Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ellen Raskin Speaks About The Westing Game

Cover of The Westing GameA note on Peter Sieruta's Collecting Children's Books blog pointed me to an amazing find -- an audio recording of Ellen Raskin discussing her manuscripts and process for creating the Newbery-winning novel The Westing Game.

Raskin donated the materials to the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (her alma mater) in May 1978, about a year before she accepted the Newbery Medal.

In addition to the audio, the CCBC has posted a substantial number of sample pages of the first, second, and final drafts, plus Raskin's layouts for the book and illustrations for the cover and title page. (Because she was an illustrator before she was a writer, Raskin was always involved in every detail of her books' appearance.)

There doesn't appear to be a transcription of the audio, but here are some notes of what stood out most to me. Anything not in quotes is my paraphrase of Raskin's words.

How Ellen Raskin got started writing

"I'm not sure I really am a writer as such. I write as an illustrator."

In the early 1970s, she was asked by editor Ann Durell of E.P. Dutton to write a long book. Raskin's usual publisher (for picture books) was Atheneum. When she expressed reticence at the idea of writing a long book, Durell urged her to write about her childhood in Milwaukee during the Depression -- and that effort became The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).

"As far fetched as that book is, it has much that is autobiographical. My daughter and my husband both said everything about you is in that book. In fact my husband said, that's going to be your first and last book, you have nothing left to write about."

Raskin next traces how each of her subsequent books began from a personal angle:

  • Her second book, Figgs & Phantoms, began from the fact that she was a book collector. However, she goes on to say, "The first idea doesn't have to be the end idea. It's a starting point."
  • The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues came from her experience as an art student, and its setting was very much based on her own house in New York City.
Finally, she began The Westing Game in 1976 as an idea related to the Bicentennial. But it was also inspired by the city of Sheboygan, north of Raskin's native Milwaukee. (I don't know why, but I've always assumed the book was set in Chicago. Shame on me, since I am such a fan of Sheboygan!) Sheboygan is a factory town, dominated by Kohler Company, and in her talk Raskin says that Sam Westing is intentionally based on "Old Man Kohler." Then, when she was already immersed in the book, the reclusive Howard Hughes died, and there was a brouhaha over his will -- and the story grew from there.

Her process of creating the story

Raskin says in the audio that she doesn't do story outlines. She lets the characters lead her. But she had to submit 50 pages to get a contract and therefore half her advance, so the 50-page first draft is part of the collection. Her comment on the manuscript pages: "I'm a very messy worker."

As an illustrator, Raskin had maintained a "swipe file" for 30 years -- since art school. Before the age of the Internet, if an illustrator needed a reference image of a cow, she was out of luck unless she happened to have one nearby. (According to Raskin, all illustrators have a swipe file. Her theory for why that is? They're more home-bound than writers, who go to the library. "Or more squirrelish.") As an illustrator-turned-writer, she still relied upon her swipe file for inspiration in creating her characters, and so dug through her two drawers of people pictures to look for images of young people. She picked out one of Turtle and one of Angela.

Photos of a dark haired girl with a big nose and a pretty blonde young woman
Designing the book

One of the most interesting parts of the audio is listening to Raskin talk about how she designed the book itself. She was thinking about the design all the time while writing. "I've watched children read... and my books are complicated. They aren't as complicated to children as they are to adults, because children read more slowly and they aren't ashamed to stop and go back to read something again... I want the look of the book to appeal to them. I know that when they take it off the shelf, and if they have to make a report, I know they go to the back of the book to see how many pages it is. So I insist that my books be under 200 pages."

She always tried to break up the page -- every spread in the book has at least one excerpted block of copy, or row of bullet lines, or chapter heading -- some typographic element to interrupt the continuous body of text. The chapters run continuously into the text instead of starting on new pages, because she wanted to keep the length to 192 pages.

As an example of Raskin's exacting nature, she noted that 15,000 copies of the first printing had to be shredded because the bindery trimmed them 1/4" too narrow. Her standard: The margins must be wide enough for the average child's thumb to fit without covering up any of the type.

Raskin used heavy black bullets as decorative elements throughout the book because they were coherent with the idea of fireworks and explosions -- she didn't want to use asterisks, because those had been a key element in the design of her earlier book Leon.

Cartoonish drawing of a $1,000 bill with a picture of Uncle Sam in the center
The cover illustration and title design were an effort all their own. Raskin drew the $1,000 bill and reproduced copies of it with a stat camera (oh, the good old days!) in order to build the house made out of money. She did all the color separations herself, and those, too, are posted to the CCBC site.

On her previous projects, Raskin didn't keep the drafts or editor's notes, being embarrassed about how bad they were (!). Because of this, The Westing Game is the only one of her books that has such a thorough collection of historical artifacts.

Thanks to the CCBC for making these fantastic objects available to everyone through their website. It's a fine example of how the Internet really can make pieces of history more accessible.

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