Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Judith Viorst’s son Alexander is 50 years old. Alexander Viorst is 46; his brother Nick is 50. This version has been corrected.
Judith Viorst has a folder. It’s “about this thick,” she says, holding her thumb and her forefinger about two inches apart. In it are articles she has seen that quote the most famous phrase she has ever written: “terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.”
It pops up everywhere. Celebrities. Sports teams. Politicians from blue to red. Everybody has them, which is one reason for the widespread and enduring “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day.” Another reason is that, like every good addition to the lexicon, Viorst’s has that “it” quality: There’s something in the rhythm, the momentum. It sticks in your head like a pop song.
Viorst doesn’t remember giving the phrasing that much consideration: “I think it just came,” she said. She has a similar way of describing how she knows which book ideas are worth pursuing: “The best I can do is, it’s like a ‘ding!’ You’re writing and then something starts falling into place and you hear or feel a ding. And it just feels — it’s going to be okay.”
In her decades-long writing career, Viorst, 82, has heard that ding 37 times — while writing poetry for children and adults, fiction and nonfiction books, and three musicals. Make that four: “Lulu and the Brontosaurus,” based on Viorst’s children’s book of the same name, will be enjoying its world premiere at Imagination Stage in Bethesda later this month.
Viorst is feeling “patriotic” about the whole thing, to see the show produced in her neighborhood (she has lived in Washington with her husband, journalist Milton Viorst, for more than 50 years), and at the theater where she takes her grandchildren. “It’s a big thrill that something I’ve done is going to be there and be part of that story of the work that they’ve done.”
Lulu was born on a rainy day in Maine when Viorst was trying to entertain two of her grandsons, then ages 9 and 11, and had exhausted various forms of entertainment. She started telling stories, and out came Lulu. “We’re all marching around the living room, ‘I’m gonna, gonna, gonna, get a bronto-bronto-saurus,’ ” she said. “And we all sort of liked this difficult girl and her tantrumy, spoiled-brat ways.”
“Most of the characters I have in my children’s books are grouchy or annoyed about something, or are calling each other unfriendly names,” she said. She was sitting back in a chair in her living room, her brown hair tucked behind her ears and her legs crossed, speaking between sips of iced tea and bites of M&Ms. “Like my own kids, they’re not honeys and sweetie pies and little angels. They’re kids. Sloppy, dirty, stinky. Lulu, I pushed the envelope a little further, I think, than I have. But I really liked her.”
Viorst wasn’t exactly an angel, either. At age 7, she was sending poems to the women’s magazines her mother read. Because her mother’s favorite poem was Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” (as those Poe wrote about were wont to do, Annabel Lee wound up dead: “In her sepulchre there by the sea — / In her tomb by the sounding sea”), Viorst thought that “if you didn’t have a corpse in it, it wasn’t a poem.”
“My writing contained a certain morbid streak. [My parents] felt very nervous.” Viorst recites her first poem from memory: “I wonder how the angels look / and what they do and say / they took my mom and daddy / and carried them away.”
But Viorst’s mom (very much alive at the time, as was her father) did instill in her daughter a passion for literature. “My mother was a huge, huge reader,” she said. “I think I picked up very early how precious it was, to write things in books and have people like my mother glued to the page.”
Viorst was a Jersey girl — raised in Maplewood, educated at Rutgers University — who met her second husband, Milton, in a meet-cute out of a Springsteen song: During the summer when she was 18 and he was 19, they were both waiting tables on the Jersey shore. “It’s a nice setting for a flirtation,” she said. “And the occasional marriage.”
She and Milton “decided to be friends,” she said, and they married other people. But both of their first marriages ended in divorce, and they reunited and were wed in 1960, when Milton was writing for The Washington Post and Viorst was living in New York’s Greenwich Village. “My friend said I was starring in a horror movie called ‘I’m marrying a creature from out of town,’ ” said Viorst, who kept a knuckle-white grip on her New York life for as long as she could, returning to the city “to get my teeth cleaned, my hair cut, to buy clothes.” Since arriving in Washington she has moved only once, from a Q Street brownstone near Dupont Circle to her Cleveland Park home.
Viorst’s home can be reached through a shortcut that feels as if it’s lifted from her “Number One favorite” book, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden”: a narrow sidewalk hugged on either side by greenery that ends across the street from her front door. Inside, artwork climbs the walls like ivy, with a few less-professional pieces scattered throughout and signed in crayon, in the corners, by a grandchild.
But long before she had seven grandchildren, before she had three children, back when she was a child, Viorst “was in love with children’s books.” In New York, one of her many jobs while trying and failing to break into the writing business was as a children’s book editor. She also worked as a secretary, as a garment district model “in very unglamorous circumstances.” Late bloomers, take notice: “I didn’t get one word published until I was well into my 30s,” she said. “But I always tried.”
Viorst finally broke through with a science book called “Project Space,” and, in 1972, published her first “Alexander” book. It was almost universally beloved, but one child who hated it was Alexander. Viorst gave her then-4-year-old middle son the manuscript to read. “I thought he was going to like it,” said Viorst. “He threw a tantrum.”
In a very in-character move, Alexander asked why she hadn’t given the bad day to one of his brothers, Nick or Anthony. Viorst talked him out of his rage, saying she could have the title changed to Stanley’s Bad Day or Walter’s Bad Day, “but then your name won’t be in great big letters,” Viorst said. “At that point, he decided it wasn’t so terrible.”
Alexander, who is 46, has come around. Four million copies and 41 years later, his day is getting the Hollywood treatment, starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, due in theaters in October 2014.
Viorst does not know the game plan for building the brontosaurus. She loved how Imagination Stage handled the construction of Aslan in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” and anticipates that at the first rehearsal she’ll “be pleasantly surprised” with what the workers have done. According to Imagination Stage, the dinosaur will never be seen in its entirety, to give the sense that it is just that big, bigger than the stage and even bigger than the theater.
Viorst is a sucker for this stuff — “The first musical I did [“Love and Shrimp”], the first time somebody said, ‘Five, six, seven, eight!’ [to kick off a dance number], I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Next year, Viorst has two children’s books coming out, one of which is another Lulu installment. “It’s called ‘Lulu’s Mysterious Mission.’ My grandsons gave me the title and then asked me to figure out a book to go with it.” The other, “And Two Boys Booed,” got its title from Viorst’s granddaughter, Olivia.
“I am obnoxiously disciplined,” said Viorst, who says she can write anywhere, anytime, in all conditions. The day of this interview, she wrote with a pad and pencil while getting her hair colored. Viorst gives herself quotas. She polishes the pages. She tells the children whose classrooms she visits that “I’m not a writer. I’m a rewriter. I go over and over and over. A million times.”
Writing, she said, hasn’t gotten easier with time, and one of the biggest misconceptions about children’s books is that they take little effort or brainpower to produce. It is work that makes her immensely happy — but still, it is work. “I don’t count on inspiration,” she said. “Inspiration follows pushing yourself, pushing yourself, pushing yourself.”
“When I got my first book published, I was in a state of high rapture for a very, very long time,” she said. “But you’ve got to love the process. . . . Most of what you’re doing is, you’re writing the book. You’re not hugging the book afterward. You have to love that enough.”
This article previously misstated Alexander Viorst’s age. He is 46 years old.
Imagination Stage, Sept. 25 through Oct. 27, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Information: imaginationstage.org, 301-961-6060.