Lane Smith’s latest book, Grandpa Green, is about as far away in tone from his last, It’s a Book, as is possible. He spoke with Bookshelf about memory and mortality from his home in Connecticut, where he lives peacefully (except when the bears attack) with his wife, book designer Molly Leach.
Is Grandpa Green a relative? Because the details of the story read like actual biography—a child on a farm, longing to be a horticulturist, sent to war, marries a French girl...
It would make a much better story if it was 100 percent autobiographical but it’s only indirectly personal. When you get older, you get a little reflective and in looking back on my own life, I recalled bits and pieces of people’s stories which I used to invent Grandpa Green’s life. And in the past few years, my dad and Molly’s dad have been really sick, so aging, in general, had been on my mind. It’s that time when not only our own parents but the parents of all our peers are leaving us. And I’ve always been interested in the idea of passing down stories from one generation to the next.
I ask because when I came across the chickens I thought of your childhood in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma informs everything I do, as does California, because I moved there in elementary school. And my Uncle Leo did have a farm with chickens and corn. If I really wanted to, I could probably pinpoint every detail to something in my subconscious, but it isn’t a literal depiction of somebody’s grandfather who is suffering from Alzheimer’s—except that, at signings, everybody tells me it touches them because it reminds them of someone they love who has Alzheimer’s. I didn’t anticipate that. All my other books are so goofy, I’m not used to reactions other than a chuckle. The people who are coming through the line get to the front misty-eyed.
So perhaps cynics will say this is a sentimental book that represents a pendulum swing from the tone of your last book—the cheeky It’s a Book.
Right! But actually, I did them at the same time. What happens when I’m doing a book is I get stumped, so I have to have another book to work on. I got stumped on something in Grandpa Green so I turned to It’s a Book, which was the quickest book I have ever written. Finishing that freed me up to go back to Grandpa Green and fix whatever it was that wasn’t working. But I showed them to Simon [Boughton, publisher of Roaring Brook] at the same time. It probably does reveal me as the schizophrenic I really am.
Well, it’s definitely a swing from one era to the next—from Grandpa Green’s life before cell phones or even—gasp! —television to the digital age.
To Simon’s credit, he embraced both of them. Some editors would say we want this one but not that one. I just presented the book at ALA at a breakfast and I was really impressed by the variety of books that were being showcased. It felt like it was 20 years ago. These were not books that seemed derivative of other books. I’m happy to be with these guys [Macmillan]. Simon in particular has been a delight to work with. He seems to get what I’m doing, but he’s also not afraid to tell me if something’s not working. I showed him some work recently and he said, ‘Um. No.’ I need that. At this stage, I don’t want to be with a publisher who is just going to publish whatever I show them because they think if they don’t, I’ll go elsewhere. Now that I think about it, the little kid in Grandpa Green looks like Simon. It wasn’t intentional but as I worked on him the nose got a little longer, the hair a bit more mussed until, yes, I think it’s Simon.
I must ask about the topiary. Do you have any shaped shrubs on your property?
We had one that looked like the cannon picture—a skinny tree with a ball on top. But two black bears came and they tore it down.
Black bears? In suburban Connecticut?
They tore the door off my studio and I guess they thought the tires on my car looked like Hefty bags full of delicious trash because they slashed the tires. Slashed the neighbors’ [tires], too. Then they ate all the birdseed out of the bird feeder.
Were these bears or gangsters?
Thugs! But definitely bears. I ran right into one. I was walking out to my studio, barefoot, and I saw this big black shape. I went back to the house and told Molly, ‘I think there’s a bear out there.’ [Smith makes a sound that suggests Molly snorted at this.] She got up and turned on the porch light just as the second big black bear walked past. Of course, I ran and got the camera because I knew no one would ever believe me.
Did you post the pictures somewhere?
No, but I reported it to the CDEP [Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection]. If I did Facebook or tweeted, it would be a cool thing to post but.... I should be better about those things but I’m not. After John, Paul, George and Ben came out I was, um, encouraged, to get a Web site and put up a blog, but a year later I read what I had written and, I mean, it wasn’t totally self-serving, but I was embarrassed by it so I deleted the whole thing. I went back to just having the straightforward Web site with the regular stuff.
I must ask one more question about It’s a Book—I see it’s coming out as a board book edition, called It’s a Little Book. Who would have imagined that?
That was just one of those things that fell from the sky. I was talking to [art director] Anne Dieble on the phone. She was the art director on John, Paul, George & Ben and she’s a friend now, having worked on my last six books. She called one day and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a board book?’ and I hadn’t. But immediately I thought, ‘What is a board book?’ It’s not a book. It’s more like an object. So the questions changed to—do you chew on it? Do you throw it? Do you sit on it? Do you wear it on your head? It’s so cute. [The donkey and gorilla of It’s a Little Book are depicted on the cover – wearing diapers.] It just makes me giggle because it’s so over the top and stupid. But the funniest thing is, we had this stapled-together prototype to put out at the conferences and 99.9 percent of the people who picked it up to look at it flipped to the last page first.
Does it say, "It’s a book, jackass?"
No. It says, "It’s a book, silly." I mean, c’mon. This is for babies.
Grandpa Green. Lane Smith. Roaring Brook, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-59643-607-7