Of Sentient Cakes
and Hairy Hands with Rowboat Watkins

h1 April 29th, 2015 by jules


Author/illustrator Rowboat Watkins and I had a long conversation about his picture book, Rude Cakes, coming to shelves in June from Chronicle Books — and I’m posting the conversation today. The book is the surreal story of cheeky, impudent cakes (words I never thought I’d string together)—throw in some cyclopses with some unexpected behavior traits—and it’s funny and entertaining. There are some spreads from it in our chat below. (Pictured above is a sketchbook image.)

Rowboat and I also talk below about picture books and elbow room; Sendak (Rowboat was a Sendak Fellow several years back); giant paper legs growing up hallways; resolute poodles; four-horsepower Super Rosengarts, both metaphorical and very real; the severities of plain white walls; and much more. This is essentially a conversation for the die-hardiest of die-hard picture book fans—I can’t promise the absence of a digression or two—and I enjoyed every second of it. Later in our chat, Rowboat writes:

Anything that betrays its own messy history of becoming itself makes my eyes widen.

… which I’d pretty much like to tattoo on my forehead.

Let’s get to it, and I thank him for visiting.

* * *

Jules: Hi there, Rowboat! I’m glad you’re visiting 7-Imp. I like your new book.

I bet authors hate to be asked about “inspiration,” so I’d like to ask what inspired this story without using the word “inspired” or “inspiration.” Oops. Too late.

But no really, can you talk about when this notion of sentient cakes came to you? Was it during the Sendak Fellowship, by chance, which I’d also love to ask about. Eventually. Or maybe I just did.

Clearly, I’m not very organized.

 



 

Rowboat: Hey, Jules.

Am glad you like the book. It’s weird seeing it as a real alive book. Exciting. But weird. And a little bit scary. But mostly exciting. I think. I could be lying. 50/50, as my daughter likes to say.

As to the inspiration, I’m going to ignore what I believe is your insinuation that cakes aren’t really sentient. Water under the bridge.

I’ve been drawing sentient cakes for over a decade.

And giant hairy hands looming in from the sides and top of my sketchbooks for almost as long.

Why? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s better not to ask too many questions.

Anyway, at some point in an extended trough I’d been sliding into for who-knows-how-long, I finally hit the bottom. Conk. Like in a cartoon. Conk. Honestly. My brain literally made the sound conk. I kid you not. And I just knew I couldn’t sink any lower. Which was weird, because I’m pretty much always sure there is somewhere lower to sink. But for whatever reason, I thought, “Well, I don’t like any of my ideas (because they all suck), and it sure would be fun to draw a book with a giant hairy hand looming in from the top of the page. Who wouldn’t love that? I would.”

 


(Click to enlarge)


 

And then I thought about a dream I’d cut out of a recently-failed dummy about a tiny poodle who wanted to be tough — but wasn’t. As part of the poodle’s wan regimen for making himself tough, he tries dreaming about tough things — such as, flowers with mustaches; hammers; piles of rocks; and rude cakes who kicked each other on purpose and never said sorry. And I thought, “Well, the poodle story is going nowhere fast, but who wouldn’t want to read about rude cakes who kicked each other on purpose? I would. Maybe there’s a way I can have a giant hairy hand loom in from the top of a page and have it grab a rude cake, who at some point earlier in the story had rudely kicked another cake?”

 



(Click each to enlarge)


 

Genius! I was like the guy (or lady) who invented the peanut butter cup. Combine two individually delicious things (a giant hairy looming hand and a remorseless kicking cake) to make something even more delicious. Great job, brain. Way to go. Idiot.

When one is at the bottom of a deep dark hole of one’s own doing, options are limited. I had nothing to lose, since I couldn’t write a worse story than the ones I’d already been writing. So I just made myself start typing. And then the book kind of wrote itself in, like, a day. And a half. All at once. Which had never happened before and will undoubtedly never happen again and was more than a little bit scary. I was so nervous after I’d finished writing it I thought I would spontaneously combust. It was the same feeling you have when you find out the girl you’ve secretly had a crush on for months (or years) actually likes you, too. Totally thrilling. Equally terrifying. So I kept it a secret for a few days before emailing it to two friends to ask their opinion.

