Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A conversation with Caron Lee Cohen, author of Broom, Zoom!

Illustrators don’t necessarily get to know the authors of the books they work on. I consider myself very lucky, then, to have met or even befriend most of the writers I have collaborated with: Karla Kuskin, Emily Jenkins, Lore Segal...
A few months ago, after illustrating Caron Lee Cohen’s Broom, Zoom!, Caron kindly came to one of my Hey, Rabbit! signings in Brooklyn and we have become friends since. Caron is the author of a bunch of picture books and easy readers, including How Many Fish? and Three Yellow Dogs, this last one illustrated by the great Peter Sís.

Caron Lee Cohen

Recently, Caron and I have had an email exchange in which we shared thoughts about Broom, Zoom!, bare landscapes, and other things. I’m posting it here hoping that others will also find it interesting and entertaining. (To see more Broom, Zoom!-related posts, go here.)

Here it goes:

In one of our first email exchanges, you told me: "I was astonished that the characters live on a bare cliff, a perfect match for an interior landscape of my own!  I have a book where outlaw-dogs live on a bare cliff - in Death Valley."

Bare landscapes and cliffs (and empty interiors as well) are always been present in my drawings, since I was a kid. I guess that this fascination comes from different places, and I can name a few: 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings, like that beautiful Saint Anthony by the Maestro dell'Osservanza now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York;
old comic strips, especially George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Elzie C. Segar's Popeye; a movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini, "Uccellacci e Uccellini" ("The Hawks and the Sparrows"), which I saw when I was 7 or 8 years old. And also the neighborhood where I grew up, in Milan in the '60s and '70s, which at the time was at the edge of the city, with many empty lots, where herds of sheep would still walk by a couple of times a year. Or maybe it's just easier to draw empty landscapes, and not worry about buildings, forests, roads...

Maestro dell'Osservanza
George Herriman

Can you tell me more about that "interior landscape of your own"? What was the Death Valley book?

I'll get to those questions, but those rich influences that shaped your fascination with bare landscapes are worth a closer look.  So I was delighted to get your e-mail with a few images of what you'd mentioned.  They blew me away!

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Uccellacci e Uccellini

The image from The Hawks and the Sparrows - of a father and son conversing with a black crow while journeying on a road that goes endlessly into the distance - is potent and hypnotizing.  In the Saint Anthony painting, the richly robed saint and the spooky bare trees create a haunting scene. And the Krazy Kat comic image with spindly cliffs bursting out of a flat landscape and a two-tone moon, makes a zany picture.  A painting, a film and a cartoon, spanning 500 years, and so enormously different!  But after much looking, I was struck by similarities.  All three have roads that wind around from the foreground to the background.   And on these roads are characters who all happen to be directing their attention sideways!   That's gotta be a fluky resemblance.   But another resemblance isn't a fluke.  In each of these, I see unexpected, or out of the ordinary elements, fantasy elements - like the unreal trees along the road where Saint Anthony walks.  The trees gripped me while I wondered, pleasantly perplexed, what they were about.  The fantasy elements in all of these have a lot to do with the spell they cast on me.  The three images provoke thought and emotion - enough to make lasting impressions.

A couple of lasting impressions that found their way into a book of mine, are nowhere near as fascinating as Renaissance art.  My 50’s childhood--after the fairy tales--was loaded with cartoons (Popeye was my fave!) where characters routinely fall off cliffs and spring back alive, and Westerns where landscapes are bare and desert-like, with hills, canyons and rolling tumbleweed.  A few decades later I got going on the bare cliff book, Bronco Dogs, the story of cartoonish outlaw dogs in the old-time West.  They needed a hideout.   I looked on a map.  There was Death Valley!   And Comma-Ti-Yi-Yippi-Yippi-Yea Peak was born - a sizzling cliff in a terrain so perilous, no critter alive would chase them there.   It's the only home the dogs have, but the cliff is a seesaw - the downside, is falling off of it; the upside, is sleeping under the stars.  This landscape with its multitude of trials, fits them like a glove.  It fulfills their needs for better or for worse.   I always grow fond of my characters.  I adore them.  In this case the dogs and their landscape are inextricably linked: I adore the cliff too.  It has a place in my imagination.  In that e-mail, I called it an interior landscape of my own.   And what a surprise when I saw the cliff landscape in Broom, Zoom!

Broom, Zoom!

By the way, the broom in the book: I have the same one at home. I've had it for 35 years.  I've never checked to see if it flies.

Do you feel fondness, or maybe you'd use another word, for projects you work on?  You've said you enjoyed working on Broom, Zoom! very much.  Are there any particular reasons you can mention?

Well, the text was so perfect and minimal, that I felt absolutely free to give my own, personal interpretation. Even in the creation of the characters, I knew that I could do whatever I wanted, because there was no clear description of how they were supposed to look like. That’s always a blessing for an illustrator, or at least for me. I felt fondness for them right away, after reading your words, even before drawing the first sketches.

