An Interview With Robert Burleigh

Robert Burleigh

Cameron Brooks: How does your art influence your writing, and vice versa?

Robert Burleigh: Good question. Let me go back just a little. I’ve been writing for many years, forty years-plus. When I was in college, or even younger, I was an average and mostly unenthusiastic student, until I got turned on to reading in my very last year of college. At that point I decided to try to get into graduate school to start learning something, thinking that I was going to be a writer. I’m not sure how that came about, but [laughs] it did.

When I began to make art, some years later, it influenced my writing because I approached the art with a certain new-found playfulness. At that time I was working for a company that made materials for schools. I was writing mostly videos and filmstrips, and I noticed that my filmstrips and videos, when it was possible to do so, got a lot freer, even experimental to the extent that that can happen under the narrow umbrella of the business world.

So the art in some way did influence my writing, but I’ve often seen them as two tracks. I don’t make art that I’m going to write about, and I don’t normally write anything that I’ll make art about. But the freedom that I feel in making art has somewhat transferred over to some of my writing, and children’s book writing…

I’ve written, and hope someday to publish, a few very playful picture books, rather in the vein of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a little book that influenced me quite a bit. When possible, and especially in these unpublished concept books, I attempt to reach something that has, without being heavy-handed, a seeming lightness tinged with a slight metaphorical edge.

This is a really long answer to a simple question! I guess my simple answer to the original question is that writing and art are both kinds of related creative processes…

CB: I can see the playfulness you mentioned. Right now I’m looking at your Sheepworld sculptures. And for instance, Sheep Startled by Their Own Shadow: just looking at that makes me smile, and so I can see that playfulness that you were talking about in the Sheepworld sculptures, which I think are wonderful. I can’t wait to show my students next year.

RB: Thanks. I’ve never shown that series, other than to put it on my website. But yes, that’s an example of what I mean. It plays with the idea of looking at your own shadow and being somewhat surprised. But what does it mean to look at your own shadow? Things like that have come into my art. They are in some of the picture books that I’ve written and not yet published because, for whatever reason, I segued mainly into the writing of biographies. When you’re a professional… and make a living (of sorts!) out of writing, you often have to stick to what’s working.

I’ve had a number of art shows, and I’ve sold some pieces, but not a lot and certainly not for big money. So I don’t think of my art as having much of a monetary aspect to it. I approach it like, I don’t give a damn. I’m going to let it all hang out, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s how I want to approach art, and I want to keep it that way. With the children’s books, a number of them, the subject to some extent creates parameters that I have to stay inside of.

CB: In your artist statement on your website, you mention starts and stops when it comes to creating art. Does this also occur within the writing process for you, or is it pretty smooth-going from beginning to end now that you’ve written so many books?

RB: I do a lot of rewriting. A young student, a third grader in a school I visited this spring, came up after class, and asked, “Mr. Burleigh, how do you remember your books?” I thought at first he was referring to the fact that I knew a lot about some subject a book of mine touched on. But after I talked to him more, I realized that he thought I had had the particular book in my head, word for word, and somehow just copied it down! He, like many of his compatriots, didn’t get the fact that most books don’t just pour out, word for word, at the first touch of the pen.

CB: Just in one go.

RB: In one go, yes. In other words, he apparently thought I got a pen out and then turned on the story, like hearing a tape recording in my head, and copied it down. I thought, “This has really opened my head because I think many kids think that.”

And that is so far from the way I, and probably many others, write. I often take maybe four or five stabs at a piece before I even get a sense of the direction I want to go with it. And I’m not talking about line-editing here; I’m talking about what we might call the “treatment” of a particular book. How are you going to approach this subject or story? Are you going to deal with this aspect of the person’s life, or that aspect? Is it going to be the first or third person? And so forth. All these questions and more are resolved for me usually in… well, I’m just going to try something. Ah, I don’t like this, let’s next try that.

Sometimes in the process of not liking a story, I suddenly see where I want it to go; at other times in the process, I just say to myself: it’s not swingin’. It’s not singin’. I don’t want it. I’ve got to shut down, and wait; or flail ahead blindly.

