The Empty City: Picture Book 2001-2007

The stage adaptation of the picture book I made with Jonathon Oxlade, The Empty City,  is going to open at the Brisbane Powerhouse in late June 2013. It’s an unusual book, an unusual adaptation, and an unusual process where music has played a major  role. Here you can read about how the book was made.

'dragged' unpublished sketch (David Megarrity)

‘dragged’ unpublished sketch (David Megarrity)

I first considered writing a story like this around 2001. Having written a non-verbal children’s performances and made short films, I was often writing in images, rather than words, and the kinds of concepts I wanted to write were too big to ‘fit into a station wagon’, as children’s theatre is often expected to do. I wanted to write towards a wider vision.

2002 Draft 1: 27 words.

The first set of images I had for the book was of a boy on a traffic island, on a deserted street, in a deserted city. He’s free to do what he wants, but it’s a very lonely place. He climbed a building, and looked out at an empty city.

As a kid I’d had the common fantasy of being let loose in a deserted shopping centre, and in my teens I was interested in books like The Day of the Triffids, books where the urban environment changed radically.

I was also (un)inspired by how unfriendly postmodern cities are, how really if you don’t want to buy anything you’re not welcome. I wanted to play with the idea that cities are nothing without people, but we’re taught the opposite. I think shopping centres and places like that certainly don’t want children there, unless they’re spending money. With Luke Monsour I made two documentaries about this, exploring what children thought of cities, but I can’t show them to you. I think that a child’s experience of the world is unique, important, and most usually ignored, and I wanted to explore how one child’s feeling life and imagination play during seemingly everyday experiences.

2003 Draft 2: 1228 words.

I wrote now in more detail, creating images on the page and attending to the sequencing and flow of narrative. I noted it was possible to seek support from the Australia Council to create an artwork not in your principal artform. That you could make a case for it. So I did, and tried to make it a joint application with designer/illustrator Jonathon Oxlade.

I applied for some funds to develop the work through the Australia Council’s Literature Board. I wanted to work collaboratively with Jonathon to develop the idea, but guidelines forced me to apply individually for the small amount of funding (enough for us to work on the book for a few weeks), which I did. To ‘apply for a grant’ sounds simple, but it’s not. To explain why it’s not is also not simple, and would be a bit boring to read about. To my great surprise, the application was successful.

'dragged' sketch (Jonathon Oxlade)

‘dragged’ unpublished sketch (Jonathon Oxlade)

The small amount of funding (which I then shared with Jonathon) assisted us in the development of the work, which was a collaboration between text and images, author and illustrator.The words and pictures fed off each other as we worked together on creating the book.

Over the next few years, I worked on opening and tightening the story, deepening it thematically, and Jonathon laboriously developed his style of illustration for the book, shifting from pen and ink to collage. We exchanged storyboards, and little hand-made versions of the book for about 4 years, and gradually the work emerged.

 I wanted to create space in the book for the reader to explore the layers of illustration and concept, and room for their own experience to play. I wanted to see how few words were required to tell the story.

2005 Draft 7 309 words (includes description of silent passages)

'dragged' unpublished sketch (Jonathon Oxlade)

‘dragged’ sketch (Jonathon Oxlade)

As I wrote and edited the book, I’d listen to music. Talk Talk’s New Grass was  perfect for this story. Sublime, mysterious and strange, it was nearly 10 minutes long, and it began to represent the writing ‘zone’ for me as the text took shape.

Listen to it three times and half an hour’s gone – that’s valuable time when you’re busy.

In half an hour you can barely make a dent in a playscript or screenplay, but you can tangibly improve a set of lyrics or a subset of poetic picture book text.

The focus and responsiveness to what’s emerging in the act of writing isn’t a performance,  because there’s nobody watching,  but it’s performative. Music’s bound up in this. Hollis’s minimalism may have also influenced the silences I carved out from between each section of text:

“Before you play two notes learn how to play one note – and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” – Mark Hollis (1998)

Some of the text flowed naturally into images that Jonathon created, making itself redundant. With a picture there you can remove the text that describes it. The aim (I guessed – I’d never made a picture book before) was for each page’s  words and pictures to be greater than the sum of its parts. Subsequently I’ve found the term interanimation, which goes some way towards capturing the effect I was reaching for.

I researched a lot as I wrote, by reading picture books (many of them vintage or out of print) and writers who wrote about how to write and read them. I wasn’t seeking to enact anybody else’s style or methodology, but reading around the practice enriched the process.

'escalator' unpublished sketch,(Jonathon Oxlade)

‘escalator’ unpublished sketch,(Jonathon Oxlade)

With 36 pages to tell your story, pagination becomes crucial. I saw each page turning as a transformative act,  a theatrical ‘reveal’. But really, both Jonathon and I were in the dark a lot of the time, just working things out and muddling through. We’d create and exchange dummy books and sketches, which were sometimes more efficient than text in sharing concepts as Jonathon honed the visual style and I took care of what needed to be seen when. Carefully crafting blurbs as well as the story text, the book began to tell us what it needed, rather than the other way around. I continued to experiment with the text right up until the tenth and final draft of the text…

237 words.

Getting published was a challenge. It seemed a very closed shop, especially for a new author/illustrator team. The received wisdom was that publishers normally arranged these relationships. Jonathon and I had worked on an installation for the Out of the Box festival, a performance festival for children. We’d made, in collaboration with some other artists, an installation related to The Red Tree, a stage adaptation of which was the flagship production of the festival.

'dragged' unpublished sketch and collage (Jonathon Oxlade)

‘dragged’ unpublished sketch and collage (Jonathon Oxlade)

Through this we’d met Shaun Tan, talked about the book and later we sent him some roughs of what we were working on. His recommendation to his publisher strengthened our chances of the book being taken on by Lothian, which later was subsumed by Hachette. There was an exchange of images with the publisher, who was concerned the story might be a bit dark. Surprising after the success of The Red Tree, but we complied, sending a range of selected images from our work-in-progress, and we went to contract.

The book came out, sold lots and was well reviewed. Coming from theatre, where you usually are in, or physically somewhere nearby the launch of a new thing you’ve made, to shift to publication was unusual, but refreshing.

the-empty-cityThe book was the thing. It was out there, and would stay out there. There was no closing night. It was suggested we do a launch for the book, but we declined. We spoke about it at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, but were pretty shy about it generally at the time. The following year The Empty City was a Children’s Book Council of Australia: Picture Book of the Year Notable Book, and Jonathon’s work earned him a nomination for The Crichton Award for New Illustrators. Articles  and book chapters began to emerge that explored the themes and form of the book in alongside others in its field in academic terms. Jonathon and I began to explore options for a follow-up project, but we’d return to The Empty City sooner than we thought.

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