Transcript from an Interview with Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Sandra Jordan and Jan Greenberg

Jan Greenberg: Hello. I'm Jan Greenberg, and I'd like to introduce my writing partner of many years, Sandra Jordan. We write books together, and today we're going to tell you a little bit about the books that we do write.

Sandra Jordan: Hi. My name is Sandra Jordan, and this is my writing partner and collaborator, Jan Greenberg. She lives in St. Louis mostly. I live in New York mostly, but somehow we manage to write many books together. And it's always a new adventure.

Jan Greenberg: Remember when we started writing these books, there really was a gap in the bookshelf, and I think that maybe it was in the air, but since that time there's been a whole new literature about the arts and visual arts about artists and musicians and dancers and whatever. And I think that we helped bring that forth. And we are always in bookstores or at the library or whatever or online and we see new books about the arts that are just wonderful. So we like to think that we've contributed to that body of work.

Back to Top

A creative partnership is born

Sandra Jordan: I was an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux in New York. I was editor-in-chief. And one of my simple pleasures was to shut my office door and read the slush pile. And so one day I came across a manuscript and it was from a writer in St. Louis that I didn't know, and I read it and I thought wow, this is good. And, you know, when it's the slush pile, you don't really expect to find maybe one in a hundred that you might think about publishing.

And always then the big question is can they revise? And so I found her phone number of this Jan Greenberg, whom I'd never heard of and never met, and called her up.

Jan Greenberg: This was in 1978. It was the middle of summer. I had written the book, which is the first novel called A Season in Between, and I — in those days, of course, there were no computers, no email, no sending enclosures, and Xeroxed a whole bunch of them after typing it many times on this old typewriter. And I did something that Sandra told me later was a no-no in publishing.

I multiply submitted it to like 15 different publishers gleaned from my children's librarian at their school telling me who did the best books in middle grade and young adult fiction. And there was Sandra on the phone with her wonderful voice, and she said, we really enjoyed your book. However, you can't end a children's book or it's not recommended to end a children's book at a funeral.

The story had been autobiographical, as most first novels are, and it was about being in sixth grade, growing up in St. Louis, going to a private girls' school the spring my father became very ill. And I wrote it as an autobiography to share with my daughters, my three young daughters — at the time young. Now they're all grown up and living in New York. And as I began to write the book, I started exaggerating the details of my life.

And pretty soon I had 150 pages about a girl growing up in St. Louis, but somewhere along the line, I started lying my head off and it became a novel. And my children and their friends — and I was teaching at Webster University at the time — and they suggested I see if I could get it published. Well, a little encouragement went a long way because when Sandra said you need to find a resolution to this story, the next three weeks I wrote three more chapters, and the rest between us is history.

And that's how we first met. Both of us Midwesterners; Sandra from Cleveland, me from St. Louis. The same age. And that began our first collaboration.

Back to Top

Two writing as one

Sandra Jordan: We do work well together, and we rewrite each other's sentences. We revise endlessly. I have very few books on my computer that have fewer than 20 revisions, and some a good deal more than that.

And at the end of a book, when a book is published, I sometimes don't know who wrote what sentence, and even if I do, we never say.

Jan Greenberg: People always are interested in how we collaborate, and since we've written, what, 11 books together over the years on various subjects but all having to do with the arts and mostly visual artists. Each book is a different kind of adventure, each book is a different challenge.

And as we grew together in terms of our bookmaking, we took different roles. Well, what I mean by that is sometimes Sandra was interested in a social or historical perspective and I became interested in aesthetic perspective. And then we would trade around. And in the end it was storytelling because whether you're writing fiction or non-fiction, we're storytellers.

Sandra Jordan: Revision is an important part of our — and revision is everything. I think I said earlier in our conversation that we have — I can't think of a manuscript on my computer — and you know you have those — every book has its own little house. And 20, 30 more files back and forth, back and forth, we used to have to FedEx, now we email. But you have to revise.

And then you have to trust who you're going to show your first pieces to. But it's not like getting a grade in school where it's not the end of the conversation, you get a B. It's the beginning of a conversation. And I love revising the... Getting the first draft down on paper is so hard. It's just so hard, but after that, revision is fun.