So I go through lots of starts and stops. When I finally get that treatment, and know which way I’m going, then the writing usually flows much more easily. I might make small adjustments, of course, and also do a good deal of minuscule tweaking. But the big problem for me is always getting that treatment. Where are you going to start, and how are you going to take this book from A to Z, or maybe A to B (laughs). That’s something that I at least have never figured out, because I never use a formula and therefore each book is a new ballgame. Maybe once in a while it just comes out, bingo, but usually, as I said, there are many starts and stops and restarts.

CB: Well, that brings me to my next question. When you decided to write about Abraham Lincoln, did you always plan to write it from the perspective of the child?

RB: That’s a good question. I’ve always been deeply moved by Lincoln. Look at his face. The way it changes from 1860 to ’65… of course, you’re a southerner, so you may have a different attitude towards him! I see this deeply lined face that ages about 25 years in 4 years, and I can almost cry. I knew about his funeral train, and my first thought was that I just wanted to write about the whole spectacle. I knew that people turned out en masse, of course, in these big funerals in New York and Chicago. So as I researched it, and mused about it, my first thought was “I’ll just do the whole thing… train leaves D.C., then goes to Baltimore, and on and on to Springfield.”

But I never started writing, beyond some notes and scribbles, because as I reflected on my feelings, I thought, “What is really moving me here?” (By the way, that’s one of the questions I ask about a book: “How can I really connect in a personal way to this subject?” If it’s nothing more than a Babe Ruth story, well, I played baseball enough to know what it’s like to hit a ball, so I’m going to make this story about nothing more than Babe hitting one home run.) In regard to Lincoln’s funeral train, what’s always moved me is not these big, extravaganza funerals that they held in big cities.

No, it is the fact that plain, average people came out at night, in cold rain, that year, it was a very rainy spring in the Midwest — just to watch the train go by. To take off their hats and simply stand there, waving, saluting, weeping. That’s so touching to me. I kept fixing on that, and finally I said to myself, “Okay, that’s what I want to make this story be about.” The rest of it’s just invented whole cloth. I imagined, well, who’s out there? I wanted a child, of course, in the story, and the kid couldn’t be by himself if they’re traveling in the wee hours ten miles to the train track. So I added the father, etcetera.

CB: I’d like you to comment on a recurring theme that I’ve noticed in your books, unsupportive parents. For instance, the parent says, “No, you can’t fly a plane,” or “No, you can’t become a poet.” It seems to come up a lot in your books, and I wonder if you could comment on that.

RB: It’s very interesting you’re saying this. I wasn’t always aware of that, but I’m not surprised. I have a book called Into the Woods. It’s about Audubon, and an editor and I were talking about art books and somehow his name came up. We decided, to do a book on Audubon, about whom I knew very little. He was an artist and a naturalist, but beyond that I didn’t really know his story. So I’m reading about him, and once again, as I talked about earlier, asking myself, what’s the catch for me here? What’s the treatment? What can I latch on to that I feel strongly about that maybe could give the book some momentum, and so on? Audubon was born in the Caribbean, grew up in France, and came to the United States. He lives as a young man in Kentucky, I believe, and has a little store. But already he was totally into art, and into painting, birds particularly.

His father, writing from France, is constantly haranguing him. “Okay, Johnny… Don’t dally around. Keep an eye on that cash register. Make the store bigger/better.” But Audubon, closing the store down at noon many days, goes out to draw his bird pictures [laughs]. When I read about this, I remembered that, as I already said, I wasn’t much of a student, nor much of a reader until I was a senior in college. My father, when I told him that I wanted to be a writer, and mind you my father was a very loving and decent man, says to me with a quite baffled look on his face: “What makes you possibly think you could be a writer?” Good question, Pops! Here’s a boy who, by and large, over the last ten years, had been doing nothing but chasing a ball of one kind or another.

So it’s strange but not strange if I do have an unsupportive parent in a book or two. That’s very directly the theme of the Audubon book, because Audubon in the book, is writing a letter to his father, explaining why he wants to become an artist. And I was aware at that time that that related in a small way to my own life.

