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Winter Blog Blast Tour: Susan Kuklin

November 17, 2008

Susan Kuklin is an author and photographer of a number of non-fiction books for children and teens. Her most recent book is No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row. It’s a powerful and provocative (in a good way) book, tackles a subject that might be considered just as edgy as some of her other books, and it’s reflective of her usual method of writing. As Susan says on her website, “The modus operandi is a book version of cinema verite; that is, choose a subject, find a situation that depicts that subject, watch it unfold, and let the people concerned tell the story.”

How did you get started writing and photographing children’s books? And books for teens?
Early in my career I photographed the children’s book, The Story of Nim, The Chimpanzee Who Learned Language. Then I photographed three “high-low” stories. I loved illustrating those books and hoped to do more. Before becoming a children’s author, I was a free-lance photographer working for various newspapers and magazines. Since there were so many photographers knocking on art directors’ doors, I tried a different approach: I suggested stories that I would photograph and write. Since that time I’ve pretty much continue the “two for one” tradition. There’s one exception – Dance, which I co-authored with Bill T. Jones.

Another exception is taking place right now. I’m currently illustrating a poem by Marilyn Nelson called Beautiful Ballerina. The words are determined by the poet and the photography is determined by the photographer.

In my own books Susan-cum-author often challenges Susan-cum-illustrator, and visa versa. The books for young children are usually photography driven and the YAs are word driven. But even then, there’s a lot of back and forth, depending on the book.

In your own words, “Many of my books for young people are photo essays. The text is from the point of view of the people I interview. It’s their thoughts, not mine; their opinions, not mine. I transcribe their words and shape them into a book.” Why is this your preferred method of writing books?
I don’t think much about various methods of writing. I write. The result comes from someplace who-knows-where. That’s pretty much what most writers and artists do. They simply do!

In college and graduate school I majored in theater arts. I learned how to interpret a play’s characters. Method acting was the rage. We were trained to become the character, live the character. Does that early training enter into my work? Maybe. Possibly.

It seems to me that a writer has to use whatever [limited] tools she has. She can’t use someone else’s style or methods. That’s part of the very personal art known as “creativity.” I can’t write like Virginia Wolfe – wish I could. Or, J.K. Rowling – wouldn’t that be something. A writer can only bring to the table her gifts, limitations, and background. I’d be curious to know how other authors feel about this.

There’s a part II to this: if there is one word to describe what led me to the way I work it would be curiosity! I’m curious about people, what they think, what they feel, what they experience. It’s been a dream come true to meet many interesting people from so many diverse backgrounds. My books take me on a magical journey to physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional places where I’ve not been before.

In your I.N.K. post , you write, “I find it fascinating to interview an individual and then write personal accounts from my subject’s point of view. From these accounts, along with additional background material, I try to shape a coherent story.” Do you ever worry about introducing your own biases to a subject as you “shape” things, or do you feel that some sort of bias is inherent (inevitable?) regardless of what form the narrative takes (personal accounts vs. the more traditional, detached recounting of events)?
This is a great question and I’m not sure that I can answer it without bias. When I do an interview I try to get into the person’s skin, into their bones. [There goes method acting again.] Since my goal is to understand a specific individual, I do not contradict the person’s point of view. It’s about them, not me. It is not my job to judge. It is not my responsibility to disagree with their views. That means, in effect, I’m off the hook. Usually, my subjects read their profiles before the book goes to copyediting. They are asked to check it for errors only, not content. I may have an incorrect date or a misspelled name because I’m the world’s worst speller. No one has ever gone totally revisionist on me. Ever! Perhaps that says something about a person’s need to be understood for whom they are, warts and all.

Judgment is left to the readers, if they so choose.

The bias probably comes from my choice of subject matter. I choose such issues as prejudice, human rights, pregnant teenagers, and so forth. These are subjects that concern me. On one hand, once the subject is chosen I try to not let my bias govern the content of the book. On the other hand, not all my books try to look at a subject from all points of view. For example, I didn’t give human rights violators a voice or, more recently, those who favor capital punishment. Perhaps that’s where my bias comes in overtly.

You also mention that some of your books tackle what could be considered “edgy” subjects, like suicide and, at the time the Fighting Back was published, AIDS. How do you find people who would be interesting for children and teens to read about and get them to agree to open up and talk—for publication?
Finding participants is all about networking – somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody. Six degrees of separation? You bet! We’re all connected in one way or another.

