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Writer Dan Greenburg changes careers, gets hugged by his readers

From Playboy to The Zack Files, former men's magazine writer now gets accolades and hugs from ten-year-olds

Dan Greenburg

Author Dan Greenburg

Writer Dan Greenburg says he misses the adventures he used to write about—attending an exorcism, participating in a voodoo ceremony in Haiti, and flying upside down in a airplane being just a few examples. But his new career as a children’s author provide rewards of their own: heartfelt appreciation from his young readership.

“Dear Mr. Greenburg,” wrote a fan of Greenburg’s series of books for elementary school readers, The Zack Files. “I love your books and The Zack Files is my favorite series. When you die, can I take over the writing of it?”

To people over forty, the name Dan Greenburg might be familiar from his book How to Be a Jewish Mother, a send-up of a type of overprotective mother that was a top seller of 1965. Or from his comedic articles in the pages of magazines such as Playboy, Esquire, and The New Yorker. He also wrote novels, including the thriller Love Kills, and the autobiographical 1972 book Scoring: A Sexual Memoir.

Which makes Greenburg’s mid-life career change into children’s literature all the more unlikely. Yet he never made a conscious change of careers; it unfolded of its own accord in the mid-1990s after he tried unsuccessfully to sell a short story.

“I was playing ball in my backyard with my son Zack,” Greenburg recalls, “who was ten years old, and we were playing with my mother who was then eighty-eight. And she held a bat for the first time in her life and he pitched her a ball, and she hit it! And she hit it again. And it suddenly occurred to me—an entire story took shape in my mind.”

Greenburg wrote the story and offered it to publishers who praised it for its humor but rejected it for various reasons. (“We’ve already got too many baseball stories” was one.)

But one publisher who liked the story made Greenburg an offer he couldn’t refuse–to write a series of children’s books. For a long-time freelancer, writing a series was a form of job security.

“I’ve never had anything that even remotely seemed like a job—and this was a job! This started out with four books in The Zack Files series and it went on to be thirty books. And that led to other series.”

Greenburg says his initial goal for the children’s books, which include the series Maximum Boy, Secrets of the Dripping Fang, and Weird Planet, is simply to make his young readers laugh. But he soon learned that his books do more than that.

“I started getting letters from children and teachers and parents saying that I was turning reluctant readers on to reading. Which was really an unexpected benefit.”

Another benefit for Greenburg is meeting his readers face to face at his elementary school presentations. He begins each presentation by reading an excerpt from one of books. Using acting skills he honed doing stand-up comedy and performing bit parts in movies, he acts out the characters using different voices.

“Which is very dramatic and I get to use a lot of different voices. I’m kind of a ham . . . . I build the action up to a certain point—an impossible cliffhanging ending, and then I say ‘I can’t tell you anymore because you’re going to have to read the book.’ Which I then agree with them is a giant ripoff.”

Greenburg’s favorite part of his presentation is taking questions from the audience. He delights in the honest spontaneity of the kids he speaks to, typically seven to 10-year-olds.

“It’s a wonderful age because they’re the most articulate without being self-conscious about being”—here he expertly imitates a teenager sounding nonchalant—“laid back and cool. Just can’t get too involved with this. And they really will ask you anything at all. They ask me how much money I make.”

Greenburg lives in a quiet community about a half-hour from New York City, with his third wife, the writer Judith Greenburg. Judith writes the Andrew Lost series of science adventure books for ages six to 10. She got into writing for children after seeing how much fun Dan was having giving talks to kids.

“She used to actually accompany me to school presentations and she would see how much fun it was talking to the kids and afterwards they would come up and hug you. I never got hugged as an adult author. But I get hugged a lot as a kid author.”

Greenburg hasn’t completely turned his back on writing for adults. He’s working on a stage version of Scoring. And, even at age 72, he’s still looking for hair-raising adventures. He recently contacted a tiger ranch in Florida, where he’s planning to go and play with the big cats.

Visit Judith Greenburg‘s website.

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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