Interview: David Small, author of Stitches

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

By Rebecca Touger

“All the silence and the necessity for learning to read body language as a means of survival, those elements made the graphic form seem an appropriate medium for my tale. I worked about three years on the book very intensely and always at night…”

David Small’s graphic memoir, Stitches, is a beautifully rendered account of a horrifying childhood, drawn in shades of gray—”a silent movie masquerading as a book,” as he describes it on his website. Small recently sat down and answered a few of Rebecca Touger’s questions on his childhood, his color choices, and his creative process.

You’ve had a long, award-winning career as a writer and illustrator of picture books for young children. But your illustrated autobiography Stitches is not children’s lit, and the subject matter is definitely geared towards adult readers. Is this the first time that you’ve drawn on your painful childhood for material, or has personal experience found its way into your other work in subtler ways?
With one exception, that being the poem “George Washington’s Cows,” my picture books are all metaphors for actual experience. The dark elements are overlain with humor and fantasy. With Stitches, which is a straight memoir, I felt I had to drop all the veils of metaphor—for a while at least—and look directly at the source.

Silence reigned in your household, blanketing some toxic family secrets. Instead of dialogue, your narrative is driven by child’s eye glimpses, often using no words at all. How long did this illustration process take? What materials do you use?
All the silence and the necessity for learning to read body language as a means of survival, those elements made the graphic form seem an appropriate medium for my tale. I worked about three years on the book very intensely and always at night, after a full day of work in the studio making picture books.

Materials: I drew with a brush and ink, a fine-point nib pen (the kind you dip, gets your hands dirty and splatters you with ink). Except for the lettering—which was done from a font of my own printing, and which lends a nice element of regularity to my loopy line work—Stitches is “computer-free!” (Heh!) Also, though most of the sketches—and even some of the final art—were made on junk paper (card stock, bought by the case from an office supply store)—most of it was completed on a nice, and rather more expensive piece of Bristol board. As you see, all very real, tangible, hands-on stuff.

Your book jacket is a striking Creamsicle orange, but the inked artwork within only uses shades of black, white and gray—perfectly conveying the smokestack haze of industrial Detroit and the dark turn that the story takes. Was the contrast intentional? Did you always imagine the book in black and white?
I couldn’t conceive of it any other way. Color always confuses the issue. My favorite films have all been either in black and white or by a director who thoroughly understood black and white before moving on to color (Hitchcock, Polanski, Bunuel, to name a few). Take a look at Bunuel’s Tristana, and you’ll see it is mostly monochrome, earth tones. When he throws in a red or some other color, it wrenches you in a specific direction he intends. Because every color elicits a different emotional response—the full spectrum can divert you from straightforward storytelling…if, that is, there is a story there to begin with! (So often, nowadays, the picture is drenched in wild color. Maybe this is a diversion from the essential vacuum at the center? I don’t know.) I’m not ruling out color from my future work in this medium, but it will have to be very limited color. By the way, it was Paul Buckley—a great designer—who came up with that stunning jacket.

The plain realities of your family history of dysfunction are plenty horrifying: despotism, philandering and gross neglect. But your illustration also veers into surreal fantasy, as when the grotesque fetus in the pathology lab of your father’s hospital comes alive and escapes his jar of embalming fluid. Were some of these arresting images inspired by real nightmares?
All of the dreams in the book are real dreams. I don’t keep a written journal, but I do keep a dream diary. I think of my dreams as a continuum of my life. They tell me stories and make up metaphors, which I couldn’t possibly concoct out of thin air, not in a zillion years.

Do you have a favorite image?
I have some favorite stills and some favorite sequences. Among the stills I’m fond of are some of the transition pages, such as the one on p. 185 showing that Ford Fairlane zipping down Woodward Avenue under an abstract mess of Googie-style architecture, urban signage, and utility wires. I like the transition pages where the stitches in my neck transform into the staircase in our house, which my legs are seen climbing up.

Of the sequential parts, I’ve just been discussing with a writer friend pp. 98 to 101: the scene in the bedroom with my mother. This sequence of panels is loaded with the weight of what has just happened (a sudden outbreak of physical nastiness by my Grandmother), of my trying, in my inept, six-year-old way, to tell my mother about it, and of Mother—because of her own history with the same crazy woman—suppressing it all, because of her own fear. It’s really two people whispering in a tight space because they know there’s a large mad animal prowling in the corridor outside. Much of the effect of all of this—as my friend so sharply pointed out—is done with a play of light and dark.

Your psychoanalyst plays a pivotal role as a stand-in parent. Why did you choose to cast him as a white rabbit?
Yes, my analyst was like a perfect father to me. But after the experience of my home life it was all a little unreal. The White Rabbit, in Alice, is the usher into a subconscious world, which Alice sees as nonsense. (She is like a patient rejecting the “curious” evidence of her dreams, which tell her that all is not right in her life.) So, the Rabbit seemed a perfect stand-in for the analyst, who ushers us into the world of the subconscious, where the truth is told at last.

Your relationship with your brother was always distant, even when you were six and he was ten. But, like you, he found home life difficult and often retreated into music and his drumming. What was his reaction to Stitches and your depiction of your parents?
My brother got out of home as fast as he could. He eventually became a percussionist, playing with the Colorado Symphony for over 30 years. He and I hardly spoke to one another before this book got made. It was too painful for either of us, having anything or anyone around, who reminded us of our early lives. Now, we talk.

Ted said my book was like a snapshot of his youth. (He asked if he might show it to his therapist.) I think—I hope—it made him feel less crazy, less personally responsible for the family nuttiness. Ours may be the last generation to carry on the traditions of selfish, silent, confused and confusing behavior in our family. It’s something to wish for, at any rate.

Can you talk a little bit about your writing and illustrating process? Do the images come first, or the words?
I wrote out almost every scene in Stitches before I drew it. It was the only way I could begin. Only language brings order to the chaos of memory. I have boxes full of manuscript—embarrassingly bad, I’m sure—which helped me grope my way toward a coherent shape for my book.

Which illustrators and/or authors do you most admire?
Among the dead artists: Daumier, Heinrich Kley, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Egon Schiele. Among the living artists: Jules Feiffer, Blutch, Sylvain Chomet, Nicholas de Crecy, Gipi. Frederick Peeters. As for authors: Chekov, Flaubert, James, and Thomas Mann.

What are you reading right now?
The Idiot by Dostoevsky and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker.

And, finally, we always want to know: What’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Drawing well is the best revenge.

All images are from STITCHES by David Small. Copyright © 2009 by David Small. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co.


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VISIT David Small’s website

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    It had to take a lot of courage to look back the way you have. I want to thank you for the insight of having to use language to bring order (to the chaos of memory).

    But what if words fail one?

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