Tag Archive for James Preller Interviews

Author Interview: Celebrating Kathy Blasi’s Picture Book Debut, “HOSEA PLAYS ON”

 

“Fourteen years of writing,
revision, submission,
rejections, more revisions,
setting projects aside and starting new ones.
And boatloads of self-doubt.
But glimmers of hope, too.”

— Kathy Blasi

 

JP: Kathy, I am so happy to be holding your DEBUT PICTURE BOOK in my hands. You’ve traveled a long, hard road to reach this point. Now here we are: this beautiful book with your name on the cover. How does it feel?

KB: Ahh, to finally get an acceptance after years of stories not quite getting there, through getting close via an agent only to have that relationship end.
Now, with my new book, I have a sense of complete joy in seeing my words brought to life — through an astute editor, Ada Zhang, who championed the piece, a publishing house which embraced it, and through stunning illustration. I feel a sense of accomplishment and validation in not giving up over the course of years of ups and downs. I feel humbled and honored to bring to readers this particular story of a beautiful, everyday person, and I’m thrilled Sterling felt there was a place for it on bookshelves.

 

Before we get to the book itself, can you give us some background on your writing journey?

My first book, A Name of Honor, was released in 2006 through Mondo, an educational publisher. That was quickly followed by a nonfiction book about sports, also with Mondo. Not-so-fast forward to 2016, with the acceptance of Hosea Plays On, my third published book (though not the third I’ve written), due out in January 2020. Yes, that is 14 years. Fourteen years of writing, revision, submission, rejections, more revisions, setting projects aside and starting new ones. And boatloads of self-doubt. But glimmers of hope, too.

 

What in particular helped keep you hopeful?

Good rejections! It’s not easy for those outside of this business to grasp the concept of a “good rejection.” Early on, I received “Dear Author” responses to my work. Then, the “Dear Ms. Blasi” variety. Oh, and the ones with my name and pointed feedback. I knew I was getting somewhere. That if this is a continuum, I cannot give up. I could be embarrassed by that span of 14 years. But giving up would have been more embarrassing. I look at that span as a testament to always learning, to building bridges through respecting the business and the process, and above all, not giving up.

 

Do you participate in a writer’s group?

I have writing colleagues with whom I exchange manuscripts. We critique each other’s work online, via phone, and/or in person. They all make me a better writer. One writing friend, Elizabeth Falk, and I frequently meet at local libraries or at one of our houses. We spend the day plugging away and taking breaks to discuss about what we are working on. There’s something magical about working away and being able to look up and say, “When you have a second, I’d like to bounce something off of you.”

 

What helped you keep going, when at times it must have felt like you were running into a brick wall?

My writing peeps, absolutely. Brick walls have a way of propagating self-doubt. The external voice of rejection that suggests you’re just not good enough. But the voice of my discerning readers, holding the bar high, urging me on — is louder in the end. And for that, I’m so grateful. Another thing that keeps me going is after the sting of a rejection, over which one has no control, is to send it (or something else) again. The only person who is in control over sending out your work — is you.

 

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I credit my inspiration to insomnia and the magical hour of 3AM when in an effort to distract myself from the runaway thoughts in my head, I turned to reading the news. I read an article about Hosea Taylor’s passing, and his story tugged at my heartstrings. I had to learn more. I started with the reporter, Sarah Taddeo of the Democrat & Chronicle, who wrote the story, the beginning of a trail of breadcrumbs. When I learned of what Hosea did with the money folks placed in his saxophone case, I knew I had found the heart of a story I wanted to write for young readers.

 

You have a poet’s eye for detail and lyrical language, all told with directness and economy. “Fingers fluttered. Keys clicked. Smoky notes lifted through the air, treading along to waiting ears.” There’s a musicality to your language. Is that the result of endless revision?

What a lovely thing to say! Once my early draft took shape, part of my revision process was to focus on word choice that could carry a tune, so to speak. To build a cadence for the read-aloud experience. Similarly, I incorporated sound wherever I could, such as coins dropping and the sound of a truck passing over a bridge.

Your illustrator, Shane Evans, did an amazing job bringing Hosea and his music to life. Do you have a favorite spread or moment in the book?

Shane did a beautiful job, indeed. I love the whimsical element he brought to the story. My favorite spread is that of Hosea playing his saxophone in the rain. When I wrote the story, I saw the three words “Hosea played on” standing alone, precipitated by the drum roll of the page turn. I wanted the reader to pause and take that in. With a leap of faith, the author must let the illustrator, editor, and art director do their jobs. Shane nailed it. 