Before I begin an interview, I spend time with the person. [The exception is No Choirboy because I had limited access to the prisons.] We get to know one another.

Sometimes I work through organizations. For example, in Fighting Back, I teamed up with a “buddy” group through the Gay Men’s Health Clinic. “Buddies” are people who help others who are living with AIDS. They take them to the doctor, go shopping, and even do light house work. Mostly, though, they are a pal to a person in need. I was invited to sit in at monthly meetings when the buddies discussed the needs and problems of their “clients.” At that point whatever I heard or witnessed was off the record. Then, after I got to know everyone, and they trusted me, some of the buddies asked their clients if they wanted to be included in the book. About 85% said yes.

My general rule is not to push anyone. If a person wants to participate in my book, that’s great. If someone does not, I respect their wishes and move on. Most people want to participate.

Since participation is totally voluntary, and since everyone knows EXACTLY what they are getting into, I rarely have a problem. The people in my books have something to say, something they want others to know. And what they say is pretty interesting.

Michael Angorolla, a person who was living with AIDS in Fighting Back, is a great example. It surprised me how upbeat he was, even when he was very, very sick. We’d have “NO AIDS DAY” when we simply hung out and did zany things together. Michael taught me more about living than anyone I have ever met.

How do you choose your topics? How much research do you do?
An idea can pop up anywhere, anytime. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night – actually 4 AM is my witching hour – with my head spinning with a new idea. Sometimes an idea evolves from a conversation, a book, a poem, a painting, or a news item. Dinner with my husband or a juicy gossip session with friends can bring about a new subject.

After I finish I book, though, I’m convinced that I’ll never have a good idea again. I think I’m going through that now.

My books are nonfiction so research is fundamental. How much? That depends on the complexity of the book. There is no set time period. I spent at least a year-and-a-half learning about capital punishment and juvenile justice law before I could begin asking probing questions. For my children’s photo essay about families [Families], I simply called a friend who teaches at my local elementary school and we were off and running.

Does your approach to writing/interviewing and photography change depending on if the audience will be children or teens?
No. I don’t believe in “dumbing down” information. As a child I resented people who were in my face, talking down to me like I was some idiot who didn’t understand anything so I’m certainly not going to do that now that I write for kids.

I used the same tone and conversational questioning when I interviewed children for my book, Families, as I did with the inmates in No Choirboy. In the end, it’s the subject matter and the participants who determine the age level. I can’t quite see three-year-olds reading No Choirboy. Then again, twenty-somethings aren’t going to cuddle up with All Aboard: A True Train Story.

Moving on to your newest book, No Choirboy, you spent four years working on it. Is this the longest you’ve worked on a book, and was it also the most challenging?
no-choirboy No Choirboy was definitely the longest and the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on. First, I had to learn the law before I could do anything. That took time. I sat in on a seminar called “Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic,” given by Professor Ursula Bentele at Brooklyn Law School. It was way over my head. I realized I knew nothing so I audited an introduction to capital punishment law called “Capital Punishment Law and Litigation,” given by Bryan Stevenson at NYU Law School. Man, did I study!

Once I was somewhat more knowledgeable, I began to meet lawyers who are involved in capital punishment and juvenile justice law and the book began to take shape. That process, which is only mentioned in the book, took about a year-and-a-half.

Oddly, finding the people was less difficult than one might think. Their lawyers helped me. The most challenging part was how to properly portray the inmates who had been involved in horrible, brutal crimes. It was important for me to reveal their humanity but not romanticize them. That was a challenge. It is up to the reader to decide if I accomplished this task.

The second challenge was what to put in and what to leave out. The subject is huge. I had to figure out a way to narrow the subject so that it would be accessible to readers. The first draft was somewhat like the finished book, with the focus on the people. Then, the nonfiction in my editor and me took over. I started writing additional material about the laws, the US Constitution, the history of capital punishment, DNA. It went on and on. The second draft of the book was about 200 – 300 pages longer than the finished manuscript. But all this “back matter,” as we called it, overwhelmed the heart of the book. So I took a deep, deep breath and dropped it. Months and months of work! That was painful. I’m putting some of that information on my website.

The most difficult thing to give up was a chapter about a man who had been exonerated. Since he was obviously not a teenager, my editor said that his chapter stuck out “like a sore thumb.” We went round and round about it. I tried cutting the chapter to make it shorter. I tried bringing in his teenage granddaughters. I tried adding his section to the last chapter, the lawyer’s chapter. Dropping this section was painful. In the long run I think my editor was right. Someday I’d like to publish it.

When you began No Choirboy, Roper v. Simmons had not yet been decided. What kind of impact did the decision [which "ruled that the death penalty for those who had committed their crimes at under 18 years of age was cruel and unusual punishment and hence barred by the Constitution."] have on the direction of the book, if any?
While working on No Choirboy seventy-two men [no women] who were convicted of a crime when they were teenagers were on death row. Then the law changed. That meant the book had to change. I had also interviewed an inmate who had been fourteen when he was convicted of murder. He was not eligible for the death penalty. Again, the book’s theme changed.

I think these changes made the book stronger. The theme of the book changed from teenagers on death row to the continuing cycle of violence. The emphasis shifted from the law to the ugliness and beauty in human nature.

How did you select the men and families profiled in No Choirboy?
Usually I spend time with the people who participate in my books. It was not possible to do that for No Choirboy because I had limited access to the prisons. But I trusted the lawyers. They understood that I was looking for articulate, introspective inmates who were willing to share their experiences with readers.

Bryan Stevenson, a leading lawyer in capital punishment law, was a big help. He put me in touch with two of the three inmates who are profiled in the book. He also told me about “Murder Victims’ Families Against the Death Penalty.” I looked them up on the Internet and called one of the board members. That’s how I found the brother and sister who talked about their lives after the murder of their older brother. The networking continued.

The director of Texas Defender Service suggested the third inmate who was still on death row when I interviewed him, and the family whose son had been executed.

The last chapter in the book is about Bryan Stevenson because I thought he would be a good role model for my readers. He is proof that one person can make a difference.

What are you working on next?
This question brings me full circle to your first question since this is the first time in many years that I’m illustrating another writer’s work. Marilyn Nelson wrote a magnificent poem called Beautiful Ballerina. When I first read it, I had goose bumps.

One of my passions is exploring ways to portray movement in a static medium – photography. Dance, a life-long passion, is a cool way to do this.

Arthur Mitchell is a world famous dancer and founder of The Dance Theatre of Harlem. His neoclassical dance company and school combine the disciplines of classical ballet with a dash of sass. I thought that his ballet school would be a perfect fit for Marilyn’s poem.

Three elements had to be present for the project to work. One, Marilyn’s words needed to be clearly interpreted. Two, Arthur Mitchell’s style and vision needed to be represented. And, three, the photographs needed to reflect my appreciation of form and movement.

After watching many classes in action, I chose four students – ages three, nine, thirteen, and seventeen – to participate in the shoot. Then, Endalyn Taylor, the director of DTH’s school, and I worked with the dancers to “choreograph” the poem. It was a wonderful collaboration. In the end, I think it all came together very nicely. Next year, when the book is published, I hope you’ll agree.

Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to answer my questions!

This is the first day of this year’s Winter Blog Blast Tour. Today’s other WBBT interviews are:
Lewis Buzbee at Chasing Ray
Louis Sachar at A Fuse #8 Production
Laurel Snyder at Miss Erin
Courtney Summers at Bildungsroman
Elizabeth Wein at Finding Wonderland

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2008 1:41 am

    Wow — I’ve been hearing about this book, but hadn’t realized she’d done picture books with photography. Awesome interview, can’t wait to track the down the Choirboy book.

  2. November 17, 2008 2:03 am

    Extremely interesting, especially the photography-writing, the new project with Marilyn Nelson, whose work I adore. Thank you for this illuminating interview.

  3. November 17, 2008 3:01 pm

    Great interview! Especially interesting, Susan, that your training as an actor informs your writing. In response to your question about how other writers feel about the statement, “A writer can only bring to the table her gifts, limitations, and background,” I completely agree. That’s what makes each writer (or artist of any kind) unique, what gives each of us our own style and voice. That’s what acting teachers mean when they say “use your self.” It’s not an easy task, but you’ve done a terrific job.

  4. December 3, 2008 2:11 pm

    Susan, you are amazing! I’ve always said nothing is wasted, no experience, no expertise, no interests if you have a creative outlet. It’s also quite true that we write what we are… Some of us have strengths and weaknesses that are more commercial than others…. sigh…We’re so lucky that you turn your creative powers towards subjects that really need illumination.

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