2: Embracing Fame & Cold Truths

Embracing Fame and Cold Truths

You enjoyed a moment of fame in 2008 with your book, The History of the Snowman, which David Smith of the New York Public Library called “thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated.” So we have to ask… how did you get there?

I wrote an answer for this question a couple of times, struggling how to word this without sounding like a total ass. I don’t believe I did. Anyhoo, my moment in the sun came long before the book. After I graduated college (in the mid 80s) I was asked to teach at Pratt and then at School of Visual Arts. I was very naive, even oblivious to the stature of the places I first pitched to. The first place I tried was the NY Times Book Review. Back then, unbeknownst to me, newcomers were always given chances. Next I went to the Village Voice.

Being clueless worked in my favor as I figured since I’m illustrating for these publications maybe they wouldn’t mind if I wrote for them, too. Why should I be illustrating someone else’s writing? Pretty ballsy but I got lucky and began writing for The Voice, Newsday and other places without being an English major or having ever written much. But that also worked in my favor as my writing was different and stood out from someone schooled. I just wrote as I spoke (poorly). My writer friends were all crafting beautiful prose but that high road had a lot of traffic and was very competitive.

Finally, the biggest key to all of this, in all honesty, is that it that was A LOT easier to break in twenty years ago. I was lucky with my timing.

How did you get interested in snowmen in the first place?

After 15 years of writing and drawing humor for Spy magazine, National Lampoon, GQ, Details and other places I had developed a tiny, just perceptible following. Around 2000, I was offered a humor column for TimeOut and shortly afterwards I was approached by agents to write a book, any book. (I’m guessing there may readers rolling their eyes at this point; but agents ARE out there trolling.) When I post to websites like Open Salon, Fictionaut or whatever, once in a blue moon I get an email from an agent asking if I have a book to sell.

I often hear from other bloggers, “How can that be? I blog all the time, everyday, and never get an offer… what makes your shit so special?” Well, I do work REALLY hard on my pieces. Even ones on my blog may take a week to do and are rewritten many times over. My goal is to get 20,000 views or more on a story and make every piece the best, funniest piece I ever did.

I say all this as someone who has had long sit-downs with people asking how to get to the next level, and, as the editor of an online humor magazine now, I see a lot of submissions. The problem is that many people send me stuff almost every day. You can’t be sending me two or three stories a week and say that’s your best work.

What was that question again? Snowmen? Okay, so I decided to write a book and knew it would attempt to be funny and I wanted to write a mystery. Not a murder or anything but trying to solve one of life’s great unsolved mysteries. I like turning a bland topic on its head – like when Tim Burton made the first Batman. So I started brainstorming… what was a great unsolved mystery? Who made the first sandwich? Who told the first joke? I was walking through Barnes & Noble and it hit me: there were no holiday books for adults, not including Martha Stewart cookbooks. And there were no holiday books that were non-denominational. So, who made the first snowman?

What did you learn about writing a book of this sort?

That selling it afterwards is the hardest part and it’s all up to you even when your publisher is someone like Simon & Schuster. It’s very hard getting rich writing a book unless you have your own TV show. Or you’re riding a trend – my book doesn’t have any vampires. I also learned it’s a pretty expensive venture. I purchased the art for my book and that was around $40,000 out-of-pocket. I figured I was only going to make this book once and I wanted it to be the ultimate book on the subject.

Did you find yourself becoming interested in other explorations of cultural history as you moved from Renaissance Europe to modern-day American kitsch?

I’ve always had a fascination with history and especially everything to do with the arctic. As a kid I would ask for scientific journals from Antarctica for Christmas. The book I’m working on now is a diary from 1850 of a sailor on one of the dozens of ships that actually raced to the North Pole to win the small fortune put up to find the missing Franklin Expedition. It’s a graphic novel that parallels many of our fears today regarding global warming. Back then many people, at the tail end of the Little Ice Age, feared the planet was freezing.

You’ve visited with a lot of snowmen and their artists, from New Jersey’s own Venus de Milo to a version in Stuttgart Germany which raised the interest of the court for its Hitler moustache. What is the best and worst snowman you came across in your travels?

My favorite snowmen are some of the exceptional, nostalgic photographs from my snowman collection. I have close to a thousand items. They may not be of historical importance but after seeing them I think you’ll understand how it was easy for me to become passionate about the folk-art aspect of snowman-making. My least favorite is any snowman you buy at a store – the worst are those snowman kits, which defeats the whole purpose of this most public yet least judgmental of art forms. There’s nothing worse than snowmen that look alike.

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