Monday, August 2, 2010

Obviously, I did not reconnect two days ago to continue my side of the artistic discussion with Bobby on the book we’re working on. I had a crash and lost a day to vertigo. Still not good today, and I must rest so that I can get out tomorrow to get some dental care and pay the rent. But I want to get my ideas out for Bobby’s response.

So, the original was a play which had a number of implications for the book, if the projects are to remain connected and not be completely different. For a variety of reasons, I wish the two to remain facets of the one project. Now a play has little description beyond general suggestions for staging and sets. Yet it is a profoundly visual experience when performed. The details are left the director and the stage manager [once these were one position], in the case of school plays, the functions remain one and are filled by the teacher. Moving the play to a book means both description and art create the setting. In effect the physical artifact of the book becomes the stage.

Now, if I keep the original age target of the play, the book becomes a children's novel-- I don't actually want to go that route. Remembering that the play was intended to be performed by fifth graders, but would be seen by groups as young as third graders, I can lower the intended age to roughly 9. This allows a format I feel is suitable to the material. After all, the stories are collected from many sources. The isolation imposed on slaves both by the nature of the system of exploitation and for defensive purposes [slaveholders wanted their “property” as ignorant as possible, therefore isolation was an active technique of suppression]. The effect of all this was to make the stories of TJ [Trickster John] to be local and very personalized.

To reflect this, I intended that the play use different characters for each story, rather than one actor being John throughout. Transferring the same idea to the book, makes for an odd hybrid. Imagine a picture book, but with much more text aimed at an older audience than usual for this format. In effect, I am still staging the play, you are then bringing it to life on the stage which is the pictures floating above the text. I don’t know any book like this. It’s a rather radical proposal as far as I know -- what do you think? Can do? Or am I way off on what is reasonable to ask of an artist?

Of course, an alternative is to use the format of a graphic novel. This has the advantage of making each story its own small volume. I find this alternative quite attractive too. I would be happy to tackle either challenge, both being new to me.

I wish you lived close by. We could wrangle these issues out more collaboratively. Think about it and let me know. Early planning and intent are so important as I proceed. As many authors have commented, the characters often take a story over and it goes where you did not intend, but that comes later. I still need a clear vision of what I want to accomplish and where I am going with a story to get it started. It may morph into something completely different, but that comes with the process. I still need a focus to begin the work.

Just think about the difference between a graphic novel and the picture book I suggested first. In the picture book, I write a book which stands entirely on its own, even without illustration. I feel the illustrations are vital, but theoretically, the written work could stand alone. In a graphic novel, I would write very differently, more like a play. Description fades and the “staging” becomes the illustrations. For me as author description fades out and dialogue dominates -- you know, this may be the better format after all. A graphic novel is, in effect, a play performed by the illustrated actors. I’m inclining in this direction.

Back to the painful issues of dealing with the problems of race and resentment. As I noted before, I see no real way to avoid the straight black vs. white aspect of this in a book. As a play it was easy. Whatever class was yours for that year was your pool from which the cast was to be drawn. Had I actually staged this particular play, every child would have tried out for whatever part he or she wished. When doing a play on the origins of Santa Claus [a curricular unit, of course, with historical trends and facts beginning with Saint Nicholas in Asia Minor], a role for God was included. No, I wasn’t preaching, God was needed to work the miracle to bring “”Santa” into reality. The point is that each child who wanted that God part tried out and the best actor won. Over the years I did the play I had at least one blue eyed, one black, and one female God.

This applies to TJ. I envisioned identifying slaves and slave owners, not by the color of their skin, but by sashes, black or white. This would allow each child to try out for whatever part appealed to them and also emphasize my intent to make the story a human, rather than a racial story Humans, Black and White, have been the oppressors and the resistors throughout history. Not nice, but factual. For example, coastal tribes of Africans happily enslaved and sold their interior neighbors. Even the American slave trade, when viewed globally, was exploited for profit by both Whites and Blacks. A truth which we might work into the story, but which would be a minor point, as I know of no stories of TJ which relate to the African end of the slave trade and I want to be true to the slaves who told his stories by not inventing tales, only repeating and retelling those which they actually shared in the antebellum South.

Silly ideas like drawing in the sashes on kids drawn as actors in a play occur to me, but I feel they would simply not work. I toss it out in the spirit of the brainstorming technique in which even bad ideas can stimulate good ones in response. I can’t see injecting some nice Whites into the story. Slaves on a plantation did not experience nice whites and even many abolitionists believed that Blacks were inferior [read Frederick Douglas on Lincoln for insight into this problem]. I can’t imagine original TJ stories including nice Whites [except for the plantation children. It is an odd, but very real phenomenon which is reflected in American literature that slaves and the children of the masters sometimes formed a mutual bond. Both were harshly disciplined -- harsh for the kids, horrible for the slaves -- and were subject to the whims of the adult masters. Of course, this faded as the white children grew into slave masters themselves. Some of this is reflected in the Uncle Remus tales.] I fear the only sympathetic White characters we can allow would be the children. I know of at least one original tale in which Ol Massa’s son is kind and friendly to TJ.

Then there is the problem of writing this as a comic story for kids. The humor was original to the slave folklore, but every slave knew the horrors of slavery. That didn’t need to be detailed. It was as natural as assuming that the character breathed air and lived on land. We, however, must make it clear that slavery was horrible, yet not give our young readers nightmares. Some ideas to this end might be in the background of illustrations. A Black mother who looks at Ol Massa, Ol Miss, or another authority figure with an instinctive fear for her small child. Clutching the child in an unthinking attempt to hide it from the threat? Something you don’t notice the first time you read the story, but which becomes obvious when you look for it?

Of course, the rich, fancy clothes worn by the masters against the rags worn by the slaves tells much of the reality too.

As I have been writing it occurs to me that the graphic novel format would also allow us to keep the target age are 10-12. A real advantage in many ways. Have you discovered the Mushishi series? Both in the graphic novel and the animated versions, a great set of stories, beautifully illustrated. I loved it as animation as it makes real the thinking and culture of a people who believe in spirits. Reading the novels, I found that the author was exploring exactly that. He was reflecting and examining the world as seen by an elderly relative of his. Wonderful!

I need some input from you on how you think the illustrations should be applied. Should they be a character essential to the story as in Mushsisi, Thomas Hardy’s novels, and John Ford’s westerns? The South certainly could add to the story -- Magnolia’s and huge oaks draped with Spanish moss... you can see it in your mind. Or is it better to go to the opposite extreme and make the background fade into minor detail? Not being the one responsible for the labor of doing the drawing, I am inclined to a rich, detailed, vigorous role for the settings. However, I am also picturing a sort of Mushishi style drawing. More pencil sketch, but detailed, than painting or watercolor. Or like the animated Mushishsi, lots of color with the same feel...

And should TJ be one character as normal story telling requires? Or should he change form story to story as happened since this was real folklore. He didn’t even have one name, being crated fresh within every group of slaves who told his tales.

Well, lots ideas here. I was thinking out loud in this entry, so forgive my chaotic style. I am very anxious to have your response. This project is really exciting me. I believe this can be a great work for both of us. That does not mean it will ever be published. I have no faith in the wisdom of publishers. Remember that Geisell, aka, Dr. Seuss, was rejected by almost 30 publishers before he found someone who thought his work was worth taking the financial risk of publishing it. Publishers also prefer to buy an author’s work, then add the illustrator they like or vice versa. Well, what happens happens. Getting published is a surprising extra for me. I am enjoying this already. The creation is what matters. As for the rest? Que serra, serra.

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