CB: What was your father’s response to your work once you became more prolific?

RB: Well, unfortunately he died before I published anything beside a self-published poem book. So he really never read any of the books that I’ve published in the last 25 years or so. For a long time, while I was an adult and he was alive, I had various jobs., teaching, social working, odd-jobbing here and there. I was always supporting myself and my family, just barely, but I think, to tell the truth, he probably thought his son was some kind of a bumbling, good-hearted soul who had made a very bad life choice.

CB: How has your writing evolved over the years?

RB: Interesting question. I do think I’m an improved writer, but I may be also a more cautious one, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. My first children’s book (after a much earlier small book about Thoreau) dealt with Charles Lindbergh flying across the Atlantic in 1927. It’s called Flight. I realized early on that I liked writing about people trying to overcome some sort of difficulty. Survival stories. I think I’ve become more conscious of looking for that kind of critical moment.

Another way my writing has evolved is that I’m much more aware of trying to get some kind of heightened, or intenser feeling into the writing.
At the same time, I’m looking to keep the writing more concentrated, if I can, and simpler. My ultimate goal would be to write books in which there were no words at all [laughter]. I would just describe some pictures, although I know there are many such wordless picture books around. Still, that kind of book intrigues me, if it works, not just as a sort of special little fly-by-night, tricky thing, but something that has real substance to it. I think I’m trying to get myself down to… really pare myself down to less talk, and more walk, if I can.

CB: I look forward to seeing more. Let me end with this question: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

RB: Obviously, writing and reading are very connected. Once you start writing with some seriousness, you begin reading differently because while you are always reading to get the feel of a book, at the same time, with another side of your brain, so to speak, you’re asking: how is this put together? How is this writer creating the feeling that I’m feeling? What steps and methods, and so on? So I think it’s most important to keep reading.
When I go to schools, I always bring along a little notebook and show it to the class. I like to tease the kids with the question: “What’s in here?” But the truth is, I do frequently carry some little notebook with me because you never know when a notion or an image or an idea is going to hit you, and often if it’s not caught on the fly, it’s presto, lost.

It’s also important to share your writing with others, too, although one must take care here. Every person that feels he or she wants to write and sets out to do so, well, it’s like glimpsing a very distant light at the end of a long tunnel. I see my light. You see your light, and to some extent, you’ve got to be careful that you don’t get thrown off track, so to speak, by people saying, “That’s not working for me,” or “Why don’t you do this?” It’s tricky. You have to listen, be open to criticism, but still keep that distant light in your mind’s eye.

This will now contradict what I just said about hanging on to your vision. I’ve been in a writing workshop or two over my long life, and I think that one of the interesting things is that it’s very hard to give up an idea you’re writing about even when you perhaps stumble on something that has more zing, zest, song or swing to it. For example, somebody writes a poem. Its nominal subject, let’s say, is the death of a friend. But the poem doesn’t fly, it’s too long, too teary, too dense, whatever. Yet the first couple of stanzas may be a moving description of a seascape, for example; something that might be expanded on and really take off. You’ve got to be able to give up that death-of-friend story you wanted to tell me about, and now go in the this other direction.

In other words, what’s really moving in this poem? What’s working in this story? Aha! Take it and run with it! But that’s no simple task because you have some deeply held notion of what you want to do when you start. Henry James said that the imagination has a life of its own. You’ve got to be ready to leap on the new thing when it pops up.

I’m talking too much! I met a man once, much older than I was at the time, who told me he wrote a batch of famous writers, asking the simple question, “How can I become a writer?” George Bernard Shaw was one of the people he wrote, and Shaw writes him back. On the same postcard the man had sent Shaw, GBS just scrawls across the top, “Write.”

In short, you have to discipline yourself. If you want to be a writer, you have set aside a time in your day, or week, or whatever space you can make, to write. Georgia O’Keeffe once said, “If you really want to do something, there are twenty other things you won’t be able do.” If you want to write, you may not be able to travel to Turkey, be the last guy or guyita to leave the party, or go to the baseball game. That’s unfortunate, but it’s a fact.

Now, go for it!

After Heraclitus














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