Jan Greenberg: Both of us like revision. Thank goodness. And then it goes to your editor. And Neal Porter, our editor on a number of books, he comes back with marks.

And then, of course, there's the copy editor. And so a book goes through a lot of different people and a lot of different processes before it becomes the book that we hope gets out into the world in as good of shape as possible. You know, you can't say perfect because nothing is ever perfect, but we get as close as we can, given the parameters.

Sandra Jordan: In that time and place.

Jan Greenberg: Exactly. But the business of revision, for me, I learned everything I know about revision from Sandra 'cause she was my editor for my first two novels. And she had a specific way and a very kind way that she would underline and put a question mark or say, "You need something funny here," or, "Can you reword this in a different way? A bit awkward." And can I tell this story? Once she sent me something to look at, and I underlined something and I said, "This is the worst sentence I've ever read."

And she came back and said, "This is not how we revise."

Sandra Jordan: I said — what I said is, "You always claim you learned everything you know about anything from me. I never said that."

Jan Greenberg: Never did.

Sandra Jordan: Although I often thought that, but I never said that. That's the kind of thing that closes you down.

Jan Greenberg: That's true.

Sandra Jordan: And it really isn't good for your creative process. Although at the time I think I laughed and agreed with her because sometimes you do write the worst sentence you ever read. It's just amazing. You have to have your misses before you can go forward.

Jan Greenberg: I have given a number of writing workshops around the country to young writers and some older writers. And one of the things I quote is my friend, Sandy Asher, who says you have to write a million lousy words. You have to put in your time. You have to write and revise. And I think reading is another part of it. I was always a reader. I'm not sure every writer was always a reader, but for me, the business of language and turning words around and words into sentences and then into paragraphs and then into stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that for me as a child growing up, was a preoccupation.

Sandra Jordan: I often find that I don't know what I think until I write it. You know, I think I know what I think, but then I write it and whole different things come out. And then there's the part where Jan and I read each other's things and we start talking about it and why does this work or why doesn't that work or where is this going, and then we both find out what we really, really think because that's part of the process. Our understanding of the material grows as we work.

Jan Greenberg: Well, there are two things that happen. One, when we can't seem to agree on a revision, it's either cut, just cut it. We always laugh and say cutting is good. Just cut it. Or one of us gives in to it.

Sandra Jordan: Well, generally speaking, if one of us doesn't like something and doesn't like it strongly, not just doesn't sort of doesn't like it but doesn't like it strongly, we may not know what the answer is then, but we know we have to look at it.

Even if it's a sentence I'm in love with or even if it's a — something she's in love with, we're going to have to look at that again because if somebody's not liking it, that's strongly...

Jan Greenberg: And Collette said "murder your darlings."

Sandra Jordan: Yes, she did. Yes, she did. And we have Armageddon about once a book.

Jan Greenberg: And Flaubert said you can't be married to your words.

Back to Top

Writing for children

I have a big family. I'm the oldest of six children. I have close cousins, nephews and nieces. And it's my job to do the art walks. When people come to New York, I go to the museum with whatever children are along, and we have an hour or two. So, and the same thing is true if I go to San Francisco or wherever it is. So I try to stay a little bit in touch with what are the interests, what can our readers, what might they be interested in.

But I really think that we more think about how we can make it accessible for that age level rather than can we write it for that age level. I think you can tell them about almost anything, any child about anything. It's just you tell them on a level that they are ready to hear and accept. And then sometimes you're surprised at what they make of it and how much more they hear than you thought they would.

Jan Greenberg: And we always have words in the book, vocabulary words, that not every child is going to understand, but I think that it's good to put some words in that they have to understand in the context of the sentence or they might have to look up. ??Some of the books we do have glossaries in the back that give some definitions. But in my opinion, what happens between us when we tell the stories is for us.

And yet at the same time, we bring those stories into schools all the time before the book is published to try it out. And I often go to schools in St. Louis and read the story to the young children at every grade level depending on what the subject is, and ask them if there's something they don't understand or something they want to know more about. We try the books out with kids to make sure they're understandable and that they're entertaining at the same time.

Sandra Jordan: We don't always know when we start. I will say the Martha Graham book, we had thousands of words. We had quite a long text, many chapters. And we looked at it and said, frankly, we said this is boring. And we boiled it down and tried to condense it and turn it into some verbal equivalent of dance and music; to condense the text and try to put the rhythm of dance and music into the words and make that go along. We thought that suited what we wanted to say in this book better.

Jan Greenberg: But it meant cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting. And the book was better for it. I think it was much better for the cutting. And finally, condensing it into what we felt was a more lyrical, poetic form.

Back to Top

The I.N.K. blog

Jan Greenberg: Well, the wonderful thing about Ink, which was started, I don't know, three, four, five years ago. I don't know how long ago 'cause — and I was in the first group that was writing for INK. The idea is to have writers of children's non-fiction get together and post and talk about different subjects of interest to them, to each other, to other writers, and to teachers and librarians.

And it's turned into a very rich and informative blog. And each of us has a day once a month that we write a post about something or another and people can write in and comment on it. Sandra did a guest blog for me, and it was very well-received. It's having a conversation with each other. It's having a conversation with myself thinking about what I want to write about.

And I've often done it on other non-fiction writers that aren't INK bloggers. And I've enjoyed the process of having to think about subjects. Not tooting my own horn. You don't write about your own books ad nauseam and whatever, but you do talk about different elements of writing non-fiction for young people. I think I've learned a lot from reading other people's posts.

Back to Top

Writing about art and artists

Sandra Jordan: Everyone wants to know how we manage to write together and why we write about the things we do, but in fact, my mother was an artist, although she was a '50s mom so she was home, but she was always painting. I had the best art supplies in the neighborhood in my school. And I took studio art myself until I realized that that was not going to be a career for me, and then I decided to focus on writing.

But I took studio art right the way through school, and my first job in high school was as an assistant teacher in an art program. So, it just always seemed natural, and since Jan's husband owns a gallery and she was in a graduate program studying art — what was it called? Art?

Jan Greenberg: Aesthetic education.

Sandra Jordan: Aesthetic education. But it was one of the many things we have in common, so it just fit.

Jan Greenberg: Well, there's more to this story than that.

Sandra Jordan: Always.

Jan Greenberg: At the time, I was teaching in a program, a graduate program at Webster University where we were teaching teachers how to use the arts, all the arts, as a part of their curriculum, classroom curriculum.

So, although we did have music teachers and art teachers, we had a lot of classroom teachers. And my area was poetry in the visual arts. So, there was a certain kind of way of looking, in a sense a way to start a conversation with art that was specific, beginning with what do you see and ending up with what is the expressive content of the work of art, looking at color, line, shape, and texture.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Sandra went on to be an editor at another publishing house, and I continued writing at Farrar Straus, but my daughters grew up and left the house, and I had written seven novels about middle grade and teenagers and I kind of wanted to stretch my brain in a new direction. And Sandra and I got together for lunch.

We intermittently kept up a relationship. And we started talking about what I wanted to do next and what she was interested in. And she said, "I love this idea about writing a book about looking at art for kids, but did you show it to your editor?" And I said, "Yes. They're not interested in my idea of writing non-fiction." And Sandra said, "Well, I love the idea, and I think I know of a publisher and an editor who would be very interested in it."

It turned out George Nicholson at Delacorte. And I said to Sandra at the time because there was — a way we have always communicated and had conversations going back and forth that seemed inspiring and resonated with me in terms of a friendship and intellectual kind of exchange. And I said, "Well, if you sell this idea, let's write it together."

Sandra Jordan: She said, "I'll do it if we can write it together." And I had quit my job 'cause I thought it was time to do something else. I just quit it cold, and I was working in the darkroom and trying to write. And when she said that, I just — it just was right. Plus, I knew that George was running a big program at ALA on art, and we'd had dinner 'cause he wanted me to come to work for him and I said, "No. It's a step — I can't. I'm doing something else now. No more editing."

And he'd explained this thing that there was a hole in the book market. There were very few art books. And just...

Jan Greenberg: The gap in the bookshelf.

Sandra Jordan: The big, famous gap in the bookshelf that had been identified, and they were going to discuss it at ALA. And so we said well, we can help fill that gap. And we got to work.

Jan Greenberg: The first book was The Painter's Eye, Learning to Look at Contemporary American Art.

And we think that young people can be taken by the hand and led from the first pages of the book to the end in non-fiction by telling stories. And that's how they first learn to look at a painting or a sculpture.

Sandra Jordan: Georgia O'Keeffe said one, and I'm going to paraphrase 'cause I can't remember the exact quote, but she was teaching in Canyon, Texas, and most of her students had never seen a painting. Some of them had never even seen a reproduction of a painting.

And she was teaching art to these would-be teachers. It was a two-year school. And she wrote later that teaching people about art changes everything. It changes where you put the doors in a building. It changes the way you part your hair. It changes the way you put a stamp on an envelope. So, it's not just about painting and art, it's about the whole way you see the world.

Back to Top

Art matters

Sandra Jordan: Communication. Art and visual. More and more these days we communicate through visual means. We turn on our computers. We turn on our phones. Things have little dots and you touch them and they roll up and down. And people make videos of their friends they post on Facebook. More and more we are visual communicators as much as we are verbal communicators, but both of these are very important I think both for our culture but also for just understanding each other in the world.

Now, I heard Renee Fleming, the great opera star talk last night to a group of New Yorkers from various places, and all of them interested in education. And she's been going into the schools and singing with the kids.

One of the plays they put together, opera, was Billy Goat Gruff. Can you imagine? And she said some of these children, because there are no music classes in some of these schools, hadn't really learned how to sing, didn't know that they could open up their mouths and make music. And it's the same with when you don't have art classes. Picking up a paint brush and know you can make color and line and rhythm. And these creative bursts and the ability to be creative I think is so important for young people to have as they grow up and move through the world.

It also, talking about art, looking at the arts, listening to an opera or seeing an opera or a play, allows you to move through the world with a certain — I don't know if the word is grace, but a new understanding and inspiration. And I think we need that. We need that in education, and also, it helps for abstract thinking skills. The arts really do lead into all kinds of critical skills that they need to know in social studies and language arts and even math and science.

Sandra Jordan: If you need a practical application, just think how good old Steve Jobs turned an aesthetic point of view into a billion dollar business because what he did is design it and think about how it needed to work.

Jan Greenberg: That's really a good point.

Sandra Jordan: And it was better-designed than anybody else's. His phones were better. His computers were better. And they were the ones everyone wanted to have. And I think that does apply in a lot of areas.

Cars are the same way. The Guggenheim had a motorcycle show, and they were amazing objects as well as something that my brother wanted to jump on and ride right out of the museum. So, it's not just about painting, but certainly painting and sculpture are a place to start.

Back to Top

Artists in schools

Jan Greenberg: I think teacher training is very important, and I think the more that artists and writers and musicians go into the schools and become part of the school community on a volunteer basis starting programs. And there are these kinds of programs all over the country, but the more we have, the more the teachers are going to be inspired, and as a result, so will the children be.

Sandra Jordan: Pablo Picasso said that all children are artists. It's only when you grow up, you have to learn to be that child again. And so we always feel, because we write about things that sometimes people think are difficult, but I have never found when I take a five or a six or an eight-year old into a museum, that they don't get it 'cause they don't have preconceived ideas about what is a piece of art. They're willing to take a look and just look at it and we talk about it and they're very open and receptive.

It's not until they get into their teen years when — maybe their late teens — when somebody's already told them this is and this isn't and these are the rules, that they start closing down to the idea of some of the wilder artists.

Back to Top

Artists with great stories to tell

Jan Greenberg: Sandra and I are often asked how we choose our subjects. Most of them are about living artists or architects or people in the arts that are living. And when we got together and started doing The Painter's Eye and The Sculptor's Eye, we would interview some of the artists whose works we were highlighting because we found the book was a little dry just talking about how to analyze a painting, taking the pieces apart and putting them back together again, although that's fun and part of the whole process.

And we began asking artists whose works we were using in the book, "What was your first childhood experience with art? What is the idea behind that painting?"

We discovered that many of the artists used art as a way of expressing themselves because they may have had learning disabilities or poverty or illness or something that kept them either home or somewhere else making art. Chuck Close, the first artist we concentrated on that we did a whole book around, said art saved his life because as a child, he had learning disabilities.

And he was awkward at sports. And he would make puppet shows for the neighborhood children. And if he was having trouble learning about a particular subject at school, for example, the Plains Indians, the teachers would let him do a big mural for extra credit. And so he wanted young people to know about those early struggles and how he translated his creativity into artworks.

Sandra Jordan: And if we're going to believe people like Howard Gardner, and it seems absolutely — what he articulated seemed like one of those things you'd always known and just nobody had said it before; that there are many different ways that people learn. And so it's not just science or language. There are people who learn through movement and through dance and being physical and there are athletes and there are people who are natural leaders, and there are also people who are naturally visual who express themselves in art as it's a whole comfortable way for them to work and for them to learn and for them to express themselves in the world. Good old Edward Hopper said if I could say it in words, I wouldn't have to paint it.

Jan Greenberg: Well, Sandra and I decided early on the artists that interested us the most were the living artists, the artists who had done something innovative. We have to agree that we like the artist's work. We have to agree that the artist has a great story, a story we want to tell. So we talk about different artists. We look at artworks in museums. We read books and we look at shows in galleries together.

And amazingly enough, the artists that we agree on are not only our favorite artists but artists who have a great story to tell. And I think that's one of the things that we say absolutely from the beginning we're not going to work with an artist who, number one, one of us is not that keen on; and number two, an artist who doesn't give us an interview. The interviews are important.

Back to Top

How are great paintings made?

Sandra Jordan: I on account of, I suppose having taken art perhaps or having watched painters in my house in my mother's art classes, but I always wanted to know how did they do it. And I said to Jan just this morning, I said sometimes when we write these books — and we are starting a new one — I said but sometimes when we write these books, I feel like I'm leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for my 12-year old self because these are the answers to the questions.

I didn't want to just look at the painting. I wanted to know how did it happen. Is there an under-painting??? What's the medium? What did they use? How long did it take them? I like those things. And one of the joys for me of interviewing artists is I don't want to go to a cocktail with an artist or even dinner with an artist, but I love going to their studios. I love seeing the work in process. I love seeing things half-finished or just beginning. I just love it.

Back to Top

Action Jackson

Jan Greenberg: And we were, Sandra and I — I remember once standing in front of Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art and having this conversation that went on and on until the guard really wondered what we were doing there. What were we talking about?

Sandra Jordan: Planning how to roll it up and put it in our umbrella, but...

Jan Greenberg: But it took years after that before we did a children's book. And the reason that we wrote Action Jackson, which was illustrated and for younger children, is because Jackson Pollock had, in a way, a messy life, and we didn't want to talk about the traumas of his life. We wanted to talk about his creative spirit.

We wanted to talk about his innovative style and the fact that he could unroll a canvas on the floor of a studio and dance around it like a ballet dancer dripping paint and what would come from those beautiful, delicate paintings although his life was, as we know, not so delicate.

Sandra Jordan: The person who wrote the review in The New York Times began with several paragraphs on how Jackson Pollock had been an alcoholic and a woman had died in that automobile crash and we hadn't mentioned any of that stuff. And we're like, well, of course we didn't because that's kind of aside the point to the paintings. And one of the reasons we wrote the kind of book we did — although there was a sidebar to that because — but one of the reasons why we wrote the kind of book we did is because we just wanted to talk about the art and the process of making the art.

And we didn't want to get into all the autobiographical stuff, which is flashy bit not really germane. But when we were researching our third book, The American Eye, we did a chapter on Jackson Pollock. There were wonderful oral histories available of all these people who had watched him paint and it almost seemed to make them poetic. And so we began looking at these people, waxing poetic about watching Jackson Pollock paint various things.

They were people that he'd admit to his sacred studio space, and they'd sit against the wall and watch him work. And we began to collect some of those quotes. And I think that probably formed the core of what we were doing, although certainly so did all our visits to Pollock Krasner House and just trying to experience the — not only the artwork but the environment in which he had created it.

Jan Greenberg: I think because in our books, at least the one, Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring and Action Jackson, we do do biographies in the back matter. And we did I think in the Pollock book tell a little bit about his autobiography, but as Sandra says, we were concentrating on the creative process, and his was such an alluring creative process.

An abstract painting is often very hard for even art teachers to teach in the schools, and this was a way of mak

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass