Winner of a Caldecott Medal, a Newbery Medal, and two Christopher Awards, David Small is one of the most acclaimed graphic artists in his field.
After illustrating more than forty books for children, now he has turned his attention to his own childhood, creating one of the most visceral and arresting (not to mention gorgeous) memoirs of the decade.
In the apt words of Jules Feiffer, Stitches is "a profound and moving gift of graphic literature that has the look of a movie and reads like a poem."
At the age of eleven, Small developed a growth on his neck. His parents, without explanation (and clearly not lacking for money or access), withheld treatment for more than three years. Two surgeries later, at fourteen, the young boy was left with a rash of stitches up his neck and a missing vocal cord that rendered him unable to speak.
"Something remarkable has happened because of [Stitches], already," Small mentioned just before our phone call ran its course. He then proceeded to share one of those incredible anecdotes that, as the person conducting the interview, you can't believe you almost missed capturing. "If nothing else happens with this book," he concluded, "it would be worth doing it just for that."
The author was kind enough to follow up our conversation by sharing further thoughts about several subjects of particular fascination. His email is copied at the bottom of this post.
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David Small: I'm thrilled that Powell's has chosen Stitches for Indiespensable.
Dave: We'll be sending the book, in its custom slipcase, to 850 subscribers. This is the 13th title we've picked for the program, but it's the first that's not a traditional text narrative. We think Stitches will be a good introduction to illustrated narratives for readers who are less familiar with them.
Small: Before I made this, I wasn't a graphic novels fan, by any means. I just hadn't found anything that struck me. I do read a lot of fiction. I keep rereading Flaubert, James, Tolstoy... So I was curious about graphic novels, and I'd looked at some. I was impressed with Maus, both volumes. Chris Ware's artwork has always impressed me.
Then, about four years ago, Sarah and I were in Paris. A very close friend, a Parisian illustrator, had a son who was working on a graphic novel. We went over to his apartment. Pierre showed me work by Nicholas de Crécy, and a book that he did with Sylvain Chomet, who had done The Triplets of Belleville. That made me perk up. They used to work together. They apparently went to art school together and developed very similar styles.
They did a series of books that were compiled into something called Léon La Came: Laid, Pauvre et Malade (Ugly, Broke and Sick). It's a comic treatment of some very serious themes. Very French. Neo-Nazis are always hovering in the background. I think collaborationism comes into question. It's all treated the same as Triplets. Anyway, then he showed me work by a couple other artists, as well. There was a cinematic quality to the ones I was attracted to. The French are great cinephiles.
I was in college in the sixties when movies really got good. I'm a fan of Bergman and Hitchcock and Polanski and Antonioni. Those are my gods. I've studied those films closer than anything, aside from the classical artists I liked back in grad school.
Sarah and I came back to Michigan, and I guess it had been fermenting in my mind for a couple weeks. She tells me that I started coming home from the studio in the evenings, and I'd fix myself a martini, sit down at the kitchen table, and draw like crazy on this memoir. It just started pouring out.
Dave: After working on more than forty books for kids, you've created one about yourself, for adults. Had you been meaning to tell the story for a long time?
Small: I had. About ten years ago, I sent my agent a chapter of a story. I didn't know if it was going to be autobiography or fiction, but it came from a real incident, that scene in the hospital corridor where little David discovers the homunculus in a jar. That really terrifying incident had stayed in my mind all my life, and that's how I had begun a memoir-like work.
Holly got very excited about it. [Editor's note: Holly McGhee is Small's agent.] She also loved a little drawing of myself that I'd sent along with it. She said, "This is going to be your book," but I always knew, in the back of my mind, that it was never going to be a book if I had to do it in prose. I'm not a writer. I know a lot of writers; I know a handful of really excellent, great ones, and I know what they're like. They are in love with language. They're obsessed with it. Even if their thoughts aren't more special than anybody else's, they have a way of putting them into words that makes them sensational. And I knew that I'm not that kind of writer.
So I knew that I was never going to write a novel, but the idea had been there for a long, long time. And, besides, I couldn't remember anything except that one incident, specifically. Then when I started drawing it out, that's what was so exciting: Once I started drawing and bringing all those ghosts back, I was amazed at the files that were in my head and accessible. Unbelievable. This wasn't stuff I wanted to revisit, but it became just as exciting as anything else I was doing to see how much more I could remember.
Here I am getting older — I'm supposed to be forgetting — and I could remember more than I'd ever thought possible. It's funny what will come to you. I don't know where I found it, but there's a quote by Sylvain Chomet that goes, "The memory improves the more you lay burdens on it." So contradictory to what everybody thinks.