Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with Ted and Betsy Lewin

More on the making of their lovely picture book, Balarama: A Royal Elephant.

[U] I first became aware of Ted's work with a book that also came from a trip to India: Sacred River. When and how did you first begin to think about combining travel and children's books?
[Ted] Interestingly it was our first trip to India that inspired my first picture book. We were watching a tiger from elephant back in Kanha National Park when she began to hunt. We watched the entire hunt including her taking a chital fawn. It was a story with a beginning, middle, and end that was just handed to me while on the back of an elephant. The title of the book was Tiger Trek.

[U] In Balarama, it's clear that you have both taken great care in depicting the setting in text and art. You may have been visitors but this is far from a tourist video rendering of the place. Can you speak about the work you both did to create this careful and loving representation?
[B & T] We enter into these projects with minds like sponges, and attuned to every nuance of color and light and sound. We listen, and try to capture the cadence of people's stories. We tape record the ambient sounds, keep sketch books and extensive journals, and take thousands of photos from which we distill our story. We use our time in airports and on flights on the long trips home to organize our material into a rough manuscript.

[U] The words I loved most in this text are these: "We are bursting with pride." So simple, and yet you pull your reader right into the space of the narrative with those words. Talk about the choices you made in the writing of this picture book text.
[B & T] Since a picture book is a marriage of text and art, we usually wait until the manuscript is complete, then select the images that fit the text. Now we can see what the picture shows that the text no longer needs to tell. We allow the image to carry the story, and start editing and tightening up the text.

There are times when descriptive passages are necessary, especially when describing our feelings at any given time, or describing the way something looks to us. For example: "Balarama's mahout gently embraces the elephant's huge head, the tusks extending like ivory railings on either side." The image triggered that phrase.

[U] Any particular challenges with this book?
[B & T] In this particular case we set out to tell Drona's story, but wound up telling the story of Balarama not knowing how it would play out. This is always a challenge. You can't make a story happen. You have to let it happen.

[U] And finally, talk about Balarama the elephant as a character in the book.
[B & T] Because we'd been told that no elephant could ever measure up to Drona we weren't prepared for our first encounter with Balarama. When he stepped out of his stall he was back lit by the sun. It was as if he had a blinding aura all around him. He blew air through his trunk, and shuffled forward causing us to back away in awe. Right then we knew he was going to do a great job. The more we observed him the more evident became his patient, endearing personality. The day after his debut he seemed very content and unaffected by his new celebrity.

Thank you, Ted and Betsy Lewin and congratulations on a beautiful book.


  1. Can't wait to read this, Uma. Thanks for the interview.

  2. Thank you, Uma. I can't wait to see and read this book. It will remind me of Mysore, which is one of my favorite cities in India. As a "writer only", I'm also intrigued by this wonderful partnership - maybe a little jealous, too :) Imagine, being able to build a picture book from the first spark of the initial idea until the very last stroke of the paintbrush... together. How lovely!

  3. Uma, Thanks so much for this interview, as well as the review. I may have missed the book without it. It sounds beautiful! Shall go looking for it ASAP.

  4. Wow, this book sounds amazing. I haven't seen it yet, but I can imagine the beauty of Ted Lewin's paintings already!

  5. I was searching for 'Naming Maya' and ended up at your blog.

    Fabulous interview and now looking forward to this work too.