We lived, from when I was five, up in a small town in Vermont. There were four other artists who did Saturday Evening Post covers, and my father used everybody as models. There wasn't any great television hype about the whole thing. While it was noteworthy that you did a painting that appeared in the Post, it wasn't terribly unusual, especially in Arlington. And he was a very modest, ordinary person. I mean, that's how he felt about himself. He didn't wear funny clothes, like a beret or something, and put on airs. So it really wasn't a childhood in the glare of publicity at all. It was sort of ordinary. And your friends went in and posed. The only thing was that he used to pay non-family members $5, and he only paid my brothers and I a dollar for posing. So that seemed to be a little unfair.
Did you pose for a lot of his pictures?
I can remember five or ten, but I wasn't one of his favorite models. He had some favorite models that he used a lot. Some of them were grownups, but a lot of them were kids. For instance, Buddy Edgerton, who was the son of the farmer who lived right beside us. And then there was Chucky Marsh, a little boy who appeared in lots of things. I don't know if you know the Post cover of "A Day in the Life of a Little Boy." And then there was Mary Whalen, who appeared in "A Day in the Life of a Little Girl." She appeared in lots of them, because she was just perfect.
What do you mean by "perfect"?
She was very pretty, but she wasn't a glamour girl. She had a very sympathetic smile, and she was just very warm-looking--you know, with a warm expression. When he would try to find a child who was a good model, they had to be able to change their expressions. So he always asked them to raise their eyebrows, see how high they could raise their eyebrows.
Were you were raised in any religious faith?
No. My father's parents had been very, very strict Christians and made him do a lot of things, and he sort of reacted against that as far as going to church and that sort of thing. So we didn't very often go to church.
So he didn't really practice any religion?
No, no. I think you can see that he still had feelings from his pictures, but he had been put off from going to church by draconian parents. You know, no family is really a "Norman Rockwell family."
What do you mean?
All families have troubles. Divorce, for instance, didn't figure very largely in my father's pictures. He tended to look at these scenes--not that he's giving an unrealistic picture, but there was usually something humorous or kindly, and that sort of thing. It's just a milder point of view, but it is supported by the marvelous realism of his paintings. And there are dark moments, but they just are looked at a little more calmly. Nobody beats anybody over the head. Somebody once said that my father was “painting his happiness.”
What were his darker moments?
He always felt he was skinny and had a big Adam's apple, and his upbringing was…he felt that his mother was trying to hold him back in some ways. Like she would have a card party or something, and she would bring him down all dressed up and say, "This is Norman and he's my Siamese twin.” And of course, that's not altogether helpful with a boy. And then, she was quite a hypochondriac. His brother was very sick when they were young, I think he had TB and had to be away. So there are all these different strains that go on in most families.
Do you think these dark periods affected him as an artist? The challenge and conflict?
Yes, absolutely. There had to be something that would make him work as hard as he did. You know, on Thanksgiving Day he would go out in the morning and work, and then we'd have dinner, and then he'd go out in the afternoon and work.
So he really was driven.
Yes, very much so.
Did you ever feel that he wasn't available as much as you wished?
I think I just accepted it because that's the way it was. And of course, he was around even more than other fathers because he always worked in his studio, which was in back of the house. It was a separate building, but it was in back of the house. And if he wasn't working on something that was really difficult--like a head--you could go in and sit and watch him and talk to him.
We have two Rockwell pictures at Beliefnet. One is "Freedom of Worship" from the Four Freedoms. And the other is "Do Unto Others..." So he seemed to be interested in faith.
Certainly he was. The Four Freedoms shows how he felt it was important. One of the hallmarks of his character was his tolerance, which shows in the Four Freedoms, and especially in "Freedom of Worship."
There's another one which is also rather famous, about this elderly lady and her grandson saying grace in a cafeteria in a railroad station, and everybody else is looking at them--kindly and respectfully--but it does seem a little strange when you're in a public place. I think it does show a sort of dichotomy with the larger modern society.
What were his values?
Well, I think mostly it was tolerance and respect for others--even if they were different in some way or had different beliefs. I think that runs through all his work. And one of the reasons that people respond to his work is because he does look warmly at people. The way he feels about people shows.
What has your spiritual path been? Do you practice any kind of spirituality or religion?
No, I haven't, partly because of the way I was brought up, but I guess literature is more what I look towards, Shakespeare and things like that.
Yes, and for finding out about things.
Were you and your brothers encouraged to be creative?
There wasn't any pressure, but my father felt that the one and only career he knew was being an artist. You could say we sort of went into the family business, because my two brothers are artists. If he'd been a banker, maybe we would have become bankers. But he was an artist, so we got into the creative fields. My younger brother, Peter, is a sculptor, and my older brother, Jarvis, draws and paints and constructs things.
What inspired you to be a writer?
Really my mother. She was very interested in children's books, and she had built up a big library. She had done some writing herself--nothing was published, but she'd done some writing and studied it. And she built up a big library of children's books and used to read to us all the time, and I think that's probably what influenced me most.
How did you get the idea for "How To Eat Fried Worms"?
I had gone down to New York City to see an editor about another manuscript, and she picked one page out of 150 and said, well, she sort of liked this. I live about 75 miles from New York. As I was driving home, feeling terrible because of what the editor said, I was trying to think of something else to write about. All of a sudden, it popped in my mind: "Why don't I write a book about a boy who eats worms?" I think I was feeling as if I was eating worms because of the editor not liking the manuscript. You know, there's that old song, "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm going to eat some worms."
It’s a gross concept, but we see people doing things like this on “Survivor” all the time now. But 33 years ago, it was unusual.
My agent reminded me the other day that the book had been rejected by 23 editors when we sent it in, and mostly because they thought, "Oh, it would be too disgusting for the librarians and teachers to be interested in." You know, a lot of children's books are sold first to librarians and teachers.
I've heard that before Harry Potter, yours was the book for reluctant readers, especially for boys. It’s been a best-seller for more than 30 years.
Yes, I've heard that too, which is very nice. Teachers or parents have written me to say they gave this book to kids, and they began reading.
Has the movie has drawn more readers back to the book?
Well, a movie and a book are different experiences and one doesn't preclude the other, it seems to me. You would hope that they would sort of cross-fertilize.
What lessons do you think kids get out of the book?
Well, I didn't really write it with a moral in mind. I was just writing it for fun, but I do think it does indicate that sometimes you have to eat worms to get something nice or to get through something. You have to persevere. You know, I could have just eaten the worm that the editor had given me and quit writing--but I didn't.