Teenage kicks: Illustrator Small takes Dark turn

Teenage kicks: Illustrator Small takes Dark turn

Award-winning children’s illustrator David Small returns this October with a "fictional follow-up" to his 2009 memoir Stitches (shortlisted for the National Book Award).

We spoke to Small about the inspirations behind Home After Dark (WW Norton) - a moving portrayal of male adolescence gone awry, set in 1950s California.

What inspired Home After Dark?
After slogging through the swamp of my childhood in Stitches, it seemed the logical next step to wade into the bog of my adolescence. This time I wanted to search for that lost time in a work of fiction, not memoir.

At first, I got off on the wrong foot. A close friend my own age had told me about his youth in Northern California, in particular about one bucolic summer spent with two friends—all of them free of parental influence—messing around in a tree fort in the woods, playing games in a junk-filled gully. All of this had a kind of legendary Huck Finn quality, very different from my own experiences, so I listened with some envy, and began writing a story in my friend’s voice, not my own. When, at last, I reshaped his tale and told it in my own voice from my own point of view, it became more truthful.

Aside from the setting in rural Marin County in the 50s and a few minor details, the final book is an interweave of his memories, mine, some memories of a few other close male friends, and a lot of stuff I made up.

What were the key themes you set out to explore?
I may have been subconsciously guided by a need to tell readers that the 1950s were not the Happy Days that people—especially young people today—imagine they were. My young protagonist, Russell tries to find his identity in an atmosphere of injurious notions of masculinity and intense homophobia.

Russell needs love but, following his father’s example and trying to "act like a man", whenever he feels its approach he pushes it away. This will lead to a real tragedy for another boy, for which atonement will be difficult to find.

In the background are a series of macabre animal killings going on in the small town where young Russell finds himself a stranger, trying to fit in. Done anonymously, they become a metaphor for the wanton cruelty underlying a culture of toxic masculinity, much in the way that later, in the 1960s, the Charles Manson killings would become a nightmarish symbol for a nation whose break for freedom had gone off the rails; much in the way school shootings meet America’s cultural imagination today, in a horrifying way.

You’re well known as a writer and illustrator of picture books for young children, but both Home After Dark and Stitches are aimed at a much older audience. What inspired this shift? Do you plan to return to children’s books in the future?
Stitches was a book I had to do for my own sanity. It wasn’t a conscious career shift, but a psychologically necessary step. I think it surprised my principal audience of 30 years, but no one seems to have held it against me.

I never expected to find myself doing a graphic novel but, once I did, I fell in love with the form. It allows for such expansion and storytelling depth. Also, I’m used to having a foot in both the adult and children’s lit world. For years I was an editorial artist for the New Yorker, the New York Times and other major national publications, before I turned exclusively to illustrating books.

As for doing more picture books, yes, I did two during the same time I was making Home After Dark, and another one—written by my wife Sarah Stewart—is ready for publication in Spring 2019.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing/illustrating process? Do the images come first, or the words, and how important is it to strike a balance between the two?
It may seem odd coming from someone so visually-driven, but in the beginning I have to write out everything before I start to draw. The images guide things from there on. The rhythm of the shots, camera angles, things like architecture and body language can suggest new directions. Take the old Chinese man in my story, Mr. Mah. His character and the fact that he never speaks was steered by the first pictures I drew of him, and those characteristics of his became a guide for much of the story’s development.

The final edits in both Stitches and Home After Dark involved cutting out as much text and dialogue as possible.

What materials do you use?
I don’t feel comfortable drawing on a computer screen. I draw in pen and waterproof ink with ink wash. It’s all very traditional and messy. I like the dirty fingernails, the visceral contact with the materials. That said, to spare me the pain of having to hand-letter the whole text, the publisher had a font made from my handwriting. It might interest you to know that, after 3 years and 12 full revisions of Home, I took the whole book with me to Mexico and redrew all 400 pages, panel by panel, page by page. I didn’t like the way my washes looked on the cheap card stock I’d drawn it on. Once I had redrawn it on some lovely Italian 100% rag watercolour paper, my washes looked like silk, and I was happy.

Are there any particular authors/illustrators you admire or have been inspired by?
My influences as an art student were plenty. I had a new master every month. I admired Rembrandt’s free-style drawings, but I also copied Durer for absolute control. When I was in my early 20s I thought I was the reincarnation of Egon Schiele. I still keep the sketchbooks of Heinrich Kley close at hand. Just a glance at his work reminds me that it’s possible to draw the human body at any angle from memory and with great energy, as long as your knowledge of anatomy and gesture are sound.

But my strong influences as a graphic novelist have also come from my study of film as an art form. Hitchcock, Polanski, Bergman and Antonioni are still my biggest heroes. Any film of theirs—even the weak ones—are worth watching for the visual storytelling going on.

Stitches was shortlisted for the National Book Award and went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller – how did it feel to receive such a positive reaction? Did it affect the way you approached writing the follow-up?
Big prizes are a blessing and a curse. (I’m sure that’s never been noted before!) The approbation of masses of critics and readers is a wonderful encouragement. On the other hand, you’re expected to do it again immediately, and this can put you into unreasonable competition with yourself. After Stitches it took me several years to come up with another good concept. I had plenty of ideas, many of which I drew out extensively but none of which—for one reason or another—felt satisfactory. I didn’t want to disappoint my readers or myself, so all those attempts reside now in piles in boxes.  Maybe somewhere in there is a seed that will germinate into something better someday.

Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
I have an idea for a dark little chamber piece, two characters, something like a Chekov short story, set in winter. But it scares me a bit and I’ve been writing it only in fits and starts.

Home After Dark is released on 26th October (W.W. Norton & Co, £19.99)