We just can’t quit trains: they seem firmly lodged in our collective consciousness, even though they no longer figure as prominently in American life (or, in miniature form, as coveted toys) as they did a few generations ago. The train will always be synonymous with romance, power, speed, and fun; when was the last time anyone said that about a mini-van? So when we discovered that veteran author-illustrators Elisha Cooper and Brian Floca both had fall picture books about trains, we knew we had to find out why trains, why now, and what they thought of each other’s work. Anyone familiar with their books won’t be surprised that their approaches are very different. Floca’s encyclopedic Locomotive follows one family’s journey from Nebraska to California not long after the golden spike is driven into the rails at Promontory Summit, while Cooper’s Train is an impressionistic tribute to the possibilities of modern-day, transcontinental travel. PW conducted the interviews via email.
Geek out for us: what’s the coolest thing about trains?
BF: I enjoy the phrasing of this question, because I think the train can indeed be both geeky and cool (and I’m fine with both those qualities). I think what initially attracts many kids to trains are the “cool” things: strength, size, agency, speed. But trains also operate within a world of systems, schedules, codes, and fine distinctions. Enter the geeks. What I personally love most about trains is that they are transporting, that they take us places – literally and otherwise.
EC: The dining car! You can eat, read, draw, and watch the countryside fly by outside your window. An hour later you’re in Chicago (or Cleveland or New York, or if you’re really lucky, London or Tokyo).
Any advice to Amtrak on how to get America to fall in love with trains again? Do you hope you inspire families to take train trips? If a kid were to ask you, “Why is train travel better than car travel?,” what would you answer?
BF: First I should say that I usually have a good experience on Amtrak. Still, if Amtrak could replace electric horns with steam whistles, they could make big strides. A horn is a horn is a horn, but a steam whistle is a voice and a song. People used to know which engineer was running which engine based on the call of the whistle. Also I have some suggestions for the cafe car.
EC: Let kids drive the trains. Or let me and Brian paint the outside of a couple of engines. I’m half-joking: imagine an engine with massive Keith Haring-like figures hopping all over it! But probably the best thing Amtrak can do is just have their trains run on time. Or have French trains. Okay, I’m full of impractical ideas.
But yes, I hope more families travel by train. That’s a big reason I wrote Train. More trains, fewer cars. And while I actually love driving (road-tripping with my family up to Maine), what makes train travel better, beyond the environmental reasons, is that when we travel by train we enter a special space, a separate and expectant space, a gifted few hours. With trains, we arrive different.
In your afterwords/author notes, you talk about the journeys and interviews that helped you prepare for these books. How long was the incubation process? Any particularly memorable trips you experienced, or people you met? Did you connect with the train spotting subculture?
EC: I spent a year riding trains in and out of New York, and hanging around rail yards in New Jersey, sketching freight trains. Once I took an overnight train to California. I spent a lot of time talking with strangers in the dining car. When we were rear-ended by a freight train outside Donner Pass, we spent even more time with each other (we had to sit on the tracks and wait for the NTSB investigators to show up). The people I met were so friendly; some wrote me afterward. That dining car felt like a real cross-section of America. I hung out with more Republicans in two days of train travel than I have in six years of living in New York.
BF: I can never pick a hard start date for a book – they creep up more than they start – but from first real effort on Locomotive as it exists now to completion was about four years. There was other work in there, too, and then a lot of fumbling and restructuring of the book as I realized that I wanted to make something not just about a locomotive, but about the first transcontinental route, too. Traveling that route became a hugely memorable trip for me, a wonderful experience, one that injected a lot of life into the histories I’d been reading, and I hope life into Locomotive, too. I met curators, historians, and a fireman and an engineer who gave essential help in making the book. But no trainspotters. For better or worse the 1860s are out of sync with the trainspotters.
It’s interesting how both Brian’s highly detailed drawings and Elisha’s more sketch-like images convey the excitement and feel of a train trip. Could you talk about both your own and each other’s visual approach to a train book?
EC: I like to draw quick (I like sketching more than painting). I want my pencil to be pretty free, to capture gesture and motion. That’s a little harder with trains, which are solid and bulky (looking through some Tintin books helped me see how to draw a moving train). I try to draw the humor in small moments. I had fun sketching waiters balancing trays of food down the aisle as the train shook. They’re sort of like ballet dancers, in Amtrak uniforms.
BF: There’s something pure in Train that I appreciate, a distillation of experience that I think does a great job of conveying motion and travel and place.
My own drawings grew more detailed as I got interested in the fact that a steam locomotive, while not a simple machine, operates on simple principles. (Start a fire, boil water, make steam, direct the steam to move the machine.) I became excited by the process of figuring out how the engines worked, and then excited about getting the pieces of that puzzle in the book for the reader.
EC: I met Brian this summer [at the art auction at BEA]. Afterward we wrote, and I mentioned that I have such respect for his line (in pen, no less), as well as for the subjects he’s chosen. I had such pleasure looking through Locomotive. There are so many great details: a bridge here, a mesa there, some spilled coal. And I love what he did with smoke and steam.
Were these difficult books to pitch in the age where cars and planes are the dominant modes of travel? Do you think a 21st-century kid looks at a train differently from his counterpart of, say, mid-century America?
