A prolific illustrator, designer and filmmaker, Eugene Yelchin won a Newbery Honor in 2012 for his debut middle-grade novel, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, inspired by his childhood in communist Russia. This fall Holt is publishing his second novel, Arcady’s Goal, inspired by his father, a talented soccer player and coach during Stalin’s reign. Yelchin spoke with PW from his home in Topanga, Calif., about growing up in fear, risking his life to read books, and the safety he found in art.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
I have a long answer and a short answer to that, so here’s the medium-size one. You know that I was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. One of the conditions of surviving in that environment is by shutting it out, and there is no better way to do that than through art, creating your own world.
We shared a communal apartment with several other families, and the five people in my family – my parents, my grandmother, my brother and I – shared the smallest room. When we unfolded our beds at night, there was no room for my cot, so my father would slide it under a big round table in the middle of the room. You know how tables often have carpenters’ markings on the underside? Well, one night when I was no more than four years old I snuck a pencil into bed and added my own markings –stick figures or something like that – to the underside. The sense of safety I felt as I did so was so profound that at that moment I became an artist. Drawing was my own mental space, my own safety zone.
Were you exposed to much art during your childhood?
Yes, I was a child in two conflicting environments. On the one hand, living in communist Russia was brutal, scary, drab, absurd. We lived with fear through our own existence, a fear that was passed down through the generations. We lived surrounded by lies; at school lies masqueraded as education. But at the same time we had the best classical music, the best literature, ballet, art. And I was exposed to the arts at a very early age. My mother was the manager of the best ballet school, the Vaginova Academy of Russian Ballet, originally the Imperial Ballet, in St. Petersburg—which was called Leningrad at the time, of course. She managed all of the rehearsals and performances at the Kirov Ballet in which the school’s kids participated. I would go with her, and watch the dancers from the wings. So I didn’t see the ethereal beauty the audience saw, I saw the real work of ballet—the sweat, the make-up dripping down the faces, the cramped muscles. I also saw the backs of the sets, which were not at all beautiful. In retrospect, it made me very unsentimental about art and I became a professional artist very early in my life. It was my job. And before that, as a child, I just drew away on my own, all the time.
Did your family support and encourage your art?
Oh, of course everybody said they loved whatever I showed them, but they were too concerned with survival to do anything more for me. When I was 18 or 19, my mother’s friend Tatiana Bruni became my teacher. She was a renowned Russian painter, theater designer and graphic artist as well as the stage designer of the Kirov Ballet for 50 years. She was also the granddaughter of one of the greatest Russian history painters, Fyodor Bruni, and was instrumental in developing the Constructivist Art Movement. So I carry all this history within me, and that’s why some of my art is the way it is.
Did you have further artistic training?
Yes, after high school I went to the Academy of Theater Arts in St. Petersburg and became a stage and costume designer. I was 20 when I designed my first show – sets and costumes.
What was the show?
It was Electra, and it was staged in an 18th-century building in the Winter Palace, the Hermitage. It had been closed in 1917 and was reopened in the late 1970s, with the show that I designed the sets and costumes for. If this were to happen to me today, I couldn’t sleep for the excitement! But at the time, I was so young, I took it for granted.
Why did you decide to emigrate to the United States?
I blame the books. My father had a huge library; our room was lined with books, which was very unusual. So I read Russian classical literature, which is “humanistic” – about what it means to be human. Now we lived in conditions that were a complete breakdown of humanity, and the books were teaching me something very different. I was so young that the difference between the ideals of what I was reading and the reality around me was character-forming.
Then around the time my father died – he died quite young – banned books were beginning to appear. They were tiny books, the size of a deck of cards, printed on cigarette paper and smuggled in. You would get them for a short time and then pass them on. In this way I read writers like Bulgakov, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. I was about 16 years old and I literally risked my life to read these books – there was always the chance that the person who gave you the book was an informer. Yet I and others in my circle read them voraciously. We were looking for truth in them – the truth about our own history. Reading these books brought me to a place where I realized that to know what I know from these books and to continue living in the Soviet Union would somehow implicate me in the crimes of the government.
Was leaving the country it a difficult process?
Yes, it took me a very long time. I didn’t get out until I was 27.
How did you come to start illustrating children’s books?
Out of a huge, old-fashioned respect for books. I owe my life to books, absolutely! So I pay for books with books. There’s a moment in a young person’s life when a passage from a book speaks directly to him or her – teaching him or her to be human, or confirming his or her humanity. It’s such an important moment and I want to give that moment back.
I always wanted to make books. When I left the Soviet Union I wasn’t able to take all of my art out – you literally had to get each piece of art stamped by a special department of the Passport and Visa office, essentially an arm of the KGB, stating it was okay to take out of the country. So I only brought some of my theatre designs, and lots of my costume designs. I arrived in Boston and took my work to the art director at the Boston Globe. He looked at about 15 designs, and assumed they were illustrations and gave me an illustration assignment. I spoke almost no English and was in that eager immigrant state – “yes, yes, I can do anything. “One of my very first illustrations for the Globe ended up in the Graphis Annual of Advertising and Editorial Graphics and so I became an editorial illustrator. And I did film, and other things.
What do you mean, you “did film and other things?”
Foreign movies, particularly American movies. were rarely screened in the Soviet Union. That gave them a taste of forbidden fruit, so naturally, when I arrived in the United States I had to try that fruit. I ended up in Los Angeles at the USC graduate film program and went on to direct TV commercials. Later, a combination of my film work and my illustration work led me to character design for animated features. The most fun thing I ever did was designing characters for Rango. The film won an Oscar the same year, 2012, that I got a Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose. It was a huge year for me.
But to get back to children’s books – I was always attracted to the idea of illustrating books and so I joined SCBWI and started attending their conferences. Then at the conference in New York in 2006 I won the Tomie de Paola Illustrator Award. From that point on, whenever I took my work to publishers everybody said yes. Everybody adores Tomie, he’s such a wonderful guy, and he said yes to my artwork so it was easy for others to say yes.
What medium do you work in?
You name it, I work in it! Each story has its own feel, its own tone, and I try to find the media best suited to that feel and tone. I try to “speak” visually in the same language in which the story is written. And I love experimenting, so I try lots of different media.
Your paintings and drawings have also been widely exhibited. How are these pieces different from your other artistic endeavors?
They are different because they serve only one master: me. Kafka wrote somewhere in his diaries, “Paths are made by walking.” While I’m painting, I’m making paths to a clearer awareness of what my obsessions are, what drives me, and most importantly, what scares me. Because revealing in a work of art what scares me is ultimately what makes me an artist.
After illustrating nearly a dozen picture books, what made you decide to write a novel?
I wrote Breaking Stalin’s Nose for myself, not to be published. In the Soviet Union we had to develop a defense mechanism against the environment, and my defense mechanism worked very well. I made decisions out of fear and I survived. I lived. When I came to the United States I was a grown man, and that defense mechanism was part of who I was. But living in a democracy with that kind of defense mechanism became a burden. It wasn’t apparent right away, but eventually I had to do a lot of emotional and psychological work to understand how and why I make decisions. Writing Breaking Stalin’s Nose was part of that self-examination. The main character is so much like me. So after nearly 30 years in the United States, I wrote that book. I showed it to a few people, including my agent Steven Malk at Writers House. He really liked it and showed it around. I was pleasantly surprised that it really spoke to some people, and they liked it, too.
Arcady’s Goal has a very different voice than Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and it’s also more complex, in terms of the relationship between Arcady and Ivan Ivanych. You write that the book was inspired by the photograph of your father and the Red Army Soccer Club; did your father have a similar story?
In broad strokes, yes. My father joined the army at 17, in 1937. He was a very talented soccer player and he was valued for that ability. He played and coached through the late 1950s. Soccer helped him survive World War II and Stalinism. Because of soccer, he survived – I’m convinced of that. And that idea can speak to people in different countries, at different times.
But he wasn’t an orphan, like Arcady, was he?
No. I think the idea of making him an orphan came from Breaking Stalin’s Nose. It’s not the same character in both books, but Arcady’s Goal is about what could happen to a character like Sascha as an orphan in that environment. In a way, they’re companion books: if Breaking Stalin’s Nose is about fear, then Arcady’s Goal is about courage.
Sascha in Breaking Stalin’s Nose is such a trusting character; readers ache for his naiveté as they understand the falsity of Stalinism and Communism long before he does. And you say that he is a lot like you. Arcady has a very different personality. Was it more difficult to write his story?
With Breaking Stalin’s Nose, I couldn’t write the story in the traditional three-act structure, with a climax and a catharsis. There is no way to have a resolution with a bang to Sascha’s story. So, instead, a tiny little note of kindness at the end of that book solves his problem.
In Arcady’s Goal, there is an emotional arc. A character does change significantly in the story – but it’s not Arcady. He is hard-headed at the start and never loses that hard-headedness. He pursues his goal to the very end, challenging the notion of character transformation in a novel. But he changes another character, an adult, no less. Here is a boy who has nothing, literally nothing, but has enough power to change the perspective of an adult. He gives the adult some of the courage that he has in spades.
The style of the art in Arcady’s Goal is much more somber than that of the picture books you’ve illustrated, and even in Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Was this a conscious decision on your part?
With the middle-grade novels, I’m really making overly long picture books. I’m telling the story in two different media. I like this hybrid approach. Kids today are so visual and in my stories I’m inviting them into a totally unfamiliar world – they’ve never heard of Stalinist Russia – so doing it through images is a smoother transition.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose has phantasmagorical elements and elements of humor, and some exaggeration. Arcady’s Goal is a simpler book, tonally, and the art reflects that. Also, both books are told from a first-person, very limited perspective. The pictures in Arcady’s Goal give a very different perspective from the text. Arcady is not a very emotional guy, but the pictures reveal the emotion that he can’t express.
How is the process of writing different from drawing or painting for you?
Writing is much more challenging, especially because I am writing in my second language. It takes much more effort. I do a lot of visual research while I write and I design the book a bit as I write – planning where to put the images. It’s a two-step process, but I am thinking of both media as I write.
What are you working on now?
I am working on the almost-final draft of my third novel. I’m getting ready to give it to my editor, Laura Godwin at Holt. It’s called The House of Lions and is very different from the first two. It takes place in St. Petersburg in 1891 and is really fun.
I also have three pictures books coming out in 2015, two with Holt – Won Ton and Chopstick by Lee Wardlaw and Crybaby by Karen Beaumont – and one, Elephant in the Dark by Mina Javaherbin, with Scholastic. And I’m working on a wordless picture book for Holt. But my priority right now is The House of Lions. I want it to be the best it can possibly be.
Arcady’s Goal by Eugene Yelchin. Holt, $15.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-8050-9844-0