Monday, August 30, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Richard Michelson

This week author Richard Michelson is giving us a tour of his writing space. Richard Michelson is a both a poet and a children's book author. Some of his children's books include As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom, illustrated by Raul Colón; Tuttle's Red Barn, illustrated by Mary Azarian; and Across the Alley, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. As Good as Anybody won the Sydney Taylor Award, and in the same year his book A is for Abraham was awarded the Silver Medal. This was the first time in the award's 41-year history that both top honors went to the same author.

His latest book is Busing Brewster, illustrated by R. G. Roth. This is a historical fiction picture book about desegregation in the 1970s. Brewster is about to start first grade when his Mama announces that he and his older brother will be taking the bus to a new school this year, the one in the white part of town. The transition to the new school isn't an easy one as Brewster and his brother aren't given a warm welcome, but Brewster finds sanctuary in the school library and kindness in the librarian. The story gives a very focused, individual perspective of this time period, with an author note at the end to expand on the history.

I'm embedding a video interview with Richard Michelson in the Rockstars of Reading series put together by, which I highly recommend if you have 15 minutes to spare. In the video Richard shares some of the manuscript drafts and work that went into creating one of his picture books. He also talks about his first children's book, Did You Say Ghosts?, illustrated by Leonard Baskin, and how after that book went out of print he was approached by Harcourt who wanted to reissue the book but with new illustrations. And so an adapted version of that story lives on now with illustrations by Adam McCauley. I thought it was particularly interesting to hear what Richard had to say about seeing his words illustrated in two different ways.

In addition to being an author, Richard is also the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, MA, and the curator of exhibitions at The National Yiddish Book Center. For more information about Richard Michelson and his writing, visit his website.

Describe your workspace.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a large sunny upstairs room overlooking the woods in front of my Amherst home.

Then my daughter was born.

Next upon a time I was moved to a smaller, less sunny upstairs room overlooking the backyard of my Amherst home. 

Then my son was born.

So here is the window in the back corner of the unfinished basement where I have my study.

Come on in. Let's walk downstairs.   Watch your step. 

 Turn left at the ping pong table and left again at the boiler.

Here it is. Come on in. Look around. Leonard Baskin's bronze Sentinel sits in the window sill. Neil Waldman's cover illustration for Too Young for Yiddish is above my desk (my son posed as "the young me" in the book). 

 This bookshelf is where I keep children’s books. 

And this shelf is for poetry (top 2 rows), history (next 2) and novels (bottom 2). 
BTW: The woodcut (by Cyril Satorsky) was above my desk when the study was upstairs. When I moved out, I neglected to transfer the art, until a friend suggested that a picture of the father, Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, was an odd choice to be hanging above my son's crib for the first two years of his life.

So now that my kids have grown up and moved out--my daughter has been living in NYC for ten years, and my son, for seven, will I ever move back upstairs?

No. Their bedrooms upstairs remain empty,  but I’ve come to love it down in my cozy dark burrow, where sunny skies cannot distract me from my work.

Describe a typical workday.

I'm up at 7:30—or maybe 8:30. I drink coconut water and eat my oatmeal in bed while I read the paper and  check morning email on my computer. 

8:30 (or maybe 9:30) to 11 in my study, whether writing or just sitting. Then off to the gym (Pilates) or out on my bike.

1 to 6 (or 9 Fri/Sat) I am at R. Michelson Galleries, where I get to hang out with the work of many of our greatest illustrators and artists—(you can check out but yes, it is still a job, and keeps me from my writing.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1. The Poem Book my daughter wrote for me is on the window sill, blocking out what little light there is. . .

2. The ducks my son made for me. . .

3. And my family photos:

They are all meaningful for the same reason. They remind me – when work is going badly—what life is really about.
And  also, coming in at #4, I like my old typewriter, retired in the corner.

 Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
I sharpen pencils before I begin typing (still do this though I write on my computer).

What do you listen to while you work? 

The silence and my imagination.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Baby carrots. Hummus and crackers. Bananas. Sounds boring but I have reached the age where I follow doctor's orders.  

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Who’s focused? Check email, write sentence, check email, check email again, write sentence, check Facebook, answer questions about what keeps you focused for a blog entry, take pictures of workspace, check clock, write sentence.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way? 
Computer. Can’t read my own handwriting.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I would be happy to let the muse lead me, were she/he to visit. Unfortunately, my address must be unlisted. So I plow ahead word by word and line by line. It is a bit like building a road by laying bricks in front of myself as I walk. And each time a new line is added, I go back to the beginning and start reading all over again from the first word, until I forge on a little bit further.  Fortunately I write poetry and picture books. I could not imagine constructing a novel in this manner.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I need total solitude. I get distracted enough as it is. But my dog Mollie is always welcome at her usual spot.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

I tend to overwork, not under-work, so I need to apply the brakes, and give myself perspective, more than I need a prod. Here are a few reminders I keep in my desk drawer:

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.”  --Bertrand Russell

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. --Thomas Alva Edison

“It is harder to live one day with honor, than write a book as great as any the world has known.” --Stefa Wilczynska to Janusz Korczek

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Chris Grabenstein

The gentleman to the left may look friendly and charming, but he's also the mastermind behind some spooky, creepy stories including The Crossroads and The Hanging Hill which are both part of the Haunted Places Mystery series, as well as several mystery/thriller titles for adults. His books have been lauded by critics with The Crossroads winning The Anthony Award for Best Children's/Young Adult novel and The Hanging Hill winning the 2010 Agatha Award.

His latest book in the Haunted Places Mystery series for young readers is The Smoky Corridor and will be available in stores this week. All three books feature Zack Jennings and his dog Zipper and their unfortunate run-ins with ghosts and zombies. In The Smoky Corridor, Zack is starting his first day at a new school but in addition to the usual new-kid-at-school worries, Zack has to contend with a school zombie, a hit man, and a ghost looking to take over a new body. Kirkus Reviews writes, "Agatha winner Grabenstein's third Haunted Places Mystery is as fizzy and fast paced, especially at its end, as previous outings. Plenty of well-constructed twists and turns, realistic (rather than slapstick) humor, nifty puzzles and a refreshingly positive relationship between Zack and his stepmother make this a standout series for fans of John Bellairs and those who have outgrown the repetitiveness of R.L. Stine. This stands alone, but those who haven't read the others will definitely want to seek them out."

His books are well-crafted mystery and ghost stories, but they are also peppered with humor, which shouldn't be a surprise when you look at Chris Grabenstein's background. He spent years doing improvisational comedy in a group that included a then unknown Bruce Willis, and Chris went on to write for Jim Henson's Little Muppet Monsters show on CBS. (Being a huge Jim Henson fan myself, I was wowed to learn that tidbit.) He also co-wrote a TV movie that many of you are probably quite familiar with as it is rerun almost every year around Christmas time--The Christmas Gift starring John Denver.

Another interesting detail about Chris Grabenstein is that he has a famous dog! His dog Fred starred on Broadway in the production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before Chris and his wife adopted him. There is a great article about Fred here, and be sure to check out Chris's website as well for a wonderful collection of pictures of both Fred and his feline playmates.

As his website states, Chris Grabenstein "puts the boo in books". Let's step inside his workspace and get a peek at how he crafts his spooky mysteries:

Describe your workspace.

I work in what would be the “spare” bedroom in our two-bedroom apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan.  I share the room with the cats' litter box and my wife’s Whisper Room soundproof booth.  My wife is a voice actress and my office doubles as her recording studio.  She’s fantastic and is the voice on the audio book versions of The Crossroads and The Hanging Hill.

Describe a typical workday.

I am a true Virgo -- a creature of habit.  My day starts walking or running with Fred our famous dog (he was in the Broadway cast of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang before we adopted him).  While walking or running I daydream about what I will write that day.  I always carry note cards and Sharpie pens and probably stop about six times during our five-mile runs when ideas bubble up.   After a clean up and some toast with almond butter, I sit down at my keyboard and start putting words together.  I first go over the two thousand words I wrote the day before, making light edits, but mostly just getting back “into the zone” of the story.  I then move forward another 2,000 words.  I do this five days a week so I usually complete a first draft of a young adult book in six weeks.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

Well, number one has to be Tiger Lilly, our youngest cat, who spends her day in a baby blanket lined in-box keeping me company.  Once or twice a day, she wanders over to my keyboard and nudges my hands, telling me it’s time to stop writing and start petting.

Number two is probably my iTunes library and Harman Kardan music speakers.  I write to music, putting together a different playlist for every project I’m working on.  Music helps me get into the mood.

Number three is probably my model of the Engine 23 Fire Truck given to me by one of my best friends, a Captain in the FDNY.  When one of my adult mysteries came out, we had a book party fundraiser at the firehouse and raised five thousand dollars for the FDNY Burn Unit.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

So many.  There must be a mug of coffee and a re-useable bottle of ice water.  The music must be just right. I also have 8 different corkboards in my line of sight, which I fill with notes and photos of faces and places.   I always “cast” my stories with pictures of everybody in the book so I know who I am making up. I rewrite my outline almost every other day because I improvise within the structure as I write and try to surprise myself with twists and turns I didn’t see coming.  At the end of my writing day, I usually play a quick game of NCAA Football on my PS3.

