Saturday, May 30, 2009

The questions of illustration

As I madly draw and color the art for a picture book I'm illustrating, I watch my fingers move a real pencil and then an electronic brush, hear my mind make conscious decisions about composition, content, and color and after awhile float into the meta questions. I went to college for 5 years to dally in meta-think.

For instance, I draw the baby in a high chair. I suggest a bit of the room. I look online for high chairs that aren't circa 1980s. (My brain is curiously stuck on images of things in the 80s.) But judging from my own feet, sneaker design sure changed since then so too most likely high chairs. And indeed, newer high chairs look different. Here is where the drifting begins. I ask myself what is the most high chair aspect of high chairs. A tray, a tiny seat raised to adult level, a way to strap in squirming food throwing chaos. Wouldn't it be more fun to make the high chair kind of kooky? Three legs like those jogging strollers. Lockable wheels. A force field that collects flying cheerios and funnels it to the dog dish. I push back further, am I creating a world where such fine high chairs can sit? What world would I like my characters to live in? Indeed, what is the best of all possible worlds to illustrate today?

And my characters? Take a baby's hand. What is the most meta aspect of this pudgy item? Dimples on the knuckles, creases around the wrists, a way to suggest the strong but unrefined motor skills? This leads to a consideration of the Fibinocci sequence (1; 1; 2; 3; 5; 8;... ) of finger length. Starting from the tip of a finger, if the bone length to the first joint is 1, the second bone is 1+1=2 or twice as long, the third is the sum of the previous two 1+2=3, the bones in the back of the hand are also the sum of the previous two 2+3=5... and this numeric sequence is what enables a hand to curl up like a snail shell. But baby hands are so tiny, so round, do they move in the same ways? Are the hand proportions basically the same as the ones busy drawing at the ends of my arms? Babies sure have disproportionally big heads. More research proves their hands are in fibinocci order, just can't reach an octave on the piano and are permanently sticky. But I am illustrating a particular baby, not the sum of all babies. Does this particular child use her hands in a telling character driven way? And what are the meta considerations of character gesture anyway?

I'm running out of time. I draw and draw and tell myself that the worlds I make in poems or art are worth exploring and defining. That the best picture books make arbitrary but delicious rules for themselves, such as no perspective or no light source, or only mid range value hues, or all people and animals will have very big but flat heads... it comes down to deciding what to leave in and how you want to twist it for art's sake.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why do otherwise lively writers use tired descriptions?

Dear Blog,

You should know I am the person who takes 10 books out of the library and can only finish one of them. Is it because I am lazy? Hardly. I read fast and frequently. Is it because I get distracted? Nope. My imagination gets hunger pangs for novels. But I carry those mostly unread books back to the library because the writing is too annoying to shovel into my brain.

Every cliche, overused description, and lost opportunity to use language well distracts me. I'm reading along and think, good set-up or interesting characters, and then--yuck--the dreadful clunkers interrupt my ability to enter this crafted world. I start reading as an editor, fixing each one as I go along, and after a couple of chapters, I'm cringing or arguing with the author.

"Why didn't you THINK I'd notice you were using flabby phrases?"

If a character is speaking in cliches, and that's who they are, fine. But the author had better prove to me that they can write the rest with fresh observation.

Some writers have told me that I'm too picky. That these are teeny tweaks that nobody really cares about. I think not. It is the difference between a pretty good book and a really good one. In a great book, I'm engaged by plot, character, philosophy, conflict, and the surprising magic of good language. Take away the delights of good sentences and the story deflates.

It's like the authors forgot to do the final rewrite. Shame on them. Read some poetry if you want to see what it looks like when every word is well chosen.

Best Wishes,
Cranky Reader.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A New York Love Song of an Evening

At 4 pm I get an email from Flash Rosenberg. She says, "Wanna go? My treat. 6 pm Cornelia Street. I'm one of the performers tonight." Tonight being the monthly MONOLOGUES & MADNESS (organized and hosted by the talented Tulis McCall) where 17 people each gets 4 minutes before the incredibly friendly audience of fellow readers in the cozy black and red performance space underneath the Cornelia Street Cafe.

I showered in about 4 minutes threw on the safe West Village camouflage of black sneakers, black socks, black tee shirt, and black vest. Did I mention I wore black? We hopped on a downtown 1 train and arrived on time. And there was Flash with two seats saved for us, we refused to let her treat us and paid our 7 dollars admission and got our glasses of wine. What ensued was in turns funny, sad, hilarious, moving, and totally unpredictable stories and storytelling. One piece required audience participation with Kazoos. Perfect.

We met her dear friend and dramaturg Maxine Kern. Maxine was great to talk to between sets. She and Jim between them know a lot of theatre folks. And on top of that, fun coincidence that Maxine teaches dramaturgy in the theatre masters program at Stony Brook. So of course I had to tell her that Deb and Val (who teach in the undergraduate theatre program at SB) had been huge helps to my daughter Natalie and clearly taught her the skills to get into the Actors' Theatre of Louisville intern acting program.

Flash was great. She wrote her piece earlier today! How can she possibly do that? She delivered humor, wisdom, a touch of Chaplin's sadness, Coco Channel's wardrobe on crack, and Dorothy Parker's wit spun into the electronic age. She has that great ability to turn the world upside down and get everyone to look at it that way with her, while laughing.

Flash challenged me, Jim, and Maxine to write monologues and get into the event. So we are on!

And if that wasn't fun enough we ended up sitting into the next set, thanks really to Robin Hirsch (owner of Cornelia) for letting us, with some of his delicious wheat bourbon, and this set was unbelievably terrific. We got to hear the legendary David Amram, with piano, french horn, flutes (two at a time even), play composition & surprises--beat poetry, scat and all that; Kevin Twigg, drums, glockenspiel; John de Witt, bass; Adam Amram, percussion; and John Ventimiglia, an actor reading from Jack Kerouac's Visions of Cody.

A day ago Amram was playing the huge Madison Square Garden. He told us he really loves playing small places. He wore a necklace festooned with metal stars, 5 and 6 pointed, and metal bits that could have come from brass instruments.

I now feel that my poetry readings would only be enhanced by having this top notch jazz group back me up. Our table also had the very funny and talented Carl Kissin, who had read the piece with kazoo.

I did my best to sketch the players by candle-light. Got an autograph from John Ventimiglia. Fun. Wine and spirits on a dinner of humor, heart, jazz and beat, but scant on food, left us tippy and delighted. We took a cab home. Are eating pizza. Am thinking this is why we live here. You know, this crazy city life, when it isn't maddening it is a delight.

When Flash calls, we go.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Photo, Art, Klezmer, Word

Yesterday was amazing.

First I went to Brooklyn and met Phillip Lopate. I am designing a poetry book for him and he wanted to show me the photographs and designs he loves. He has a voice rather like my fathers, who also grew-up working class in Brooklyn, and became a writer and professor... Lopate's home is full, naturally, of books, art, photos, and comfortable places to sit. He was gracious and well informed about design. This is no surprise given his passion and expertise in the arts but he is also married to a great book designer, Cheryl Cipriani. He spread out books of photographs (including ones he wrote introductions for) on his coffee table, we talked about why certain shots went better with what he was writing or didn't seem right even if they were great photos. He told me how much he loves a Bau Haus feel in design. We looked at some of his published books, ones where he loves the designs. I took snapshots of covers, photos, interior pages to help me see what compositions and typefaces he loves. I understand why he gravitates to photography on the covers of his books. For this project, he is drawn to the immediacy of people, images of people on the streets, going about their lives, urban scenes. Upstairs I was delighted to enter the room where he writes. It was an aerie with windows opening onto his quiet Brooklyn street and had a large desk properly facing some wall. It had the expected shelves of books, piles of papers, eye-catching posters, photos, and a row of tin soldiers marching across a mantelpiece. I borrowed a gigantic Jan Tschichold retrospective book that hefted like a plate of armor.

I brought samples of books I've designed, he told me how much he likes generous white space and I heartily agreed. I gave him a copy of my book of poems, The Elephant House. Since I designed my own book, it was a little less shameless than it sounds. He liked the design of it. I hope he finds a poem or two he enjoys, but I don't worry so much about that anymore. A book of poems is rather like a box of chocolates, people find the ones they like (or tell you they never eat any chocolate, give it to someone else). I didn't sign the book so he can donate it with no hesitation.

I left his place and just had time to look at beautiful Lafont frames on sale in a eyeglasses shop and then eat a croissant with an egg at a small cafe near the subway station. The coffee was good, the croissant heaven. I rarely eat bread or any gluten products anymore. Oh god it was good. I could ode to its flaky buttery heaven...

Then I took the train to the Village and met Deborah Atherton at the Manhattan Theatre Source near NYU. We had been invited to attend a reading and discussion of The Witches of Lublin a radio play by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz & Yale Strom with music composed or arranged by Yale Strom. This is a radio play with klezmer! It was wonderful to be transported to 1797 Poland with three Jewish women musicians! The play feels like a fairy tale or legend (a delightful invention) and yet it is also true to history. The actors gave a moving performance. We didn't have a full musical component, Yale played only one instrument with abbreviated songs. But I got the feel of it. I really look forward to hearing it once it is done. The discussion afterwards delivered many suggestions, some brilliant and excellent, it will be interesting to hear which ones the creative team decides to use. Ellen was her usual buoyant self, she has such energy, wit, and passion for theatre. For anything she does. I love her novels, I am now a fan of all things theatrical that she brings her talents to. I was able to introduce the story teller and author Diane Wolkstein, whom I took a class from many years ago, to Deborah. Deborah, in addition to being a novelist and short story writer, has written book and lyrics for opera and musical theatre.

After the discussion, Deborah was ready to head home and I took the opportunity to go to a free PEN panel, Leaps and Bounds, Fits and Starts: The Evolution of a Children’s Book Writer, with Neil Gaiman, Mariken Jongman, and Shaun Tan; moderated by Andrea Davis Pinkney. I am a fan of Gaiman and Tan's work, I buy their books and enjoy their thinking about the creative process. I don't know Mariken Jongman's books. But I knew of Andrea from years ago when I did paste-up for Dial Books. She and her husband, the illustrator Brian Pinkney, would stop by the office. She was a very young lovely woman then and everyone knew she was going places. She is a self-assured publishing executive now. I also recognized Arthur Levine, from my Dial days, when he sat in front of me, he is the publisher of Shaun's American editions.

The discussion was just what I love. Davis Pinkney did a good job moderating. Tan was asked what books he read as a child and said his mother, who wasn't literary but wanted her sons to be literate, had taken Animal Farm out of the library, thinking it was for kids, and the boys had loved the weirdness of the story, the inconclusive ending, the dark fates of some characters, and not until college had he recognized it was political satire. He went on to say that the boring sameness of the suburbs he grew up in became a character to be explored as an adult. That he came to celebrate the weirdness under the surface.

Gaiman talked about mining nightmares for material in his Sandman decade of writing. And once his semi-conscious writers mind started saying mid-nighmare "cool, I can USE that bit about the dead killer baby!" the beings that supply nightmares gave up! Also said that as an adult, when someone loves a book they may read it every few years but when a child loves a book the parent is reading it to them 3 or 4 times a day! And I can relate to that. He memorized some bad stories his kids adored and was determined to write books for children which adults could enjoy too.

The third panelist, Jongman, did her best despite not being fluent in English and I think I must read some of her work, in translation. She seems smart and fun.

I sketched Neil and Tan. Sat next to an 8th grade English teacher named Lisa. She bought the graphic novel version of Coraline, thought it would interest her class, they don't read much...Will add the sketches to this post once I hook-up scanner. Old scanner won't work on new laptop... Neil had to leave a bit early to catch a plane. I was able to go up right after and give Tan a copy of the poetry book I designed with his student art on the cover. Levine was there and looked and said it was cool. I (re)introduced myself to him. Had a brief chance to say hi to Shaun and fill him in on my illustrating gigs. He commented I was just like him, get the go ahead to do an ambitious project and THEN figure out how to do it! I waited on line and had him sign my copy of his latest book Tales of Outer Suburbia. He also added his autograph and a pencil sketch to my sketch of him that I did while he talked on the panel. Hopefully I'll get to see him at another convention at some point.

It was a fine day.