“I think you have to continuously challenge yourself
as an artist.
Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle.
Go down some dead ends.
Otherwise it gets boring.”
— Marisabina Russo
I admire the survivors in this business. The people who have carved out long careers in children’s books. Sometimes the light shines down brightly, other times they stand alone. And yet the survivors persist. They keep creating, keep making. Hey, it’s not like there’s a choice. Fun fact: Marisabina and I both published our debut books in 1986 — 36 years ago! — and exactly one of those books is still in print. (Clue: It’s not mine.) I first met Marisabina at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival some years back. We were wolfing down free food. I hope you give this interview some time. Marisabina is wise, perceptive, modest, kind, experienced. All the good things. Btw, does anyone have a better first name? Marisabina! It’s a joy to say out loud. Look! Here she comes now.
Congratulations on a truly remarkable achievement. This new book feels like the summation of everything you’ve learned as a person and an artist — and yet, also, it shows that you are still growing, still learning new things. After a long and successful career, is this your most deeply personal work?
First of all, thank you! This book took me seven long years to complete and it only covers ten years of my life. I’m still recovering! It was the most challenging project of my career for several reasons. First, I had to dig deep to explore some pretty painful memories. Then I decided to tell my story in a graphic format, something I had never tried before. Next thing I knew, I was writing a script and teaching myself Photoshop! But I think you have to continuously challenge yourself as an artist. Learn a new vocabulary. Solve a puzzle. Go down some dead ends. Make discoveries. Otherwise it gets boring.
I love that. I think of it as: go to the thing that scares you. The project you aren’t sure you can handle. The challenges bring the best out of you.
Absolutely. It’s a leap of faith. The hard part is taking the first step and then trusting yourself to figure it out.
My pal, illustrator/author Matthew McElligott, has a great expression for that. “You know how to land the plane.” It’s a reassuring thought when you are circling rough terrain, low on fuel. A benefit of long experience. It might be scary, but you are pretty sure that you’ll survive without too many civilian casualties. I was wondering: When did you start thinking about writing a memoir? That your story could become the story?
This madness all began back in 2008 when I was emerging from a harrowing year of cancer treatment. I did what I’ve always done in times of darkness — kept a journal/sketchbook. I took it with me every day; on the train, to the hospital for radiation, to the clinic for chemo, to my couch where I crashed every afternoon. I’d been reading a lot graphic books and it occurred to me that if I wrote about my cancer in a comic form, it would put this buffer of humor and art between my ceaseless anxiety and the deep unknown of my illness. I was doing it only for myself as a means of survival but then I happened to meet Mark Siegel of First/Second Books and he told me to be “brave” and send it to him. Obviously, the whole thing morphed from a cancer memoir into a coming-of-age memoir, but that’s another story. It was Mark who encouraged me to keep going. Then he offered to show it to Margaret Ferguson at FSG and to my great surprise, she took it.
You’ve said that if you realized at the time how much work it would be, you might not have done it. But now that it is done, you must feel immensely gratified.
Drawing a page or two of a comic is fun. Drawing over 200 pages is terrifying! I remember moments of despair as I looked at stacks of paper awaiting inking and painting. Would I ever finish? I felt as if I were running as hard as I could but staying in one place. Some panels took days to complete! But, yes, now that I can hold my book in my hands, I am thrilled. And in some ways, I really miss working on it. I still have a twinge of postpartum depression.
Well, if you really miss that feeling, I suppose you could hit yourself in the head with a hammer.
Or maybe just start another graphic novel? Less violent.
As the youngest of seven children, I could really identify with the sense, especially early in the book, of listening in on conversations you didn’t fully understand. You are constantly trying to figure out what’s actually happening.
In my family, I was always the only child in the room. Nothing revolved around me. I was expected to be polite and quiet. So I listened. My mother sometimes spoke to me in Italian when I was young but never in German. That was the language of secrets in my family. Of course, I wanted to know what was going on especially when the conversations grew heated! So I listened like a little mouse with big ears. I watched their faces and body language and one day I discovered that I understood German! It was like that feeling you get when you’re a child and you realize you can read. Everything shifted.
So . . . all that artwork. Did you ever count the number of images you had to produce? I asked a similar question to Matt Phelan, and he was like, “Oh no, you can never count!”
Ha ha! I agree with Matt. Sometimes my husband would try to estimate how many drawings I was doing and I would make him stop!
Oh, wait, you’re married? Now this is awkward. I thought this was date?
So many years! We met in college. My husband is my rock. He helped me enormously on this book by scanning all the artwork. If that doesn’t sound like much, try scanning 200 pages just for fun.
I sometimes work with high school students on their college application essay. I tell them how much I love that essay, the opportunity to pause and reflect and find meaning in their lives. A memoir is much the same exercise. Did anything surprise you along the way?
When I was in high school, I often wrote about the things that were going on in my family. I don’t think I was reflecting on any of it. I was just trying to record the craziness and kind of tame it. I remember my favorite English teacher suggesting there was no way these stories were true, that I had a big imagination! I assured him I was not making it up but I’m not sure he ever believed me.
Writing about some of these same events now, so many years later, I did find myself reflecting on my relationships with different family members. I think I was lucky to grow up in an era of letter writing. It was especially moving for me to reread my brother Piero’s letters. Each envelope is a work of art. The words are poetic. His love for me is so obvious. As the years went by, his mental illness took a toll on all of us. It was hard for me to shake the memory of seeing him homeless on the streets of New York. But as I reread his earlier letters, I was swept back to happier days when he made me believe in magical things and the possibilities that were awaiting me in life.
That’s beautiful and heart-wrenching. Did you have a full script and then illustrate? Or do the two elements — word & image — come simultaneously?
At first I wrote and drew pictures all at once. But when I started working with my editor, Margaret Ferguson, she asked me to write the complete script before doing any more drawings. It felt like I was writing a film script and I enjoyed it. Of course, later, as I started to lay out the drawings, I would ask myself, “Really? You had to set all these scenes in the Louvre?”
There was a lot of research I had to do for the pictures to be sure they were accurate, everything from the paintings and interiors of museums and churches to the advertising in the subway stations.
Bernard Waber — something of a forgotten genius, IMO — once told me that the writer in him tries to please the illustrator. And vice versa.
I knew Bernard Waber from an annual author dinner we both attended for several years. (They were organized by a school librarian in Putnam Valley.) He always had a twinkle in his eye. I truly hope he’s not forgotten!
I have a sweet story about him, an unexpected act of kindness. A good man. I interviewed him at a time when my oldest son, Nick, was very sick. He popped a Lyle plush toy in the mail along with a sweet card. I will forever love him for that.
My writer and illustrator selves sometimes have to duke it out. When you’re making your own picture book, you have the freedom to move between words and images, rearranging, cutting, and editing as you go. But your two selves may not always agree! If anything, I think my writing self is the bigger diva, never wanting to cut a word or phrase.
Besides the art — and we’ll get to that in a minute — what was the hardest part about it? I’d think that it requires a heaping amount of courage.
It felt, at times, like I was putting myself through therapy. I relived some difficult scenes from my life like my mother yelling at me, yelling at my stepfather, and the general unpredictability of her moods. I didn’t want to overdo it and turn my mother into a monster so it was a delicate balance. I also found myself writing at length about my brother, Piero, and ignoring my own story. I was very lucky to have Margaret as my editor because she would reel me back in and remind me this was my story, not my brother’s. She consistently pushed me to be more introspective. It could be painful but I knew she was right!
It’s easier to write about someone else than to turn that same tough gaze inward.
Is there a particular sequence, or page, or passage, where you think, Oh, that part there, I’m proud of that.
Well, about halfway through, Margaret left FSG and I got a new editor, Wes Adams. The first thing he did was ask me to expand the book. More writing! More pictures! He encouraged me add more full page illustrations and so I did. One of these was the last page of Chapter 10, the aerial view of my friend, Karen, and me on the corner next to my apartment building. It was a lot of work to get the perspective right and draw all those bricks, but I’m very happy with it.
It’s a wonderful illustration, especially effective after five consecutive six-panel pages. A refreshing change of pace. It also brings home your youth, your smallness — and, of my, that is a lot of bricks! Why don’t they make these buildings out of stucco?
Ha ha. We’re talking Queens in the 1950s.
That’s a lot of bricks to color. Could you take us through one brief section in more detail. One image, or one page, or one sequence of images. Why do you think it works?
The image at the bottom of page three where I picture myself as a little nun walking with other nuns felt like such a funny scene sitting as it does below the picture of my family arguing in a mixture of Yiddish and English. I think the pages of my visit to the mental hospital (30 – 32) are successful especially where the text with the first mention of Auschwitz is boxed alone next to a close up of me looking at the numbers tattooed on my Tante Anny’s arm. It stops the chatter of everyone arguing for a moment and reveals how deeply confusing and scary the adult world can be for a child.
Amazing work. This is a book that rewards scrutiny. The more a reader puts into it, the more depths that are revealed.
Thank you. I’ve heard from several readers that they rushed through the book the first time because the words and story were compelling them to finish. Later they decided to read the book a second time so they could absorb the pictures.
Lastly, as a writer, I’m envious of illustrators who can listen to podcasts while they work. I need either silence or instrumental music for (rare!) times of Deep Thinking. What did you listen to while doing all that artwork?
While writing, sketching, and even sometimes even inking, I prefer silence. When I start painting I need music. I especially like listening to jazz. Some days I prefer old school R&B. Of course, that can be risky if I have a deadline because I might find myself dancing around the studio instead of painting! When I got to the teen years in my memoir, I played a lot of the songs I used to listen to on my record player, stuff by the Supremes, the Temptations, the Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas. It’s amazing how music can transport you to a long ago time. There I was, back in my room in that small apartment in Queens, listening to music and starting to imagine my future.
One of my favorite ideas in Harry Potter — are we still allowed to talk about J.K. Rowling? — is the portkey. The object that transports you to another time and place. Those exist in our muggle world, too. And for me, albums, songs, have that same ability.
That’s why my husband and I will never get rid of our albums or our turntable! We used to have a jukebox to play our big collection of 45s. It finally broke but we still play 45s.
Marisabina, I want to thank you for this book, this long career of yours, and the time you gave us today. I enjoyed every second of getting to know you better.
Same here, Jimmy. And thanks for letting me blab on about my book!
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