Paul Zindel Biography

Paul Zindel has written a host of wackily titled works, including Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball and My Darling, My Hamburger. Though trained at Wagner College as a chemist, Zindel is famous for his plays and young adult novels, many of which are still taught in schools. Zindel’s books tend to focus on abused and neglected children dealing with loneliness and isolation. They are often dark and tragic works, yet many of them have a humorous tone and deal with issues universal to teenagers. Zindel’s own early experiences shaped his writing. His father left the family when he was young, and his mother—a professional nurse—often got caught up in cons and other shady activities. Zindel’s first novel, The Pigman, has been widely banned because of its language and subject matter, but it remains one of his most popular.

Facts and Trivia

  • Zindel taught science for a number of years but eventually gave it up. He said, “I felt I could do more for teenagers by writing for them.” He wanted to show teenagers they had a voice through his fiction.
  • Zindel was greatly influenced by playwright Edward Albee, who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Zindel once took a ten-day seminar with Albee and tried to model his career after him.
  • Zindel wrote the screenplay for the flop film version of Mame, which starred Lucille Ball.
  • Zindel’s children followed in his artistic footsteps. His daughter Lizabeth is a playwright and actress, and his son David is a filmmaker.
  • The characters of John and Lorraine in The Pigman were inspired by real-life teenagers whom Zindel knew.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032

Paul Zindel was born in Staten Island, New York, on May 15, 1936, the son of Paul and Beatrice Mary Frank Zindel. His father, a policeman, deserted his family when Paul was two years old, leaving Beatrice with the responsibility of raising Paul and his sister, Betty, who was two years older. The breakup of the family left Paul with a deep-seated feeling of resentment toward his father, who ignored his children and failed to make any financial contribution to their support.

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Following her husband’s desertion, Zindel’s mother worked in a variety of jobs, supplementing her salary at times by stealing small items from her clients. Since many of these jobs were short-term practical nursing assignments, the family moved frequently. As a result, Zindel’s childhood was rootless and lonely. This loneliness was intensified when he developed tuberculosis at age fifteen and was forced to spend eighteen months in a sanatorium, where most of the patients were adults.

After his recovery and return to high school, Zindel, who had shown an interest in writing plays, entered a playwriting contest sponsored by the American Cancer Society. He was awarded a silver ballpoint pen for his drama about a pianist who recovers from a serious illness to play Frédéric Chopin’s Warsaw Concerto at Carnegie Hall.

During his senior year in high school, feeling what he called a “teenaged angst,” Zindel dropped out of school and traveled to Miami, Florida, where he tried unsuccessfully to find a job. After two weeks and the total exhaustion of his financial resources, Zindel returned to New York, where he finished high school in 1954, one year late. He then applied to five colleges, without any clear idea of what he wanted to do. He was accepted by several prestigious schools but decided to attend Wagner College on Staten Island, a move he believes was prompted by low self-esteem and social insecurity, legacies he attributes to his mother.

Zindel majored in chemistry at Wagner but maintained his interest in writing. He served as editor for the school newspaper and wrote an original play as his term paper for a continental drama course. During a visit to New York to cover a writers conference (an assignment he had given himself), Zindel came under the spell of Edward Albee, a playwright best known for his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Zindel signed up for a course taught by Albee and under his famous teacher’s direction completed a play, Dimensions of Peacocks (unpublished). Produced in 1959, the play, about a disturbed teenager whose domineering mother is a practical nurse who steals from her patients, anticipates much of Zindel’s later work.

Zindel was still uncertain about a career when he graduated from Wagner College. He needed a job, but he wanted to write, and he compromised by accepting a technical writing position with Allied Chemical. Six months later, bored and tired of commuting, he returned to Wagner to complete a master’s program in education.

In the fall of 1959, he was hired to teach physics and chemistry at Staten Island’s Tottenville High School. He continued at the school until 1969, spending his summers writing plays. His second play, Euthanasia and the Endless Hearts (unpublished) was produced in 1960 and was followed in 1964 by A Dream of Swallows (unpublished). Neither play attracted critical attention.

During the summer of 1963, Zindel wrote The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play inspired by Zindel’s memories of his mother. The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, was first produced in 1965 by Houston’s Alley Theater. A year later, Zindel took a one-year leave of absence from teaching to accept a Ford Foundation playwright-in-residence award at Alley Theater.

When he returned from Houston, Zindel became discouraged with teaching and resigned so that he could spend more time writing. Encouraged by Charlotte Zolotow, a children’s book editor at Harper & Row who had been impressed with teenagers Ruth and Tillie in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Zindel began exploring the possibility of writing a young adult novel. After careful research, Zindel decided he wanted to attempt a novel of this type. The Pigman, which many consider a groundbreaking novel, was published in 1968 and was followed quickly by a second young adult novel, My Darling, My Hamburger (1969).

Zindel’s third novel, I Never Loved Your Mind, was published in 1970, a year that marked the beginning of one of the most intense periods in his life. By 1973, he had completed three plays, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little (1967), The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild (1972), and The Ladies Should Be in Bed (1973), besides working on several screenplays. Two of Zindel’s plays, Let Me Hear You Whisper (1970) and a shortened version of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, were produced by National Education Television (NET) during this period. Shortly after this flurry of activity, Zindel had a breakdown and entered psychoanalysis.

On October 25, 1973, Zindel married Bonnie Hildebrand, who had helped in his recovery from his breakdown, and the couple moved to New York. The Zindels’ first child, David, was born in 1974, and their second, Lizabeth, was born in 1976. The arrival of children may have prompted Zindel to write a children’s picture book, I Love My Mother (1975). This was followed by three more young adult novels, Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball! (1976), Confessions of a Teenage Baboon (1977), and The Undertaker’s Gone Bananas (1978). A play, Ladies at the Alamo, was produced in 1975.

In 1978, Zindel, seeking to earn more money, moved to Beverly Hills, California. By his own admission, money was his main motivation for writing during his California period. After writing three so-called potboilers—The Pigman’s Legacy (1980), The Girl Who Wanted a Boy (1981), and When a Darkness Falls (1984)—Zindel returned to the style of writing found in his earlier novels. Harry and Hortense at Hormone High (1984) and A Begonia for Miss Applebaum (1989) are both in The Pigman tradition of Zindel fiction. In 1985, Zindel, feeling that he was losing both artistic and moral perspective, moved his family back to New York. It was in that city that he died in 2003 of cancer at the age of sixty-six.

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