 


Some of the first thumbnails for Rude Cakes


 

Does that answer your question at all?

It occurs to me I should say one more thing specific to your question about inspiration, Jules, which is this: In my first two or three passes on the story, there were multiple rude cakes and they were all eaten by polite cyclops-children, who wiped their mouths with napkins and held out their hairy little pinkies when they drank from their glasses and thanked their parents for giving them such delicious little cakes to eat. It was totally ham-handed and kind of dumb, but that’s what the story was, so I was going with it. Because at least I was going to get to draw giant hairy looming hands and rude sentient cakes.

It was only when I started making rough thumbnails of cakes being daintily shoved into appreciative adolescent cyclops-maws that I suddenly realized the cakes looked a lot like hats. What? It was like a literal cartoon lightbulb went off in my head — only I don’t remember what sound it made.

It had never occurred to me that cyclopses might want to do anything with little rude cakes other than eat them, but now I had this whole unexpected sartorial direction — and that was the AHA moment I had been blindly throwing out grappling hooks for. If I hadn’t simply started writing and drawing the book in all of its ham-handedness, I would have never discovered the twist.

 



Rowboat: “It feels like the seeds for whatever ideas that start vaguely forming themselves in my head always start vaguely [with my sketchbooks]. With doodling mindlessly on the subway, or while waiting for my daughter at dance class, or at after school, or wherever. They are the closest thing I have to inspiration.”
(Click each to enlarge)


 

And here are a few pix of my room at the Sendak Fellowship. I didn’t mean to ignore your question about the Fellowship, Jules. Honest. I could bore you to death with all I have to day about my time there. But I didn’t want to overstay my welcome before I’d allowed you to ask more than one question.

 




(Click each to enlarge)


 

Jules: Hear hear for sketching AND for ham-handedness. (Should your next book be about monsters with hams for hands? Hmm.)

I love seeing these early images. Did you name your early cyclopses? What is the plural for cyclops anyway? I see there’s a Pearl up there, and I’m wondering who she is.

I knew you weren’t ignoring my Sendak question. I have a bad habit of asking more than one question at once and figured you were taking them one at a time. Looks like you got to draw/paint on the walls there? Or are those taped?

I’d have so many questions about the Fellowship that it’d be annoying. I guess it’d be neat to know what it was like. Is it true Fellows were able to spend their days alone, thinking, creating, etc. — and then whenever you needed advice from the great man himself, you could ask for it? Is there anything he told you that changed the way you make stories? You are welcome to tell me to shove off or ignore that question, if you’d rather not share. I’d respect that, especially since I know you developed a friendship with Maurice, and that’s a private thing.

 


Another sketchbook drawing
(Click to enlarge)


 

Rowboat: Pearl is my daughter. And she uses the words literal and literally more than anyone in Christendom. About things which are debatably debatable — or at best figuratively true. And no, she didn’t learn this from me. When I talk about literal brain conks and literal cartoon lightbulbs, these aren’t mere metaphors, Jules. They seem to have really happened. Then again, why would you trust anything said by someone whose brain goes conk?

The cyclopses never had names. Sorry. They were originally nameless, giant, hairy, one-eyed monsters — grown-ups and kids. Until I remembered there was already a perfectly good name for giant, one-eyed monsters and that I didn’t need to call them hairy if I drew them hairy. And then I realized it would be simpler if I didn’t worry about what age the cyclopses were. When in doubt, simplify. I always forget this.

The first person to read the story was my friend Ali Bahrampour. Ali is a copy chief by day, but he’s also one of the smartest people and picture book-makers I know (and funniest and nicest and darkest). And he’s been selfishly squirreling away everything he’s written and drawn since he published his singular gem, Otto: The Story of a Mirror back in 2003. Which is just plain wrong, but it’s his selfish life and far be it from me to begrudge him his secret, selfish squirrelings.

