1. What prompted you to write this book?
Desperation, really. Surly young children, demanding bedtime stories–that made sense–from sleep-deprived parents. It was that or Baby Shakespeare. You tell me.
2. But . . . with rhyme and meter?
No, that came later. I decided at some point to write it down, one thing led to another, and then after months of staring at a blank screen … I noticed the little power button on the computer. Then I said to myself, ‘well if one day you want to guarantee that no publishers or literary agents will touch your story with a ten-foot pole…’
3. . . . Rhyme and meter?
Bingo. It’s just how it came out. Alas.
4. So do the characters in this story represent any real-life people?
It just so happens one of our daughters–not sayin’ which–had this habit of going to birthday parties and trying to take home all the balloons and party favors she could put in her frosting-encrusted hands and pockets. Helium-filled balloons would escape her grasp and bounce against the ceiling, she’d reach for the string and drop a noisemaker, reach down for it, releasing another balloon, and, well, you get the picture. It was cute, even if she was unwittingly trying to make off with half the loot.
You’re rhyming again.
Sorry. So anyway I thought it would be a nice idea to tell one of those lessons wrapped in a story. But it was too short. Too factual. Rote. Mechanical. Predictable. Maniacal. Unconscionable. Impenetrable. Inscrutable. Diabolical. Supercalifragilistic …
You’re falling asleep.
That’s what the kids used to say. So anyway, the audience demanded embellishments. At some point–toward the end of the bedtime story era in our household (except for the Grinch, which is an annual ritual that between the four of us we can usually render from memory before midnight Christmas Eve), I decided to give it the printed word treatment.
As for the animals, not really. There’s a pretty consistent environmental narrative running through the story, which may have had to do with the stuff I was reading and writing at the time. I’ve spent about three years of my life living and working in Rural West Africa. People’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and knowledge of nature were humbling. There was also a lot of storytelling, and a profound and intuitive grasp of the connections between past, present and future generations. As well as an awareness of the incursions of politics and economics that are transforming their lives in ways that limit their choices. If there is valuable natural capital somewhere in the world, the entrepreneurial class is not simply going to let it be claimed and used sustainably by the locals. But I don’t want you thinking the girl’s role in the story is simply as metaphor for an eco-colonial corporate class. She’s no garden variety interloper, that one. As for the choice of particular fruit and animal ‘feature’ species, that was probably as much about the word structure as it was the biology or botany. Yet another way humans–in this case a writer quixotically searching for the better-if-still-imperfect rhyme and meter–benefit from biodiversity.
5. And how was the collaboration with the illustrator?
Ah, the illustrator. Yes, at first, because I had told the story for so long, I had some of these pictures in my head of what the tree looked like, the girl, the animals. I think Esa was trying to somehow be faithful to that, but since I can’t draw worth a hoot, my ‘pictures’ were the equivalent of stick figures. And I began to realize that she’d been listening to the story for as long as I’d been telling it, and had her own ideas and mental pictures to work off of. With the added benefit that she could actually illustrate. Once we hit that point, it was great fun to see what she would come up with. I’d give her some ideas, but if she had better ones, and she usually did, we went with hers. It happened so fast, it took me a long time to fully appreciate her playful artistry.
The last several pages of the book I think of like someone illustrating stream of consciousness, yet somehow effortlessly anchored in the story line. Yes, there are some words on those pages. But the illustrations carry the story. I can still look at some of her drawings and notice something I hadn’t seen before (girl hopping across a toadstool, the iris’ drifting eye, the head scratchin’ smelly sock scene, evil monkey puppeteer, dexterous elephant trunk, the orchestral chaos of page blueberry). And I set about the mind-numbing task of creating a template for a book using word processing software, made somewhat less wildly inefficient because I happen to have an unhealthy obsession with making tables. They make great virtual, two-dimensional boxes for putting things. In the world of tablesmiths, I’m sure I’m no better than middling. But I’m a bit of a go-to tablemeister in this sparsely populated region of rural Oregon. At least among my office neighbors. Adjacent to my office. One of them. When she’s gone to a conference and I can jimmy the lock on her office door and fix tables in files on her computer. Although the outcome would make an excellent case study for catastrophic layout design, the use of tables reduced the amount of time spent formatting files by at least a thousand hours, thus leaving extra time for the more pleasant task of tinkering with sentences, punctuation, phrases, and sounds.
Of course publishers and agents tell you . . . we’ve never heard of you, but should we ever show a scintilla of interest in your work, we will choose the illustrator from our talent pool. They make their choices based on what’s going to sell, and artists may face a choice between compromise and a paycheck. I can’t really think of anyone who could have come up with the ideas Esa did for these illustrations, because this story was personal, a part of her childhood, something we shared. And then revisited years after the last re-telling. We were a few weeks into it before she began to craft her artistic approach, but then she was diligently, nay furiously, cranking out a picture every day or two. As her style evolved, so did the story. I never expected this project would blur the lines so much between work and play. Should I feel guilty?
Only if you make money.