From Any Angle, E.t.'s Biographer William Kotzwinkle Is Not An Alien to Success
When last seen, E.T. was waving goodbye to his teary-eyed pal, Elliott, and boarding a spacecraft bound for, well, nobody was quite sure. Three years later, William Kotzwinkle, 46, who wrote the 1982 best-selling novelization E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial from Steven Spielberg's megahit, has delivered his sequel, E.T. The Book of the Green Planet. Already a paperback best-seller (Berkley, $3.50), the book has the little botanist returning to the Green Planet (named for its lush plant life), only to find himself chastised for his earthly shenanigans. He soon realizes that Earth is where his heart is and maneuvers through a series of magical mishaps as he struggles to return to the scene of his earlier adventures. "I see him as this scorned Chaplinesque figure who at the same time is some sort of redeemer," says Kotzwinkle, an award-winning novelist and short-story writer who has published 22 books, 15 of them for children.
Kotzwinkle and Spielberg share a childlike sense of fantasy. No one is sure where Spielberg's came from, but Kotzwinkle thinks his "off-kilter" view may derive from a childhood whack on the head by a baseball bat-wielding friend. "It laid me low for a while," he says. Spielberg, a fan of Kotzwinkle's 1974 cult novel The Fan Man, summoned him to Hollywood during the top-secret filming of E.T. to discuss its novelization. Remembers Kotzwinkle of his first encounter with E.T.: "Steven took me down a hallway, through a door, into an office and then a closet. He pulled out this box that was so wrapped in tape that I had to use my jackknife to open it. Finally, Steven opens the box and I'm looking at this rubber geek and I'm shaking his hands. It was a rare moment. I'm thinking to myself, 'One of us is nuts.' "
Whether it was one, both, or none of the above, the question is now moot. An instant friendship blossomed between the men. "I understood Steven's dreams," says Kotzwinkle. He spent five months writing the novel, which has sold more than three million copies.
In 1983 Kotzwinkle and Spielberg worked out a framework for the sequel of the novel. Spielberg wanted a more compassionate E.T. to return to Earth and also to have Elliott fall in love (with a classmate) for the first time. Beyond that, Kotzwinkle was on his own, drawing inspiration from Carl Sagan's Cosmos, sci-fi books by Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke and even Einstein's theory of relativity.
Kotzwinkle's odyssey is nearly as interesting as E.T.'s. He was born in Scranton, Pa., the only child of a housewife and a printing department manager. He wanted to be a professional baseball player and proved to be a good fielder, but, alas, no hitter. Kotzwinkle studied journalism briefly at Rider College in New Jersey and attended Penn State before getting booted out in his junior year. "They caught me with a girl in my room," he says; he was flunking nearly everything, anyway. He then flirted with acting—always writing on the side. While working as a short-order cook in Greenwich Village in 1968 he collaborated with a friend on his first children's book, The Fireman.
Kotzwinkle married novelist Elizabeth Gundy (Love, Infidelity and Drinking to Forget) 20 years ago. The two recluses live a Spartan life on the Maine coast. Bill spends countless nights prowling the woods and communing with the heavens. He says, cryptically, "I've been to strange planets and I've run down the cobblestones of wet Oriental streets."
Spielberg hasn't decided whether he'll make a movie from Kotzwinkle's sequel. The author, however, doesn't mind. He has seen his future flash before him. Predicts Kotzwinkle: "I know I'll end up a little old guy telling stories on a mountain somewhere."
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