season 1, episode 3: rebecca stead


Conversation started 2 April 2014, 3:03 p.m.


Hi Rebecca,

I have to say, I’m a little intimidated by this conversation. I’ve spent a lot of years learning how to talk about art. But writing has always been a more mysterious exercise. For me, writing is sort of a by-product of art. I write so that I can draw. There’s something uniquely terrifying, and potentially lonely about writing as a singular pursuit. Even for introverts, art making has an inherent social aspect. “Does this look okay?” is something that can be heard about fifty times a day around here. Writing, at least for me, has always been anti-social though. It’s so easy to keep hid that it seems like an activity that’s tied to paranoia almost by nature.

I know so few writers that weren’t picture-makers first. I have to ask. Is writing scary to you, too?

Writing is absolutely scary for me. When I sit down to work I’m feeling mostly dread, and this is true from the beginning of the book-making process until the end. Maybe it’s just that leap of faith – reaching for something and knowing it might not be there for me. What I’m reaching for is undeniably internal, so coming up empty-handed feels like some sort of verdict. Not so much “oh well, I couldn’t think of any good stories today,” but more like: It’s possible that I have no soul, that I am, in fact, nothing. And for a long time my drafts are almost unreadable, so there isn’t much comfort in seeing the work take shape.

And yes, it’s spectacularly lonely! In order to write, I have to descend into – I don’t know what to call it – a quiet place? That’s not exactly right, but I have this image of lowering myself by rope to some remote spot, though I definitely lack that kind of arm strength. Anyway, once I’m in that receptive place, I can’t chat like a normal person. Human interaction brings me back (have you seen Somewhere in Time? It’s like when Christopher Reeve finds the penny, but with less drama), so I work best without people around. But there’s also another kind of loneliness, which comes from living alone inside the work for so long, trying to make it recognizable to others.

Now ask me something fun!
Just kidding.

As someone who lives most of his life in an emotional state shifting between dread and regret (depending on whether the work is in progress or already out the door) I both identify with and find a weird solace in this answer of yours. One of the frustrating things about this job is that it’s really friggin’ hard to feel creative everyday. It’s almost inevitable that 3 or 4 days a week will be spent in some kind of mental waiting room. This is why deadlines are blown. There’s just so much sitting around. Or in my case, laying face down on the studio floor. It’s pretty rare that I feel really, truly positive about anything I’m working on. Those moments of positivity tend to happen—probably not coincidentally—at times when work is actually impossible, like during long drives on the Ohio Turnpike. Quite a few of my books were conceived in moments of near-manic positivity whilst speeding along Interstate 80. The Ohio Turnpike is my spiritual center. Go figure. This all reminds me of a newspaper article Erin stumbled on recently…


But before this gets too heavy and we start alienating the optimists out there, I’ll do as you say and ask you something fun.

Have you ever been introduced as the illustrator of A Sick Day for Amos McGee? Erin has been awarded your Newbery on numerous occasions, usually in front of a large audience of Very Impressed People. I have to tell you, it’s a big honor for her.

Ha – I wonder if his parents were “In the Air Tonight” types, or more “Groovy Kind of Love” people.

I’m always comforted by other people’s creative angst, too. I feel understood by it! And I think the idea of a mental waiting room is exactly right. You’re not accomplishing anything, but you’re not allowed to leave.

No one has ever given me Erin’s Caldecott, or taken me for any kind artist. I may be romanticizing here, but there is this lovely quality that many of you radiate – a kind of calm. I’m thinking about you and Erin, Chris Raschka, David Wiesner, Brian Floca, Jerry Pinkney . . . you all seem centered. Do you see it? It makes me wonder if there is some meditative aspect to making art.

I feel it’s my duty to interject here. Rebecca, I agree with you that all those gentlemen you mentioned have a calm about them. Raschka especially. I think Phil can pull off a kind of calm most of the time (I guess sometimes I have too much information). I can not. I have never been mistaken for centered before your last email and so I will wear this new badge proudly. However, I am mostly a wreck who gets in my own way. I have moments of practicality, but those are usually directly influenced by a looming deadline.

I do think, however, there can be something meditative about making art. If a day goes well in the studio, there’s not a whole lot of talking, just plodding along. There’s an internal quiet, which I really like. Finding that quiet, though, can sometimes be hard for me (see also: lack of center). That internal space is directly related to the fact that, in reality, I do not completely understand why I can draw. There are technical skills you can be taught or pick up over time, but in truth I have no idea why I know how to draw. I am no writer, but in a way I would imagine good writing falls somewhere in the “I don’t really know what I am doing” frame of mind. I really like Haruki Murakami. Almost immediately upon opening up his books I am totally fascinated by his writing. When I dissect it, sentence by sentence, nothing is flashy. It’s very direct. But I can smell the coffee his characters make and I can relate to their nondescript unease.

