Talking to Shannon Hitchcock of Shannon and The Sunshine Band as part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour.
Gloria Spielman is a children's author whose latest book Marcel Marceau Master of Mime was a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, a Moonbeam Children's Book Award Silver Medalist, and a Sydney Taylor Book Awards, Notable Book.
Gloria, congratulations on the success of Marcel Marceau!
Thank you Shannon and thank you for inviting me to talk to you.
Shannon: I think one of the hardest parts about writing a picture book biography is determining a focus. How did you decide which parts of Marcel's life to include in your book?
Gloria: A picture book biography can be either a birth to death story, which is what we usually think of as a biography. But it doesn't have to be. It can also capture a period in the subject's life like or even an event, like Mordicai Gerstein's, book The Man who walked between the Towers about Phillipe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Center towers. Master of Mime followed Marcel from childhood till the end of his life.
But you're right, determining a focus is a tricky thing. How do you capture a life in 1,500 words and 32 pages? Every word counts and every incident has to propel the story forward and capture its essence. The right opening determines the focus so getting that right is important. I look out for a seminal event which can be a springboard to follow the person through his life. I tend to think in pictures so if an event creates a picture in my head, it gets shortlisted. This is, after all, a picture book. So, the book opens with Marcel dressing up as his childhood hero and the man he called his creative father, silent movie star, Charlie Chaplin.
Shannon: What's the most interesting story about Marcel Marceau that didn't make the cut?
Gloria: There were two. I'm not sure which was more interesting. One incident that didn't make the cut happened in 1967. Marcel finally met his artistic hero, Charlie Chaplin by chance at the airport in Paris. Marcel began to imitate Chaplin and Chaplin, joined in, right there in the middle of the airport. It connected beautifully to the book's opening, and would have made a lovely illustration but I couldn't get it to fit into the flow of the story, so out it went.
I came across another anecdote in an article by James Kirkup in the British newspaper, The Independent. He writes about Marcel being stopped by the police, during the war, who asked to see his papers. Marcel was on the wanted list and his papers were perfect fakes. Kirkup writes, "The narks kept examining his papers and looking at his face, while he stared back at them without batting an eyelid, showing no trace of fear. The men were baffled, and let him go. It was an early demonstration of the powers of mime." Since this was the only place I'd found this incident mentioned, I couldn't really include it.
This is your second picture book biography. What attracts you to the genre? Who's your next subject?
Gloria: I do enjoy writing picture book biographies but it wasn't a case of 'I'd love to write a picture book biography. Who shall I write about? After, Janusz Korczak's Children came out people started asking 'So, who are you going to write about next?' I realized I'd got the taste for picture book biographies and began to think of writing another one. I'm getting the same question again. I would love to write about an unsung hero next time. I have an idea or two that I'm looking into. People are fascinating and I love writing about their lives.
Shannon: How can teachers use your book in the classroom?
Gloria: I'm actually working on a guide for teachers and also developing presentations for schools. I will have both up on my site as soon as they are ready.
Shannon: Many writers say they have no trouble coming up with ideas, yet this is one of the most common questions they get asked. Why do you think people are so fascinated about where writers get their ideas?
Gloria: The whole process does seem rather mysterious and quite unfathomable to people who don't have ideas constantly distracting them and demanding attention. I've written tons of educational material for learners of English as a Foreign Language, and the question I'm asked the most is definitely 'How do you know what to write about?' The gut-reaction answer is, "I don't know. I just do." Ideas are everywhere. You just have to open your eyes and mind to see them and ask "What if …?" 'What if Columbus had never discovered America?" "What if we lived in a society where everyone was perfect?" The 'what if' question is the germ of many if not most ideas. But the idea is just the seed. But no one asks the really important question. How do you turn an idea into a book? That's the hard part. Ideas are dandy, but it's the hard work that follows that turns it into a story.
Shannon: What do you enjoy most about writing? What do you find most challenging?
Gloria: Very many things. Here's one. I'm never bored and there's no such thing as nothing to do. Not ever. An overly long line at the post office? You never know what snippet of overheard conversation will spark an idea. A long train journey? Uninterrupted time with my laptop. Waiting for a bus? An opportunity to daydream and hopefully let the subconscious figure out what should happen next in your story.
The challenges? Again, there are many. Here are two: First, to force myself to stop and take care of important things like washing-up, folding the laundry or the shopping. Then once, started on the important thing, to then force myself to stay there until it's finished because without fail, a 'brilliant' idea pops into the head and disappears forever if you wait until the dishes are done to jot it down. Two, it's the conundrum, where and how to find time and peace and quiet.
Shannon: What are you working on now?
Gloria: Many things and I'm excited about them all. I'll mention the two I have a soft spot for. There's an adult novel, set in the old London Library of my childhood and deals with getting your voice heard while living on the margins of your society. Another is a humorous YA with a teenage boy on a quest for a father, new families, his genetic inheritance and worries about his unusually small feet. I am also looking for a home for three unpublished picture books.