Interview with Self

Richard Jackson: Thank you for doing this.  

My pleasure. What’s the old adage? Say something, see something... 

RJ: After some fifty years of working as an editor and publisher, you began writing picture books in...? 

2013. In April of that year, I accompanied Brian Floca, as his editor, to an appearance at a book festival at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. While he signed copies of his books, I roamed the exhibit hall looking at what others were up to. I found a small publishing company whose emphasis was producing the work of elderly authors. I browsed. Got interested in some poetry and realized, on the drive home, that I had been writing poetry myself — in style, anyway — for years, as flap copy for picture books. Thought I: “I wonder if a book of flap copy, arrayed like a collection of poems, might be interesting to anyone.” Well, it turns out, not even to me — though some of the flap copy struck me as okay. That summer, at the beach with my family, I began thinking of writing picture-books-as-poetry. I am not a poet, but I have an ear for rhyme, a sense of page-turns, of the “beats” in a narrative. The beach house overlooked a saltwater marsh. One day, a rainbow touched down; it seemed to have been waiting there in the grayness of an after-rain. I doodled deluge, drizzle...and soon a story about a small rainbow emerged — she missed her father, the sun, who was off shining in some other part of the world. All a bit precious for me, but with picture possibilities. 

RJ: For whom?  

Irene Haas, in my imagination. I seem to write with specific illustrators in mind. Three of those currently involved with my texts are artists I’d worked with as editor: Katherine Tillotson, Julie Downing, Chris Raschka. All friends. Though my publishers have matched me with artists new to me as well. Look at my good fortune: Jerry Pinkney, Kevin Hawkes, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Suzy Lee... 

RJ: Do you draw? 

Wish I did, but no, alas. In fourth grade, trying out for an art class, I signed a crayon drawing smack in the middle of the paper; was told emphatically that there was only one place for a signature: the bottom margin. I got into the art class, but I was grumpy the whole year. Wish I could sing, too. Unlike the youth of today, I cannot listen to music and concentrate on words in my head. It’s one or the other. I can, and do, hear words and see images simultaneously. Picture book work is like filmmaking. And it’s best, for me anyway, if a rather complete package presents itself from the start. A tone, at least. A vision. An illustrator may well see different images in the words. Fans of Downton Abbey will remember that the author credit ran: “Written and created by Julian Fellowes.” Entirely backwards, in my view. The creation — insofar as this is the right word for what we mere mortals can achieve — is the imagined whole; setting and action in a sequence. The writing comes second. And when it does come, I read it aloud, over and over, as a child in a storyhour would experience it. I breathe it, and in the process page-turns recommend themselves — and that’s how I type (and re-type) a piece, in page units. That’s my publishing experience showing, I suppose. 

RJ: What kinds of picture books have your publishers accepted? 

Nothing based upon my own childhood. Interesting, eh? My children’s childhoods, and my grandchildren’s, are the bases of three acceptances. You’d think (or I thought originally) that highlights of personal history would bloom easily: just think back, I figured. The difficulty is that the world is different now from the world of one’s own childhood. When I was seven, I was allowed — expected — to walk home from school each day, a distance of about a mile along a wide suburban boulevard, ten or so blocks. I enjoyed these solitary walks, once past the Watermans’ large snarly dog. There were elm trees between the sidewalk and the street pavement. Huge, overarching. I got it into my head to circle the trunk of each tree as I passed it. Counting. (My mother from her car spotted me in full circling mode one day, but drove past. Giving me my space, I guess.) Few parents today are trustful enough to let a kid walk home alone. Yet aloneness is important to any story version of this memory. I have tried adding a grandfather, the counting referring to the years of his age, a grandma waiting on a bench on the other side of a park...I cannot make it work. 

RJ: Too bad. 

I’ve used the boy who was me in several (failed) picture book efforts. I have one opening line which I like and which signifies a lot to me: “My father built a cabin in the woods.” But I was twelve during the winter of actual construction. Memorably, my father took me with him to check on the cabin’s progress — a five-hour drive on a Friday night after work and school. I was so happy! But I can’t do the story of our stop at the Wenonah Hotel in snowy Bay City, Michigan, with a picture-book-age self. It wouldn’t mean what I want it to mean. For a picture book, I’d need to be five; for the story to be true, I need to be twelve. 

RJ: So where do other ideas come from? A standard question, I realize, but people want to know what “getting an idea” feels like... 

Tentative giddiness. Often from a single word or sentence. The word also got me started once; so did another word, Akaraka (my grand-daughter’s imaginary friend); or a line my four-year-old sister often used when entering a room: “Here I ahm.” I must have fifty started projects on the computer, plus several unpublished “finished” projects. 

RJ: Work habits? 

I work mornings or midnights most days. I am eighty-one and a cancer patient, but I do sometimes feel a hundred and not optimistic. Optimism is a writer’s best helpmate. As are dreams, of course. I dream for sure every naptime (meaning daily). Seven nights, seven naps — that’s fourteen dreams a week, easily. Sometimes I get up and move to the computer to nail down a word I’ve dreamed. I mean, who can’t see something in the word puddle, which gurgled up at me a few months ago? For me, hearing is central. One book to be published in 2017 was inspired by a fox in a wood in the early seventies — a fox barking and snickering in the dark, too good for our then-little kids to miss. My wife and I got them up out of bed, and they in their PJs and we in our bathrobes stood on the grass outside and h-e-a-r-d the night noises around us. Really listened. Magical. That book I have dedicated to my wife, children, and grandchildren. But memory does not always a picture book make. It’s not what you remember that matters, but what you make of the memory, separate from yourself. There were, for a time, a father and child suggested in the book’s illustrations. They are gone, leaving behind only the voice of a storyteller, all ears, all eyes, as guide. See something, say something — or is it the other way around? It’s both. 

RJ: Please explain. 

Just days ago a friend wrote to thank me for my first book, which I’d sent her. She said: “I read it to the preschool class where I sometimes teach art. One child sat rapt the entire time. At the end he said — as if unlocking a great and timeless secret — ‘All the words are INSIDE THAT BOOK!’ Indeed.” I write for that boy. Saying to see. Seeing to say. 

From the September/October 2016 Horn Book Magazine.

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson worked as a children’s book editor and publisher for forty-plus years before his official retirement in 2005; then seventy, he continued to edit freelance. He began writing in 2013 and is now the author of ten published or forthcoming picture books, including Have a Look, Says Book (Dlouhy/Atheneum), illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, his first; In Plain Sight (Porter/Roaring Brook), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; and All Ears, All Eyes (Dlouhy/Atheneum), illustrated by Katherine Tillotson. 

 

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