A Visit with Author Mac Barnett and the Voice Inside His Head, Also Known as Adam Rex

h1 July 27th, 2009 by jules

“‘That’s not just any blue whale, Billy. That’s your blue whale. And it’s your responsibility to take him wherever you go. Now, hurry up and get moving.’

There’s absolutely no way she’s getting me to take that whale to school.”
(Click this image to enlarge — and all other illustrations and sketches in this post.)

A few weeks ago, when illustrator Dan “Bellyache” Santat stopped by, he mentioned an upcoming picture book, Oh No!, written by Mac Barnett (writer and strongman-for-hire), and showed lots of great art from it. Being the illustration junkie and all-around picture book nerd that I am, I visited Mac’s site. I saw that his very first picture book was named Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem (Hyperion), and I was immediately intrigued. I also saw that it was illustrated by none other than Adam Rex, and I, at once, began to scold myself for having missed the fact that ADAM REX HAD A NEW BOOK OUT. I mean, if you’re as huge a fan of Adam’s books as I am (can you say, one of my top-five favorite contemporary illustrators?), then shouldn’t there be, I thought to myself, some kind of Jedi-like, clairvoyant, preternatural Adam-Rex mind alert that makes me just FEEL he has a book out and that I need to hit the library or bookstore? No? Oh crap, I just got behind at his blog, and this is what I get for getting behind.

So, I hit the library down the road that day, and it turns out that the book was just released at the end of June. Whew. I was scared for a moment there that I was tragically delinquent; that the book was, say, a year old; and that I’d have to hang my head in shame in Adam Fan-Dom.

Adam’s cover painting for the book, followed by an early sketch below:

Kirkus, who described the book as “definitely funny and slyly subversive,” included this in their review of the book: “Readers know what kind of place they are in when the endpapers include ads for giant-squid repellent and shrimp-of-the-month club and the author and illustrator snark at each other in the dedication.” Yup. You’re in Mac and Adam’s world. That’s what kind of place. And it’s unpredictable and funny-as-hell and…well, calling it “offbeat” hardly cuts it. It’s a postmodern wack-fest. It’s like Clifford meets Nietzsche.

Billy Twitters needs to clean up his room. He’s also been lagging on his chores in other ways—not eating his veggies, not brushing his teeth—and his mother gives him a pretty harsh ultimatum:

Things aren’t as cheery as they are for Emily Elizabeth and her big red dog (which Mac discusses a bit below) when you have a creature whose tongue weighs as much as four hundred cats. Billy learns quickly that blue whales make terrible pets and are not exactly welcome on the playground, nor are they acceptable to Frank Grunner, the class bully, who “always smells like corn chips, even when he hasn’t been eating them.” Billy weakly defends the whale, but then when the class know-it-all gets stuck in the blowhole one afternoon when Billy attempts to take his stranded classmates home on his ginormous, new pet, even Billy knows things aren’t exactly going to turn around for him. Whether or not he can make the most of it is what I won’t spoil for you, should you decide to read a copy yourself.

First, Mac’s writing is clever and funny, he possesses a style all his own, and if this is his first book, why then, I’m really looking forward to what comes next. As for Adam? You know how you love everything in an author/illustrator’s body of work—or, for that matter, the body of work of any sort of artist, whether he or she is a musician or painter or driftwood sculptor—and you worry that, at some point, he or she will let you down? Well, Adam hasn’t let me down yet. Billy Twitters is full of the humor and the smart details and the exceptional art work you come to expect from a title to which Adam Rex has contributed in some way.

Adam’s early sketch of Mom’s-ultimatum illustration above

Sure, Publishers Weekly—who all-around liked the book, calling it “tons of fun” (bah-dum-ching)—points out its “abrupt ending,” but I say: If this is Barnett’s biggest crime, I predict very good things to come from him in the future. And I predict that I’ll follow his books with a close eye.

“The sea is cold. It’s cold and wet, and it look like it’s trying to eat the dock. There’s an old boat captain just watching me, grinning. ‘Ahoy, there,’ says the captain. ‘That’s a lot of water for a wee boy like you. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were feeding a blue whale!’ He starts laughing. I don’t find his joke very funny.”

