This is the time of year to trot out our rituals. We have to eat a turkey on this certain November Thursday and go shopping before sunrise the day after. Maybe we automatically put a spangled tree or a menorah in our houses. Too many of us try to get to the bottom of a bottle in order to flip the calendar over to next year. But what if we could make a thought or feeling ritual instead of just a series of actions? A seminar class of undergraduate art majors at UNC-Chapel Hill did just that on Monday with “A Taste of Empathy,” a one-evening culinary installation in the Graham Memorial Lounge. The class, taught by elin o’Hara slavick and teaching assistant (and INDY contributor) Amy White, applied some creative groupthink to some big art questions: What is it exactly that we have to express? And what's the best way to express it?
Students made 10 different cakes, each representing a social issue that they were concerned about such as poverty, racism and domestic violence. Then they held a semi-formal tasting in the elegant campus sitting room complete with a pianist and twin glowing hearths. Held aside, the poverty cake would be delivered to a local shelter after the event.
But she has a near-anthropological understanding of poultry that she’s brought to her latest book, Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella (G. P. Putnam's Sons, $17.99), a feathery retelling of the classic fairy tale with a Russian setting. She’s currently touring to promote the book, in an enormous tour bus branded with an image of her chicken-princess on the side.
Brett’s encyclopedic knowledge of chickens, gleaned from observing her personal flock of more than 75 birds, inspired the book.
“Both my editor and I breed chickens, and we were talking about how sometimes one little chicken will get a little bit picked on while they’re molting,” Brett says, speaking recently on the phone.
“And then I joked about how when their feathers come in, they look like whole new chickens, and they’re perching like they’re queen of the roost, and my editor and I said, ‘Just like Cinderella!’ at the same time.”
Having already interpreted such classic tales as Beauty and the Beast and Goldilocks and the Three Bears in her past books, Brett was initially reluctant to go back to the well of classic fairy tales, but found herself thinking about how the chickens’ plumage would be a perfect fit for a Russian setting, and how the hierarchy of chickens—the “pecking order,” so to speak—could serve as a metaphor for human behavior.
“They all assume different personalities,” Brett says. “There’s the young pullets, the females, under a year old, and they’re all running around like, ‘I’m so pretty! I’m so pretty!’ And then they get older and they’re a bit more dignified and starting to lay eggs, and they’re acting like it’s the most important thing to happen in the history of the world.
“And then older hens will get bossy, and order younger chickens around, and young chickens will be fighting with each other, and trying to get noticed. They just really looked like they could take on the roles of a story, or a fairy tale in this case. And it lends itself to the Cinderella story—they’re kind of gangling and scrappy at a certain age, and then all the sudden they’re beautiful.”
She’s loved the birds since childhood: “I had a pet chicken as a little girl, and I trained her to ride on the handlebars of my bicycle” Years later, one of her early ideas for a children’s book led to her getting some feed store chicks for research. That helped inspire her 2002 book Daisy Comes Home, and in turn led to her acquiring what she calls “a huge farm of chickens.”
She sells a few, but keeps most of the others: “They live to a nice old age.”
Brett also thoroughly delved into Russian culture and history to create the world of Cinders: “We did a research trip to St. Petersburg and crammed in as much culture as we could in a short time—we saw the ballet, and a symphony concert, and a folk dance concert, and went on walks in the woods and had a hot steam bath and saw some wonderful restored architecture.
"The highlight was probably going to the Museum of Ethnography, where there were mannequins dressed in what was probably the style of the 1800s—I say ‘probably’ because in some of the more traditional villages, they also dressed in this style.”
She admits to wanting to do a few updates to the Cinderella story for her book ("I just didn't want to make the stepmother wicked"), but otherwise loves using animals to tell old-fashioned stories.
“There’s just something human about telling a story animals that’s kind of un-explainable to me, but makes a certain sense when you think about it,” Brett says.
Jan Brett appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23 (the giant "Cinders" bus out front will be hard to miss). This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, visit www.quailridgebooks.com or call 919-828-1588.
While I'm not a die-hard fan of the 2003 Will Ferrell-in-tights holiday film Elf, I enjoyed it enough to notice all the times the stage musical version produced by NC Theatre strained to recreate a big laugh line from the film, or introduced some new element to the plot that didn't click. The musical overall is like a beautifully wrapped gift with a pair of socks inside: It's lovely to look at, but ultimately forgettable.
As the Santa-raised elf-man Buddy, Will Blum from Broadway's The Book of Mormon affects a high, childlike voice that sometimes sounds more like Michael Jackson than a joyous Christmas spirit. It doesn't help that the production depicts the elves in Santa's workshop as full-sized actors walking around on their knees. Obviously, the CGI used in the film to depict tiny humans alongside the immense Ferrell doesn't work on stage, but weren't any actors of appropriate size available? The effect is more unsettling than whimsical.
Elsewhere, the scene from the original with Peter Dinklage's high-strung author is cut for a lame joke about a manuscript and a paper shredder. It's not a matter of the original material being irreplaceable, but the new scenes are so forgettable as to make the difference more glaring.
In the film version of Elf, you have a whimsical character from a Christmas movie wandering into a movie-friendly but still not magical New York City, where his innocence and cheer contrast with the world-wary humans. The problem with adapting this to a musical is that when everyone is singing and dancing all the time, the contrast doesn't stand out as much. What remains is a selection of labored song-and-dance numbers (one brief song involves a DNA test). It's hard to tell whether it was due to technical problems or a lack of vocal range, but few of the musical songs projected much energy; many of the lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra, which was in fine form.
The sets, with scenic design by Christine Peters, upstage most of the actors in Elf. There are constant transitions between a bustling North Pole, a glittering Macy's Christmas display and plenty of New York scenery. The elaborate sets often feel like overcompensation for a thin script, as do the colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes. There's all manner of jokes about iPads, TiVo and even a localized quip about ECU, but there's relatively little wit in the overall book.
The best work comes from bit players such as Kevyn Morrow, who does some fancy footwork as a cynical store manager, and Lanene Charters as a brassy secretary. (She's more memorable than the actual love interest, Jovie, whose drab personality Lindsay Nicole Chambers can't overcome.)
Elf suffers from the same problem as many other film-to-stage adaptations: All the effort to make the live experience seem as spectacular as a big-budget movie often results in such elements as good dialogue and memorable characters being shuttered. It's not without its charm, and younger theatergoers likely will enjoy the scenery. But there's nothing as funny as Will Ferrell recoiling in fear from a jack-in-the-box popping in his face from the original movie. You can build all the giant sets you want, but it's still hard to top the sight of that man in tights.
Now, if someone wanted to do a musical version of Love Actually...
"I think people are surprised when they learn we just met a few days ago," says Agee, whose new book Little Santa (Dial, $17.99) tells what happens when the young Claus rebels after his family moves from the North Pole to Florida. "We’re getting along famously. It’s easier to go on a book tour together—you might not have that many people at a bookstore appearance and need a shoulder to cry on, though we’ve had plenty of people so far.”
Long, who's promoting An Otis Christmas (Philomel, $17.99), the latest in a series of top-selling books about a lovable little tractor, agrees. "The kind of books we make are different, but it’s fun for me to learn from Jon, not only from talking to him about the books and artists he loves and have influenced him, but I’ve gotten a real kick from watching him draw in our presentations," Long says.
In a phone call with the two authors during down time between visits to school libraries in Austin, the chemistry between them is apparent, though their books for children could not look less alike when put together on a bookshelf. Long's Otis tales are gentle stories of perseverance and friendship with a detailed, richly colored look. Agee's stories, meanwhile, take their style from such classic New Yorker cartoonists as Syd Hoff (Danny and the Dinosaur) and William Steig, along with a wry, biting sense of humor. (Ellsworth is about a pet dog who is secretly a professor of economics; Terrific is about a grumpy middle-aged man who stumbles through an adventure while sarcastically muttering the title phrase.)
Long says that Otis came from his childhood experiences growing up in Lexington, Ky. "I worked on a horse farm in college, and I drove this old tractor filled with mowers all over that farm that summer," he explains. "It was a rickety, small little tractor—not exactly like what Otis is, but that tractor was so old and ancient, and it still had a job to do, and it still had a part on the farm."
Years later, he was inspired to write a book about a tractor from making up stories with his children. "It made sense to me that the farm animals would be friends with the tractor, because they would all be part of the farm family," he says. "I had just illustrated The Little Engine That Could, so I had fun giving vehicles human traits." That instinct paid off: The Otis books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and stuffed Otis toys are also popular items at bookstores.
Agee feels that while Long's work is "more personal," his own work is "more conceptual." "I did one about a boy who owned a rhinoceros as a pet, My Rhinoceros—that wasn’t a personal experience!" Agee says with a laugh. "All of my books are based on taking some offbeat idea and trying to turn it into a story, and hopefully make it entertaining at the same time."
Little Santa, he admits, is a little "warmer" than his usual work. "Let’s face it, the Santa story is so overworked and so overdone," he says. "So if I was going to tell this story, it had to be unique and faithful to my sensibilities, which are very different, but also true to my humorous point of view."
