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An Interview With Robert Fulghum, Author of What On Earth Have I Done?

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You may not recognize the name Robert Fulghum but you have seen his work. He is the author of seven best-selling books All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It, Uh-Oh, Maybe (Maybe Not), From Beginning to End—The Rituals of Our Lives, True Love and Words I Wish I Wrote. There are currently more than 16 million copies of his books in print, published in 27 languages in 103 countries.

But it’s that first book – and the title essay – which you have most likely seen around. At least once a month I see on an office wall the poster with that essay on it. Fulghum is a wise man who says brilliant things in a concise way, often using charming, witty  anecdotes. When I learned that we have similar spiritual beliefs and that he has a new book coming out of essays I jumped at the chance to interview him. He agreed to the interview to promote his new book, What On Earth Have I Done? which comes out September 18.

Reading up on you I saw that critics described your Kindergarten book as “trite and saccharine.” How do you respond to such critics? 

This is addressed as if it was a unique issue for writers. But it’s a life question for everyone: What do you do about those people who don’t like you or don’t approve of you or who say negative things about you? Nobody can or should try to please everybody. Many people seem to admire my writing and there are many fine critical commentaries. I’ll settle for that.  

I think one of my favorite essays so far in your book is the “Chair man” about the guys eating a chair. When you come across conversations like that do you write them down right away knowing it's solid gold or let them fester/mature a bit first?  

I’m glad you like “Chair-man.” I always take notes of good ideas, then, as I explain in my new book, I tell the story to a long-time friend, try the story out in public speaking engagements, and then write it. I’m a storyteller – an oral art, so it’s always “tell then write.”

Is this accurate? Its from Wikipedia so you never know: “Residents of his Seattle neighborhood note that he owns four full-body bunny suits and has an inordinate fondness for objects with pictures of bacon printed on them.” Why the bunny suits and the bacon? And were you really a singing cowboy?

Wikipedia. I’m not responsible for what gets published there. I do own a rabbit suit, a chicken suit, and a camel suit – and wear them when involved in doing affirmative pranks with a group called “The Friends of the White Rabbit.” What’s not to like about bacon? Yes, I was a singing cowboy.

What's the best and worst part about writing fiction? Writing non-fiction?

I'm a storyteller – one who conveys the truth he sees in the same spirit employed by a poet or comedian or songwriter. This is true for all of us – in the way we give an account of what we saw or did on a given day. I personally don't worry about the categories, but these thoughts come to mind: What I write is always somewhere between investigative journalism and myth… Much of what is labeled fiction is factual. The goal is to serve Truth in the best sense.

On your web site you wrote: 

Please Note: During the month of September I'll be shuttling around the country publicizing my new book of essays. The ostensible purpose of book tours is to increase book sales and give readers a chance to experience authors first hand. But I don't go to be seen or sell books. I go to meet readers – to add some fleshy reality to those I address: "To Whom It May Concern." If you are a "To Whom" and I'm in your town, come say hello.

What is it you'd like to know about your readers? Here is your chance to suggest what you'd like them to say when they meet you besides, "hi".

I go out in the world to see the reality of my readers – so that I have a personal image of them, not an imaginary one. Whenever I speak in public I take photographs of the audience, print them up and look at them carefully. I want to see demographics – age, sex, etc. – but also create a mental image in my mind of those I write to. I've always had a quarrel with my editors and publishers over this. They talk about my readers as if they know – but they don't – they haven't been to see them – I have. One of the best experiences I've had as a writer was doing the True Love book when I asked my readers to collaborate with me in a book of love stories to benefit Habitat for Humanity. 

My favorite piece in here is the one called "my fault." Has your idea – that family members take turns accepting blame for the events of a day regardless of true guilt – caught on with others? Do you think it should?   

I don't know if anybody else practices my technique, though when I tell that story in public it always gets applause.

My favorite quote is this one: "Stoic wisdom about death and destruction is always proportionate to your distance from the scene of the accident. Sometimes someone is to blame. Not everybody must be excused."

Do you want to say anything about how you reached that conclusion? It seems particularly timely as I write this amid Sept. 11 anniversaries and debate over the war.  

Re the quote: It just seems obvious to me. The further away evil is from us, the easy it is to endure. I can't directly affect what happens daily in Iraq.

But that doesn't mean I'm off the hook. To work for officials who can affect that situation – to vote – even if what I do seems small, I still must do that little bit – because the small things accumulate. There's much of this line of thinking in my new book.

  Thanks again to Mr. Fulghum for the book and interview.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.