Monday, July 13, 2009
Eric Kimmel, Teller of Tales
At 1 pm on July 23rd at A Children’s Place, author Eric Kimmel will showcase his latest book The Three Little Tamales (Marshall Cavendish, 2009). I’ve fed my children heaping servings of Eric Kimmel’s books. Eric’s original stories, historical fiction, and playful folktale adaptations are loaded with the goodness of a well-rounded meal, but basted with flavor like the best Texas barbecue. My kids always come back for seconds. And thirds.
Author of nearly 100 titles, Eric’s work appears on school and library recommended lists. He has garnered many awards, including the Caldecott Honor Medal for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Holiday House, 1994), and the Sydney Taylor Picture Book Award for both The Chanukkah Guest (Holiday House, 1992) and Gershon’s Monster (Scholastic Press, 2000).
Last Thursday, Eric strolled over to my home to sit down with me and discuss his work. (You can hear a snippet by clicking the button above.) We talked about his nomination for the 2010 Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice Award, his fondness for Texas, how a writer can go out of print over a weekend, raising vampires (!), and that age old question: who is more important: the writer or the illustrator?
AB: Congratulations on the Beverly Cleary Children’s Choice nomination for A Picture for Marc (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2007). I’m interested in learning the history behind its publication.
EK: That story really begins with the one that came before in that series, A Horn for Louis, which I originally wrote as a picture book. My agent suggested I expand it a bit and make it a chapter book. We did and Stepping Stones picked it up. They liked the theme of a defining moment in somebody’s life. For the second book, I came across this anecdote about Chagall; that he’d never even known that drawing or art existed until he was well into school.
AB: I particularly liked the way you emphasized the bleakness of the landscape in Chagall’s hometown Vitebsk. It contrasted so nicely with the pictures that stemmed from his imagination.
EK: It really is a bleak place – flat, swampy – it was a good place to be from [laughing]. But the spark to be an artist can come from anywhere. On a personal note, what I liked about A Picture for Marc is that when I was growing up, considering a career in the arts was on level with being a bum. And most parents have that attitude.
AB: What led you to write A Horn for Louis?
EK: Louis Armstrong used to carry a typewriter around with him and between shows he would peck away. In New Orleans, I picked up some of his manuscripts in the library of Queens College and they really make great reading. He was a very vivid writer. And you know what comes through in his work? Everybody’s poor, but what are you going to do about it? You do what you have to do and hope that things will get better. But quitting was not a possibility.
AB: Do you have any new books that will be out on the shelves soon?
EK: A Spotlight for Harry. It’s the third in my Stepping Stone early chapter book series- this one about Harry Houdini’s defining moment. It focuses on when Houdini decided he wanted to be a performer. He goes to the circus and tries to hang in the air by his teeth on a rope. Of course, he loses some teeth in the process!
AB: What did you read as a child?
EK: I read everything. Science. Dinosaurs. Animals. And I loved fairy tales. I read my Grimm over and over until it fell apart. Robert Louis Stevenson. I can’t tell you how many times I read Treasure Island. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. One of my favorite writers was a British Victorian writer nobody reads anymore named H. Rider Haggard [who wrote] King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain -lurid adventure stuff. I mean, for a high school boy, this was like raw meat.
AB: Do you have any advice for young readers?
EK: Just find a book and if you’re into it, you’ll know by the first chapter if you want to read more. If you don’t, toss it aside! There are plenty more books in the world; why spend your time with a book that you don’t like?
AB: How do stories come to you? How do you practice the craft? Do you have a set schedule?
