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"I write them as well as I can and I'm not under any illusion that this is grand literary fiction. This is something that is designed to be exciting and fun to read and get reluctant readers reading. I've heard a lot of reports on that from teachers and librarians who say that the kids who don't like to read are drawn to these books, which makes me feel really good. Because if they can start with Chet Gecko, they can move into Tom Sawyer or Anna Karenina or whatever."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here's what happened: in the late 1980s, Hawaii resident and GTE employee Bruce Hale was driving down the freeway when he noticed he'd picked up a passenger. "I was cruising along," says Hale, "fifty miles an hour. I look out and on the hood of my car there are little feet, glued to the car: the wind buffeting it. This little, brown gecko. And I'm going around the corners, and this gecko is just hanging on and the wind is blowing it. And it struck me: This is no ordinary gecko. This is supergecko. So when I got home I started doing some gecko cartoons: a gecko superhero with a cape."

The cartoons evolved and in some ways took on a life of their own. After a while, Hale found he had developed a character: Moki, the surfing gecko. Hale found a publisher in Hawaii willing to take a chance on a children's picture book featuring a surf-riding gecko and then went back to work, just in time to be laid off as part of a downsizing. And then a funny thing happened: the picture book came out. "I looked at these two different career paths and said: You know, I'm not going to go beating my head against the corporate wall anymore." Writing children's books, says Hale, looked a lot more fun than bashing his head against that corporate wall.

As it turned out, Hale was right. Hale wrote five Moki the Surfing Gecko books with Words + Pictures Press of Hawaii before dreaming up the character that would bring him "mainland" recognition. And, despite the author's best intentions, that character was a gecko, as well. Though this time, the gecko didn't ride a surfboard: he solved schoolyard crimes.

"The funny thing is" says Hale, "when I started out writing the series I didn't want to write a gecko. I was thinking a dog or a cat or some other animal."

Though his intentions were to write some different animal, what came out was a first-person narrative in the classic crime fiction style and the narrator's name was Chet Gecko. "That was the name of the character and it sounded so perfect that I just surrendered and said: OK. That's who the character is."

Hale's instincts, once again, proved to be correct: each Chet Gecko book published -- five are currently in print, the sixth is in production and the seventh, The Malted Falcon, is the one Hale is working on now -- has been more popular than the last. The titles themselves are irresistible, blending classic noir fiction with gecko-inspired humor. The current book is The Hamster of the Baskervilles. Others include The Chameleon Wore Chartreuse, The Big Nap and Farewell, My Lunch Bag.

The Chet Gecko character has recently been optioned for a feature-length, computer animated film and Hale is seriously considering working on a detective manual/cookbook starring Chet Gecko and recipes like Mosquito Marshmallow Surprise. "And of course," says Hale, "we'll have substitutions: If mosquitos are out of season, please substitute raisins. That kind of thing."

Hale, 44, recently moved to Santa Barbara, where he is at work on many other projects, not all of which involve geckos.

 

Linda Richards: Are you a Raymond Chandler fan?

Bruce Hale: Oh, absolutely. I really admired the founders of the [crime fiction] genre: Chandler and Hamet. I also like a lot of 1940s movies that had that kind of style to them. Usually when I'm about to write one of these books I watch a bunch of old film noir to get the rhythm of language in my head. It's good fun.

What's with you and geckos?

Everyone wonders that. Well, me and geckos: it goes back to Hawaii. I lived there for 18 years and if you live there, geckos are a resident of your house: you don't need to have them as a pet, they just hang out behind the curtains, they sit on the windows at night and eat the bugs that are attracted to the light. They were all around. The way that I got to drawing and sketching them is one day I was driving towards my home along the freeway. I was cruising along, 50 miles an hour. I look out and on the hood of my car there are little feet, glued to the car: the wind buffeting it. This little, brown gecko. And I'm going around the corners, and this gecko is just hanging on and the wind is blowing it. And it struck me: This is no ordinary gecko. This is supergecko. So when I got home I started doing some gecko cartoons: a gecko superhero with a cape. I'm not really that kind of cartoonist: I love drawing cartoons but I'm not a comic book cartoonist as such. But I found the character so fun to draw that I evolved this character as Moki, the surfing gecko. That was my whole entree into the world of geckos.