What do you listen to while you work?

That depends.   For the Haunted Places mysteries, I have a collection of soundtracks from movies such as The Mummy, Harry Potter, The City Of Ember and all sorts of thrillers.  I also sprinkle in some music of particular interest to the book I’m working on.  For instance, The Smoky Corridor, coming in August, has a voodoo subplot so I put in a couple chants and several versions of "Iko Iko".

When I write my adult Jersey Shore mysteries, I have a playlist of 514 Bruce Springsteen mp3s.   For a new idea I’m working on, a middle grades caper series, I have all the music from Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen and the Mission Impossible sound tracks.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Well, as someone who, six years ago, went from 270 pounds to 170, and from XXL shirts to mediums, SNACKS ARE FORBIDDEN!   The beverages of choice are black coffee and ice water.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I compose my books on a computer (MacBook Pro with external keyboard so I don't get carpal tunnel syndrome again; who can type 8 hours a day on those laptop keyboards?)

My notes and random story ideas are jotted down on 3x5 note cards in black Sharpie ink.   I carry cards and a Sharpie in all my jackets, pants pockets, etc. You just never know when the story will invade your brain.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

I use a tent pole technique.   I structure my stories like a three act movie and know I need major turns (plot points) at 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4s of the way through the book.   So, if I am aiming for a 50,000 word middle grade book, I know something big has to happen at 12,500, 25,000 and 37,500 words.  I usually plot out these points in advance, know the major turns.   How I get there, I make up on a day to day basis.  Yes, I dutifully make an outline but once the characters start rolling they have been known to go where they want to go, not where I intended to send them. So, I rewrite my outline every two days and, for fun, go back and look at the first outline when I finish the rough draft, just to see how wrong I was when the journey began!

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The story itself. I find that after twenty minutes, I drift off into a strange world where the characters are very alive and very real and the words flow somehow from my brain to the page.  I lose all awareness of my fingers actually typing.  I call this trance-like state "dreaming while being awake".  As a former actor, I am in my head, playing all the parts, worried about how my characters are going to get out of whatever jam I just put them in.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Well, one day a week, because our cats shed so much hair, we have a cleaning person come in and hose the apartment down.   I go write in a nearby coffee shop, which I share with about 20 other folks.  Thanks to my headphones, my music, and my ability to zone out . . . it’s as if I’m alone.  And if one person, George S. Kaufman.  When he was alive, naturally.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Read, read, read.  Especially now that I am working on my 12th book in five years, I find it is crucial to soak up new words, other ways of expressing things.  If you don’t keep loading the brain, you’ll keep using the same images you’ve already used.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Dan Santat

I imagine some of you regular readers may have wondered what happened to my interview with Dan Santat. I gave away his books in July as part of Book Cover Bingo, but then . . . no Dan Santat. Well, guess what?!? Today is Dan Santat Day! (Not officially, as far as I know. Although we could get a petition going on that if you'd like.) There was a minor scheduling hiccup and I couldn't bring you this interview when I originally intended, but I'm very excited to share with you today a peek inside the creative space of the talented and hilarious Dan Santat.

Dan Santat debuted in the children's literature world as the author/illustrator of The Guild of Geniuses published in 2004 by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Since then he has illustrated numerous picture books like Chicken Dance by Tammi Sauer, The Secret Life of Walter Kitty by Barbara Jean Hicks, and Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo by Ayun Halliday.

He's been illustrator to the stars with the Otto Undercover chapter book series by Rhea Perlman (Carla from Cheers).

He creates mind-boggling book trailers like this one:

He is the creator of a Disney animated series:

He illustrates one of my new favorite chapter book series (Bobby the Brave, the next title in the series, releases this September):

And his most recent release is my current favorite picture book of the year (which I gushed about here):

and he even dances for pete's sake!

But a better overview of his work than any written summary I can give is this video portfolio created by Dan Santat for a presentation he gave for ICON 6 in Pasadena, CA, on mass marketing and promotion for artists using video and the internet:

All right, enough chit-chat. Let's step inside the creative space of Dan Santat and learn a little about a day in his life:

Describe your workspace. 

When my wife and I were shopping around for houses we found that this place had a converted garage. The previous owners had placed carpet on the floor and funneled in central air conditioning and it's detached from the rest of the house with its own separate door and a back door leading to the backyard. The one major change I did to the room was that I painted the back wall with black chalkboard paint.