Actually, Kathy, you and I have a funny connection with Shane. Back in the previous century, in 1999, I ghost wrote a book for Shaquille O’Neal, titled Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales. It’s actually a pretty entertaining story of six fractured folktales, all featuring Shaq (“Little Red Riding Shaq,” and so on). Shane illustrated the book and his name is included on the cover. My role went uncredited, of course — ghosts are invisible, that’s the agreement — and such is life when you ghost a book for a celebrity. I’ve been quietly rooting for Shane, whom I’ve never met, all these years. 

What an interesting connection! I like to believe that your quiet rooting led us all right here. Here’s another interesting connection. Shane lived in Rochester during his high school years and visited the market where the story takes place.

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Two things stand out. First (I will credit Elizabeth Gilbert and Jane Yolen): show up. Talking about writing and wanting to be a writer are not actually writing. Show up to the blank page, or the messy page, because the status of those pages will not change on their own. Work hard, so that eventually that and opportunity will intersect. This often, as is the case with me, requires balancing family life and another career.

Second: Once you are writing, focus on what’s in front of you (Kate Messner). You have no control over how long it takes editors and agents to read your work. You have no control over their decisions on your work. And you have no control over the schedules of others in the process, once you are under contract. Focus on the new piece. Or the one that needs revising. Have multiple projects going at once.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Begin by writing for you and the story you want to tell. That’s where the bones come from — from your excitement, interest, and passion for the story. That’s what will sustain you.

Surround yourself with those with similar interest and ambition. Join a writers and illustrators group. Join SCBWI and/or one of its regional chapters. There is a treasure trove of information and inspiration waiting for you. Learn all you can. Read all you can. Write. A lot!

Kathleen M. Blasi is active in the children’s literature community. She has long served as an organizer for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Readers may visit her online at kmblasi.com and on Twitter @kmblasi.

One Question, Five Authors: “How Do You Celebrate on the Day the Book Arrives?”

Greetings, my Nation of Readers (though perhaps “wee village” is more like it). Anyway, I’m grateful to anybody who stops by. I started this particular spot more than 10 years ago. During that time, I’ve tried to self-promote relentlessly in a way that’s not too grotesque . . . to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creative process . . . and to shine a light on different artists and illustrators whose work I admire. Usually that’s taken the form of long, sprawling interviews which require considerable time and effort. 
Recently I had a new idea: Ask the same question to a number (5) of authors and illustrators. I hope in this way we’ll illuminate the process and, hopefully, help introduce you to some of the great people who are out there, doing such high-quality work.
And, hey, less effort for me!
Today’s question: “How do you celebrate on that day when the box arrives, and you finally hold a finished book in your hands?”
Let’s hear it for our special guests: S.A. Bodeen, Matthew Cordell, London Ladd, Laurie Calkhoven, and Lizzy Rockwell. Huzzah!
S.A. Bodeen
I’ve done different things over the years. Most recently was when copies of The Tomb arrived. Per usual, I ripped it open and took one out and removed the jacket to look at the actual book. (Yes, I do that every time.) Then I read the jacket to see what state I live in. (Sometimes they get it wrong. In their defense, I move a lot.) Then I put the jacket back on and showed it to my husband and he said “We should celebrate.” If the box arrives before dinner, we go out. Last night the box came after dinner (I made fish tacos, which were actually killer), so I suggested Culver’s, where he had a root-beer float and I had a vanilla malt.

Matthew Cordell

I’m probably my own toughest critic when it comes to my books, so I’m always a little nervous about opening up a box of finished books. It’s a little weird to look at something you made many months or over a year before you see the finished product. As artists, we are (or should be) constantly evolving and getting better as we work. So, a lot can change in a year’s time. I guess my personal celebration is flipping through a book several times. The first time with one eye closed probably. Each time looking at it gets a little easier on the eyes. Each time, seeing less of the flaws and more of the achievements and fond memories from the time spent collaborating and creating. Then it feels good. Then I take a picture and share it on social media. I hope that isn’t too bleak of an answer to your question.