EK: No. I’m lazy. I write when I write. Something will catch my attention. For example, with Little Britches and The Rattlers (Marshall Cavendish, 2008), it’s [a retelling of] Little Black Sambo. Little Black Sambo in its original format is racist. There’s no point in defending that. But there’s a great story in it. Jerry Pinkney and Julius Lester interpreted it in their way [in Sam and the Tigers]. So I wanted to get the kernel out of that story myself. I wanted my crack at it. But in order to do that, I needed an angle. In the original story, the main character’s a boy, so I made it a girl. My Texas stories seem to do well, so I set it down in Texas. I ride horses, so I made the main character a rodeo girl, like the rodeo queens in [Portland’s] Rose Parade. So she’s off to the Rodeo and then enters the “Sambo format”. She meets a snake, ends up in a tree, comes to the gulch, and there the rattlers are. So here’s the problem: in Helen Bannerman’s book [The Story of Little Black Sambo] the tigers just chase each other around the base of the tree until they turn to melted butter. Well, that’s not going to work in the middle of Texas. How are we going to get rid of these snakes? So I go back to Joseph Campbell and that powerful image in mythology of the snake swallowing its tail and make the snakes swallow each other up! It’s kind of a metaphysical solution, but she gets to the rodeo and wins first prize! So a lot of writing isn’t something that you consciously work out; you’re drawing on your subconscious. Everything you are, everything you’ve ever experienced, comes to the encounter with the story.
AB: Have you sent any adapted folktales in to publishers lately?
EK: One called Jack’s Giant Barbecue, another one set in Texas. Jack has a barbecue, a giant stole his daddy’s recipe, and he’s got to go up to the giant’s barbecue shack in the sky to steal it back. Initially, I wrote that the giant falls straight into Jack’s smoker; Jack smokes him up, and serves him as barbecue! But my editor did not go for that. She said, “No cannibalism!” I said, “Why not? It’s in Robinson Crusoe!” So my editor suggested that the giant work for Jack, and I said, “Yeah, that works for me.” Now they work together and the giant tends the smoker. So I wrote it and sent it off and maybe it’ll be a book. I don’t know!
AB: You’ve got a thing for food from The Lone Star State!
EK: The people are wonderful; the food’s great, and like Oregonians, Texans love books. They’ve got the Texas Library Association. Texas has been very good to me over the years.
AB: Could you talk a bit about your submissions process?
EK: It depends on the book. I’ve been in the business so long, I know a lot of editors. You get a sense of what they like and send certain stories to certain editors. But it’s getting tougher and tougher to sell. People are always astounded when I tell them the fact that I’m writing doesn’t mean that I’m going to get it to print. I’ve got plenty of things that I think are pretty good that never went anywhere. So that raises another issue: we’re in a digital age. And if we’re talking about a digital book, what exactly does a publisher do? You put a book on a website; you can put it on a Kindle. It has never been easier to create your own book. The problem is: how do you get paid? Today’s changes in the industry are as big as the changes in the days of Gutenberg. Everything is different. You get your book on line, you’re there! Now, the question is, how do people find you? The whole industry is in a kind of chaos. It mirrors the recording industry. The world is changing, kids are changing, books have changed, the old model doesn’t work anymore and no one really knows what the new model is.
AB: Is Kindle the future of picture books?
EK: Good question. My generation would probably have a hard time getting used to one. But kids my grandson’s age going into first grade, and your kids, that doesn’t bother them at all. They spend hours looking at a computer screen. They’re quite happy to get a book electronically.
AB: I think my children wouldn’t be, actually. But then again, my idea of home decorating is a stack of books in each room. Probably that’s not most people's ideal.
EK: True. And publishers don’t know what to do about this. Schools and libraries, which used to be a good portion of the market, have had their funding slashed. More and more school districts have no librarian. Even [our neighborhood school, Beverly Cleary School] has to fight. But a library contributes to the program. The librarian is the one who steers kids to books. A good librarian makes the books come alive.
AB: Did you ever serve as a librarian?
EK: I was a public librarian as an adjunct, living on St. Thomas. My first job out of college. It was lovely! When I was in graduate school and taking classes in children’s literature, I had a wonderful teacher, Winnie Ladley. She taught me everything I knew about children’s literature. Not just the books but the attitude. She said, “OK. Decide right now: do you want to be in the children’s room or the rare book room? In the rare book room, the books are more important than the patrons because they’re extremely valuable and they’re one of a kind and have to be protected from the patrons. In the children’s room, the children are more important than the materials. And if the materials are doing their job, they’re going to be used up, consumed, left out in the rain, eaten by the dog.” She also said that you can always tell a good children’s library. It’s simple. It’s a place where children like to go.
AB: Just like our Hollywood branch of the Multnomah County Library.
EK: Absolutely. We’re blessed with the resources that we have. And my hope is that it will go on and on. What we have [in Portland] is extremely precious. These libraries that we have here didn’t drop out of the sky. We support them passionately. The books are here. It’s a matter of will and valuing them. And we have A Children’s Place, just a short walk away up on Fremont, with their kind of collection and their staff that knows everything. There are big cities that don’t have anything like that.
AB: You've frequently mentioned that you grew up listening to your grandmother tell stories from her heritage, and that this influenced you to become a storyteller. One of your Eastern European stories that I believe you first heard from her is now a family favorite of ours: Gershon’s Monster (Scholastic Press, 2000).
EK: Oh, Gershon’s Monster. It’s a creepy one!
AB: Made even creepier by Jon J Muth’s illustrations.
EK: He did a brilliant job. He’s a brilliant illustrator. I was so fortunate to get him.
AB: You’ve worked with so many wonderful illustrators…
EK: Most people think the author and the artist work very closely together [but] they have nothing to do with each other! I got to know Jon after the book came out, when we happened to be together at a couple of conferences. But my job was to write the text, and then he went ahead and did the illustrations. And if he had a question, he didn’t ask me.
Trina Schart Hyman [illustrated Eric’s book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, Holiday House, 1994, for which she won a Caldecott Honor] explained it to me. You have some of the top graphic artists in the country. The artist will approach the story with a vision and they work out of that vision. It’s not necessarily mine, but when people ask if it bothers me, then I say, well, then I’ll have the obligation of going to art school!
AB: Are you generally happy with the vision of the illustrators, even if it doesn’t match yours?
EK: I’ve published close to 100 books and I would say 99% I’ve been very pleased with; and with the remaining percent, I’ve been astounded and amazed. With Gershon’s Monster, the story is about water and Jon’s specialty is watercolor. The book starts, and it’s like you’re flying over the sea towards the town. I had nothing to do with that. That’s him. And he creates the story where the kids are at the beach and they have a sand pail. Well, the actual story takes place around 1780 in Romania. The kids aren’t walking around with beach toys. But that’s a case where historical accuracy is irrelevant. What counts is the now-ness of the story.
AB: How he tied your readers into the now-ness of the story with seemingly simple details like that. But he derived all of that imagery from your words.
EK: Well, Janet Stevens and I always have this argument. We’re friends; she illustrates the Anansi series, and she’s very funny. We ask: who’s most important? I say the author, because without the text, there’s nothing to draw. Janet disagrees, and says the text is just a pile of paper. Who’s gonna pay $17 bucks for that? It’s all about the pictures! But the truth is, it’s an irrelevant question, because it works as a whole.
AB: Because a picture book in its form needs both. And that’s the beauty of it.
EK: Gershon’s Monster is not for tiny children. And I pretty much write for 2nd grade on up. And when you get to the upper extreme of the picture book, enter the graphic novel. The idea that picture books are for tiny children who aren’t able to read yet is nonsense because everybody loves pictures.
AB: I couldn’t agree with you more. I learned to read Japanese through manga and now I’m glad to see that graphic novels are successfully marketed in the U.S. But I have heard that picture books are suffering.
EK: It’s hard. This is an industry that traditionally sold to mainly schools and libraries, which no longer receive adequate funding. Now who really buys them? Not kids, but parents and the grandparents. So marketing picture books does not end up being cutting edge.
AB: You’ve seen the industry fluctuate.
