season 1, episode 6: mac barnett

Conversation started 17 April 2014, 12:05 p.m.

PHIL: Hey Mac, glad to have you aboard the Bus—no doubt hurtling toward the edge of a cliff. First, some awkward and forced exposition for the audience. Last week we were all in San Antonio together for TLA (Texas Library Association Annual Conference). The three of us along with Chris Van Dusen were on a panel together. I think it’s pretty safe to say that all four of us were pretty unprepared. With a few hundred people in the crowd all waiting for us to say Something Important it really could have gone pretty terribly. We had a random assortment of slides at our disposal and you did as well. This is what I found fascinating and weirdly satisfying: Without any prior discussion, so many of our slides matched up. We called up a few pages from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and then you called up a few more. I read the first couple spreads of Leo Lionni’s, Swimmy, and then you read from Fish is Fish. This weird parallelism was interesting to me because I don’t really think the books we make are all that similar. And yet we seem to start from the same reference points.

Now, just to prove to you that I have no business running a interview, I yield the floor to you, having not asked a single question.

MAC: All right! I am going to proffer three possible explanations for these coincidences.

1. Our work is different, but I feel pretty good saying we’re all three of us deeply interested in the history and form of the picture book. Lionni and Steig are both masters, particularly formally, and the tools and methods they perfected are ones we employ in our books, although often to different ends. But I admire their work, and I admire your work, and I feel a real affinity for it too, despite the fact that many readers probably have different experiences when they read our respective books.

2. I think that we bristle similarly at stupid orthodoxies. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble—and really most of Steig—is way too long by today’s publishing standards. And Sylvester is almost unbearably sad. It’s in large part a meditation on adult grief, and the grief at losing a child, no less. Both Lionni fish books have unconventional narrative structures and present moments of dread and tremendous peril (especially Swimmy). At a time when it sometimes seems there’s widespread tacit agreement on what makes an Ideal Picture Book—sunny, epiphanic, plotwise hewing pretty tightly to Freytag’s triangle—and when many picture books feel pretty tightly arrayed around this bullseye, Steig and Lionni are a couple of beloved titans proving a picture book can do pretty much anything.

3. I’m fairly certain that any writers worth reading love to read books very different from the ones they write.

So it looks like 2/3 of my answers blunder into speaking for all of us. Does any of this feel rightish to you?

ERIN: Hello. My job in these discussions is to mostly just interject now and again. This time, I thought I’d throw in my two cents about Sylvester. You’re right—it is in large part a meditation on adult grief, but I think that’s exactly one of the reasons it strikes kids. As a kid you are often reminded of a time before you were around. Everyone bigger than you has this knowledge and prehistory that you weren’t there for. I think, when a moment of insecurity comes around, kids want to know that they’ll be missed (when I say “kids” here I suppose I mean “all people everywhere”). They’ve only been here so briefly. And everyone was walking around okay without them before. So what would happen if they disappeared? It plays a part in the running-away fantasy, too. You want to run away because a.) you want to gain some control over a situation while fleeing and b.) you want to be missed.

Anyhow, that doesn’t really move this conversation forward at all. But I do agree with what you’re saying.

Phil, want to pick a fight here?


PHIL: Nope, I think I can live with all that. I’m wondering now if Mac’s ever seen Steig’s Solomon the Rusty Nail. It was unknown to me until just a few days ago when I found it in a used book store here in Ann Arbor. It’s even darker and stranger than Sylvester, which reads like an episode of Care Bears® by comparison.


MAC: I grew up with that book. When I was a kid I was terrified of being kidnapped, and so I loved abduction stories. Steig is such a psychological writer. A one-eyed cat, a rusty nail in a locked cage, deliverance by fire—his characters and images and plots all feel laden with millennia-worth of associations, their symbols irreducible to simple referents—the stuff of daydreams and nightmares and myth. Plus he’s so good at digressions, especially when he’s following his characters minds. Like when Solomon, transformed into a nail and hammered into a board, wonders whether nails die. Or this bit, when Solomon first discovers his magic talent: “His first idea was to show his family what prize pazoozle of a rabbit he was. But then he decided to keep his secret secret.” It’s a great little hiccup, and a lesser writer might have eliminated it in the name of picture-book economy. But it’s that little darting thought that first makes us love Solomon (and later magnifies his tragedy).

PHIL: I don’t know how this book flew under my radar for so long. I’ve talked to a few people now about it and everyone seems know it well.

I’m right with you on the “hiccups” in Steig’s writing. In general it’s the hiccups that can make the writing of a picture book text exciting and worthwhile. They can be just as surprising to the writer as to the reader. They can function simply as an opportunity for absurdity or as a way to suddenly make an entire universe seem real. The hiccups can also be terrifying. Because as excited as I get when they happen naturally in the writing process, I also know that I may end up having to defend their existence at some point later en route to publication.

What’s your experience been here? Do you find yourself playing defense much? Or is it mostly smooth sailing?

MAC: Oh, I’ve definitely had to throw my body in front of the manuscript to keep the best bits from being sanded off. It’s actually pretty easy to construct conventional, smooth, efficient plots, but those give me no pleasure as a reader or a writer. I like ambiguities, digressions, and surprises. Formally, because the page turn is its basic building block, the picture book is beautifully suited to surprise (and not just narrative surprise [and the surprises don’t have to come at page turns]).

ERIN: Phil and I have discussed (well, pretty much every time we turn in a book and get stubborn about something or another) that when you throw your body in front of the manuscript, or illustration in my case, those battles aren’t actually fun to win. I’m happy-ish to get my way, because I want the mistakes in my books (and there are mistakes) to be mine. In the end though, no one is actually happy in our experience. But the book stays true to what we thought it was, I suppose. Sorry, editors and friends.

Anyway, hi again. I am on the train to New York trying to turn in a book so I feel a little neck deep in the possibility of conflict. Just the possibility. Not the reality.

Back to your writing. Whatcha into lately? Since I am not a writer (or, “ain’t no writer” would probably better demonstrate my skill level), I admire how you seem to try on all kinds of storytelling. What’s your favorite? Does it just depend on what you are working on?

Also! Does anything worry you about your own writing? Anything you are tempted by but shy away from?

Okay, back to the train ride. Hi Phil.

MAC: For the past month or so I’ve been traveling, visiting schools, talking to kids, reading books out loud, and so I haven’t been feeling particularly worried about work. I tend to be most bullish about writing during the times I’m not writing. But now that I’m home and have some time to work on stuff, I’m sure the anxiety will start creeping in. For me the toughest part is dealing with the gulf between the perfect thing in my head and the flawed thing that ends up on the page. It’s a tiny tragedy every time you set something down. And sometimes the tragedy doesn’t feel that tiny. And so it becomes easier to not write, and just spend my days pacing, snacking, and watching my dog watch me.

But you’re right—I do like to live in different storytelling modes, project to project. Part of this, I think, is that the picture book is such a new form. Really, it’s less than 100 years ago that something I can recognize as contemporary picture book writing emerges. And so there’s some of the thrill of running around in terra incognita, of filling in the edges of the map. I hate repeating myself, and partly because it seems like such a waste.

But I also think working with different illustrators almost demands working in different styles. Adam Rex draws the world differently than Jon Klassen—really, they draw two completely different kinds of worlds, with different kinds of characters and social mores and physical laws. Writing for different illustrators can be like writing in different dimensions. And I think I’m probably constitutionally predisposed to like that kind of stretching. I think there’s a consistent spirit that animates my stuff. But I have a philosophy, not a style.

Also, sorry I was so sluggish in my replies this last month. I sort of go into safe mode when I’m visiting schools. Email suffers. Friendships buckle. But now I’m back home and, like I said, looking for excuses not to write. How was New York?

PHIL: Oh, New York. I don’t know. That city makes me very tired. I really can’t explain why, but whenever we attend BookExpo I leave with a palpable feeling that my career is over. I hate to even admit that, because I know it might sound ungrateful. We had two very nice book signings. We gave a talk to a big group of librarians that I felt went pretty well. We got to catch up with some bookstore folks that we really love (Hey, Politics and Prose!). The highlight of the trip was actually a late-night hangout with our mutual friend, Jon Klassen. We were staying at a hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden, and with the whole area crawling with rabid Rangers fans, we decided to just hang out and talk till 2 a.m. in our room. So really, there was a lot to like about the trip. Maybe it’s the noise, I don’t know, but New York really wears on me spiritually even when everything is coming up aces.

I’ve learned from experience to schedule a vacation immediately following any trip to New York or else my gloom will persist. Usually we head to Northern Michigan and disappear into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

upnorth upnorth1 upnorth2 upnorth3 upnorth4

Sleeping Bear is the most beautiful place I know. And whenever either of us needs to get right again we just drive north. A lot of people outside the Midwest don’t realize that Michigan is really a beach state. This is a-okay with me because it means the beaches are often empty. Not a lot of riffraff. A few hours on a Lake Michigan beach and I feel healthy again. It’s funny, but I don’t get this feeling when I visit the ocean. It’s gotta be freshwater.

Have you got a place to go when things get noisy?