For Long, the trick to a good children's story is that "you’re asking the audience to take a leap with you. As long as you don’t go jump the shark too much with something that is completely implausible, the audience uses their imagination and has fun right along with it." Though both authors admit that it can be a challenge telling new stories, they're enthusiastic about their work: "It's great getting paid to do something you loved when you were just 4 years old," Long says.
Jon Agee and Loren Long appear at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14. Those unable to make it to the signing can request an autographed book by calling 919-828-1588 or 800-672-6789.
I wonder if Beverly McIver ever feels like she's chasing herself. Or perhaps passing herself in the airspace between North Carolina and New York. Her new paintings, currently on view in New York Stories at Durham's Craven Allen Gallery, were painted during a residency in New York last year. But it wasn't your run-of-the-mill residency. It was a duplicate of her residency during 2004 that was interrupted by her mother's death—the exact same apartment and studio she left to return to North Carolina to care for her mentally disabled sister Renee.
In a way, last year's time in New York was a way to finish what McIver started before all that sorrow and tumult. Her self-portraits in this show open a widening emotional range, revealing parts of herself that have been guarded in previous work.
Hurricane Sandy also hit the New York area during McIver’s residency. The devastating storm doesn’t directly appear in the paintings, but it seems to have provided a clarifying backdrop for the artist as a survivor of huge forces beyond her control.
For those who know Elizabeth George only from her Inspector Lynley novels or the BBC adaptations that air on PBS, you might be in for a shock when you see her at her upcoming appearances at McIntyre’s Fine Books and at Quail Ridge Books & Music. Though the novels are set in England and feature an extensive use of British culture and society, George herself is American born and raised, and has earned widespread acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for her tales of the noble-born Lynley and his working-class partner Havers.
As George prepared for the release of the 18th book in the series, Just One Evil Act (Dutton Adult, $29.95) which came out Oct. 15, we called her up to talk about her character, the tradition of British mysteries, and more.
INDY Week: The first Lynley book came out in 1988. Did you imagine back then that you’d still be telling stories with the characters 25 years later?
Elizabeth George: Back then, and even today, I don’t tend to project into the future. What I’ve always done is devote my concentration to the current book I’m working on. But I will say it’s been a terrific ride and a wonderful opportunity through this series to not only support myself as a writer, but to get to meet people and go places I’d have never had the chance to encounter otherwise.
There’s a huge following for the books from the TV series, though there are some differences from the books. What do you make of this following?
The BBC has reduced stories down to the crimes themselves and their solutions—the novels are not just crime novels but character novels, focusing on not just the people investigating the crimes but those whose lives are affected by them. But I’ve enjoyed the productions and particularly the performances of the actors playing Lynley and Havers. What was missing for me was that greater experience that the reader can have, or the viewer could have had.
That said, they did a fairly good job with the crimes, and the performances of Nathaniel Parker and Sharon Small as Lynley and Havers were excellent. But if you read the books, you get exposed to many, many characters and many walks of life in Great Britain.
Mystery/crime, more than almost any other genre, really has that large number of continuing series and continuing characters. Why do you feel that’s the case?
The tradition of the crime story and the mystery novel, the whole tradition of the consulting detective and the crime story, was started by Edgar Allan Poe with C. Auguste Dupin, the continuing character. And that might be why that format has been followed.
If you’re going to write about crime, and criminals, and what goes into criminal investigations, it might be more difficult to do it if you have to re-create the wheel every time with new characters. Now, some writers do this, and do it brilliantly. But I enjoy reading series characters, because of that wonderful moment when you get to see that series character one more time, and I wanted to create that experience for the reader.
Additionally, when you have a series character, you have the opportunity to explore that character over a period of his life more fully than if you didn’t have a series character, and that appealed to me as well.
I get the sense from other interviews with you that you plan each book individually, but how do you plan out the arcs for the characters as you continue writing the series?
So when I write a story, I know what crime I’ll be exploring; then I’ll know which investigator I’ll be featuring—Lynley and Havers, Lynley solo, Havers solo, and so on. And then I’ll go on from there.
It sounds like you have a sense of how this could all end at some point.
Oh yes, I’ve had a pretty good idea of that for a while—where each character is going, where the story will take them. But I won’t get there for a while.
My parents, who are addicted to the TV version of Lynley, would kill me if I didn’t ask you if there were any plans for more episodes.
Well, I have spoken to the actor who played Lynley, and have met with him in London, because he is very interested in seeing if any more of the Lynley shows can be made. But of course this is an enormously difficult type of endeavor to launch, and there are huge expenses involved. But he has been working with the world arm of the BBC to help make this happen.
