Interview with Richard Michelson
Erin Daly and Daniella Bordonaro visited Richard Michelson at his gallery in Northampton to talk about his work with Leonard Baskin, and their book, Ten Times Better.
 
Richard Michelson:  Ten Times Better was the last children’s book Leonard Baskin and I created together. Our first book Did You Say Ghosts? was my idea. It is about a kid who is scared of ghosts and his father decides to calm his fears by saying, “Don’t worry there’s no such thing as ghosts, and even if there were, the werewolves scare the ghosts away.” Of course, the kid is now terrified of werewolves.  It’s a game I used to play with my children when they were young, and I figured that rather than just frighten my own children I may as well frighten kids around the country! [laughs]  The Werewolves are scared by the Witches, etc.  One of the verses included scary figures out of Greek mythology, and Leonard did a beautiful drawing of a Siren, but you could see breasts.  The editor complained: “Leonard this is a book for children; you need to re-do this drawing.”  So Leonard re-drew the figure with bigger breasts. Next the editor called me up and insisted I write out that verse, which, in the interest of sales, I admit that I did.  
 
 
Our second book Animals that Ought To Be was also my idea. It is about made-up animals that kids might prefer to dogs or cats—an animal that cleans your room, or an animal that does your homework.  We worked independently and weeks later we met for lunch to see if any of his illustrations might match up with my poems.  He had a long eared creature that looked like it could partner with my poem “I’m All Ears” about an animal that can hear what your parents were whispering at night.  Leonard had some great drawings which didn’t match any of my ideas, so I made up some new animals, and I had some poems Leonard liked and he decided to do some drawings for the poems.   Of course it struck me at one point that I was sitting with one of the great artists of the last century and watching him draw the silliest animals he could.  And Leonard, in a kind of self-mocking way would say: “The Great Leonard Baskin has come up with Another Ridiculous Creature.”  
 
Our third book was A Book of Flies, Real or Otherwise and that was totally Leonard’s idea. I came into my office one day and this tiny little piece of paper-- which I’ve kept—I think it is really cool-- was on my desk [holds up paper] And it says:
 
 
Rich 18 July 1996
How does your elegant and feisty wit respond
to a book of flies real or otherwise,
perhaps a smallish book.
 
And that was it.  So you can see – right on this note I sat down and I just started making little fly associations: fly fisherman, horsefly, dragonfly, flying saucer, fly paper. I just started thinking of words, and eventually this expanded into a book that had both made up flies and real flies. For instance, Leonard would draw a funny fly relaxing  in a coffin, and I’d write a silly poem to match, and then you’d turn the page to see a very detailed drawing of a real coffin fly and a short factual poem. It is a wonderful combination of poetry and science.
 
 
Ten Times Better began when an editor that we were working with said that librarians were looking for a story to teach children simple multiplication, and they asked if we could come up with any ideas.  This was unusual, in that it was totally editorially driven.  In my day job-- I own a gallery—we were having a Dr. Seuss exhibit at the time, and I had just read Dr. Seuss’s story The Big Brag.  So I decided to stage a brag-fest among animals, where they would each claim to be best and then you find out something about each animal.  
 
Who goes outside without their pants
And has six legs?
You guessed it: ants  
 
We’ve never learned arithmetic,
But six is better.
That’s our pick.
 
So you learn that an ant that has six legs and then of course the brag-fest comes in:
 
Fiddlesticks! Six, the best? Poppycock!
You want ten times better? dial a croc
I have sixty teeth
I’m a great masticator
That means I chew first and I ask questions later
 
So it continues like that. A raccoon brags about the 7 bands on its tail and then a giraffe brags about the 70 spots on its neck.
 
Seven? Good heavens! So what?
Count my spots.
I’m ten times better.
Giraffes have… well lots.
 
Me, I have 70 just on my neck.
Heck, you can count them yourself
Come on, check!
 
In the back of the book there are simple multiplication problems based on true animal facts
We had some difficulties putting this book together and I wrote an essay about my experience which you can read here: Leonard Baskin: A Remembrance
 
 
 
 
 
 In fact, my first book with Leonard, Did You Say Ghosts, was republished a few years ago with a different illustrator, Adam McCauley, and for me it was very educational to see how the same words  created two totally different books-- a different mood --a different feel, and  for a different age range.  The words are almost the same—I made a few changes-- but the different illustrators created something totally different. One book is spooky and sophisticated, and the other, for younger children, is pure silly fun.
 
I’ve been fortunate to have been able work with many illustrators directly. Because my day job is working with artists, most editors understand that  I know when to step away and I know when to give advice.  Leonard and I worked on our projects together, but we respected one another enough to gave each other total space and freedom.  I’m pleased to have done all these projects with him. What an incredible honor it has been.
 
Erin Daly: Do you have a favorite page in the final book of Ten Times Better?
 
Richard Michelson: This book has been out a while. Let me look through it.     I love that crocodile and yes, the sixty teeth are laid over the original drawing.  Leonard did two or three different croc drawings which I could show you, but this one coming straight at you is, I think, a beautiful design and I just love what he did with this.  Let’s see if I have some of his earlier studies.  Art doesn’t just happen.  The artist has to play with a bunch of ideas.   Here are the two studies [showing two crocodiles]. And actually I think the finished piece is hanging in my bathroom.  Is it? [opens bathroom door] Yeah it is.    
 
 
[Richard showed us Masks, the last book Leonard Baskin saw finished, a book that was originally intended to be a collaboration between Baskin and the poet Ted Hughes, but was written by Michelson after Hughes’ death.  It is a beautiful original limited edition fine press book.]
 
 
Richard Michelson: This is a project that we worked on similarly to the way we worked on the children’s books.  Baskin is known as an artist who really explains the underside of our lives.  But he had a wonderful sense of humor and he loved kids, and some of the “serious work” was not that dissimilar to what’s in the children’s books.
 
 
Animals That Ought to Be has a couple of bird drawings in it, and because adults are so used to Baskin being a dark artist, they’ll look at some of the drawings in the kids book and with their preconceptions-- they’ll say, “Oh this is a bird that represents death,” or “Oh, this is way too scary for kids.” But children who have never heard of Leonard Baskin will look at some of these same drawings and laugh uproariously.  Which is what Leonard wanted. A lot of the drawings are just darned funny.  
 
Behind me is Leonard’s greatest piece (laughs) his portrait of me in bronze. [inscription reads Poet Art Dealer, and in Latin “and friend of mine.” )  My relationship with Leonard started out as “artist- art dealer” but eventually transcended that as we became collaborators.  One of the things that was important to me is that, although we had a business relationship, he would always introduce me first as poet.
 
It was always both humbling and exciting to work as an equal with one of the great artists of our time and, when I’m working, he is still looking over my shoulder.  When Leonard was alive, before I presented anything to show him I always had to work on it and work on it and work on it because I knew “the great Leonard Baskin” would be looking at it and I wanted him to see the best that I could do.  He was an unsparing critic. Just having his voice in my head made me work so much harder because I wanted to be up to Leonard’s standards. Today, when I am working, I still try to keep his voice in my head.
 
 
 
Leonard Baskin in his studio.  Photo courtesy of R. Michelson Gallery.
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
As you probably have learned in your research for this project it’s very unusual for authors and illustrators to work together collaboratively. In general they’re kept apart -- the editor’s job is to communicate between the two.  Most writers do not even get to meet the illustrator who did their book until after the book is done.  The editor is creating a marriage and they don’t want conflict between the writer and the illustrator.  They don’t want the writer calling up the illustrator and saying, “Well I kind of envisioned that shirt as blue instead of red.”   The illustrator has to take that story and create their own version of it.  If they are just illustrating the words you wrote in the book, then, it’s my belief that you don’t need the illustrator, the words are doing the picture.  A successful children’s book works when the words and the pictures create a greater whole and that only happens when the illustrator feels free to create their own version of the story.