Weird Al Yankovic On Writing in Verse

By Maryann Yin Comment

In celebration of both April Fool’s Day and National Poetry Month, we bring you an interview with Grammy Award-winning parody musician Weird Al Yankovic (pictured, via Seth Olenick).

As we reported, Yankovic’s children’s book (When I Grow Up) recently climbed The New York Times‘ bestseller list. Here are highlights from the interview…

Q: How did you land your book deal?
A: I was approached a few years ago by Anne Hoppe, an editor at HarperCollins. She was a fan of my songwriting, and thought that the wordplay and sensibility displayed in my lyrics suggested that I might be adept at writing children’s books. I readily agreed, having felt the same thing for quite some time.

She basically said that if I ever felt up to taking a stab at children’s literature, HarperCollins would love to publish it. I didn’t take advantage of her generous offer immediately as I was on the road and working on a few other music-related projects. But after being busy and/or procrastinating for a year or so, I finally let Anne know that I was ready to write a book.

Q: Describe your writing process.
A: The process of writing this book was not dissimilar from the process of writing verse for song lyrics, which I’ve been doing for some time now. It was basically like writing a long song with a narrative structure. The only real difference is that I never had the luxury of working with an editor before. It was enormously helpful for me to get constructive feedback from Anne. Sometimes I would e-mail her 4 lines of verse and get back 4 pages of notes. On occasion we would have weeks-long discussions about whether a semicolon or an ellipse would be a more appropriate way to end a line. For a borderline obsessive-compulsive person such as myself, it was wonderful.

Q: Name one similarity and one difference between song writing and picture book writing.
A: Both songs and picture books (rhyming ones, anyway) should have a distinct rhythm–the works need to flow easily off the tongue. One difference between the two formats would be that song lyrics should be self-contained – that is, work without any additional visual aids to express an idea – whereas with a picture book, an illustration can be used to move the story along, even if nothing is specifically alluded to in the text.

Q: Why did you decide to incorporate sophisticated language that might not be recognizable to a child ages 4 to 8? (i.e. haute cuisine, vocation, torque)
A: I think that was partly a knee-jerk reaction to the network censorship I experienced when I had my own Saturday morning TV show. CBS was always telling me not to do things or use language that would be “over the heads” of our core demographic. But, unlike the network, I always adhered to the belief that kids are smarter than you think… and if you use vocabulary that they don’t understand, that’s an excellent opportunity for them to ask questions and learn something new!

Q: How did you come up with the hilarious professions Billy considers? (i.e. Snail Trainer, Chocolate Mousse Sculptor, Tarantula Shaver)
A: Well, first of all, I’ve got a sick and twisted imagination which I can explain or account for. And secondly, I’m fond of making lists – many observant fans have noticed that a great number of my songs are essentially lists of funny things set to music. So, I’m quite comfortable compiling lists of funny things.

Q: What advice can you offer other writers who aspire to write a children’s story entirely in rhyme?
A: For some reason, I’ve found that there is a bit of a stigma around children’s books written in verse – a lot of critics seem to look down their collective noses at it. But I think perhaps that’s because bad verse is usually more painful to read than bad prose… so if you’re actually fairly skilled at coming up with interesting, compelling poetry, I don’t really think that applies. Therefore, my advice would be, if you’re writing a rhyming children’s book, by all means, don’t be mediocre!

Q: What’s next for you in terms of your literary career?
A: I thoroughly enjoyed my picture book writing experience, and I’m hoping to do more (HarperCollins thinks this is a good idea as well). My plan is to write book #2 –whatever it is – sometime this summer while I’m not on tour.

Q: What will you be up to in terms of your music?
A: I’m touring sporadically this year – I just finished 3 weeks in Australia, and I’ll be popping up around North America this spring and fall (check for tour dates). And my next studio album is way overdue and alllllllmost done… hopefully that will be out in the not-too-distant future!