London Ladd

It’s an easy question. After I open the package I touch and squeeze the book because I like feeling it before opening it. The new smell, the stiffness of the hardcover, the heartwarming note from the publisher…all of it really makes me so happy. Afterwards I look at the front cover and back to check out the design and font, I still get a thrill seeing my name on the cover :).  I open it and quickly scan the book jacket and then examine through the pages for all the things I should have done better and make mental learning notes on what not to do for the next book. I really love creating pictures books but I strive to be better.

 

Laurie Calkhoven

I’m afraid I’m a sad failure when it comes to celebrating my work. Part of the reason is the question of WHEN to celebrate. The day I accept the offer? The day –- weeks later –- when the contract arrives for my signature? The day – even more weeks later –- when the countersigned contract arrives with the advance check? The day that lovely box of books arrives? What about publication date? I DO usually pop a champagne cork or two with my writer’s group when I accept an offer. The other milestones are hit or miss depending on deadlines and whatever else is going on in my life. Sometimes I buy myself a piece of jewelry or a ticket to a play when the check arrives, but publication dates tend to pass without any notice from me. Lots of writers throw book parties (and I happily attend), but the idea of having one for myself makes the introvert in me want to run for the hills.
Lizzy Rockwell
I can’t say I have a ritual with this, but it is always a thrill. Like most thrills, it is mixed with a bit of fear. What if I find a mistake, what if I think I could have done better? Once it’s a book, all those choices that I agonized over are now finite. It’s so gratifying to see all the hard work by the editor and art director that pulls it all together. Things like end-sheets, typography, color matching, printing, paper quality, that I have nothing to do with, make such a difference. And it is the first time I have held the book in my hands, and read it start to finish, in color, while turning the pages. I always make a physical dummy booklet to draw my sketches in, so I can see and feel how the pacing goes as you turn the page. So until I see the printed book for the first time, that narrative continuity has been broken up into distinct parts over the many months that it takes to do all the editing, and complete the finished art. So there is a deep satisfaction when the book finally arrives in the mail (a year after I last saw the paintings). It’s my chance to hold the physical object, read, look, and turn the pages and finally see it as a unified work of art.
If readers care to suggest questions for future posts, please make a comment below!

Interview: Lesa Cline-Ransome Steps Out

Lesa Cline Ransome is on fire, producing the finest work of her already-impressive career. Fresh off the award-winning success of When She Was Harriet, illustrated by Lesa’s husband, James Ransome (no slouch himself!), she has a promising new novel coming out, Finding Langston. Come spend a few minutes with us. We talk about writing, research, serial murderers, and so on.

I’m trying to remember when and how we first met. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Any recollection? It was at one of those “things” that authors sometimes do.

Well, I don’t want to brag, but I have a pretty good memory. I believe we first met at a NYS Reading Assoc. event, but the first opportunity we had to talk was in Princeton when we were walking together to the party after the book signing and you were telling me about a book you loved. I wish I could say my memory is so great that I recall the title, but I don’t.

Ha, that sounds like most of my conversations: “Listen to this song, read this book, see this movie!” And, of course, we’ve eaten wings in Buffalo and chatted just recently at the great Children’s Book Festival in Hudson. I’ve asked you this before, but how do you tackle a well-known subject like Harriet Tubman, a historical figure who has been written about, and written about, and written about in the past? It must be a challenge to bring something new to the conversation.

That was indeed the challenge in writing Before She was Harriet, which is why I waited so long to tell her story. If I can’t find a new and inventive way to tell a story, or provide information about a subject’s life that allows young readers to engage in a different way, then I really don’t want to write it. So, it was only when James told me that he had discovered the many other lives she lived, as a nurse, a suffragist, a union spy and general in the army, that I knew I had found a new way to tell her story and a way in which kids could learn something new about her heroism and a life dedicated to the service of others.

Speaking of James, what was it like working with the illustrator –- who happens to be your husband? Do you try to stay out of each other’s way? Do you peer over each other’s shoulders, give friendly advice? Do you cluck, “Hmmm, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” What’s the process like?

The only way we can remain married is to stay in our own lanes. I trust him as one of my readers who gives valuable feedback during the many stages of the manuscript and he trusts my input on the pieces he is working on, but trust is the key word here. We have to allow each other our space to create without too much input from the other in order to protect our creative process, and most importantly, our marriage. It helps that when I finish a manuscript he often doesn’t begin illustrating until at least two years later, which gives me some distance from the story.

I interviewed Leo and Diane Dillon about 25 years ago. They used to swap pieces of artwork, passing it back and forth, drawing on top of each other’s work. Amazing. 

Perhaps that is because they were both illustrators, but if James and I handed our work back and forth, I have a feeling it would not go as seamlessly. I feel we each have our strengths in our own fields and we need to respect those boundaries.

Tell us about your brand new novel, Finding Langston?

Finding Langston was such a joy to write. I’ve always written pretty long picture books, so the transition to middle grade was a natural one. After reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, I knew that there were pieces of story in that book I wanted to tell and I found it in the fictional Langston, a young boy travelling north from rural Alabama with his father after the death of his mother. In Chicago, Langston doesn’t fit with his country accent and clothes and he is bullied. But one day he escapes and finds his way into a library, a place he’s never been allowed to enter in the south, and his discovery of books and the poetry of Langston Hughes transforms his world in ways he never quite expected.

To be clear, it’s not that there weren’t libraries down South. But as a black boy, he wasn’t allowed access? The danger of an educated mind.

There were absolutely libraries in the south during that period, but very few that were integrated.  In rural areas, there were virtually none.  In Finding Langston, Langston would occasionally go into town with his father for supplies and he passed a building with a public library sign out front.  When he asked his father about it, he was told “it was a building for white folks, and that meant I couldn’t go in.”  When he got home and asked his mother, she said, “They don’t let black folks in libraries…” but when he discovers the library in Chicago, filled with blacks, his world is forever changed.

By the way, my goodness, that cover is gorgeous. 
 –
Probably no surprise that James insisted on illustrating the cover for my first novel. 

Nice to have connections. Obviously, a book like this involves a ton of research.

A ton, but writing so many picture book biographies meant that I had a lot of research on hand. And it can be incredibly rewarding to spend days researching trees native to Alabama or the elevated el trains in Chicago or the history of segregated libraries. I almost always find material for potential books.  

On school visits, readers always ask about ideas. I tell them that ideas are the easy part. It’s sitting down and doing the work that takes the real effort.

I agree.  It’s that tricky part of getting the ideas in your head to translate into a narrative that is engaging that’s the real challenge.

I have to say, Lesa, I am so impressed. You are really spreading your wings. I mean, it’s just a beautiful thing to watch. I’m really happy for you. Obviously, clearly, you are thriving — doing great and meaningful work. If we were in a bar, I’d say to the bartender, “Yeah, I’ll drink what she’s having.” What’s your secret?

Wow, thank you! I don’t know if there’s a secret, but I am incredibly curious about the world and people. And I feel there are so many stories to tell about courage, and hope and history. I am always inspired by the incredible books I read for pleasure, for my book group, that are recommended to me. I feel like I have so much growing to do as a writer, I have to keep plugging away.

Finding Langston is a departure for you. It’s exciting to see you take on a longer work. All those pesky words.

Definitely a departure, but a welcome one. Getting to go deeper into a character’s motivation meant that I grew to love Langston. When I wasn’t at my desk writing, I’d wonder about him, miss him. The hardest part was letting the book end.

I’m curious about that moment when you realized that, hey, wow, this is a book. A lot of ideas fizzle. You think you’ve got something, but it fades away. A dead end or just an unrealized notion. But sometimes there’s a moment when the story makes a turn and then you know, deep down, this is actually going to become a finished work! How did that work for you with Langston? Did it come during the research? During the writing? 

Nearly every time I make a plan to write a certain story, I take a turn into the story I am meant to write. The original version of this story is so different from the final version. That’s the best part about writing. Letting the story unfold the way it is supposed to.

Did you make an outline for Langston? Or try to find the path as you wrote?

I’m new to novel writing, so I approached it as an expanded picture book.  I didn’t make an outline, but I had a sense of how the story would unfold.  I think the beauty of storytelling is letting the characters lead despite what you planned for them.

Behind every great woman . . .

So what’s James working on these days?

He just completed a story he wrote called The Bell Rang and he is now starting another book with author Jerdine Nolan. James will also begin work soon on a pet project, The History of Football, with author Fred Bowen.

I have a vague idea that you live in Poughkeepsie, is that right? Isn’t that where the mass murderer had all those bodies buried under his house?

We moved from Poughkeepsie to Rhinebeck shortly after that event and we’ve been here for almost 15 years. That guy’s house was directly across the street from my childrens’ pediatrician. They were there for their annual physicals, and while we were waiting in a room, the nurse told me to not look out the windows. So, of course, I looked out the windows —

Of course —

— and there were tons of news crews and trucks outside. When she came in again, I asked what was going on and she whispered in my ear, that they had just arrested a serial killer. My kids still love that story. They feel like they were part of a historic event.

 

Uh-oh.

Is that where you are from originally?

I am originally from Malden, MA, so sorry to tell you I am a die hard New England Patriots fan. 

That doesn’t bother me a bit, Lesa. I grew up a Jets fan, but that part of my heart has shriveled up and died. I want to thank you for stopping by. I’m a big fan and thrilled by your much-deserved success. Keep on rolling.

Thank you!

——

I enjoy meeting and learning from other writers and illustrators. Hopefully you feel the same way. To explore more interviews from my award-winning (not really) series of conversations,  click and scroll, baby, scroll. You’ll find interviews with London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Bruce Coville, Lizzy Rockwell, Aaron Becker, Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Nina Crews, Jeff Mack, and assorted other big shots. You’ll also find some more random things under the “Interviews and Appreciations” icon on the right sidebar. We’re here to shine a light on the good stuff!

Some recent things from yours truly . . .

          

AND COMING IN JANUARY . . . a new series!

5 QUESTIONS with Matt Faulkner, creator of the graphic novel “Gaijin”

Today we visit with Matt Faulkner. His award-winning graphic novel, Gaijan, has never been more darkly relevant than it is today. It’s a good time for middle-grade readers to know this powerful story, and to become aware of this chilling, “round ’em up” period in American history. 

GAIJIN cover

Welcome, Matt, thanks for visiting my blog today. You might appreciate this: I first became aware of you with the publication of The Amazing Voyage of Jackie Grace in 1987. I loved that book –- so richly imagined and, I still think, an accurate depiction of a child’s imagination. Bath time has never been the same for me.

You’re very welcome. I’m happy to spend some time talking with you and happy, too, that we can share our conversation with your blog readers.

Oh, you mean Chet and Gladys? They’re awesome.

In regard to Jackie Grace, thanks, that’s very kind. It was my first author/illustrated book and only the second book I’d worked on. It was tremendously exciting to get that manuscript purchased and also very misleading to me. The misleading part was that I actually sold that manuscript to Jean Feiwel over the phone back in 1985. She really dug the illustrations I’d just done on my first book — a version of Jack and the Beanstalk — and was enthusiastic to get me moving onto another project. We started talking about blackrotarygif2Jackie Grace over the phone and she indicated that I’d have the contract if I just send in a few sketches. And that’s what happened. I can assure you, James, I’ve never sold a manuscript to anyone, ever again, over the phone.

Yet I keep expecting it to happen. My bad.

I agree, phones aren’t what they used to be. So you’ve been at this business a long time. I published my first book in 1986. I think we are all confronted with different ideas of success, but lately I’m most proud of simply having survived. You know, just hanging around all these years through the ups and downs. It can be a tough, cold business. As I recall the line from an old PW article, “children’s publishing is a bunny eat bunny” world. But we’re still alive and kicking.

Oh yes, survival is sweet.

Matt-Faulkner

The fact is — for us to be here, doing what we started doing over thirty years ago is a victory. There have been more than a few times over the past 30 years that I wondered how in God’s name I was going to move forward — how was I going to make enough money, how was I going to stay inspired, how was I going to stay sane within the pressures of being a husband/father while working as a freelance author/illustrator (and all that that implies). So yes, to have this discussion right now — this is a good thing.

Congrats to the both of us.

Speaking of congratulations, I’m so impressed by your graphic novel, Gaijin, which I believe is not only a terrific book, it’s an important book. Tell us about the origins of that story. I gather it has personal significance for you.

 

GAIJIN 3

Thank you.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War came from an experience I had as a child and from the experiences my relatives had during WWII. During the summer after fifth grade I read a bunch of books about children who’d survived the Holocaust. It just seems that the librarian who handed me the first book kept right on handing them to me when I’d complete one. Eventually, my mom placed a piece of paper with a name and address before me — a return address from an envelope. She told me that our family had been in a concentration camp in California.

 

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

Early character study, sketch, from GAIJIN.

I imagine that I was incredulous — after all, concentration camps were something horrible in Europe, not America. Not so, my mom said. She helped me to understand that my great aunt, Adeline, along with her daughter and grandchildren, had been placed in the Japanese American internment camp called Manzanar, during WWII. This was because Adeline, an Irish American, had married a gentleman of Japanese descent and hence, their children were part Japanese. At that time in America, this was enough to send a child to a prison camp in the desert.

At what point did you decide that this story would be best told as a graphic novel?

Fairly early in the process of developing the story I realized that the format of the graphic novel would help me best express the way I felt about the material.

pg36-37

You didn’t begin your career as a graphic novelist. What attracted you to that medium?

Of late, I feel more and more that this — the graphic novel — is my medium. I don’t feel that I am in any way a rigorous student of this medium. However, I know that I tell stories best in a visual format. For me, a story flows far more readily when the images and text are free to roam across the landscape of the spread, as they can in a graphic novel. It’s far more film-like. The format feels more like the experience of watching a film and to me, creating the frame work of an imagined film for my readers is what I reach for in any book, but most especially in creating a graphic novel.

I can see that, and agree about the cinematic qualities.

It’s interesting that you mentioned my first author/illustrated picture book, Jackie Grace, because that was seen as a bit of a risk in 1986. Why? Because it didn’t follow the traditional picture book form and was, actually, a graphic novel for 6-to-8 year olds. This was kind of a big deal back then and I recall editorial discussions which addressed this risky thing — a graphic novel picture book. It was simply not done in 1985. However, it is done now. And I’m going to do as much of it as I possibly can in my allotted time.

When I look at many graphic novels, I often think, “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Can you take us through to process of creating this book? How it began? How long it took?

GAIJIN 2

The idea for the Gaijin began to take a more concrete form following 9/11 when I started to hear the talk of various pundits who were advocating internment for another minority group, American Muslims. That pompous, paranoid talk got me to nail myself to my desk and begin the sketching. But it took another 9 years before Gaijin was sold to Disney/Hyperion and it wasn’t published till 2014.

The book was created in traditional materials — graphite, water color and gouache. I used a brown/blue palette (reminiscent of the olive drab and khaki uniforms) for scenes set in the day time. The hero’s dream sequences were created in a hot, acidic palette.

I spent a a good deal of time doing visual research — visited the sites of both the Tanforan and Manzanar internment camps etc., and created three variations of the sketch layout.

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right, three separate layouts for the 130-page graphic novel. A little crazy, yes, but I think this was something that had to do more with my inexperience of creating a graphic novel than anything else.

 

Sample of an alternative sketch.

Sample of an alternative sketch.

 

It was fascinating how you introduced the news of Pearl Harbor. Koji and his mother don’t at first realize how it will affect them personally. But the next day they begin to learn, in ways large and small, that the world has changed.

From my research I learned that Pearl Harbor in 1941 simply wasn’t a place that every American was aware of the way it is today. There was so much that was left unexplained and therefore became the source of fear for both Japanese Americans and white Americans. It was important for me to express as best I could this sense of surprise, looming terror and dread.

GAIJIN 4

One thing that stood out for me in my research was learning that the racism as expressed by whites on the west coast toward Japanese Americans following Pearl Harbor was more than just a response to the attack. That racism was very old and very deeply rooted within California laws. There were many, many whites who were simply waiting to take advantage of the fear that the attack engendered and couldn’t wait for the removal of Japanese Americans so they could take possession of their farms, their homes and shops. From what I’ve learned, as much as it was about fear and racism, it was also greed that fueled the Japanese American internment.

That’s a great point, and I think it’s something we are seeing today. The old hatreds have existed all along, waiting for the right atmosphere in order to emerge. Like Voldemort’s followers, the Death Eaters, waiting for the signal in the sky. Suddenly it’s “safe” to haul out those repressed prejudices into the light of day. But my comments aside, I think you admirably refrained from imposing any obvious editorial judgments in your book. You let the story speak for itself.

Yes, I did try to refrain from inflaming what is already a hot issue. I didn’t think any editorial refinements or judgment on my part would do much to make the point any clearer. In short — we, as a nation, failed on a vast scale. We grossly mistreated over 120,000 people — half of whom were children — because of their race.

It’s shocking and heartbreaking that this moment in American history –- a troubled, dark, confusing time –- is still so relevant to today’s America. What are the lessons to be learned here, in your opinion?

GAIJIN 1

Lessons?

It’s best to keep it this simple: They’re all our children.

The Japanese American children which we, as a nation, imprisoned in Manzanar and over twenty-five other remote prison camps from 1942 till 1945 were all our children. Similarly, the Syrian child that drowned and whose body was photographed on that beach was our child, too. As a species, we are either going to accept and work with this reality or we’re going to continue to suffer.

