Interview with author/illustrator Susan L. Roth
Since realizing her vocation as a writer and illustrator (after she finished graduate school and was married with three children) Susan L. Roth has been writing and illustrating highly-praised stories for children, including Do Re Mi: If You Can Read Music, Thank Guido d'Arezzo; Happy Birthday Mr. Kang; and My Love for You. Her medium of choice, for which she is very well-known and respected, is collage.
Her latest book, Listen To The Wind, written in collaboration with Greg Mortenson, will be pulished in January 2009. She has illustrated almost forty books to date, many of which she has also written.
When Susan is not at home, in New York, she is "traveling widely, in efforts to see, taste, hear and appreciate the richness and diversity of the world."
The simple narrative and eye-filling collages of Listen to the Wind: The Story of Dr. Greg and Three Cups of Tea tell Greg Mortenson’s inspiring story of building a school in the village of Korphe, in Pakistan, after the village’s people saved him from a failed attempt to climb K2 mountain. What motivated you to introduce Greg’s story to a picture book audience?
One late night, more than twelve years ago, librarian Julia Bergman, my dear friend for many years, told me all about her very first trip to Baltistan. Her descriptions were so vivid, her stories so moving, her enthusiasm so contagious!... My first words in response were: “I want to write and illustrate the picture book!” Julia did not respond with the obvious question, "What picture book?." Instead, I received a vintage Julia answer: “You go, girl!,” she said. It never occurred to either of us that the venture would take twelve years!
I think I knew, even back then, that Julia’s first descriptions of twenty-four varieties of apricots would forever dominate my visions of the story. Even the mountains paled before them.
With continued, tireless help from Julia, through visits, phone conversations, emails, artifacts, books and photographs, finally the book was completed. It could never have happened without Julia Bergman’s generous participation, though. And the story of how she got involved with Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute's efforts is worth another book!
Listen to the Wind focuses on Greg Mortenson's journey to build a bridge and a school in Korphe village (the first of sixty-four schools built to date to encourage the education of girls in particular, and to try to put an end to generations of poverty and illiteracy in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan). Was it hard to simplify the rich and detailed story associated with the building of the first school?
It’s my job to simplify stories to help young children to understand them, and to create illustrations to substantiate short texts. And I love doing it! This was not the most difficult part of creating this book--again, largely because of Julia Bergman’s help. She was available throughout the whole process, answering questions and clarifying things. Also, this was the same part of the story that I had always wanted to tell. I knew about this segment long before I knew the rest of the story, and long before I had read Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time (Viking/Penguin, 2006).
How was your collaboration with Greg Mortenson in writing the book? Did he have any input on your collages?
Greg Mortenson, like Julia Bergman, was participatory and helpful throughout the time that I was writing and illustrating Listen to the Wind. He had enormous, important input on the collages, because he explained and corrected subtle details that I had no way of knowing. It was extremely important to me to be both correct and respectful of the cultural aspects presented in this book. Greg, as well as Julia, caught a few glaring errors which were corrected. I am so happy to have been able to incorporate their suggestions.
Did you have to climb any mountains (real ones, inner ones, paper ones) during the process of working on this special project?
This project was definitely an uphill journey, though worth every uphill step. I have learned so much from working on this book! One of my deep regrets is that due to politics as well as various physical impediments, I have not yet been able to climb the real mountains. I have not yet been to Korphe. But I absolutely do expect to visit one day.
As for the inner mountains, and the paper ones, they are always present, and they were not unique to Listen to the Wind. Mountains are there to climb for every book. I always start every book bravely, finishing one or two pages right away. At that moment, I leave my studio full of joy, for I know I’ve created the most beautiful pictures in the world, and that I’ll finish the whole book in a day and a half. The next morning, when I race back to admire my triumphs, reality inevitably sets in.
The first collages are never the final ones. I always have to start again. Only, those first illustrations are not wasted efforts. I go back to work after crumpling and tossing, and somehow, finally, at that point I’m really ready to start to climb the paper mountains.
Listen to the Wind was written in the voice of the kids from Korphe village. Are there any plans to bring the book to them and/or have it published in Urdu?
The book has been translated into Urdu (and checked again for cultural accuracy) by Abdul Jabbar. Thanks to the generosity of the Pearson Foundation, books will be sent to every CAI school in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Inspirations for the collages came first from Julia Bergman’s verbal descriptions. Later I studied books and photographs about Pakistan, I went to several museums rich in art and artifacts from Pakistan, and finally I sought out foods, music, dancing, clothing, fabrics, films, also all from Pakistan, just to help me to get in the mood.
