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Q & A with Stephen Savage

After mainly working digitally for a decade, Stephen Savage said he “needed a digital detox.” The result is moonlit, a tone poem that follows “something”—revealed at the very end to be the light of the moon—as it shines across the world, ultimately illuminating a child’s bedroom. In a conversation with P.W.Savage spoke about how the book both was and wasn’t a fresh start with editor Neal Porter, what it felt like to go old school from beginning to end, and the resonance of Kenny Loggins’s Danger Zone as a theme song for every aspect of the enterprise: “Have you ever cut yourself with a lino cutter? ouch! It hurts.”

Your last linocut book was Polar Bear Morningin 2013. What inspired you to go back to linocut?

yeah, Polar Bear Morning was the third and last linocut book I did. That’s almost 10 years ago, which is crazy.

Then I got into this digital routine with Neal. It was great for the books we were doing, which were about machines and vehicles and super trucks and tugs. But after doing 10 years of digital books, you fall into habits and patterns. As Kenny Loggins said, you need to get into the danger zone.

Kenny Loggins?

I did see top gun and so I’ve got him on the brain.

If you want to change things up you have to change the tool, although it’s not so much about que tool you change. I read years ago that David Hockney said when he was getting too good at drawing with a pencil, he would throw it away, and just dip a twig into ink and draw with that. The pencil was too easy; you’re not pushing against something.

You’ve talked about how linocut reflects your love of mid-century modern graphic design. What else is there about this medium that you have a hold on your imagination?

I also like it for the reason that I’m not a schooled painter. I like using kids’ materials—linocut was once used all the time in schools for art projects. With linocut and with collage, you’re playing, you’re not mixing paints. Linocut reminds you that this is supposed to be played.

What was the genesis for this book?

A lot of times you’ll talk to picture book artists, and they’ll say this story has been rattling around in their heads for years. For moonlit, Neal and I were having conversations about this book going back to the beginning of our partnership. We had decided not to do a linocut for Little Tug because we thought it would be better to use the computer—I wanted to make it look like a Cassandre poster.

In 2010 I did a linocut illustration for the New York Times Book Review, and Neal said, “Can this be our next book right after Little Tug?” I said, “What’s the book about?” And he said, “It’s about light and shadow.” I tried to write the book and started imagining all the things that could happen—a kid goes to sleep, you show the fishmonger at South Street Seaport at 4 am But I couldn’t figure it out. So we went on to supertruck.

Then Neal moved to Holiday House and in 2020 we had lunch—Neal is old school, he likes to have lunch and have meetings. I had pitched another book and he said, “Let’s start fresh with a new direction, and don’t do a digital book. Maybe we should do the book we’ve always talked about, that linocut book, that light and shadow book.”

I thought we had hit a dead end with this book. But the Book Review image was for a Martin Cruz Smith book [Three Stations], and it looked like a suspense novel, and I realized the new book could be a suspense story. The protagonist, the “spy” is moonlight. There’s an air of mystery in that, you wonder where it’s going, and like in a spy movie you travel through all these exotic locations—like Jason Bourne—but we end up in the child’s bedroom.

That opening line, “Something is on the move,” moved the whole book. It’s almost like a run-on sentence. Neal said, “We’ll do the linocut, and it’s perfect because it’s crunchy and organic. I don’t want it to have a lot of color. I want it to look unlike anything that’s on the shelf right now.”

It reminds me of a how a really good editor has to have a vision and lays out that vision for their artist: “I’m going to lead you, trust me, this is what you need to do.” They have to be a creative leader because the artist is all over the place. He had this vision; he was very sure of what the book should be.

What was it like to go back to linocut after creating digitally all these years?

It’s a very physical process. The first time I did linocut I was in my late 30s, and now I’m in my late 50s. It’s a little bit like being an old rocker—he has to do pushups before he goes out. There’s a lot of standing and stooping and pressing on your hands, an intense energy and a hyper focus that you have to summon to create the print, and it shows up in the work.

We were on a pretty tight deadline, and the linocuts are hard to make, so I only made the images that I knew we were going to use in the book. polar bear night It was very simple: you’re in the arctic, there are no trees. I worried about how I was going to do all the detail—as a minimalist I get overwhelmed and worried about details. But if I have a good story, I know I’ll figure it out later.

I started with the simpler images and worked my way up to the harder images. The very first one I did was the sailor on the ship with binoculars looking out—it had a lot of straight lines. The last image was the jungle scene—the most difficult, complex image, with bark and vines and ferns on the floor.

Did you find your brain working differently?

If you’re sitting immobile on the screen, and a text comes in on your phone, you’re not really focused on the work anymore. With linocut, you have to put your phone down because you can’t get inks on the phone. I’m a dad, I always have my phone, so saying I’m stepping away for four hours to create the book seemed like such an anachronistic endeavor.

And there’s a hard stopping point with linocut. You lift up the paper from the block—even though you’ve been figuring out and tinkering with the image for months—and there’s just a huge rush, and it’s done. You think, “I’m never going to have to work on this image again.” When you’re at the computer, there’s endless tinkering until someone says you have to turn it in.

It was nice to be off the screen. And I was able to do the book faster. Neal asked if it would take a longer time, but it ended up being a little bit quicker.

So you didn’t do any digital intervention with the work?

There were absolutely no fixes. People are so used to creating something and then going back on the computer and changing the color from blue to red—even if it’s painting, it’s just a quick digital fix. I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole.

I said to Neal, “Let’s not do it halfway. Let’s be 100% off the grid.” Neal and Jennifer Browne, my art director, and I had been looking at the dummy over Zoom, and I said, “When you sign off on the tight dummy, I’m going to go away for two months and execute the dummy.” That’s the way books used to be made—the way Ursula Nordstrom would do it. She would have told Maurice Sendak to go do the work and come back and present it.

I physically brought in the art—I got on the subway with it—and did the presentation for the people at Holiday House in the conference room. I thought the pandemic and working digitally has taken that all away from us. Neal felt like he was seeing the art for the first time. I liked the images with all the details because I hadn’t seen that in my work before.

The book has a dual dedication—to your wife Stefanie, “who stays up late and never misses the moonlight,” and to Tomie dePaola, “whose stories lit up the world.” Can you talk about the latter?

I had been thinking I was going to dedicate some book to him. I don’t know what it was about this book—maybe because I think he would have admired this book, he would like that I did something different, changed things up a bit. It felt like it had Tomie magic—a warm quality, a sweetness to it.

I got to know him when I was a Sendak fellow in 2015. They would bring two or three mentors around to look at your work [during the residency]. I actually missed Tomie when he came to the farm, so I got in touch with him when the fellowship was over, and he said we should have lunch. We got along like a house on fire—we instantly connected.

He was a great mentor. I had done a bunch of books, and you need someone with that kind of stature because he had the long view. I went to see him in New Hampshire once, and he said, “How old are you?” And I said 53. And he said, “You have another 30 years.” It was amazing to have someone say that to me. So maybe that’s why I knew he’s the guy I should mention in this book. I want to chart the course for the next 20 years.

What’s next for you?

Rescue Cat for Roaring Brook. Most of my backlist is at Roaring Brook—all those vehicle books that I did with Neal before he left. I’m working with Emily Feinberg, who was Neal’s assistant—she’s great and it’s nice continuity. It’s due out in 2024. The artwork is digital. I thought about doing the linocut for this, but I’m doing something different this time [with the compositions]: panels and spots instead of my normal, big poster, edge-to-edge full-bleed spreads. This is a little more like a graphic novel, and there’s also some line and fill artwork, and all these things made the computer the right choice. But in the spirit of the linocut, I’m not going to tinker with the artwork too much.

Working in panels presents a challenge like working in linocut—it’s rhythmically very different. Your brain and eye do things differently, and there’s a pacing thing that I haven’t dealt with before. If you’re not learning something new on a book you’ll just have the same old book. You have to somehow be in that “state of becoming”—whoever said that—but that’s where the fun and invention comes in.

moonlit by Stephen Savage. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Aug. 23 ISBN 978-0-8234-5084-8

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