Thank you for those thoughts, Matt. I know I asked a lot of you today, but only because I think we need to hear your voice now more than ever. What can we look forward to from you in the future? Have you got a new book in the works?

Thanks for asking. I’m currently working on illustrating a four picture book series about American ideas, ideals and people, written by Ruby Shamir and edited by Jill Santopolo at Philomel.

In addition, my agent, Abi Samoun of Red Fox Literary, is currently shopping two graphic novel ideas for me right now — one is called Burrito Fever, which tells the tale of the annual march of 10,000 crazed bunnies in search the perfect burrito.

The other story is about a young Japanese American who joins the army during 1944 and fights in France with the all Japanese American 442nd Combat team — the unit most decorated for it’s size in U.S. army history.

Again, thanks for inviting me to talk about my work with you, James. I wish you all the best with yours.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, and Bruce Coville. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Hannah Barnaby, and more.

5 QUESTIONS with MATT PHELAN, Graphic Novelist and Creator of “Snow White”

 

Welcome to “5 Questions,” where the number 5 is conceptual rather than literal. Today we feature one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists working in children’s books today, Matt Phelan.

 

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Yo, Matt, I’m over here. Yeah, no, look this way. It’s just weird with you staring off into the distance like that. I’m literally right here. Fine, whatever, let’s just get through this. Take us back to the period before the idea came for this book. Is there a “between books” stage for you, when you are not exactly sure what’s next? Is that stressful? Are you walking around with your antenna up, hoping for lightning to strike? Or do you keep a spare file of “BRILLIANT IDEAS” by your bedside for just such occasions?

My mind tends to wander quite a bit, so I often have new ideas percolating when I should be focused on the book at hand. I have notes for Snow White going back ten years when I was pitching Storm in the Barn. I have a few ideas on low simmer now that I hope to get to eventually.

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That’s how I feel about painting my living room and front hallway (and upstairs bathroom, and guest bedroom, and). It’s all on low simmer. But for you that simmer reached a boiling point. Was there a specific moment, or an image, that came to you? Why that particular period in New York City?

I was thinking about apple peddlers in the Great Depression (as one does) . . .

Naturally.

. . . and my brain connected that with the stepmother in “Snow White.” I sketched an image of a busy street, people racing by, with a single young woman stopped in her tracks before an old hag holding out an apple. I liked that idea so much that I began to think of more parallels for elements in the tale if they were set in the early 1930s.

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Yes, that’s part of the book’s pleasure. It’s cool how you re-imagined the seven dwarfs, for example, as street urchins. In that case, you had to find a balance between making that allusion, but not turning those boys into cardboard stand-ins for Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful, and so on.

The Seven came to me early on, inspired in part by the Dead End Kids from the movies of the 30s and 40s. But considering their situation –- orphans, runaways hiding in alleys and warehouses at night –- I realized that withholding their names would be of utmost importance to them. That was a clear contrast to the Disney film, where if you remember anything, it’s probably the names of the dwarves. I did give the boys some of the same personality traits in passing, so it would be fun for the reader to make those connections.

The Dead End Kids.

The Dead End Kids.

Those translocations are so much fun. The equivalencies aren’t absolute. It’s not, oh, this kid equals Sleepy. But, well, he does look a little tired.

Bringing the elements of the story like the seven dwarves into the time period started as an exercise, but the more I thought about it, the more I became invested in the characters and what I could maybe bring to this ancient story.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The challenge in any retelling is to answer that essential question every artist must face, for any work of art: “So what?” In your case, I think you were able to explore a familiar story, turn it around, pull it apart, and discover new elements. Upon reflection, what did you learn about the story of “Snow White” in the process of your work? Did anything surprise you?

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I was surprised about how much it started to mean to me on an emotional level. The scene where the boys reveal their names to Snow became the whole reason to do this book. For me, the book is about how there is more goodness in the world than evil, that there is beauty everywhere despite how bleak things may seem. I wrote the story three years ago, but it sadly seems very timely and relevant today.

I recently wrote my first road trip book, and one of the best things about it, as an author, was that I knew when/where the story was going to end. It’s comforting to know where you are in terms of beginning, middle, and end. You enjoyed a similar luxury in this case.

Yes. I agree. It was refreshing to have a framework to the plot from the start. But the story is so solid that it also allows for invention within that framework.