I invited Mac and Adam over this morning for a strong cup of cyber-coffee and to discuss Billy Twitters, as well as what’s-to-come from them. Adam popped in a little late — with the biscotti. And some shrimp. And, though Adam has answered the Pivot Questionnaire before (in the 2007 7-Imp interview), I felt a strong urge to hand that weird-ass questionnaire over to Mac, and he obliged me. Let’s get right to it then, and I thank them both for stopping by. Special thanks to Adam for sharing the art.

* * * * * * *

Mac Barnett; photo by Eric WolfingerMac, pictured here (and Adam): Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem is about a kid whose life is ruined when he gets a blue whale for a pet. I got the idea for the book in 2004, right after I graduated from college (and two years before the creation of the web site Twitter) [Adam here. Doesn’t that make you hate him a little bit? That he wrote this right out of college? Or maybe it would make you hate him, if he weren’t so adorable. Look at him–he’s like a meerkat.], while I was looking at old medieval manuscripts in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið [Okay, now he’s making things up.], or Culture House, in Reykjavík, Iceland. This is weird, because I wasn’t surrounded by children’s books or blue whales, but by centuries-old drawings of men sticking swords in other men’s heads. (I don’t want to spoil the book for those who haven’t read it, but death by sword is not a major plot point in Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem.) [But not for lack of trying.] In fact, almost all my ideas for books have come to me while traveling. The others occurred to me while taking showers. [Now he’s got a hundred children’s librarians picturing him in the shower. Le travail bien fait, Mac Barnett!]

Anyway, the theme of Nice Kid Gets Giant Pet has a venerable history in children’s literature. There’s Clifford, of course, and The House on East 88th Street, and The Mysterious Tadpole, and Danny and the DinosaurSyd Hoff built a career on pairing children with unreasonable animals. I wanted to play around in this tradition, to subvert it a little. [It’s funny, but until I read this, it hadn’t occurred to me that Mac was playing with this convention. His concept always seemed to me to be utterly new and out of the blue. But maybe that’s because I always pictured Billy’s whale as inscrutable -– barely a character, even. It might as well be architecture -– just something horribly big and heavy with which Billy has to contend.] And what struck me about these books was that, the protagonists’ initial reservations notwithstanding, their descriptions of giant-pet-owning experiences were so unfailingly sunny. These pets are practical, even. When the school bus breaks down, Clifford gives everyone a ride. [I can’t believe I didn’t remember this.]

“After school, the bus breaks down. I’m trying to sneak my whale past everybody when Mr. Whitbread, the bus driver, sees me. ‘Hey, Billy,’ he says. ‘Could you give these kids a ride home on your whale?’ ‘I’d rather not,’ I say…”

A dinosaur ends up doing some kid’s math homework. And, I thought, surely there’s a different story to be told here. And so came Billy’s ordeal, a nonstop parade of inconveniences and awkward social situations. This whale doesn’t talk. It doesn’t have a name. It’s not even mobile. This is not a fun pet. Even the ending, which leaves Billy feeling better, is not really a depiction of unalloyed happiness. [“unalloyed happiness?”]

Adam is a brilliant artist and storyteller, and I feel lucky to work with him. [Adam is a brilliant artist and storyteller, and Mac is lucky to work with him.] I love picture books—the interaction of text and illustration is so exciting—and I’m really only interested in writing stories that will make for good pictures. I’m a terrible artist, but when I’m writing, I always have little scenes in my head. Seeing Adam’s illustrations was like looking at the pictures in my imagination, only better. There were paintings—I’m thinking particularly of the two-page spreads that serve as visual punchlines to textual setups—that made me dance a little in my chair. [Well, this was exactly the sort of manuscript you want to get if you’re a picture book illustrator. Actually, if you’re a picture book author AND illustrator, it’s exactly the sort of manuscript you want to write. After an initial period of mourning the fact that I couldn’t go back in time and steal this idea, I finally accepted the consolation prize of being its illustrator. Mac really gets the collaborative nature of this medium. I’ve read manuscripts in the past that are lovely but sort of give the impression that the author approaches his/her illustrator as a necessary evil rather than a partner. It’s like Mac knows that he’s a robot lion and I’m a robot lion and the editor and book designer and…um…marketing team are all robot lions, but when we combine together we’re supposed to be Voltron. I guess what I’m saying is that Mac completes me.]

