Transcript from an interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Sarah Stewart and David Small. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Meet Sarah Stewart and David Small

Sarah: I would like to introduce one of the great illustrators working in the world of the picture book today. He also happens to be my husband. So I, the luckiest writer in children's literature on earth would like to introduce David Small.

David: Thank you very much. And I would like to introduce my wife Sarah Stewart, who has written six of the best stories I've ever illustrated.

Sarah: Oh, my god, thank you very much. Thank you.

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Creative collaboration

Sarah: And the question is how do we collaborate together? I loved that, you know, making the use of both words for emphasize. And we're not together at all in the making of these books. And we often say to audiences that that's the reason we think we have such a good marriage is that I'm a writer and that's what I do every day. I write every day. Oftentimes I'm thinking about writing when I'm not writing, especially in my garden, as he knows, lots of day dreaming, even to stumbling sometimes or losing my way in the practical world.

And that said, I write every day and David draws every day. And I write in my mind as I just said, but also in a tiny room in our house, upstairs, away from everything else. No noise, no interference, nothing but my desk and my books. And David's next door in his studio making art. And when I have a story I think he'll like I read it to him, and if he likes it I send it to my editor in New York and if she buys it, she is Margaret Ferguson at Farrar Strauss and Giroux, then David takes my words and he makes that extraordinary life bigger, richer, deeper with his art.

David: It's really, what we practice is really the traditional relationship between a writer and illustrator. I have actually turned down manuscripts in the past, some very good ones, because they came accompanied by two pages of single spaced type instructions to the illustrator from the author.

Sarah: Not from me.

David: And I'm certainly, you know, I appreciate that if you write a story you want to have it presented the way you would if you could draw, but I think in fact if a story is good it calls up good imagery in everybody's mind. And if you're an illustrator that's your job is to retell stories in pictures. And I don't like to be told what to do, I don't mind criticism, I don't mind interaction with somebody who speaks art, like a good art director or a good editor. I love that kind of collaboration. But in terms of the author and the illustrator there's too much, it can devolve too much into a clash of artistic egos. And that's hard.

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"Going Home" stories

Sarah: The genesis of The Quiet Place was and is Abby Aceves, a friend who was born in a tiny mountain village in Mexico and who moved to this country when she was nine years old with her family to a place very different from her colorful high dry tiny, tiny, tiny world as I say, a tiny village world. They moved from that place to Gary, Indiana.

David: Which is?

Sarah: Which is…

David: A contrast.

Sarah: It's a big contrast. It's a city and it's up north in this country…

David: Industrial.

Sarah: So very different environment. But I met her when she was, she and I were middle aged and her sister said, her sister who is a member of a family, Abby's family where everyone is in the restaurant business, everybody cooks, everybody's creative to some degree. And I was asking about the family, I'd never met Abby, and she said well the family's fine, thank you for asking. David and I were eating in her Mexican restaurant, Mi Ranchito in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

She said we're all fine, but Abby. And she's quit her job and I think she's really going to act on her dream, which is to have her own restaurant. So I handed my card to Abby's sister, I said tell her to call me, our village would be a perfect place. And I do this all the time, no one ever calls me. And Abby called, and I met her the next day. She came to the village, we walked up and down our one block downtown, she fell in love with the building, I introduced her to the people who owned it and then I introduced her to our Amish neighbors who restored it for her.

And she changed the face of our village with her creative making of beauty in her food and her gardens around the Bistro Rio and just in her world that she made there. And so I wrote this story for Abby because when she was nine and first came she said to me many times it was tough. And the "it" was everything; everything was new and a little scary. And she had this very supportive loving family, still does. But she was like myself shy and she knew a lot of English, but she didn't know enough to feel comfortable. And there wasn't any more Spanish around her, much less color.

And so father bought her mother a refrigerator she told me and she asked for that big box, and that was the beginning of the idea of this story. It's just like all my other stories; it begins with something someone does or says, someone real in my life, and it triggers something in my writer's head. And she gave me this scarf and I'm wearing it as a kind of a talisman today.

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A Mexican home

David:Sarah's story is told through a series of letters from a little girl to her auntie back in Mexico. And there's not any, there's no need in a picture book for her to describe environments and costumes and with the way people look, that's my job. But I also like to add … I guess a dimension of the reality that surrounds the child who's seeing things through from her point of view.

Sarah: Beautiful, darling. Beautifully said.

David: So I like to have as much space as I possibly can to start this story before the actual text begins. And I do that on the end papers. And in this case we see the good bye at the beginning in Mexico, the embrace between the mother, her sister and the little girl and the men packing up the house or their belongings into a car and then leaving the town and all of this before the text begins, and then going through customs.

And what I wanted to show … I think of illustrations symphonically, musically in a way, and I look for contrasts. And the big contrast in this book obviously to me from the beginning had to be between Mexico, which Sarah and I know quite well from having lived there in the winters for the last 17 years and the industrial north, which I know very well, because I grew up in Detroit, felt always when I would drive to Chicago a kind of familiarity with that landscape around Gary too.

So the adjustment that little Isabel is making that she talks about with her auntie in her letters is bigger than what she even understands. And it's shown through the pictures in the contrast between the beautiful kind of lyricism at the beginning of the film, I almost said, and then to the stark industrial kind of polluted atmosphere that she moves to. But she creates … but then there's sort of a gray section in the middle, but then she creates this colorful life, she brings back her home.

Like most of Sarah's stories it's a no place, there's no place like home story. And in this case the child doesn't actually return home, at least during the course of the book but she recreates her home in this wonderful series of interlocked boxes, this elaborate playhouse that she constructs in her spare time while she's studying English and helping her mom bake for parties and so on and so forth.

So it's really, if you look at the book as a swell of different colors and themes conveyed through light and color and texture and so on, you'll understand more what I'm saying, trying clumsily to say here in words.

Sarah: I think you should go into art. You speak so well about art.

David: I'll think about it.

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Looking from the outside in

David: You're right that I have a diverse background. I never dreamed that I was going to be an illustrator when I was studying fine art. I was aimed at being a gallery artist. But I also, I think it's interesting to know that I grew up a young man studying art during the 60s and the 70s when movement, the movements in art like pop and abstract expressionism before that and minimalism which is very big in the 70s all of this was sort of against the kinds of things that I wanted to learn, I wanted to learn, I admired people like Rembrandt, I admired the political cartoons of Daumier from the 1860s in Paris. I admired anybody who could express things through simple gesture and expression in the figure.

Sarah: There it is.

David: I wanted very much to learn to draw the figure as well as I could and to give it life and perhaps who knows that may have come from my early, early life growing up in the household of a radiologist. When my dad brought his work home he had the basement covered with x-rays projected on a screen. And so I grew up looking at bones inside people's bodies. And it seemed, it just got into my consciousness but it seemed when I got to college it seemed like a natural thing for me to draw the skeleton, to learn what the names of those bones were and how they worked.

And so that to me was a very exciting subject which most of the other kids thought was very abstract and a bore and didn't pay much attention to. So I was always sort of tending toward illustration and I was certainly always tending towards storytelling in my art which was also completely thrown out the window in the 70s with minimalist art. So even in art, which was, I felt where I belonged, I was marginalized. I've always been sort of a fringe person, as Sarah I think would say.

Sarah: It's true.

David: You have been too in some ways.

Sarah: Out on the periphery. That's the way we see well. That's the only way to see clearly.

David: Yeah. And as I like to tell school kids it's a pretty good place to be, out on the edge. Think of it as a big cookie; everybody wants to be in the center eating the filling and jumping around in the middle together and Sarah and I are out here on the periphery. Maybe an even better analogy is being in our own little satellite circling the Earth and observing.

