An Interview with Chris Van Allsburg

Sharyn Ekbergh talked to Chris Van Allsburg , the author and illustrator of The Polar Express, at the White Mountain Hotel Saturday morning. Chris and his family were in North Conway, New Hampshire to ride the Polar Express for the first time and see his creation brought to life in the Mount Washington Valley.

How does it feel to have written a book that means so much to so many people?
It feels great because, with an artist it's like Dr.Frankenstein in that the art you make you'd like to have a life of its own. If you're a painter you don't want to have to stand next to your painting and explain it to people or wonder if anyone will ever see it so when a piece of art takes on a life of its own it's very gratifying. You could say that's the way an artist might achieve immortality. I don't think of it in those grandiose terms but still when you make something and it affects people in the way they embrace it than it really has a life of its own for each person who is affected by it. That feels great.

When did you first hear about the Polar Express project?
I'm not sure they asked me the first year because they thought the scale was modest and it would be a one year thing. But the second year they asked me how I felt about it I liked the idea that its run by volunteers and is a non-profit to aid literacy. The third year my publisher suggested I come up and take a look because it was getting substantial and was drawing people from a large area. This year it just worked out.
Have you ever been involved in any theater projects?
When I was a senior in high school I was in a play. ( laughs) Its called The Man in a Dog Suit. It's a strange little play.I was the man in a dog suit. Its about a person who is withdrawn and introverted and has a difficult time expressing himself until he goes to a costume party with his wife dressed in a dog suit and he finds he feels better about himself when he wears the dog suit.
So that explains the dog in your books!
(Laughs) Well, there is a dog in the books and actually the dog suit did look a little bit like that.
Can you tell us about the mysterious dog?
The dog was a pet of my brother in law, a bull terrier. It's the kind of dog that for a while was the spokes canine for Budweiser, Spuds Mackensie, and I used to get mail from kids asking about the dog in the book whose name is Fritz, and then for a couple of years my fan mail shifted and they wanted to know why Spuds Mackensie was in the books. Now they're back to asking why Fritz is in all the books. The dog was the central character in my first book. He passed away about a year after that and to commemorate him I thought I'd include a cameo appearance in every book .He appears as a hand puppet in the Polar Express.
People often say that the pictures in the Polar Express are dark.
Polar Express is a dark book but that has to do with a lack of experience on my part making pictures that have to be printed. I made them quite dark and it was hard to reproduce, so they are a little bit darker than the original art. If you want to portray night time in a picture you have to do it with manipulation of temperature,colors, and juxutpositon of tonality, you can't just make it dark, as a result the Polar Express is darker than I intended but it's not inconsistent with the tone of the story.There's a dark moodiness which seems to go with the melancholy tone of the story. I wanted to capture the quality of light at night and the only way you can get a light to look like a light in a picture is if everything else is fairly dark and so that was my approach to it.
Were you an imaginative child?

I think so. I played alone a lot, I lived in an edge of the suburbs and there weren't kids my age around. We moved when I was 8 or 9 and things changed. I wouldn't recommend it as a way to encourage the creative energies of a child, namely force them into solitude, but it's a reasonable assumption that if you're unstimulated by other people than you create your own in your imagination.
On the back of one of your books I saw you use a medium called Conte Dust. What is that?
There's a Conte pencil and when you sharpen it you get dust. Early in my efforts as a draft person I would make all the tonality in the page by working with the pencil and I was filling in an area with the point of the pencil and looked at this box where I'd been sharpening it and saw a pile of conte dust. I thought maybe I could use it so I got some cheesecloth, dipped it in the dust and rubbed it on the paper and found I could control the grey tones and fill in an area quickly with a subtlety I couldn't get using the point of the pencil. I would lay out a grey on the whole paper and if it had to be light I would erase it and if darker I would draw more deeply into it. So that's where the dust came in. I used that in Jumagi.
How about The Garden of Abdul Gasazi?
That was done with just the point of the pencil. The whole idea with drawing like that is the only way you deposit material to the paper is with the friction between the tooth of the paper and the tip of the point. When I did that book I was only tickling the tooth of the paper with the pencil but when I did Jumaji I learned I could work faster and get tones down faster with Conte dust. That was a big discovery for me.
What would you like to do in the future?
Because of Jumaji I've gotten involved in film projects and that's interesting. I think it's possible that cinema is the ultimate storytelling medium because it has everything: moving pictures, speaking characters, and music. The problem is that this terrific storytelling medium has such high capital costs it has to be a collaboration. You can't spend 100 million dollars making a film guided by the idiosyncratic ideas of an artist. I have written a screen play from another book, The Widow's Broom.

clicking on the book links will take you to Amazon.com. Be sure to bookmark Green Ginger before you go.

The Polar Express

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi

No picture but this is a wonderful story, especially if you like ducks.


Bad Day at Riverbend

Jumanji

Two Bad Ants

Ben's Dream

Harris Burdick

The Wretched Stone

The Widow's Broom

The Wreck of the Zephyr

The Z Was Zapped

Just a Dream

The Sweetest Fig

The Veil of Snows