Notes from Ann: An Interview with Sophie Blackall

Of the many joys of owning a bookstore, and there are many, getting to talk to the authors and illustrators of children’s books (and in this case, both of those jobs have been done by the same person) may well be the best.

Sophie Blackall’s new picture book, Farmhouse, is now my favorite. It’s the story of a house where twelve children were born, grew up, and finally moved away. Many years later, Sophie found the house, and though she couldn’t save it (it was moments away from collapsing, and a bear had been living in the basement) she saved many of things she found inside: bits of wallpaper, buttons, keys, catalogs, dresses, a door. She combined these treasures with her own drawings and words and made the most extraordinary imagined memory of what life in the farmhouse must have been like.

Sophie and I are both friends of Kate DiCamillo’s, which means that we’re essentially friends. Be sure to look at The Beatryce Prophecy, the book that Kate and Sophie did together. You should also look at Sophie’s two Caldecott Medal winners, Hello Lighthouse and Finding Winnie, and as long as you’re at it, pick up a copy of Things to Look Forward To, a gorgeous book Sophie wrote and illustrated for people of all ages. Oh, go ahead and get all of her books. You won’t be sorry.

Sophie Blackall

Ann Patchett: Sophie! We’re picking Farmhouse for the Parnassus Sprout Book Club. We’re all in love with it. I imagine it must be lovely and cool up there on the farm (it’s very hot here).

Sophie Blackall: I am just back from Texas, where it was 108, not to be competitive. I was made an honorary citizen of Abilene, or at least Sophie Blackwell was. There was a parade with girls in pink satin riding white horses and sweltering people dressed in costumes of characters from my books. I especially pitied the poor guy in a bear suit. I will tell you ALL about it.

AP: I want to hear all about it. I’ve never known anyone who’s had her own parade.

SB: But will you forgive me if I take a few days? We open Milkwood tomorrow! For our first retreat we have Cece Bell coming and Brian Selznick and Raina Telgemeier and all sorts of lovely people. I’m dashing about trailing long lists of last minute things and you know EXACTLY how it goes, having been there yourself. They are here until Sunday. Back to you after then?

AP: Explain what Milkwood is, and how it relates to Farmhouse.

SB: Five years ago, I bought an abandoned dairy farm in upstate New York—it has long been my dream to build a creative retreat for the children’s book community—and after half a decade of sweeping and painting and installing septic tanks, we are finally up and running! The farm came with a falling down farmhouse, and the very first time I stepped inside, pushing my way through nettles and weeds and tangled vines, I knew there was a story here. Not just the story of this particular house, or of a family with 12 children growing up during the Great Depression, or of the plight of small farms across the country, but about how a place can hold the stories of the people who pass through it, long after they’re gone, and how those stories connect us to the past, to the people who came before us, and before them, and before them, and to those who will come after us, layers of stories, (like the peeling wallpaper I collected from the farmhouse to make the pictures in Farmhouse).

The real farmhouse at Milkwood

AP: The drawings remind me of my childhood dollhouse where basically it felt like the house had been split in half so you could see into the floor above and the floor below and the rooms on either side. Were you thinking of a dollhouse?

SB: Yes! Where is your dollhouse now? That’s what I’d like to know. I had a poster on my childhood bedroom wall of a photograph inside one of Queen Mary’s dollhouses. I remember thinking the dollhouse was wasted on her, I bet she never played with it.

Anyway, once I began exploring the falling down house, I couldn’t stop, even though it was a little foolhardy. The ceiling was open to the sky, a sapling was growing in the kitchen. The basement had caved in and more than once I put my foot through the floor. But there were stories to collect! I gathered sheaves of wallpaper scraps, moldy old school books filled with earnest compositions, and even 21 hand sewn dresses that were covered in mud and leaves. I wanted to record everything I could to preserve the stories, to honor the house before it returned to the earth. And as my piles of things grew, I realized I could use these actual materials to make the pictures, that the fabric and wallpaper and pages from school books could be used to build the house in the book. And that I could make the experience of reading this book feel as close as possible to the experience of being in the farmhouse, and much like playing with a dollhouse, that you would follow the story from page to page and slowly realize you were making your way through the house and through time, room by room, that everything that was happening was connected, that the celebrations and arguments, moments of grief and of joy had all become part of the house itself.

AP: I love the rhyme scheme. The book is incredibly appealing when you read it out loud. What are your thoughts on rhyming?

SB: I think rhyming is either very good or very bad. Some people, like Ludwig Bemelmans for instance, are very good at it. If I set out to write in rhyme it would be terrible. The result would be embarrassing. But If I don’t stare the story in the eye, and just let the words hover in my peripheral vision, sometimes they come with natural rhymes, like little gifts, and it would be rude to refuse them.

There’s a story about writing this story: Just as I had this epiphany of how I was going to make the illustrations as one giant, layered, connected piece of art, I realized with a thud that while I knew what I wanted to say, I had no idea how to write it. I began draft after draft and while my beloved editor Susan Rich was very patient, I could tell she was beginning to get anxious.

I was driving down to the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, a seven hour drive from where I live in Brooklyn, and the engine of my old car began to make an ominous sound. I called a mechanic in Farmville, VA, and they said they could look at it if I could get there by 5pm. It was noon on the dot and Google said it was a five hour drive. If I didn’t stop, and if I didn’t break down, I could make it.

Hunched over the wheel, I turned thoughts to Farmhouse. If only I could get the first line, if only I could find my way in. Then the line came, Over the hill, at the end of a road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns stands a house… I couldn’t stop to write it down, so I kept saying it over and over, and as I repeated it, I would add another phrase. Over the hill, at the end of a road, by a glittering stream that twists and turns stands a house where twelve children were born and raised… I pulled into the mechanic at 4:59pm, threw him the keys, spoke the whole long sentence into my phone, and sent it to Susan. I still have that voice message. I like the idea that I can say to a kid, do you want to hear a story? It’s only one sentence long…

Some of Sophie Blackall’s art for Farmhouse

AP: The people feel like paper dolls. Did you cut them out and move them around?

SB: I did! It was nuts! We have talked about process before, (have we? With Kate [DiCamillo]? Or perhaps it was one of those imagined conversations I’ve had with you as I’ve read or listened to your wonderful essays on writing…) about how some people like to plan out books entirely in their heads, and how others have to put one foot (one word, one line) in front of the next and see where the story takes them. I have worked both ways, but in this case, I built the house, and then I made the characters and the furniture and moved it around and around. As I worked my way forward through time, and as the house began to collapse, the wallpaper began to peel and the furniture began to sag, the drawings peeled and sagged too. I had to gently, but firmly, destroy the art. It was kind of thrilling. It removed any dithering. I couldn’t go back and fix things, any more than I could go back in time.

AP: Did you make wallpaper with potato stamps? I’m betting you did.

SB: Of course I did! I mean I did for the book, and I also did as a child. My mother was very good at that sort of thing. We learned to card fleece and spin wool, to cut reeds and weave baskets, to make mountain devils from gum nuts and print wallpaper with potatoes. I can’t throw a ball or balance my checkbook, but I think if I was alone in the woods I could furnish a house using my hands and teeth.

AP: Have you ever had this much fun working on a book before?

SB: Never. I think it’s pretty much downhill from here.

AP: What’s the farmhouse doing now? Tell us about its second life.

SB: We buried the house just before the ground froze. An excavator came and crunched it all up in its teeth, which was sad but also RIVETING and then it dug a big hole, put the house to bed and covered it over with dirt. In the spring I scattered wildflower seeds over the clearing and they are beginning to flower. We have strung a hammock between trees and it’s a nice place to swing back and forth and watch the changing sky.

Enjoy this video about the making of Farmhouse, courtesy of Sophie Blackall and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

Farmhouse by Sophie Blackall is our September Sprout Book Club pick. It will be released on September 13, 2022.

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