Today’s interview is with Edward Packard, who created the Choose Your Own Adventure book series that dominated the reading habits of millions of 1980s kids. Everyone in our generation remembers the excitement of reading The Cave of Time, You are a Genius, and countless other titles that we read and reread until we had experienced every possible outcome that each book could offer. If you were like me, every book order, every school book fair, every trip to the school library and the public library was a quest to get your little hands on every Choose Your Own Adventure title. This interview gives a glimpse into the life of the man responsible for coming up with a brilliant idea - and having the will to bring it into reality. In his case, that meant walking away from a successful New York law career to become a full-time writer.
My thanks to Edward Packard for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview.
1. What sorts of books and activities did you enjoy as a child?
Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. They were the inspiration for bedtime stories I made up with my kids and for the book I wrote which came out of them, which I titled The Adventures of You on Sugarcane Island: You are swept overboard while on a sailing trip and cast up on a mysterious tropical island. What will you discover? How will you survive? Will you ever get home again? All questions that have the makings of great adventure.
I was also interested in astronomy and wrote a short book on the subject. It was very much out of date, because my principal source was an ancient encyclopedia I found in the attic.
2. What are some of the books that influenced you the most as an adult?
I’ve heard it said that the mark of a great book is that it changes the way you think about life; it gives you a jolt in a new direction, one hopes for the better! I think there’s some truth in that, and I have that in mind in trying to answer this question, though it doesn’t make it easier to pick particular books among so many candidates. Among those I found most engaging and illuminating are Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I have a feeling is the greatest novel ever written, The Odyssey, which must be the greatest adventure story; Shakespeare’s incomparable plays; in our own backyard –– Huckleberry Finn; and among short stories, Tolstoy’s "Master and Man" and James Joyce’s "The Dead"; in contemporary non-fiction, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which helped me learn to think twice about everything except things you have to think fast about.
3. You earned degrees from Princeton University and Columbia Law School and became a successful lawyer before becoming a writer. What was that transition like?
The law was not my natural calling, and I never missed it once I discovered I could make a living writing.
4. What inspired you to create the Choose Your Own Adventure series?
When I realized that my first book initiated a new genre, it was natural to imagine a series of them. I thought of calling them Adventures of You books, but Lippincott (later merged into Harper), which published my next two books, headlined them Choose Your Own Adventure in the Wild West and Choose Your Own Adventure in Outer Space. That designation appealed to Bantam, so when they started publishing books in this genre, they trademarked them as Choose Your Own Adventure books.
5. How did you come up with the seemingly endless ideas for the many titles that you wrote for the series?
All it took was to imagine the kinds of adventures I would like to have or might have without wanting them! If aliens captured you and brought you onto their UFO, what would it be like inside it? What would it be like to find yourself hundreds of years in the past; Or in the future? Or be caught on a sailboat in a typhoon? Or go through a black hole and enter another universe? Or be an eagle or an elephant? There’s no limit to “what ifs.”
|Edward Packard today|
6. Eventually other writers began contributing to the series, such as R.A. Montgomery and Alison Gilligan. How many Choose Your Own Adventure books did you write?
Probably about forty in the main series of 180 books, and maybe ten more in the Skylark series for younger readers, plus eleven in other interactive series I invented, such as Space Hawks (you are an elite space pilot helping defend Earth from alien invaders); Earth Inspectors (you are an enlightened alien sent to Earth to learn about the strange creatures called humans that live there); Escape books, which I call story mazes (you are trapped on an island on an alien planet); there is only one ending in the book –– the ending in which you escape –– and it’s very hard to reach.
7. You’ve published other books as well. What are you working on currently?
I’ve written and am having illustrated a children’s picture book titled Space Trip; collaborating with developers in producing a computer game based on my book, Escape from Tenopia; writing a science fiction short story in which Kooz, a super rich entrepreneur tries to achieve immortality by uploading the content and neural patterns of his brain into a computer, then creating a new-born clone of himself, whose brain, as it develops, will assimilate his mental state from the computer, whereupon (a three-time Nobel prize-winning neurobiologist has assured him) he, Kooz, will experienece his sense of self-awareness –– his very being –– emerging in the person of his clone. Sound far out? I wouldn’t argue with you. I also write blogs and book notes, which I post on my website, edwardpackard.com
8. What is one piece of life advice that you would like to share?
Did you know that free will vs. determinism is still a big subject of contention among philosophers? Assuming it is possible to have free will, which we must if we don’t want to just walk around like zombies, the question is how do we maximize it? How do we free ourselves of emotional constraints on thinking clearly? It’s a question I began asking myself when I realized I had made some simply awful decisions because of harmful embedded emotions I wasn’t aware of. There was a famous movie decades ago titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As I remember, these were aliens who took over peoples’ brains, after which, though these poor humans thought they were making their own decisions, it was actually the aliens who were making them. Harmful embedded emotions that we are not conscious of –– ones we may not have the slightest idea exist –– such as, for example, a feeling of unworthiness, can mess things up for you just as much as evil aliens. My one piece of advice is to think about decisions you’ve made that you wish you hadn’t and try to identify any harmful embedded emotions that may have driven them. If you can free yourself of such influences, you’ll probably have no trouble thinking clearly.