Henry Winkler and Dyslexia
Host Dmae Roberts features an exclusive interview with Henry Winkler about his new young adult book “Hank Zipzer: A Brand New Life. Actor Henry Winkler, best known for his playing “The Fonz” on the long-running show “Happy Days” recently came to Portland to debut his new book focusing on the learning challenges of a 5th grade boy named Hank Zipzer. Dmae talked with Winkler while he was signing books backstage at Powell’s Books.
Read on for the complete transcript of Dmae’s extended conversation with Henry Winkler.
COMPLETE INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
DMAE ROBERTS: So I’m here with Henry Winkler and he’s signing books and that’s the sound you hear right now.
HENRY WINKLER: I’m signing away. I’m signing the last novel in the series of Hank Zipzer.
DMAE ROBERTS: This is the absolute last novel?
HENRY WINKLER: This is the final novel, number 17. Who woulda thunk?
DMAE ROBERTS: I didn’t know that. So it’s amazing that there’s such a body of work here. What was the motivation for writing these books and co-writing with these books?
HENRY WINKLER: You know what, it was a whim. Somebody said, “Why don’t you write these books about your dyslexia for children.” And I said I can’t do that, because my parents used to call me Dumb Dog, dummer Hund (sp?) in German. And two years later, he asked me the same question. And then he said, I’m going to introduce you to my very good friend, Lin Oliver, who is, by the way, the co-founder for the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, 25,000 members all over the world. And she’s my wonderful partner.
DMAE ROBERTS: And you’ve been working together for many years now.
HENRY WINKLER: We started in 2002 writing, and we’ve just started work on a brand new seires that will we submit when I get back from my book tour.
DMAE ROBERTS: So tell me about the main character.
HENRY WINKLER: Hank Zipzer is nine years old, starts in the fourth grade in the very first book, has the worst teacher in America. Her breath is gray, her soul is gray, her fingernails are gray, her bun is gray. Ms. Adolf. And I think she was related, I’m not kidding. Yeah. In the end, in the seventeenth book, he graduates from fifth grade into middle school. So it is his journey with dyslexia. He’s got two great friends, Frankie and Ashley. Frankie is African-American. Ashley is Asian-American. They are not dyslexic, but they love Hank. And they take good care of Hank.
DMAE ROBERTS: What I got from this book is that he’s incredibly smart and quite creative and yet he’s so frustrated all the time.
HENRY WINKLER: Well the most important thing that I say ad nauseum to children, over and over again, is “How you learn, at what rate you learn, has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.” That’s the most important thing that a child with learning challenges knows. That there is such an enormous talent inside you. You have to figure out what it is. Dig it out and give it to the world.
DMAE ROBERTS: So what was your experience, then? Do you mind sharing that?
HENRY WINKLER: I don’t. I am in the bottom three percent academically in America. I was really bad in math, in spelling, in history, in reading, in comprehension, in science. I was great at lunch.
DMAE ROBERTS: Why were you great at lunch?
HENRY WINKLER: Cause I ate a tuna fish sandwich better than anybody you ever met.
DMAE ROBERTS: Were you as funny as Hank Zipzer?
HENRY WINKLER: Well I was the class clown because I over compensated. I don’t know if I was funny, but I tried to be. And my children think I’m funny 4 or 5 percent of the time.
DMAE ROBERTS: When were you diagnosed?
HENRY WINKLER: When I was 31, when we took my oldest son Jed and him tested, and everything they said about him, I went “Oh my goodness, that sounds like me.”
DMAE ROBERTS: That’s an awfully long to learn that you have a learning disability.
HENRY WINKLER: Right. It was really difficult, because at first I was angry, all those arguments, all that grounding, just the frustration was for naught. Because I wasn’t going to get it ever, because my brain is wired differently. I was told I would never achieve, and that’s why every child that listens to you right this second needs to know that anybody that tells you that you’re not going to accomplish anything is full of baloney.
DMAE ROBERTS: Was your son diagnosed as well?
HENRY WINKLER: He was. Every one of my children has some sort of learning challenge. It is hereditary. It is the wiring in the brain. And what you do is you never get rid of your dyslexia. What you do is you learn to negotiate it.
DMAE ROBERTS: And you must have heard from a lot of kids and families as a result of this series of books.
HENRY WINKLER: Well we’ve sold about two-and-a-half million copies. Not all of those children are dyslexic, but a lot of those kids said, “Hey, how did you know me so well?” Or “How did you know my brother so well?” Or “do you know, my dad has a learning challenge, so Henry, you are not alone.”
DMAE ROBERTS: So how did your dyslexia influence your career? Was it a stumbling block in cold reads, because Hank has cold reads in the book.
HENRY WINKLER: Yes. What you learn is you learn, as I said before, is you learn to negotiate it. I couldn’t read off the page out loud, cold. So I was able to memorize pretty quickly, and then I improvised. And if somebody said, “Well, you didn’t read it the way it was written,” I say, “I’m giving you the essence of the character.” And if I get it, I’ll do it completely.
DMAE ROBERTS: And that obviously worked for a long time.
HENRY WINKLER: It did. It worked until yesterday.
DMAE ROBERTS: What happened yesterday?
HENRY WINKLER: Yesterday I just started working on a brand new show called “Royal Pains,” which premiers this year, June 3rd on USA Network.
DMAE ROBERTS: Which show is this one?
HENRY WINKLER: It is a wonderful dramedy. It’s a comedy drama about a young doctor who is fired—
DMAE ROBERTS: Oh I watched that.
HENRY WINKLER: So it’s a young doctor who is fired from his hospital in New York, and becomes a concierge doctor in East Hampton.
DMAE ROBERTS: And so who are you playing?
HENRY WINKLER: Well last year he talked about his father and how much he hated him. This year you get to see it in person.
DMAE ROBERTS: Well congratulations on that.
HENRY WINKLER: I’m so excited I don’t know what to do, because last year my wife and I watched it as fans, and this year I’m on it. “Royal Pains”
DMAE ROBERTS: So I understand there might be an arrested development movie too?
HENRY WINKLER: Yes. I spoke to the executive producer. But right now he’s doing Will Arnett’s pilot in Canada. So he has to finish that before he starts writing again.
DMAE ROBERTS: There’s so much going on for you.
HENRY WINKLER: I’m also a spokesperson in the media for the first therapeutic use of Botox for stroke victims.
DMAE ROBERTS: I had no idea that there was a relation to that.
HENRY WINKLER: Six weeks ago, they were given the go-ahead by the drug administration, the federal drug administration. And it’s the most amazing thing, because I’ve met all these patients who have had strokes. And they got shots in their fingers, in their wrist, in their elbow, in their arms, and it gives them their arm back, their hand back. It’s amazing. It doesn’t cure necessarily the lack of mobility, but it gives them the opportunity to open their hand again for the first time in years. One man has had a stroke, had it when he was very young. 57 years he’s lived with his arm kind of clutching his chest.
DMAE ROBERTS: So what’s the most rewarding aspect of doing, being an author?
HENRY WINKLER: It is the most rewarding part of my whole career. I love acting very much. I love the jobs I’m able to do. I’m blessed. But outside of my own children, these books are the greatest thing I’ve ever accomplished.
DMAE ROBERTS: That’s high praise.
HENRY WINKLER: I don’t know whether somebody else will think that. But for me, I do. I’m not kidding. I love these books. I smell these books. Sometimes I sleep with them. Yes, instead of a mattress, I lay them out, and I put a pillow on top of them and I sleep on them.
DMAE ROBERTS: Sounds like you’re going to miss doing this character.
HENRY WINKLER: You know what, I want to tell you, it was very emotional to write this last, seventeenth novel. And I cried. Twice. I don’t know if I’m supposed to admit that. But I cried twice while we were writing it.
DMAE ROBERTS: Well that’s high praise too. I think that you must have gotten a lot response from kids themselves and maybe a story or two about how it might have helped them.
HENRY WINKLER: Well, it’s amazing, because children say—a little girl from Connecticut wrote me and said, “I can’t spell. Hank can’t spell. I could be a writer.” And I wrote back and said I think I can’t wait to see what you write. Parents write that reluctant readers read one Hank, their first book ever, and then read five in a row. Because they were not intimidated. They felt completely connected. And they laughed.
DMAE ROBERTS: And I know it’s a nine-year-old kid, but I still, when I was reading it, heard your voice very strongly in it.
