The idea for David Macaulay’s most recent book, Crossing on Time: Steam Engines, Fast Ships, and a Journey to the New World (his first with an autobiographical bent), rose almost phoenix-like from the ashes of another idea he’d been working on that just didn’t come together. Taking inspiration from a photograph on his studio wall, Macaulay, the author-illustrator of many acclaimed works, including Cathedral, The Way Things Work, and the Caldecott-winning Black and White, began a nearly six-year creative journey that culminated in his latest work about his boyhood trans-Atlantic journey from England to the U.S. and the steam-powered ship that made the trip possible. He spoke with PW from his home in Vermont, discussing the book’s genesis, as well as technology, boredom, and the benefits of walking a dog.
Crossing on Time is a story within a story within a story. Actually, it’s more like three tales: that of your voyage across the Atlantic as a 10-year-old; the invention of steam power and harnessing it to move ships; and finally, the architectural story of the construction of the SS United States, the ship that carried you to your new home in the U.S., bringing it all full circle. Which subject did you set out to write about first, and can you talk about how you arrived at the organization for this book?
You know, it’s hard to say. There was a great deal of sort of simultaneous development among each of the three threads. After I got into it, I realized what I was doing was Cathedral, except it is about a ship. I was doing The Way Things Work when I get into the engine room and talk about steam power. It was a kind of history that I hadn’t actually done before, which was interesting. And I also ended up doing a kind of autobiographical thing, which I’d never done before. I always shied away from that. I don’t exactly know why, but it didn’t feel like I needed to put myself into the stories I told or the books I did.
But I would say it really began with the technology of the ship. I had been trying to work on a book about inventions, the whole idea of inventions and how people invent things. I just couldn’t pull it together in a way that seemed to really work. It was too encyclopedic, and it was beginning to look like something between the internet and The Way Things Work! When you find yourself making a book that kind of replicates what you can already get online, you do think twice about pursuing it.
Having sailed on this ship [the SS United States] and having a picture of this ship hanging in my studio for years, I was looking at it one afternoon, and I thought, why don’t I try to do something about the ship because here I’ve sailed on it, and basically I know nothing about it? I was not aware, until I began working on this book, about its history, about its storied career, about its record-breaking feats—I didn’t know any of that stuff! My connection with the ship was that of a 10 year-old who couldn’t believe it was going to take five days to get across the ocean, from one world to the next.
I looked the ship up online and started reading about it. I became aware of the conservancy [the SS United States Conservancy], the group that’s trying to save the ship, keep it afloat and find a new home and a new use for it. So I contacted the conservancy and Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of William Francis Gibbs [the ship’s designer], and they were fantastic from the beginning. That’s when I made my first trip to the ship since 1957, five or six years ago, and it was amazing to be on it again. But now I was looking at it in a completely different way. I wasn’t a tourist class passenger who was limited in where I could go on the ship. I could go anywhere and look at almost everything, from the funnels all the way down to the engine room, and the propeller shafts. It was fantastic! It was at that point that I really began to understand what an extraordinary feat this vessel was.
The technology of today is very different from when you started your career in the early 1970s. Some would argue that technology is also shortening readers’ attention spans. What do you think today’s digital-native readers will bring away from engaging with a book like Crossing on Time?
I can only say what I hope they bring away—whether they do or not remains to be seen. What I’m basically offering is the opportunity to slow down and pick your way through something and turn the pages at your own rate and go back and look again. As opposed to online, where it’s very easy to get lost, “Where did I start this search?!” In a way, you kind of mimic the whole pleasure of an adult, not necessarily of a 10-year-old, taking a trans-Atlantic voyage. The whole thing slows you down. There was no rush, there was nothing else you could do before the airplane—to get from one continent to another—you had to sail, and you were made aware over that period of time of the distance.
The problem [with screen technology] is that it hampers the ability for boredom to take over for a while. We all need to be bored. We need those let-down times where you just have nothing to do, and then you have to fill it with something. You’re going to think about things from way back when, you’re going to see something in a way you’ve never seen it before, some little thing in your home or on your desk or whatever. And because you’re bored, you may start doodling; who knows what little doors might be opened by that possibility. But if you’d never let yourself become bored, and you never take your eyes off the screen, you’re hurting yourself.
I think people need the opportunity to have something that’s totally simple, totally analog. There’s a stack of pieces of paper in Crossing on Time and in there, there’s a journey. I’m going to start at the beginning, I’m going to work my way through it and control the pace of it, and at the end, if it’s worked, I will have learned something, I will have felt something, I will have experienced something.
Have your processes and perception of your work shifted over the course of your career, in light of increasing technology use by audiences?
I honestly think I’ve kept pretty much the same approach. I always want to get deep into whatever the subject is and then thoroughly enjoy the editing process, both in terms of the overall structure of the book, the amounts of information I include, but also in the drawings themselves. Ultimately, it’s all about editing. I love being immersed in information that I find interesting. You know, I sort of regret that I wasn’t in that situation more often in school. It wasn’t until I was in college and studying architecture did I really began to think, “This is where I belong. This is really killing me, but the demands here feel worth it.”
You use plenty of subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle of humor in your work—e.g., wooly mammoths in The Way Things Work. In Crossing on Time, naval architect Gibbs seemingly plays with a toy-boat version of his ship America. Frames of the SS United States are represented as slices of toast, or a large work-gloved hand assembles a huge ocean liner. When in your creative process do you decide to add these playful details?
You’ve been working to make sure you have all the information, the basic stuff. But that’s not that hard to do. What’s hard to do is make it accessible and entertaining at the same time. And I’m talking about for myself, not even for the readers. I’m trying to think of the earliest sketches for that particular drawing you just described where Gibbs is pushing his boat, and even as he’s pushing this brand-new, shiny ship out, the Navy is painting it gray because that’s the way war is, it just happens. I realized I could play with this, almost like a political cartoon.
I’m not thinking about it all the time, but I’m always open for it all the time. I’m always hoping that if I can keep sketching, I’ll hit on something that will be another way of steering this factual information.
I think from the beginning, from Cathedral even, whether you’re sticking birds in a nest in the top of the cathedral or little things, like alligators and rats in the sewers in Underground, I can’t help myself, frankly, because these projects seem to be going on forever once you get into them. You wonder if you’ll ever finish, and yet you have this deadline looming, and you have to play a little bit. The only thing you have to be careful of is not to play to the point where you undermine the credibility of the information. That always comes first.
For the scene of the family at the end sitting at the table during Gala Night and the ship’s photographer there taking the picture, I was just going to take the photograph that I have and basically draw it and so on, and I thought, “Ah, I can’t do that. I don’t just want to copy the photograph.” So I turned the whole thing around, that’s why you see the backs of their heads and you see the photographer who took the picture. It’s the same sort of jovial, festive occasion and all that sort of stuff, unless you’re my mother because she was sick the whole time, so another big meal with fancy French food was not really on the top of her list of things to do on board the ship!
Is she alive to see this book?
She is. My dad died, unfortunately, a year and a half ago, but he was the biggest fan of this book. I kept bringing it down to him, and I wanted so much to get this thing finished for him. And I got it almost to that point, as in the uncorrected proofs. There might have been a few more changes, and I took it down on the computer, on the laptop, and I took him through it page by page, and he was so enthusiastic. And then I gave a copy to my mother as soon as I got them, and she said she read it three times!
So this is the first book of yours she’s ever been in?
Yeah. It’s the first time I’ve ever brought the family in specifically. You know, I’m sure I’ve developed characters and stuff like that based on family and people I’ve known, but this was the first attempt to really capture the sense of the four of us, and to as good an extent as I could, what we looked like.
Can you share with PW what subject currently has your interest piqued—and what’s on your drawing board now?
Well, it’s consistent with the conversation that we’ve been having, and me talking about how important I think it is for people to take the time to look at things and notice things. So I’m developing a small book, maybe even 32 pages, possibly a little more, about what it means to walk our dogs. I’m taking one dog, and I’m going on one walk. And the point is, the dog stops every 30 seconds and you have nothing to do. You’re just stuck there, holding the leash. But you’re actually not stuck there. You’re given an opportunity and you just look around. We walk the same routes every morning and every afternoon and every evening, but this will be in the morning. And I see things differently. I see more each time I look. And I want to try to capture those two things. The dog and what the dog reacts to... and the more complex opportunities that walking the dog gives me. It’s not an earth-shattering idea. It’s probably not all that original, but it’s going to depend on how well I can get across the personality of the dog. And I don’t want to show myself at all. That’s the other trick here.
It’s really the dog’s story, and I am an accompanist on the dog’s walk. And I’m the one who’s figuring out how that little piece of engineering I’ve walked past a hundred times actually does the job it was put there to do. It’s based on a hundred walks, but I’m sort of trying to do it as a single morning, a single half hour- or hour-long walk.
Which dog gets to star in the book?
Oh, the oldest one. The 12-year-old. She’s a Labrador-poodle mix whose name is Stella. She occupies herself and gives me time to just look and think. It’s all about slowing down. We make this little journey every morning, and it has the same impact on me as, not exactly as a five-day journey at sea, but it sort of sets you up for the rest of the day. Sometimes I talk to people, but for the most part it’s just me and the built environment. And I’m looking at how these things work in the built environment. What they look like, why they look the way they do, weaving these things together is the challenge here, and I haven’t really figured it out yet. I’ve gotten about halfway through, and I’m thinking that the second half is really not working at all. Back to the drawing board! Then I turn around, and I’m back on the computer trying to rework the text to see if the words will give me a clue as to where I should be going. Or I’ll turn back see if, in sketching, I stumble on something. It’s sort of digging in both realms, hoping for clues that will guide this process.
It sounds like what you’ve said in a previous interview, that, as in life, you don’t really know where you’re going when you start out.
Eventually you do have that storyboard—building a house without a plan would not be a good idea! You need that storyboard, but the words and the pictures evolve simultaneously. For me, I don’t consider any drawing finally finished, say untouchable, unless they’re all finished. If I discovered something in a drawing half way through the book that means I have to change something that came before it, or rewrite a portion of the text, I’ll do it if it’s an improvement. And that’s why it gets a little crazy at the end, because you really wrestle with yourself: do I really have the time for this refinement? Is it that important? Generally speaking, it is, because you get to do this once and then it’s on its own.
I’m in that wonderful position right now of where I’m having to choose what I think will be the most interesting examples, what I think will be the most interesting reasons why it’s worth, first of all, walking a dog. But secondly, and most importantly, paying attention to the world around you. There’s so much to be learned and you can teach yourself a tremendous amount. The thing you really need to learn is the importance of asking questions. And that takes a little bit of concentration, a little bit of time, and slowing down. There are wonders to be appreciated at all levels, but it won’t happen unless we take the time to appreciate them.
Crossing on Time: Steam Engines, Fast Ships, and a Journey to the New World by David Macaulay. Roaring Brook, $24.99 May ISBN 978-1-59643-477-6