Harry Bliss is an internationally syndicated cartoonist and a cover artist for the New Yorker. He has written and illustrated more than 20 books for children. Harry is also the founder of the CCS Cornish Residency Fellowship Award for graphic novelists in Cornish, N.H. Joanna Cotler edited six of Bliss’s books when she was senior v-p and publisher of Joanna Cotler Books at HarperCollins Children’s Books. In addition to being a children’s book editor for decades, Cotler is also a writer and an artist. The duo has teamed up to create Sorry (Really Sorry), a picture book about what it truly means to apologize. We asked Cotler and Bliss to interview each other about their collaboration.
Joanna Cotler: Can you believe we’ve actually known each other for 20 years? I think our pairing might be a little unusual in that I had the enormous privilege of editing your first six books—five of which were bestsellers—and now we’ve written and illustrated a book together. I believe the first book we worked on was Sharon Creech’s A Fine, Fine School, followed by William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? I remember being blown away right from the beginning by your skill and artistry.
Harry Bliss: I remember really liking you a lot from the beginning, your high energy and that you’re very funny. As an editor—and dear friend—you have the unique ability to be both creatively authentic, professional, and hilarious all at the same time. I just love this about you.
Cotler: Ditto. I can’t remember how Maurice Sendak found out I was editing you, but he called me when he saw your fabulous New Yorker cover of the football players in a huddle and asked me, “Who is this guy? He’s good!” and then asked me for your contact info so he could buy that piece from you.
Bliss: Yes, Maurice Sendak wanted the finished cover art, but I had already sold it to a collector, so I gave him a very tight color sketch and he sent me back an original of his, which I cherish to this day. It’s hanging in my house in Cornish, right above an original Garth Williams from Charlotte’s Web.
Cotler: I would feel jealous except that I have a Bliss original hanging in my home. How did you learn to draw so well?
Bliss: Well, I’ve been drawing since I was in utero, a very long time.
Cotler: Funny. Especially considering that you come from a family of extraordinary artists, right? You’ve shown me work over the years by your sister, your father, your uncle—all so good. So, is it fair to say you were born to this?
Bliss: It’s true, I grew up in a house filled with art and artists. There were and still are eight to 10 working visual artists in my immediate and extended family. My mother would always say that it’s a genetic thing, this artistic ability, but I always felt it was atmospheric. I was inspired by my uncles, my cousins, my father, and my siblings—all gifted artists. I have clear memories of going over to my uncle’s house, entering the studio where he and his two sons had desks, and being mesmerized by what I’d seen. At all our family gatherings the subject was always art.
Moreover, art for me personally was an escape from our family dysfunction. I didn’t know art therapy existed as a child, but I was practicing art therapy from a very early age. When you’re creating art, you’re in control and this is very important when your childhood is out of control. Sitting down and drawing or painting a watercolor was very soothing to me and it allowed me to control some aspect of my life. I got into a lot of trouble as a child, but I don’t want to go into that; it’s funny stuff, but it’s also painful. Those who follow me on Instagram can see that I happily use that platform as both a personal journal and gallery.
Cotler: I love your Instagram as it’s so content-rich. And I love what you’re saying about what creative work does for you, how you made something beautiful out of difficulty. Bravo. We are both so lucky to have nurtured our creative selves. I was an artist long before I was an editor, and an editor long before I became a writer. I’ve found there’s a thread between all creative work: developing an honest practice, tapping into things that really matter, both personally and to the world at large.
You were my first and only choice to illustrate Sorry (Really Sorry). Thank you for saying yes to my text. What made you want to illustrate this book? Does it have anything to do with how you feel about the world right now? That’s what made me write the book: to remind myself that reactivity is a reflex that I need to curb in this overly reactive, increasingly uncivil world.
Bliss: Absolutely. Your words really struck me as a profound sentiment that is much needed these days. But I also have a personal connection to the word “sorry.” When I was growing up, we cried, broke things, and laughed... that’s it. Boys were made fun of if they showed their sincere emotions or expressed their true feelings. Rarely did I, my siblings, or my friends say or hear the word “sorry.” I don’t recall my parents ever using the word. And that’s a terrible thing. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that within the word “sorry,” there is empathy and understanding... love. These are essential to our experience of being human beings on this earth. Your manuscript addressed this directly. The word “sorry” is profound, it’s deep and can be very moving and I think this is important for all of us to understand. Of course, having farm animals as the characters was just icing on the cake for me.
Cotler: What kind of research do you do for a book like this? How did you settle on this beautiful, pastoral, classical approach?
Bliss: Anytime I begin composing a book, I simply start drawing without looking at anything. And that’s really the hardest part for me, roughing out the pacing of the book. It can be really crude, near stick figures or in this case stick animals, but that is very important. It’s like a first demo of a song. After this, I’ll begin to look at some reference of farms and I’ll go to the library and take out a bunch of books on farms, animals, Hudson River school painters—all sorts of books that will both inspire me and aid in the reference aspect of completion. I wanted this book to feel like Charlotte’s Web. It was critically important to make sure these animals had the right expressions on their faces… do animals have faces? Whatever, you know what I mean. Garth Williams was always on my mind.
Cotler: Yes, animals have faces and yours express the full range of emotions. I love that you’re referencing Garth, one of the all-time greats. I particularly love the way you’ve depicted Pig and Cow since Pig (a bit histrionic) is the most like me and Dog (Mr. Equanimity) is the most like my husband, Mark—and that it’s Dog who helps turn all that anger into love.
Bliss: I love that this book was the result of something that Mark experienced. Can you tell me about that again?
Cotler: This book was inspired by an incident that happened to my spouse at his job. A man was difficult with him and he responded in kind. After the incident, Mark thought, “This is what’s wrong with the world right now. We’re all just reacting to each other, passing along our anger and hurt. How can I turn this around?” And so he did, by being kind to someone who wasn’t kind to him, and then that man was kind in turn. When my husband told me this story, I was proud of him for trying to be his best self and I was moved by his ability to alter his response upon reflection. I woke up the next morning with the germ of this story in my head—the idea of a moody animal being sorry but not really sorry, until one animal is really sorry when showed true kindness. I think there are days when we pass on our bad moods. But if we’re lucky we have people like Dog in our lives—enlightened souls who remind us not to be slaves to our own reactions. I wish we were all more like Dog, but I think we can learn to be, don’t you? I wrote this book to remind myself that reactivity is a reflex that I need to curb. It seems like a message that’s worth passing on to kids.
Bliss: I agree, and it’s one of the things I love about our book.
Cotler: How do you manage to find humor in everything?
Bliss: Well, not everything, but it’s true, I do see seek out humor in most things. It’s a very interesting thing, a sense of humor. I don’t think I would be able to survive if I didn’t have this—life would just be too difficult. I guess it has been a survival mechanism and I’ve managed to make a living out of it, which is probably true for most comedians and humorists. You and I laugh a lot, so you understand where I’m coming from, yes? What’s your take on your sense of humor? How does it help you survive?
Cotler: Well it’s not only a survival mechanism. It just makes life better. We do laugh a lot and that’s made it so much fun to work with you. For me, being able to laugh is a high calling. I love to laugh. Growing up, I came from a pretty funny family—especially my father, who was wickedly funny—and we all spent a fair amount of time around the dinner table making up characters and stories and making each other laugh. I think there is nothing better—now more than ever—than making someone laugh or finding something to laugh about. I follow your cartoons avidly to give myself a daily chuckle. And I try to laugh about as much as possible as often as I can.
What else are you working on?
Bliss: I just finished completing all of the cartoons and comic strips for a collection that I collaborated on with the comedian Steve Martin—that will be out in November. I continue to do my daily single panel gag cartoon “Bliss” and submit cartoons each week to the New Yorker. But I also enjoy my solitude in New Hampshire and I’ve been doing a lot of outdoor hiking and exploring in the woods, packing along my watercolors, drawing pad and a little thermos of hot soup. You’ll have to come join me one of these days.
Cotler: I’d love that.
Bliss: What else are you working on?
Cotler: My next book, which I’ve written and illustrated. I can’t wait to share it with you. Big surprise: it’s about dogs.
Bliss: I didn’t realize you were such a terrific artist until years after we were working together. I recall you went to the Vermont Studio Center and I got to see your paintings up close. I’m a big fan. The work is very organic and feels effortless, but I know that there’s a lot involved. Is being an artist what got you into children’s books?
Cotler: Yes, I wanted to work in children’s books because as an artist and a lover of literature, I wanted to work with writers and illustrators, and one of my favorite people—my aunt—was an editor and a happy person so it seemed like a good path to follow.
Bliss: I’m curious, why did you choose a farm as a setting for our book? You live on the Upper West Side of New York City.
Cotler: Though I was born in NYC and have lived here forever, I grew up in a woodsy suburb of NYC and spent some formative time as a tot on a farm. But the reason this story is set on a farm is that it came to me that way: a bunch of animals that mostly live in harmony with each other experiencing disharmony. I wanted there to be a sense of community—and I knew you could paint the hell out of farm animals.
Bliss: What’s your hope for our book’s impact on kids? What would you like to see people walk away with after reading it?
Cotler: I try not to think about impact. Instead, I like to think that we’ve made something that makes us feel better about the world and maybe some of that will rub off? Maybe if I’m nicer/less angry others might be too? I am lucky enough to have been a children’s book editor for so many years, so I’ve spent a lifetime listening to the voices of others. It’s those years of listening, reflecting, and responding that brought me to this moment where I finally feel I can hear my own voice and have something I think might be worth saying.
Bliss: You don’t have children, yet you seem to know just what they respond to. Do you credit this to the child in you? Are you, like me, gloriously immature and curious? Childlike?
Cotler: I don’t think you’re gloriously immature: rather, you’ve never lost your sense of play. I’m like that too. I value play at any age—and what better place to play than with words and pictures? I don’t think you have to have kids—think Maurice Sendak—to make books for kids. I wanted to write about civility because it matters to me right now, and to the world, I think. And my voice just happens to be right for picture books. Maurice once told me, “A book has to be about something.” Not a small thought. What does that mean? I’ve carried that thought throughout my career—as editor, writer, artist, illustrator, art director.
Bliss: Two things are driving my work these days, although I don’t consider it work. Painting the landscape of Cornish and drawing cartoons to make myself and others laugh. That’s it. I’ve reached the age where ambition is burdensome. Besides, chores keep me occupied: shovel the snow, cut and stack the firewood, walk the dog, check for ticks, adore the wife, take long walks in the woods.
Cotler: Sounds like a good life to me. Tell me about your No Plastic diet.
Bliss: Not that long ago I read an article about the amount of plastic in the ocean and that had a profound impact on me. So, I cut my plastic intake down by 90%. I mostly buy local food, only food that isn’t wrapped in plastic or cellophane and if it is wrapped in anything, the packaging has to be biodegradable. I make a lot of soups and I reuse any plastic that I already have, trash bags, paper bags, glass containers, recycling as much as I possibly can. It’s not for everyone, but I recommend trying it for a month. You’ll see things differently.
Cotler: Thanks for spreading the word about this, Harry. I too am committed to leaving a better world for those who are younger than us, and shedding plastic is part of my plan too. Another part of my plan is for us to continue to make books that might add more love to the world. It seems there’s always room for more. Thank you so much for putting your love into this book.
Sorry (Really Sorry) by Joanna Cotler, illus. by Harry Bliss. Philomel, $17.99 Apr. 7 ISBN 978-1-984-81247-6