Friday, November 6, 2015

Interview with Daniel Nayeri - #HowToTellAStory Week!

The celebration of How to Tell a Story by Daniel Nayeri with illustrations by Brian Won continues! I'm thrilled to have Daniel Nayeri here to talk about how the book came to be and his thoughts on creativity and writing. Huge thanks to Daniel for entertaining our questions!

Can you share with our readers how you came up with the ideas for How to Tell a Story and what steps you went through to test out your ideas?

I love storytelling games. And there are several products out there that are essentially a deck of cards full of images, or a dice, and the idea is that you look at them and you’re off. The core idea at the center of HOW TO TELL A STORY was to give a little bit more scaffolding to that experience. And the reason is simple. I’ve asked teachers, and many said to me that their kids would look at the dice or cards, and say, “Now what?”

Obviously, kids have an amazing capacity for imagining stories. But often they don’t have any craft under them, to help guide them. They look at a bunch of images and the possibilities are limitless…essentially, they get choice-paralysis.

So with that problem in mind, I thought, what if you could prompt a kid a little bit, with a basic plot structure? The problem with that is language. If I showed a bunch of images and then said, “Find a protagonist for your story that can be either animate or inanimate…” I’ve already lost them at the word protagonist. That was when the color-coded system came to mind. If we just made all animate nouns red, and inanimate nouns blue, and places orange, etc, then we could bypass all the technical jargon.

I went home that night, grabbed my son’s alphabet blocks, and printed out a bunch of images from illustrators I admire. I made the prototype right then.
Sidenote: You can see work by Joy Ang and Aurélie Neyret, two artists I have been lucky enough to edit in the past. You can also see that I initially conceptualized the color-coding as a frame. Thankfully, our art director (Colleen AF Venable) convinced me that we could have the entire background be a solid color, and she was completely right.

With my prototype, I immediately started play-testing. I wrote prompts, created games, and got a sense of what worked, and what was too formalistic.

When it came time to think of an illustrator, our first and only choice was Brian Won. We wanted a style that felt “storybook vintage,” a modern take on Paul Galdone. Brian’s work has such strong iconography and bold colors and textures…we knew the images would still look great on a 1x1 block.

At first, we went for a more muted color palette.

Here’s an early look at the block template using that color scheme. 

It’s nice, but we quickly shifted to something more playful.

We also spent a lot of time thinking about what images would be ideal in each category (things, places, emotions, etc). What is the best way to represent “fearful,” for example? Brian and Colleen made a brilliant duo in that regard. Here we had really basic concepts like sadness or trees, and an artist would draw anything. It was our turn to experience a bit of choice-paralysis.

I remember with the image for “greedy,” we had a long discussion. The initial sketch of a snake was super fun, but I remember everyone had a different interpretation for it. 
I thought it represented “ambition,” which can be greedy. Others said “perseverance.” After that, we tried one with fish. The idea was that it was already a well-fed fish, but its greed was getting it into trouble. It also didn’t quite read right, even though the image itself is striking. 
We kept working on it, and eventually ended up with my favorite image in the entire project. Greedy squirrel. Look at that guy. He’s not sharing with anybody.
Around this time, we had locked down our package, which is this delightful box, with the cubes arranged around the book itself. But that created another challenge. How do we design a cover for the book that can stand alone, but also look good with 20 other images nestled around it? It would either need to be 1 strong image, bigger than the others, or a type-driven design. Here are three samples that I absolutely adored. 

We saw a lot of potential in the third option, and it’s easy to see how it developed into the current cover. 
Throughout all this, we were play-testing more and more. It was especially helpful to take it into a few 3rd grade classrooms. I also had the opportunity to show the idea to an ESL teacher, and she really pushed our understanding of where the idea could go. We immediately removed all text from the images on the blocks, and I looked into Bloom’s Taxonomy to organize my thoughts in the book.

It was visions and revisions after that, and even more revisions besides.

What are some experiences that helped you become a writer?

Ooph. I think the experiences that shaped me into a writer are definitely third- or fourth-date kinda material. James Tate had a brilliant poem on the subject. It goes like this: 

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems
They didn’t have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
“You look like a god sitting there.
Why don’t you try writing something?”

I read that and I see three equally important experiences for the ape to become a writer…suffering, pride, and the inability to do anything else.

I think we have a tendency to fetishize the suffering part. Lots of artists out there seem to be actively seeking it as if it was an entrance requirement to MFA programs. For me, as I see it in the poem, the experience is better rendered as the ability to see the world as it is, to empathize with it’s highest and lowest creatures at the same time, and to see their pain equally. But that’s not a particularly concise way of saying it. I wonder if anyone ever said it better than James Tate.

A more positive approach to this same idea is that we write in order to create a world that ought to be.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you said, “I want to make really meaningful art objects for great and terrible children.” What are some thoughts about your audience that you kept in mind as you designed How To Tell a Story? How did writing for children/young adult impact the work?

Art objects for great and terrible children is actually the editorial mandate I set out for our team at Workman. 

To me, it hits several points I try to make about our work:
We don’t think of children as quirky adults.
We care enough to call our stuff objects (even artful ones).
But we realize that to children, a kite or a good noisy fart can be an art-form.
And we think enough of childhood to reference the “great and terrible wilderness," where kids often roam, and need help in order to turn their faces to adulthood.

That may be pompous and overwrought, but it’s also true.

I find a lot of kids products try to be “cool” in their voice or their design.
They either pander, or they pretend that a kid is interested in the exact same things as a 30-something hipster. To me, there is as implicit disdain for children in a product like that. It feels like an adult—afraid of looking silly in front of other adults—trying to entertain kids while also sneering at them. I don’t like that feeling. I’m not trying to preserve some sense of coolness. I want to share something that I find genuinely neat. Something amazing and wondrous. I also embarrass myself a lot, so what do I know.

What inspired you to experiment with the format of combining a book with a game that eventually leads to stories and writing?
The short answer is that I wanted the project to be interactive so that I didn’t get caught in the trap of proscribing—from on high—some silly formula for writing. It isn’t a project that tries to limit storytelling, assert three-act structure, or any sort of formalism like that. That would be foolish and 100 years out of date. But I did want to impart some basic ideas about conflict, motivation, and characterization. These are elements of the craft that you can find in every great story. If I could do that, while readers bounce off the walls with the craziest ideas they can imagine, then all the better.

What is your favorite indie bookstore (where is it and why do you like it)?
That’s a tough one. If you’re an author lucky enough to tour around the country, you meet some wonderful booksellers. They’re not wonderful just because they sell books either. But because they’re the beating heart of the community. It is not hyperbole when I tell you, I survive my trips caravanning from one indie bookstore to the next. They are filled with passionate people, with roots in the community, who create a space unique to the region. Often, they have a section for local attractions, folklore, and cookbooks. I walk in thinking the whole world is a strip mall, and I walk out in love with the entire town. How can I choose?

But to really answer your question, Astoria Bookshop is my local indie store and I love them. Lexi can chat with you for ten minutes and then pick out the exact book you should read at that moment. She recommended I read THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss, for instance, and she was completely right.

Finish the statements: “Reading is…” and “Writing is…”
Reading is skydiving. Writing is jumping out of a plane.

What are you reading and loving right now (or recently)? What are some ways what you have read influences your own writing/art?
I just read ORBITING JUPITER by Gary D. Schmidt. What a difficult and spotless book. I really love his ability to capture a teenage boy’s internal voice. I haven’t stopped reading Shaun Tan’s RULES OF SUMMER since the day it came out. It’s gorgeous and uncanny. As for influence, I have a pretty literal impression of it. I think of it like any other kind of nutrition (or fuel injection). Sometimes, after a bout of reading terrible books for a few weeks, I can feel myself unable to think clearly. After one short story by Karen Russell, or a return to Italo Calvino, I could survive for months.

What is the best writing advice you have received and what advice would you give student writers?
The best writing advice I ever received was my football coach screaming in my ear that every half-decent player in the world could do the big things right. Nobody gets a cookie for being good enough. The great ones, if you study them, were precise. It’s a game of inches, he’d say. Slow attrition over time. That’s why the best players do the smallest things right, every time, over time. Turn your elbow an inch to the left, and your throw sails wide. Hit your blocks an inch one way and you don’t clear a gap. Give up an inch here, an inch there, and suddenly you’re losing after four quarters.

It turns out this is true of everything else in life.

As for advice that I give…I’ve said this before, but I’ll repeat myself because I’m not really that important of a person, and chances are that if someone is reading this, they haven’t heard it before. Besides, it’s my best advice: Please, for the sake of everyone in your life, realize that your work is propaganda. George Orwell said, “Above a quite low level, literature is an attempt to influence the views of one’s contemporaries.” He was right insofar as he meant that all art is propaganda of some kind. All art is telling you to worship something, and yours is no different. And the worst thing a young artist can do is pretend that he or she isn’t affected by that desire to convince others to worship alongside them. The worst mistake is to imagine they’re dispensing Truth with a capital T. That Moses came down the mountain holding their manuscript.

At this point you may have already decided that I’m crazy. But if you’re still looking, then my advice would be to find out what you're telling people to worship, and make sure that something is worthwhile.

Bravo! Thank you, Daniel! So awesome to hear your thoughts!

Stop in to read the other 
How To Tell a Story week posts!
November 3, 2015 - How to Tell a Story Week Kick-Off - 
Teach Mentor Texts and Kid Lit Frenzy
November 4, 2015 - Jennifer Reed at Reederama
November 5, 2015 - Illustrator Brian Won visits Kid Lit Frenzy
November 6, 2015 - Author/Creator Daniel Nayeri visits Teach Mentor Texts
November 9, 2015 - Cynthia Alaniz at Librarian in Cute Shoes 
November 10, 2015 - How to Tell A Story - 
Share your "Why Game" stories - Teach Mentor Texts and Kid Lit Frenzy
Enter to win a copy of How to Tell a Story: 

I hope you've enjoyed all the posts so far! Don't forget the giveaway! Hooray for Workman Publishing and the opportunity to offer a giveaway of one copy of How To Tell a Story to five lucky winners with a US mailing address. In addition, one winner will receive a Skype visit with creator Daniel Nayeri. 

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