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CHECKING IN with Matthew Cordell: Because I was getting worried about frostbite
5 QUESTIONS with MATTHEW CORDELL, author/illustrator of “WISH”
Today we hang out with Matthew Cordell, one of my favorite people in children’s books. Usually Matt and I can laugh it up with the best of them, just a couple of regular guys talking about our favorite books and rock bands, but today we got serious. In this edition of “5 Questions,” Matthew opened up his heart, and it got real.
You know I love this book, Matt. I read it again last night, over my 15-year-old daughter’s shoulder. I do that to Maggie, stick picture books under her nose. Anyway, at the end she turned to me and said, “I really like it.” And then, “Oh, you’re crying.”
And I was. This book gets me every time.
Oh, I really appreciate that, Jimmy, and thanks for sharing with Maggie! It’s interesting to hear from folks who let me know that Wish made them cry . . . I never imagined myself being an author of a book that would have that kind of an effect on a reader. I mean . . . when I was writing it and later illustrating it, I would occasionally tear up over the very personal nature of the thing. And I thought maybe it would have a similar impact on folks who would read it. That they would read Wish and see their own story or stories in it. So when I hear from folks who say it has struck an emotional chord, it’s just really, really rewarding.
It’s one of the counter-intuitive things about art: the deeply personal sometimes becomes the most universal. Yours is a book about, in part, a miscarriage. An extremely common occurrence –- sources estimate that up to 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage –- yet it’s a deeply private experience that isn’t widely discussed. We grieve in silence, and very few people are even aware of our loss. Tell me about the beginnings of this story. Did you draw a picture? Write a few words? Were you even thinking book?
You’re very right. Life after miscarriage is a very dark, very alienating place to be. On our road to parenthood, Julie and I found ourselves in this place more times than we ever would have expected. It never occurred to me at all that anything related to that experience would ever be made into a book, certainly not by me. But I had just put my book hello! hello! into the world, which had a family-oriented focus to it. So I found myself searching for the next story I wanted to tell. For another big moment as a parent. And I realized that one of my biggest moments of being a parent was the journey and struggle of trying to become one.
I don’t know if you remember, but the one time I visited your home, you showed me an early manuscript. We obviously knew it would be a challenging topic, one that might be hard to make appealing for children, yet I strongly felt that this was an important book for you to create.
That was a terrific visit! After years of knowing each other online and having collaborated together, we finally met face to face. I wish we lived closer to each other so we could do more of that.
You and Julie drove me to Wisconsin to eat brats. It had to happen.
I do remember sharing the book with you and talking about it at length. I was grateful to have your input. When I was ultimately ready to show it to my editor, Kevin Lewis at Disney-Hyperion, thankfully he took to it right away. Kevin knew this story well, from someone close to him that had been down this road in some way. It affected him personally. And as he showed it around at Disney-Hyperion, more and more folks came forward with similar reactions.
Let’s discuss the editing process for this book. I recall that your early draft was more direct about the loss suffered. Sadder, perhaps. Now looking at the published work, it seems that aspect has softened.
When I first thought of making this book, it was to tell the story of how our daughter (and our son too) came to be. It was a kind of love letter to my wife and baby. A book I could read to this little one someday and say, “Look how much it took to bring you into the world. Look how much we wanted you, and how much we went through, and how incredible all of this is. How incredible YOU are. And how tremendously grateful we are to have you here.” A large part of this story was the waiting.
Tom Petty got it right, didn’t he? The waiting is the hardest part. Because of all those hardships — the obstacles, the disappointments — that come with the waiting. After a while, you wonder if the bus is ever going to come.
Yes, the insufferable waiting for years for a successful pregnancy. Not knowing if it would ever happen. Seeing other people all around us get pregnant with little or no trouble. Wondering why that wasn’t happening for us. Wondering if something was wrong. And in that time, we did suffer some losses. Needless to say, that was a huge part of the story for me. Overcoming loss and starting over, it was all so terribly devastating and challenging to Julie and to me.
I’m just so glad that you can share that with the world. That’s the thing, Matt. You put it out there. Exposed, raw, real. And in the process, you turned it into something beautiful.
Initially, I felt like I really needed that tough part of the story to be in the book, to make it as honest as possible. I never used the words “death” or was too specific when I’d written it. But the art I’d proposed was very bleak and dark. Near absolute darkness, really. I remember I had a full spread of blackness surrounding a small spot illustration of the huddled together couple. An overwhelming darkness is how life felt after a miscarriage. When I showed it to my editor, he had some reservations, understandably.
Such a powerful piece of art, Matt. I am moved by that spread. But in the final analysis, I think you and Kevin Lewis were wise to keep it out of the book. It was too strong. You didn’t want heartbreak to become the message.
Much of the book was about hope. It was about the heartbreak too, for sure, but I never intended the scales to tip more toward the darker side of the story. But it was feeling quite dark at that stage in the editing process. The waiting and not knowing was the all-encompassing struggle that this story tells. To add a death in there would be a significant — possibly overwhelming — moment for the book. In general, death in a picture book is never going to be easy, considering the age of many of its readers. But in Wish, we agreed, bringing in this moment of loss would be a stopping point for the story. After considering it, we let the sadness in the book become more ambiguous in the final manuscript and art.
I think it succeeds beautifully. Were the characters always elephants? Why did that feel right?
Yes, the characters were always going to be elephants. I knew I wanted them to be animals and not people, so it would open it up to all different ethnicities. I wanted people of all races and walks of life to see themselves in these characters. A picture book with human characters can be more limiting in that respect. And very early on, I can’t remember the exact moment — I knew they should be elephants. Elephants are strong and smart and stoic. And they make lasting memories with the ones they love. I saw a nature program once about these two circus elephants that had become super close to each other, emotionally speaking. Sadly, they were eventually split up and moved to different circuses at different locations in the world. Many years later these two elephants were reunited at an elephant sanctuary. The caretakers weren’t sure they would remember each other. Or worse, they worried they might be defensive or aggressive toward each other. So they reintroduced them tentatively with fencing between the two. Even after years and years of separation, they instantly remembered each other and nearly broke down the bars to get to each other and be together again. That kind of emotion and devotion and breaks-your-heart beauty . . . I really wanted that for Wish.
You know, Matt, I see that you are enjoying great success of late, all of it deserved, and none of it surprising. But of all your books, this is the one that makes me the most proud of you. It sprang directly from the heart, as natural as a flower, and it shows on every page, in every illustration.
Well, thanks, Jimmy. That is really kind of you and you’ve played a big part of any success I may have stumbled onto. You’ve been a great friend and ally and I’ve loved being witness to your many great successes and accomplishments too, over these however many years I’ve been making books in this little world ours.
I don’t think I’ve been a big part of your success, Matt, but I have been a big fan. So: okay, um, gee. I guess we’re supposed to hug it out now, my brother. Please give my best to your family, always.
MATTHEW CORDELL envisions Wish as part of a trilogy. Dream comes out in Spring, 2017, followed by Hope at a later date. He has made a great many books, and friends, along the way. I’m glad to among the latter, though I’d be tickled to be the former. His hilarious wife, Julie Halpern, was a school librarian and is now an accomplished author in her own right. She’s also a terrific mother.
ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book.
Coming next week, Matt Phelan (Snow White) Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Jeff Newman, Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, 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”
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”