It's just one enormous chalkboard wall for me to keep notes, deadlines, or just to doodle. My kids love to use the wall all the time. The oldest son likes to use it to practice his alphabet. It's the most popular room in the house, and the kids loves to play in the room, which leads me to the conclusion that I can't write the room off for tax purposes. There are toys in the room constantly. It's an awful mess. I have horrible organizational skills so I lose everything.  

Describe a typical workday.

I wake up at 6AM (thanks to the youngest child being done with sleeping for some odd reason) and we like to unwind with a bowl of cereal and some Spongebob Squarepants. (If my wife is hanging out with us she makes us watch A Baby Story. What's up with that?!) I take the children to daycare at 7:30AM and after an hour of surfing the web, answering emails, and goofing off on Facebook I work until noon. I have lunch in the studio around noon, and then I hop right back into work. A lot of the day is me spent working while watching Hulu, Netflix, Daily Show, and Colbert Report on my laptop so I'm constantly being entertained. I never actually feel like I'm ever working. The wife and kids all come home at 5. We eat, play, give the kids baths (or whatever we need to do with the kids) and then they're put to bed at 7:30. I hang out with my wife (most likely watching a TiVo-ed episode of General Hospital and whatever awful reality show she has TiVo-ed for that night), and then she goes to bed at 10. I go back to the studio, work until 1 or 2AM, and then I go to bed. My youngest son wakes me up at 6AM again, and I continue the cycle.

What media do you use and which is your favorite? 

Because of the amount of work I get now, I work purely digitally in Photoshop. I can complete the same amount of work in less than half the time when I work digitally. I use a fancy schmancy Wacom tablet and I feel like it gives me super powers, like the power to do stuff in less than half the time. If I could do my taxes on a Wacom tablet, I would. I still do paint on occasion, like when I have to paint a piece for a gallery show, or creating a texture of a digital piece, and that's on a separate table to my left complete with brushes, inks, paper, and so forth.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

1. I have a stack of postcards which my wife wrote to me while she was backpacking in Europe for three months. We graduated from college and we had just started dating and she sent me a postcard for every week she was in Europe. I kept each one and I have them in a stack on one of my bookshelves. I'll get them framed when i find out how I want to frame them.

2. Collection of artwork from other artists. I have some artwork from Adam Rex, Kelly Murphy, Tim Biskup, Oliver Jeffers, Edel Rodriguez, Martha Rich, Erik Sandberg, Paul Slater, Ronnie Del Carman, and a whole bunch of others.

3. All the kids' toys which are strewn about, which I will either play with the kids or put on display to do some silly scene. They help break up the day if I feel like taking a break and help me remind myself what it's like to be a kid.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I start off the morning by making a large pot of coffee using my French Press. (I let the coffee brew for about 15 minutes so it can suck out every last bit of caffeine.) Afterward, I might go for a jog around the neighborhood for a half hour. This is important because after lunch I usually get pretty tired so the coffee and jog give me energy to get past that hump. As for my work habits, I generally try to take my sketches as far to completion as I can. That way, painting the final goes much quicker.

What do you listen to while you work?

I'm often found listening/watching documentaries or movies on Netflix, but if I'm in a radio mood I'll switch on to the KCRW radio station on iTunes (greatest station in the world as far as I'm concerned). Or I'll listen to the This American Life podcast. If all else fails I'm a sucker for some nice eclectic tunes of bands I'm sure you've never heard of (Nujabes, Mos Dub, etc.)

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

SNACK: I'm a sucker for carrots and hummus for some reason. 
DRINK: Coffee. Black.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I'm generally in a hypnotic trance when I work so I guess it's safe to say the work is what keeps me focused. Otherwise the coffee is helping me out unless it's too strong which in that case will make me all nervous and jumpy.

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

It's always a challenge to attempt to take the text of a picture book manuscript and trying to make the illustration say or do more than what is written. I think that's the challenge of making a good picture book into a much better one. Like in the movie Spinal Tap, I need that artwork to hit an 11 (not a 10) in order to be satisfied. Not all my solutions may be the best, but every spread is a challenge that has to be met.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

I would love to have a really solid 3D computer modeler/animator so that he could help me make some really cool book trailers with fancy special effects and so forth. Unfortunately, I share my space with my clone (which you may or may have not seen in my book trailers) and I'll just have to settle for him.
What is the best piece of illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

I have two pieces of advice actually. . .
Marshall Arismann the head of the grad school program at the School of Visual Arts once told me, "Paint what you love and your work will find you."
Roland Young an advertising teacher at my alma mater, Art Center, told me (and I'm paraphrasing), "Do your own thing and don't follow trends. If you succeed you'll be viewed as a genius. If you fail then everyone will think you're an idiot, but at least you'll be remembered either way. Following trends will just put you in the middle and no one was ever remembered for being like everyone else."