A Conversation with Lori Mortensen: About Edward Gorey and the Craft of Picture Book Biographies

“As I delved into the research,
I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable
picture book biography
about this curious,
whimsical,
one-of-a-kind artist.” 
— Lori Mortensen

I’ve been making an informal survey of picture book biographies of late, a favorite genre. So many great titles out there. One of the best is Lori Mortensen’s NONSENSE: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Here is an oddball, innovative, breezy, confident, utterly charming book that lives up to its subject. No small accomplishment: a book that Edward Gorey deserves. So I’ve set out a bowl of mints, fluffed up the throw pillows, put on my hazmat suit, and invited Lori over for a chat. Come, let’s say hello.

 

How did this book and subject come about for you?

Interestingly, I find picture book ideas in many different ways, from a title randomly popping into my head at the library (Mousequerade Ball), to my neighbors’ dogs escaping from their backyard and racing down the street (Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg). For NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about Edward Gorey on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded very familiar, and I was sure he’d illustrated a memorable book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found The Man Who Sang the Sillies, a collection of silly poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,

Mother, Father, stop and think:

Have you screwed their heads on tight?

Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

 

Let’s pause here to give up a cheer for creativity and morning walks. So, Lori, how does one undertake a picture book biography? I mean, getting started. Just read everything, take lots of notes, and wait for genius to strike?

 

 

Once I’m intrigued by a subject, I jump into research and see what I can uncover. These days, there is a treasure of online resources right at our fingertips that include museums, historical sites, newspapers, experts, archives, photos, libraries, and books. As I research a subject, I copy links into a document along with the information I’ve found until I’ve gathered a firm foundation of information. Research takes time as I buy, borrow, and read as many books as I can about the subject. When my initial research phase is complete, I organize the information into chronological order, so I understand the information in the order that they happened. As I study the information,
an underlying theme or thread emerges. In the case of NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, the path seemed clear — how Edward Gorey, a child prodigy, created a sweet and sinister style that has influenced a generation of creators from Lemony Snicket to Tim Burton.

 

It seems like picture book biographies of late are more focused on “slice of life” storytelling, rather than a comprehensive cradle-to-grave treatment. The genre, perhaps once a little stiff, is bursting with creativity and freedom.

I love picture book biographies. Because they are a mere 32 pages, authors have a daunting, yet exciting challenge to shine a light on the most intriguing and meaningful aspects of the subject’s life for young readers. Sometimes that results in a “slice of life” approach, where writing about the achievement alone is key. Other times, it’s about the subject’s journey from birth to their achievement that shows how their childhood influenced their accomplishment (as was the case with my book about Edward Gorey), and lastly a biography that spans their entire life, from birth to death.

As you noted, picture book biographies are more creative than ever, and it was a delight and a pleasure to write NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, and share his unique story with today’s young readers.

At a certain point, you must have far too much material for a picture book. How do you reconcile all that great info that you didn’t include? Is it agony? I see so many books increasingly cluttered with back matter –- one recent title I came across had 8 pages of it! — and I’m not a fan.

You’re right! Picture book authors have to make tough choices and sometimes scenes that I would have liked to include just don’t make the final cut. That was especially true for my picture book biography, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about Victorian traveler, Isabella Bird, who was the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote 10 books about her exciting explorations. Talk about tough choices! Hopefully, I chose the best.

And as you noted, extra information is often included in the back matter. While you don’t want to go overboard, back matter often includes a more complete life-to-death narrative, author notes, timelines, and glossaries. Back matter is especially important element for today’s nonfiction books so they can offer as much as possible in the STEM/STEAM market for schools and libraries.

This book is written in free verse. Tell us about that decision.

Since Gorey was a unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took special note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing about Edward Gorey.

 

It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going. This was a happy occurrence because so often it’s a process of trial and error with many false starts. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.

While writing it, did you have any awareness of how the book will be illustrated, or by whom? Chloe Bristol’s illustrations strike the perfect note. She’s just amazing. Lucky you!

Interestingly, even though I’m not an illustrator, I always have images in mind when I write. In fact, I write my manuscripts with scenes and page turns in mind because that’s what picture books are all about. When authors take these elements into consideration, it will make their manuscript even more appealing and effective.

In the case of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I didn’t have any idea who would illustrate it, but it seemed likely that whoever illustrated it would have the same sweet and sinister style as the subject, Edward Gorey. I was delighted when Versify brought Chloe Bristol on board because her style was the perfect match to tell Gorey’s story.

What’s next for you, Lori?

That’s always a great question because one of the wonderful things about writing is that there’s always something exciting just around the corner. In 2021, I’m looking forward to the release of my humorous picture book, Arlo Draws an Octopus, inspired by the countless hours I spent as a child trying to draw at the kitchen table where I had my own share of crumpled “disaster-pieces” just like Arlo. In between releases, I’m tapping away at the keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding my next story to life, and waiting for good news that’s just around the corner.

Thanks for swinging by my swanky blog, Lori. Yes, the mints are free. Sure, of course, go ahead, take all you want — pour the whole bowl into your pockets. Okay, that’s fine. Anyway! Have a safe trip home, Lori. Thanks for inspiring us!

 

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey; If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan; Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell; Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and many more. Coming in May, 2021, Arlo Draws an Octopus, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr. Please feel free — because, after all, you are free — to visit Lori’s unimaginatively-named website at lorimortensen.com. 

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