Less of a spark and more of a gradual smolder, really. I've always loved exploring nature and have always been obsessed with knowing the names of things, so I fell hard for insects pretty early on. I must have seen Fabre's name (the "father of entomology," though this is both not quite true and not true enough) several times as I was growing up and reading whatever I could get my hands on. But it wasn't until I had a kid of my own that I realized what a compelling character he was, this dirt-poor country guy with nothing but boundless curiosity and empathy and patience, who finally took the time to bend down and ask the smallest ones among us what they were up to. He epitomized so many of the traits I admired in my kid and in kids in general, and so I figured it was high time he got the kind of tribute only a picture book can really accomplish. And I could not be more grateful to Giuliano Ferri, who drenched the whole book in just the light and magic that Fabre so deserved.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
In the original manuscript I had this very lyrical bit toward the end where you see the seasons passing as Fabre, my subject, reaches old age. "Spring, with its burst of white butterflies..." I had this precious little vision of four vignettes with some seasonally appropriate bug action in each. I wanted the book to read like a fairy tale, and so I wanted it to have those moments when the reader is transported, when she falls out of time -- especially since the book really is about "falling out" of our ordinary perspective and into the marvelous world at our feet. But my editor convinced me it wouldn't fit, and she was right, because...well, now that I think about it, I still do miss those darn vignettes.
I guess the truth is that they were better suited for a different, longer version of this story. Writing a picture book, and especially a PB biography, is absolutely brutal work. You inevitably feel like you're hacking great hunks of flesh from your poor subject, in order to cram his barely recognizable body into the space of 32 pages. And you have to trust that you've opened just enough of a window to light up some reader's world, however briefly. Those vignettes were just window-dressing. I admit this grudgingly.
Googling is probably my single greatest skill. Sometimes I think it might be my only real skill. I get a little fanatical about crafting Google searches as efficiently as possible, so my search history is full of inscrutable little nuggets like "millimeters buprestis" and "lysenko tweezers" and "caterwaul haint" and "cut nose mayo." Do you know about the Googlewhack? It's an elusive beast: a two-word search query that returns only ONE result! There are people who hunt for Googlewhacks competitively. Not that I would ever waste my time on something so ridiculous.
Anyway, as far as Googling for this book in particular, insect research can take you to some unusual places very quickly. One search that stands out was "egg dung sausage." I'll just leave that little image there for you to chew on, so to speak.
What's your writing superpower?
If I were a writing superhero, I'm afraid I would be some version of Bizarro. I understand Bizarro is normally a villain, or at least some kind of annoying intergalactic stooge. But my son has this uplifting picture book in which Bizarro comes to Earth wanting to help, and he bumbles around doing the wrong thing over and over, while Superman and the rest of the DC Super Friends shake their heads paternally, and yet every couple of pages Bizarro bumbles in just the right direction by accident and nabs the crooks after all. This is a way of saying that no one should emulate anything about what I do as a writer. I don't read enough, I have no writing community, no routine and no self-discipline, I'm really awful about outlining and drafting, and I give up on 90% of projects after the first few pages. And yet I have bumbled into finishing a few books. How? Honestly I'm still not clear on whether it's a superpower or a curse, but it seems that I can hold a lot of stuff in my head at once. So when I get interested in a subject -- and it's always a race to get it done before the next shiny thing distracts me -- I devour what's been written on it, and then I carry that around in my brain for a few weeks, slowly digesting, before I finally sit down and dump a bunch of prose on the page, in a fashion on which I won't elaborate lest the metaphor become even more tasteless.
I really am trying to train myself to practice writing in a more traditional way, because I really believe I could get more done. But creativity involves a constant tension, I think, between the way you are and the way you wish you were. The way you are might be all kinds of busted, but as we all know, if your stories don't ultimately come from that bustedness, then they'll be dead on the page.
Sounds like a great future lecture -- the DDD (Devour-Digest-Dump) technique! Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I had the terrific honor of working with Julie Larios, Alan Cumyn, Sarah Ellis, and Tim Wynne-Jones, who are four of the funniest, most brilliant, and most humane persons on the planet, and I will defend that claim to anyone. In fact the latter three were, I believe, expressly sent by Canada as part of their foreign aid program to improve American wit, intelligence, and humanity. As for Julie she is simply the ambassador from Planet Julie, where everyone plays in the mud and speaks gorgeous nonsense. Go find their books and, better yet, find them.
Couldn't agree more! What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
I don't really believe in advice. This might just be a lame excuse, given that advice from me is, for reasons detailed above, likely to be horrendous. But I've also come to understand that we writers are so endlessly different, in our motives, our methods, our scars and dreams, that there is almost nothing to be said about writing that will be relevant to everyone. But I guess there is one thing I'd like to do my part in hammering home. Like most wisdom of any universal value, it's already been enshrined in cliche for ages (or at least since Taylor Swift's third studio album): Speak now! Which is to say: if there's a debate in your head about whether or not to let something out, whether it'll just be too raw, too naked, too shameful on the page, then letting it out is the right thing to do approximately 99.999% of the time. It sounds so obvious, and yet if you're not naturally wired that way, then it's SO HARD to really commit to. I certainly haven't mastered it yet myself, but I'm working on it. I'm working on vulnerability. Because if you could boil down to one word what I love about the art I love, that's what it would be.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
I met my wife at VCFA, so this one's a softball. But aside from that, the memories that stick out fall into a couple of categories. Of course there are the bonding memories -- communing with the campus ghost in the forbidden attic of College Hall; inaugurating the proud tradition of Silly Horse on a basketball court buried in snow; getting sprayed by a skunk and rendering Dewey all but uninhabitable for a night...actually, oddly enough, that last one didn't lead to much bonding.
Then there are the memories of learning to truly see other writers, and to be seen as a writer -- for the first time, or at least the first time in a long while, if you're like me. It's a powerful feeling, and if you're susceptible to it, all it takes is about 15 minutes in Noble Lounge on first-rez orientation day. You walk in, freshly dumped by the airport shuttle onto this idyllic hilltop, already feeling like you've come through the wardrobe, and right away you can tell that this new bunch of people is different from any bunch you've been a part of before. The openness, the genuineness, the unabashed nerdiness and hokiness, the purity of purpose, it all just hits you in the face at a hundred miles an hour and you realize you've made exactly the right decision after all and you're reduced to a sniffling wreck. Hypothetically, I mean. That could happen to someone.