The second graphic novel to be nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, David Small’s “Stitches” was released this year to praise from the likes of Robert Crumb, Stan Lee and Jules Feiffer and was recently named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by both Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com.
But while “Stitches” may be Small’s debut graphic novel, he is far from an amateur creator. Small has had a long career both as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, including “Imogene’s Antlers” and “The Gardener.” He’s worked with Norman Juster, Beverly Cleary and other authors. His books have been featured on “Reading Rainbow,” and he has won just about every award for his craft, including the Christopher Medal, the Caldecott Medal and the Caldecott Honor.
“Stitches” is a memoir about Small’s youth and his parents. It’s a disturbing and monstrous story that is simultaneously beautiful and transformative. Small’s eye for detail, his refusal to sentimentalize his journey and the way he humanizes the monstrous figure that is his mother, brings to mind contemporary masters of the genre such as Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr. CBR News recently spoke with Small about his book.
CBR News: You’ve had a busy few months since the book came out. You were nominated for the National Book Award, and “Stitches” was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com. As an illustrator, you’ve already won a number of prestigious awards. Are you jaded about awards at this point in your career?
David Small: Let me put it this way, I know that it’s just a blip in my life. I feel like I lost a whole year to that Caldecott Medal thing. It actually consumed me. It got to be ridiculous. Then it was over, and the phone never rang. I’m certain that’s going to happen again. It just makes it hard to focus on one’s creative life.
But it’s fun. I’m not complaining. It’s nice to have a horse in the race.
What made you decide that it was time to create a graphic novel?
I didn’t set out to create a graphic novel. I just found that that was the best way to do my memoir. I can’t even say that I was thinking of it as a memoir – I was trying to bring a time in my life and certain people in my life back to life so I could see them and see them and the events clearly. The best way that I found to do that was by drawing, which is my art, not so much writing. It’s just more natural to me.
Did you read comics, or were you familiar with many graphic novels before you started working on “Stitches?”
No, I have been terribly ignorant of both of those media. I read some comics when I was a kid, but I never became an addict. I never read any superhero comics when I was a kid. I don’t why. I knew nothing about graphic novels except for “Maus,” which I thought was great. I found very little that I liked, but I just wasn’t looking. Once I started seriously to work on “Stitches,” a friend of mine who is versed in comics started sending me graphic novels that he thought I’d be interested in. The first thing he sent was “Fun Home,” and I read about twenty pages and put it down. I thought it was really good and I didn’t want to be influenced. There seemed to be so many parallels between her life and mine, and I just didn’t want to look at anything that might be better than what I was capable of at that point, because that would have been de-spiriting.
When reading the book, it feels as if your influences were cinematic rather than sequential art. Is there a particular filmmaker or style you were thinking of?
That’s my main influence. There are certain filmmakers that have been my favorites since I started studying film as an art form back in the late sixties: Bergman, Polanski. Bunuel, Antonioni. Those guys remain my heroes, along with many others. Certainly scenes from films would come back to me as I was trying to convey something.
How did “Stitches” differ from picture books as a project? Was it just longer, or was there a more involved process?
At first I felt a tremendous freedom from the restraints of the picture books. Freedom from the restraints on language, on content and on length, all of which have at times seemed restricting. What I found was, the more I worked on “Stitches,” my picture book experience became very important. If nothing else, picture books teach you economy. You have to say so much that the text isn’t telling, and you have to do it in a short space. That certainly came in handy when it looked as if “Stitches” was going to stretch out to six hundred pages. Which nobody wanted, me least of all.
You mention the economy of images, which brings to mind how often you took the page and created a single jarring and defining image that summed up so much. The teenage you in the background looking at the couple in the foreground. You removing bandage and seeing the scar. The scene where you walked in on your mother and her lover. How did you decide when and how to focus in on particular moments in your life like you did?
The book has cinematic influences, but it’s a book. I have to create climactic moments visually in the way that only a book can do. People have continually called this a storyboard. It’s not a storyboard. A storyboard doesn’t change the size of its panels, for one thing, and I use that as a way of focusing on a scene or drawing the imagery out. To do a full page image is like an extreme close up or a long still image with music. Something to keep the reader riveted there for a few more seconds before going on to the next page.