 



 

In the version Ali read, I used cyclops as a plural of itself. Because I liked the sound. Cyclops. Like fish. Or moose. But Ali flagged this and (apologetically) noted that the plural of cyclops is cyclopes. As in “sigh-kloh-pees.” What?!?! Cyclopes? The whole book was ruined. Who the hell ever heard of sigh-kloh-pees? Not me. It sounded contagious. Who would even know how to pronounce it? I don’t remember what sound my brain made at the time, but it was not good.

To make a long story short (and you were the one who opened up this giant hairy one-eyed can of worms in the first place, Jules), the copyeditors at Chronicle were nice enough to let me use cyclopses instead cyclopes. Because “cyclopses” is at least a debatably debatable usage, whereas cyclopes is quite literally depressing.

As to the walls of my room in the Nuthouse (it’s what we called the fellows’ house, because its thin roof was under constant attack from acorns), I didn’t remember anyone telling me I couldn’t draw on the walls. Which were so oppressively blank and looked exactly like the horrible case of writer’s block which had settled in my head. Only with fresher paint. I had no clue what to work on. And I was afraid to talk to Maurice, because he was MAURICE-frigging-SENDAK. And I was afraid of talking to the other fellows, because they each seemed so legitimate and accomplished. And I was ashamed that I had no idea what to do with my month living next door to all of them, as they briskly buffed and honed their brilliant dummies. The only dummy in my room was me. Bad joke. What do you expect? My brain goes conk.

 


Nuthouse switchplate


 

Anyway, desperate times call for desperate measures. So I went to Staples (I didn’t know any other art stores near Ridgefield, Connecticut) and bought a bunch of construction paper and double-stick tape. And I started covering my walls. At first I drew only on the paper. Because I’m a goody-two-shoes coward by nature and I didn’t want to get in trouble. But then I started drawing off the paper a little. And then I accidentally started drawing smally in the hallway. And maybe I kind of drew in the stairwell leading up to the kitchen? And in the kitchen? And in the pantry? And coat closet? Just one leafy tree. Because this wasn’t my house. But at this point I was talking to and cooking with and getting lost in the woods with the other fellows, even if I was still mortally afraid of Maurice. And because Lynn and Dona, who ran the fellowship, didn’t seem to mind that acorns were falling from the electrical outlets. Or that bandits were claiming the lightswitches. Or that a faint hairy hand was reaching for the original Chris Van Allsburg, which hung in the breakfast nook.

 



More Nuthouse switchplates


 

When I had my first one on one talk with Maurice, maybe a week or so into the fellowship, he nervously said, “Why don’t you like me?” And I told him I was terrified and that, as is always the case when I’m afraid of talking to someone new, my mind becomes an empty room. This was a few years before my brain started conking, so I didn’t mention that. Then he told me he liked my feet. The one’s I had taped on the wall. And he said he would like to live in a room like this. And I told him he owned the house and that it was his room anyway. And then he sat down and asked me about my daughter.

Were you allowed to draw on the walls of your room when you were a kid, Jules? And do you let your daughters draw on the walls in theirs?

Jules: I love that Staples story. And the Maurice part. For some reason, I got teary-eyed. Maybe because, though I generally don’t get really starry-eyed over authors and illustrators (as in, I know they’re just people too, right?), I would have given anything to have met Sendak in person. I know he was a mere mortal, like the rest of us, but he had such respect for children that I feel like … I dunno … it really is the end of an era with him gone.

CYCLOPES? WHO KNEW? Whoa. Well, I’ve learned something new this week.

No, I never drew on my walls, though I guess in high school I painted song lyrics around my door frame. My girls don’t draw on the walls, though my husband and I talk about one day letting them turn over the kitchen table and paint on the bottom of it.

New subject: Did I already tell you that I read Rude Cakes at a story time, and it even made the fussy toddlers get quiet? I’m reading at another story time tomorrow at an elementary school, and I’m bringin’ this again.

Have you shared this, by chance, with children other than your daughter?

Also, is there anything we can do to get Ali to share more of his books?

