Memoirs about unhappy childhoods are common, but David Small’s Stitches is anything but. Growing up with emotionally-distant parents, Small developed a cancerous mass as a result of his father constantly exposing him to high-powered X-rays. The result left him barely able to speak above a whisper.
But gradually, Small was able to find his voice – both literally and figuratively – and go on to a successful career as a Caldecott Medal-winning writer and illustrator of children’s books. But he recently stepped into darker and more personal territory with Stitches, his first graphic novel.
Stitches takes a surreal, dreamlike approach to Small’s youth, depicting incidents from the innocent, imaginative perspective of a child. The book has already earned acclaim from such veteran cartoonists as R. Crumb, Jules Feiffer and Stan Lee, and just last week received a nomination for the National Book Award.
We had a chance to talk to Small on the phone (his voice is better now), about Stitches, his nomination and more. In the process, we learned about what inspired him to get into comics, his process for reliving his childhood memories, and more.
Newsarama: David, it was a really powerful experience reading the book, and I feel really grateful that I’m even able to speak with you, given what you went through.
David Small: Thanks, I’m fine now, I assure you! I have a wonderful life. I don’t know quite how it happened that I’ve been this lucky, but I have a great wife, we’ve had a close friendship for thirty years, and we live in a beautiful place in the calm and quiet of southwest rural Michigan.
Nrama: What’s your reaction to the National Book Award nomination?
Small: I'm delighted and honored to be chosen.
Nrama: What made you want to revisit this material, particularly within the sequential format?
Small: Well, first there was the psychological state that led me to revisit the material. I was beside myself, having dreams and other indications that, although I had passed a half-century in years, I was still, on some level, a troubled adolescent. I wanted to go back into psychoanalysis.
From reading the book you know that I was lucky enough to have had a wonderful analyst from the age of 15 to 23, but I can’t say that experience was deep analysis, because as a young man I wasn’t ready for that. That experience was more like having a perfect dad who helped me to grow up, to be a man.
Now, where we live, we are far away from quality mental help, so I realized that if this was going to happen, I was going to have to do it myself. I began to write about it, but despite the fact that my literary agent had confidence that I could create a good novel from the material she had seen, I knew I wasn’t going to get it out in that form. I’m an artist, not a writer.
Besides that, a work of fiction wasn’t what I was after. I needed to relive my youth, to see it again, experience it in a visceral way, and hopefully come to terms with it as an adult.
So, as to the choice of format: One winter, about five years ago, Sarah (Stewart, his wife and frequent collaborator) and I were in Paris. There I saw some of the European graphic novels and, for the first time, I began to pay serious attention to that form. I found some French, Belgians and Italians making books on serious themes, their texts working in conjunction with wonderful drawings. Among them were five or six artists whose work intrigued me.
Particularly appealing was the influence of classic cinema in these works; not Batman, not Manga, but old movies. Film is an art form I’ve studied for years. I’m particularly attached to some films and directors whom nobody watches much nowadays, mostly from the era of the mid-60’s into the 70’s, and mostly European. It was that cinematic influence that made me start to think that perhaps I could do my book like this, too.
Just as an experiment, then, when we got home, I started working on my memoirs in graphic form. Almost immediately, I found that, unlike all my previous attempts at prose, the work suddenly came easily, fluidly, and that I was able to express myself without the hesitations I have when I’m concerned about grammar and syntax. I was finally working in a grammar –the visual one--I know backwards and forwards!
That said, my method was first to write everything out, then going into it with the panels of artwork. Words first, then pictures. For some reason I had to have the objective framework of language as a kind of grounding before I began with the images. Many times I could “see” a scene beforehand, but I always had to write about it to begin with.
That’s how it began. It was the only the start of a very long sometimes painful, sometimes confusing, and often seemingly-hopeless project.
My agent Holly McGhee was a great help. For along time she acted like a good midwife, encouraging me to “Push! Push! Push!” But then, like a good editor, she reminded me that books have themes and chapters that make them easy for others to follow.
This good reminder fell on me hard because that was what I was most dreading having to do: to organize my memories, to give them an easy-to-follow chronology. Memories are disorganized , and not everyone you know or everything you ever experienced belongs in a memoir. I fought with this for a very long time. But it had to be done.
At times I got so confused, I found myself showing my book to everyone who came into the studio, in the hope that their reactions would give me a clue as to how to arrange the mess of my recollections. (I was so desperate I even showed it to the UPS delivery guy!)
It was finally Bob Weil, my editor at W.W. Norton, who put his foot down, so to speak, and told me what I needed to hear in the way I needed to hear it. He said, “David, this is your book. Nobody can tell you how to write it. Stop showing it to every Tom, Dick and Harry that comes along. Close your studio door, sequester yourself, take as long as you need to do, but make your own book.”
Before Stitches I would have told you that I didn’t have the organizational skills to put together anything of this nature. For thirty years I had been working on picture books, which are very condensed stories, limited in length and in the amount of text.
Now I realize that it’s simply a different kind of focus that is required to work in this expanded version of a story. And, by the way, all that work in picture books helped me greatly in telling this longer, intricate tale more directly, more economically.
Nrama: You mentioned some graphic novels from Europe that helped inspire you – what are some specific works that really turned you on to the potential of the medium?
Small: I hesitate to say only because many of them have not been translated yet. There’s a book called Léon La Came; Laid, Pauvre et Malade (in English, “ugly, poor and sick”) by Sylvian Chomet and Nicolas De Crècy. They made the animated film The Triplets of Bellville, a work of pure genius in my opinion and so, naturally, I was drawn to their book. It was that book that really changed my mind about graphic novels.
Then came other artists and other books: specifically, an artist named Blutch and his book Mitchum. Gipi—an Italian-- made Notes for a War Story, and Garage Band, both of which are cinematic, both beautifully drawn. ( Both of those titles have been translated into English.) Also available now in English translation is Blue Pills by Frederick Peeters.
Oh, and there’s a new book called Pinocchio by an artist named Winchluss; an extraordinary thing, a Zap Comix-like retelling of the Collodi original, funny, horrifying, outrageous, irreverent, obscene, and deadly serious. When that thing gets translated, I feel it’s going to blow everyone out of the water over here.
Nrama: Getting back to the creation of Stitches – what was the process of self-analysis that you went through? Did you use any books or therapeutic exercises?
Small: I tried to follow the example shown me by my own analyst: watching and listening to myself patiently as I fought my way through my emotions, my rage, my tears. I tried to be tolerant and empathetic, but objective as well, and not sentimental.
Above all, like my analyst, I expected myself to get through this. I had high expectations that, if I could just stick to it, I would come out the other side a better person.
And by the way, one of the things that helped most to nudge me through was having signed a contract! I had that obligation to fulfill, and people rooting for me at my agents’ and at the Norton offices, not to fail.
Nrama: When you were creating the story, did you come across any events you had repressed or forgotten about?
Small: Yes. Sure. A lot. All of that stuff is put away in boxes. I haven’t lost it, but since it didn’t seem to help the story of Stitches , it will be saved … maybe for a later date, another book, maybe.
Nrama: What kind of research did you have to do to get a sense of time and place in the book?
Small: I bought a load of books on ‘50s style and on cars of the '50's, which help to stimulate my memories.
Nrama: Why did you want to do so much of the story in the form of “Little David”’s dreams? What gives the book its edge is its combination of stark reality with that very imaginative universe?
Small: Our dreams introduce us to ourselves, to our questions and our dilemmas, in fanciful ways. Since some of mine have been so rich, it only seemed natural to include them. To make the dreams seem like a continuum of the boy’s life, I tried to fold them in with no obvious break in the action.
The story would have been much more harsh without those fanciful elements, possibly less interesting. Again, the influence here comes from film, especially from Luis Buñuel and Roman Polanski, two of my heroes.
Nrama: The book also has an extensive use of silence, such as the sequence where the rain falls on the city. Many autobiographical comics use a lot of narration, but I was intrigued by how you emphasized the visual aspects of the story.
Small: That moment where I fell to the floor in my analyst’s office and wept—when I came to illustrating it—came back to me with the force of … well, of an emotional downpour. To make it hit the reader with the same force was a problem that had to be worked out carefully.
I had tried writing about the moment but it always fell flat. It meant nothing. It was—and is-- beyond my powers of language to describe fully. Only images could do it. Rain, rain everywhere and on everything. (That whole scene takes up nine full pages.)
And there is what makes this form-- the graphic book-- potentially so very powerful: words analyze and guide us toward an objective view of experience, while pictures –like music-- dive straight for the heart. When the two work well together, I believe you’ve got a powerful tool in your hands.
Nrama: It has the effect you described – it’s like nature itself is unleashing all those emotions.
Small: I knew it was good when I did it. (laughs) I knew it was working.
Nrama: Speaking of “working,” the advance reviews for this have been highly laudatory, and you’ve gotten your first taste of award nominations. How does it feel to have broken into the medium of comics with such a splash?
Small: Well, it’s probably because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. (laughs)
Nrama: Has working on Stitches got you into any current comics?
Small: I just read Josh Neufeld’s A.D.; New Orleans After the Deluge and loved it. I also liked Guy Delisle’s Pyong Yang. Interestingly, these are both non-fiction books and I generally don’t read non-fiction. The pictures definitely helped to draw me into the subject matter in both cases.
I already mentioned Winchluss’ Pinocchio, but I’ll mention it again because that one has really stayed with me.
Nrama: To close up, what do you feel you’ve learned from working on this graphic novel, and what do you feel is the potential you have in this medium?
Small: Everyone talks about it as a new medium, but to me it feels like it has been around a long time. This is just a new wrinkle of something that has being honed for more than a century. What’s new about it is that it is now happening in a book.
In books –unlike on a screen--the viewer/reader isjmore in control of his experience. The interaction of words and pictures in comics, in film, in picture books, and now in so-called graphic novels, when it’s done right, is very effective, very powerful. But it has to be done right, and that isn’t easy, not in any medium.
I feel fortunate to have got it right this one time. I hope to be able to do it again.
Stitches is in stores now.
Zack Smith (email@example.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama