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Lincoln Shot

Awards: NCTE Notable Child. Bks in Lang. A ; Booklist Editors' Choice; School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

Recommendations: Book Links; Booklist, Starred; Bulletin-Center Child Books; Chicago Tribune; Horn Book, Starred Review; Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review; New York Times Book Review; San Francisco Chronicle; School Library Journal, Starred Review; USA Today; Washington Post Book World

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Me, Myself, and Lincoln: An Author Interview

Author Barry Denenberg Interviews Himself

Interviewer (I): What was your reaction when Jean Feiwel first approached you about writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln?

Writer (W): I remembered my grandparents taking me to a Brooklyn library when I was ten. That’s when I discovered Lincoln and the civil war. So the challenge of crafting a book that would be compelling to today’s ten-year-old intrigued me – as did Jean’s concept for the book.

(I):  Was the concept for the book clear from the very beginning?

(W):  Jean had two things in mind. One was a text that would focus on Lincoln as a boy, teenager, young politician, husband, and father. And two, she wanted to find the right artist to further humanize Lincoln—someone who could help us create an unconventional, visual book. Jean decided to contact Christopher Bing.

(I):  Where you happy about that?

(W):  A few years earlier I had been working on a book that lent itself to illustration and I asked a local bookseller for her recommendation. She showed me Christopher Bing’s books, which I liked enormously. Unfortunately the project never got off the ground (as a matter of fact, it was buried under the ground) and I never contacted Christopher. But I thought that Jean’s choosing him was a good omen.

(I):  What was accomplished at the first meeting?

(W):  Frankly I wasn’t looking forward to it. I had done hard time in the business world (retail bookselling and publishing) and meetings were not my favorite events; actually they’re the main reason (along with business lunches) that I decided to become a writer.

I had already sent Christopher two of my books because I wanted him to see how I approached history. When we met he mentioned how much he had liked the books, so we went into the meeting with mutual respect, which allowed us to focus on the primary issue: defining the parameters of the project we were about to embark on.

(I):  How did you arrive at the idea of a newspaper written in 1866?

(W):  The discussion immediately focused on our obsession with historical accuracy and the challenge of presenting history to young readers in a new, edgy way. This flowed naturally to creating something that would convey the true feelings of the time period, and that led to the idea of creating a newspaper or magazine that was written back then.

Christopher and I left with a clear mandate from Jean to pursue the idea and Christopher constructed three mock-ups representing three possible approaches. We both were in favor of the one that had a folded newspaper inside a custom made box; possibly with a CD.

(I):  I know you enjoy the solitary life of a writer, so how was it working with an artist for the first time?

(W):  Christopher has great respect for writers and words and I feel the same about visual artists. This created an atmosphere that allowed for some truly inspired exchanges.

(I):  For example?

(W):  Ann Rutledge would be a good one. Writing about the relationship between young Abraham Lincoln and Anne Rutledge was one of my biggest problems as the writer. The story of their relationship has all the elements of first rate fiction: youth, romance, deceit, and death at an early age. The problem is that it may in fact be fiction. Many writers can’t resist telling the tale as if it’s true, but serious historians are unsure. After much research and thought I decided to frame it for my readers as debatable.

At that point, Christopher and I were working closely on each page. I would send him a list of suggested illustrations and he, after reading the text, would send me his preliminary sketches, which I invariably liked; except for the one of Ann Rutledge.

(I):  Why?

(W):  Christopher had done a beautiful full figure rendering of Ann and I felt that its very realness created a problem. The art was saying that she was real and implied that her relationship with Lincoln was real. The art was saying that the story was true and I didn’t want to go that far.

(I):  So what did you do?

(W):  I called Christopher and we discussed it at length, and he understood my position and said he wanted to think about it. At that point I couldn’t think of anything but deleting the art and replacing it with something else. The next day a sketch of what you see on page 11 appeared on my fax. The new sketch strengthened the position in the text: it was an inspired solution to my dilemma.

(I):  You describe LINCOLN SHOT as being a project driven by ‘collaboration’ and ‘evolution’: why those two rather specific terms?

(W):  While we were creating the book Jean was also creating her new imprint, Feiwel & Friends at Macmillan. However, it would have been more accurate to call it Feiwel & Friend because there was just Jean and Liz Szabla. So when Rich Deas joined as Art Director and Kate Waters as freelance editor the pace seriously accelerated. Rich and Kate brought their own talent, intensity, imagination, and relentless perfectionism to the project. That’s when the real fun began.

(I):  Meaning?

(W):  Well, for one thing Kate and I began to strengthen, reshape and polish the text working closely with the fact checker, who did a superior job. It was a more difficult process than I had previously encountered because the narrative wasn’t allowed to ‘spill over’ on to the next page just because that’s the way the type laid out. Each spread was edited in such a way that the text fit perfectly—and I mean perfectly with the visuals.

(I):  Give me an example.

(W):  We can go back to the Ann Rutledge art. The visual on page 11 sits directly under the “question mark” in the text – that’s no accident. A lot of time was spent making sure the text flowed that way.

(I):  Okay, let’s go back to what you were saying about when the fun began.

(W):  Well, we were also carefully considering what supplemental visuals: photography, mid-19th century art, artifacts and graphic would work best with Christopher’s art which was one ongoing decision. Then there were all sorts of harrowing decisions about: what visual, where, how did it work with the text, should the text be rewritten, cut, deleted entirely, expanded or perhaps all three (at least it seemed that way to me at times). We all worked 17 hour days, seven days a week for weeks and months at a time, and I’m not exaggerating one bit. Everything had to flow right and everyone involved, including associate editor Jessica Tedder, managing editor Dave Barrett, and Nicole Moulasion, who was in charge of production, gave new meaning to the words caring and commitment.

This intense process led to a number of relatively last minute decisions which greatly improved the book. We were definitely a forth quarter team.

(I):  Which decisions?

(W):  Well, two come to mind. One was expanding the assassination which opens the ‘book’ from two to four pages. Not only were visuals added—the photographs of the hanging and the text expanded—but I decided to completely rewrite it in the style that you see. And second, which pleased me as much, was the decision to add the headlines that you see throughout the second part. Although they are, obviously, composed of words, they function as a visual element. Other truly last minute decisions that come to mind were: using actual ads and ending with “O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!”—a fitting emotional end to an emotional project.

(I):  Was there a time when you saw that the book was really coming together?

(W):  We had been debating the format for over a year. It was odd because we would be discussing certain factors but couldn’t really proceed intelligently until the people in production (who we were driving crazy) came back to us with their suggestions and solutions: better, heavier paper stock, differently constructed boxes and ideas for preventing the place where the newspaper folded from deteriorating. But no matter what we did the fold was a problem. So we would, after seeing what production came up with begin the discussion anew.

(I):  You mention “certain factors,” what do you mean?

(W):  All of us were concerned about the real life world of bookstores and libraries, Jean especially—she’s overly realistic. Me, I tend to be idealistic (although some who have worked with me might say that was too kind a word). I ran bookstores in Boston and Cambridge in my youth and worked for national book chains in my not so youth. That was really my first love so I am very attuned to what happens in a bookstore. Plus Kate Watershad been a librarian in an earlier life and she was not shy about what the librarians required (and brought that p.o.v. to our text discussions—she’s the reason there’s an index).

Anyway, at one point I started liking the idea of just publishing a newspaper – no expensive box. But that didn’t solve the problem of the fold, although it would allow us to keep the retail price down. We also entertained changing the trim size and making it a magazine so there would be no shelving problem, but that just didn’t have the impact of a newspaper. All of these ideas were good ones, but all of them had their own inherent problems. There was no perfect solution.

This ongoing discussion took place, of course, while we were all working along at a rather semi-frantic pace: Christopher up in Massachusetts on his art; Kate and I on the text; and all of us on the layout and design with Rich Deas. As I said, this went on for over a year.

(I):  How did you arrive at a final decision?

(W):  The problem with the fold just wasn’t getting solved—it was something we hadn’t anticipated when we first came up with the idea. The thought that we were putting all of this time, energy and, most importantly by this point, emotional commitment into creating something that was an impermanent object started to drive me nuts and I became adamantly opposed to folding at all.

But the most important factor, one that began to surface during our discussions more and more was a belief that kids today simply weren’t reading history or biography. That was the unspoken but understood and shared motivation at our first meeting—the one where Jean, Christopher and I decided on doing a newspaper.

(I):  What makes you think young readers don’t read non-fiction?

(W):  You mean besides my royalty checks? Well, for one thing, look at a bookstore or even a library. The percentage of books that are fiction is overwhelming—the ratio is much greater than in the adult area.

I did volunteer work at a nearby school for poor children. I was a teacher and writer-in-residence sort of. The school went from kindergarten to the fifth grade so there were about a hundred students. Nearly all of the ones in say fourth and fifth grade read—at lunch, during breaks in class, or just when they were hanging out. Not one of them was ever reading a history or biography. Never. I was stunned to see it illustrated so clearly.

The discussion began to focus on the challenge of creating an object, not just a book. An object that was physically and visually inviting. As much as I might believe that the writing in LINCOLN SHOT is its most important aspect, it doesn’t matter if no one is going to look at the book. We wanted to create something that a ten or twelve-year-old would pick up and open, and then enter a world we had constructed. An historical tour of sorts. A conventionally formatted book just couldn’t do that and the conversation came back to the beginning. The decision wasn’t whether or not to make a book with a certain retail price or one that fit nicely in the shelves, but one that recreated an historical moment in a way that was alive and electric.

(I):  Who made the final decision?

(W):  one weekend jean took a tour of the bookstores and libraries where she lived and returned resolute. We weren’t going to reduce it, fold it, or box it. We were going to preserve and protect our original concept of a period newspaper and bind LINCOLN SHOT in hardcover and that was the end of that.

(I):  We haven’t talked about the writing; your biography of Lincoln, the war and the assassination. Can you tell me what gave you the most trouble in each section?

(W):  As far as Lincoln’s life is concerned I worried that I wasn’t critical enough; that I fell into the trap he talks about in the opening letter – about biographies being false. And presenting accurately his views on slavery and their evolution during the course of the war. I spent a lot of time grappling with that—still am.

Not glorifying the war, or romanticizing it while still accurately recounting the critical military arc, and just how close the North came to being unable to win—why Gettysburg is so important. That dominated my research and writing on the war.

The assassination gave me the least amount of trouble. Partially because I’ve been reading about it all my life. As I said, originally it was only going to be two pages and then we expanded it to four, which gave me the opportunity to go back and put in all the things I had been forced to leave out.

(I):  What are you happiest with?

(W):  Can we change that to satisfied? Strictly from a writing point of view, it’s what I call the Lincoln montage on page 35.

(I):  Why?

(W):  Well, you’ll just have to read it and judge for yourself.

The End.