays-although none as highly successful as Gamma Rays -but also screenplays. He adapted his own words, such as Gamma Rays, as well as those of others, including Patrick Dennis's Mame and a children's favorite fairytale, Alice in Wonderland. However, it was Zindel's young adult fiction books which became the most popular.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Zindel continued writing books for teenagers. He commented to Publishers Weekly, "teenagers have to rebel. It's part of the growing process. In effect … I believe I must convince my readers that I am on their side." However, book reviewers Beverly A. Haley and Kenneth L. Donelson, as stated in Elementary English, suggested that Zindel not only convinced teenagers that he was on their side, but also presented "questions to his readers, and if they care (and they do), they will search for answers. Their own answers." And teenagers, along with Zindel's characters did search for answers-answers to questions about lust, sex, contraception, and abortion in My Darling, My Hamburger (1969); about what is true love in I Never Loved Your Mind (1970); parental pressure and friendship come under discussion in Pardon Me, You're Stepping on My Eyeball! (1976); and truth and the perception of truth in The Undertaker's Gone Bananas (1978). A collaboration with his wife, Bonnie Hildebrand whom he had married in 1973, produced A Star for the Latecomer in 1980. In that same year, Zindel published a sequel to his most popular book The Pigman. The Pigman's Legacy returned readers to Mr. Pignati's house where John and Lorraine have a second chance to do the right thing and help another elderly man, Gus, live out his final days. However, this was not Zindel's final tale about a "Pigman."
In 1991, Zindel wrote about his only year of normalcy as a teenager. In The Pigman and Me, he introduced the book by telling readers, "because this is an autobiography I have to really tell the truth." He revealed his nightmares about cockroaches and his wish to be Batman in the volume. He also shared his belief that "in this world it doesn't seem to matter if you know anything as long as you pretend to know it." However, someone changed Zindel's belief-his "Pigman". And a Pigman, Zindel told readers, will come "when you need him most. He'll make you cry, but teach you the greatest secret of life." Zindel's Pigman was Nonno Frankie, the Italian father of his mother's housemate. Zindel claimed in The Pigman and Me that Frankie "understood I had a slightly wacko person for a Mom." He also told Zindel silly jokes like, "What is a ghost's favorite food? Spookghetti." Zindel remembered, "[w]hen I think now what it was like for me when I was a teenager, I have to admit that deep inside, my greatest need was to find a meaning to my life. Without meaning I suppose most everybody might as well be dead." Frankie not only helped Zindel with this, but also taught him how to plant a garden and fight. Yet, perhaps the best two pieces of advice Zindel received from Frankie, as quoted in The Pigman and Me, were The Rules of School: "when in doubt, a closed mouth gathers no fat! And never get into rock fights with kids who have ugly faces, because they have nothing to lose! And never, never play leapfrog with a unicorn!" and "You can go anywhere in your mind. You must imagine."
Zindel's works in the 1990s have stretched his talents even more. In 1993, he published several children's books, including Fright Party, David and Della, and Attack of the Killer. That same year, he also released The Fifth-Grade Safari. Returning to his young adult audience, Zindel published Loch in 1994 and The Doom Stone the following year.
Over the past 30 years, Zindel has followed his Pigman's advice. From stage and screen plays to young adult fiction books, he has used his imagination and shared his real-life adventures. As he noted in The Pigman and Me, "truth is stranger than fiction. I think it's often a lot more cruel." However, Zindel has also shown teenagers through his stories that their lives do have worth. As quoted in the New York Daily News, worth was something Zindel realized through his writing: "I felt worthless as a kid, and dared to speak and act my true feelings only in fantasy and secret. That's probably what made me a writer."
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