Leda Schubert on Nathan’s Song

Nathan, growing up in a shtetl in Russia, loves to sing. When he hears opera for the first time he is transfixed and longs to learn this kind of music. His family and community, including his little brother Samuel, gather money to pay for his passage to Italy. What happens next is a marvel of picture book writing. I talked to my friend and long-time writing colleague Leda Schubert about the choices she made in telling this story from her own family history in her new picture book, Nathan’s Song.

[Uma] So how do you take a life like your grandfather’s and pack it into thirty-two pages? how do you decide what belongs and what is not germane to the story the book needs to tell?

[Leda] Good question, Uma, and I have several responses. First, I’ve been writing picture books for a very long time, and I’ve read thousands and thousands of them over my longish life. I think the form is embedded in my DNA by now. (I must add that many of these manuscripts have not and will not see the light of day. If you’re reading this and seeking publication, don’t give up!) That isn’t to say that I’ve mastered the picture book. Not likely. It’s one of the simplest and most complex of forms, isn’t it?

Second, I can’t remember much about anything. My grandfather lived into his 80s, but he was reticent about his past, particularly about his childhood in Russia, and I expect it would have been painful to recall. He did tell me the bare bones of this story, however, and some of it stuck with me. Maybe enough for a story, I thought. In real life, he drank a bit too much, got on the wrong boat in Odessa, and ended up first in Brazil, where he sold rags from a cart, learned Portuguese, and eventually made his way to New York. And he did sing opera. He was a gorgeous singer, even singing in Broadway/off-Broadway productions. He did make hats, he did fall in love with my grandmother, and he did sing for us at family gatherings on occasion.

Third, the rest? It had to do with the shape of story.

In the end, readers make a story their own, I think, but for me his story is about leaving home, finding home, and family love. It’s a story that’s true of millions and millions of people, often forced to abandon everything they’ve known and embark to unknown lands. (It is also true that several of my picture books have turned out to be about music–Ballet of the Elephants, Listen: How Pete Seeger got America Singing– which is central to my life.)

[Uma] I’m always fascinated at the way stories turn and create patterns. I was delighted that while Nathan may have meant to go to Italy and ended up in America, Italy came to him in New York, in the person of the marvelous Nicolo. Your thoughts?

[Leda] I have to say that was something I never even realized. It’s important to acknowledge, I feel, that there is something mysterious about writing. There are subconscious forces that shape our work. A writer must give those forces time and space to emerge. “Nathan’s Song” sat somewhere in my mind for decades.

Finally, as you ask, anyone writing about anything has to figure out what to leave out. What propels a story and what doesn’t? What are the underlying bones–the trajectory? I knew I didn’t have the space to go into more detail (I tried to cut even more), so what mattered most? What would an illustrator be able to work with? What could I rely on the artwork instead of the words to carry? What kind of action would there be on each page? For example, I didn’t need to describe the ship, Ellis Island, or Nathan’s village. I chose also to eliminate the Brazil years; they derailed the narrative. I didn’t need to write about the family back home in Russia, or what they would do in the US. Etc. Of course the editor chooses the artist, and I was incredibly lucky that Lauri Hornik found Maya Ish-Shalom. I couldn’t be happier with her glorious work, which is so bright and joyful.

This is from the School Library Journal review of Nathan’s Song:

This title pays tribute to courageous individuals, with an underlying message of the unbroken connection of family love.

[Leda] What is harder for me than compressing is expanding. How do you write a novel, Uma?

Hmm. How indeed. Very carefully?

Then Before My Eyes

We are witness to an age that could paralyze us, to people in power who don’t know what they’re doing, to the rise of hatred and intolerance. So here is a countervailing force–music.

Thank you, Brain Pickings, and to Mark Karlins for pointing me here

Here are a couple of stanzas from One Fine Day

Then before my eyes, is standing still

I beheld it there, a city on a hill
I complete my tasks, one by one
I remove my masks, when I am done

Then a peace of mind fell over me —
In these troubled times, I still can see
We can use the stars, to guide the way
It is not that far, the one fine —

One fine day

One Fine Day by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Feels prescient, doesn’t it? In much the way that E.B.White’s Here is New York felt after 9/11:

The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

We are none of us writing only for this day, yet all we can know is what’s before our eyes. It has to be enough. We don’t have a choice. We have to hope that, in the fullness of time, at least some of our words might grow into their own sufficiency. For that reason, it behooves us to choose them with care.

Loreena McKennitt on Progress Traps and Her New Album

Loreena-McKennittI fell in love with the music of Loreena McKennitt many years ago, when I first heard the haunting sounds of  The Dark Night of the Soul and her renditions of  The Highwayman and The Lady of Shalott. Ghosts give hope to dead lovers in these poems, and her singing made me feel as if I inhabited some ghostly terrain myself, as if I had always known that those poems would find this music someday.

I kept looking for new work by her–and there hasn’t been any for years! It’s given me hope, in an odd way, because I’m unable to crank out a book a year the way so many talented writers do. The work always seems to take its own time, or else I run the risk of breaking it. Loreena seemed to be telling me it was okay to do things my way, to serve my craft, with ends more complicated and interior than any business model could encompass.

She has much to say in this interview with CBC Radio, about the new album that is really a reflection on the last decade, about her decision to quit Facebook, and about the progress traps referred to by novelist and historian Ronald Wright in his book, A Short History of Progress. It’s the idea that humans have this ability to evolve ourselves into disaster, to take an intriguing idea or a creative process to ends that may be logical but turn out to be terribly destructive. You know, denuding forests, damming rivers, creating the atom bomb. It’s quite a list.

Snippet from an interview with Ronald Wright:

Refugees from earlier failed civilizations could move on to other places and try again. Today, however, civilization is global. This time we cannot flee. As a sign at the Copenhagen summit noted, “There is no Planet B.”

Loreena’s conversation with the CBC host of Q is enriched as well by her eloquent music. For myself, I was most intrigued about an aside she tossed in–about a project under way in India, something to do with the history of cows.

But I can wait. I’m sure it will be something rich and strange and thought-provoking.