Adam and I have a book coming out in September called Guess Again!, which is sort of a demented guessing book. [That book is going to make your head bleed rainbows.] I had a lot of fun making that book with him and my editor at Simon & Schuster, and I think it shows. In October, The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity, which is the first in a series of middle-grade mystery novels, called the Brixton Brothers, will hit shelves. It’s about Steve Brixton, a kid who’s obsessed with a Hardy Boys-like pair of sibling sleuths, called the Bailey Brothers. He becomes involved with a criminal conspiracy when he’s mistaken for an actual kid detective, and the only way to prove he’s not a sleuth is to solve a mystery. Adam drew the pictures for that, too. [The cover gave me a nice opportunity to do something I really hadn’t done in a while, too -– a totally straight, “realistic” rendering, albeit of a preposterous scenario.] And then there are some more picture books coming out 2010. [Which I’m not illustrating, but I’m sure will be fine.]

As far as influences go, Jon Scieszka is the reason I started writing children’s books. [Hey, me too!] One of my first jobs was as a counselor for four- and five-year-old campers, and I would read them The Stinky Cheese Man daily. They loved it, and I loved it, and when I watched them listening to the story I realized that this was the audience for me. I just clicked over to Adam Rex’s interview and saw that he mentions Chuck Jones’s cartoon Duck Amuck and Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of this Book. Well, both of these are big enough deals for me to mention here, despite fears of looking like a copycat. Adam and I are working on a picture book that’s in many ways a love letter to all the things I’ve mentioned so far. I can’t get enough Tomí Ungerer, Marc Simont, James Marshall, or Judith Viorst. Everybody should be reading more Judith Viorst — check out the deep cuts. Jerry Smath wrote a book called But No Elephants that I’ve probably read 4,000 times. I love James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, George Saunders, and Ernest Hemingway. And I owe a lot to my college writing teacher, David Foster Wallace, who made me start thinking hard about how to write a sentence. (I still haven’t stopped.)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire for Mac * * *
(Adam’s ’07 Pivot answers are here.)

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Mac: “Unalloyed.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Mac: “Anyways.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Mac: I couldn’t write my stories if I didn’t spend time hanging out with kids.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Mac: Children’s verse that doesn’t scan.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Mac: I just found out yesterday that “Fudrucker’s” is a hamburger restaurant and not the dirtiest word I know.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

Mac: Sam Cooke’s eight bars of soul.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

Mac: My teeth on a metal fork.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Mac: Skipper on the Jungle Cruise.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

Mac: Contestant on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge. I’m scared of CT.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Mac: When I was a kid, and we’d go to church at school, the idea of heaven terrified me. The pastor would go on about infinite happiness, and I would think about infinity–day after day after day after day–and I would start sweating, and start crying, and then whisper to my teacher that I was sick, so I could go lie on a cot in the nurse’s office. I guess what I’m saying is I’d love to finish this questionnaire, but I’m not feeling very well, and I need to go to the nurse’s office.

* * * * * * *

BILLY TWITTERS AND HIS BLUE WHALE PROBLEM copyright © 2009 by Mac Barnett. Illustration © 2009 by Adam Rex. Published by Hyperion Books, New York, NY. Images reproduced by permission of the illustrator. All rights reserved.

Photo of Mac Barnett taken with permission from his site. Photo by Eric Wolfinger.

23 comments to “A Visit with Author Mac Barnett and the Voice Inside His Head, Also Known as Adam Rex”

  1. Aren’t they just like peas and carrots? Now, I just feel like a third wheel. HAHA

  2. Good luck with all of your new and forthcoming works! I would be amused by the results of a search engine search for “Billy Twitters” now due to the popularity of Twitter. Can the whale type? He looks so regal and refined. Love it.

  3. For some reason I can’t think the phrase “the whale’s blowhole” without thinking of that Seinfeld episode where George saves a whale’s life, and tells the story in this hilarious melodramatic way which begins, I think, “The sea was angry that day, my friend… like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”

    So now I’ve got a second reason to laugh to myself, alarming fellow elevator passengers, when I think of the phrase: Bill Twitters’s know-it-all classmate.

    Love the way the illustrations make the whale seem sublimely unsurprised by this unusual turn in its life, and the way the writing and the story makes that whaleish response the only one possible. You almost get a sense that the whale has been through this before and just wants to retire, for God’s sake, is that too much to ask?!?

    Wonderful interview!

  4. Dan, you’re hardly a third wheel. I have a good vibe about Oh, No!

    Little Willow, perhaps the notion of the whale typing and earning his own Office Technology Award can make it into another picture book.

    John, yes, the whale’s response — or non-response — to it all is also very funny in this book. The thought of nailing in one post all the many reasons that this book is funny—all the clever details that make you laugh outloud—is daunting, indeed. (This, I must point out, can be said about many of Adam’s books, too.) That’s one reason to just turn it over to the creators and let them—and the art—do the talking. They can show you better than I can tell you. But, yeah, the whale itself is funny. Adam likening it to a piece of architecture is apt. He’s always just there. In the way. Looking like he’s suffering from some serious ennui over it all.

    I have a soft spot in my heart for Billy. He looks like my brother when he was little. Especially in the eyes. Like someone gave Adam a picture of him to use as a model. And a-whale-as-a-pet would have been just his kind of Charlie-Brown luck, too.

  5. I love everything about this, including the San Francisco setting (living as I do in N. California) and the little humorous details, like the “Fed Up” logo on the truck, instead of “Fed Ex”. Adam and Mac should take their comedy routine on the road – they are hilarious! Oh, and Mac is MUCH better looking than a meerkat. But I digress…

    Great interview, Jules!

  6. These two are such a riot, and equally adorable. MUST see Billy Twitters now, and can’t wait for Mac’s new books.

  7. I am getting this book for my son for his birthday and did not realize another book by this duo was coming out in September?! Bonus for my boy! (he has a Sept. bday)
    Excellent, excellent interview!

  8. Jules: There’s a not-so-nice businessman (businessWHALE) in WHALES ON STILTS, the first book of M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales.

    Mac, Adam, et al: If you aren’t yet familiar with the story of Willie the Operatic Whale, aka The Whale Who Wanted To Sing At the Met, you must check out the animated version:

    That’s the first half. Make sure to watch both parts.


  9. My head is already bleeding rainbows. Or maybe that’s brine? Anyway, love the art, love the premise, love the Voltron reference, want more from these guys ASAP.

  10. Part 1

    Part 2

    Wikipedia: Make Mine Music

  11. My links to the cartoon & Wikipedia entry were eaten by the spambots.

  12. Whoops, sorry, those guys are so vigilant. But I fished ’em out.

  13. […] Rex and Mac Barnett collaborate well (as seen here on 7-imp), and I think The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity is an awesome […]

  14. “FedUp”–tee hee. I have to get my hands on this.

  15. Fuddruckers….hahahaha!

    That cover painting is truly epic, with the grandiosity of the blue whale against the SF bay backdrop. So much pathos. Great premise. 🙂

  16. Post -modern wack-fest indeed.

  17. […] published in 1979 and which ended in scandal. No scandal here, though: Children’s book author Mac Barnett; long-time editor of the wonderful McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz; children’s book author […]

  18. Mac,
    Thanks for your kind words ..now please see some of my other books, and my new illustrations
    in LOLA a Shrew Story.
    Jerry Smath

  19. […] not going to be able to top anytime soon.  Jules of 7-Imp is, of course, talking about the latest Mac Barnett/Adam Rex collaboration.  In the piece they also discuss a variety of upcoming titles including a picture book that […]

  20. […] to me, the book trailer for Adam Rex’s forthcoming book, Fat Vampire. How spot-on perfect is Mac Barnett’s timing? I ask you. I found this quite […]

  21. […] Almost exactly one year ago, when Mac Barnett and Adam Rex visited the blog, Mac mentioned a book published in 1979, I believe it was—But No Elephants, written and illustrated by Jerry Smath—which Mac said he’d “probably read 4,000 times.” I noticed in the comments that, almost one year later, Smath himself stopped by the post to type: […]

  22. […] Thursday at Kirkus, I chatted with the very funny writer and strongman-for-hire Mac Barnett about the fact that his early Spring picture book—Extra Yarn (Balzer + Bray), illustrated by […]

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    And after this post Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

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