It's wonderful to hear you say that!  About feeling free because of the text.  That's absolutely how I felt when I saw the art. 
You sent me on a journey as a result of your questions; and in the process, I've given quite a bit of thought to the art in Broom, Zoom!  And now, another surprise!  I see substantial differences in our cliffs.  My story is a fantasy with talking dogs, cows and ghosts.  But Comma-Ti-Yi-Yippi-Yippi-Yea Peak is somewhere near Badwater in the sink of the Amargosa River, surrounded by volcanic craters, then hills and canyons, and finally salt flats on the fringe of Death Valley.  That's the real terrain.  That fantasy cliff seems pretty conventional at the moment, while the cliff in Broom, Zoom! is completely unconventional, creative and original. You've brought elements together in an unexpected way. And what would be expected, is omitted.  Little Witch and Little Monster live in a world with no grocery stores, no chairs, no table . . . no one else.  There's a broom, because they need it.  There's a sky, because they fly it.  There's no road, because they don't need one.  This art is not limited by any real-world givens.  Little Witch and Little Monster don't have the pressures of a technologically complex and hectic world.  They won't grow up too fast on this cliff.  As a writer I rejoiced at seeing this, because their world is pure.  You've made them sweet and lovable.  They are beautifully naive, free to develop from their own good natures.  I'd enjoy exploring how their sweet natures would play out.  Like the images you sent, where fantasy increased my interest - the world in Broom, Zoom! works magic, drawing me in and charming me. Unlike those images, where the fantasy can be jarring - in Broom, Zoom! the unexpected comes into the world seamlessly!   The result is whimsical and dear.

Your art for the book is almost exclusively bare.  So where it isn't bare, draws my attention and makes me wonder.  The house has striking features--a back porch, smoke from the chimney and more.  It hints at being alive! Can you tell me why you've developed the house in particular?

As I was reading your manuscript for the first time, I knew I wanted the house to be looking like a witch house, but small and gentle. It’s a childish haunted house, the same way the witch and the monster are little kids. Maybe when the three grow up they’ll be scary and threatening, who knows, but for now they’re just sweet and innocent.
I think it’s interesting to see how such a small house can have a potentially never-ending inside, with huge rooms and no ceilings in sight.
One of the good things of doing this kind of drawings is that you can take so many poetic licenses. You can create worlds with their own rules. It’s the same thing with writing, I guess.

How did you learn to write?

I learned to write, because I longed to write.  And it was quite a challenge.  As a child, I always created stories, but I struggled with reading and writing.  Spelling was my worst enemy.  In high school I was praised for my ideas, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't overcome the spelling and grammar obstacles.  At 35 I started a story, and when the first character needed to speak, I realized I didn't know where to put the quotation marks!   I got two used high school grammar books and read them all the way through, taking notes, writing examples, doing practice exercises.   After grammar, I read about story structure, character, suspense, and all the rest.   I read lots of fiction and scrutinized how stories worked.  I began to write.  Then I joined a workshop at The New School [in New York City] led by the legendary Bunny Gabel, whose exceptional guidance has resulted in many published children's books among devoted workshop members.  Of course, I learned to write by writing, and to write what matters by listening to my imagination.

Your writing has being rightly praised for its simplicity and minimalism, and everybody agrees that simple doesn't mean easy, but is it really true? Are we sure it's not just an excuse to be lazy? How long does it take you to write a book like Broom, Zoom!?


Simple isn't simply putting down a few words.  It's getting a real story into just a few words.  It's cutting back as far as possible to achieve a small text and vocabulary.  The value of each word needs to be weighed.  A small story feels like a puzzle.  I make up my own rules, and try many solutions.  I want the best sound combinations, repetition, rhythm and symmetry.  I keep working until the story falls into place with simplicity and grace.  That's elegance.  It isn't easy; it's challenging.  It isn't lazy; it's tireless.  Simple is no more lazy than bare landscapes are easy.  These choices are dictated by our imaginations.

As for the time it takes to write a book, it takes all the years of my life.  I have a book coming out next year, One Was Gone, with about 40 lines, that I began writing 25 years ago.  There was a lot of excess in the early manuscript; it had knots that I didn't know how to untie.  It was a story about a lamb at that time.  Now it's about a bird!   Editors had seen it and offered suggestions.  I became more proficient over the years: I learned how to untie some knots.  The shortest time it took me to write a book, was 15 minutes.  But those few minutes were the culmination of education and experience.  I was a doctoral student at Columbia TC, studying how children learn to read, and in the midst of poring over material for one of the courses--1000 pages of it--my patience gave way, and I stopped.  Instantly an idea rushed through my head.  I jotted it down; it was Three Yellow Dogs.  Another book took one day to write.  Another took a week.  Others have taken years.  Plenty are still in process after many years, and some will never be completed.  I have a lot more knots to untie.
There's a little more to say about simplicity.  With only 54 words in the text and a sixteen word vocabulary, Broom, Zoom! works for the newest readers, and charms toddlers as well.  But as slim as it is, it is not slight.  Reviewers have hailed its theme of conflict resolved by cooperation, but there's more.  The conflict is over sweeping the floor versus flying the sky.  At first, the floor sweeper doesn't even see what's enthralling outside the window.   But the sky flyer is able to put off her desire.  In just a few words there's a valuable message: work diligently, but don't lose sight of your dreams!

1 comment:

  1. Very nice post, with some great insight into the creative process. It inspired me to pick up the book for my daughter and we are really enjoying it.