I don’t think that I can separate the inspiration from the research and vice-versa. Inspiration and research occurred at the same time, and they both happened while I was doing all of what I listed above. Perhaps most important were visits, phone calls and correspondence with Greg, Abdul and Julia. They all helped me to see the whole story through their eyes. It was second only to being in Baltistan with all of them.
Your collage-renditions of radiant girls wearing colorful burkas and carrying books vibrate with joy. Their patterns and textures strike us in ways we can't resist! Please tell us a little bit about your technique and choice of materials.
I have trouble throwing out beautiful scraps, so my growing collections, organized by color, are always available to me. I use only the cloths or papers that feel right to me. I do not care if their geographical sources are illogical choices. In all my books, I try my absolute best to keep the text as accurate and as precise as possible, but I acknowledge no boundaries, and allow no border patrols for my materials.
I use Japanese paste, and English double-sided repositional tape. My favorite scissors are Swiss, and I just realized something poetically perfect as I am making this list: my best tweezers, my favorites, ones I have treasured for years, were made in Pakistan! My papers and fabrics and feathers and plastics and all other materials come from all over the world. I love mixing all these international pieces to make my wholes.
You have said, “Underneath every collage in this book lies another one.” Can you please tell us what that means?
This is an extension of my “use anything and everything” rule. Until Listen To The Wind, I always used new and high-quality paper onto which I attached my collages. I did this because good, acid-free base paper is probably better for preservation of the work, but also because of habit.
With Listen to the Wind I was inspired to try something different when I realized that the Balti women use found materials such as computer chips and parka zippers as part of the decoration for the hats they make. As a way to extend my hand to them, I pieced my base papers together out of my world of found papers and plastic tapes. I built them out of my ‘computer chips’, my ‘zippers’, that is to say, my available materials that I could spare to use in this way. My patchworked base paper collages were my physical, emotional and spiritual responses to the ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness of these women. These were my offerings of respect to them, on a very personal level, even if they will never see what I did and, perhaps, never even know about the base collages.
Greg Mortenson’s story of going against all odds to help bring education to children in rural areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan is an inspiring one that gives readers hope for peace in the region. What would you say is the role of art in helping bring about peace in the world? Do you believe art can be a unifying factor in a divided world?
I recently wrote and illustrated Do Re Mi: If You Can Read Music, Thank Guido d'Arezzo, a book about the origin of western musical notation with a collaborator, scholar, professor and musician Angelo Mafucci, a dear friend who does not speak English. We communicate with my struggling Italian, helped by our great desire to understand each other. But the first link to our communication and our friendship was and is music. We both appreciate the fact that when each of us reads or hears music we are reading and hearing in the same language, no translation needed. I believe that all the arts (and sciences) share this potential for being vehicles of communication. Art is a wonderful way to celebrate our differences and similarities.
After reading Listen to the Wind and absorbing the story through your collages, I started thinking of Greg’s work also as a form of collage: the piecing together of materials, of funds, of help, to achieve something bigger. Does this comparison make sense to you?
This is a beautiful thought. The collage metaphor is indeed an intriguing one, and it does make sense to me. I think it may embody my whole philosophy of life. It is interesting to me that my friend and collaborator, the composer Victoria Bond, had similar thoughts when she began to work on a special musical composition for Listen To The Wind. (This is a commissioned work. We hope to have a segment of it ready to be performed at the official book launch, on January 22, 2009). The composition is to be “a musical collage”, interlaced with quotations of folk music from Pakistan and Baltistan, in English and Urdu.
You have tackled books about all sorts of subjects, including the tragic events of 9/11. Can you please tell us how the 9/11 tragedy led to your book It’s Still a Dog’s New York?
It's Still a Dog's New York was created all because of my brother’s vision. My brother is journalist Peter Laufer; he wrote Made in Mexico, which I illustrated.
It’s A Dog’s New York was published in September, 2001. Peter had been in Washington, D.C. on September 11th. When he was unable to get a flight home to California, he drove instead. From somewhere on the long road across America, he called me. He had been listening to the country's responses, along the way. He said, “You should write a new text for It’s A Dog’s New York now, this minute! Keep the art as is--it doesn't need to change-- and quickly create something for the children. They need something to hold on to now, just as all of us do.”
Do any of your collages particularly symbolize peace to you? If so, could you say a few words about it and share the image with us?
Oh I can't pick one... There are many. To me, peace is equal to appreciation and love. I believe that I include at least one, if not both, of these two themes in all my books, and that they haven’t changed since 1984, when I published my first one. Either I find something based on intriguing-to-me facts or places, from which I derive my inspiration, or I look straight inside myself for that inspiration. I think that, except for the artistic embellishments, my message is actually the same with both approaches: appreciation and love. From the appreciation comes love, and from loves comes appreciation, and they both equal peace.
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor/Producer
Posted November 2008
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