BF: Oh, no. No trouble pitching, at least not for those reasons. If only trains today were as healthy on the tracks as they are on the shelves! But certainly today’s kids must see trains differently than they were seen 50, 60 years ago. The railroads once were a dominant power in American life, for good and for ill. There’s something inevitably nostalgic about a train book today. Trains attract us, but part of that attraction is cultural memory. There’s not the sense, as there once was, that here is how you move the fastest, here is the triumph of technology, here is the opening of frontiers.
EC: I actually think there’s a real hunger for train travel now. Both for its simplicity, and also for that feeling of transformation I was talking about. That internal adventure. And, with trains ideally you’re not stuck in traffic. I pitched a children’s book on traffic jams to Scholastic but they didn’t go for it.
Both of you clearly love the sweep of American geography, and the Great Plains and American West in particular. What are the roots of that affection?
EC: Ian Frazier’s Great Plains may be my favorite book. It’s a wonderful history of “flyover” country, starring Crazy Horse. I’ve always loved that part of the world – I spent a summer in college working for the Forest Service out west. The land is flat, but not, with a little roll to it. Like an ocean.
I think it’s cool that Brian and I have similar Great Plains spreads with solitary trains working their way westward – left to right in the books – under a big cloud sky.
BF: A Texas upbringing – and living now in Brooklyn, too – have surely helped my appreciation for open spaces and skies, but beyond that it’s not easy to find words for what it feels like to be up in the Rockies, or out on the Great Basin – such silences and spaces! – or to be heading up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Each is a tremendous and daunting landscape. Each has a way of making a person feel both grand and insignificant at the same time.
Trains are such a rich subject because they offer portals into geography, history, mechanical and structural engineering, sociology – and that’s just a short list. Was there anything you couldn’t fit into your books that you wanted to? What do you especially appreciate seeing in the other’s book?
BF: The breadth of what one talks about when one talks about the train is indeed incredible. It’s really too much to get in one pass. There’s a lot that I didn’t feel I could do justice to within the framework of the book I was making, but that I wanted at least to nod toward and acknowledge. And there’s much that didn’t make it into Locomotive at all, nod or otherwise: mail cars, dining cars, prairie fires (think dry grass and engine sparks), train robberies, the rise of the cowboy (facilitated by the train making accessible Eastern markets for beef), and signaling systems. (A highball, for example, was a railroad signaling term before it was a cocktail. Cheers!)
What I admire and envy in Elisha’s book is how deftly he works in so many different types of trains, and shows all the different varieties of work that trains do, without it ever feeling forced or busy, without you ever feeling like the book is just cataloguing things. It’s seamless.
EC: I think I fit everything I wanted to into Train. At least, I hope so. This book has been a wonderful experience, from first sketches to last edits. I got my finished copy of Train a few weeks ago – that first moment of holding the book is always amazing, and humbling.
With Brian’s work, I feel like I’m seeing a fellow traveler. I’m drawn to other nonfiction authors; there aren’t many of us. I read that Brian studied with David Macaulay, which makes perfect sense (I love Castle and Cathedral). I think Brian is carrying on that tradition. I’m trying to as well, in my own odd way. The endpapers that Brian painted in Locomotive are so smart it made me angry.
Your books have very different structures and timeframes. Could you talk a little about the structure of both your own book and each other’s? How did you decide what was the right storytelling approach?
BF: The first drafts of my book featured a pretty generic steam locomotive on a trip from I wasn’t sure where to I wasn’t sure where, and the point really was just to follow one engine and one crew and to show how a steam locomotive worked. But as I began to wonder where and when the train might be going, and began wondering if there were a way to add another layer to the book, I fell under the spell of the first transcontinental railroad. The particulars of traveling that landscape at that time then did much to dictate the structure of the book. I lost the one engine and one crew I had wanted for the book’s through line – many engines and crews and two trains were used to get passengers from Omaha to Sacramento – and to make up for that the family that Locomotive follows became more prominent as the book developed.
I admire in Train that Elisha is able to use the idea of travel, the idea of the train itself, to carry us very effectively through the whole book.
EC: I wanted to make Train move. Horizontal trim, text jumping from page to page. A big storytelling question for me was figuring out how to include different kinds of trains; the eureka moment came when I saw I could have successive trains passing each other. But it was important to have an arrival. Sometimes I think all books end with home.
While Train and Locomotive are actually pretty different, though complementary, books (Brian’s being historical and mine being modern), they both share this sense of landing.
How do you see these train books fitting into the trajectory of the rest of your work? How are they similar or dissimilar from previous works?
EC: Who knows! I don’t think I have the perspective on my books to answer that. With luck, Train is another piece of work that describes the world around us, whether it’s dance or farms or trains. I just love being out in a field, sketching and taking notes, and I hope that children and parents come along for the ride.
BF: I’m happy that this book feels like an extension of history and transportation and technology themes that have interested me the past few years. I’ve done a variety of work over the years, and have enjoyed the variety, but it’s nice to feel that there is a core to the body of work, and Locomotive feels a part of that.
We’d love to hear about your upcoming projects.
EC: I’m painting a children’s animal alphabet book – my walls are covered with animals now. I’ve also started some essays similar to the ones in Crawling, my memoir about being a father. And I’m thinking of a nonfiction children’s book.
BF: The next books out are illustrations projects, each great to work on: a new Marty McGuire novel by Kate Messner, Marty McGuire Has Too Many Pets!, coming in January, and a picture book by author and swimmer Lynne Cox, Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas, coming in May.
Train by Elisha Cooper. Scholastic/Orchard, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-545-38495-7
Locomotive by Brian Floca. S&S/Atheneum/Jackson, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4169-9415-2