Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E. Shoemaker

Share |
Ten Questions with Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E. Shoemaker

In this breathtaking retelling of a timeless tale, Irene N. Watts’s beautiful words are complemented by the haunting black-and-white images of artist Kathryn E. Shoemaker. Open Book talks to the author and illustrator team about their book, Clay Man: The Golem of Prague (Tundra Books).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Clay Man.

Kathryn E. Shoemaker:

I’ll let Irene answer this one, since this retelling of the old story of the Golem began with Irene.

Irene N. Watts:

The idea of the book came to me in the form of a poem, now titled: BEFORE. Initially, I had the idea of telling the entire story of the man made of clay through his eyes, but realized that would be too limiting in the retelling of the story, but the poem, which is the Golem’s thoughts, has remained:

I am of clay
Old as earth
I lie here
Waiting
River washes over me
Water cools me, Sun warms me
I know light and dark
Light is bright and dark is black
I lie and wait

The clay has waited for thousands of years to be summoned. I admit, often as I wrote the thought came to me, why did no one call the Golem since to rescue his people again?

Now 400 years ago - for this is the 400th anniversary of his creation- he was found by the rabbi of the Jewish Ghetto inside the golden city of Prague. The rabbi has dreamt of making the likeness of a man who would protect the Jewish community in times of danger. Rabbi Judah Low (who is buried on the site of the old ghetto) made Josef and brought him home to live with his family, and to watch over the small community.

I tell the story through the eyes of the rabbi’s young son, Jacob. Jacob feels stifled living within the ghetto walls and tries to befriend Josef.

The two share adventures, though Jacob does not understand Josef’s mystical powers: his ability to become invisible, to see and walk where no one else can and his great strength that enables him to lift up a horse and cart with one hand!

When it is time for Josef to revert to clay, Jacob has found new understanding of himself and of his place in the world.

OBT:

Irene, Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

INW:

I seem to be most comfortable writing for reader aged between 8 to 13/14. Finding the best way to tell the story is how I begin, and my readers come from a wide range of age groups.

OBT:

How do you work together as author and illustrator? What is the process?

INW:

We tend to work quite separately until I am close to a final draft of the text, then we talk about it, and after Kathryn has made the first roughs, we sit down together and discuss words and text together. In the course of three books, we have never had a disagreement! Clay Man has been as magical to work on as the Golem himself. For example, I envisaged about fifteen drawings (though we have more in the final book), and when Kathryn first showed me her roughs they were as close to what I had imagined as though I had described them to her in detail.

KES:

From the very first book that Irene and I did as an author/illustrator team we have worked together closely. Clay Man is our third book collaboration. We are currently working on our fourth book.

Now to answer the question, this begins with the important acknowledgment by Irene and me that a book is a collaborative art form. The picture book form, the first book form we did together, is the form requiring the most collaboration because author and illustrator are filling in each other’s very big gaps because words and pictures have different potentials for creating meaning. For example, illustrations can convey information about what people and things look like. Body gestures and facial expressions can immediately convey mood and some emotions. However, printed words can tell us what characters are saying and thinking. After we did the picture book A Telling Time, we transformed Irene’s book Good-bye Marianne into a graphic novel. A graphic novel is another kind of collaboration and a form particularly suited to expressing characters thoughts. In fact for Good-bye Marianne, Irene and I worked together on both the writing and illustrations.

While Irene may not actually draw she does visualize the content as well as critique the flow of the visual rendering. We work so closely that Irene even dreams about the illustrations. While we were working on Clay Man, she dreamed I created an illustration of the Golem holding the apprentice around upside down and twirling him.

As for the process, once I’ve read the story many times – first for the content and plot, next for the major themes and then several more times to find interesting patterns in the telling – I create a dummy. In fact, sometimes I create several dummies on the road to finding the best possible way to visually tell the story. Once I have a dummy that conveys the content and levels of meanings that I have aimed for, I show Irene the dummy for her comments and suggestions. Irene is always able to quickly catch any content errors that I may have made. More importantly, I need to know that Irene feels that I have translated her intended meanings into the illustrations.

OBT:

Irene, how did you research your book?

INW:

I spent months and months, reading everything that I could find about the legend of the Golem. I read other peoples approach to the legends, determined to find a new way to tell the story. I read about life in sixteenth-century Europe, of the attitude towards Jews, of the rulers who befriended them or not as the case may be. I traveled to both Vienna and Prague to walk the streets where the story took place, looked at buildings that are still intact from that time and visited museums and art work of the period. I walked over the great Charles Bridge and the river on whose banks the clay was found. I walked up the stairs of the synagogue where the Golem is said to have found his final resting place. Most influential was to walk amongst the crooked headstones of the Jewish graveyard.

OBT:

Kathryn, what sort of research did you do for the illustrations?

KES:

This question goes to the heart of the question of what illustrations can do for a chapter book. First, illustration can provide important visual information to help set the scene so that a visual context is created for the reader. A writer such as Irene understands that she can leave gaps in the text for the illustrations to fill. In writing a picture book the writer needs to leaves huge gaps. However, that is not the case for a chapter book. In this book of 96 pages approximately only a third of the pages contain illustrations so the verbal text must contain a good deal of information. As much as possible I try to provide accurate visual information on how people dressed and lived. But there is the challenge of providing enough visual information to help the reader understand the time without being redundant with the printed text. The important thing is to support the book’s meaning and mood.

First of all Irene is always generous in sharing her research and reference materials. She always keeps her eyes open for helpful visual references.

The great challenge in illustrating this story is that there are very few visual resources to draw upon. Only a few buildings from the 1590s remain in Prague. The Jewish ghetto which figures prominently in this story was completely destroyed and rebuilt so the ghetto in Prague today only dates back to the 1800s. The old Jewish graveyard is still there so I did use photos of it in preparing the drawing of it. It was also difficult to find references to the way common people dressed in those days. Most costume books provide references to the way kings and queens and aristocrats dressed. I used paintings by Breughel as a source for the appearance of the clothing worn by common people.

OBT:

Kathryn, you're a writer as well as an illustrator. Does your writing influence your illustration?

KES:

In the sense that I have the greatest respect for the story and its written rendering, yes writing does influence me. I can’t imagine being an illustrator who is not influenced by writing, his or her own or by others, since illustration is a literary art that begins with the written text. Certainly writing work that will be illustrated helps a writer understand the role of illustration in telling the story.

OBT:

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

INW:

I was an avid reader, comics, Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton and the stories of the naughty William. I loved Arthur Ransom’s books, particularly Swallows and Amazons. I read Dickens and Thomas Hardy and Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, lots of poetry – anything I could find. In the small town in Wales where I grew up in the forties, reading was the only thing to do outside school and a visit to an occasional movie. The library was my favorite place to be.

KES:

I loved Madeline, Dr. Seuss, Little House on the Prairie, Winnie the Pooh, Miss Hickory, Little Women, Swiss Family Robinson, The Little Fir Family, anything illustrated by Garth Williams, the work of Leo Polito, Edward Gory, Charles Adams cartoons, everything by Russell Hoban. I remember loving The story of Ping. And I adored a book about a tiny fairy like person called Poppy. I am still looking for a copy of Poppy.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

INW:

I am rereading some old favorites: Julie Johnston’s, In spite of Killer Bees, Michael Frayn’s Spies and the novels of John Le Carre.

KES:

I recently read and loved the Book Thief, The Theory of Clouds and the picturebook, How to Heal a Broken Wing by Bob Graham, and I’m constantly reading Remember Me by Irene as I am starting to create the dummy for it.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers and illustrators who are trying to get published?

INW:

Read as widely as you can, and become very familiar with publisher’s lists and then hone your own writing voice. A good book will rise to the top of the slush pile, even in these difficult times!

KES:

First, you must love to write and illustrate. Getting published requires perseverance more than anything else, because you need to send out your work on a regular basis to carefully selected publishers. You need to develop a thick skin to handle rejection and criticism.

OBT:

What is your next project?

INW:

Kathryn and I are working on the graphic novel version of Remember Me the second of the books about the Kindertransport. A new novel No Moon is at the copy editing stage, - is the story of a young girl who is terrified of water but who must travel on the maiden voyage of the doomed ocean liner The Titanic.

KES:

Irene and I are working on Remember Me. Also I’m working on a graphic novel that I wrote for my master’s degree, Crowgirl’s Amazing Adventure Scrapbook. Also, I’m actively writing my doctoral dissertation.


Kathryn E. Shoemaker has illustrated over thirty children’s books and has written four books for teachers. Her work ranges from books, filmstrips and greeting cards, to posters, calendars and illustrations and articles for magazines. She is currently working on her doctorate degree. Kathryn Shoemaker lives in Vancouver.


German-born Irene N. Watts is a writer and playwright who has worked throughout Europe and Canada. Her play, “Lillie,” based on her novel Flower, won first prize in UNESCO’s Biennial Playwriting Award. Her novels Good-bye Marianne, Finding Sophie and Remember Me, have had international acclaim. She makes her home by the sea in Vancouver.

 

For more information about Clay Man, please visit the Tundra Books website at www.tundrabooks.com.

For more information about Irene N. Watts, visit www.irenenwatts.com

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.
 

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad