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: