Many people love circuses, but who ever thinks about how all those performers get fed? Kate Hosford may be one of the few to have devoted years to exploring this subject; the result is her newest picture book, Feeding the Flying Fanellis (Lerner/Carolrhoda), a collection of poems narrated by a circus chef. Kate spoke with PW from her home in Brooklyn about her longtime interest in circuses, how she determines if a book will be written in prose or verse, and her collaborations with illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska.
Let’s start with your new book: probably the first book of its kind to be published. How did you come up with the idea?
When I was growing up in Vermont, my dad was involved with an organization called Project Harmony, which did cultural exchanges of all sorts. In 1989 he organized an exchange with a local youth-based circus, Circus Smirkus, and a circus in Tbilisi, Georgia, which at that time was part of the Soviet Union, of course. That’s when I got interested in the art form. I myself did gymnastics and dance – mostly jazz and modern – when I was in high school, so my interest in the circus seemed to come naturally from those interests.
Then when I wrote my first children’s story in 2001, after my first son was born, it was called Little Chef, and the second one I wrote was called Rooftop Circus, so it seems that those two themes were interesting to me from the start. But it took years for me to able to combine those interests into this book.What happened after you wrote those two stories?
I wrote on my own until I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2009 to get my MFA. Actually, before I started writing I worked for a short time as an illustrator. I did editorial illustrations for magazines, and in the educational market. I started writing so I could get more work illustrating – I thought it would be better to be an author-illustrator. When I started writing I found it was much more fulfilling for me creatively. I felt writing was where I belonged.
Since you were originally an illustrator, what’s it like to see other people’s illustrations of your writing?
I’m so very happy to have others illustrate my work! Because of my own experience, I understand how incredibly difficult it is to bring words to life – it’s a gift. Picture books are such a unique form and I feel honored that there are illustrators who can bring my words to life. I’m delighted by Cosei Kawa’s whimsical, dreamy illustrations for Feeding the Flying Fanellis – they’re filled with interesting details for kids to discover as they read and reread the book.
So you went to Vermont as a writer, not an illustrator?
Yes, and the first semester I was there I did a Picture Book Intensive with the extraordinary author and teacher, Uma Krishnaswami. That was when I first had the idea to combine my interests in circuses and chefs. I started researching circus chefs online and I found an article on philly.com by Emily Tartanella about Michael Vaughn, who was then the chef for Barnum & Bailey. He talked about the odd requests he had fielded, from Russian crew members who put mayonnaise on every dish, to Trinidadian stilt-walkers who live off ketchup. I thought how interesting his work was: he had to cook for people of different ethnicities and people who had different quirky needs. So I started to write about circus chefs, but it just wasn’t coming together for me. I thought maybe I should do it as a nonfiction picture book, but then I put it on the back burner, so to speak. It wasn’t until later, in my third semester, when I was desperately trying to come up with a workshop idea that I started thinking about writing from a chef’s point of view. Once I had that structure, the poems came easily – well, I shouldn’t say easily! It took four more years for the book to be written and polished.
This book, and two of your earlier ones, Big Bouffant (Carolrhoda, 2011) and Big Birthday (Carolrhoda, 2012) are in verse. Have you always written poetry?
No, but I’ve always loved poetry. When I went to Amherst College as an undergraduate, I took a poetry-writing course at Smith College. It was an amazing experience—we met at the instructor’s house and sat around a roaring fire.
Beginning writers are often told that it’s too difficult to successfully write and sell a book that’s written in verse. Were you discouraged from writing in that form?
I’d heard that said generally, but luckily nobody tried to discourage me. When I sent Rooftop Circus out to publishers, I got lots of encouragement from editors that kept me going, even though I never sold the book.
Your first published book was Big Bouffant, which is written in verse. Did you first try it in prose or did you know right away you wanted to write in verse?
I tried for years to write it in prose, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Once I tried verse, it took off. In fact, the idea of the book came to me as a rhyming couplet – “All I really want is a big bouffant, A big bouffant is all I really want.” But I felt compelled to write it as prose. Finally I returned to rhyme and it took off. The experience taught me that sometimes the form an idea comes in is important, and you should pay attention to it.
Did you hear that couplet in a little girl’s voice?
I did, and it seemed funny to write about a little girl who wants a big bouffant. I liked the idea, too, of her seeing a photo of her grandmother with big hair, and I could see myself at Annabelle’s age going into the kitchen and putting all that gooey food on my hair to make it stay up.
Big Bouffant and Big Birthday are written entirely in rhyming couplets, and so are some of the poems in Feeding the Flying Fanellis. But many in that book are in different rhyme schemes. How did you decide which rhyme scheme to use in each poem?
Thank you for noticing! I love experimenting with different poetic forms. I tried pantoums and double dactyls and lots of other schemes that didn’t make it into the book. I felt very drawn to the pantoum but I also felt that the repetition in that form lends itself to a dreamy voice, which just didn’t match up with a practical chef. Form dictates both voice and atmosphere.
Let’s talk about Infinity and Me. It’s different from your other books not only because it’s in prose but in its tone as well. Why did you choose to write it in prose?
I first tried it as a rhyming book, but it just didn’t work. There’s something dreamy and meditative about Infinity and Me, a combination of thoughts and conversations. I wanted to make it bare and minimal, and let the pictures do most of the talking. I wrote many, many versions, and finally I sent what I thought was the best one to Gabi Swiatkowska, the illustrator. A few weeks later she sent me back the most beautiful hand-drawn dummy. Much of what is in the finished book is exactly what she did in the dummy.
Had you and Gabi planned to work on this book together?
No, but I wrote it with Gabi in mind. She was the only one I could imagine illustrating it. I think it was actually written it for her.
Did she know this?
I had only mentioned the book to her in passing, so I don’t think she was expecting it! But once she did the dummy, we decided to shop it around as a joint project. I know that’s generally frowned upon, but in this case, with Gabi being such a well-known illustrator, we thought it might work.
How did you know Gabi well enough to send her your manuscript?
We had met back in 2000, when I was still doing illustration work and she was living in Brooklyn. We were both part of an illustrator’s group – we met regularly and shared and critiqued our illustrations. I remember being completely bowled over the first time I ever saw Gabi’s artwork. I think I might have even gasped. She’s a gifted and highly trained painter and is able to harness her wild imagination in the most interesting way. This combination of rigor and wildness makes her work beautiful, powerful, and completely original. Over the years we’ve become both collaborators and close friends. In fact, we have another joint project coming out in 2017 from Carolrhoda; it’s called The Perfect Cup of Tea.
In prose or verse?
Prose. And I’m so happy that we could work with Anna Cavallo, my editor at Carolrhoda, again— I’ve been lucky enough to have had Anna as the editor for all of my books so far.
You mentioned that some of your ideas come to you in rhyming couplets. What’s your writing process like?
Coming up with ideas is actually the easiest part of the process for me. I love that part. I like to be working on several projects at once, both poetry and prose. That’s why it’s great to do picture books. I can invest in one, but turn to others if that one isn’t working. I spend a lot of time reading my work out loud when I’m writing, so I have to write in absolute silence. I have a writing studio right next door to our house, and I love having that separate space that is also so close to home. It’s very calming for me to be in my studio, it puts me in a different frame of mind. I have two sons, so I try to write between 9 and 3, when they’re in school. But I also sometimes write at night – while they’re doing homework, for example.
What are you working on now?
Besides The Perfect Cup of Tea, I have a picture book in the works with another publisher – more on that soon. I’m also working on a couple of poetry collections and doing research for a middle-grade novel about ballet – so I’m about to take a ballet class. And of course I’m doing promotional work for Feeding the Flying Fanellis, including interviewing the chef for Circus Smirkus, which was fascinating. He has to have all the food ready for as many as 90 people at once, on a very strict schedule – at least two hours before a performance. And since the performers are teen-agers who exercise strenuously every day, they eat an enormous amount of food!
Your longtime love of circuses has culminated in this book. Did you ever actually want to join a circus yourself?
Yes, I would like to have joined the circus as a girl, perhaps as an acrobat. I don’t think I could handle the tightrope or trapeze – they’re too scary!
Feeding the Flying Fanellis: And Other Poems from a Circus Chef by Kate Hosford, illus. by Cosei Kawa. Lerner/Carolrhoda, $17.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-4677-3905-4