Farmhouse was conceived as Sophie Blackall mulled the purchase of an abandoned dairy farm in upstate New York, with an eye toward building a retreat for children’s book creators. (She did purchase the farm, and the retreat, called Milkwood, opened this past June.) Blackall knew that the property’s old white farmhouse, once home to a family with 12 children, couldn’t be saved—it was too far gone. After she made a few forays inside for treasures and keepsakes, an excavator buried the house beneath the dirt, and it became a wildflower meadow.
Though the house was gone, the vision of the family and their 12 children stayed with Blackall, and she began to think about how to tell their story. The book that emerged follows paper-doll figures of the children and their parents playing, cooking, and getting up to mischief. The interconnected rooms of the house are all sections of one giant cutaway view, which Blackall drew and built using materials she found in the farmhouse: fabric, old wallpaper, bits of magazines and school papers.
To portray what happened to the house after the family left and nature took over, Blackall transformed the piece of artwork she’d created, littering the floor with leaves, tearing the wallpaper, drawing the willow sapling growing in front of the kitchen window and the bear sleeping in the basement that a neighbor had told her about. At the story’s end, Blackall herself appears; readers see her venturing into the house, then sitting down with her paints to create “this book that you hold.” PW spoke with Blackall about the giant portrait of the house, how it came to be stored in flat files that once belonged to Maurice Sendak, and what you do when the words for a picture book come to you but you’re in a car with no pen.
Did the text come first, or the artwork?
I knew I was going to make the house, and to make it as one giant piece of art. That came to me even before I wrote the story. I knew what it was going to look like, and I started drawing up the house; I had a diagram of it. Then I got down on the floor with massive sheets of paper and drew something like an elevation on a giant roll of drafting paper. It took days and days. Originally I was going to do it as I usually do, in Chinese ink and watercolor, on sturdy, beautiful watercolor paper. Then I realized it was going to take forever to transfer it onto better paper. I just started building onto the drafting paper with bits of old newspaper and wallpaper I’d found in the house. It was almost a papier-mâché kind of surface, and then for reinforcement I stuck the whole thing onto extra rolls of wallpaper that I also found in the house. “Oh yes!” I thought, “This is going to be fun!”
And did you photograph it?
In the end I scanned it. It had to stay flat because there were so many tiny little moving pieces. That was the only time where my heart was in my mouth; I had to cut it up a little bit.
But then you reenacted the disintegration of the house? You glued the dilapidated parts right over the painting of the farmhouse and the images of the family?
I did. That was really interesting, and quite moving. I felt with this book—partly because perhaps the pandemic has caused us to live with our projects in a more focused way, because there are fewer distractions—I really felt like I was in this house. I built the rooms, the furniture, the people, and then I built the scenes, imagining what they would have done in those rooms. Because I met the house in that stage, I knew that’s where I wanted it to go—the peeling wallpaper, all the encroaching nature, the plants, the animals. To physically make that happen in the art, it was quite a lovely process. I did have to take a deep breath and say, “Go! Here we go!” But there was no regret at all. I didn’t feel any sense of “I’m ruining it.”
And I knew that the original house, the original artwork, was underneath it, too. I made the children and put them into bed, I painted their clothes… to me, it was part of pouring the love into this book.
It’s about how fragile houses are, and just how resilient nature can be. There’s a recent David Attenborough documentary, which is pretty bleak about the future, but he ends in Chernobyl, where there are deer walking around, and bushes and trees are all growing through the cracks. Nature is reclaiming all of it, which is just so fascinating!
Where is the drawing now?
We [at Milkwood] were extremely lucky to be the beneficiaries of Maurice Sendak’s flat files, where he kept his original drawings. They’re huge pieces, he had them custom-made, and they housed all of his work. The Sendak Foundation knew what we were doing, and they offered the pieces to us. [The artwork in them is with Sendak’s archives.] Earlier in the summer we held a retreat for children’s librarians and I showed them the original Farmhouse artwork. They asked, “What are you going to do with it now? You should put it in Maurice Sendak’s files.” So they carried it there in a procession, piece by piece, and put it in the files, and it was just a lovely thing to watch.
What about writing the story? How did that unfold?
People always ask, “Is the writing harder or the drawing harder?” The drawing is a puzzle, but it’s like fitting the pieces in together. You have a box of pieces, and if you look at them patiently, they will go together. But the writing!—the ideas and the words—they’re so elusive.
Susan [Rich, Blackall’s editor at Little, Brown] is incredibly patient, but I could tell that she was starting to get worried. There was so much trust involved. Little, Brown bought the book on the strength of the idea. I still had not given them a manuscript. So I had made this bargain with myself. I was driving down to the Virginia Children’s Book Festival. It’s an amazing event, they bus in about 12,000 children, many of whom leave with the first book they’ve ever owned. I’ve been going for years now. I was going to use that time in the car to knock some sense into myself: “Come on, now, you will arrive at your destination at the very least with your way into this book.”
Then the “check engine” light went on. I searched on my phone and found a mechanic near the festival, and when I called, he said he’d take the car, but he was going to close at five. It was noon on the dot and Google said it would take exactly five hours to get to the mechanic, and I thought, I cannot stop. I cannot pee. I was terrified. I just drove. And then the first line came to me, and then I got the second line, and it kept happening, and I found myself speaking the whole book, repeating it over and over so I wouldn’t forget it because I couldn’t stop to write it down. When I got to the mechanic’s I threw him the keys and then I spoke the entire thing into my phone and sent it to Susan. The ending changed a little bit, but basically it’s the same.
It’s magical when everything falls into place like that. It had been incubating for a long time, though, right?
I had been thinking about it for more than a year. There were things I knew. I knew that there were the 12 children, that the oldest child was going to be the last to leave and close the door behind her, but I couldn’t find my way into it. And then it’s always a dilemma to read other books that are similar to the book you’re doing.
There have been a number of picture books about old houses these past couple of years, haven’t there?
I suppose it’s from the pandemic; everyone was at home and thinking about home and domestic stories—that makes sense. Someone from my studio did send me a notification about a workshop class where the participants were to make a miniature of a falling-down, abandoned house interior, so there’s clearly something there....
Anyway, in the end I read all of the other old house books. There’s the fear that if you don’t, you’ll make something very similar. A couple of years ago Oliver Jeffers, who’s a friend of mine, and I made incredibly similar books. They just came out of the ether. We were thinking about the same things. In places there were sentences that were almost word for word. So now I definitely err on the side of reading them all—but the more house books I read, the less able I was to write my own. At the time I was reading Ducks, Newburyport. It’s a great, big, long, drawn-out book and it’s all one sentence, and I think that was in my head. It’s a gallop, you just keep going, and it’s life. You realize the stories don’t end, they just keep going, and they’re all overlapping, like the wallpaper, and the connecting rooms, and the one long sentence.
The book focuses, too, on the small things we have that we treasure, keepsakes. There are so many of them in the book, on the walls and the floors of the house. Where do they come from? Why do they have such significance for us?
Oh, I collect all kinds of things like that. It can be almost debilitating not being able to pass something by. Whatever it is, it seems to tell me that it has a story and it was once somebody’s precious possession. Objects become imbued with stories, they become mementoes and mnemonic devices. You forget the object’s story and then you take it out and you remember it. And then, just like that, someone dies and the object becomes worthless again, and everything gets cleaned up and sent away, and the meaningful becomes meaningless.
I collect other people’s scrapbooks. There’s one I have that is possibly my favorite. It belonged to a teenage girl just before WWII. She’s in her heyday, dating boys and going to dances, but many of the things are gone. All that’s left are the captions: “Walter gave me this.” But the thing is gone, and there’s just a glob of glue. I love that.
Was the ending obvious—that you would appear in the story, find the house, enter it, and start to imagine what came before?
I did struggle with it. In earlier versions, the house falls to the ground and nature takes over, and we all felt that was a little too sad. I was toying with some vision of what we did with the real barn at Milkwood, where we have the retreat; it was this big collaborative, community effort to restore it, and so many people helped in so many different ways. I was trying to do some version of that with the house, trying to have it live on in a different way. But that story has been done beautifully in other books, and I’m not sure it needs to be done again. And my genius editor said, “I have a very 11th-hour idea, take it with a grain of salt, but this book that you are holding was made out of the house.” And the more we have worked on this book, the truer it has become.
When we try to make something more accessible to a wider audience, it can become generalized or muddied or diluted. When we go back to the actual truth, it becomes more universal and more accessible. It’s a story about any house and any person and any stories that get passed on. It’s really about time, in the end.
You seem to have an especially close relationship with Susan Rich; can you say more about working with her?
We have done a bunch of books together now. I just know that she makes anything I work on better. Sometimes there are real epiphanies: we will have these intense conversations where something will unfold, and we are so excited we’re scrambling to get the ideas out, and we see things at the same time. It feels magical. And the rest of the time it’s just glorious fun. I wish for everybody to have such a relationship with their editors. The two of us love children, and we never lose sight of the child who will be reading this book. Some bookmakers make books for the child they once were, or for themselves, but we are very much thinking about the child.
You’ve said elsewhere that you hide a whale in the pages of all the books you do, but after a long search through this one, it doesn’t seem to be there. Where is the whale?
I don’t think it’s there…. That’s so interesting. There was a time I was passionate about putting the whale in. It was connected to falling in love with my husband and reading Moby Dick. And now that we’re just merrily in love, maybe I don’t need the whale.
Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall, Little, Brown, $18.99 Sept. 13 ISBN 978-0-316-52894-8