Because the Lynley DVDs have been hugely successful around the world, and the show has been shown on PBS, the BBC is interested in making more shows if they money can be gotten together. But I really don’t know where things stand at this point.
And the $64,000 question: How annoying has it been for people to go, “Oh! You’re not British?” over and over?
I find that people think that I’m British because my books are set in Great Britain, but I find it unusual. I’m certainly not the first person of one nationality to set books in a different nation and in a different culture. So I don’t think it should come as a total surprise to people, but it sometimes does.
In a way, I’m happy about it—I labor over the books to make sure the details of Great Britain are right, even though I’ve never lived in Great Britain. I do sometimes urge people to take a look at my website, where the most frequently asked questions are there and are answered.
I can’t even speak a British accent. I can think in one, and can speak in some of the cadence if I’ve been in Great Britain for a number of weeks, but I can never get it quite right.
Well, the books are uniquely British—not just in that they’re set there, but many aspects of British society are embedded in the characters, and help drive the plots.
Well, I do like the books to as much as possible reflect not only England as it is, but the changing face of England as it is altered over time. That’s why I’ve looked at some of the issues that are contemporaneous in Britain, such as racism and intermarriage and arranged marriage, and of course of class—it was a deliberate choice on my part to make Lynley and Havers part of two distinctly different classes, so I could explore issues in Britain that were once very much on the surface, and today, I think, play out much more surreptitiously than they once did.
And that might be part of why the books are popular—those class issues are present all over the world, especially in America, and when you see them filtered through the light of a different culture, there can be something that feels very allegorical about that.
Well, there are very interesting things about England that don’t exist in the United States that make the place very fascinating for me. For example, in the United States, we tend to celebrate success, and don’t necessarily look at where somebody came from as much as we look at what the person’s achieved.
Whereas in England, it’s the complete opposite. They don’t celebrate success; they derive success, and their concentration is almost entirely on where someone came from. They’re not sure what to make right now of the Middleton family, as they are perhaps the greatest case of by the bootstraps in British history. They adore Kate Middleton, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any article about the Duchess of Cambridge that doesn’t talk about her roots.
In America, we might talk out about how you can start out the child of a single mother whose father abandoned the family and wind up President of the United States. That to us is seen as one of the beauties of living in the United States. In England, though, that would certainly not be spoken of in any awe-struck fashion.
Elizabeth George appears at the Fearrington Barn for McIntyre's Fine Books at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20, and at Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21, for a signing-line ticket event. For more information, visit www.fearrington.com and www.quailridgebooks.com.
If you don't know the name David Wiesner, ask your kids about "the book where the frogs fly around on lily pads" (Tuesday) or "the one where the Three Little Pigs break out of their story and go exploring" (The Three Pigs). Wiesner, who appears at Quail Ridge Books on Tuesday, Oct.15, has become one of the most acclaimed and best-selling authors of children's picture books, with three Caldecott Medals and two Caldecott Honors, for his left-of-center stories that take a surreal look at everyday objects and classic tales.
Wiesner's latest book, Mr. Wuffles! (Clarion Books, $17.99), is no exception, with a tale that pits a group of tiny aliens against a house cat who's mistaken their spaceship for a toy. We talked with Wiesner about the inspiration for his work, what's drawn him to such oddball tales, and more.
David Wiesner: Let’s hear it.
You have a cat named Mr. Wuffles, and he likes to play with a little toy that looks like a spaceship.
I tried, darn it.
It actually began years ago, when I did a cover for Cricket magazine. It was an alien spaceship, and they’ve landed in the desert, and they’re getting their picture taken, but when you turn out the back cover to see the wraparound image, you see they’re actually in a sandbox in the backyard, and they’re very tiny.
So after The Three Pigs, I wanted to turn that into a book that would have been called Greetings!, and I tried and I tried, because the opening sequence was so wonderful — you followed this alien spaceship coming down onto the Earth, and landing in what looks like the desert, and then this giant hand comes into the frame, and when you turn the page, you see it’s this young girl who’s lifted up a couple of them and you realize the reality is they’re very small and in this sandbox. (laughs)
And then I couldn’t come up with anything else! The only other idea I had was that the aliens were speaking their own language, which were symbols, and the aliens and the girl would have a fun day in the sandbox. I gave it up, did Flotsam, came back to it, gave up again, did Art and Max … and I was drawing in my sketchbook while waiting for my daughter at her music class, and I drew a spaceship with all these little nodules all over it, and I said, “My cat would love to scratch its neck all over this thing!”
That was the magic bullet — the story started to spill out of my sketchbook and I had the story. I no longer had that great opening with the ship in that sandbox, but the story started to flow, in these directions where I never expected it to go.
By the way, I based the cat on my own cat, but he’s not named Mr. Wuffles. One of my son’s friends has a cat that’s named Mr. Wuffles, and I just needed a really silly name that this cat would probably hate. (laughs) “Mr. Wuffles” was perfect.
OK, I was off, but it’s interesting to me that you still have that opening where you have that shock, that shift of point-of-view, but it’s from a human/cat perspective instead of the aliens’.
Yeah, you have that cat passing that row of cat toys, totally disinterested, the tags are still on them, and then you find that one toy, and see the aliens inside. Every story has that moment where it just clicks. I wish I could plan for it, and then I could plan for each book! You just have to keep working and hope that moment comes.
You’ve been doing books since the 1980s — I was wondering if there was a switch that got flipped between the more traditional stories you were illustrating back then, and the more surreal, adventurous stuff you’ve become known for ever since.
No, that’s always been what I wanted to do, and what I’ve always done — even if you see what I was drawing as a kid. The other stuff — I was a working illustrator and I needed money! (laughs) I did textbooks, chapter books, covers, anything that came down the pipe. Getting to do author-illustrated books, you had to work up to that at the time. I did a few picture books for other authors, but getting to do something on my own took a little while.
Some of it was more interesting than others, but everything was a learning experience. Clearly the work that was more interesting to me, and was better as a result — and this was reinforced by reactions from others — was the work I did myself, where I could really indulge my imagination and my surreal tendencies. After Free Fall was published, my first author-illustrated book, I pretty much stopped doing most other work for other authors. For me, telling stories with pictures in a picture-book form is really the thing that’s most exciting to me.
It’s certainly a contrast to look at The Loathsome Dragon, and then look at The Three Pigs, where they go into a story very much like that book, and save that dragon, and I was wondering if you wanted a do-over.
That dragon’s sort of a recurring character in my work — it’s in Free Fall. The Loathsome Dragon was sort of an experiment, where my wife wound up doing most of the rewriting. I was working on that at the same time I was working on Free Fall, and it actually came out first. I worked on Free Fall for about four years prior to its publication, because I was working on other jobs, and trying to make Free Fall everything I could make it. Once it was published, and I had the reaction to it, that was enough to convince me that that was the area where I should concentrate.
And it paid off very well for you.
It did, and I was lucky enough to find an editor who responded to that. When I first pitched it, it was not fully formed, but I was passionate about it, and I was lucky that they saw that and encouraged me to work with it. I’ve continued to work with the same group of people since then. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
And your work has stayed in that very experimental place.
Yeah, and you can get away with that if your story is very well conceived and thought-through. The core is, “Am I telling you a good story?” And if I am, I can push the envelope in terms of how I present it. The thing about a picture book is, it’s short. It requires a form of storytelling that is very quick and concise, and you have to stick with that. As long as that story is there, I can take the reader on any kind of visual journey that I can dream up.
There’s also a very vignette type of quality in your books. That sticks with me because ... well, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is now in theaters, and it kind of bums me out how they keep taking all these great picture books and explain everything. I could just imagine them doing a movie version of Tuesday and having kids investigate why the frogs are flying around, or aerial dogfights with frogs, and so on. You read the book, and you don’t need all that. Why are the frogs flying around? Because it’s Tuesday.
Yeah! The book leaves so much for the reader to bring to it. It’s a small thing, it’s a short thing, it terms of presentation, but it suggests so much. When filmmakers expand picture books, it often turns into, “We need a moral” or “We need to layer on family conflict,” all this stuff which ... I don’t know. I don’t think kids are really clamoring for that. I think they just want something funny, something fun, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be explained. It just is, and that can be why so many movies of picture books are so ... lacking, let’s say.
What’s interesting about your books, and how I’ve been describing them to others, is that they capture that feeling you have as a kid that “the world is bigger and much stranger than what I see around me in my limited space,” but it’s presented in such a way that even an adult who reads these books are going to be left looking over their shoulder for a frog on a lily pad.
That’s what I wanted to see as a kid, and that’s what I want to see now. There’s amazing people in the picture-book field right now. I love seeing what’s being done — it’s one of the most creative fields around, and not enough people are aware of it. They keep waiting for the next 3-D blockbuster, and right there, in those 32 pages, are more extraordinary things than you’ll see on the big screen for the most part.
David Wiesner appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music to promote Mr. Wuffles! at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct.15. This is a signing line ticket event. For more information, call 919-828-1588 or visit www.quailridgebooks.com.