Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Marc Met “When Bob Met Woody”

Author Gary Golio (full disclosure: he’s a friend) and illustrator Marc Burckhardt (full disclosure: he spells his first name the right way) are the composers of a new picture book biography (full disclosure: it’s actually more of a storyography) When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan. I think it’s the first trade picture book treatment of the man formerly known as Robert Zimmerman.

I am thrilled someone is introducing this pop culture icon to a new generation in picture book format. It is very likely that many kids will now discover Dylan via Gary's book before the songs themselves. Which, to me, is a whole other kind of beautiful.

The passion Gary has for this subject gives this book bass. I have long pondered the special skill it might take to write successfully about a musician. I think many of the best books on music have a rhythm like music. It takes a true multi-hyphenate to pull that off.

The book reminded me how little I know about Dylan. Part of that seems to be his intention; he always strikes me as one of our more reclusive modern legends. But maybe I don’t even know that much for sure.

My favorite scene in the book shows Bob playing guitar outdoors during evening snowfall in his small mining town in Northern Minnesota. Serenity then.

Segueing from cold to hot, Gary kindly answered some of my burning questions:

This is your second published book on a musician. Did you feel any special challenges in writing about musicians?

Actually, my first three books are about musicians (Hendrix, Dylan, Coltrane), with When Bob Met Woody written right after Jimi. I love music, and have been playing guitar for a long time. But I think of musicians simply as artists, and don’t discriminate much when it comes to the medium they use. Since I was a kid, I’ve looked to artists for guidance in learning how to live a creative life. When I write about people like Bob and Jimi—and especially because I’m writing for kids—the challenge is getting to the core of that person and their artistry. I need to fill out a portrait with facts and ideas, to develop themes and a story line, but also not get caught up in or distracted by sensational details or controversies. From the beginning, a lot of people were concerned about my writing a picture book on Jimi Hendrix, but I saw it as a non-issue since it was a book about him as a child, and about the roots of his creative life. While complex as a person, Bob is less controversial in that way, and the story focuses on his youthful passion for music, leading up to his life-changing meeting with mentor and hero Woody Guthrie. Still, Bob was influenced by a wide variety of musical forms (pop, rock, blues, jazz, folk), and it’s important for kids to see that becoming an artist is about educating yourself and learning all you can about what you hope to be good at. It’s also about learning to be who you are.

What are you most proud of about this book?

I wanted to tell a tale that I felt was timeless, about a young person’s search for his own guiding star, and how that search inevitably leads—if we’re lucky—right back to ourselves. And while I feel very good about the text, I really love Marc Burckhardt’s illustrations for the book. There are several, in particular—like the one of Woody seen against a field and setting sun, or Bob playing for Woody in his hospital room—that accentuate the heroic or tender notes in the story. The cover, too, pulls together so many of the elements in the book—Bob’s boyishness, his looking to Woody (seen in the clouds above) for inspiration, the almost bird-like movement of musical notes crossing the road that Bob’s standing on—and evokes the period of the 50’s/60’s with the feel of classic Americana. I had hoped for an illustrator who could bring both emotion and realism to the images—a hard balance to achieve—yet still hint at the universal aspect of the story. For me, Marc did just that.

What was a highlight of your research process?

That’s easy: I got to listen to a lot of great music—not just Woody’s and Bob’s songs, but the musicians and traditions that influenced them—and it was a tremendous pleasure as well as a great education. One of the most important things about Bob and Woody is that they sought out musical ideas everywhere. Woody played with Lead Belly, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, at campsites, union rallies, on merchant ships and in concert halls. His songs incorporated the blues, country music, traditional ballads and gospel, and were infused with ideas from books he’d read and what he’d seen in his own life. Bob—even as a boy—listened to Johnny Ray, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly, Elvis, and Little Richard, but drew on films and books (like Woody’s Bound for Glory), newspaper articles, and even radio plays (like The Shadow). So while I read a lot about Bob’s life, I also got to hear the sound of his life and his thinking through all that music. And really, that’s all you need.

Do you think Bob Dylan likes Batman?

Have you ever seen the cape that Bob wears in concert? I think that kind of says it all…

Some questions that will have to wait for another day:

Did you encounter any resistance in trying to sell editors on a picture book about two musicians that many kids today are not familiar with?

Did you have say in who would illustrate the book? Did you want a certain type of art?

Did you contact Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie during your research, and if so, did they respond?

Either way, do you plan to contact them upon release of the book?

On a side but related note, did you hear what the Jimi Hendrix estate thought of your picture book about him?

Does WBMW book contain any anecdotes that (to your knowledge) have not been published before?

Because Dylan is still alive, did you feel any additional pressure in writing about him versus Guthrie (or Hendrix)?

Do you know of any instances where Dylan has discussed what influence (if any) Judaism has had on his career?

Describe a scene or even just a line you wanted in the book but had to cut, for whatever reason.

For more on When Bob Met Woody, check out the rest of Gary Golio's blog tour:

5/17/11 Margo Tanenbaum
5/19/11 Gail Gauthier
5/23/11 Anastasia Suen
5/24/11 Jone MacCulloch
5/24/11 Jama Rattigan

…as well as a write-up in some newspaper called the New York Times.

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