Tim Decker is, quite frankly, the best author/illustrator you have likely not heard of and that is an absolute shame. His deeply evocative picture books with their spare but powerful illustrations have stayed with me in ways I never expected. From The Letter Home to Run Far, Run Fast and especially For Liberty, they tell quiet stories about significant moments and command your attention from start to finish. Are they for children? Yes - my son love all of them. But they are equally for adults and truly do not know an age limit. They are special, more than anything, and that is why I continue to treasure them.
Tim's latest book is a YA graphic novel, The Punk Ethic. It is an illustrated novel (yea!) that tells the story of a musically inclined and deeply thoughtful teenage boy (Martin) and his friends, (smart, silly, foolish, perfect teenagers through and through), and the coolest girl ever (bass playing Holly). Martin wants to make a difference and that means making a lot of music and maybe, hopefully, becoming more than just friends with Holly. The ending is....amazing and unexpected and intense. It is also, I think, really something special. I hope The Punk Ethic helps Tim get the attention he deserves and also brings a lot of new readers to his stellar backlist.
CM: Your picture books cover such different subjects; were you interested in the wars and plague era for a long time or did you come to these with a desire to write/illustrate a book about them?
TD: I've always loved history, even when I was a little kid. I drew nothing but dinosaurs and WWII airplanes. At seven, I was going to be an archeologist. As a big kid, I can say that I'm interested in everything under the sun with the exception of practical mathematics, which bores me to tears. That said, my choice of subjects has more to do with how I feel about the current state of the world and less with my interest in history. The setting for my book is the sugar coating that hides my thoughts about contemporary issues. Right from the beginning, I've been concerned with how children process the over whelming mass of noise that is part of living in our media saturated time. Even if parents, educators or adults don't notice it, children are absorbing as much as they possibly can from the constant din produced by our televisions, radios and computers. Realizing that is now simply a fact of life, I set out to write books for children that address issues which others assume, incorrectly, have nothing to do with the world that children inhabit.
When I wrote The Letter Home, the war in Iraq had just turned from an idiotic invasion to an untenable occupation. It didn't take a genius to see that situation was going to become far more brutal and costly. For some reason, because I'm optimistic or naïve, I never expected to live through such turmoil. Which is just foolish, I guess. Because I'm an artist, making things is how I assert my opinion. So I wrote an anti-war book. I was working at a bookstore so I knew the sort of stuff that made it to shelves and I knew there was no way I could write an anti-war book about the current conflict because no one would publish it or buy it. I said to myself, when was the last really costly, mostly useless war that led to all kinds of social, economic and cultural problems in the Middle East and beyond? Ah... The Great War. What a mess that was... and fortunately for my purposes, how visually striking it was.
Run Far, Run Fast is me talking about noble and ignoble behavior, something which is hard to see in contemporary life, but stands out rather starkly in a world gone mad which was exactly what happened in the wake of the pestilence. For Liberty was my reaction to the Tea Party and other faux "grassroots" political groups that litter American culture and yet seem to know so little about the deceptively complicated philosophies that define our government. The Punk Ethic turned into way to express my ire about the nature of modern war and how acting locally can, possibly, change the world for the better. I guess that all of my books are written to show that the everything in the world is composed in shades of gray.
CM: In RUN FAR, RUN FAST and THE LETTER HOME you are writing fictional tales - characters from your own imagination in historical circumstances but with the freedom to create their own stories within that framework. In FOR LIBERTY you are dealing with very real people however and one of the more famous events in American history. Did you approach FOR LIBERTY differently then the previous books, was there more difficulty in crafting the story or the illustrations?
TD: I did think of For Liberty in very different manner than my first two books. Since I was drawing people who actually existed, I didn't feel as though I could get away with my mouthless, fingerless characters, despite the fact that I loved working with such stylized figures. To do justice to the people who were caught in the events of the massacre, I treated them as specific individuals and not as a sort of "everyman" as I had in the other books. The reader of the For Liberty isn't supposed to feel as though they can become a character in the story. They are to feel as though they are eye witnesses to a chaotic moment. In order to pull that off, I made it seem more "real", for lack of a better term. The illustrations are so specific that you can, if you want to, use the silhouette images from the trial portion of the book and match them to the British soldiers in the massacre scenes. As for the writing of For Liberty, it wasn't difficult. I did research, I went to Boston and I wrote the most straight forward account I could given that it was a messy event that happened more than two hundred years ago.
CM: Let's talk about the illustrations. In the case of each of your picture books the text and illustrations blend powerfully though in different ways. In THE LETTER HOME the pictures are almost delicate, in FOR LIBERTY they are commanding and nearly leap off the page while in RUN FAR the graphic novel-ish design serves to tell a lot of the story absent in the text. Did you approach the illustrations differently or did they evolve this way as you wrote and drew?
