Elisha Cooper Talks with Roger

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I always think of Elisha Cooper as an artist who does a lot with a little (see Big Cat, Little Cat), but in River he does a lot with a lot, taking readers and viewers on an expansive journey down what Paul Goodman called “the lordly Hudson.”

Roger Sutton: I have to begin by asking you your Mick Mulvaney question, I’m afraid.

Elisha Cooper: Uh-oh.

RS: In the author’s note to River, you thank the Sendak Fellowship for being a place where you could start this work. But on elishacooper.com, it says that when you did the Sendak Fellowship you didn’t do squat.

EC: Oh, I was, without a doubt, the worst Sendak Fellow ever.

RS: I think they all say that, to tell you the truth.

EC: No, no, I can prove it, because I spent most of my time reading in Maurice’s studio, baking bread, going for runs. We were pretty close to the Hudson River, so I would go on little kayaking trips. The other Fellows were working in their studios, and I really didn’t. In other words, both things are true: not only was I the worst Fellow, but that fellowship was incredibly important to this book. The people there were so wonderful and loving, and they let me have the space to dream, which was exactly what I needed. I was daydreaming, having fun sitting in a studio, and thinking about rivers.

RS: I visited the fellowship three times, and what I noticed was that people were often creating something that had nothing to do with the picture book work that secured them the gig. Maurice was still alive the first time I went, and he was encouraging the Fellows to try whatever it was that was also part of their creative minds.

EC: Right, and I didn’t even realize it then, but that’s why it was such a wonderful space to explore ideas.

RS: What drew you to the landscape of the Hudson? Why that river?

EC: The simple reason: I live three blocks from it in Manhattan. I would go for runs along the Hudson, and I’d be looking at the boats—that’s what put the seed in my mind, even before the Sendak Fellowship. “I wonder where this thing starts?” Most of my books are about stuff that’s around me—my cats or a nearby farm. A river—I’m by a great river! Let’s go upriver and see what I can find.

RS: How far up did you get?

EC: Oh, to the top. Lake Tear of the Clouds is the official start, but it really only becomes navigable via canoe from Henderson Lake. The high point of working on the book was going there. It was rainy, it was wild, I was out there sketching in the rain—that picture is my favorite illustration in the book. Finding the start of the Hudson was amazing. Up there it’s the size of the Gowanus Canal, but running and clean and whitewater.

RS: I think about that when I walk my dog in the morning at little Jamaica Pond, which then goes on to feed the relatively mighty Charles River.

EC: Exactly. That’s what’s so much fun. A river has a built-in narrative. There’s a start, and there’s a finish—at the sea. I thought, “Okay, I can create a hero and have her start a journey and have her end, in Homeric terms, reunited with her family.”

RS: It was interesting—the first time I read the book, I thought it was going to end where she meets the boat builder.

EC: My Walt Whitman character.

RS: Because that is an ending of the book in some ways. But then it just breaks out completely into the Atlantic Ocean.

EC: Yeah, I kind of wanted to go big. Ending the story at a lighthouse felt triumphal, in a way, and that’s the most beautiful lighthouse in the area. So I put my character into the ocean for a while. At the beginning of the book she’s left the wilderness for the big city, but then she comes back to the wilderness that is the Atlantic Ocean. I wanted that feeling of how when we travel alone, we’re very close to ourselves, and then when we return we’re so happy to see the ones we love.

RS: The same ones we were so happy to get away from three weeks ago.

EC: Exactly. It’s a wonderful thing about travel.

RS: How did you come up with the character?

EC: My two great, strong teenage daughters were the models for the book. I paid them to sit on our couch in New York, and I gave them a canoe paddle to hold. Showing a woman going down the river would be cool and amazing, and it should not be unexpected. I wanted this woman to be as if my daughters were in their thirties and had a family. I wanted to picture them as brave women, taking a risk, going out into the world, looking at things.

RS: Are you piling lots of expectations onto your children, Elisha?

EC: No, I hope not. What’s so great about them—first of all, they’re lovely, but they don’t care about what I do. One’s a dancer and one’s a runner, and they’re both really math and science-y. I’m so far away from what they do—they can be anything they want. They don’t need to canoe down the Hudson. It’s almost like a metaphor for them going out into life.

RS: “As they embark on their journeys…” The metaphors just, ah, flow, don’t they? Did your canoer become a character to you? Did you imagine a life for her beyond the inspiration of your daughters?

EC: What’s weird is: I really don’t know. When we get off the phone, that’s the question I’ll be thinking about. I don’t do fiction—I write what I see. I hope she does become a character to the people who read the book. But this person is really me, my hopes for my daughters, and my wife, too, who’s wonderful and strong. It’s a mash-up of all of us. Creating characters is not my talent.

RS: The first line of the afterword is about how you have never, in fact, taken this journey yourself.

EC: Exactly. Because I’m a coward. I would be so scared to do it. The hero of the book is me if I were a woman and if I were a braver person. Instead, I was driving up and down the river in my car, coming in and out of the water, drawing, and heading back in the comfort of my car. I’d be much too scared to take this trip.

RS: It’s very seductive, the way you portray it in the story. Abstractly, I can enjoy thinking of doing it myself, but I’m terrified at the same time.

EC: At heart, I’m a New Yorker who loves warm cafés. But one of the reasons I love warm cafés is I don’t mind going out and getting wet in the weather and then coming into the café. It’s that kind of return, which is why I like to travel. I couldn’t do twenty days—I could go for a day. A day, a run in the rain, and then come back and get warm and read a book.

RS: I don’t think I can even camp out. I’ve done that once in my whole life, one night.

EC: And you didn’t like it?

RS: Terrifies me.

EC: I get a little scared, too. Bears, right?

RS: Well, and in the story, I liked that you trusted your reader to infer from the appearance of the baby bear that the protagonist had better get moving.

EC: Yes. There are many nods in this book, but that was my Blueberries for Sal nod. I also wanted to let people know that yeah, if you see a baby bear in the wild, that is not a good thing.

RS: But how adorable. You know the urban legend about the people who put the honey on their kid’s face, and the baby bear–

EC: Oh, no!

RS: Yes.

EC: That’s horrible.

RS: I don’t know if it’s true. Mama Bear came out and–

EC: Terrible, terrible.

RS: Still scared?

EC: Yeah, very.

RS: What do you think the scariest part of a trip like that would be for you?

EC: Maybe the rapids, some of the physical danger. But I would say the scariest thing for me would be being alone at night.

RS: Except for the bears.

EC: Right, exactly. They’d be keeping me company. But it’s weird, because as I say that, I know it’s also the most attractive and compelling thing to me about travel or being out and drawing. It’s scary; it’s raining and I’m trying to draw something, or I’m on the water and things are going badly. But I love those moments because when we come back from them we are changed—in the same way you can read a book and become changed. We become better people. There’s something about that return.

RS: How about when you draw something? When you’re outside drawing a picture of the river, of a baby bear—do you then see it differently after you’ve committed it to paper?

EC: Totally. For example, the cover of the book is a view of looking down the river. I’d been nosing around, trying to get the perfect view. There was frost on the ground, it was wet, and the wind was blowing. It was one of those scary moments, and I felt very alone. I loved being alone and feeling little bits of that risk, but then knowing that I could come home.

RS: The cover does look sort of adventurous and comforting at the same time.

EC: I hope.

RS: The boat looks sturdy.

EC: Yes, I hope so.

RS: The water looks big.

EC: I know. I would probably stay close to the shore.

RS: You mostly use a rowboat, is that right?

EC: It’s a Rangeley Boat. But I’ve basically traded it for a canoe that’s exactly like the one in the book, black with a red stripe. As a New Yorker I rent an apartment—I really don’t own anything. But I now own a canoe.

RS: Where do you keep it?

EC: It’s up in Maine, on a lake. There’s actually a picture of the lake on the book’s case cover. One of my favorite things about this book is the case, because it’s basically the story of the book. It has the sketches I did, which I based the paintings on, along with some photos. It’s kind of this meta thing. David Saylor (Scholastic Creative Director) and I had a lot of fun with it.

RS: And I appreciate what you did with the endpapers, though I didn’t catch it until about my fifth go-round. I just assumed it was the same endpapers, front and back, but no.

EC: Right. We had the blank map on the front and the labelled map in the back, to let kids see all the places with the things that she’s seen.

RS: Are you painting and drawing out in the wild, or are you just drawing?

EC: Just drawing. I do the sketches alongside the river, and then come back home to paint in my apartment. I love to draw in nature, but I can’t paint out in nature. To paint, I need to have my music and my coffee and the light and the paint. I have all sorts of artist neuroses that I need to have in place. I actually drew River to the Hamilton soundtrack, and I did all the painting to Puccini—Turandot, Madama Butterfly, La Bohème. It helped me get across what I wanted, that kind of wildness.

RS: And bigness. I just saw Turandot last weekend, one of those The Met: Live in HD movie broadcasts. Very big.

EC: Music is pretty important. If the music isn’t right, the painting won’t be right.

RS: So do you have to switch the music? Or do you switch the drawing?

EC: Music.

RS: Wise choice.

EC: Or I’ll rip up the drawing and put on some more music. We all have our quirks.

RS: When I think of your work, I think of the airiness of it. There’s so much space within and around your pictures. How do you know when you’re done?

EC: When it’s lunchtime.

RS: Don’t get glib with me, young man.

EC: When I’m messing up is when the painting looks mannered and there’s too much. I love sketches. When I go to a museum and see Edward Hopper’s sketches, those are the things I want to steal and bring home with me. Paintings that are oils—I love them, but I want the sketches. As much as possible, if I can leave a painting early, where it’s really just the sky and a few things here and there, filled in—it needs to be complete, but the sketchier it is, the better. It’s light, and it makes me happy. If I’m happy, that’s when I leave the painting.

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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