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The Powells.com Interview with David Small

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. David Small

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.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.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.

Dave: What did you learn about yourself in the process?

Small: That I was in need of more psychoanalysis. I never thought I needed more therapy after what I'd had for ten years when I was a teenager, but the older I got the more I had to admit that on some level I was still a very troubled man who had never resolved certain issues. Some of my feelings were so inappropriate to my present situation: feelings about women, suspicions I had because of who my mother was that had absolutely nothing to do with my wife.

I've often thought that I wanted to go back into analysis, but I knew I would never find another analyst like the one I'd had. Also, we live hundreds of miles from any big city, and that made the whole thing impossible, anyway. It made me realize that if I was going to confront the dreams I was having and this behavior, I was going to have to do it myself.

I was reading a book at the time by Alice Miller. What struck me most about it was that she said the Biblical injunction to honor thy father and mother is one of the most damaging rules society has. Certain fathers and mothers don't deserve it, and to honor them no matter what is to carry on the sick traditions of your family. I realized that in my case it's absolutely true.

Dave: Have you forgiven them? Is that even a reasonable question?

Small: The whole idea of forgiveness of my parents always struck me as absurd because they had done unforgivable things. But, to jump ahead, now that I've done Stitches, I find that there really is a kind of forgiveness that means something. It's not a hollow declaration.

To understand somebody else as a human being, I think, is about as close to real forgiveness as one can get. I would say that's probably true of the way I regard my family now. I just see them as people bumbling through life, doing what they thought was best. They had no idea how they were scarring their children, in my case quite literally.

Dave: I want to ask about the book's pacing. At one juncture, you include an eight-page sequence of rain. On the other end of the spectrum, page 231 shows a small series of electrical poles in the middle of a blank white page. I'm curious how that all comes together as you're building the story, seeing that Stitches is wholly your book; you're both author and illustrator, unlike most of your other work.

Small: I wanted some kind of nontraditional chapter transitions. Something truly visual. Those little electrical poles, that's typical of the spots that end a chapter and signal the end of something.

There's one place where I deviated because of the way the pages filled out. Page 158: The burning trash can should have been on the right-hand page, but I figured by that point everybody would be used to the way I was ending a chapter; I could put it down at the bottom of that page and it wouldn't be too confusing. Besides, it faces a blank black page.

Structuring the book was the hardest part of making it, for multiple reasons. One being that memories don't have a structure; they don't come back in sequence. Two, if you tried to make a memoir where everything was in perfect sequence, it would be boring as hell and nobody would read it. Three, certain things are very important to you — everything is important in your own life — that have to be left out, certain people, certain events, because they don't have anything to do with the main thread or theme of your book.

And that's another point: Lives don't have themes or threads; they just happen. When it got down to making a book, somebody had to hammer that into my head. It was Holly, my agent. She was great. At one point, after I had been flooding her office with Xeroxes for months, and she had been a dutiful midwife, saying, "Push! Push! C'mon, you're doing great," she finally said, "I've got to remind you of something, David. Books have themes. Books have structures. And this doesn't."

Actually, when we presented it to the publisher, it didn't have much structure, either. It only had these fades — literally, the word "fade" was written on pages that divided sections. We were thinking in cinematic terms. It took Bob Weil, my editor, not to give me a structure or even suggest a structure, because he never did — he never once told me what to do — but he was finally the one who said, "Just go into your studio, close the door, and stop showing this damn thing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that comes along.""Just go into your studio, close the door, and stop showing this damn thing to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that comes along."

And he said — this was so beautiful — he said, "Be the cormorant that dives beneath the skin of the sea and comes up with a treasure of fish." And I thought, Oh. I knew that's what I had to do, but... Here's this world-class editor; I don't know that he ever told Philip Roth to be the cormorant. He basically told me how to be the author of a big work, which I never thought I could organize.

So I sequestered myself, I decided how I would end a chapter and begin another one, and I began ruthlessly slashing and burning stuff, getting rid of everything that didn't point toward the theme I had established in my mind.

Dave: Was the book always black and white as you imagined it?

Small: Yes. At one point, I thought it had to be color for commercial reasons, but I quickly decided that color, as usual, confused the issue. I just wasn't going to do it. And I didn't have any connections, the way some of these wonderful French graphic artists have, with superb colorists who work on a computer. If I ever do another one and it has to be in color, I think I'd go find one of those guys.

Dave: Do you tend to use the same tools and materials in all your work?

Small: I do. Brush and wash, and pen occasionally. Dipped pen. Everything is hand-done. It's all inky fingers and crumpled pages of mistakes, full wastebaskets.

Dave: My favorite illustration in So You Want to Be a President is probably the one of John Quincy Adams skinny-dipping and looking across the fold at a reporter who has made off with his clothes — although a close runner-up is the illustration of Andrew Johnson hemming Ronald Reagan's pants. But I mention the Adams drawing because I wondered, on a project of that sort, where someone else has written the words, whether you have a say in how the text is distributed across pages.

Small: Nobody tells me how to break the text up. They used to when I first started; I wanted all kinds of advice, and I would ask art directors for advice. I still love working closely with a smart art director. But generally the page break-up is mine, my choices, and if there's nothing to illustrate that comes clear to everybody, oftentimes they get out the scissors and cut the text, in a picture book. Or if there's something being said in the text that can be said better in a picture, those kinds of redundancies get cleared up.

Dave: How did you first come to work on a book with your wife?

Small: The first book we did together, The Money Tree, that came from a dream that she'd had. Sarah had been trying to write a kids' book for years, but nothing ever excited me and nothing excited my publishers. But this dream I thought was fascinating. It had nothing to do with the final book, but it gave her the theme of carrying around the weight of money and getting rid of it.

We were working with FSG at the time. We showed it to Stephen Roxborough, who was the editor there at the time. He said he would take the book if I would illustrate it. It turned out to be a very difficult project. It took me two years to get to the point where I had satisfactory sketches because I had to learn how to approach her story the right way.

All of Sarah's books have been difficult for me to illustrate, but they've really been, literally, labors of love. I'm deeply in love with my wife, and she's my best friend, and yet we share different viewpoints of life, which I think is one of the things that holds our marriage together.I'm deeply in love with my wife, and she's my best friend, and yet we share different viewpoints of life, which I think is one of the things that holds our marriage together. She came from Texas, and she has an optimistic view of life. I came from Detroit and have a very pessimistic view. Now that you know my life...

Somebody once said that the thing that makes those books strong — and I think they're some of the best books I've done — is the marriage of two different points of view. To make a really good picture book, you have to make it yours, and that has been my struggle with the five books I've done with Sarah: to turn the story into something I can relate to. I guess now it's pretty evident that the innocence abroad theme in every one of her books is something I relate to.

Dave: How would you compare working with your wife to collaborating with other authors?

Small: This is a question we get asked all the time, and our automatic answer is, "We don't collaborate." Everybody likes to think of a husband and wife working together at the same table, passing things back and forth. It just doesn't work that way. We found very early on that it's much better if Sarah goes to her room, where she writes and does what she needs to do, and never shows me the work until she thinks it's absolutely ready. And she certainly knows not to come to the studio and criticize anything I'm doing on one of her books while I'm still working on it. I just can't take the criticism from her.

I suspect authors. I don't trust them to have a clear vision of what their books can be until I've got something solid. Like every other husband and wife, we have disagreements, but the ones that we've had about books have been really difficult. Insurmountable. We found that it's better not to collaborate at all. We do our work separately and have a bursar in between us, a good editor. I call the editor when I have problems with the text, and if the editor agrees that it's a problem then she's the one who diplomatically presents it to Sarah. That's the traditional relationship between illustrator and author, anyway; generally they're kept three thousand miles apart. Sarah and I accomplish that by having two houses on the same property here, and one of them is my studio. She just doesn't come over without knocking on the door.

Dave: I read that The Mouse and His Child had been a favorite story of yours long before you had the chance to illustrate a new edition.

Small: That was an incredible experience for me. I did that right after I got the Caldecott. I had contracts for more Judy St. George books, which I was looking forward to doing, but I knew they were going to be repetitions of what I'd done before. But The Mouse: When I heard that Arthur Levine was looking around for an illustrator, I called Holly and made her call Arthur.

He at first refused to even consider it. He said, "David Small? The Mouse and His Child? I don't think so." When I heard that, I kind of auditioned for the book. I started sending him sketches from Mexico, where we were that winter. I sent him tons of stuff, until one day he called me from the airport in L.A. He just said, "David Small? The Mouse and His Child? Perfect!"

I love that book. It was great to work in black and white. It was great to work on a story I had admired for so long. It's a true crossover book, something adults can read with great pleasure, and young people, too.

Dave: I'm going to put you on the spot with an impossible question, so take this wherever you like. If you had to assemble a portfolio of just a few panels or a few series of panels to represent your career, what might you include?

Small: That scene in the train station in The Gardener, I think, might be number one. I can't tell you the thrill that making that picture gave me — and it wasn't even meant to go in the book. I did it for myself.

At the time, I couldn't get a handle on how to illustrate a book for children that was about the Depression, and a book moreover about the Depression in which the child seemed not to notice what was going on around her in any real way. I made that picture to express how I really felt about her situation.

And then a curious thing happened. That picture not only opened up the way to illustrate the book, but I heard shortly after, right from the lips of the woman whose life the story was based on, she said, "I had a great time in the Depression. I didn't know it was the Depression. It was my childhood." And I realized, That's true. I'm basing my impressions of that era completely on Walker Evans photographs.

I had done things stylistically with that drawing. I had left a little halo around her. It was an artistic concern. If you bring black right up to the edge of the figure, it diminishes the size of that figure in the painting. So I had left this little halo of charcoal around her, and I realized that I wasn't going to change that. Not only did the halo make her stand out from the darkness, but it became symbolic. It was like her innocence, this radiant child's innocence, protecting her from the dire reality around her, which probably accounted for a lot of what happened in the story.

Sarah's like that, too. I don't mean to keep going on about this painting, but it really is significant to me. Sarah comes out of an even darker childhood than I had, and she has a radiance about her that people constantly mistake for sainthood or something. That's a question I'd love to explore in a book sometime, about her life, and figure out what protected her from a drunken mother who broke her arms and legs, and so forth. So there's one painting.

I really like the Nixon bowling alley scene in the Presidents book. I'm also proud of the Presidential beauty contest, but I'm not so sure it's not because I'm a Ronald Searle fan and I thought I came sort of close to his Falstaffian humor in that drawing. I know I'll never get there. I suspect my taste, in that case.

I love the cover of The Mouse and His Child. And there are some things out of Stitches that I'd certainly include. That's a tough question.

Dave: Where would you even start with Stitches? I might choose page 215, the picture of the couple making out. There's so much going on, and the style is incredibly expressive.

Small: If I'd had my druthers, I would have given every picture in the book that kind of finish and that kind of power, but I took a suggestion from somebody who said, "David, you're going to drive yourself crazy if you try to make every panel a masterpiece." He said, "On a work like this, you just have to work headlong and try to develop a style that's like handwriting."

That was such a brilliant suggestion because at that point I was really intimidated. I wanted to make a perfect panel every time.I wanted to make a perfect panel every time. I think the drawing throughout the book is compelling, but it doesn't have that kind of finish that you're talking about. I like that drawing, too.

Maybe it's more sequences. I do love that rain sequence. And I'm proud of some of the dream sequences. I kind of like the revelation of David by the river, where it looks like there's a hydrogen bomb explosion going up the center of his face.

Dave: Do you have any particular hopes for the book?

Small: Something remarkable has happened because of it, already. About two years ago in February, I got a call from my editor. He was very concerned about the latest memoir publishing scandal, where the publisher was frantically shredding 75,000 copies of a book by a woman in L.A. who had claimed she'd grown up in a drug culture; her sister wrote to the newspaper and said she was lying.

Dave: She's from Oregon originally. One of ours.

Small: Oh, is she? Anyway, he quite rightly didn't want that to happen to his publisher, and not on his watch, so he said, "David, tell me, is there anybody still alive who might disagree with your viewpoint of these events?"

I said, "Well, I do have this brother." He said, "Have you shown it to him?" I said, "No. I told him I was doing it because he's in it, but it's not about him." And he said, "You have to show it to him." I said, "Bob, the last time I spoke with my brother, I told him to go fuck himself and that I never wanted to talk to him or hear about him again." And he said, "That's too bad, but you've got to show him the book."

So I emailed my brother and asked him if he would take a look at it. And actually I thought, because his wife had died about two months before, it might be interesting to him, to take his mind off it. I sent him a copy of the ARC.

After four days, I called him up, and I said, "What did you think of the book?" There was a long, dreadful pause on the other end of the phone. And then my brother spoke in his sepulchral, Nixonian tones, and he said, "David, your book blew me away."

I said, "Really?" He said, "Yes. It's like a snapshot of my youth," his voice getting more lively. He said, "I don't know how you did it. It's like you brought everyone back to life. They look the way they looked. Everything's exactly the way it was."

I said, "That's wonderful!" He said, "Do you mind if I show it to my therapist?" And I said, "No! What a great idea. And congratulations, by the way, on being in therapy." Then he wanted to know if he could show it to his sons, and I said, "Yes, that will probably help them understand you better."

Miraculous to say, four months later he was at my house. This is somebody whom I hadn't spoken to in fifty years. He came to our house, and he spent four days...

Dave: I'm sorry, how many years did you say?

Small: Well, he's sixty-seven and I'm sixty-four. He might have been ten and I was six when our relationship broke off. We hated each other while we were in the house, and then he moved away, and I never really talked to him again. When we did it was always difficult.

