Of all the great characters in children’s literature, only a select few achieve such fame that, like Madonna, they need only a first name: Eloise, Madeline, Ramona — and of course Alexander, he of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. He has sold millions of books, including several sequels, and spawned a small cottage industry — a doll, a musical, an animated short film, and, on Friday, a Disney feature film starring Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner.
The real Alexander — Alex Viorst, who happens to live in Northwest Washington — finds the whole thing a kick. Now a 47-year-old father of three who works in affordable-housing finance, Viorst sees the success of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” as a welcome accident of fate. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said in an interview at his home in AU Park.
When his mother, Judith Viorst, conceived the book in the early 1970s, she had already written books featuring his older brothers, Anthony and Nicholas. It was young Alex’s turn to be the star. He had no idea that his mother had dreamed up a storyline in which his character would endure a litany of adversities — finding gum in his messy red hair, being served lima beans for dinner, not getting the shoes he wants — or that it would resonate with so many children and their parents.
When she initially read him the book, Viorst says, his response was, “How come I have to have such a rotten day? Why can’t I have a great day?” His mother, he says, offered to change the character’s name to Stanley, but after some thought, Viorst decided that he preferred his own name in big letters.
“I rolled the dice,” he says, “and it was probably one of the better decisions I’ve made.” The book, which was published in 1972 and has since sold more than 7 million copies and been translated into multiple languages, hasn’t exactly turned Viorst into a celebrity, but the association “certainly hasn’t closed any doors, and it probably has opened a few, wittingly or unwittingly,” he says. When people realize who he is — Viorst, he points out, isn’t a common name — they sometimes make the connection, and “it’s generally positive. People like the book and by the transitive property hopefully they like me a little more.” In college, he says, it may have helped him meet a few girls (though it didn’t help with his wife, Marla, who says she didn’t remember reading the book when she met Viorst).
Sitting in his comfortable, child-friendly living room (with nary an Alexander memento in sight), he recalls some surreal moments as the namesake for a classic children’s book character. When Viorst, who grew up in Cleveland Park and went to Georgetown, was in elementary school at Georgetown Day School, his friends and teachers knew he was the “Alexander” in a favorite library book. “It was a weird situation,” he says, but fortunately it did not lead to his being teased or singled out.
Stranger still was reading the book to his own children — now 13, 10 and 8. When his oldest child, Olivia, was about 2 or 3, he says, he went down to her shelf to grab a book “and there it was.” He hadn’t prepared for that moment, he says. “She was old enough to appreciate the book,” he notes, “but I read it like 100 times before she figured it out.” His kids at first thought everyone’s dad was in a book written by their grandmother.
Even today, he sometimes is asked for autographs by adults still charmed by his endearing fictional doppelganger. Recently, he says, at a work conference in Las Vegas, a woman on an elevator overheard him speaking to a colleague about his fictional alter ego, and was so star-struck she approached him “like I was Mick Jagger,” he says. But he has also experienced the opposite reaction: disappointment from children who meet him and notice that he doesn’t resemble Alexander.
Indeed, Alex Viorst seems to have little in common with “Terrible” Alexander. For one thing, he doesn’t have floppy red hair — and never did. The original illustrator, Ray Cruz, didn’t meet the young Viorst before conjuring his now-famous hair and his railroad train pajamas, which Viorst said he never had either. “We slept in T-shirts and shorts,” he says, “I don’t think we had matching anything. Certainly not socks.” He also is not especially clumsy — in fact he is an avid skier, hiker and a mountain biker who recently joined a cycling team with his son Isaac.
And, he says, he wasn’t particularly unlucky as a child. “Did I go to the shoe store and not get the shoes I wanted? Yeah, probably,” he says. “I’m sure I got cavities, and my brothers and I got into fights,” he says. But he insists that he is not Alexander. “Creative artistic license — my mother is very good at that,” he says. She is also gifted at distilling childhood problems into an engaging 20 or so pages, he says.
“I write fiction,” says Judith Viorst, now 83, “but I write about real feelings.” She says that she wrote the book (whose first publisher turned it down) to cheer up her young son, who she contends “was always having rotten days.”
Now that the movie has hit theaters, Alex Viorst expects more surreal moments but takes it all with good humor. (Before this week’s red carpet premiere, he joked that maybe he’d be “picked to be the next James Bond.”) The film takes many liberties with the book; the whole family is having a bad day and Alexander is trying to “reel them in” and explain that things will get better, just as his parents have been telling him his whole life. And, like the book Alexander, the movie Alexander doesn’t quite resemble his muse. “He’s 12 and blond,” says Viorst. “I’m neither.”
After more than 40 years — and many incarnations of Alexander — Viorst says he is “still rooting for him. I think of him as a friend that I hope doesn’t have a bad day, but dammit, he always seems to have a bad day. He’s like the Redskins — you know they’re not going to win but you root for them anyway.” When Viorst himself has bad days, he says, “Alexander” sometimes offers him perspective: “On any given bad day, we have to assume tomorrow will be better. That’s what keeps me going. I’m often reminding myself and my family of that.”
Has he ever again asked his mother to make life a little easier for Alexander? It doesn’t matter, Viorst says; haplessness has become a part of who he is. Alexander having a wonderful, terrific, very good day, he says, “would be like Voldemort being a good guy.”