Interview: Lisa Brown and Adele Griffin
Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: The Parent Trap score music
The new novel Picture the Dead is a collaborative effort by Adele Griffin and Lisa Brown. The story, set in the aftermath of the Civil War, has regret, remorse, reconciliation, and romance as one young woman struggles to come to terms with those she's lost, and those who were left behind. This exclusive interview with the authors reveals how they came up with the story, and includes a ghostly encounter or two.
Little Willow: How did you two meet?
Lisa Brown: We went on a blind date set up by our agent. She is a very, very, wise woman. She said: "You will love each other, you should work together on something... Now, go!"
Adele Griffin: Then we went down this bizarre, wonderful ride called The Book of Humiliations, our retelling of the Salem Witch Trials, only set in a New England High School in present day. With extensive graphics and visual clues. Ambitious, unpublished, beloved.
Little Willow: For what it's worth, I would snatch that book up right away, as I'm fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials! Now, for Picture the Dead, which came first, the text or the illustrations? Adele, did you complete the manuscript and then have Lisa create the illustrations, or was it truly collaborative, page by page, step-by-step?
Lisa Brown: Neither, really. First came these incredible 19th century photographs that we found on the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Online archive. The nameless people in those old photos just reached out and grabbed us, like they were begging for their stories to be told. And then I became morbidly obsessed with the Andersonville prison camp, and then we were both salivating over this exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about spirit photography, and then postmortem photos and mourning art; our various fascinations just grew and grew.
Adele Griffin: Yes, and also we'd re-inspire each other throughout. A musty, 19th century of some anonymous corpse. A necklace made of human hair. Remembering that part in Jane Eyre when the first Mrs. Rochester is dragging around at midnight, her fingernails scratching the corridor walls. We have a talent for spooking each other.
Little Willow: Who wrote the letters? I assume Lisa hand-lettered them, but did you write the text, Adele?
Adele Griffin: Nope, Lisa wrote the letters.
Lisa Brown: It was a reversal of our usual process, which was: Adele would go write and then hand a text document over to me, which I would edit - sometimes viciously - but the shape of the text was always hers to begin with. In this case, I wrote the letters and handed them over to her. And then she did the art! The handwriting in all of Will's letters to Jennie is Adele's.
Little Willow: It all looks very cool, and I like the fact that you switched roles for the letters. Lisa, do you sketch things out, or go directly to the computer? Both of you, which computer programs do you employ for writing and for illustration?
Lisa Brown: It really depends on the illustration. I often would work directly on the computer, tracing a photograph that I had imported into the program Adobe Illustrator. I typically use a wacom pen tablet instead of a mouse. But if I happened to be having a difficult time with a drawing, or if I was making a composite image from several different photographic sources, then I would print out the photos, trace over them by hand, refine the drawings with ye olde pencil and eraser and then scan them back in and digitally re-trace the drawings of the photos. Does that make sense? I have posted a little step by step, with images, on our blog, here.
Little Willow: Did the two of two ever disagree on how a character should look, or what should happen in the story? Did any plot point or character ever change?
Lisa Brown: People keep trying to get us to admit that we disagreed on things, but I really can't remember a time that we ever did. We are a strange duo, that way.
Adele Griffin: We are a peaceful duo. I think if we'd had to print out this book on a handheld press a la Bloomsbury, I'd still count it as a big win. Picture the Dead has always been a safe haven. I can unfailingly count on a note from Lisa to make me laugh or rev me up, and her creative process is very fluid and flexible. We were continuously veering in this or that direction throughout, moving the pieces. Never dull.
Lisa Brown: One character in particular who changed was Quincy, our hero. At first he was far more bookish and brainy, but he evolved to someone a bit rakish and snobby. Rather forbidding.
Little Willow: Do either of you work (or dabble) in photography?
Lisa Brown: I am the worst photographer known to man. I can't really figure out why. My 6 year old son is better than I am. In fact, he often approaches accidental experimental photography genius. Sigh.
Adele Griffin: He is strangely, perplexingly good. It's unnerving.
Little Willow: I think that Accidental Experimental Photography Genius should be the name of your next book. Or a band. What does a photo capture that words (text, speech) cannot? What does a photo fail to grasp or include?
Lisa Brown: Like any work of art, photography captures just one facet of the thing: nothing can be grasped in its entirety, really, no matter how many ways you try to get at it. I guess that's why artists keep going...they're trying to capture the essence of a thing, over and over and over.
Little Willow: Favorite illustrators, photographers, or other visual/fine artists?
Adele Griffin: All you, Lisa.
Lisa Brown: Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Julia Margaret Cameron, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, Henry Darger, Marcel Dzama, Quentin Blake... do I need to stop?
Little Willow: No - Perhaps we should have a separate interview just about art and artists! Have either of you ever had a ghostly encounter? Do you believe in ghosts?
Lisa Brown: My feeling is that so many people, people who I've known and trusted, have had all sorts of encounters or experiences that they just can't explain. Ghosts? I don't know. But I do believe that there is plenty that human beings do not understand in this world, even in the 21st century. And perhaps we never will.
Adele Griffin: Sometimes a strong imprint feels like a ghost. Recently, I dreamed about my grandmother, who died last year, and in the dream it was her wedding to my grandfather, only I was there, too, and I really felt as if I'd seen her, laughing and gorgeously young in January 1947, with red lipstick and a pale flower in her hair.
Little Willow: Oh, that's beautiful, Adele. Would either or both of you care to list your ten favorite books of all time?
Lisa Brown: You will notice that most of these are children's books. I am generally Peter Pan with my favorites of all time.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
The Girl with Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright
Eloise by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight
Sarah's Room by Doris Orgel, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Ghost Belonged to Me by Richard Peck
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada (well, I just read this last week, it might be grim for a fave)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (standing the test of time since entry to this list in '80)
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Lisa Brown: Oh, oh, oh, I forgot A Little Princess! That used to make me cry uncontrollably. OK, I admit it, still does. And Adele and I realized last year that we were both working on our own versions of the Turn of the Screw. Best ghost story, ever.
Learn more about the book and its authors at picturethedead.com
Visit Adele's website.
Visit Lisa's website.
I caught up with Adele in December 2010 for the Winter Blog Blast Tour (WBBT). Read the interview.