In my case, it was just intuitive. It just felt right at the time. That one image that you mentioned, with the couple kissing, that seemed particularly satisfying to me. Once I accepted the idea that I was actually describing my actual life to the public, I realized that there were going to be questions about my adolescent social life. Didn’t he have friends outside of school? Was he constantly at home? I wanted to talk about that in a very detailed way, because everything that happens to you is important, but every time I tried to do it, it interrupted the arc of the story. To sum it all up in that one page just seemed right. That couple in the front are David’s ideal of what might happen to him, some good looking guy who gets lucky with some good looking chick. And there’s David in the middle ground feeling sorry for himself, the invisible man while the party goes on in the background. It really felt like the event and it felt right.
Another great image, which a lot of people have commented on, is that of the young David somersaulting into blank piece of paper. It was such a perfect image. Where did that come from?
It’s a visual metaphor. Diving into an imaginary world. It’s just the way I think. Again, it just felt intuitively right.
You mentioned that you think in images, and in “Stitches,” you write about your parents having their own languages. You also show that you and your brother each found an outlet and a language which didn’t involve talking, as well.
Art was my language, but getting sick was also a language. A lot of people, including my editor and my agent, seemed to think the theme of the book was that David was going to have this apotheosis through art and rise above his problems. I always resisted that. I’m still not able to be real articulate about why that is.
Art has always been an intrinsic part of my life. It’s so natural to me. I’ve been drawing since I was two. Why does somebody continue that? Everybody makes a mark on a piece of paper, but not everybody does it for the rest of their lives. Maybe it’s because I’ve always just taken it so for granted that I just don’t see that as my salvation. I just don’t. I think the fact that my analyst loved me was more significant to me in my life. That’s what saved my life. It wasn’t art. My analyst encouraged my art, which was great, but it wasn’t art that gave me self-confidence. It was someone reaching out to me.
Did singing make Michael Jackson any less miserable a human being? I don’t think so. It gave him an outlet. Whether it saved his life or not, I don’t know.
Why did you end up telling your story as an autobiography rather than fictionalizing it?
Why do it as a book at all? It’s what I do. I needed money to live on for a couple of years while I was trying to work on this. It was really an act of self therapy more than anything else. I show my agent Holly McGhee everything I do that I’m halfway satisfied with. I really believe in this woman, and she believes in me. When she gets excited about something, I listen. I sent her a chapter of this thing ten years ago when I was writing it out as prose. She said, this is going to be your novel.
Of course, that was your question, why a memoir and not a novel. First of all, I’m not very good at making stuff up in a very complex way. I’ve written six picture books, but those are very condensed stories. More like poetry. I really wanted to examine my own life in a very close way and in a very truthful way. I needed to, because I was still suffering dreams and displaying some behaviors that were erratic and unreasonable. They showed me that I was really, on some level, still a troubled adolescent. To put all that into a metaphor I guess would have been much easier on some level, but I was after some form of verisimilitude that would finally tell the truth to me about what happened to me. It didn’t feel right to do it as fiction.
The dreams you write about in “Stitches” were portrayed so vividly, which, for those of us who don’t remember many dreams, was fascinating to read. Do you really remember your dreams so clearly, or was that a bit of artistic license?
I had a good teacher in the interpretation of dreams. My analyst used to get frustrated with me because I looked at them as great stories. He would say, David they mean something in terms of your own life. I starting keeping track of them as stories, sometimes just for the imagery. My dreams are really vivid, and generally they’re always in color and tactile as well. I remember my analyst being totally blown away by my description of myself walking down a dirt road in my dream, and the way the puffs of dust would come up under my sneakers. He’d never heard anybody describe such detail in their dreams. I keep a dream diary assiduously, whereas I very rarely write down what happens to me during the day. All the dreams in the book are real. Those are maybe the most real parts of the book to me. I feel my dreams are such a continuum of my life.
