Archive for May 4, 2011

Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: Update, Featuring First 5 Paragraphs of the Book!

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeI haven’t blogged about the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss for a while because I’ve been waiting.  I sent in the latest version of the manuscript back on the first of the year; my editor finally read it in late March, and sent it out to a reader.  I received the reader’s report this past week.

The good news for those of you (yes, both of you!) interested in the book is that I will be blogging more about it — and thus, you’ll learn a bit more about Johnson and Krauss.  The bad news is that the goal posts keep receding into the distance.  I’m no longer certain that this book will appear in April 2012 (as planned).  At times, I doubt whether it will appear at all.

If you were following the (admittedly dry) chronicles of the revision process this past fall, you may recall that my editor suggested that I restructure the early chapters.  Until the point that Johnson and Krauss meet, I had one chapter on her, then one on him, and so on; after they meet, they share chapters.  He found the alternating-chapter approach flawed: “I don’t think it works.  In fact, I think the opposite reaction occurs — by jumping between the two narratives, the manuscript becomes too fragmented and we lose sight of one of the protagonists for so long that it’s difficult to stay invested in either of them.”  So, I followed his suggestion.  Instead of alternating chapters, I rewrote so that each chapter focused on both protagonists.

The reader for this new version writes, “Nel should not alternate the two lives paragraph by paragraph. The structure is disastrous.”  (I don’t in fact alternate paragraph by paragraph — generally, there are 3-7 paragraphs at a time on each person.)  Instead, the reader suggests, I should devote one chapter to one person, and then one to the other up until the point that they meet.  My editor writes that he “agrees with the reader,” and advises me to do the revisions.  So, now I’ll be reverting to the earlier structure.  Despite the unacknowledged irony, this isn’t all bad: in the process of rewriting during the fall, I was able to cut a lot and make what remained stronger.  I will strive for similar results here.

The bigger problem for me is cutting.  In the last revision, I cut 10,000 words.  Should I manage to cut another 10,000, I still won’t have this down to the 100,000-word length the press wants.  I cannot see how to get it down to that length.  I’ve cut nearly everything that I’ve been asked to cut, but … I’ve also been left to do a lot of this on my own.  And it’s not always clear to me what needs to go.  If I’m editing literary criticism, I just trim the less strong arguments, remove the weaker examples.  In editing a biography, I have a harder time figuring out which life events are less significant.  To give credit where it’s due, I have been grateful for my editor’s advice on the first 100 pages, and have tried to apply his logic of cutting to the rest of the manuscript (apparently without success).

I’m aware of my limits as a writer, storyteller, biographer.  I know I’m not a gifted prose stylist.  For these reasons, I’m of course grateful for editorial advice.  Also, I want to make the book the best possible book that it can be.  So, inasmuch as the criticism helps, I’m in favor of it.  But, at a certain point, I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall.  Or maybe against a manuscript.  Against something big and solid, certainly.

For instance, referring to my manuscript, the latest reader says, “The beginning is terrible.”  Is it?  Here’s the beginning.  Judge for yourself:

One Friday in August 1950, an FBI agent knocked on their front door.

Crockett Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss were living in Rowayton, a small coastal community of Norwalk, Connecticut.  He was writing Barnaby (1942-1952), that epitome of the thinking person’s comic strip.  She was gathering material for what would become A Hole Is to Dig (1952), the children’s classic that launched the career of Maurice Sendak (creator of Where the Wild Things Are).

When the FBI knocked, Johnson opened the door, and stepped onto the porch, where he and the agent talked.  Unseen by Johnson, a second agent snapped a photograph. Between April of 1950 and May of 1955, the FBI watched Johnson, his bank account, his mail, and his phone.  Lists of transactions, correspondents, and callers all appear in his 114-page FBI file.

The FBI also began to investigate Krauss.  Agents checked into whether either she or Johnson had applied for a passport to travel abroad.  They read her mail.  They interviewed the manager of the Baltimore apartment building where her mother lived.

During this same period, Sendak was spending weekends at the home of Johnson and Krauss, illustrating some of her best-known books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning A Very Special House (1953).  And Crockett Johnson began writing his best-known book, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Situated at the intersection of art, politics, and commerce, the lives of Krauss and Johnson lead us into a lost chapter in the histories of children’s books, comics, and the American Left.

Yes, I’m no Neil Gaiman, but I would question “terrible” as a fair assessment for the above.  I realize that you’re seeing only the very beginning of the intro (I suspect that showing more would displease the publisher), but what do you think?

Anyway, as I undertake the eighth revision, I’ll post some more cuts up here on the blog.  Hope you enjoy ’em!

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