TD: I can't lie, part of the change has to do with being better at pen and ink. When I made my first book, I had little experience with the medium. I choose it because I wanted something that was cheap, reproduced extremely well and would have been inexpensive to print myself because I really didn't think anyone would want to publish a picture book about WWI. Since I didn't know what I could do with ink, I was cautious. I drew The Letter Home twice before I was as happy enough to hand it off. After eight years of constant pen and ink work, I'm fairly confident that I can draw anything I imagine. That confidence allows for images I would never have tried when I was winging it.
However, I do change how I work on the illustrations for each project because the text is always so different. In my working method, the writing comes first. Sure, I sketch whenever I'm inspired, but until I have a fairly finished text, I don't spend a lot time planning the illustrations. My thinking is that a book is like an A frame house, the text being one side of the house, the illustrations being the other. If I make the right balance, the building stands; if not, it topples.
The text for The Letter Home was a brief poem, so the images had to carry most of the actual story. For Run Far, Run Fast the text pretty much focused on the characters, which meant that the illustrations provided the setting. With For Liberty, the text carried both the narrative and the setting, which meant the sole purpose of the drawings was to create an emotional context. (As an aside, that emotional context was based almost entirely on a sense of claustrophobia. I remember sitting in Boston and imagining where all the buildings were in the 1770's version of the city and realizing just how small that space was. Then I imagined a handful of soldiers and the hundred poor suckers in that mob all crammed in that space on a moonless, winter night... The fear and confusion during those fifteen minutes must have been palpable.) Finally, there's The Punk Ethic, the hardest book I've illustrated because it took me years to figure out what I was doing. After many experiments, it dawned on me that because it's a novel, it doesn't need a lot of images. It's the opposite of The Letter Home, but it seems to hold up remarkably well.
CM: And I have to ask...your books have a very unique appeal. They are not traditional picture books as designed for very young children with their spare illustrations and older themes. Have you struggled at all to find an audience? Who is your dream readership?
TD: Ah... finding an audience. Ugh. The funny thing is that, nine times out of ten, when a kid or kid-at-heart takes the time to read through one of my books, they get completely sucked in. I truly think of everyone as my audience. But I'm probably a marketing person's nightmare. I do know that my books have been used by pre-schools and college professors alike. That makes me happy.
On a creative level, I am my audience, or rather, me as a child. I never liked children's books when I was a kid. I'm fairly certain that they didn't appeal to me because my older brother and sisters had more influence over my development than whatever book was sitting on the Caldecott shelf in the school library. Instead of watching Scooby Doo, which came on a 5 every week day, my brother and I watched M*A*S*H. Instead of listening to Sesame Street songs, my sister and I listened to the double record set of Pink Floyd's The Wall. My friends were all excited about Narnia books, whereas I was excited about the new issue of National Geographic. Consequentially, I never thought about children's literature until the late 1990's, when my girlfriend at the time bought Tibet: Through the Red Box by Peter Sis. I read that book and thought, where were was this when I was little? It took a few years for that notion to lead me to writing my own story, but ever since, I've been all about making the coolest book possible.
I don't think I have a dream reader, but I do have a dream situation for my reader. My books are made to be read during a quiet moment.
Once, I made the mistake of doing a story time reading for four-year olds at a local bookstore. It was a total disaster. Not because I don't read well or understand how kids work, kids and I get along famously; but it only took a page or two to realize that reading my book to a group destroyed the intimacy which is required to make the emotional core of the story function. My books are small dramas, like plays performed for an audience of one (or two if there's someone reading it to a child). You can't mess with that intimacy or everything falls apart.
I put hours into every illustration because I want to make drawings that are so interesting or intense that a child falls into them. I want them to have a magical adventure inside their mind, where my words or maybe just my illustrations spark all kinds of thoughts or questions. No one blows through my books as if the stories are mindless entertainment, they have to bring their brain and meet me half way. Fortunately, the innate curiosity of children works to my advantage. That's what makes the effort worth while, knowing that the boy or the girl sitting over there on that tiny, plastic chair, flipping through my book, is actually in a different world. If I do my job correctly, that's what happens.
CM: I loved your final page in FOR LIBERTY. Were you planning that one from the very beginning of that book? John Adams has never seemed so....noble as he does in your book. He's not the one you usually think of when you list American patriots. How did you come to write of Adams and whatever prompted you to write about the massacre in such an unusual (and more realistic) manner? (As you can tell - this book is one of my all time favorites. :)
TD: You can't talk about the massacre and not talk about John Adams. I'd always liked him because he was such a prickly fellow but I didn't any know more about him than most people. Then I kicked into research mode and quickly became fascinated because of his role as the defense attorney for the British soldiers. I mean, here's a guy who realized that liberty is never the property of anyone or any government and found himself in the unique position in history to illustrate that profound point. If there is a standard by which a people can be measured to prove their adherence to the principles of liberty, then that standard has to apply equally to everyone: beggars and elites, friend or foe, across the board. Of course, John Adams' contemporaries were just as fractious and short-sighted as most Americans walking the street today, so I thought retelling his very noble lesson on civil liberty was appropriate and needed.
The final illustration came to me about halfway through the layout process. I love unresolved endings. They force the reader to wonder about that next page that isn't there. I needed an unresolved image for the massacre book and John Adams was the guy to give it to me because he, more than anyone else in his time, could imagine what was in store for the colonists. He knew the future wasn't going to be good. And yet, he also understood the price that needed to be paid just to have the that chance to try a new form of government/society. I'm still not sure where his faith in humanity came from, yet he had it in spades. But there must have been some seriously dark times when he was alone and trying to make sense of the all the crazy. I think any thoughtful person, child or adult, can relate to that kind of moment.
CM: Why did you decide to transition to a graphic novel for your latest book?
TD: I started writing The Punk Ethic at the same time I started work on plague book, in 2005. My excuse at the time was that I wanted to do a story about music because I was tired of reading and writing about heaps and heaps of death. Of course, the punk story would have its own dark edge, but I didn't know that then.
On any given day, I write more than I draw. That didn't used to be the case. In college and the years following, I was a drawing machine, but I drew without purpose. I was looking for Art and didn't find it. So, being burned out and rather poor, I gave my art supplies away and started writing. I'd always written terrible, angst-y poetry and lyrics, but this was different. I dove headlong into fiction. Writing was my sole creative outlet for five years. That said, I didn't think I would get published if I didn't add my drawing skills to the mix because I didn't have any writing street cred, whereas, I had a degree in drawing. Somehow, that seemed important at the time. The funny thing is that I don't draw anything like I did when I wanted to be Rembrandt, before I became a writer, which is great because I rather like the images I make now when I just want to be me.
CM: And I wanted to know about your own music background and how that fit (if at all) into the narrative for The Punk Ethic.
TD: My musical background, hahaha... uh sigh. By the age of 10, I'd quit the piano and the clarinet but I'd learned to read music. I went to a small, public high school where I was involved in just about everything. I was in all the choruses, theater performances as well as nonsense like sports, student government, school paper, etc. But like any teenager, music suffused every facet of life.
During my freshman year of college, I bought my first guitar. It was love at first sight. I can't remember learning to play it, like one day I was trying to tune it, the next I was strumming away. It was 1994 and everyone was starting bands, so that's what my friends and I did. It was easy to find places to play too. My early twenties were spent either writing songs or playing, I have no idea how I managed to do anything else. We played anywhere and everywhere, which was extremely fun and character building.
Then everyone else grew up and got real jobs while I wandered around wondering what to do with a BFA in drawing. I wrote libretti for a friend who is a talented composer, which allowed me to be pretend that I was still cool. When I landed in NYC, I found myself playing for children's musical programs and other kinds of theatrical performances.
I still play everyday. There's literally always a guitar within reach and I have a tiny, analog recording "studio". At present, I'm putting all my passions together: writing songs for children about science and history, with lots of distorted guitar, for a fake band, created with one of my oldest friends, for which I will draw a weekly web comic and make videos for youtube. Apparently, I still have rock star dreams. They're just smarter dreams.
All of my experiences played into the writing of The Punk Ethic. Some literally, like the time a cute girl put a Band Aid on my finger for reasons that remain a mystery, some indirectly, like how a person goes about putting on a show despite a myriad of obstacles. Odds are this will not be my last story with music playing a prominent position.
CM: So, who did you channel to get this story and how long was it really part of you before it became real?
TD: The story of The Punk Ethic revealed itself rather quickly. As soon as the notion to write about music popped into my head, I started. I'm not a linear writer. I imagine a scene and start typing until I've squeezed everything into it. That causes me to think of another scene, which I then write. Once I have a pile of scenes, I can see how they relate to one another, then write scenes to sew it together. It's a messy, organic process that requires brutal editing.
But as to where the story came from, I don't know, my Muse I guess. But the attitude of the story came from an author event in 2005. A new, YA author declared "all fiction was wish fulfillment" and that pissed me off. Then I read said author's first novel, which was filled with so many of the clichés of teen stories that it seemed rather like the implausible dream of a delusional, thirty-something writer than a story about, or even for, kids. So I wrote an anti-wish fulfillment story where everything is unresolved, in which no one is easy to label, where the cool outsider kid never thinks of himself as cool or an outsider or much at all, where the cute girl does not get naked and where the humor of the characters is like actual teen humor which is based on dealing or deflecting cruelty rather than wit.
As far as content goes, I steal from everyone I've ever known. Then I make up stuff that seems as real as all the real bits. My past, though colorful, is pretty much devoid of trauma. All my trauma was/is silly and romantic. Strangely enough, because of that, it took me a long time to understand that not everyone had such an easy time during their adolescence. My normal was not the norm, not by a long shot. With that in mind, I thought that if I was going to start a conversation with kids in the maelstrom of high school, which is how I think about writing, it would be best to show that by dispelling some of the "fiction" about the world they produce in their wacked-out brains, they might be able to understand the people around them. Maybe that would make things easier.
See the Master Schedule with links & quotes to other Blog Blast interviews here. (I'll be updating this continuously all week!)
[All these images belong to Timothy Decker!]