Monday, November 03, 2008

Interview with Susanna Reich

Today I am pleased to bring you an interview with Susanna Reich, author of Painting The Wild Frontier! You can read my review here. I'm happy to be a part of her blog tour.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published author?

My high school English teacher, Charles Aschmann, was a very demanding guy. His class went way, way beyond the AP requirements. He taught me to write and gave me a great foundation in English literature.

At that time I wanted to be a dancer. I studied at the American Ballet Theatre School in New York and at the Royal Academy in London. At Bennington College, I almost became an anthropology major, but dance won out, and I transferred to Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. After college I danced in New York. I loved it, but it was tough--working odd jobs, being judged for my looks, auditioning with a number on my back.

Eventually the dancer’s life became too frustrating and I began to look around for something else. That’s when I fell into floral design. I took some courses, worked in a few flower shops, and learned the craft. Finally I started a business, designing flowers for weddings and special events. I designed a dinner for five prime ministers, another for the Emperor and Empress of Japan. I even did the flowers for Julia Child’s 80th birthday party. By then I was married and had a young child.

In the early nineties, I began to think about writing. One day I woke up, and in my head I saw these beautiful coffee-table books about floral design. I started to write articles about wedding flowers, and at the same time began experimenting with picture books. I was inspired by the illustrator Ed Young, who was a friend. He made it seem easy!

Soon I learned how hard it was. I collected rejections, joined SCBWI, went to conferences, and began to learn about publishing. I took a year off from my flower business and made a deal with myself: if I didn’t sell a book by the end of the year, I’d get a job doing something else. Luckily, within a year I had sold my first book, Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso. If I had sold a book on wedding flowers instead, I might not be writing for children today.

Were there any surprises along the way?

Becoming a writer was a surprise. It wasn’t something I had always dreamed of, or had planned to do. I just reached a point in my life where I had something to say, and the confidence to say it. Previously, I had been more comfortable expressing myself nonverbally, through dance and floral design.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

I love the craft of writing, the challenge of putting thoughts and feelings into words, the work of shaping those words into sentences that are easy to understand and that ring true.

I’ve always enjoyed words and word play, foreign languages and etymology. I’ve studied French, Latin, a little bit of Greek. As a child, I heard Yiddish. When I took voice lessons in college, I sang in Italian and German. So I’ve had a lot of different languages in my ears.

I grew up with a lot of music, too. My mom is a music historian and my father, a physicist, was an amateur singer. Now, when I write, it’s like composing. I’m listening to the sound and rhythm and phrasing of words and sentences and paragraphs. I’m orchestrating the emotional rise and fall of the narrative.

The hardest part is the copyediting process. I tend to obsess about commas. They drive me crazy. Just ask my editor!

What inspired you to write Painting The Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin?

In Clara Schumann, I wrote about a musician. Then I did a picture book about one of my dance heroes, Jose! Born to Dance, and a novel about an aspiring actress, PenelopeBailey Takes the Stage. I wanted my next book to be about a visual artist--an American artist whose work and story would appeal to kids.

My husband, Gary Golio, is an artist (and also a children’s book author, with three picture books forthcoming). He suggested Catlin, and right away I knew I had found my subject. Catlin’s work was beautiful and there was plenty of primary source material. I could get permission to use his art for the illustrations, and he painted American Indians, which would interest kids. And what a life! His life was a fabulous adventure story, with lots of drama. He didn’t just sit in a studio and paint.

Have you always been interested in history?

Yes. I’m interested in people, and in the societies and cultures they’ve created. Every aspect of a culture is infused with certain patterns of thinking and behavior—from religion to politics, art to social relationships. It’s fascinating to explore, to try to understand other people’s ways of thinking. The past is like a foreign country. And I’ve always loved to travel.

What do you love—do you love—the research process that goes into writing nonfiction? What is your favorite and least favorite part of the research process?

Yes, I do love research. Tracking down sources, finding juicy quotes, experiencing those eureka moments when you make a connection between two facts. I don’t think there’s any part of it that I don’t like, except maybe having to doublecheck and triplecheck footnotes to make sure there are no typos in the page numbers. But that’s not really research. That’s just the clerical slog that comes with writing nonfiction.

Have you got any research tips to pass along?

I tend to do a huge amount of research before I start writing. I immerse myself in the topic. I like to have a lot of material to work from, so that I feel confident. I know it’s time to start writing when it feels like there’s a mountain of coal ready to be compressed into diamonds.

Of course, the research never ends. It continues throughout the writing process. I was researching the maps for Painting the Wild Frontier until four months before the publication date.

My advice is to be thorough and patient. Don’t cut corners because you’re writing for kids. They deserve the best scholarship possible. Research requires perseverance. You have to trust that the story will emerge out of the material you have gathered. It often takes longer than you expect.

Do you have any favorite fascinating tidbits or facts (I-didn’t-know-that!) that didn’t make it into the book, but that you’d like to share with readers?

Luckily, I was able to use some of those fascinating facts in the captions. But there were two that had to be cut. One is that it was easiest to hunt buffalo in the winter, because the Indians’ snowshoes enabled them to walk on the surface of the snow, while the heavy animals would sink into it. The other is that Mandan men used to oil their bodies with bear fat after they swam in the Missouri River.

How did you decide what to include and what not to include?

I just told the story as well as I could, and tried to keep it to a reasonable length. The hard part was deciding which illustrations to include. Catlin created hundreds and hundreds of paintings. I only had room for about fifty. And I had to include other kinds of illustrations, too—prints and photographs of people, places, and artifacts that would give a context to his life.

How did you go about choosing which paintings to include—especially which full-color paintings to include?

I used a process of elimination. For several months, there were about two hundred illustrations laid out in chronological order on my dining room table. They were on the piano bench, too. And the bookcase. And the coffee table. My family was very understanding. One by one, I removed the pictures that didn’t seem essential. I was really attached to some of them. It was hard to let them go.

I knew from the beginning that the book would have an eight-page color insert. Ideally the color pictures would have been spread throughout, but that’s not how books are printed--the color pictures had to be grouped together. We couldn’t include more than eight, because then the book would have been too expensive. I chose two of Catlin’s most beautiful bust portraits, two particularly interesting full-length portraits, a landscape, an unfinished picture to show his creative process, a group picture, and a painting of a girl**. He painted mostly men and boys, so I thought it would be nice to show a girl.

I’ve written more about the illustrations on Marc Aronson’s blog, “Nonfiction Matters,” over at School Library Journal.

What do you hope readers gain from reading Painting the Wild Frontier?

I hope readers will learn something new about American history, especially about the Indians and the settlement of the West. I hope they’ll come away with a better understanding of how and why someone becomes an artist, and of the artist’s role in society. And I hope they’ll be inspired to go out and learn more about something they’ve read.

How do you find time—do you find time—to keep reading? Do you have any favorites of the year?

Oh, yes! I’m glad you asked. I read constantly. Mostly children’s books. Some of my favorite nonfiction books of the year are Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry, by Scott Reynolds Nelson and Marc Aronson, and Boys of Steel, by Marc Tyler Nobleman. For older YA, No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row, by Susan Kuklin, is a powerful book.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I’d go back in time and visit my father. He died quite young, and I still miss him.

On a more frivolous note, I’d go back to the mid-nineties, invest in some tech stocks, then go to 1999 and sell them. Then I could retire and spend all my time writing children’s books.

Of course, if I could figure out how to go back in time and use the limitless supply of money to create world peace, feed the hungry, clean up the environment, stop global warming, cure a few diseases, and promote equal rights and freedom of speech, now that would be some trick! I’ll get back to you.

**Tis-Se-wóo-Na-Tís, She Who Bathes Her Knees, by George Catlin. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Other stops on the tour include:

Monday, November 3 - Interview on Becky's Book Reviews.

Tuesday, November 4 - Interview with Tina Nichols Coury.
- and -
Review on Big A little a.

Wednesday, November 5 – "Art And The Informed Outsider: Susanna Reich’s Painting the Wild Frontier" – Interview with Mitali Perkins at mitali’s fire escape.

Thursday, November 6 – “A Conversation With Susanna Reich” - with Gail Gauthier.

Friday, November 7 - Interview with Mary Emma Allen on One Book Two Book.

Monday, November 10 - “On the Books," on Susan Thomsen’s blog, Chicken Spaghetti.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Anonymous,  2:22 PM  

You always ask the best questions. Great interview!

Becky 10:54 AM  

Thanks, Natasha! Susanna was great :)

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