This photo of Lucille Burroughs was taken by Walker Evans during the Great Depression as part of the WPA project. When my editor began searching for a cover idea for OUT OF THE DUST, she stopped in a shop in New York City that featured photography. There she found a collection of Walker Evans’ images and selected this one, sending it to me with a post-it note attached, suggesting this would make a perfect cover. She had no idea how right she was. I, too, had been focused on this photograph while writing the book. It sat beside my computer along with several other images from the Agee/Walker book LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN.
The photograph of the man in the lower left corner of the WITNESS cover is meant to represent Johnny Reeves but in fact the photographs come from the Walter Dean Myers photograph collection, and the photo albums of the families of Edith and Herbert Langmuir, Dean Langmuir, and Joan Lacovara, relatives of an employee of Scholastic Inc.
I love to knit, hike, take photographs, read, watch movies, attend lectures and concerts,
I love listening to National Public Radio. I love cooking and eating good food.
I love spending time with friends and family. I love going on adventures. I love painting watercolors.
I love meeting new people and discussing the world both large and small.
And so much more, so, so much more.
Some of the images appearing in the book came from my archives of photographs. But many of those images were taken during my walks. The work of Wright Morris inspired me to marry text with image. Morris was a photographer first and came to writing later. In the books where his image and text appear together he rarely directly defines text with image, or image with text. Instead he asks the reader to make a leap. To try to understand why he selected that image to be placed with that particular piece of his story. The result is an invitation for the reader to go more deeply into the story, more deeply into the author’s mind, and more deeply into the writing process. I hope I have given my readers a similarly satisfying experience. Each image is carefully selected (there were thousand and thousands of images to choose from…the blessings of digital photography…an option Wright Morris never had) but each one asks the reader to inhabit the story with Radley in a deep and potent way.
Actually I walked through a rainy spring…and that’s important. While I was walking it was damp and chill and the black flies and no-see-ums were swarming so the experience of walking during the same season Radley made her walk was vital to understanding how it might feel. I’m a recreational walker. I love to walk. But walking alone, along a busy highway, in towns and in the long stretches between towns with only my own thoughts, discomforts, and paranoia to keep me company had a profound impact on the emotional line of the book. Two friends, librarian Sandy King, and fellow author Liza Ketchum, joined me for parts of the walk. Their presence altered my perception of “the walk” in such a way that I knew I had to take Celia, a character who, in early drafts, did not enter the narrative until Radley reached Canada, and move her in earlier, much earlier, than I originally intended.
Nearly every day I loop my camera strap over my head and step out into the afternoon. Jean Feiwel, my extraordinary editor, has followed my forays into the world of photography for a long time. Many of the images used in SAFEKEEPING were taken before Jean and I agreed to use photographs in the book. Because I had no intention of “literally” illustrating the book, the images did not require a one-on-one correlation with the text. Therefore, I could have drawn from my archives of nearly 20,000 images and had more than enough material. The need to walk Radley’s walk, however, sent me out with my camera through wind and rain and fog along the route my narrator traveled. As a result, I had an additional several thousand photographs from the walk through New Hampshire and Vermont in the spring of 2011. Winnowing down that mass of photographic material to the select group included in the book was an enormous project. I considered the subject of each photograph, its emotional tone, its quality, and its accessibility. In the end every image had to pass rigorous tests, technical as well as compositional…each image had to speak to the reader at face level, but it also had to ask a subtle question of the reader…not pulling them out of the story, rather drawing them more deeply inside it. Even after the galleys were printed I was still making changes and substitutions. Even now, if Jean would permit me, I’d make changes. But the book is out of my hands and the images I selected in my final pass are the images that will follow SAFEKEEPING through its life as a book.
I researched potato farming for a few months before writing the text for SPUDS. But the illustrations required more than book research. Wendy knew she had to experience the setting first-hand. So the two of us drove to Northern Maine. Our intention was to scout around, take photographs, and come home with a pictorial archive from which Wendy could “draw”.
But the very first morning in Presque Isle we met a gentle couple at breakfast, told them our reason for being in town, and before we knew it we’d been invited to come with them to the Kenney’s potato farm.
What a rich experience we had in Aroostook county with the Kings and the Kenneys graciously educating us about the hard and rewarding work of potato farming.
Not only is it important to observe with one’s eyes, but with all of one’s senses. These hands are saying such different things, the texture of each hand is different and the texture of what the hand is touching is different. They are both listening to music, neither looking directly at the musicians, one looking out at the world, judging, the other looking in at the world, dreaming.
The moment captured is critical. Writers create scenes that best advance the story and the reader’s understanding of the characters within it. But each scene has to have a beauty and reason separate from the practical advancement of plot.
Perhaps that is why I love taking photographs. It is another way of telling a story.
And a series of photographs
becomes a visual poem.