Sunday, June 06, 2010

Once Upon a Baby Brother: Sarah Sullivan and the Source of Story

Sarah Sullivan's new picture book, illustrated by one of my favorite picture book artists, Tricia Tusa (In a Blue Room) seems on the surface to be about new babies and the stresses they bring with them. Look again.

UK: Sarah, welcome to WWBT! Are you Lizzie? Is Lizzie you? Is that an obvious question?

SS: Hi Uma.First off, I agree with you about Tricia Tusa. I feel incredibly lucky to have her illustrate my story!

To answer your question, there is a little bit of me in all of my characters, and yes, in many respects, Lizzie is like me. Even though she doesn't realize it, she is trying to figure out her life by writing stories. I think all writers do this – indeed maybe all humans do it, even if they don't write the stories down. They try to make sense of their lives by daydreaming, by spinning alternate scenarios to counteract a bad outcome in real life. It's human nature. It's our way of coping with the incomprehensibility of life. We have this innate need to find rational order and a system of natural justice in the world. But alas, that is not reality.

As a storyteller, my coping mechanism is to transform an untenable situation into story and play around with it. I examine the situation from other people's viewpoints to see if I can make some sense of it. In a very strange way, Lizzie's story mirrors what was happening in my own life at the time that I wrote it.

UK: Can you speak to the concept of Marvin as Muse, and where that thing we call "inspiration" comes from?

SS: On my Facebook page, I have posted one of my favorite quotes, "[I]t's all copy," which I heard Nora Ephron use in an interview on South Carolina public television. Both of Ephron's parents were screenwriters and Ephron said that, when she was growing up and something bad happened to someone in the household, her mother would always say, "it's all copy," meaning, don't worry about the bad thing, because someday you might get a story out of it.

It's in that sense that Marvin is a muse. The people and situations which seem to cause you the most grief, may also provide you with the richest story material. Anything which arouses passion, be it positive or negative, can plant the seeds of a story that you will have a burning desire to tell. Not to get too serious about this, but as Stephen Sondheim noted in a recent interview on Fresh Air, art is all about making order out of chaos. This is certainly true for storytellers and it is definitely true of Lizzie. Marvin makes chaos, so Lizzie has to try and make order out of it. I see students doing this all the time when I teach writing workshops. They don't realize how much their stories reflect real life. Even if the stories are filled with wizards and dragons, the story problems originate in reality.

UK: I fell in love with Marvin's emerging language. "Ziff wizzle" and (possibly my new favorite snatch of picture book dialogue) "loops." These are strikingly perfect words for a busy toddler. Tell me how you get under the skin and into the hearts of these little characters when you have so few pages to work with.

SS: Well, I hate to confess this, but I have an inner Marvin too. Also, I remembered things my son said when he was little and how he used to react to different situations.

The funny thing was, when it came time to copyedit the text, the copyeditor asked me about the proper spelling of these words. I particularly enjoyed one email which asked – "is the "w" in Ziff wizzle supposed to be capitalized?"

UK: Once Upon a Baby Brother has many layers: the plot situation, the new baby, is only one of them. How did the layers emerge for you as you worked on this book?

SS: This was actually the most difficult part of the book to work out. I started with a little girl named Lizzie who loved to write stories and who was the writing star of her second grade. At home, she was frustrated by her pesky brother Marvin who demanded TOO much of her parents' attention, (as far as Lizzie was concerned) and who was always getting in her way. It was a challenge to balance the home story with the school story in the space of 32 pages. My editor, Melanie Kroupa, helped a lot with that. She kept urging me to try another revision. She loved the idea of Lizzie turning Marvin into the superhero of her comic book.

UK: Anything else you want to add, Sarah?

SS. While it is never my aim to "teach lessons" with my books, I have to confess that I hope, if kids take anything away from ONCE UPON A BABY BROTHER, it is an understanding that life experience, no matter how mundane or trying, nevertheless provides a rich well of story material.

And I think Tricia Tusa's illustrations added a wonderful layer and texture to the story. She really brought out the love between Lizzie and Marvin in a way that provides the perfect counterpoint to the text.

Thank you so much, Uma for the opportunity to visit Writing With A Broken Tusk. These were wonderful, thought-provoking questions!

UK: Thanks, Sarah. Lots of luck to Lizzie and you.
Sarah blogs at Mountain View and is also on the team at Through the Tollbooth.


  1. Can't wait to have this book in my hands, Sarah - looks like a perfect marriage of text and pictures, and the "message" of it - that all these passionately unfolding dramas of our lives provide us with stories - is something I try to remember and to emphasize with my students, too! Uma, thanks for posting this.

  2. I already have my copy-- and I love it. Thanks, Uma and Sarah!

    Leda Schubert

  3. Two of my favorites--Tricia Tusa and Sarah Sullivan--in one neat package. Wonderful interview!

    Kathi Appelt