This past Saturday I had the pleasure of attending “The Exquisite Conversation: An Adventure in Creating Books,” a program at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium co-sponsored by MIT, the Cambridge Public Library, and the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. The panel, consisting of several of the contributors to The Exquisite Corpse Adventure (published in print by Candlewick, August) and moderated by NCBLA executive director Mary Brigid Barrett, was a stimulating mix of august personages (Susan Cooper, Katherine Paterson, Natalie Babbitt, Steven Kellogg, Patricia MacLachlan) and relative newcomers (author-illustrator James Ransome, illustrator Timothy Basil Ering). And M.T. Anderson, who somehow manages to be both…
They were all there to discuss the creation of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, which began life as a progressive story published on the READ.gov website “as the foundation of a national reading and writing initiative created by NCBLA and the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.” The panel opened, appropriately, with a progressive reading of the first episode of the book while the three illustrators present drew on easels set up behind the readers—which was only partially successful since the easels were…behind the readers. But never mind—the conversation soon picked up.
Tobin Anderson reported that the Library of Congress estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and two million readers around the world visited the website as The Exquisite Corpse Adventure unfolded. Mary Brigid spoke movingly of a teacher in Venezuela who, lacking books and other resources, printed out a new episode every month and traveled extensively throughout her region to share it with kids.
Patty MacLachlan pointed out how different creating the book was from the typical writing process because there was no revising or editing—each chapter was published as originally written, even in the printed book; there was no attempt to go back and polish rough spots or reconcile plot anomalies. Mary Brigid defended this decision: “This is different; this is a game.”
(There was no question-and-answer period, but I would have loved to ask the participating writers: how much did the “game” element change your own writing process? At times, reading the book, it almost seemed as if the primary point was to compete against one another; to try to impress one another. I’m sure this element is always present to some extent: you want to please your editor, your writers’ group, etc. But in this case did it tend to overtake the mission? Or not? Responses welcome.)
Anyway, back to business, and in fact this next bit is somewhat related to my question. Tobin divided up the contributors into two categories: what he called the “generative” writers, those who saw their roles as generators of as much incident, twists and turns of plot, and outrageousness as possible, and “rationalizers,” the ones who tried to keep the chaos under control and make all the randomness cohere into a rational story. He said it was interesting to see who fell into which category, and that it wasn’t a predictable division. Steven Kellogg asserted that “the rationalizers need the lunatics—they complement each other.”
We learned that the writers were privy to the episodes as they unfolded so that they could advance the plot and take up the challenge of preceding wicked chapter-ending cliffhangers, but this was not necessarily true for the illustrators. The irrepressibly enthusiastic (he tended to stand up whenever he spoke, which was highly endearing) Timothy Basil Ering said that he never looked to see what the other illustrators were doing—how they had portrayed characters and setting—he wanted the freedom to imagine them for himself.
The conversation then turned to a discussion of writing in general. Mary Brigid threw out a variation on the perennial question “Where do you get your ideas?” to ask “How do you begin?” Natalie Babbitt gave her oft-supplied answer: that her childhood was the most intense period of her life and that all her stories have stemmed from the large questions she had as a preschooler. Susan Cooper described the day she was cross-country skiing with her then-husband and looked up at the falling snow and the lowering sky, and knew she would write about it, but put the moment away for two years until it re-emerged and became the impetus for The Dark Is Rising. Others said they had vivid mental images of scenes or events that sparked their stories. Susan proposed that ideas for books are like butterflies—you just have to reach out and grab one. Tobin responded that the problem with that approach is that you kill the butterfly.
A conversation about picture book texts was launched by James Ransome, who said, interestingly, that even though he is an artist, when he writes picture books he doesn’t see any images in his head. He puts the manuscript away and returns to it weeks or months later, and only then does he “see” the illustrations the text requires. Susan Cooper compared the writing of a picture book to the writing of a screenplay: in both cases, “you have to leave room for the pictures.” Patty MacLachlan commented that she had no problem turning over her picture book texts to editors and illustrators, likening her texts to teenage offspring: “At some point you have to let them go and make their own way in the world.” Tobin thought that was OK unless the illustrator turned your characters into hedgehogs.
I have to say there wasn’t much content in the program for children, who (ten and up) had been invited to attend. But the signing afterward was a huge success, and gave both kids and adult fans plenty of opportunity to interact with beloved authors and illustrators. The lines were long and the interactions between signers and signees seemed to be extensive and personal. For those who had the opportunity to meet some of their favorite children’s book creators, it must have been an exquisite ending to a good day.