I think what was basically going on— no, I know what was going on: Neither of us wanted anything or anybody in our lives that reminded us of our young lives.

Once this book was there, both of us could see these people again, and see them going through these situations in a way that made us both realize we had nothing to do with the anguish in that family, and there's no reason to feel guilty about it anymore.

I'll tell you, if nothing else happens with this book, it would be worth doing it just for that.

David Small spoke from his home in Michigan on August 4, 2009. Several days later, he sent me the following email.

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Dear Dave,

Hi there. I was so impressed by your interview, it has stayed in my mind, and, of course, I want to help make it the best-written piece it possibly can be. If it's not too late to flesh things out some, I've had some further thoughts about two of your best questions, ones to which I felt my replies were less than adequate. First, about those "transition" spots. Secondly, about the different kinds of drawing that appear throughout the book.

1. About those spots: I found, as I went along, that I could use them between chapters in various ways. Some of them merely comment on what has just occurred, some are abstracts, or tiny nutshell summations of the situation, while others indicate what's on its way, etc.

Examples:

p. 137 — The mirrors in the hospital corridor are like the eyes of a gigantic mantis; ie. Death has me in its cold, indifferent eye.

p. 231 — Those telephone lines, following the scene in jail, could be a line of crucifixes, but they also, obviously, lead into the next scene, on the train. Of course they mean communication, in this case, the total lack of it. I use telephones in a few places in the book to the same effect: a telephone is placed in the foreground on Grandma's stairway, as if it might be used for a call for help. Similarly a phone is placed directly in your face during the "rain" sequence, and a woman is seen chattering on a telephone in the same sequence, on TV, in an empty room.

p. 241 — Dad's pipe smoke should be taken in a couple of ways: a) He's "blowing smoke"; and b) his secret is out and his life is about to go up in smoke. (This second interpretation would come along only with a second reading.)

Pp. 260-269 — This rain sequence is one of the parts of the book I am most proud of. It goes on for nearly ten pages. The reader has been prepared for it with all those previous, silent transitions, but the fact that it goes on for so long is quite effective and unexpected. A friend of mine, M.T. Anderson, described it as "a benediction of tears on a broken world." Of course, it means whatever it means to whoever is reading it.

2. About the changes in the art: You pointed out the drawing on p. 215 (the party scene) as being exceptional. We talked about the difference between it and much of the rest of the book. I mentioned that I had tried to develop a drawing style that was more like handwriting, not only to speed up my ability to cover the material, but also to keep the action going. What I didn't say was that here, on p. 251, I wanted to slow the action down, to make the reader stop and examine this page, because it's an image that, in effect, sums up an entire part of my life — my teenage social life — which I felt had to be included in the book, but not in a way that would take us away from the main story.

One last thing we didn't speak of, but which I thought you might find interesting to contemplate, is the way language works in this largely wordless book. Language in this tale is a dangerous element. Here, words breed terrible things.

I would simply point to the use of the word ain't in the first sequence at Grandma's house. Here, the use of a single word, in the mouth of an innocent kid, sparks a kind of mad violence in that old woman, which is not only a punishment against the boy but a punishment of her own daughter and a punishment of God knows who else in her past. (In depicting that violence, I became much more interested in Grandma, and who she is, than in the boy and what he was going through. She fills the picture frame in so much of that bathroom scene, and often you can see her face reflected in the mirror. This double image is then used in the following scene where David suffers the beginnings of his own schizoid character division as he contemplates his own guilt in the affair. All of this, again, over the use a single word.)

I had better shut up myself at this point!

If any of this means anything to you and you want to use it, please do. If not, not.

Again, Dave, thanks for a very thoughtful interview.

All best wishes,
David Small

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Stitches
    Used Hardcover $14.00
  2. The Gardener Sale Trade Paper $3.98
  3. When Dinosaurs Came with Everything... Used Hardcover $12.50
  4. The Money Tree New Trade Paper $8.99

  5. The Mouse and His Child
    Used Hardcover $9.95



Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

2 Responses to "The Powells.com Interview with David Small"

  1.  
    Merrikate August 15th, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Thanks for this outstanding interview. It is one of the most intriguing and insightful 'literary' interviews to come my way in months. Am so looking forward to receiving my copy of David Small's own book in a month or so.

  2.  
    Mary December 8th, 2009 at 11:41 am

    This interview is amazing. David Small is wonderful with his art and ability to share thoughts on his life. His work has helped open doors to my own world and bring some closure to unanswered questions about how to deal with parents that are all too human. I bought 4 copies for each member of my immediate family.

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