 


Another sketchbook drawing
(Click to enlarge)


 

Rowboat: I don’t know what can done about Ali. Sergio (Ruzzier) was a Sendak Fellow the same year Ali was there, and he’s been trying to get Ali to send out his dummies for years. Without success. You know how charming Sergio is, so you can imagine how cagey Ali must be to resist. Maybe you should invite Ali to talk sometime? And ask him to share some of his work? Maybe this would poke a hole in the dam? And get him on someone’s radar. If nothing else, I’m sure you’d love talking to Ali.

Can I ask what lyrics you painted around your door frame? I was never allowed to put anything up on the walls, growing up. Not even a postage stamp. Lucky for my childhood door frames, I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. I’ve been listening to the same forty or so albums for the past however-many-decades, and I still couldn’t do more than hum gibberish if I had to sing something a cappella on the spot. Which will never happen. Trust me.

The same is true for books. I have only the gauziest of impressions of what any of my life-long favorites are about. I’d blame this on the brain surgery I had after a bad exchange with a truck while riding my bike, but the truth is my memory was dicey before then. The upside of all of this being I could be stuck on a desert island with three books and three records and I would never get bored. Because there would always be so much to discover. Maybe even two books and one record?

One of the things I discovered after going to the fellowship was how much I liked having giant paper legs growing up the walls. I would have never pegged myself for this kind of person before, but there you have it. I am apparently that kind of person. And I liked it so much that I finally had to put one up in the hall of the building where I live. I would have put it up in my apartment (I really would have), but all of our walls are crammed with stuff. So it had to be the hallway or nothing. And … it looked GREAT!!! What a thrill that there was finally a giant paper leg in the hall.

 


(Click to enlarge)


 

The problem was, there was only one. For weeks I tried to pretend this was okay. But after a while, it became too much. So while everyone was off at work and school one day, I put up another one. Because my neighbors never said anything about the first leg. And I couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to walk by twice as many six-foot-tall paper legs springing from the baseboards, while tromping off to work or coming home with heavy bags of groceries. I mean, come on.

A master plan started simmering in my head to paper the whole length of the stairwell with a chorus line of giant legs kicking up to the second and third floor landings and on to the roof. This kind of thing can simmer in my head, because it is totally unencumbered by song lyrics or historical facts or anything it ever encountered on the printed page. So the glass is half full.

 



 

But one day, a couple days after the second leg gloriously appeared, my favorite neighbors left a message on my voicemail asking me to call them. And I learned the very sad lesson that some people apparently prefer to haul heavy bags of groceries against a wan backdrop of dull white paint. How could this be? These are smart capable people. Job-having, child-rearing, book-reading, vote-casting citizens. Plain white walls are just so … I don’t even know what they are, but they sure are sadder without legs.

My neighbors were so contrite and polite about the whole thing, and I felt horrible for putting them in the position of having to sheepishly explain why life is lived better while tromping off to work against a legless wall of nothing. If only I could have remembered all the lyrics to The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, this kind of thing might never have happened. Suffice it to say, there will never be a chorus line of giant legs kicking their papery way up to the roof. And my neighbors, whom I love, will never have to worry about anything else springing from the baseboards in our common stairwell. Really.

The only thing more disturbing than suddenly needing to grow giant legs in one’s hallway is suddenly deciding to blog about wanting to put up giant legs in one’s hallway. On a secret blog that no one reads. Which is here. And here. The entries are from a few years ago, but the shame of it all still smells fresh. Now you know my deepest, darkest secrets, Jules.

 



 

You asked me earlier if there was anything I learned from Maurice that changed the way I made books. I learned so much from him, and he had so much to say about everything that it would be impossible to choose. And the structure of the Fellowship was less about some traditional student/teacher model than about becoming a part of a community of like-minded nutjobs. About fellowship. Fruity as that may sound, that’s really what I think it was about. Because making books can be so lonely and dispiriting and disorienting. And even someone as accomplished as Maurice still needs friends in whose adoring faces he can see glimmers of his own goodness.

That I have become the kind of rainbow-twirling person who can say this kind of thing is hard to swallow. But there you go. I like giant legs and sometimes twirl rainbows. It is so easy to lose your way when you are stuck inside your own head all the time and you don’t know how to do anything but hum. Know what I mean?

I am curious to hear how story time went, Jules. I’ve not read the book to anyone other than my daughter. I didn’t even read it to her. She can read it herself. And she watched me working on it for months. Since my desk is right next to the kitchen and you can’t get anywhere in the apartment without walking by my desk. I have given the book to a couple friends, and I know they have read it to their kids and I’ve heard that they supposedly laughed and liked the book. But what else are someone’s friends going to say? I even gave a copy to my leg-hating neighbors, but their daughter is maybe a little too young for the book, since she just turned two.

My secret hope is that one day her parents will walk into her room and they will spy something strange growing from the baseboards. I have no idea what that something will be. Or how far in the future it will be. But I say this and wish this lovingly. Because hope springs eternal. And you will never be able to convince me that anything is truly done better against a wan backdrop of dull white paint. Except brain surgery. Or starting over.

 


Another sketchbook drawing
(Click to enlarge)


 

Jules: I share your disdain for plain white walls. Well, there are some people who decorate the rooms they inhabit with a lovely sort of asceticism I can only strive toward, and that in and of itself can be a great thing. But I always end up hanging up lots of stuff. You could ask my husband and daughters any time about the number of nail holes I’ve put into our walls, and they will laugh. I visited the Biltmore recently, where they hang pictures from cords that hang from the ceiling and go down the wall, so as not to put holes in the walls, but I can’t very well do that either.

Let’s see … the song lyrics were the chorus of a song that started out with “let me pull down on your high ideals / to sweet earth, honest and wide.” They were by Sam Phillips, who at that time went by her real name, Leslie. (This was 1987/1988, and the song sounds very dated now.) I started listening to her back in high school. When she sung under her given name, Leslie, she was singing what is called contemporary Christian music. And I was a Christian back then. Or tried really hard to be one and tried really hard to understand all that. Right around the time I started having big questions about religion, she stopped singing contemporary Christian music. I don’t know if she underwent some kind of religious conversion herself (and that’s not any of my business), but she got really tired of the pressures of that market and just walked away. Her music changed a lot, too, in even better ways, but I digress. That particular song was, I think, her goodbye to all of that. And it spoke to me. And it’s like we went along paths in life that I saw as similar ones, though again, I don’t know what she, personally, believes now. All I know is she is still making fabulous music—she’s in her 50s now—and I’ve followed her all these years. So talented that it’s criminal.

“Strange things are happening every day.” Those are the opening lines to one of her best songs. (Bonus: A stroh violin!)

She also has a song called “Lever Pulled Down”:

I’m a lever pulled down / I’m a flipped switch. / I’m a lever pulled down / and I don’t know why it’s so. / I’m a lever pulled down / and I’d give my life for the lightning in our dreams.

AHHHHHH. It’s like a lost Whitman piece, and the song itself is this delightfully scrappy country kind of thing.

Anyway, how’d I get onto the topic of religion? The Dalai Lama once said, “my religion is compassion.” That works for me now.

I still remember, speaking of Sendak and speaking of faith (because that’s what he was discussing when he made this comment), a chat with Roger Sutton he once did where he said … well, he said this. I just went and looked it up, because I posted it at 7-Imp the day I heard about his death:

[D]eath is a comfort because that’s what saves you. Suffering, cancer, some horrible disease, I’m terrified of pain. Death will just take you away from that. So what’s to be afraid of? It’s a cessation of pain. What more could you ask? It’s like the good nurse. … I think the most graceful thing offered us is sleep without dreams. That is so sensible.

Sleep without dreams. I like that too.

I meant to say earlier, when we were talking about the loss of the great man, that when I read about his death (on Twitter, of all places), I cried with a grief that surprised me, because again, I’d never met him in person. But I guess it’s perfectly normal for people to respond to their favorite artists (or musicians, etc.) in this way.

And how’d I get on such a heavy topic? OH FOR THE LOVE OF PANTS, as my 11-year-old says. I think we need a moment from Rude Cakes:

 


“Rude cakes never say please …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


 

I feel like I should extend my sympathy to you for this bike wreck with a truck that has happened in your past. OUCH. Did you know that happened with Ludwig Bemelmans, too? Here’s the scoop. He collided with a four-horsepower Super Rosengart, as he writes, while bicycling one day, and in the hospital he was inspired to write Madeline (though evidently his inspiration came from other sources too). But your bike adventure sounds much worse.

And, yes, I read your story to kindergartners. They loved it. I asked them to guess what was on the bottom of the cover. Anyone IN THE KNOW knows it’s a cyclops. Duh. Someone said a donut. I think someone said a spaceship. They laughed outloud at the spread where the “GIANT CYCLOPSESE” are revealed — also at the spread where the rude cake begs, “PLEASE!” I told them the “cyclopes” story. I thought they’d roar with laughter at the pronunciation of that word, but they did not. But I’m still glad you got away with “cyclopses,” because I’d probably stare at “cyclopes” and wouldn’t be sure how to read it.

p.s. If Sergio can’t convince Ali, I’m not sure I can. But I can always try.

 


” … and they never say thank you …”
(Click to enlarge spread)


 

I guess I should ask you what you’re working on next. But I’m also curious to know: What inspires you? Generally. In life. Other than giant legs in the hallway. (For the record, you could paint some in my hallway any time.)

Rowboat: Sweet Jesus, Jules. (Can I say that?) Who wouldn’t want to collide with a four-horsepower Super Rosengart? While vacationing on the île d’Yeu. With a sack of lobsters slung jauntily over their shoulder. And then write Madeline. Seriously. I have total collision envy. If only my truck moment were half that delectable. Or classy. Or inspiring. All mine did was knock the smell out of me for a year. And the hearing out of half my ears forever. Lamely impersonating roadkill on the corner of 6th Avenue and 9th Street. Without any whiff of inspiration.

Speaking of inspiration and roadkill, I’m currently floored by the breezy profundity of Bárður Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit. Wow. Right? Clearly Oskarsson ran into some kind of Super Rosengart of his own.

 



 

Jules: Yes, I wrote about that book here at Kirkus (with art here at 7-Imp). I am still thinking about that book, even after all this time. It’s even part of an essay on international picture books I just wrote for this.

Rowboat: As to how I’ve gone through life having never heard of Sam Phillips before, I stand duly shamed. Is it possible I heard you talk about her on Number Five Bus? And ignored your pompoms on her behalf? Did I make that up? I remember loving your interview with the nifty Steads (I hope they resume their bus chats, by the way), but maybe I’m confusing your story with Anna Karenina? Or some other something I ran into and loved and then forgot as its outlines blurred ever further out of focus? Anyway, I may have snubbed your rumored exhortations once, but there’s only so much foolishness and regret I can visit upon myself.

I just listened to some of Sam Phillips’ songs online, and if she is not the very essence of a sack of shoulder-slung lobsters slamming into a Four-Horsepower Super Rosengart, then I don’t know if running into Super Rosengarts means anything anymore. I say that after having listened to only a handful of her songs. With one working ear. And a brain as empty as the Dalai Lama’s Man Cave. I have no idea what that means. My brain sometimes goes conk, remember. All I meant to say is I think I get why Sam Phillips continues to floor you. If there were one album of hers you’d recommend for starters, it would be…?

 




 

Jules: Yes, I talked about Sam in the chat I had with Phil and Erin last year. I’m always talking about Sam’s music. I might very well annoy people, and I’m really off the subject of picture books, aren’t I? As for which album to recommend first … It’s so hard to pick. I always say Fan Dance if people ask me this, though she described it in later years as something like “an album where I had a conversation with myself.” (I paraphrase.) May not be her most accessible album, that is, but it’s my favorite. Then, go backwards in time and listen to Martinis & Bikinis.

Rowboat: For reasons that elude me, at this very moment, all I can think about is The Cars. The band. Whom I haven’t listened to or thought about in eons. And that commercial for Head-On, where the voiceover keeps saying “Apply directly to the forehead” over and over again.

Why? Why? Why? I loved The Cars. And the Talking Heads.

Jules: Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” … Oh for the love of all things pantsy, it’s one of the world’s best songs. The lyrics SLAY ME.

Rowboat: And The Pretenders. The Pretenders never stop sounding fresh to me. And full of nail holes.

