Friday, July 31, 2009

Interview with Matt Phelan

On Friday, July 24th I piled into my minivan and headed across the bridge to Philadelphia. My destination was the Bean Exchange, a coffee house located near 7th and Bainbridge Streets (for those with some knowledge of Philly, it's two blocks of South Street, and not particularly far from the Italian (or 9th Street) market). As anyone used to navigating through Old City can tell you, the streets in that part of town are particularly interesting. Some are still cobblestone, from when the streets were paved using the granite ballast blocks that came over on European ships during the early 19th century. Ships came over with lots of ballast and went back laden with furs and cotton and other American products – I first learned this particular detail when visiting Charleston, which was also a major port city, but it's true in Philly as well. In fact, when the British learned that the Americans were paving streets with the stones (and thereby deriving a benefit), they tried to charge them for it; they abandoned that when the Americans simply offered to let them take their ballast on back with them. But I digress. Besides the cobblestones, there are cars, bicycles, city buses and horse-drawn carriages. It's interesting to wend one's way through the melee.

Once I got to the Bean Exchange, I found the trip to be entirely worth it. First off, I had an excellent iced tea. Okay, I lie. First off, I saw Matt Phelan already in line for his iced coffee. I recognized him from my extraordinarily clever use of Google Images, where I found this photo on Jarrett Krosoczka's blog. Having seen Jarrett before (who can forget his video featuring Tomie de Paola?), and having met Adam Rex and Brian Biggs, I was able to cleverly deduce what Matt Phelan looks like, so I introduced myself, and then I got my excellent iced tea. Matt and I sat at one of the small tables on the sidewalk outside the coffee shop and started the interview. And here it is, in what I promise is an almost-faithful recreation. I have notes, you see, but no actual recording, so anything particularly witty was totally what was said, and anything lacking (should it exist) is transcription error. Also? Unless it's in quotes, you ought not to assume it's a direct quote. Also-also? I just now noticed that the lady in the sunglasses behind Matt is wondering what the hell we're up to. And she appears to be knitting a water bottle cozy or something.

KRF: So, Matt, I totally intended to bring along my copies of The Higher Power of Lucky and Where I Live, but I couldn't find them because I am disorganized.

Matt: "*laughs at me*"

KRF: How is working on illustrations for a novel different from other illustration work?

Matt: When I illustrate a novel, it's like living with the character for four months. In the case of (Eileen Spinelli's) Where I Live, I liked being in the world of the book. Initially it was only supposed to be 20-30 illustrations, but as it turned out, it expanded.

Matt said that he drew a few extra pictures at first, and then the editor asked for a few more here and there, and next thing they knew, it had expanded to an illustration every few pages.

KRF: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? Whereupon I mentioned that a fair number of illustrators whom I've heard speak have seemed to know from a very early age that they were actually artists. Matt agreed that, to an extent he thought he took it more seriously as a child than a lot of other kids with crayons did, and that he thought he spent more time building the particular world of a picture and the story behind it than most other kids he knew did.

In college, Matt had an "unofficial double major" in film and theatre.

Matt: "I particularly liked finding a character and developing it. I really enjoyed rehearsals because of that - not so much performance."

KRF: Did the acting stuff help with illustrating?

Matt: Yes. I use what I learned in acting all the time: physicality, how a character moves, what the character is feeling when they're not talking. It helps me think of the character past the obvious. Rather than just illustrating the action described in the text, "I like to illustrate the moment after the conversation, not the act itself."

Matt said that in reading Illusion of Life, a book about Disney animation and animators, he learned that the Disney animators did that, too. One of their key questions when developing a character was "what is he thinking?" It's one of the things that Matt works to depict in his pictures - what a particular character may be thinking at any given point. (When you reach the panels below, I think you can see what an excellent job Matt does with that - check out Ernie, for instance.)

It was natural at this point in the interview that I'd ask about his latest project, the graphic novel that I've already raved about, The Storm in the Barn. So, I of course asked about his ukulele collection.

KRF: So, I took the virtual tour of your studio on your website, and I have to ask: What's with the ukulele collection? Do you play? (Note - no ukuleles are actually shown in the tour, but they are mentioned. So.)

Matt: "Yes, I do play. It's something to do while the paint is drying. It helps remove the temptation to 'fix' things." As Matt went on to note, pretty much any time an artist tries to "fix" something before the paint has dried, it results in a mistake. Considering he often works with watercolors, mistakes are not usually fixable, but require a do-over.

KRF: "Do you have a complete set of ukuleles?" Magically, Matt understood this question. The answer is that he does, indeed, have a complete set of ukuleles, from the baritone on up to his most recent acquisition, the sopranino. (You can watch someone who is not Matt play the theme to Mission Impossible on a sopranino ukulele here.) The baritone is essentially the top four strings on a regular guitar. He also has a tenor, concert and, I believe, more than one soprano ukulele. You can see most all of them being played by members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain playing the theme to Shaft (I must say that I love their versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana and their medley involving Bach, "Fly Me to the Moon", the Theme from Love Story, "Hotel California" and more. But I digress.)

Matt: "I like it because there's nothing pretentious about the ukulele." When asked what he plays, Matt replied "20's standards and pop songs."

KRF: "Do you ever play 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips'?"

Matt: "I don't actually know that one yet." Whereupon Matt opined that Tiny Tim (audiovisuals straight ahead for the youngsters among my readership, and any of the "older" set who are, like me, nostalgic) may have annoyed a lot of people, but he was a real music historian who totally understood the pronunciations and articulations of the era that created the music he enjoyed playing. Here, see for yourselves:

So, that was Tiny Tim singing his trademark song on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Like it? Love it? (I know I love it, but I am peculiar, as we all know.) Here's a link to a post on Matt's blog about his entry in a poster contest for a California ukulele festival, and his offer to work for payment in ukuleles. (No mention of whether a Martin is required, or whether a lesser brand would do.)

Getting back to The Storm in the Barn, which was, after all, why Matt agreed to meet for an interview in the first place. I truly wish you all could have sat at the table with us at least for this next bit, because I have to say that being able to riffle through the pages of the book in order to visually explore the particular points was invaluable. You shall have to employ your imagination, and I shall do my best to employ my ability to describe things.

KRF: In the author's note at the back of the book, you mention a developing interest in the Dust Bowl era spanning back at least 15 years. Would you say that's when this book started for you?

Matt: In a way, yes. I was interested in the history of that time period.

KRF: You mentioned earlier in our conversation that you'd studied film. Did that help you with your graphic novel?

Matt: "Definitely. . . . I wrote it out as a script first." Matt's goal was to write the dialogue like a movie script, and to describe the action or emotion depicted in each panel of the graphic novel in a way that would be accessible to his editor as a reader. "For an example of a script that's easy to read, look at William Goldman's script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which can be found in the back of his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade."

Since I'm about to give a demonstration similar to what occurred during our sit-down conversation, here's a two-page spread from Matt's wonderful book:

KRF: So, tell me what your script looked like? (And yes, I'm nearly certain I asked it in half-assed up-speak.)

Matt: (Now, this is where I tell you the sort of thing Matt told me, only he and I were looking at other spreads, so this is not IN ANY WAY an actual quote. Think of it as a "dramatic re-creation, if you will.)

Points to top left panel: Ernie says "Yes well, it was a trick of some sort. Something about Jack having some milk hidden in his jacket, then faking the whole thing with the rock."

Points to middle panel: Ernie bows his head, thinking.

Points to bottom left panel: Ernie waves his hand. "Anyhoo," he says!

Savvy? Long story short, Matt wrote out the entire graphic novel, panel by panel, in script form, then sent it to his editor. At that point, any major changes or edits were made. Matt thought it was important to have the editing done before he spent a year drawing the book, saying that he's heard tales of graphic novelists who start drawing at the outset, only to take a wrong turn somewhere along the line, which requires them to pitch a lot of finished work. His goal was to not do that.

AND THEN: Once the edited script came back, Matt did thumbnails of every panel in the book.
Looking at the two-page spread above, you can easily see that not all panels are created equal. What you can't see is that some panels take up a full page, and some pages have as many as nine panels on them (cleverly not set up precisely proportional, a la a windowpane, for reasons that Matt explained to me when I asked him about it, but which my notes on are CRAP so I shan't try to sort it for you hear. Suffice it to say that he is brilliant, and that keeping things slightly off-kilter puts the focus on what's in the panels without allowing the eye to skip past it.)

KRF: "Were the thumbnails all the same size?" (Once again, Matt magically understood my question, which was really "did the size of the thumbnails vary the way the panel sizes do in the finished text?")

Matt: "The thumbnails look pretty much like miniatures of the panels. The art is less finished, of course, but the thumbnails vary in size pretty much the same as the finished panels."

KRF: If you read my review, you know that for me, one of the most powerful images in the book was the red square in the rabbit scene. How hard was that particularly scene to draw?

Matt: "Drawing the rabbit scene took me about a week, and it really affected me. But I wanted to do it justice."

Research for the scene involved Matt watching and re-watching documentary footage of an actual jack-rabbit hunt during the Dust Bowl, and figuring out how to draw men with bats and metal bars who were engaged in vicious action. As Matt pointed out, "N.C. Wyeth reported that he used to ache at the end of a day of painting", particularly when painting something like a sword fight. We agreed that he was probably busy repeating various sword actions in order to capture the muscle tension and energy of the action in his painting. While Matt didn't cop to beating anything with a bat or bar during his painting, he did say that his muscles ached at the end of each day when working on the rabbit scene.

One of the things I admire about The Storm in the Barn is Matt's deft integration of "Jack" stories and references to the Oz books.

KRF: "Were the Jack stories and Oz references part of the story from the beginning, or something you integrated later?"

Matt: "The Jack stories were always part of it. That's one of the reasons Jack is named 'Jack.' I thought it would be interesting for the character to be hearing Jack stories, then finding himself in one of them. Since the story is set in Kansas, I naturally thought of Oz, so I named his sister Dorothy. I thought that a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas at that time would naturally be interested in the Oz stories, so having her read the books seemed natural."

Whereupon I praised Matt's knowledge of the Oz stories and confessed that I'd only read two, maybe three of the books as a kid, and Matt confessed that he'd pretty much done the same, but that plot summaries on Wikipedia drew his attention to Ozma of Oz because of its reference to a desert. Initially, Matt read the book "just to read it", but the references to the Deadly Desert turned out to be perfect for incorporation into The Storm in the Barn, which is set in Dust-Bowl Kansas where it hasn't rained for years. Add to that the benefit of the Oz books being subject to fair use, and text from Ozma found its way into Jack's story as well. Says Matt, "I just lucked out that it worked."

One thing that Matt pointed out about his illustrations, most all of which convey the dustiness of the time and place, is that the people are all essentially black and white, based on Matt's affinity for the photographs taken from that time period. Having mentioned it once already this post, I'll send you off to Wikipedia again for some Dust Bowl photos, if you're so inclined.

KRF: What's next?

Matt: "I just turned in a script for a second graphic novel with Candlewick called Around the World, based on three true stories of people at the end of the 19th century." Matt says he was inspired by Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, but as it turned out, he also had books detailing the travels of three different individuals: Thomas Stevens, who travelled around the world on a bicycle; Nellie Bly, journalist, activist, and author; and
Joshua Slocum, who circumnavigated the earth in a 35-foot sloop. Since it will take him the better part of a year to draw it once the script and thumbnails are approved, it will likely be out in 2011. (Here's hoping!)

Folks in the Philadelphia area ought to look for Matt at Children's Book World in Haverford on October 11th. (I'll try to remind you as the event gets closer.)

Speed round: Now with actual Matt Phelan quotes throughout!

Cheese or chocolate? "Is there bread? I'm torn, based on my proximity to good cheese."

Coffee or tea? "Coffee"

Cats or dogs? "Cats"

Favorite color? "Various shades of green in all its permutations"

Favorite snack food? "Toast with jam"

Favorite ice cream? "Mint chocolate chip"

Water or soda? "Water!"

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? "Octopus Project, The Best of the Shangri-Las, Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele"

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? "Anchorman?"

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