Monday, April 30, 2012

Process Talk: Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen on The Princess of Borscht, Part 3

Uma: Bonnie Christensen and Leda Schubert, come talk to me! One last round on WWBT about The Princess of Borscht.

Bonnie: What a delight!  Thank you Uma, for the invitation, and Leda, for writing such a terrific story.

Leda:  Why did you want to illustrate The Princess of Borscht?

Bonnie: The story.  The first time Leda read Borscht in our writers’ group my mind immediately filled with images of bickering neighbors full of warmth and humor. As a matter of fact, I once had a landlady in New York who was a conglomeration of all three neighbors and had a dog named Cookie.  That’s for you Leda, the dog part.

Also it’s rare, in picture books, to see flawed characters.  Thought these ladies aren’t swearing and swigging vermouth, they are arguing and being competitive.  But of course in Borscht they’re behaving that way for the best of reasons—to help make the soup that will save Ruthie’s grandmother from the terrible hospital food and speed her recovery. The fact that, as an illustrator, I had the opportunity to develop the neighbors’ characters visually was great fun. It turned out that Mrs. Lerman loves to gesture with her hand but, since she was holding the borscht spoon, she ended up slinging borscht and then almost smacking Mrs. Goldberg in the face with the spoon.

The fact that Ruthie saves the day based on her own instincts also appealed to me. 

Bonnie's visual-motor experiment
And I haven’t even mentioned how much I love borscht.  I made tons of borscht while working on the illustrations. Leda and I collaborated on testing the recipe that appears on the back of the book.  I cooked borscht and ate borscht and froze borscht and even slung some around my dining room to see what flying borscht looks like for one of the illustrations.  It was quite a mess.

Leda:  What did you bring into play from your own life?

Bonnie: Set dressing.  I used objects that my grandmother or mother owned to decorate Ruthie’s grandmother’s apartment; objects that felt homey and familiar.  Though her neighbors might be a bit bohemian, I saw Ruthie’s grandmother as more traditional, and so she has traditional objects in her kitchen and living room. She even has a Maxfield Parrish print over the sofa.  I suppose that unconsciously I selected objects that might be interpreted as comforting.  After all Grandma is in the hospital.

Uma:  How did Ruthie's character take shape in your mind, Bonnie? As illustrator what drove the specifics of representing her visually?

Bonnie: That’s easy.  I just conjured a nine year-old Leda.  Leda and I discussed Grandma and decided to pattern her on Vera Williams, who we both adore. I stole Ruthie’s “attitude”, and she is certainly justified in her frustration over all the bickering, from my daughter at Ruthie’s age.

Uma: Can we try my soupy question again? The spaces between adult and child perceptions form the core of this lovely story of family relationships and the creation of tradition. Can you  talk about how you approach liminal spaces in your work? Between childhood and adulthood, between fiction and truth, and now in collaboration, between text and image?

Bonnie: I’m only conscious of mining the text for character development, secondary story opportunities and illustratable moments. Through the process of illustrating and all it involves, liminal spaces may become apparent but aren’t built in as I go along. The process of visual world building, varying perspectives, set design, costumes and casting the proper actors takes up most of my small brain.

So much is in the eye of the reader and every reader brings a different life experience to the book.

There are times I don’t even know what I’ve accomplished until a nice librarian tells me, which is a really lovely thing.  Certainly writers and illustrators add all sorts of unintentional dimensions to our work and if someone wants to give me credit for their brilliant observation, well I’m all for that!

Uma: So there you have it. Liminality (really, really wanted to say that!) and soup in The Princess of Borscht.

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