In his second solo picture book, Before, Now, Daniel Salmieri tells the story of one person’s life—and the paradoxes of life itself—through a series of opposites. His protagonist grows up in “a little home on a big street” eating “squishy oatmeal in a hard bowl”; time passes and she goes off to college and studies from “thick books made up of thin sheets of paper”; eventually, she becomes a parent herself, feeding “squishy oatmeal” in a bowl to her child. We spoke with Salmieri about the book’s origins, the hard work of coming up with a title, and the personal Easter eggs that appear on the pages—all while he was sitting in his car in Brooklyn one morning, waiting out the time limit for alternate side parking.
This is your first solo book since 2018’s Bear and Wolf. How did you know it was time to be both author and illustrator again? And how did you arrive at the concept of telling a life story?
I knew I wanted to keep writing books on my own. I was writing a lot and waiting until something felt special enough to take it on. It feels so much bigger when it’s just your name on it. I started writing descriptions of random things and then I started writing opposites for a couple of days.
Once I saw that it could be someone’s life, it happened pretty fast—I just needed to arrange them. Then I kicked the whole thing around for months. I don’t write every single day. I come to it, see where it’s at, put it away, come back to it.
Definitely having my son, who will be three years old next month, made this theme make more sense to me. I wouldn’t have written this story before having him.
Before, Now is one of the first books to be published by Lauri Hornik’s new Rocky Pond imprint. How did that collaboration come about?
When we [Salmieri and his agent, Rebecca Sherman at Writers House] sent the book around to different publishers, we sent it to Lauri not knowing that she had her own imprint in the works. I think that we had already signed contracts and were working on the book when I found out that it would be with her new imprint. I also worked with [executive art director] Lily Malcolm, whom I had worked with on Dragons Love Tacos. She and I are good friends. The imprint felt like a good fit.
You’ve spoken about your love for working with pencil—in Bear and Wolf and here in Before, Now. What’s the attraction?
It just felt right, the softness of it, the fuzziness of it—it felt like memory to me. I enjoyed blending different colors in unexpected ways. Some of those pages are totally filled with colored pencil—I had to color an entire night sky black and it took two days. I was really into color pencil at the time. Then I needed to take a break from it.
The spreads are a mix of tableau-like compositions and closely observed details. How did that look evolve?
I had gotten away from doing really detailed things—especially with Bear and Wolf where everything was pretty stark. For this book, it was important for the storytelling that I include lots and lots of details because the writing doesn’t tell any about Ava’s [the protagonist’s] life. So much of the story had to be told visually so it was important to focus on these details.
I do really love drawing details. Designing all the little specific elements is a big part of my enjoyment in making illustrations.
Like the brightly patterned sneakers that the protagonist and a friend wear in one scene?
There’s a lot of footwear in the book. I like shoes and sneakers, so every pair of sneakers and shoes has been considered.
Also, if you look closely enough, objects appear and reappear in the illustrations. There are lots and lots of threads. For example, there are plants: in the beginning there’s a pothos plant in the window [of the kitchen] when Ava is a baby, and there’s a clipping from that plant when she’s in college. The idea is that when she left for college she took a clipping and is rooting it in her dorm room. Then we see it again when she has a baby, and in the last spread when she’s a grandma. That’s taken from my life: my dad really has a green thumb, and he’s had plants that he’s kept alive since before I was born, and he gives me clippings.
There’s a mug that has dolphins on it—a mug I grew up with—that appears multiple times.
There’s a lot of me from my childhood in the book, but it’s also mushed together with things from my wife and my mom and dad. It’s an amalgamation of moments.
What are other details from your life in the book?
I really like the scene with the text, “A cold jacket on a warm face.” That was a sense memory from when I was a kid. My parents had been out for the night and it was cold outside and I remember them coming in and hugging my mom and feeling her cold jacket on my face.
Another spread that’s important to me is when Ava and her husband are leaving the hospital with their baby and it’s raining—just like when we left the hospital with my son. And the car that the characters go to is a Volvo, my childhood car.
You’ve been referring to your protagonist as Ava—the book’s press release does as well—but she’s actually not named in the book. What’s the story behind that?
Ava was originally going to be the title of the book. I liked the name Ava because it’s a palindrome, it’s visually symmetrical, and the book is about the repeating themes of life. But when I was working on the book, an action movie came out called Ava and I realized I had to come up with another title.
That took a long time. I wasn’t ever sure I’d find a name for the book. I got really worried about it. It’s much easier to write a book from the title than it is to write a book and then come up with a title. I came up with the title Bear and Wolf first.
I wanted to be sure about the title before I told Lauri, so I just wrote hundreds and hundreds of possible names. I was reading them to people, I asked friends. It was a whole thing.
Reviewers were surprised at the contemplative nature of Bear and Wolf since they had associated you with comedic work. Before, Now also has a quieter mood. Is there something about working by yourself that makes you more reflective?
My personal ideas for a story don’t tend toward funny—right now, at least. I did try to infuse some levity in this book, and it’s not to say I won’t write something funny in the future. I really enjoy illustrating funny topics and maybe I’ll get back to it. But it’s nice to do more serious things. Because for a while comedy was all everybody thought I could do.
What’s next for you?
My wife, Sophia Haas, and I are doing a book. We co-wrote a story and we’re co-illustrating it. I’m not sure of the publication date—within the next year and half. She’s an artist but she’s never done a book before.
It’s going really well so far. We’re at the very beginning of it. We have the manuscript almost all done, and now we’re just beginning the sketching process. It’s going to be a collage because she’s primarily a collage artist.
How is this collaboration different from your other experiences?
It’s very different. This is really a 50/50 collaboration where the lines are kind of blurred, not like other author-illustrator collaborations I’ve done. We both wrote it and we’re both illustrating it. I’m a fan of her art, so it’s fun for me to see where she goes with ideas. I really like collaborating. I’m not the kind of person who loves working alone all the time. After this book with Sophia, I’ll probably go back and do more on my own. I’m open to going back and forth, really. I’m taking it one book at a time.
Thanks for talking to us in your car. Did the alternate side parking thing work out?
I just saw the ticketing person go by. I think I’m safe.
Before, Now by Daniel Salmieri. Rocky Pond, $19.99 June 6 ISBN 978-0-5934-6197-6