A newcomer to the world of graphic novels, David Small has already captured the attention of the industry and of readers. Small is a veteran illustrator of children’s books—he’s won a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor—and he’s had an extensive career as an editorial illustrator for publications including the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and the New York Times. His first graphic novel, Stitches: A Memoir, was one of the hits of BEA, and has been making the rounds of the blogs leading up to its publication on September 8.
In Stitches, Small tells the story of his horror-movie worthy childhood. Readers witness his unkind and repressed parents treating him and his brother to silent and tense family dinners while ushering them toward a family tradition of madness. Certainly their worst infraction, though, was their neglect of the growth on young David’s neck. The growth was a result of radiation administered by his doctor father as treatment for sinus problems throughout his childhood. David wasn’t told that the growth was cancerous but, at age fourteen, he awoke from surgery to find himself voiceless and roughly stitched up from collar to ear. After leaving home at the age of 16 and putting himself through art school, Small eventually regained his voice.
In revisiting these events, Small plunges his reader into the mind of a child protagonist with all his odd, imaginative, unconscious efforts to accept and make sense of the world he lives in. Small spoke to PWCW from his home in Michigan, where he lives in an 1887 farmhouse with his wife Sarah Stewart, a children’s book writer. The two frequently collaborate on picture books.
PWCW: Stitches is both your first graphic novel and your first memoir. How did you come to write this book at this point in your career?
David Small: I’d been thinking of writing a memoir for at least ten years. It had started as a prose piece, and I thought it was going to be a novel. I showed a section to my agent, Holly McGhee, and she liked it so I just kept writing and re-writing and getting all twisted up in the language. This went on for years, with Holly encouraging me. At a certain point, though, I knew it wasn’t going to happen as prose and I wasn’t sure where it was going.
Then about four years ago, we were in Paris and a friend showed me some of the French bande dessinée, comics by French artists like Blutch, Winchluss, De Crècy, Sylvain Chomet, Gipi, and others. Here were fine artists telling stories with serious themes. So I came home and thought I would try my story as a graphic novel. One thing led to another and soon I was coming home from the studio every night, sitting down at the kitchen table, and just pouring this thing out. I’m glad I waited until this age to do it, though, because I wouldn’t have had the drawing skills to do justice to it before.
PWCW: As I read about your difficult childhood, I found myself wondering how you had managed to distance yourself from the rage and the hurt that must have gone along with the events you portray. Was there something about the writing of the book that allowed you to take a step back and look at your life from a more detached place?
DS: I never took a class in creative writing but I think one of the major things they say is to get rid of adjectives, in other words don’t try to twist your readers’ arm into one particular interpretation, and I did that with the drawings. Of course, there’s an inherent propagandistic thing with any picture because it uses a certain angle and lighting, etc., all of which gives it atmosphere. For the most part, though, I tried to be non-judgmental and objective, and just portray it the way I saw it. I had read some memoirs about the Holocaust which had impressed me with their objective tone. It was a shock that someone who grew up in Auschwitz could be objective. Not that my experience was equivalent to that, but this seemed to me to be the best way to approach the recounting of a difficult experience. I wanted to let the facts speak for themselves.
PWCW: What was it like for you to relive this part of your life as you worked on the story?
DS: It was really in the drawing that I brought my family and memories back in a vivid way. When I began drawing my mother, I could feel her there with me. Her presence, which was such a malevolent presence, was all around me. When she started living in me again, I felt tremendous tension. One night, we sat down in a restaurant and I felt my neck swelling up beneath my hand. I was hoping it was a hallucination but then Sarah looked at me and said “What’s wrong with you?” with this horrified expression. I drank down my wine and went into the bathroom to look in the mirror. The swelling in my neck looked exactly as it had when I had cancer at the age of fourteen, and as I looked at myself in the mirror, it sank back down again in a matter of moments. I knew then that my body was expressing things that I wasn’t allowing myself to express emotionally, and I also knew it would kill me if I didn’t do something about it. I went home that night and resolved to do this book, if for no other reason than to face these things.
PWCW: I know that your parents had both passed away by the time the book was published, but did anyone in your family have a response to it, either positive or negative?
DS: Well, my brother and I had not had a civil conversation for our entire lives, really. We’d been thrown back together when my father—in a misguided effort to bring us together with real estate—left us his house. The culmination of that was that I told him I never wanted to see or hear from him again. What we were both really saying to each other was that anything that reminded us of our family life was just too painful to deal with. It really had nothing to do with who we were as human beings. But then one day Bob Weil, my editor at Norton, called me and told me to look at the front page of the New York Times. There was a story there of a woman in Los Angeles who’d faked a memoir, and her sister was the one to point the finger at her. Bob told me that if I hadn’t shown my brother the book, I had to right away. He said, “We can’t go forward if there’s a chance he’s going to say that it isn’t true once it’s published.” So I sent my brother the book and then gave him a few days before I called to see what he’d thought. Well, he said that it was like looking at a snapshot of his childhood. He couldn’t believe that I’d recreated those people and those places in just the way he remembered them. He asked me if he could show it to his sons, and of course I said yes. Then later, he came out to visit and we had a wonderful time talking. Writing the book was worthwhile if for no other reason than that it made that possible.
PWCW: Did the writing of the book change you in any way, as an artist or as a person?
DS: It was the hardest and the most exhilarating artistic experience I’ve ever had in my life. I don’t know if anyone who knows me would say I’m any different but I feel lighter now that it’s over.
PWCW: I love the way certain images repeat throughout the book, gaining emotional weight and resonance as they do, and I'm curious about where some of these came from. What was the origin of the fetus in the bottle, for instance?
DS: This is something that I really saw when I was playing after hours in the hospital, running around where I wasn’t supposed to be. I didn’t know what I was seeing at the time, and it scared the hell out of me. It was this dreadful image of a little man in a jar, scowling and floating in what looked like French onion soup. I remember looking at it and thinking, “It’s not alive,” and then thinking, “How do I know that?” and seeing its eyelids flutter and knowing partially that it was my imagination. It stayed with me because I knew it was something ancient and forbidden, and was probably even the reason I was forbidden to play in the hospital after hours. The image of this little homunculus became so important as I was writing because, even at the age of six, though I couldn’t have formulated the thought, I think it kind of reminded me of myself. I was an angry little man already myself, and that’s why it recurred in the fantasy of what was growing in my neck. It was this image of festering anger and repressed imagination.
PWCW: The book is very filmic, and you’re clearly using filmic techniques to tell your story. What’s your background with film, and were you thinking of any particular movies as you drew?
DS: My obsession with movies began when I was in college in the late sixties, when the Europeans started sending over all these movies. I especially adored Bergman. I didn’t really get Antonioni at the time but I went back to him when I was writing Stitches because I remembered this seven-minute scene at the end of Eclipse. It’s a parade of images and places you’re already familiar with but taking a look at them empty of people. I really liked the significance of landscape in that and in L’Avventura—those two movies are masterpieces. I like 8 1/2 by Fellini, and I love Polanski and Hitchcock. I don’t call myself a film buff, really—I’m not as well-versed as people who are obsessed with all movies—but certain works take on importance to me according to my own perceptions and needs as an artist. Everyone needs guidance from like-minded people, and, after all, the best way to be an artist is to imitate.