That’s exactly the kind of thing that inspires me, Jules. A room full of nail holes. I say that as someone who hails from a long line of devout spacklers. Militant spacklers. “Hurry! Hide all evidence of our uncertainty. For Heaven’s Sake, use a daub or Colgate if you must, but get those ungodly voids filled in before someone sees!”

Anything that betrays its own messy history of becoming itself makes my eyes widen. It’s what’s so exciting about John Burningham.

 


— From John Burningham’s Cannonball Simp


 


— From John Burningham’s Oi! Get Off Our Train


 

Or Esphyr Slobodkina.

 



— From Margaret Wise Brown’s
The Little Fireman, illustrated by Esphyr Slobodkina


 

Or Bill Traylor.

 


Untitled figures chasing a bird, Bill Traylor (c. 1939-42)


 


Untitled figures and construction, Bill Traylor (c. 1939-42)


 

Or Milton Avery.

 


Milton Avery, Bathers Coney Island (1934) in the Portland Art Museum’s collection


 


Milton Avery, Autumn (1944)


 

Or the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

 




 

Or Kitty Crowther.

 


— From The Little Man and God by Kitty Crowther


 


— From Mother Medusa by Kitty Crowther


 

All their work feels like tomorrow everything could be hung a little more to the left. Or the right. Like, if I didn’t keep checking in, the sofa might run away. It’s totally different than walking into a room where you know everything hanging there now will always tastefully hang exactly as it does. Because the room is stunning and perfect and it is already the fullest expression of itself, and as such it doesn’t need me to visit again, because the armchairs will never go AWOL.

I think this is why Maurice’s illustrations for [Wilhelm Grimm’s] Dear Mili or Outside Over There (both unimpeachable stunners) do less for me than his spots for [Ruth Krauss’] A Hole is to Dig, which take my breath away every time. Part of this predilection is undoubtedly sublimated envy; I will never have Maurice’s drawing chops. But part of it also has to do with there being too many exquisitely upholstered pillows in the room. And my being afraid to sit down anywhere. All that exquisiteness starts to close in on itself. It’s why people’s dummies sometimes look more alive and inviting than the final art.

 


— From Dear Mili


 


— From Outside Over There


 

A picture book is such an intimate space to begin with. One in which I want to feel like I can kick off my shoes and make mental crumbs between the pillows, or leave a ring on the side table. Which is a complete joke, because I’m the unrepentant Crumb Stasi of my own home. Of my own life. Constantly torn between a native allegiance to walls without nail holes, and a secret desire to draw acorns falling from the lightswitch plates. It’s a battle that is lost and won on both sides of the frontline every minute of every day. With no clear victor in sight.

 



 

For the love of pants, I didn’t mean to go all Paths of Glory on you like that, Jules. But it’s something I think about all the time. The ongoing struggle between the necessity of hard work, and an equally imperative need for pointless tangents of fun. Purposeless joy. Apply directly to the forehead. It’s the people who make their own virtuosity look effortless and fun who most inspire me. Because there’s something so generous about creating the hope or illusion in the mind of the viewer that, if they only tried, they could do it too.

Speaking of pants and pointless tangents, the book I’m currently working on is about an elephant who doesn’t want to wear them. It’s called Pete without Pants. He’s supposed to come streaking past you sometime is 2016. There is also a mermaid lurking in the corals. And some marshmallows and gorillas.

 



(Click each to enlarge)


 

One of the last Talmudic imperatives Maurice shared with me before he died was, “You need to become a better spy.” At the time, I understood it to mean something about how to sneak my secret agendas past the Crumb Stasi of the marketplace. How to create the illusion of compliance without capitulation. But I have come to realize his advice has just as much to do with sneaking my timid slant for mischief past the repressive ministry of my own brain. I’m almost a 100% sure that’s how any of us will find “the lightning in our dreams.” And I’m reasonably certain it sounds something like kids laughing.

Am so glad to hear your kindergarteners liked the book, Jules. And that they’re still too young to hear anything funny in the real pronunciation of cyclopes. Here’s hoping we have occasion to ride our Rosengarts into each other again sometime soon. I’ll bring the lobster if you promise to arrange for airfare to the Île d’Yeu.