You see you get the whole picture from out there, on the edge, you know you get a better, more objective view of things from the outside.

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Find the rhythm

Sarah: I do write my stories in different ways. But I don't think about the form consciously, as I know David would agree. I'm writing poems all the time. I'm working on a poem all the time. I shouldn't say I'm writing poems all the time, I'm working on one poem or another all the time. Some of the books have been in that poetic form, other in letters and other just storytelling. But the way I get there is some unconscious process that has to do with the word David used earlier about his art, it has to do with rhythm.

It's the rhythm in the person about whom I'm speaking and that person's life and what it represents. It's also the rhythm of the days I'm going through when this story emerges. There's something as I said unconscious that pulls together with regard to the very nugget of the idea that becomes language, very quickly for me. I don't think visually. I don't have the story in pictures as I'm writing, it's all about language and the rhythm of the language has such power for me. Again like David said in his art the rhythm is so musical, so important musically for me.

And so that all moves towards whatever the … whatever the structure is. And it's not something I decide consciously at all. That's a really interesting subject for me to think more about. I wanted to respond to something you said too about my stories always being no place like home stories. I've thought a lot about this particular one, The Quiet Place, and for me that going home, getting there, is as much about finding one's home within oneself. That job we have as we mature, as children, and later as adults in our further growing up, which takes a long time for everyone.

That getting to our core, our central self is such an important job. And it's a long, long trip for most of us. But that's my going home process too in my stories.

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David: I think the difference between this particular book and Sarah's other five is essentially that there's a real family involved here. In the other books the main characters are, they either physically leave home or in the case of The Gardner, the little girl is actually sent away from home because it's the Depression and the family can't even afford to feed their own children, and so she has to make a living elsewhere.

But in this case the girl is displaced from her home in Mexico and brought to a very foreign place. But she has her family with her. And that is something we both don't know much about frankly in our own lives.

Sarah: We didn't have that as children.

David: We didn't have close family. But we both knew Abby. Abby when she came to our village and made this wonderful restaurant and transformed the village, as Sarah said…

Sarah: Literally.

David: A village, a dying farm village, all of a sudden there were BMWs parked outside this restaurant and people coming from Chicago and Ann Arbor and up from Indiana because Abby had a reputation already. But she also, her family was there every Mexican holiday, every birthday, every Christmas they would come to the restaurant and Abby would bring us there.

Sarah: Always.

David: And she made us, she still does make us part of her family. And…

Sarah: It's been very powerful for me.

David: And that's one of the reasons I think we like to go to Mexico too because that is such a family oriented country. The families are so close knit, little satellite circling the Earth and observing. they're so caring. And so little Isobel is carried with her family to this place and she always has them around her in this book. And I tried to show that in some of the drawings.

Sarah: Oh, you did beautifully…

Sarah: That she was surrounded by love and the warmth of her native country.

Sarah: You did show that beautifully.

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The blue hour

David: Well, for example, I brought along some sketches actually just to show some of my process which always starts out with the idea that what I'm about to do is absolutely impossible and I might as well forget about it. That's number one. And then having a contract signed is always sort of like having a flame thrower aimed at your backside. And so the only thing to do about that is to overcome your fear and get down to work. And I knew that this book, for example had to begin with a sorrowful moment, a moment of parting; a Mexican family being torn apart.

The dad having gotten a job in the states, in the steel mills, and him taking away his wife from her sister and his daughter from the sister who was her auntie. And so I didn't want to begin with a sad moment, although it was necessary. So I knew I wanted to start with this embrace between the women. But I thought I should make that part sad, but I'll make the setting gay, I'll make it colorful, Mexican. And so I put this vase of flowers and a bowl of fruit and a typical Mexican tapestry on the table and then sort of grayed things out and showed the embrace between the three women.