In “Imogene’s Antlers,” a picture book that you wrote and illustrated, it felt as if the dilemmas and conflicts and issues of your childhood were treated in a lighthearted and fanciful manner. Was that you consciously dealing with these issues?
When I wrote “Imogene” I wouldn’t have said that I was trying to deal with anything. I was just trying to make a good story. What’s interesting to me is which stories stay in the drawer and which actually become books. I only write one of these things every several years, and I think there’s got to be something pure about the story. There’s a purity about “Imogene” and the others. That’s why there’s so few of them. I can’t come up with something like that every week. I just can’t. I have to somehow satisfy that urge I have for verisimilitude I was talking about before. It’s a very hard thing to be a slave to, but I am. I could make a lot more money if I could just crank out more stories, but I can’t. I keep writing ideas down but I have to keep turning them over again and again to shape them.
You illustrate books for other people in between your own projects. How do you decide which offers to take and which to turn down?
I can see a thread running through the stories that I’ve illustrated for other people. They are, in some way or another, a story I’ve wished that I could have done myself. That’s what lends passion to your work, especially when you have to read the damn thing three times a week for a year or two. There’s got to be something that you feel personal towards, not just an excuse to draw pictures again.
The books that I’ve done with my wife Sarah [Stewart], I think, are some of the best picture books I’ve done. They’re also the hardest. I’ve gotten quite a reputation off those books in particular, and I think the reason is because Sarah and I come at things with a different philosophy. Even though the books have been really really hard for me to illustrate, they come out as a marriage of two visions of life that, when I reread them, are very satisfying. A couple years have gone by since I did the last one, so I’ve forgotten all the pain of doing it, but I look at it now and it really works. So in that case, I did them because they were Sarah’s and I love her and I wanted to make her book as good as possible.
You mentioned in the afterward that if you had told the story from your mother’s perspective, it would have been completely different, but that you didn’t know how else to tell the story.
At one point, I tried to make it from her perspective. I thought, I didn’t have a difficult life compared to her. This ought to be her story. I soon gave that up because I don’t know enough about her. She didn’t leave behind enough clues.
This may sound a little strange, but I had to shape what information I had about her to protect her image as much as I could. She really comes off to most people as such a hateful character. I’m glad that you could see the complexities that are there, but if I had included everything I knew about her life, it would have erased all sympathy from her as a character. I just had to be careful about what I was presenting about her. I did what you noticed before, I summed it all up in one image. That scene where she’s sitting up on her elbows in bed
You mentioned your agent Holly earlier, you’ve also worked with Robert Weil at Norton who has himself worked with a number of artists, including Will Eisner and Robert Crumb. How helpful were they in terms of shaping the narrative?
Both Holly and Bob were helpful. Neither of them shaped the book, even though I pleaded with them to. There were two phone calls that were wonderful for me to get, but also probably the most worrisome parts of making the book. I had been flooding Holly’s desk with stuff for months, and finally she called me up one day. She said, this is great, it’s just wonderful what you’re doing, I want you to keep going, but I have to remind you of something. Books have themes. Books have chapters and things that make them comprehensible to a reader. I immediately shot back at her, because she had touched a sore point, a lot of graphic novels don’t seem to. She said, yours will. I knew she was right but that didn’t help.
When I sold the book to Norton, it was still in a pretty disorganized state, but Bob Weil loved it so much and had such faith in it that he bought it as-is. He finally put his foot down and said, David, just shut your door and stop showing this around to everybody who walks into your studio. You’ve got to sequester yourself and make your book. Nobody can do it for you. That was what I needed to hear. It was hard though.
So the structure was the hardest part of making the book for you?
I think it was. I’ve got boxes and boxes in my studio that are filled with notes and discarded scenes. I suppose it would be interesting to go through it some day. There might be another book or two in there. The final edits were very much involved in cutting as much text as possible. Getting rid of as many extraneous bits and just trying to streamline the thing.
Talking about the process of going through your memory is not something everybody’s called upon to do. It was a task I called myself to. It often felt ridiculous and futile, but in the end it did come together in a way that’s very pleasing. I don’t regret anything about it. Every time I reread it I feel it works
There’s one very interesting choice in the book that stands out in particular. The therapist you spoke of earlier is not portrayed as a human like the rest of the characters. Instead, you drew him as the white rabbit from “Alice in Wonderland.” Why?