Deal?

Jules: Deal.

p.s. Militant Spacklers. Band name. I call it. (My girls and I have a list of band names—most of them come from books we read together—and I’m adding that to it.)

I enjoyed this conversation. Immensely. Thank you, Rowboat.

 



 

* * * * * * *

All images are used by permission of Rowboat Watkins.

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18 comments to “Of Sentient Cakes
and Hairy Hands with Rowboat Watkins”

  1. Thanks Jules. Thanks Rowboat. This was a great great read. I will be reading it again later. And maybe again after that.


  2. “…if [Sam P] is not the very essence of a sack of shoulder-slung lobsters slamming into a Four-Horsepower Super Rosengart, then I don’t know if running into Super Rosengarts means anything anymore.”

    THAT is an outstanding observation. I hope she gets to see it, and maybe even uses it as an album blurb.

    What an interview… Seven Imp continues to inspire. Thanks for introducing us — well, ME — to Rowboat’s work!


  3. What a wonderful conversation.


  4. I am collecting at least three quotes from this AWESOME conversation and I want all the light switches in my house to look like that cowboy guy.


  5. Fantastic. “The ongoing struggle between the necessity of hard work, and an equally imperative need for pointless tangents of fun. Purposeless joy. Apply directly to the forehead. It’s the people who make their own virtuosity look effortless and fun who most inspire me. Because there’s something so generous about creating the hope or illusion in the mind of the viewer that, if they only tried, they could do it too.” So much to think about here. Just what I needed to read. Can’t wait to read the book!


  6. I clicked and I clicked on that fun little gif
    But it did not make me see things differently
    ;(

    Thankfully, everything else gave me a good headstart.


  7. Great interview, as only you, Jules, the Terry Gross of children’s book interviewers, can do. Rowboat, you have opened my eyes to the darker side of cakes. I’m looking forward to holding this book in my hands and, well, eating it up with my eyes.


  8. Woah, what a jam packed post.
    All I can say is that I agree that bedtime is for donut holes.


  9. No Rosengart encounter, but had an old red Toyota Corolla displace my knee back in ’84. Fluffy vision and the gentle taste of asphalt running down my chin.
    Inspiring?… No.

    Great interview


  10. They don’t make Toyota Corollas like they used to, do they Bardur? Am still convinced you must have a secret Rosengart up your sleeve. Thank you everyone else for all the nice words–they made my vision fluffy. And thank you, Jules, for letting me stretch my legs, and for your continued coaxings of life’s wing chairs to take flight.


  11. […] If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it […]


  12. Eek! I almost missed this, what with gardening and dogs and work and whatnot! Now I am much happier. Many many reasons to be happier in this interview. Thanks, Jules and Rowboat! (Somewhere there is an explanation for this name. I just know it. But do I want to see it?)


  13. […] the Sendak Fellowship, it seemed like my friend Rowboat Watkins, like my college friend, also used drawing to bring forth ideas. His hand told him stuff about his […]


  14. […] to enlarge)   Cover sketch   Jules: I am eager to see what Rowboat does next. We had this chat back in April, and I enjoyed talking to him. He is so smart and observant that I want to print out […]


  15. […] Christian Robinson, David Roberts, Catia Chien, and many more. Rowboat Watkins’ new book, Rude Cakes, is pretty amazing.     On How Television AnimationInfluences Her Work:   Animation […]


  16. Hi, Jules! I LOVE your blog. I read this post awhile ago, but wanted to come back and comment. I just loved this interview and Rude Cakes, and many points of your discussion with Watkins have stuck with me. Have a great day!


  17. […] image from author-illustrator Rowboat Watkins. (When you’re done opening presents, read this 2015 visit with him, if you haven’t already.) I love it more than rum-laden egg nog and snow angels […]


  18. […] though I have no idea what I’m doing.   (Click to enlarge)   Looking forward to crashing four-horsepower Super Rosengarts into each other again sometime!   Ed. Note: Below are some preliminary images from Rowboat:   Rowboat: These […]


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