Monday, December 7, 2009

The Three Narrative Arcs in Making a Book: Part 3.1 The Stories Behind the Stories

Each book I have made is inevitably wrapped up in many layers of life. While trying to write or illustrate a book, there is the narrative arc of bills which beckon like banshees, and kids with their soccer games. Babies are born, forest fires engulf the neighborhood, cars crash, elderly parents unwittingly set fire to their microwaves, and the power of love prevails.

But back in the refuge of my studio I find the privilege of working with various authors, editors and art directors one of my greatest joys. Each collaboration has a different and amazing narrative.

The first book that I illustrated was Bronwen, the Traw and the Shape-Shifter by Poet Laureate, James Dickey. Yes, he is the one who wrote Deliverance.

Strange and wonderful things come your way when you begin a book project. It's like we grow antennae or something. For instance, the Bronwen story is about flying squirrels. As an illustrator, I needed to find one. It's always best to see something firsthand. My editor, Susan Mihalic, says to me, "Oh, I used to have one as a pet". I'd never seen one in my life. But as I began the first sketches for the book, my cat caught a mitten-sized flying squirrel. Un. Real. By the way, I rescued the squirrel. My cat would not speak to me.

The night and "all-dark" of this story cast shadows on my world as I began to illustrate the text. It was the bill-banshees who required me to take a night job as a security guard. I drove around in the wee hours past midnight and would park and sit for hours guarding the homeowners from themselves. While sitting in the cab of my pick-up truck, I painted the illustrations for this nighttime story. One night as Halley's Comet brushed our sky, I painted it into the book. Can you find it in the scene above?

James Dickey and I sent letters of encouragement back and forth. Note: the publisher usually keeps author and illustrator as far from each other as possible. This is to protect both of them from the meddling claws and fangs of the other (worst case scenerio).

But I like to pick an author's brain. It informs my research as an illustrator to peer around the corners of their psyche. For instance, Dickey wrote to me, "What I feel is more or less essential is an imaginative use of darkness; everywhere we can suggest rather than depict we are coming out ahead (as) John Dryden suggested... the poet is engaged in 'moving the sleeping images of things toward the light'. In our case, toward the light but never quite into it."

I enjoyed these exchanges, although I did have to ask him to "back-off" just a tad with one of his suggestions. Otherwise it was lovely-dovey and fascinating to get his letters, which he signed, "Cordially..." or:


David said...

Splendid to read the thought process behind the creation of a book -- especially this one!

steven said...

richard - it is hard to imagine an extraordinary talent such as your own, in this position: "While sitting in the cab of my pick-up truck, I painted the illustrations for this nighttime story." I would say that even if i couldn't write it here. it astonishes me that artists, musicians, writers have to somehow drag together the base points of life in order to create. but i have a mind that wishes for a very different world and perhaps it's in the dichotomy that your work is pressed into the stratospheric realms it occupies?! i will need to find a copy of this book. the saint christopher book was stunning by the way. steven

storyqueen said...

This is my favorite of your story arc posts yet.

It is fascinating the things that happen to us in the course of writing a book. (And it was fun to know that I'm not the only one who works in the car. One of my books was drafted while I waited in the car for my second daughter to finish her catechism class)

Going to have to find the Bronwen book now!


Martha Brockenbrough said...

These, what a thrill to learn the story behind them.

Richard Jesse Watson said...

David, thanks for visiting. I appreciate your comment.

Thanks, Steven. I think you are right, the best creative expression, comes out of angst, and other deep emotions. Life sometimes kicks us out of ourselves, and the arts are an attempt to find our way back.

Shelley, it made me laugh to imagine you in your car, working on a book. It's nuts,and a hassle, but expedient to be able to use a block of otherwise wasted time.

Thanks, Martha, that means a lot.

Claire Rudolf Murphy said...

Oh, the illustration of the girl is indeed full of darkness and light - very powerful. Wonderful post. Who would have put together James Dickey and picture books? Enjoyed reading about your communications with him, so removed from the celebrity picture books of today.

You as a security guard - insights in the night. I am paraphrasing but here goes . . . Katherine Paterson says that whatever took her away from her writing was preparing her for the next step in the work.

Thanks, Richard, for continuing your insights on narrative arcs and your deep work.

ruthie said...

Richard, thanks for the fascinating peep into your ways of working, love the image of you on night duty sat scribbling away. these illustrations took my breath away, wonderful attention to detail, simply stunning.