The old mom, Sarah's correcting my grammar. Here's old grammar sitting in the corner. And the men are carrying the suitcases out the door. But as I looked at this over the days I was quite proud of those flowers and fruit, but I didn't like the picture very much and I thought, yeah, that's because this is actually a portrait of flowers and fruit, it doesn't really center on …

So I tried another version. And I took them all outside the house this time, expanded it, showed the street, showed the house from the outside, the embrace is happening here on the porch. And this is actually better because you can actually see the car with dad putting things into it and the brother helping. But actually the way I drew the house it didn't look like a place that one would feel very bad about leaving. So I tried a third version where the women are embracing inside again, but you see them through an arch and you can see I've made a much more fanciful house.

This is actually a house that is on the street where we live in Mexico. And you can see Chavo bringing the suitcases down to dad who's loading up the car. So it's a little more interesting. And I stuck with that pretty much for the final. But this became the first end paper, so it's a double page spread and I focus the reader's attention on the good bye embrace with light and everything else is happening at this kind of blue hour just before dawn.

So that the packing of the car and dad working very hard to tie the chairs onto the packages and so on and you can see a bit of the street and the mountains beyond, the sun just … well, the moon is still up. But suddenly this sorrowful moment became to me a magical moment because of the color, the wash of the Prussian blue and indigos and blacks and the stars in the sky. There's something sad going on, yes, but it's in a paradise, a visual, magical place.

Sarah: It's lovely.

David: So if you can imagine the torment that I went through over days trying to work this out. It's really not torment at all. It's a lot of fun. This is always the best part of the book is doing the sketches and doing the research. But this is typical of what goes on in every page. And, of course, none of it should show up in the final book. The final book should look as if you just picked it up off the shelf and it's happening as you're turning the page and it all happens in ten minutes. But actually it takes me about a year to illustrate a book, a 32-page book

Sarah: And burn about a thousand pages of drawings.

David: My waste basket and my burn barrel are my two important tools in my studio.

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Every word is a world

Sarah: It's very different in that I write, I generally in the past so far have written these stories, these modern fables very quickly, inspired by as we've already talked about a moment with someone I know, all the stories begin the same way, in the burst that comes in the writing is the same. So the story is usually written out whole. Then in my changing and revising more than anything else and sometimes only I try to eliminate.

I just … David knows I write it over and over then, not looking at the last version and I try to get it shorter and crisper and therefore larger, larger in its impact, so that as I've said a thousand times every word is a world and that rhythm, which is my voice, my particular rhythm comes forward. So for me more than anything else it's a taking it down, as in haiku.

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Sarah Stewart reads an excerpt from The Quiet Place

David: Why don't you read a page from the book?

Sarah: Would you like that?

David: I would like that.

Sarah: I would do anything for you at this moment. I am the luckiest writer on earth, the luckiest writer of the picture book. They're on the road, they've left Mexico and they're, Isabel and her family are coming towards Gary, Indiana, and it's April 9th, 1957.

Dear Auntie Lupita, I forgot to tell you something, I heard Spanish being spoken in a café where we stopped on the second day of our long drive north. Then the best part was after lunch when we drove through many, many, many blue flowers. The very next day the sky became that same blue. Chavo said we left a sea of blue at our feet and entered an ocean of blue over our heads. I want to talk like that. Missing you, Isabel. P.S. I am using my best words and Chavo's dictionary helps with the new ones.

One more?

David: How about this one? The next page.

Sarah: On the next page it's April 14th. It's a week later, 1957, almost a week later. Dear Auntie Lupita, we have only been in our new home for ten days. But most of the boxes are unpacked. I like having our old things around me again. Some snow came down, snow came down all night and made my whole world new. This morning everything was white. I ran outside and made a snow angel.

Do you remember the one we saw in the book at the library last year? Mother says it is a funny time of year for snow and it will all melt by tomorrow. Where will the snow angel go? Missing you, Isabel.

You have to wait until tonight for me to read the rest of the story. You have to wait for bedtime, Davey.

Sarah: We are happy.

David: This has been a good interview.

Sarah: This has been a great interview.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables