In 2006, recent college graduates Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg launched a year-and-a-half long international adventure, spending six months teaching English in Beijing before traveling to Shanghai, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Mali, where Scieszka conducted research with a Fulbright grant. The couple document their journey in To Timbuktu: Nine Countries, Two People, One True Story (Roaring Brook), which Scieszka wrote and Weinberg illustrated. The two are now back stateside and working on various projects, including Casey’s father Jon’s multi-media Spaceheadz series, for which they serve as “the general digital team.” From their Brooklyn home, they spoke to Bookshelf about their travels and collaboration.
The two of you met while studying in Morocco during your junior year in college. So it seems you knew from the start that you shared an adventurous spirit?
CS: Yes, it was kind of funny to go all the way to Morocco to meet a fellow American, but the fact that we both went there to study meant that we had at least something in common.
SW: We both definitely enjoy traveling and meeting people.
CS: And not just traveling—we both like hunkering down somewhere.
SW: Yes, we both love to get to know a place, to become regulars.
Casey, what was your incentive for applying for a Fulbright grant and conducting your research in Mali?
CS: I applied for a Fulbright because it seemed like a perfectly dreamy way to go abroad and do one of my favorite things: talk to people. I chose to apply for a grant to look at the role of Islam in the education system in Mali for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I’m very interested in the way religion affects the secular parts of life, because I think education is a critical part of a society’s wellness, and because I really enjoy hanging out with kids.
How did you decide that Beijing was the place you’d like to teach before spending time traveling and landing in Mali?
SW: I really enjoyed a lot of the Asian art classes I was taking in college, and I knew I wanted to see more of that. And I also desperately love Chinese food!
CS: I went to China in 2000 and had a really formative experience. So I’d been wanting to go back every since.
After your teaching contract was up, how did you devise your itinerary for your Southeast Asia travels?
SW: We decided to go to Shanghai first, and then kept being inspired by people we met on the road. Their stories inspired us to go on to other places, to check them out.
CS: Yes, and I’d say we became more confident, and more inspired, with each place we visited.
Inspired in what way?
CS: Inspired in the classic way of the more you see, the more you realize you haven’t seen. So we just wanted to get out there and see more!
At what point on your journey did you decide to chronicle it in a book?
CS: When we left for Beijing, we had absolutely no intention of doing a book. Then, when we were living in Timbuktu, we began working on a fictional graphic novel together and sent it to a literary agent, Steve Malk at Writers House, with a cover letter explaining how we ended up living in Timbuktu. He wrote us the nicest rejection letter—but suggested we write a book about the story that we’d told in our cover letter, and asked us to send him a new proposal.
So you switched gears and started telling your own story?
CS: Yes, and we discovered we had loads of material. I’d been writing in my journal all along and taking lots of field notes.
SW: And I had done lots of cartoons while we were teaching in China and as we traveled, so we’d both collected a lot of raw material. In the last town where we lived in Mali, called Segou, we started working on a proposal to show to editors. It was the start of us sharing a work space, and it laid the groundwork for how we collaborated on the whole book.
So did the book deal come together after you returned to the States?
SC: Yes, after returning from Mali at the beginning of 2008, we officially started working with Steve Malk, and Roaring Brook signed up the book that June.
And you then got to work finishing To Timbuktu?
SW: Yes, we went through a number of drafts and did the final version while living in San Francisco.
CS: We shared a big desk, and decided together how we’d tell each story. We knew we didn’t want traditional words and pictures. It was a new world for us, and a lot of trial and error. And a lot of fun.
SW: We basically created every single spread as a new entity. With each story we decided to tell, we figured out how we wanted to deliver the punch line—in words or in visuals. It was a real collaboration, not just between the two of us, but also with our editor, Nancy Mercado, and Kimi Weart, the designer. It was great to have a team that had such complementary skills—Nancy with words, Kimi with balancing out the look of a page.
And then Casey and I went back to Morocco for six months in 2009, and that’s where I did the final art, working from sketches, cartoons, and paintings I’d done and from photos I’d taken.
Steven, in what medium did you create the final art?
SW: Mostly Conté crayon, a compressed charcoal, and black ink.
Casey, in To Timbuktu you discussed how important it was for you to strike a balance between giving and taking while living in Mali, and you wondered how your Fulbright research was going to help the Malians. How, in the end, do you feel that it helped them?
CS: I wrote a report that I gave to the American Embassy, as well as to the Malian Ministry of Education, that wound up convincing them to give money to the private religious schools, called medersa, that they seemed mostly wary of. At these schools, all the instruction is in Modern Standard Arabic, so upon graduation it’s often really hard for students to find a job, since the language of nearly all business in Mali is French.
My report also helped convince people within the American government to provide funds for French instruction at those schools. And my research also wound up greatly affecting the local language story I wrote, which Steven illustrated, that is now being used in Bamanankan classes. All in all, it seems language issues became really important to my research in a way I was not anticipating when I first proposed my project.
Steven, how would you say that you, with your art, worked out the giving-taking balance?
SW: I knew I wanted to keep the drawings and paintings I did of people and of scenes for myself, so I could work from them later. But a couple of times people would show me an old photo of a relative who they’d want me to draw or paint, and I did that for them for free. I also made photocopies of drawings for friends who I had drawn, and when we were teaching in Mali I painted murals on the school grounds. Ultimately I knew I was working for myself, but by the end of our time in Mali I felt I had struck a good balance.
It must have been gratifying to travel back to Mali last month with finished copies of To Timbuktu, to show the book to your friends there who had helped inspire it.
CS: It was great, though kind of hilarious because no one speaks English, so they couldn’t read it.
SW: Casey got off easily, since no one could evaluate the writing! But they seemed pleased with the pictures, which was a relief to me.
CS: Going back to Mali this past time—and going back to Morocco to finish the book—really solidified that these people and these places still mean so much to us and continue to play a role in our lives, even when we’re living time zones away.
SW: We also kind of didn’t make sense to a lot of Malians when we were living there, because young couples in Mali just don’t do what we do. So this was a great way to have all our friends there see our work and how we’ve matured.
CS: Though they were all definitely disappointed that we didn’t have a baby yet, but…
SW: The book was kind of a baby, so they’re letting it slide for now.
Additional photos and information about the book and the collaborators' travels can be found at www.allthewaytotimbuktu.com.
To Timbuktu by Casey Scieszka, illus. by Steven Weinberg. Roaring Brook, $19.99 paper Mar. ISBN 978-1-59643-527-8