MAC: I’m pretty housebound. Lately I’ve been traveling so much that its a great luxury just to be home. But every day my dog and I go walk in the Oakland Hills in this area where a volcano fell over millions of years ago. There are newts and cows and golden eagles and I think a lot of people would be surprised that it’s in Oakland. Henry (my dog) loves it up there. He runs around and flushes birds and jumps up on rocks. I get a real sense of calm when I watch Henry do what he’s supposed to be doing—the things he loves most, the things he’s best at.

But my main respite is reading. You read anything good lately? And how warm is the water of the edge of that dock?

PHIL: Well, that dock was at Big Glen Lake, which probably has a surface temp of about 50 Fahrenheit right now. Up there Lake Michigan is probably closer 40 degrees. So not exactly swimming temperatures yet. That’s pretty unusual though. This crazy winter kept the lakes frozen way past normal. Lake Superior still has ice (it’s June 9th right now, just to provide context for anyone reading this). The cold is fine by me though. I like a Lake Michigan beach as much in a blizzard as I do in the heat.

Right now I’m reading Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. The writing is so impressive that I can’t seem to read more than 4 or 5 pages at a time without overloading. So it’s taking me a while. I didn’t even bother bringing that book to the beach because who the hell wants to be that smart on a beach. Instead I went to one of my favorite places, The Cottage Bookstore, and picked up a page-turny bestseller that is better left nameless.It was terrible, but I liked it anyway. Erin was especially proud of her selection for the beach, but I’ll let her talk about that…


ERIN: I read The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert (JK) Galbraith (Rowling) on the beach with my dog digging holes but minding the plovers. It was exactly as page-turny and easy as I wanted it to be. When I was in New York I turned in a book that I am uneasy about, but needed to finish, so it was good to have a quiet brain that was busy solving a mystery.

I really like what you said about being with your dog. I can relate.

It’s one of the reasons why I desperately want to live in the country, but I know it’s not always good for me. I should probably be forced to be around people every once in a while. We’ll see. I still want a place with a horse and a sheep and a cow and a pig. All rescues. All misfits. We’d belong together.

How much traveling are you up to this summer? What comes out next for you?

MAC: I’m not traveling much this summer. Las Vegas for ALA in June, and then in July Jon Klassen and I are presenting at an illustration conference up in Portland. We’ve got a book coming out in October called Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. And in September Jen Corace and I are putting out a picture book called Telephone. And then in January I have a novel coming out that I wrote with a friend of mine. So September is sort of the event horizon.



I should be using this time to work on a novel I’ve had in my head for six or seven years now, but I keep just reading for it instead. “Researching,” I’m calling it, but partly just putting it off, delaying that tragedy of the realized object. Here are my stacks of relevant reading. Philip, I saw from Episode 1 you’re a cowboy-art buff. I don’t know if your enthusiasm extends to novels, but a lot of those are westerns.


PHIL: First of all, I am going to name my next heavy metal band “The Tragedy of the Realized Object”. Secondly, I love all things Western—art, movies (even the bad ones), books. The prospect of a Mac Barnett Western is very exciting.

I’m really curious now about the novel you say you’re working on with a friend. Collaboration is dicey when it comes to picture book making, and picture books are inherently collaborative. Are you willing to talk about the process of collaborative novel-writing? I’m pretty sure I’m too pigheaded to co-write much of anything. Are you guys still friends?

MAC: I like collaboration, although it’s important to have some things just my own, too. But working on a novel with someone else is a lot different from collaborating on a picture book. My friend Jory and I had to figure out how to write this thing together, but that’s not so different from a solo project. You always have to find the way forward. And that way often changes book to book. Some of The Terrible Two was written while we sat across from each other with two laptops, sort of simultaneously composing on the same google doc. Some of it was written by just one person alone in a room, the way most books, or at least most of my books, are written. But even then, I think you’re influenced by the other person you’re writing with.

I actually don’t find collaborating on picture books dicey at all. Or at least it rarely gets dicey. Mostly it’s one of the job’s great joys. Again, every book is different. Sometimes I follow all the rules and communicate only through an editor. But often, especially when I’m working with a friend, the illustrator and I are communicating through the process. Adam Rex, e.g., will send on some sketches, and mostly I’ll just get very excited, but maybe we’ll have a conversation that ends up being helpful to him.

The book I just did with Jon, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole—well, I’ve never worked like that before. Jon and I would just open an audio connection on our computers, and we’d talk while he drew. Sometimes we were talking about our book. Sometimes we were talking about books we liked. A lot of the time we were talking about lunch. The collaboration was really close, and it was good for the book. But I think we each had a lot of impact on what would normal be considered the other’s domain.


This is one of my favorite spreads, and it wasn’t in the original manuscript. I had to write it to set up an illustration that Jon created—the illustration that comes next—that had the two boys digging in different directions. It was a big deal to have the boys split up—even though Jon liked the drawing, and so did I, we had to talk for a long time about we could use it. Would these boys ever go in different directions? The joke was good, but that wasn’t enough to justify their separation. Ultimately, though, I wrote this bit of text, and Jon, who’s so good at posing and, of course, expression, drew this delicate moment. I think it reveals a lot about their relationship. It’s an important moment, an emotional moment, and it ends up being a real hinge in the book.

PHIL: It occurs to me that of the people I’ve worked with I’ve actually been my own most difficult collaborator. Phil-the-author can be a real jerk to Phil-the-illustrator (it’s always the illustrators getting bossed around).


Sorry. The Netherlands just went up 3-2 over Australia. Where was I?

I’m constantly writing myself into situations that I can’t draw my way out of. When I write for other people I really consider their strengths and try to play into them. Amos McGee was basically a list of illustrations I thought Erin could illustrate well—an old man playing chess with an elephant, an old man racing a tortoise, et cetera, et cetera.

I was the writer and the illustrator for my upcoming book, Sebastian and the Balloon.


There were a few moments in this book that really made me tear my hair out. Usually when I hit a brick wall I go ask Erin what I should do. Honestly, I don’t know how people do this job without someone in-house to lean on. My favorite example of this kind of interaction came from this image:


It’s a complicated moment of storytelling in the book and I just couldn’t figure it out, either in composition or in tone. Literally for months I worked on this. Finally, in a moment of despair Erin doodled this for me on the back of a credit card bill:


This little ten second drawing unlocked everything and now it’s my favorite spread in the book.

Sometimes it’s just more fun to have others realize my stories. Partly because I can write things I wouldn’t necessarily write for myself, and partly because of the possibility of surprise. I just finished a book with Matt Cordell called Special Delivery.


The book is full of imagery I never even imagined when I was writing, and the book is so much richer because of it. One of my favorite miss-it-if-you’re-not-paying-attention moments is here:


On this spread my main character, Sadie, joins a group of bandits and embarks on a manic bean-eating adventure (it makes sense in the context of the book, I promise). Matt snuck in this little vignette, an homage to Apocalypse Now:


I love it!

You’ve worked with quite a few illustrators now. Are there any more artists out there you’d really like to collaborate with? By the way, the pairing of Chris Van Dusen with President Taft is Stuck in the Bath was genius. His polished gouache style is perfect for the slick, shiny setting of a presidential bathroom. It’s a book I never even would’ve attempted as an illustrator. Do you have a couple images from Taft that we could show?

MAC: I think the picture-book author must keep the illustrator in mind while writing. That doesn’t mean you have to know who’s illustrating your book when you write it (although sometimes I do) or that you have to imagine all the illustrations (in fact you shouldn’t). But you must write with a consciousness that when you’re finished, someone else will be taking over the story—and that the story belongs to that other person too. The good picture-book writers I know operate from this place of humility, aware they’re working in a primarily visual medium. One of the writer’s most important jobs is creating opportunities for the illustrator to look good. I’d imagine that this could even be true for author illustrators—that you could be setting up the other half of yourself for success. Phil, at what point, when you’re working on a story, do you know whether you’ll be illustrating it? And how do you know it?

PHIL: For the most part I’ve known what artist I’m writing for before I’ve set pen to paper. I am a control-freak above all else and the prospect of sending a story out into the world and letting someone else decide the artist, well that’s just horrifying enough never to try it all. My controlling nature is only augmented by the fact that my formal training is not as a writer or as an illustrator—my college degree is in graphic design. I like to keep projects close so I can watch over the design. This is probably annoying to more than a few people. But design is the third layer of communication in a picture book, and bad design makes me nutty.

You may have ignored me on purpose, but in case not I’m going to re-ask the same question from my last email: Are there any more artists out there you’d really like to collaborate with?

I’m asking because I’ve been thinking about this question a lot myself lately. There are dozens and dozens of artists that I really admire, but only a few that I can really see myself writing for. A good artist and a good writer can be paired up and the result is not always equal to or greater than the sum of its parts. Twice in the last couple years I’ve had the bizarre experience of having one of my illustration heroes ask if I’d be willing to write them story. I have not acted on either offer. (See again: The Tragedy of the Realized Object).

MAC: I think I ignored most of your last set of questions. First, yes! Here’s some Taft art.



And here’s my favorite piece from the book. Chris sent me the original.


