In this interview with Melissa Sweet, illustrator of A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, our Bookstorm™ this month, we asked six questions and Melissa kindly took time from her busy days of visiting schools and creating art.
Do you recall the first time you encountered a William Carlos Williams poem?
My first introduction to William Carlos Williams was when I was seven years old and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw a painting by Williams’s friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Figure.” I loved both the painting and the poem.
Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Carlos Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?
My short list is Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and, yes, William Carlos Williams is now on that list.
When you begin to illustrate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?
First I decide how and where to research. I’m looking for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illustrations. For this book I read biographies about Williams, his poetry, and newspaper articles about him. It was important to travel to Rutherford and Patterson, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Rutherford Public Library, I saw his bowler hat, his manual typewriter, and the prescription pads he used as a doctor. All those things became inspiration for the art. Then, back in the studio, I make a dummy placing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paintings or collages. Lastly, I make the final art.
In the book, we see handwritten bits of poetry in several different styles of handwriting and we also see typeset scraps of paper as well as intriguing bits of type. Do you create these by hand? By computer? With friendly help?
All my art is created by hand—I don’t use the computer to make the illustrations. I cut up old books and use lettering from wherever I can find it. Incorporating calligraphy and hand–lettering into the art makes the piece more fun and lively. A typeset font would look very different, maybe somewhat static. In A River of Words I recreated Williams’s handwriting in places, and hand–lettered his poems within the art. The content of the poems became the inspiration for what to draw.
Are there entire spreads you prepare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illustration in for review by the editor or art director, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if requested? And what do you use to affix the parts of your collage?
Sometimes spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The editor and art director see the dummy, but typically they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s difficult to plan or sketch a collage–it happens as you go along adding and subtracting elements to make it work visually. (Even I don’t know exactly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depending on the materials, I might need something strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is generally photographed since there is too much dimension in the pieces to scan them. Those photos are downloaded to the designer and the text is added digitally.
If you had met William Carlos Williams, what question would you have asked him?
I have two questions: Where was the red wheelbarrow? What did you think when you first saw it?
illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet