Interview between Susanna Reich (author)
and Adam Gustavson (illustrator)
Susanna: Hi, Adam. Stand Up and Sing! is the second nonfiction picture book we've done together. I knew from your work on Fab Four Friends that you do meticulous research and are very knowledgeable about musical instruments. Pete Seeger's story required not just accurate visual representation of banjo, guitar, piano and violin, but also a 1930s microphone, a 1940s car, a 1950s bus station waiting room, a 1960s TV camera, a log cabin, the sloop Clearwater under construction and under sail, period clothing for almost every decade of the 20th century, and a protagonist who ages from toddler to old man. Not all of these were in the text; some came out of your imagination. What goes through your head when you're first imagining images to go with the words, and at what point do you get into the historical research? Do you sketch out each spread first and then fill in the details?
I spend a month or so just digging up as much as I can from any given time period, until I feel like I’m thinking in a foreign language. Different subjects have what I like to call different visual potential. Clothing from the '30s makes different shapes than clothing in the ‘60s, and different musical instruments and their silhouettes drive the direction of a picture in ways that aren’t all that flexible (if the banjo player is right handed, and we want to see his face, there’s only one direction the instrument neck can point in). The research includes period photos, fashion ads, art and illustration from the era, old movies, and lots of eBay searches. I try to remember that the past is a lot like the present in certain ways; if someone was making a book about me in 2017, almost nothing surrounding me would be from 2017. The couch might be 10 years old, the piano 50 years old, maybe there’s a new table lamp… a scene set in 1933 will follow a similar pattern.
From that point, once I know what I want a picture to look and feel like, I go on a fact-checking mission, searching for details. What year does Pete’s banjo gain a few extra frets? Exactly when does he grow that beard? What stage of ship building has the best shapes, and where would Pete be visible working on it? At some point, every inch of a picture has to be a decision, and so if it needs detail, the detail might as well be obsessively accurate. As the drawings become more developed (and as the paintings get started), more questions just keep arising.
My first question for you is also research oriented. Biographies and non-fiction, in general, can be tough to find a story arc in, because the plot has already actually happened, and coaxing it into a respectful narrative while establishing major themes that you, as an author, might want to communicate, must have its ups and downs. When you began this project, how familiar were you with Pete Seeger’s life, and to what degree, if any did your research change what you thought your story would be about?
Stand Up and Sing is a "cradle to grave" biography, so the challenge was to find out what forces shaped Pete as a young person and how he responded to and expressed those influences in his art and life. I hadn't known anything about his family background and discovered that both his parents were musicians, and that his father and stepmother's politics and interest in folk music had a profound effect on him in his formative years, as did world events (the Depression, the union movement, the rise of fascism in Europe). After that, his personality, beliefs and behavior were quite consistent throughout his life. His dual commitment to music and activism never wavered, though of course, he had his struggles.
On a side note, though, I did get about halfway through the book illustrating it with 30 inch wide oil paintings, and decided that they felt too heavy, too full of some sort of abstract gravitas, for the subject. So I began the entire series of finals for the book over in gouache on paper (an opaque watercolor paint), and I think the directness of the medium was a much better fit for the tone of the story and our modest and plainspoken subject.
I look for authors who are well-respected and well-reviewed, or those who have first-hand knowledge of the subject, like close family members. I can usually tell pretty quickly by the quality of the writing (and the bibliography and footnotes, if they exist) whether a book is worth my time. Fab Four Friends focuses only on the boys' childhoods and the early years of the band, so I didn't have to become an authority on the entire history of the Beatles. Ask me a question about the early years, and I'll probably know the answer, but I know no more than your average fan about what happened after 1963.
With Pete, while there are far fewer books written about him than about the Beatles, there was no dearth of material. He recorded scores of albums and was a prolific writer, and there are several biographies and plenty of articles, letters, photographs and films (both biographical and performance documentaries). There are even biographies of his father, Charles Seeger, an important musicologist, and his stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, a composer and folklorist.
Susanna: You're welcome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
e: Thank you both for stopping by!