As for artists I’d like to work with, sure, yes, lots. Isabelle Arsenault. Sophie Blackall. Erin Stead. Tomi Ungerer, although lately I’ve seen him aspersing author-illustrator collaboration. Still, he was great illustrating other peoples work. Frances Face-Maker, for instance, is terrific. I’d always wanted to work with Marc Simont, and I’m sad I’ll never have a chance to. Carson Ellis and I are doing a book together in the far future, which is very exciting. I feel a very deep affinity with pretty much everything she draws, and always have. I feel like her art’s rhythms and my brain’s are the same. Does that make sense? I can stare at her work for very long intervals.

Christian Robinson is someone I’d been wanting to work with since before he was making books, and we have something coming out next year. He texts me photos of his desk sometimes, and I get giddy.

cr cr2

This stage, when illustrations are just starting to come in, is probably my favorite part of making a book. It’s thrilling, watching a talented artist continue telling a story I started with words.

ERIN: Come on! Ugh. I quit illustration. Why go on drawing when that is currently sitting on someone’s desk somewhere? That’s a neat lookin’ book you’ve got there, Mac (by way of Mr. Robinson).

Erin Stead looks forward to working with you.

Phil, is there anything you’d like to add?

ERIN: Oh, I actually have one thing to ask you about before we all go our separate ways…

The last I spoke to you about Sam and Dave Dig a Hole you were going to try to go on tour with Jon and do events at night, geared more towards adults who love picture books. Phil and I have often found these types of events to be some of the most fun and interesting. This spring we did one in Ann Arbor where we just blathered on about some of our favorite, lesser-known picture books, and people ended up coming! It was actually a pretty fun night. Are you guys still going to do something like that in September?

I’m happy Sam and Dave are going to meet everyone soon. It’s a good book.

MAC: Yeah, we’re going to try that a couple of nights this tour. When I’m signing at a bookstore, adults will often hand a book over and sheepishly say, “This one’s for me.” But there shouldn’t be any shame in liking good picture books. A good picture book may have a floor, an age below which a reader probably won’t enjoy it, but it doesn’t have a ceiling. Still, I can understand why an adult may feel weird being the only person in a signing line not wearing a Minecraft t-shirt. So Jon and I are going to do a couple events where we talk about the form and history of the picture book. If there’s one thing I’d like to do careerwise, besides write books till I’m an old graybeard, it would be to play some part in elevating the cultural status of the picture book, which, for a lot of complicated reasons, has been unfairly diminished in the last few decades. I love picture books. They’re a peculiar and wonderful art form—and I think it’s largely up to the people who make them to show the world why that’s true.

PHIL: Amen to that.

Well, the clock is ticking, and I’ve gotta get this episode posted. So how about we sign off with two easy questions?:

1. What’s your favorite book out this year so far? (The why is optional.)

2. And what’s your favorite Sam and Dave song?

MAC: My favorite book so far this year? Greg Pizzoli’s newest, Number One Sam. I love Greg’s work, and I love this book’s structure—it’s genuinely surprising, because the plot is driven by its main character, who is a nuanced and flawed and genuinely likable guy, and not by any received notions of how a story should unfold. And I love those little bespectacled chicks.

I’m glad you asked about the Sam & Dave song. That’s easy: Hold On, I’m Coming. And the single has what I think is my all-time favorite album cover.


I’d love to hear your answers to both those questions, too.

PHIL: Well, if we had to pick just one book then I think we’d go with Lois Ehlert’s The Scraps Book. It’s so simple, unpretentious, and honest. The book has been helpful to me specifically because I’m currently working on a longer form picture book that is sort of diary-like. Lois’s book is special but not precious, which is a bullseye I’d really like to hit as well.

We couldn’t possibly name a better Sam and Dave song than that so we won’t even try. And WOW that is an amazing album cover! Instead I’ll sign us off with my favorite non-Sam-and-Dave Sam, Sam Cooke. My favorite Sam Cooke song is Nobody Knows the Trouble That I’ve Seen. This song makes me a better person. The album Night Beat gets totally worn out by both Erin and I in the studio, especially after hours.

And just for fun I’ll add my all-time favorite funk-soul rarity, Swamp Dogg’s Total Destruction To Your Mind. You’re welcome!

Thanks a lot, Mac. We love everything you make. Your work makes our work better. I hope we all get to make books together for a long, long time.

Conversation ended 6 July 2014, 11:20 p.m.

Thanks for reading. We leave you today with Sam and Dave, bringing down the house in Norway, 1967, with the one and only Booker T and the MG’s playing backup. We’re gonna go out on a limb and say that this was probably most exciting thing to happen in Norway since, well, ever. Until next time…

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