Anyhow, I don’t know if that makes any sense. I don’t write stories. Phil has told me before (correct me if I am wrong, Phil) that when he is just writing he can get really tired of hearing his own voice in his head. Do you ever have trouble with that?

Well, I feel much closer to you now, Erin. We have a few things in common.

I think the question “Why can I draw (or write, or . . )?” is a semi-terrifying one, because it sits very close to the question “Can I draw (or write, or . . .)?” When I’m writing a book (and it takes me years to write a book), I usually walk around feeling as if I’ve promised to do something I have no idea how to do, which is uncomfortable. And yes, like Phil, I get tired of hearing my own voice, and tired of my own questions about the story, and tired of those three magazines that have been sitting forever on the table in the mental waiting room. This is where nourishment comes in handy: a movie, a book, a play, a trip to the museum. I live in New York, where much is available in the form of creative food, yet sometimes I seem to voluntarily starve myself for no good reason. I’m not sure what that’s about. When I remember to eat, I usually feel better.

From the little I know, one thing I love about art is the way that artists feel free to play openly with one another’s ideas. There’s a kind of “borrowing with admiration” that serves the whole community and (at least from the outside) conveys a sense of collaboration or exchange. I wish we had more of that in writing. Every writer stands on the shoulders of many other writers, yet most of the time we don’t talk as openly about influence.

Erin and I talk a lot about input vs. output. Ideally I suppose the two should always be in balance. But in reality they never seem to be. When either of us are working on the preliminary stages of a book—dummying, character sketches, that sort of stuff—we become all output. Reading for pleasure goes completely out the window. The early stages of a book are such a workout for the brain that any new input seems to overwhelm the whole system. When a project is winding down though I really start to crave input again. Books, movies, museums, or whatever else. The world feels full of possibility again.

Stealing from others in art is absolutely part of the whole process. I’d never really considered how unacceptable it is in writing though. Recently I’ve been discovering all the ways in which I copy and plagiarize from myself. I repurpose images in my art all the time and I never feel guilty about it. But something about copying/repurposing my language feels wrong and unprofessional.

On another topic, I’m wondering if you’re still considering writing for picture books? A couple years back I know we talked a little bit about it. You don’t need to give any specifics. I’m just curious if it’s still a possibility. I get asked a lot if/when I’m going to attempt a middle-grade novel and I’m prone to all sorts of obfuscations in my replies.

I worry about copying myself as well. Sometimes I re-read a scene and think, “this just sounds too much like something I would write.” It’s ridiculous – who else is it going to sound like? – and yet I think it’s also a valid self-criticism in some way I can’t quite put my finger on. Actors have their own voices and body language, right? But we’re not impressed if they move and sound like the same person in every role. I think there are some aspects of our “writing voices” (and artist’s voices, to stretch the metaphor) that we have to challenge ourselves to shed. But it’s scary.

I’m interested in what you say about early stages versus late stages. For me, it’s the later stages that are overwhelming, because I have to finally wrap my brain around what it is I’m trying to do. It’s amazing how long it can take me to understand how the pieces of my story fit together, and why. There are moments of desperation and moments of joy, but for the most part my job during those last months is to keep hope alive.

I would love to write picture books. It’s enormously difficult, as you know. I have one complete draft that no one much liked, and one half-finished draft that I have a feeling no one will much like. One kind publisher actually sent me a bunch of picture books so that I would have a better idea of what they are meant to be. Do you think much about the definition of a picture book?

That’s a really loaded question. Erin and I could probably publish 50,000 words just on that alone—what makes a picture book.

My first instinct is to get annoyed with someone trying to tell you how exactly a picture book behaves. One of the great things about the form is the degree to which in can be stretched. David Weisner’s, Tuesday, behaves very differently than Chris Van Allsburg’s, Polar Express. But both are recognizable as picture books and nothing else.

That said, there are a few characteristics that are specific to picture books no matter the personalities they happen to take on. To simplify I’d boil it down to these three things:

#1 Word and image are interchangeable
#2 The page turn is everything
#3 Picture books are three dimensional objects

I think #1 is the reason that so few writers of long fiction seem to be able to operate comfortably in a picture book text. I suspect it’s just more natural for someone who grew up drawing instead of writing to think in this way. A lot of artists (I include myself here) are skeptical of our ability to write and, in a weird way, this might help us. There are certain writers of long fiction that strike me though as being inherently capable of writing for picture books, and I’d put you in that group. Your writing is already extremely tidy and considered. And you write with a sensitivity that would suit you well in our world. Your work gives me a similar feeling to Grace Lin’s. Grace Lin has, of course, already been working successfully in both long fiction and picture books for a while.

#2 and #3 are just a matter of form, and once recognized can be manipulated by anyone. The limiting nature of picture books—most are exactly 32 pages—makes them more akin to sonnet writing than novel writing.

Lately I’ve even been thinking that stand-up comedy is similar to what I have to do as a picture book writer. The writing of a perfect joke is just like the writing of a perfect picture book. Everything has to land in just the right place or the whole thing falls apart.

It’s silly to me though to assume that a text would work on all three fronts right off the bat. Picture book making isn’t just a matter of pairing a text with an illustrator. It has to be more explorative than that. And if a text has sufficient heart then it can be made to work. I for one feel like you should give it a try. Of course, this is coming from a guy who’s had a finished novel on his shelf for months and hasn’t let anyone read it, not even Erin!

You have to let someone read that novel. (Erin, for instance.)

Yes, you’re probably right. A friend told me recently (and he may have been quoting someone famous, I can’t remember) that every creative person should have one project that they keep completely to themselves. That sort of feels right to me. But I tell you what, someday if you mail me a picture book text I’ll mail you back a novel. We’ll have an all-Stead writing group. A writing group with absolutely no criticism, mind you, because I take criticism very poorly. Sound good?

Anyway, the real reason I asked about your stance on picture books is because there’s a particular type of picture book that I think you’d be especially good at. The long-form picture book is sort of a dying art form. Erin and I call these books “storybooks” for lack of a better term. Our loose definition of “storybook” is something like this: A longer text accompanied by illustrations that behave more as decoration than as explanation. In other words, the text could be understood completely on it’s own without the aid of an artist. In this way “storybooks” deviate slightly from most people’s understanding of what a picture book is. My favorite storybook of yesteryear is Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys, by Norton Juster. My favorite modern storybook is The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, by George Saunders. Saunders is of course famous for his writing for adults, but most Saunders fans have never even heard of Frip.

Long fiction intimidates picture book makers, and picture books intimidate writers of long fiction. The unfortunate result is that no one attempts the storybook. It’s a task that I think you’re uniquely suited for.

Thoughts? Comments? Rebuttals?

I think I’m a storybook fan, too, and I’m flattered that you think I’d be any good at it. Some of William Steig’s books are storybooks, I think (but do you agree?), and I love his work in particular. I’m a crazy Saunders fan, but have not read Gappers of Frip – I should. I was also surprised to learn a few years ago that William Maxwell, another favorite of mine, wrote an unusual children’s book called The Heavenly Tenants that also falls into the storybook category. It’s a book I can’t imagine being published today, and it won a Newbery Honor in 1947. It’s odd, when you think about it, that children’s stories are just as subject to fashion as anything else. Most people agree that the 1960s brought “reality” into children’s fiction, allowing darker emotions and less-sheltered situations, but it isn’t as if we’ve otherwise been on any kind of clear trajectory. Doors open and close, I think.

But I’m all for a Stead writing group!

I don’t know about having a creative project that I keep to myself. I tend to talk, eventually. Creativity is a form of communication, right?

I suppose, yes. But I think I’m always torn between my 8-year-old self that preferred drawing alone in my room, and my 8-year-old self that would go and tape up those drawings in the hallway. I want the work to be seen, but I don’t want to see it being seen.

I agree, many of Steig’s books have that storybook feel. Both Abel’s Island and Dominic (which is a little bit longer), feel like they’re meant to be read aloud over the course of several nights. If you can write a story like that then I’ll be glad to illustrate it. Which may or may not be much of an enticement.

Well, this conversation is now approaching two months in length. We should probably let you get back to more serious work. Any last things we ought to discuss before signing off?

Clear your calendar – it’s a deal! Actually, it takes me about nine years to write a book, so you don’t have to clear your calendar just yet. But I love the idea of writing a storybook that you would bring to life.

I’m with you on the weirdness of seeing your work being seen. But that’s one of the wonderful things about books – we don’t have to watch.

I once heard Jhumpa Lahiri say that her writing is like a series of rooms that she carefully builds and then leaves for others to experience. I love this idea and carry it around with me. My rooms are an expression of who I am (though they’re not me). I work hard on them, and then I hope that people will come in and feel compelled by them in ways that I don’t want to prescribe. I don’t, however, want to live in those rooms forever. And I think that letting people in helps me to leave.

Aren’t you glad this conversation is almost over?

Last things . . .

I sent a revision to a new reader this morning, so I’m experiencing that pleasant blankness that comes after a flurry of work.

I’ve been thinking about what it’s like to be inside the work, and outside of it – neither place is comfortable for long!

Also, thank you. I’ve loved this conversation.

Last thing from me: can you write two stories so I can illustrate one of them as well? Phil called shotgun so he deserves the first one.

Also, I just dropped artwork off for a new book so I am right there with you.

Goodbye for now!

Nine years it is. We’re penciling you in for a Stead/Stead/Stead collaboration in 2023. Can’t wait.
Thanks Rebecca!

Conversation ended 31 May 2014, 5:15 p.m.

Thank you for reading. We leave you today in Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore, in lively conversation with a Sandhill Crane. Until next time…

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