The exciting news of another book was announced last week in Publishers Weekly Bookshelf!
This is THE BOOK I never thought would ever see the light of day. It's about as far away from Louise and her world of being a happy artist - as possible.
What is the difference between coming up with a book idea and being coo coo for cocoa puffs?
I can’t really tell ya.
It’s just too close to call.
Great Ideas come into your head very much in the same way that great people come into your life. When you least expect it. When you are not forcing it or grasping for it.
The ideas can come when you are feeling euphoric, alive, happy, silly or content or enjoying a quiet stroll or searching for inspiration in an art gallery or picking around in a store or spending time with some kids or having a fun conversation with someone who sparks your synapses.
Then there are the ideas that come when you feel broken. Empty. Like a wrung out sponge.
I can tell ya, for me? This happened. An idea came and became a squatter in my brain and never left. It found an empty, derelict, downtrodden space and took it over. There, it lived loudly so it could not be ignored.
In 2010 I sat alone in a very old hotel on top of a mountain. There was no television and no internet in my little antique furnished room. I wandered the winding halls looking at all of the portraits of the family members who had owned and worked at the hotel as it was passed down generation after generation.
I was also pretty sad.
It wasn’t a great time in my life. I was turning 40. I wasn’t feeling very healthy or happy. My Grandmother had just passed away after a very long illness. Her death was so quiet. She had become a recluse in an old house filled with cats. I wondered if the world even noticed she was gone. It made me think about life and people and what we leave behind when we go.
I was a stay at home Mom. I felt alone. I felt invisible. I worried my fate was to disappear some day - much like my Grandmother.
I was standing in long, creaky floored hallways, (yes, like in the Shining) staring into the faces of people who looked as miserable as I felt.
No one was smiling.
The last name of the family in the photographs? Smiley.
I went back to my little room and I grabbed a notebook and I started to write. I wrote about weird people who couldn’t find happiness anywhere but in the weirdest of places.
There wasn’t much of a story. Just a bunch of character descriptions and twisted versions of family life. I found their names all over the hotel. Not just in the portraits but in the garden in flower names and on the trails. By the time I left the weekend away..I was driving home for three hours in silence with these people alive in my brain.
I started to draw these characters.
I didn’t stop myself or tell myself I shouldn’t draw or write unpleasant things. It was like I had sliced open a vein and this was what was pouring out. I didn’t ask myself if it was inappropriate for children. I felt completely connected to the kid inside of me while drawing and writing for these weirdos.
Family is crazy. My family was crazy. What family isn’t crazy? When I think about what I experienced as a kid at family get togethers, the yelling, the drinking, the anger, the jealousy and just to confuse the heck out of my little self? The love. Why was it all so mixed up???
It is - because it is. Life is mixed up. People are mixed up.
How do you make sense of it all? For me, I tell myself stories. I go to an imaginary place.
Sitting in my attic studio, staring at all of the drawings of this crazy family I wanted to make sense of them. But how? I really didn’t know anything about them.
I opened up my big drawer of collected old found family photo albums and like a bolt of lightning!!?!? IT HIT ME.
I had been collecting weird families for twenty years. I would buy old photographs and especially old family photo albums when I found them in antique stores and flea markets. I always felt like I was rescuing people.
An old family photo album reads like a book- if you let it. There is usually the cast of characters or the establishing setting of place on the first page. Written in small white, neat penmanship is the best first line…. “Janie at five years old loved to play with frogs.” “Home, 1884. How we miss it so..” “ He proposed by the lake in Winchester…”
These are real lines! In my real photo albums!
It all fell into place like watching a movie. The Smiley Family Album.
A found photo album. Put together by the terrified looking baby in the very first photograph. A character that might just have disappeared, if not for leaving this, this photo album that will wind up in your hands.
The Smiley Family Album also, with out saying much about it, celebrates photography. Time passes as the photographs change from sepia to silvery black and white, to high impact, juicy kodachrome, to the golden glow of the seventies snapshots to the liquid look of polaroids to modern times. Modern times when we treat the treasure of a captured moment as a tiny spec of information, kept on our phones, instead of a tangible example of magic. Proof of life.
You won’t get to know everything about the Smiley Family. You can’t. That’s where you will bring your own understanding of family to the book. What you will get is in the photographs and the neat, white handwriting.
You will know “she” was here and so was this weird family.
The story of this book doesn’t end here.
It took years for me to muster the courage to share it. Two years until I put the art in my portfolio.
Four years to share it with my editor.
The pitch. The itch... from a legendary case of hives.
But that’s a story for another blog post.
For now, it’s enough to get to work on making the album and evicting this family from my brain.
The Smiley Family Album should be out Fall 2017!!! Balzer and Bray and Harper Collins have offered a new space for this family to move in to.
I am so grateful to all of the people who saw the work and encouraged me. There is one person who would not let me give up on this idea and I am still shocked that Alessandra Balzer did not relieve me all of my book contracts and say” I'm calling Bellevue 'cause you're nuts! “
I find myself in a place these days of feeling like a wrung out sponge again, but this time…it leaves so much room to soak up the wonder of life and of mixed up people.
I go off to that place that I have always gone, I tell myself stories, I find solace in my imagination.
And? Nobody ever really disappears if they have people who they open their hearts up to, be they friends or family.