Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Songwriter and the Artist: Ten Questions with Ian Tyson and Adeline Halvorson

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The Songwriter and the Artist: Ten Questions with Ian Tyson and Adeline Halvorson

Ian Tyson is one of Canada’s best-known songwriters, with more than a dozen solo albums that reflect his dual lives as a songwriter and performer, and as an Alberta rancher. He really is a cowboy, he raises and rides quarter horses on the rodeo circuit, and he relishes the landscape and the changing climate he experiences each day on his spread on the foothills of the Rockies south of Calgary.

His songs have been covered by dozens of other artists, including Suzy Bogguss, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. At 75, he continues to tour, playing concerts throughout Canada and the United States.

Teamed with the amazing Adeline Halvorson, La Primera: The Story of Wild Mustangs is Ian Tyson’s first published book.

OBT:

Tell us about your book, La Primera.

IT & AH:

IT: Well, I’m not sure it’s “my” book as much as it’s the illustrator’s. The text is my song "La Primera," which was on my 1999 CD Lost Herd. The story is something of an epic, based on the story of the return of the horse to North America some 500 years ago.

I did a lot of research on this: The horse used to exist in North America, but died off in the second Ice Age and nobody’s sure whether it was climate change that killed them — the woolly mammoth and the sabre-tooth tiger disappeared, too — or whether reptilian hunters like dinosaurs hunted them to extinction.

The Spanish conquistadors brought them back.

AH: Horses are my primary subjects in my paintings and I tend to concentrate my subject matter more on the everyday horse than competition or show animals. It was challenging and exciting having the opportunity and freedom to illustrate my own version of the beautiful Spanish horses turned wild mustang.

OBT:

Which books made a great impression on you when you were a child?

IT & AH:

IT: I read a lot of Will James when I was a kid; he fell into disrepute when it was discovered that he was a French Canadian imposter. Looking back, his real story is more interesting than the tales he made up.

AH: Being around horses and painting them has always been my passion, and when I was approached to illustrate La Primera it brought back memories of my childhood dreams of horses and the books that influenced me. I fondly remember the picture books with beautiful pencil drawings by C.W. Anderson. There were a whole series of them about a boy named Billy and his horse Blaze, but I remember less about the titles or the stories and more about the pictures. I also read every horse book available and especially enjoyed the series by Mary O’Hara: My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming.

OBT:

What are the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects about working with another person on a book?

IT & AH:

IT: I really didn’t “work” with Adeline Halvorson. Her wonderful horse paintings illustrate the story perfectly. I’m so impressed with her work; I tried to send her a fan letter, but it came back undelivered.

AH: My undertaking in this book was to work within the framework of the song lyrics and illustrate the story of the Spanish Mustangs in North America. I wanted to capture the emotion of the horses, their fears and triumphs, as well as illustrate their place in the history of this continent. The lyrics of the song beautifully portray this and I wanted my paintings to continue this theme. The most challenging part of this task was understandably lack of photo reference. I read everything I could on the Mustangs of today, as well as researched the Spanish horses that were the foundation of today’s Mustang. From there it became a matter of using my imagination, immersing myself in the story and imagining how the horses would feel throughout their journey. This was both challenging and rewarding.

OBT:

Describe your ideal working environment.

IT & AH:

IT: You’re alone, and there’s no telephone and the weather’s decent.

AH: I like to be alone when I paint. My studio has lots of light, and is a separate room, though on the main floor so definitely part of my living space. I prefer solitude, except for my dog, Chinook, who is always allowed in and who reminds me to take occasional breaks for some fresh air and exercise. I like to start early in the day and either work in silence or with my TV tuned to Cityline, Martha Stewart or Oprah.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

IT & AH:

IT: Well, I’m a songwriter and a storyteller. The first song I wrote was “Four Strong Winds” back in 1963.

AH: My paintings have been used on covers of books, and in books with other artists, as well as magazine articles, but La Primera is the first book I have illustrated.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

IT & AH:

IT: Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, which won the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award in 2002; it’s grim, but he can really write. I’m also reading his Divisadero, which was published last year.

AH: I am reading Nudge by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. I like to read books that challenge the way I think about things.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

IT & AH:

IT: I’m not sure I can answer that. I think I’d suggest some CDs by Canadian songwriters. There’d have to be some by Gord Lightfoot.

AH: I would look for books that showed photographs of our diverse landscape and the lifestyles of the people.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

IT & AH:

IT: Do it every morning. That’s what they all say, and they’re right. I don’t, but I’m getting back to it. When I make a record — which is the equivalent, I suppose, of writing a book — I just unplug. And I might take two or three years to get rolling on another one.

OBT:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

IT & AH:

IT: Well, I get feedback from listeners, not readers. There’s been a fabulous response to my new record, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories. It’s just been released in the United States and the reviews are raves. Perhaps the wreck that my voice has become, now that I’m in my seventies, is the best thing that’s happened to me!

OBT:

What is your next project?

IT & AH:

IT: To keep touring.

AH: I am currently working toward my biggest art show of the year, the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Western Art show.

For more information on Ian Tyson and Adeline Halvorson’s La Primera: The Story of Wild Mustangs, please visit the Tundra Books website: www.tundrabooks.com.

For Ian Tyson's official site, please click here.

For Adeline Halvorson's official site, please click here.

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