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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Hester Bass' The Secret World of Walter Anderson

While you may not have heard of the Artist Walter Anderson, before long you are sure to hear about the book about him: THE SECRET WORLD OF WALTER ANDERSON. Written by Hester Bass and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, this one will give you chills. The words and images are both so beautifully done, it's a good thing there's lots of water on the cover - perfect space for the stickers this book will receive. It's already been named a SIBA Okra Pick.

     Truly, it's a unique and outstanding work. And the story behind the book is just as fascinating. Today I interview the author, Hester Bass.

Q.    I had the pleasure of hearing the whole story of how you came to know the Anderson family and Walter Anderson, but can you share with my readers?

A.    In 1982, my family was living in Georgia, and a friend in Mississippi sent us a copy of Horizon magazine with an article about Walter Anderson. I’d never heard of him yet I was instantly captivated. Anderson’s work is so vibrant and lively, his life so full of adventures that sound like mythology. I wanted to know everything about him.
     Fast forward ten years and we visit the newly-opened Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. I was charmed by this gracious place at the edge of the Gulf, surrounded by the art of the extended Anderson family who has lived there since the 1920s. Four years later, through a series of serendipitous events, we moved to Ocean Springs when my husband became the director of the museum.
     For the next seven years, we enjoyed getting to know the Andersons, trips to Horn Island, and being immersed in the culture of the coast that so inspired Walter Anderson and countless other artists. He died in 1965 so I never got to meet him, but I would have loved to have that opportunity.
     Anderson has been called the “Van Gogh of the South” and as the “Islander” compared to the “Inlander” Charles Burchfield as the documenter of a particular region but, to me, he stands alone. I can’t think of another American artist quite as diverse and prolific as Walter Anderson.

Q.    Not only did you write about an amazing artist - but you got to work with an amazing artist on this book, E.B. Lewis. (He also illustrated another of my faves, My Best Friend by Mary Ann Rodman - a Charlotte Zolotow winner.) Can you share some stories?

A.    Working with E. B. Lewis has been the icing on the cake. Candlewick Press was my first choice as publisher, and when they so kindly asked me who I thought would be a great illustrator, I thought of E. B. Lewis. I felt the book needed a superb watercolorist, someone who would understand this artist’s journey, and I greatly admire E. B.’s treatment of water and changing light conditions, so I was thrilled when he said yes to the project. We’ve enjoyed a rare author-illustrator collaboration and become friends.
     I met E. B. at a conference in 2007. Then in July 2008 we took a road trip to Mississippi so I could introduce him to everybody and he could see what Anderson had seen. E. B. works in what I consider the classical method of illustration in that he sets up every scene in the book with props and models then photographs them to use as reference.
     It was our good fortune that two of Walter Anderson’s children agreed to pose as their parents – the resemblance is striking – and the other two helped us gain access to his cottage and took us to Horn Island. And I took pictures of E. B. taking the photographs so it’s a wonderful window into the process of creating the book.
     Plus, the staff at the museum helped me locate some of the photos of Anderson’s work that illustrate the biographical Author’s Note, and the delightful Candlewickers (as I fondly call them) made every effort to create not just “a” book but the best book possible.
     It’s a testament to the power of everyone working together toward a common goal, and I could not be happier with the end result. I especially love that painting on the cover. E. B. truly captured the joy that Walter Anderson felt rowing that leaky skiff to Horn Island.

Q.    Your path to publication on this book was an interesting one, I'm sure my readers would love to read...

A.    Oh my. It was like living a fairy tale. I wrote the first draft in 1999, hoping to publish a book in time for Walter Anderson’s centennial exhibition, which opened at the Smithsonian in 2003, but I couldn’t make that happen so I put the manuscript in a drawer.
     I’m an active volunteer in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and attend a lot of their conferences but I’d never been to the big one every August in California. In 2006, I saw that my favorite writer was going to be there, and felt I had to be there, too. Hmmm. Didn’t see how I was going to make that happen either.
     Unbeknownst to me, there was a scholarship to the summer conference, I was nominated for it, and was one of two winners that year. (And e, I know you won it this year, so congrats!) I felt like Cinderella going to the ball. Serendipity was my Fairy Godmother, who arranged for this famous Newbery winner and me to be entering the hotel at the same moment. Conversation ensued and he asked me a fateful question: What is the one story you would most like to publish?
     I had an quick answer: I have this picture book biography of this amazing artist in Mississippi and now a lot of his work has been damaged by Katrina and I have just got to publish this book. Send it to me, he graciously requested, and if it’s good, maybe I can help you get it published. One more thing, he continued, in my workshop tomorrow I may want to share my soon-to-be published manuscript in two voices; would you read it with me?
     Well, fast forward to that workshop, and we are reading his words on one microphone to a room full of people. It’s an inventive retelling of…wait for it…Cinderella. And I walk off that stage in a daze realizing that I didn’t just read about Cinderella, at that moment I am Cinderella! I went home, reworked the manuscript, filtering it through everything I had just learned in L.A., and hit send.
     Long story short, the Prince of this tale is Paul Fleischman, whose praise helped me get the agent of my dreams, who helped me get the publisher of my dreams, who helped me publish the story I most wanted to tell. Dreams come true, folks. Never give up.

Q.    Reading THE SECRET WORLD OF WALTER ANDERSON is like taking a very deep, satisfying breath of sweet air. How does it feel to have been able to publish such a remarkable book?

A.    Wow, that’s an awesome review, e – thank you! It is certainly gratifying to watch this book find its audience. Several people have told me that after reading the book, they want to know simply everything about Walter Anderson – the same effect that magazine article had on me all those years ago – and his work richly deserves such attention.
     There are many people to thank for helping the book turn out so beautifully. One of the reasons I admire Candlewick so much is their attention to detail. From their choice of font and paper to their dedication to perfecting the art reproduction, I felt this project was in very good hands from the start. Plus, E. B. Lewis did a masterful job and the illustrations are garnering their own praise. So to answer your question, it feels wonderful.

Q.    How will you be promoting the book and where can people see/enjoy Walter Anderson's work today?

A.    It would be a shorter answer if I tell you what I’m not doing! Candlewick has offered some solid marketing support, and I have been busy booking what I’m calling my Shoestring Tour. That’s a term borrowed from SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and it’s appropriate since I’m challenging myself to do this on as little money as possible.
     Between now and the end of the year, I’ll be visiting seven states for book signings, conferences, and festivals as well as performing author visits at schools and libraries and doing some television, radio, and blog interviews. My schedule is at my website – www.hesterbass.com - under “Appearances.”
     The book was chosen to represent Mississippi in the Pavilion of the States at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, D. C. which means thousands of people will see it, and it’s one of the inaugural 2009 Fall Okra Picks chosen by SIBA booksellers as a “Great Southern Book” which means it will receive special promotional support from SIBA. Both of these distinctions are fantastic honors for the book and I’m grateful it’s receiving this kind of notice.
     The best place to experience Walter Anderson’s work is Ocean Springs, Mississippi where you’ll find the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Shearwater Pottery, and the Anderson family’s shop, Realizations, with Walter Anderson designs silk-screened as prints, cards, and onto clothing.
     There are several museums that collect and exhibit Walter Anderson’s work including the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and more. I vividly recall the first time I saw Anderson’s work in person; it’s worth the drive.
     Thank you so much, e, for inviting me to your blog. This has been fun!

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