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Your book benefits from our familiarity with the classic story. Everybody knows it. That known structure gave you more freedom to pick your spots, skip over the boring bits. You didn’t have to fill in every blank space. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. I also use “chapter headings” which look more like title cards in a silent movie. That device acts as a dramatic shorthand. I could write “Late Night at the Butcher’s” and I’ve already set up not only the setting but an idea of what is going to happen there.

I agree, that was an effective device, a pause but also a jump-cut into the next scene. Hey, it had to be fun killing off the evil queen-slash-stepmother. In the movie that’s such a tense, dramatic scene. The seven dwarfs are not cuddly and cute in that surging, swelling scene; there’s murder in their hearts. The origin material was dark. That had to a challenge for you, to meet that big climatic moment head on. Were you particularly pleased on the day you figured out she’d not only get electrocuted . . . but she could fall off the building as well. Well done, sir!

My ending plays off the Disney one which I think they changed for good reason. In the original Grimm, the stepmother is invited to Snow’s wedding only to find that Snow orders her to dance to her death whilst wearing burning iron shoes (for the amusement of the wedding party). A tad sadistic for our heroine, I think. Disney used lightning, but I opted for her to go up in lights on the marquee of the Ziegfeld theater. The fall was probably a nod to King Kong now that I think of it.

How do you make these paintings? How many are there? I ask because my sense is that when I look at some graphic novels, many individual images appear rushed, unfinished. But in Snow White, I can see –- I think –- the deep care and commitment to every single image. It’s so impressive.

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I use traditional media: pencil, ink, and watercolor on watercolor paper. I’ve made it a rule since my first graphic novel to never ever count how many individual panels are in the book. Each panel is a painting, maybe three to six per page, more than two hundred pages . . . it’s a lot. 

Right, it’s one of those deals where if you knew in advance, if your really calculated the amount of work, it would be hard to get started. Like taking your kids on their first hike. “Don’t worry, kids, it’ll be fun!”

Yeah, the “hike” is not about the number of steps it takes. It’s all part of the greater whole. I wanted each panel to have the correct mood and atmosphere, but at the same time I never wanted one particular panel to cause a reader to stop and dwell on it. I want you to keep moving. Pace is important.

And pace is mostly a function of layout, right? The decision of multi-panel spreads compared to, say, a strong single image. At what point do you make those design decisions?

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The actual sizes of the panels are decided when I’m doing the first loose thumbnail drawings. You are correct about size and number of panels dictating pace. It’s like a musical score, in a way. For Snow White, I did try something a bit different, in that each page was drawn completely fresh on a blank sheet of paper. I had rough sketches to inspire me, but I did not enlarge the sketches and use them on a light-box as a guide like I’ve done before. By drawing it again fresh, I hoped to catch the energy and life of the sketches. If it was wrong, I just drew it again. Watercolor is also a great way to give your paintings energy and unpredictability. It’s hard to completely plan or fix a watercolor painting. You get what you get. That’s an exciting way to work.

I relate that to music. A belief in the positive value of raw performance — live in the studio — including the messiness of it. Rather than, say, polishing a song to perfection. Something vital gets lost in the refinement. The flawed version is somehow better.

I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather listen to something with mistakes played like the musicians’ lives depended on it than a supremely polished “perfect” performance. I’ll take the Replacements over Steely Dan any day.

I know you love music. Do you listen when you paint? Did this book have a specific soundtrack, or sonic influences?

I listen to music when painting and maybe during the writing (but only instrumental music). I do make playlists for the books. Snow White’s playlist had some leftovers from Bluffton, plus soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Magnificent Ambersons and Max Steiner’s great score for King Kong. I also included The Jazz Age, a recent record by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra that arranges Roxy Music songs in a hot jazz style. It’s brilliant.

Yes! I have The Jazz Age. At first I wasn’t too keen on the idea, it felt gimmicky, but then I heard it. Good times. I’ll have to explore the scores by Herrmann and Steiner. Thanks for the tip, Matt Phelan!

 

614852MATT PHELAN does a great job with his website, which he stores somewhere on the interwebs. You can visit for free, but like the Hotel California, you may never leave. Matt splits his efforts between graphic novels (The Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, Around the World), picture books (Marilyn’s Monster, Xander’s Panda Party, and more), and whatever else inspires his attention. Like, oh, listening to Replacements records.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”