Dan Yaccarino is quick to say that his experience of the pandemic was “not nearly as challenging and difficult as it was for others. There was no illness. We were very lucky.” Nonetheless, isolating at home, “getting on each other’s nerves,” brought about an artistic epiphany and a book that he says is unlike anything he’s done before: The Longest Storm. In it, a family hunkers down at home while a seemingly endless storm rages outside, testing their connections to each another. PW spoke with Yaccarino about creative courage and vulnerability, letting a story lead the way, and the importance of an editor who knows when to say yes and when to nudge.
While the story of the family could refer to weathering any crisis, recent events make it easy to read as a pandemic book. What was the genesis of this project?
I circle around ideas for months or years. I had wanted to do something about a family that drifts apart because of external forces, then comes together to get through a crisis. It really gelled once the pandemic hit and I began to think about it as a storm raging outside their home. Rarely over the last 28 years has something come to me fully formed. This just downloaded into my head.
But I don’t think I actually mentioned the idea to anyone until I sat down with my editor, Maria Russo. She doesn’t live far from me [in suburban New Jersey] and we were sitting in her backyard, social distancing, in April or May 2020 and for the first time, in that one conversation, I structured the story.
And that was it?
That was pretty much it. I didn’t have to pitch other ideas. She said, “Yeah, let’s do that book.” And I said, “Are you sure?” I was almost trying to talk Maria out of it after I said it, because it felt very personal and vulnerable. I’m like, “Maybe it should be about a monkey or a robot?” [Laughs]
I’m very proud of my previous work and I love what I do. I love creating characters and world-building. But I felt like I had sort of plateaued. And I was open to something more vulnerable, more real. This is pretty much nonfiction—pretty autobiographical, very scary.
Normally this is something I would have reserved for my sketchbook, but that damn Maria Russo cajoled me and egged me on [laughs]. I guess I needed that. There’s no way this book could exist without her.
How did the book take shape after that conversation?
Ninety-nine percent of the books I’ve done have started with something written down or drawn. I tend to put these things together very formally. This is the first time an idea came out organically, and it was a very quick process through editing, artwork. It just had a flow, its own momentum. It was nuts.
We [Yaccarino and Russo] did go head-to-head on a lot of things. We had a lot of back and forth about every centimeter of this book. But she was trying to pull me out of what I had been doing. I had thought about a font—a kind of grounding to hold the book together, something that’s manufactured and perfect and round—and she came back and said she wanted me to do hand-lettering. It was scary and vulnerable for me. There wasn’t an artifice for me to hide behind.
How did you achieve a balance between raw emotion and hope?
There’s a spread in the book where on the left side the father is yelling and he’s red, orange, and yellow, and the facing page is black and white, and the kids are trudging up the staircase, and the father has his head in his hands out of regret. When I lined those two pieces up, I cried. It was a hard image because I’ve been there: you’re in close quarters, you lose it sometimes, you have remorse. This book took me on such an emotional ride.
A lot of my books have happy endings—we all like the big smiley happy ending. But this book’s ending is definitely not as broad as that. It’s not everybody hugging and everybody’s fine. I look at the ending as quietly optimistic: the characters are going out, cleaning up the lawn, rebuilding their lives, and coming together in a different way. It’s a quiet ending. That’s definitely due to Maria’s encouragement—she said, “It’s okay, it’s real life.”
Do you feel like the artwork itself is a departure for you, too?
The visuals in The Longest Storm are less conscious and less mannered—compared to the art style in most of my books, the approach is very raw. One of the first images I did is the lightning hitting that house, and you’ll notice a lot of lines that are rough and scratchy, not perfect. If I had done that image years ago it would have been a lot cleaner and stylized. I also found myself not adorning anything with patterns or anything like that—I’m used to creating more flourishes and details.
I had to force myself to leave it as and let it be. And that’s scary. A lot of what I was doing was continually stripping away, getting to the bones, laying it bare and owning it—and trying not to think about the fact that this is going to go out into the world at some point. I told myself, “Do the thing that’s closest to your heart, don’t look down, keep moving, don’t look down at the scary chasm.”
And what’s next for you?
This book has changed the way that I create my books. It was a pivotal moment. Just the experience of creating the nuance and the ambiguity in The Longest Storm has really changed the way I look at storytelling, and I love that. This made me a better storyteller.
I hope the book has a life beyond the pandemic. If it were too on the nose, I wouldn’t have done it. I wanted this to be more universal. We all went through this: I have my version, you have your version—and fortunately, the response so far has been that people can relate to the book in many different ways.
The next book I’m doing is with minedition and it keeps evolving. It’s called The City Under the City, and it’s going to be a very large book—72 pages, with multiple gatefolds. It’s a story I’ve had in my head and I’ve attempted to get it published for years in different forms. But in another one of these backyard meetings, I showed Maria a draft, and it became more pointed, sort of an adventure story that takes place in the future. I’m just finishing the dummy and I’ll be starting the artwork very soon.
It’s so exciting. I feel like I can finally get comfortable about being more free and open and confident about presenting these ideas that were in my head or buried in a sketchbook somewhere.
The Longest Storm by Dan Yaccarino. MineditionUS/Russo, $18.99 Aug. 31 ISBN 978-1-66265-047-5