EK: It’s a schizophrenic industry with one foot in the toy world with the next best thing vs. the literary world. If there’s an audience for quality, you’ll get quality, but right now that audience is getting smaller. A Newbery or Caldecott medal is worth how much in sales? A few hundred thousand dollars, unless it’s a big breakout. But in the publishing world, that’s peanuts. How many copies of Twilight were sold? You’re talking about millions. Nothing in a Caldecott or a Newbery gets close to that. And the Twilight books have terrific covers.
AB: They do.
EK: The covers are marvelous. That chess piece.
AB: And you’ve explained to me that Stephenie Meyer probably had little or nothing to do with that cover art.
EK: She was lucky!
AB: Very lucky. When my children were babies, everyone was buying crib mobiles that were black, white and red, for visual stimulation, and…
EK: …you’ll raise a vampire! [laughing] A great cover can make a book and a crappy cover can kill a book.
AB: How did you first land an editor?
EK: Dumb luck. It was hard in 1968 when I was starting, and it’s ten times harder now. We had more publishers back then, and they would read unsolicited manuscripts, and that is no longer the case. I went through Writer’s Market and looked for who was buying, which was magazines. I wrote everything. Detective stories, western stories – the last days of the pulps. I was writing true confessions, science fiction, all them god-awful! In fact, I found some of these old manuscripts and thought they were vile! I don’t want my name on them anymore! I was getting good at the true confessions/ romance genre because the editors started sending feedback in their [rejection] letters. If I kept with it, I could have been the king of Harlequin romances! But my mother sent me an ad from the New York Times. Harper and Row was looking for people to write children’s books. This is because there was federal money around for libraries.
AB: When was that?
EK: The late 60’s. The last of The Great Society. Can you imagine a publisher taking out an ad like that today? So I wrote something, sent it to Harper and Row, they gave me a lot of really good feedback, but I was so green that I looked at the two-page letter and all I saw was rejection. So I sent it out again to one of the great editors of our time, Ferd Monjo at Coward McCann, and he accepted it and revised that thing for the next four years. But it was a lot of hard work. The Tartar’s Sword (Coward McCann, 1974) was a lot of fun to write. It’s not a horrid book, considering that I didn’t know what I was doing! It does have its charm. I just got a letter from a kid in Texas who found it at a yard sale and wrote to me how much she enjoyed it. So I guess it wasn’t all that bad! I learned how to be a writer from Ferd Monjo. Then I did another one with him, and then Coward McCann’s warehouse burnt down and I was out of print over the weekend.
AB: Because the warehouse burnt down?
EK: Yeah, the books were gone and they weren’t going to reprint them. [laughing] Welcome to the world of publishing! That’s why I say to new writers, “You don’t know pain!”
AB: Earlier in our interview, you talked about Louis Armstrong having to keep going in A Horn for Louis. Now that rings true in your life as well.
EK: Yeah! You keep going! You spend years writing a chapter book or novel and it goes nowhere. You put your blood into it and it may well be your best but nobody cares!
AB: So, it’s the journey?
EK: It’s the journey, that’s right. You come to a kind of honesty that’s between you and that blank screen. One of my favorite quotes is from the editor Margery Cuiler. “Show me something new and wonderful that I haven’t already seen ten times today and I’ll send you a contract.” Do your craft. Do your art. Like the people in Saturday Market or someone with a guitar in Pioneer Square. Start! Do it.
AB: What do you say to burgeoning writers?
EK: There’s only one thing you can count on: if you have a story to tell, then write it. And what will be will be and if you want it in print, post it. Send it out. Send it to your friends. Or, put it in a drawer. It’s your choice. The joy has to come from the act of creation. And that’s a whole other world. You’re with the characters, on their adventure, having a good time. I’ve got tons of stuff I wrote that has never gone anywhere, but in fact, I think it’s some of my best work.
AB: You’re talking about the intrinsic value of a piece versus the marketability of it.
EK: Yeah. And those are two different things. And my answer is you just keep writing. You might get lucky and get a good cover! [laughing] And a movie deal!