Monday, February 7, 2011

Teeter Talk!

A couple weeks ago, I got in contact with Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle to see if he'd be interested in doing some coverage for the book.  He was, and suggested a novel approach to our interview (all the more so because it was the first week of an extremely cold Michigan February).  He wanted us to take a ride on a teeter totter for our little chat.
I sat down on Dave's teeter-totter in A2 and we chatted for a bit on an exceptionally snowy morning last week.  You can read the full article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  And here's the transcription of our conversation (It seems I like to start responses with "yeah"):

TT with HD: Robb Johnston

[Ed. note: The book "The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree" can be purchased online, or at Vault of Midnight in downtown Ann Arbor, or Fun 4 All on Washtenaw Avenue. ]

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter.

RJ: Thank you so much.

HD: So, today is very much like the final scene of this book that you've written ...

RJ: ... yeah ...

HD: ... in terms of it's cold and it's snowy. But there's not a tree that's a part of the conversation, however.

RJ: [laugh]

HD: So this book you've written involves a talking tree.

RJ: Yep!

HD: And it is a female tree.

RJ: Yes.

HD: So that's one thing I wanted to ask you about -- was that a conscious choice? Because for example in German, the word for tree, der Baum, is grammatically a masculine noun.

RJ: Okay.

HD: So when I read the book, I said, Okay, this is a girl tree, maybe that's a conscious choice, or maybe that's just random.

RJ: Yeah, it most mostly unconscious, I guess, I mean it never even crossed my mind to make a male tree. From the get go, I had this woodcutter and I had this tree and I knew that the woodcutter was going to be this exploitative, very driven force from that perspective. And the tree, I knew was going to be more giving and nurturing. And I guess for whatever reason, how I was raised, societal influences, and all that, I guess I automatically associated that with a more female type character.

HD: So did you consider at all introducing other characters into the story? Because it's just the woodcutter and the tree, those are the only two characters, there's not even other little forest creatures involved.

RJ: No, and that's been a criticism and a suggestion that a lot of people have made to me ...

HD: ... well, I didn't mean it as a criticsm ...

RJ: ... where is everyone?

HD: Well, no, actually it didn't really occur to me as I read it through the first time. And the way I did that, by the way, I don't have kids, so I thought, Okay, what I will I will read it to wife as if she were a four-year-old.

RJ: There you go.

HD: So I didn't notice, Hey, there's nobody else in this story. But in trying to come up with something interesting to talk to you about, I thought, Oh, there's only two characters, that really simplifies things. It's some sort of I dunno, isn't that like Greek ...

RJ: ... like a fabel almost?

HD: Well, I dunno, but there's nothing else to distract you.

RJ: Exactly.

HD: And I didn't fine tooth it, but in the illustrations, there's no other characters either, right? I mean there's nuts and other objects. Just the tree and the woodcutter.

RJ: Yeah, that was definitely a conscious decision, I just wanted it to be this running dialogue between these two characters and the story they had to tell. If you look at some of the illustrations, with the intricate designs, I did hide some little creatures in there.

HD: Oh, so like some treats! Like some Easter eggs.

RJ: So maybe a kid who is really poring over the book might say, Hey, that looks like something! Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn't. There are a few of those.

abstract versus realistic portrayals in children's book illustrations

HD: So you mentioned the intricate designs, I'm thinking of these round sort of representations that equate to leaves.

RJ: Yep.

HD: I was struggling to find a word to describe them, to call them colored disks seems like somewhat of an understatement. But they're doily-like colorful things. Was that an intentional decision that you didn't want to make a natural, or realistic portrayal of a leaf, but rather to go with a more -- I'm looking for a word, you artists have words for this kind of thing ...

RJ: ... more abstract.

HD: Yes, there you go.

RJ: Yeah, that was definitely a conscious decision, I wanted an abstract representation to kind of challenge kids a little bit, to say, That's not a leaf but I kind of see maybe see where he's going with that. I really, I couldn't quite put a name on them, either.

HD: But it's a device you're fond of, I assume, because this it's the same kind of representation you used for the cover of the Art Prize guide.

RJ: Yeah, exactly.

HD: So it's the same kind of theme.

RJ: Yeah, I've been trying to find different ways to incorporate this into the world around. I used it for the Grand Rapids Press Prize cover. Also I've kind of toyed around with incorporating it into say like a cross section of meat like the the way that the fat marbles in a red slab of meat. I've been playing around with that a little bit. Some other places as well, it's been kind of fun. It's pretty versatile. But again, it's very abstract, you kind of have to switch your thinking a bit to make it work.

HD: You talked about how a kid might pause and look at your representation of a leaf and say, Is that really a leaf -- yeah, okay I guess I can see that. The other thing that I could imagine a kind maybe objecting to -- and I don't think I'm spoiling the ending or anything -- but this tree, which is not an evergreen, and it's not shaped like a Christmas tree at all, but in a sense, it becomes a Christmas tree.

RJ: Sure. [laugh]

HD: So I could imagine a four-year-old who has mastered the concept of Christmas and who understands what it's about saying, "But Mommy, that's not a Christmas tree!"

RJ: Yeah, I wouldn't know how to respond to that! Other than, you know, Yes, it is!

HD: Just a couple of quick nuts and bolts questions. This is available for sale where? I know people can order it directly from you through your website. Are there any local bookstores that are carrying it?

RJ: There are copies for sale on consignment at Vault of Midnight.

HD: So that's Main Street downtown Ann Arbor.

RJ: And then also Fun 4 All, a comic bookshop on on Washtenaw. And then I've been in contact with Borders and Barnes and Noble I donated a copy each to the Ypsi District Library on Whitaker and the Ann Arbor District Library downtown.

HD: So people can check it out at the library. How many copies was the first printing? On your blog you have this wonderful picture of a giant pallet.

RJ: Yeah, it's kind of a blessing and and hardship of self-publishing is that you have control over the stock but now you have a pallet of books in your garage!

HD: Yes, I am familiar with this concept -- not with books but with CDs.

RJ: Oh, okay. [laugh]

HD: At some point you say, Gosh, how do I liquidate the 800 out of the 1,000 I had manufactured? How many books did you have made?

RJ: I ordered 1,000. And 1,006 were shipped to my house. So they gave me six free copies!

HD: That's like a baker's dozen kind of thing or an extra baker's half dozen. Alright, so the goal is to sell through them all.

RJ: Yeah, I'd like to make as much of a dent as I can, leading up to say, August or so and then see where I am. Then, God willing, get another printing, do another round.

HD: So I mean in terms of marketing, it does conclude with a Christmas story, but I wouldn't describe it as a Christmas book.

RJ: Oh, I'm very happy to hear that. I don't like to have it pigeon-holed as that, and a lot of people do. Some people see it as kind of an any-kind-of-season-will-do sort of thing. Which is the intention.

HD: Well, it has all four seasons right in it! Let no one deny that it has four seasons! One last thing, there's a natural area preservation project, I think, at the base of our street. I was just curious to know if you were aware of that or if you had anything to do with the work that went on with that as a city employee?

RJ: That's one of the parks down there?

HD: I guess I don't know what category it is, I thought it was a NAP project. It used to be all overgrown and brushy, and some neighbors worked with folks made some inquiries at the city and developed a landscape plan, and they cleared out a bunch of stuff, planted native species, there's a little path through there, they basically spruced it up.

RJ: Oh, okay, no I'm not aware of it. I didn't do any work on it.

HD: Does that sound like the sort of thing you spend your time doing for NAP, though?

RJ: Exactly. Ecological restoration and that sort of stuff.

HD: And the book is aligned with the whole mission of preserving nature.

RJ: Yeah.

HD: Listen, thanks for coming to ride the teeter totter, especially on this cold and snowy day.

RJ: Oh, this was awesome, thank you so much.

Thanks to "Homeless Dave" for an awesome cup of coffee and a unique interview experience! :-D

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