He wanted to know the same thing. A couple weeks ago, I called him up after he’d read the book and he said, “David I loved it. I read it three times. I just have one question, why did you make me a bunny?” [Laughs] I said, “Harold, it’s not a bunny, you’re the white rabbit.” He said, “I know, but it’s still a bunny.” I said, “Don’t get too Freudian about it!” [Laughs]
I made him the white rabbit for a couple reasons. One, there’s nothing more boring to illustrate than psychoanalysis. I wanted to introduce some kind of element of fantasy. A good friend of mine suggested making him a little fairy sitting on your shoulder talking into your ear. I thought that was a great idea, but it didn’t feel right. I started thinking about fanciful characters, and the white rabbit came to mind. He’s so perfect as the usher into the world of the unconscious, which he is in Alice. That’s what my analyst was for me.
It does signal a transition in your life. It may be a fanciful image but it’s also a jarring one that makes it clear that your day to day life is about to become something else. To go through the details of your life, was there anyone like your brother who you relied on for help in terms of checking details?
I actually did go to my brother for help on some things. I wanted to know more about his life, because I knew nothing. He was seventeen when he got out, and he’s three years older than me. I wanted to know where he went afterwards, because I wanted to include more of that in the book. Maybe this is one of the flaws of the book, but my brother just sort of disappears from the picture. Again, I felt to include all of that stuff would detract from the trajectory of the story, so I didn’t use the information he gave me. I also wanted to let him know that I was doing the book. I didn’t want to just spring it on him. That didn’t seem fair. I also wanted to let him know that the book wasn’t about him. I didn’t have any right to write about him.
How did he respond when he finally read it?
He loved it, which was wonderful for me because he and I had not had a civil conversation for fifty years.
We were dismissive of one another. We now think that we didn’t want to have a relationship mainly because anything that reminded either of us of our early years was just more than we could bear. And now my brother and I talk, which is really nice.
Having spent years on this project and facing these events from your childhood, have your thoughts towards your parents changed?
I certainly understand them as human beings in a way that I couldn’t before I made this book. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I now see my mother more clearly, and I can understand her impulses, her drives, her rage. Having been a parent myself, I understand how one can be can continue to be selfish and neglectful of your children’s needs, unable to identify with them. God knows what she went though with that woman she had as a mother. That’s why I loved that one frame in the bedroom scene where she claps her hand over my mouth and turns and you can suddenly see her eyes and the fear in them. It was little indications like that that made me realize how terrible her childhood must have been.
After the book was done, Bob Weil tried to steer me towards talking about my parents as if they had done the best that they could. I guess I would agree. I have to remember that not everybody was lucky enough to have some form of psychoanalysis when they were fifteen years old. I don’t really think of what I had as analysis because I was too young to appreciate it. I look at it now as I suddenly had this perfect parent who helped me crawl through the muck of adolescence in a way that my parents were absolutely incapable of doing. I think that’s the right word. Incapable. They weren’t capable of raising children.
You mentioned at the beginning of this interview how distracting things can be with the book release and promotion and events. Have you started pondering the next project?
I’m working on it every day in my brain, and whenever I can get a break, I’m making sketches. I don’t know if it will ever come to anything, but I’d love to do another graphic novel. I’d like to do a novel next time. I had a dream that I turned into a kids book once, and I’d like to make it closer to what the actual dream was. Get back to the gritty elements that were actually in the dream, because the kids book had restrictions that are put on you and that you put on yourself when you’re working for children. I don’t know, though. I’ve described it to my agent and my editor, and I know that I’m going to have to audition it in pictures just as I did with “Stitches” to get anybody really excited about it.
I’m looking forward to that, actually. That’s where the difficulty will be for me. That will be the first big push I make on this, when l decide I’m going to do this book and I’m going to have to get it into a form. At this point, it seems to me that my book has a great idea. It has an ending. That’s good. At least I have something to work on.