FAB FOUR FRIENDS - author and illustrator interview!

Susanna Reich and Adam Gustavson are here today to talk about their latest book, THE FAB FOUR FRIENDS. Take it away!
Susanna: Hi, Adam! I'm excited to chat with you about Fab Four Friends. Here's a question to get us started. I know that you play the guitar. How did being a musician help you in creating the images for the book? Susanna

Adam: Hi there, Susanna! Yes indeed, after all this time since you finished writing and I finished painting, it is exciting to get to talk about things.
      I think being a musician really had quite an influence on how I went about illustrating the book, probably in more ways than I consciously thought about it during the process. There were so many themes and experiences in the story that would be familiar to practicing musicians, whether playing guitar on a bedroom or living room, or rehearsing in a basement, or even playing shows in weird, dimly lit and questionably decorated clubs. It was an interesting experience blending these two sides of my life together, actually. For the sake of visual storytelling, I’d like to think these same experiences— which result in a kind of personalized approach to the pictures’ compositions— had the end result of further humanizing our almost mythically famous characters, allowing the pictures to reinforce the intimacy of the storytelling.
      From a research standpoint, there’s a lot of guitar playing in the book, and a guitarist’s relationship to their instrument is also a very personal thing; people hold them at slightly different angles and at different heights, and the Beatles’ varying preferences for certain instruments over the years is pretty well documented. In that case, it really helps to know what to look for. I also like to make sure the hand that holds the guitar neck is actually playing a chord...
      So, a big question, maybe: what drew you to write a music biography, and why do you think the story of the Beatles’ early development appealed to you as a subject?
Susanna: This is my first picture book about musicians, but my second music biography for kids. My first book was a middle-grade bio of Clara Schumann. It was inspired by my mother, Nancy Reich, a musicologist who wrote the definitive biography of Clara in English (for adults.) As you can imagine, with a musicologist in the family, music, both live and recorded, was played constantly when I was growing up. My mother played violin and viola; her string quartet rehearsed at our house. My father was an opera lover who sang in a chorus. Once, a famous concert pianist ran through her entire upcoming recital on the Steinway grand in our living room. My brother and I were taken to orchestral and chamber music concerts and to opera from an early age, and I had years of piano lessons. I also played string bass in my school orchestra and jazz band, and like most kids in the '60s, I played folk guitar.
      There is always, always, a tune playing in my head, and if I go anywhere where background music is playing (like a grocery store), I come home humming it, usually without being aware of it. My family makes fun of my musical "sponge brain." It's interesting from a neurological standpoint (see: Oliver Sacks), but it can be annoying when I find myself unknowingly humming an inane pop song or advertising jingle.
      As for the Beatles, they were not only my favorite group when I was kid, but in my opinion they were the most important musical group of the '60s. Groundbreaking and trendsetting, both musically and culturally. In writing about them, I chose to focus on the early years because I've always been interested in the question of how and why someone becomes an artist, musician, dancer, actor. Most of my books explore the relationship between childhood experience and artistic creation, not in an academic way, but with a light touch so that kids can relate. I hope readers will be inspired not only to understand and appreciate the art that is everywhere around them (yes, even in the pop song and advertising jingle!), but to continue to be creative and to use their imaginations as they grow older.
      What that in mind, here's a question for you. How and why did you become an artist?
Adam: Well, my earliest inclination was to be a cowboy, but that was only until I found an article in National Geographic about alligators that featured a picture of an alligator farm. Clearly, my calling at that point was to be an alligator farmer. At various other times, I considered archaeologist, rock star, soldier (World War I was my personal preference)... Somewhere along the line I think I realized the only thing that all of my proclivities had in common.
      When I was interested in something, I drew it. I drew it a lot. I researched its minutia, and obsessively rendered it in my sketchbooks. On the other hand, I never thought of being an artist as something that real people actually did; while my family was very artistic and creative—my two brothers and I never played catch, we drew and made action figures out of modeling clay together—my father was an orthopedic engineer who commissioned cartoons from me on a regular basis, my mother drew beautifully and had an astonishing eye, but was a crafter and a hobbyist.
      But when I was a junior in high school and was starting to considered college, my father just said something like, “well, you’re going to be majoring in art, and it looks like there’s such thing as a major in ‘illustration.’” Apparently I was the only person in my life who hadn’t just assumed I’d be an artist. I’m glad I had people around me who might have known me better than I knew myself at 16, or could see my place in the world when I couldn’t. Most of what I’ve been able to do as an artist has come from the encouragement of my parents and family to find my own model to live by, and to keep at it in a world that’s not really built for oddballs and impractical thinkers.
      It’s good that I did. Even now, if I go a day without creating something, I get cranky. Two days and I feel lost and rudderless. I get whiny. Even at my busiest as an illustrator, I need to find creative outlets in between pictures and projects, usually something tangential to the work at hand. If I wasn’t an artist by trade, I’d still have to define myself as one, and I think that as hard as it is to pull off professionally, it has allowed me the luxury of focusing on my craft with far less frustration than I could if it was only my part time love.
      Because in truth, I never stop. When I sit at the table with someone, I’m constantly rearranging objects in front of me or shifting in my seat to arrange the composition I’m looking at. I’m distracted by and constantly trying to memorize lighting effect and abstract shapes that randomly appear. My brain is on a constant search for pictures.
      That brings me to wonder: with all the music and creativity surrounding you in your life, what was it about writing that drew you in? How did writing become your way of expressing other passions and interests?
Susanna: I didn't plan to be a writer. My first love was dance—that was my response to the music around me. I trained at the American Ballet Theatre School in NYC and the Royal Academy of Dance in London, but I didn't really have the right body for ballet, and by college I'd switched to modern. I danced professionally through my twenties. Writing wasn't even on the horizon.
      Then I changed careers and worked as a florist for ten years, mostly weddings and special events. It was like stepping backstage and becoming a set designer. I began writing as a way to promote my flower business. One of my first articles was about wedding bouquets, published in Brides magazine.
      I started writing for kids after my husband and I became friends with the illustrator Ed Young. This was in the early '90s. I joined SCBWI and went to conferences, learned about the publishing industry and the craft of writing, wrote a few picture books and collected rejection letters. When my local children's librarian told me she needed biographies of women, and my mother suggested Clara Schumann, I was hooked. By then, I'd had enough of the high-pressure wedding flower business. I've been writing ever since.
      Of course, dance, floral design and writing have a lot in common--structure, rhythm, phrasing, balance, color, timing, beginnings and endings, foreground and background. In each art form, I've been trying to express thoughts and feelings that are, on some level, inexpressible, because words, movements and designs are only abstract approximations of experience.
      When it comes to writing, I love grappling with words. I've always been a voracious reader and find linguistics and etymology fascinating. I especially enjoy the challenge of finding the best way to communicate complex ideas in a way that kids will understand.
      With Fab Four Friends, I had a lot of fun with the language. I learned so much about the Beatles' childhoods in post-war Liverpool, and wanted to give readers a flavor of that time by including some British slang. As I do with any picture book, I wrote this one spread by spread, with the aim of creating a colorful scenario on each page that would lend itself to illustration. I remember discussing with Christy, our editor, what kind of illustrations I envisioned--fairly realistic, not too stylized or cartoonish, something that would show the energy of rock and roll and the boys' love for it, as well as their grit and determination. Is that how you pictured it when you first read the manuscript?
Adam: Oh good, because that’s very much what I pictured on my first read through. One thing I hoped we could do between the art and the tone of the narrative was to humanize characters that have been so mythologized. A challenge in the art becomes doing this with a set of gents as photographed as The Beatles were: culturally, we can become so used to certain specific, frozen images of our celebrities, that it can be hard to objectively figure out what they look like. My hope in the pictures was to get likenesses right in some unselfconscious way, reducing them into protagonists in a story.
      (In the case of the Beatles, the fixation with parsing reality from “that famous photo” has given way to an amazing array of conspiracy theories that all stem from a thought like, “oh yeah, well if this is what we all know Paul looks like, how come his nose looks different in the other photo?” That was a singularly weird badger hole to crawl down while researching the lads...but I digress!)
      But just like writing about someone so highly regarded, producing a series of artworks that doesn’t caricature or romanticize them is a delicate balance. Trying to come up with something that just feels genuine is quite a trick. The iconic quality our fellers have attained creates another hurdle: does John Lennon, for example, look like John Lennon when he’s NOT being the picture that’s already in your head? Slicked up pompadour and leather instead of a mop top, or the beard, or the round glasses, or any of his most recognizable personas? The same goes for the rest.
      One thing I tried to keep in mind through all of this was a sense of who our book was ultimately for... I mean, yes, somewhere out there is a fan who will be relieved that George’s first guitar has the right tuning machines installed, or that the white antimacassars on Paul’s mom’s couch are correct, but all of that needs to be convenient background. It’s a good bass line: you’d notice if it wasn’t there, but if it’s doing its job, it lets everything else in the song do its job.
      The last thing I’d want to do when constructing visuals for a biography aimed at children is to make them feel like they’re coming in late to the game. Telling them how good the Beatles are shouldn’t feel like we’re just trying to tell them their parents and grandparents are cool and have good taste and this is why. It should be relatable and inspiring without that context. So every cinematic solution or facial expression should look new, not like a re-interpretation of an already famous moment. Like, appearing on the Ed Sullivan show shouldn’t feel like a great cultural landmark, it should feel like four young guys getting to play on their biggest stage yet, and the excitement contained in it should be theirs. I wanted the performance illustrations to feel like shows played by a young professional band in that same circuit, their ensuing fame not a foregone conclusion. (And all of that is secondary to just how hard it is to draw someone playing the guitar...)
      I hope all of that doesn’t sound too high falutin’. To my eye, the manuscript seemed to already aim for a similar goal, one of relatability and humanization, and of making events that have taken on a mythology of their own feel like they’re happening for the first time, without all the meaning we’ve had 40+ years to assign them. So that’s what was going on in my mind through those months I dug in weaving pictures into your words. I hope that’s vaguely what we wound up doing!
      Susanna: Well, now that the book is going out into the world, we’ll find out! Thanks for the conversation, Adam, and for your wonderful illustrations. I can see that we’ve been on the same wavelength all along, even though we’ve never met.

Elizabeth: Thanks for stopping by guys!

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