HENRY WINKLER: I think what I’ve learned, and I’ve learned also from my partner Lin, is that you write what you know. So I just thought telling the truth was the most important thing. So all of Hank’s frustration with learning is actually the truth. It happened to me in my life. The comedy is exaggerated. I’ve never actually flooded my classroom.
DMAE ROBERTS: Didn’t do a lot of pranks when you were growing up?
HENRY WINKLER: No. But I was the class clown. I got in a lot of trouble because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. And I was of course, I was compensating for the fact that if I was called on to read, I would stumble and embarrass myself until I wanted to just drop through the floor. It was horrific.
DMAE ROBERTS: Did you have unsupportive teachers too?
HENRY WINKLER: Ms. Adolf was my real teacher. She was my real teacher. And it’s no exaggeration. What I write about her in the book is the truth. So teachers get didn’t, at that point. Now there are these incredible teachers who really understand the child who learns differently. And what is amazing to me is that in the greatest country in the world we talk a lot about children being the future. We don’t do much. We don’t do a lot. And teachers are left teaching the child who learns the quickest and the child who learns the slowest. The teacher’s got to teach them the same amount of material in the same amount of time. That is Herculean and almost impossible. I think we need to tweak the educational system a little bit.
DMAE ROBERTS: Quite a bit. I wonder, are you going to be actually reading today?
HENRY WINKLER: I am. And I practiced, because I’m not very good at it. So I’m reading from the seventeenth novel tonight. And I’m very excited. I’m reading the first chapter.
DMAE ROBERTS: Do you have a couple of lines you could do as Hank?
HENRY WINKLER: Yeah.
DMAE ROBERTS: Oh, I though you had it memorized.
HENRY WINKLER: No, I don’t. I have to actually read it because it’s still too new. Okay. Hank writes lists. He’s a list-maker. And so he writes ten reasons for everything. So these are “Nine of the Greatest Sentences That I Might Have Heard, But Didn’t.”
One. Mr. Zipzer, your private roller coaster is ready for you now.
Two. We’re sorry to inform you that your younger sister Emily, Miss Know-It-All, will have to repeat the fourth grade because she failed math, science, language arts, and she sucks at spelling.
Three. Ms. Adolf will no longer be teaching at PS 87 due to her decision to ride a barrel over Niagara Falls.
DMAE ROBERTS: So I’m wondering in your acting career, what are you most proud of?
HW: Well I love the Fonz.
DMAE ROBERTS: I was afraid to ask you because you probably get a lot about the Fonz.
HENRY WINKLER: No, he was the foundation of the rest of my life. He introduced me to the world. I love him and here’s how loyal he is. He reads Hank Zipzer. Isn’t that amazing?
DMAE ROBERTS: He does?
HENRY WINKLER: He does. While he’s out there working on his motorcycle, just before he goes to bed, he reads a chapter every night of Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever. I love him for that.
DMAE ROBERTS: Did he have dyslexia too?
HENRY WINKLER: He did. I gave him dyslexia. He had a very hard time. He did not graduate from high school. And he goes to night school and then becomes a teacher.
DMAE ROBERTS: I didn’t remember that from the show, but that didn’t actually happen in the show. That was your story.
HENRY WINKLER: No. That happened in the show.
DMAE ROBERTS: It did?
HENRY WINKLER: It did.
DMAE ROBERTS: Gosh, I got to re-watch it.
HENRY WINKLER: You do.
DMAE ROBERTS: So the Fonz, do people actually do the Fonz to you?
HENRY WINKLER: They not only do the Fonz, they ask me to do the Fonz and I will have no part of it, you know? I say no, I will no be the Fonz, so get outta here you knucklehead.
DMAE ROBERTS: What would the Fonz say to kids going through dyslexia?
HENRY WINKLER: He would say what I say. And that is remember, first of all, you’re great and you have greatness in you. And your job is to figure out what your gift is. Dig it out and give it to the world.
DMAE ROBERTS: Very good words indeed. Thank you so much for this.
HENRY WINKLER: I really thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think I’ve signed over a hundred books while we were talking.
DMAE ROBERTS: Wow. Would you sign three more for us, so a lucky listener might be able to win one of your books.
HENRY WINKLER: Then I’m very grateful, and I want that listener to have those books.
DMAE ROBERTS: Thank you so much Henry Winker. It’s a pleasure talking to you.
HENRY WINKLER: Ditto.