I did five picture books published in Hawaii about this surfing gecko. So it came time that I was ready to do something different -- I didn't want to do anymore gecko things -- and I sat down and was sort of doodling with a story idea. Thinking: OK it's time to write a mystery. To write a lot of mysteries. And I wrote from the viewpoint of the character in that classic voice-over narration style. And what came out was -- in the first page or so -- the character described himself by saying: Kids say I'm someone who can solve mysteries. They're right. I can. Who am I? Chet Gecko, private eye. That was the name of the character and it sounded so perfect that I just surrendered and said: OK. That's who the character is.

It does have a good sound to it.

And that's really crucial for that whole milieu. It has to have that sort of feel to it. Like Nick Danger. Chet Gecko.

Moki was also aimed at kids.

Oh yeah, but at younger kids. Preschool up through maybe third or fourth grade. [The Chet Gecko books] are the next reading bracket up.

When was the first Moki book?

The first Moki book came out in 1989. It was great because it also marked the end of my corporate career. I'd been working for the phone company -- GTE -- in Hawaii. I was laid off as part of this round of downsizing. At the same time I was laid off the first Moki book came out and I looked at these two different career paths and said: You know, I'm not going to go beating my head against the corporate wall anymore.

You wanted something more fun?

Exactly. So over the years 1989 to the late 90s I published five of these Moki the Gecko books and basically learned how to be a children's book writer. And with each book I got better: I made less mistakes, I got closer and closer to being accepted by a mainland publisher and finally Harcourt really liked the story of Chet Gecko and up and away.

How did you teach yourself to be a children's book author?

A combination of things. One of them is just sheer stubbornness. [Laughs] I just kept doing it, kept sending things out and collecting a stack of rejection letters this thick. Another thing I did was join an international organization called the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators -- SCBWI. It was tremendously helpful. They have lots of information, they have seminars and workshops, both on a local level and on a national level.

So I just went to those and talked to editors, found out what they were looking for. The process of learning as you go and making all the mistakes you can along the way.

The Hamster of the Baskervilles is the fifth book in the Chet Gecko series?

Yes.

And I know there's a sixth one already on the way.

There's one every six months.

And I gather you've really built a readership. Kids are waiting for the next Chet Gecko book now.

Oh yeah. I get e-mails from kids saying: When is the next one coming out? It's a really good sign. And there's been lots of interest. There's been an audiobook made of the first two books in the series, narrated by John Cryer, who was in Pretty In Pink and some other things like that. And the audiobook is really great: he did a really good job. And just recently I signed an agreement with a company that wants to make a Chet Gecko movie. They want to do a computer animated movie. And they're a company that partnered with Dreamworks last year to do Shrek. So it's very exciting. They have a very good vision for it: they think it could be both a movie and a series, because it actually lends itself to be a series.

That's tremendous, Bruce. I love it! From laid-off telephone company worker to Hollywood. It must be very exciting.

It is, but the truth is in Hollywood things get optioned all the time and they don't always make it into movies. So even though this is a great company and they have a lot of clout and are very excited about [Chet Gecko], there are no guarantees. So when it gets to the point where they have a big studio as their partner and they have the distribution covered and they send me that check that says: Yes, we're starting production, then I'll be real excited. [Laughs] I'll be skipping rope down Main Street.

I'm still wondering about this double gecko thing, Bruce. Was there ever a part of you that thought: another gecko when you started on the Chet Gecko books? Did you consider making him some other creature?

The funny thing is when I started out writing the series I didn't want to write a gecko. I was thinking a dog or a cat or some other animal.

But the gecko just called?

Yeah and that name was just so perfect and the character's voice was already there in my head. It was just an unusual experience. I think writing is somewhat akin to schizophrenia. Because you sit there and you listen to voices in your head you do what they say. [Laughs]

Are you a dad?

No I'm not.

Did you have specific children in mind when you started writing? Kids you knew?

Well, when I write, I write to entertain myself. I don't think of writing for kids of a certain level or age. I don't ask: Are they going to understand this? I just write to entertain myself. Then in the editing process, that's when I start to look at word choice and sentence length and kind of adapting it more.

The Chet Gecko mysteries are very happy books.

I write them as well as I can and I'm not under any illusion that this is grand literary fiction. This is something that is designed to be exciting and fun to read and get reluctant readers reading. I've heard a lot of reports on that from teachers and librarians who say that the kids who don't like to read are drawn to these books, which makes me feel really good. Because if they can start with Chet Gecko, they can move into Tom Sawyer or Anna Karenina or whatever.

You're also a performer.

Yes.

That must have been helpful to you as a children's author, because you do school tours and stuff, don't you?

I do conferences, school visits, library visits and I always try to make my appearances very entertaining. I wear different hats and act out different characters. I do a cartooning talk for kids and teach them the basics of cartooning, which almost always grabs their attention. Even if they're not interested in the books, they like the drawing. Whatever we can use as a hook! [Laughs]

Are you still performing non-child related things?

Not since I moved. I moved to Santa Barbara in July of [2001]. Before that, when I was living in Hawaii, I did lots of stuff. I did musicals, adult plays, children's theater, commercials. I was in one independent film which is still in the editing stages, it hasn't come out yet. So I did different things.

Do you think you'll ever write about something besides Geckos?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, I have a picture book that I just finished the second round of revisions on, it's called Snoring Beauty. It's a fractured fairy tale and it's non-gecko: there is nothing of lizardity in it. [Laughs] I had that idea for the title and I said: Oh, this is too fun. I've gotta do this.

When is it coming out?

They don't have a publishing date for it. I suspect it will be late 2003 at the earliest.

How much did you have to learn about geckos to write Chet -- and Moki. Did you have to research?

I studied them a little bit but, of course. In Hawaii having them all around you get to study their behavior pretty easily: how they drop their tails if they're cornered, how they climb up glass or whatever.

Anything that has worked its way into one of Chet's stories?

Not much. In fact some of the actual details about what geckos do were so biological and so odd that I didn't use them in the books. I anthropomorphize the character.

I guess it wouldn't be very nice for Chet to drop his tail in every book.

No. Although he does drop his tail in the first book. He uses it to escape a tight spot. You can't do it too often because, the truth is, it grows back, but it never comes back as long or as well formed [as it was]. It's kind of a scraggly little tail. And geckos also don't have eyelids. They clean their eyes by licking them with their tongue. But that was just a little too over the top. And I'd already drawn him with eyelids, so it was too late.

One of the things they tell you when you go to write a children's book is not to do that: not to anthromorphize animals. Yet some of the most successful children's books do exactly that.

They also tell you: Don't write rhyming text. And everybody tries to do that and it's really hard to do well. But, still, there's lots of rhyming text published. So I think it's just a matter of how well you can do it and how original your voice is. That's what publishers always say they're looking for. Every seminar I go to, every conference, they say: We want a new, fresh voice. So if you've got that, it doesn't really matter. Lots of people have done wizards and sorcery things and then J.K. Rowling had an unusual, different voice and was a great storyteller and... [an eloquent shrug that requires no further explanation].

You write crime fiction for children: have you ever thought of translating that to novels that grown-ups will read?

Yeah. I would love to write a mystery for grown-ups. I've been toying with a couple of different ideas but I don't have the story ... it has to coalesce first. And once the story coalesces and I have at least a character or a starting point then I can begin. But at this point it's just real vague. And I'm busy turning out the Chet Gecko books every six months and touring schools and bookstores. So it's not going to happen for a while, I don't think. But there's a longer children's fiction book I'd like to write that involves time travel and some interesting and fun stuff. It's a little further along in the idea stage. I've got the characters and am playing with plot ideas, but I kind of need a stretch of time to dig into it.

What's the next Chet Gecko book?

I'm working on the seventh book right now which is called The Malted Falcon. And there's two more after number seven that are under contract. And I was just talking to my editor in a meeting in San Francisco and we were brainstorming ideas for a Chet Gecko detective manual-slash-cookbook. It will have his recipes for Mosquito Marshmallow Surprise and recommending what you should eat on a stakeout. This sort of thing. It will be kind of a jokey book, but will have some legitimate things like how you shadow somebody or how you collect evidence.

And it will be real food?

Yeah. It will be real food. I know a writer who is a cook in San Diego. So she'll come up with these recipes and of course we'll have substitutions: If mosquitos are out of season, please substitute raisins. That kind of thing.

Cool! But we won't talk about that too much, because that's probably far [into the future].

Well, we we were talking about doing it when the next two books come out in paperback which would be next spring [2003]. But I don't know for sure if that will happen. It may be for the fall of next year or the spring of the following year. So we're working on that and it sounds like my publisher wants more Chet Gecko books so before too long I'll probably pitch them more story ideas. There are lots of projects on the horizon and the people that are doing the movie want me to be actively involved: checking out the script, giving story ideas.

Any voice-over stuff?

Yeah, actually. I talked to the producer and said: If I'm going to sign this contract, I want to be able to do at least a voice. And he was totally up for it.

And you're a performer, so that could work.

Yeah: it would be perfect. I don't want to be Chet or one of the really main characters, but I'd like to be a supporting character. I think that would be fun: just to participate in the process. | June 2002

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.

 

You can visit Bruce Hale on the Web.