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True Story Blog


Abraham Schroeder is a stay-at-home dad, artist, designer, and author of TWO MANY TABLES. But today he talks about crafting his first picture book, THE GENTLEMAN BAT.

Q. Was THE GENTLEMAN BAT the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book that you wrote and what happened to it?
A. It was not the first. The first manuscript I wrote was in 2003, I still think it is one of my best, and I would love to finish it up and get it published. That story and characters came to me as a flood of inspiration, the text flowed pretty naturally from there, and I sketched out the characters and page layouts with a lot of detail. I also started drafting a few sequels for it that I think are really great. They flesh out the characters and their adventures while reinforcing some of the underlying lessons and morals I want to share. For various reasons the project has been on the shelf for a long time, although I pick it up now and then. Ironically, one of the important messages in the book is about following through with ideas.

Q. What inspired you to write THE GENTLEMAN BAT?
A. Around 2005 or 2006 I was working at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on a massive project to organize and catalog the collection of roughly 50,000 Japanese woodblock prints. Among them I found a charming image of bats and an umbrella from the 1880's by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Soon after that, the first little couplet started bouncing around in my head: "The gentleman bat, with his gentleman's cane, went out for a walk one night in the rain." The rhythms and ideas kept coming back to me, especially when I was out walking, gradually becoming more complex and interesting, and eventually I started writing all the bits and snippets down so I could start shaping them into a cohesive story.
You can read more about the inspiration and development of the book, and find a link to the Yoshitoshi bat print at the MFA here.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. It's fun to say, and it felt like the obvious choice.

Q. Why did you choose not to name your characters?
A. They didn't need names for this story, and there's a certain pleasing formality in the text without names, but I've been working on a few sequels and spinoffs where we get to know the bats and their friends much better, so it's likely that we'll find out their names soon.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began to write THE GENTLEMAN BAT?
A. I had the general premise and many of the specific plot points pretty early in the process, but it took almost ten years of tinkering with it on and off to get the story into finished form. The trick with rhyming couplets is telling the story within a rigid verbal system - the meter structure is a little loose, but consistent overall - so even if I knew exactly what would happen, finding the right words to express everything took a lot of trial and error. The last several drafts involved a whole lot of cutting and choosing from pages and pages of alternate rhymes.

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
It came to me that way and I never questioned it. Hmmm, now I'm questioning it... Maybe I'll switch up the voice on some other projects.

Q. What is your favorite part of THE GENTLEMAN BAT? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The first part, a few lines and pages that set up the whole little world, still hooks me every time I read it, but I think the moment when the bat saves the day is the most dramatic and exciting surprise, a thrilling twist. I'll get a few oohs and ahhs when I'm doing readings, but I'm never sure if it shocks or surprises anyone else as much as it does me. That bit came along pretty early in the writing process, and toward the end of the final version Piotr and I did some very elaborate antics over Skype to sort out the camera angles, so there are probably quite a few embarrassing screen-caps of me in his files.

Q. Did you and Piotr Parda submit the book as a team or was the manuscript acquired by the publisher and then Parda was selected as the illustrator?
A. We were a team on this book from very early in the process, and we have also collaborated on lots of other artsy projects over the years. Piotr and I went to art school together, the master's program at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After seeing what he could do with paintbrushes, I approached him many times with random ideas that I thought he would do a far better job putting onto paper than I ever could. When I showed him the first drafts of the bat book, he surprised me by coming back with piles of beautiful and amazing sketches that totally blew me away. I then got inspired to write more, and we kept feeding off of each other's enthusiasm from then on. He and I work well together, and he's willing to humor me far more than I deserve. We sent sketches and edits and variations back and forth to each other for years, photoshopping and drawing over each other's drawings so many times before we ever submitted the manuscript.
(A side note is that even though I do a lot of writing, and am now officially a published author, I very much consider myself a visual artist more than a writer. I was fortunate to be able to have a lot of creative visual input on THE GENTLEMAN BAT - a few of my designs and many of my obsessive meddlings are scattered throughout the book. In the future, I plan to illustrate some of my other stories, but my first two published books are much better served with the beautiful and highly skilled work of Piotr Parda and Micah Monkey.)

Q. What was your reaction when you received an offer on THE GENTLEMAN BAT? Were there any rejections prior to your offer?
A. I had a few informal rejections of this and other manuscripts from publishers over the years before sending it as part of my first formal submission packet to Ripple Grove Press, along with maybe a half dozen other stories in varying stages of completion. (I had actually just spent several months putting together a full packet of all of my manuscripts to send around to publishers right before RGP put out their first call for submissions, so I was ready at the right time.) I was not expecting them to pick it, but was so happy they did because it has always been one of my favorites. I knew there was a ton of work to do to take it to print, but deadlines have a way of putting a fire under a person.

Q. How long did THE GENTLEMAN BAT take to be published--from the time you signed a contract until it was printed?
A. From signing, it took about a year, during which I reworked the text a couple of times, adding and subtracting parts and polishing the rough spots, and Piotr did a HUGE amount of work redesigning and painting all of the images while putting up with my constant meddling and fussing over what should or should not be in them. A bit about his illustration process is on the website too, including cool early drafts and variations.
Receiving the first printed copies in the mail was a profoundly emotional experience after watching it grow for so many years.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. Piotr and I were fortunate to maintain close creative control through the final edits, which we recognize was a rare and special opportunity, so I am really pleased with all of the details that we were able to include. A couple of little inside jokes were nixed by the publisher, but plenty made it through. (Find them at www.TheGentlemanBat.com/hiddendetails.html.)
It's hard sometimes looking at it knowing how much material we cut to fit the format, but I've already woven most of those pieces into other manuscripts, so they may still see the light of day someday soon. There's one little punctuation thing that I'm not sure if got lost in the shuffle or if the editor disagreed with me, but I'd be surprised if anyone else will ever notice without hearing my long-winded explanation, and then they'd think I was being silly and obsessive.

Q. When you do readings of THE GENTLEMAN BAT which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The two-page spread of the town square with no text gets lots of kids to lean in during readings, and playing a little "Where's Waldo" with it usually wakes anyone up who drifted off. Lots of fun tangents and side stories, plenty of silly visual jokes, and so many little details. Even though I've looked at it hundreds of times, I'm still finding things that Piotr put in that I never noticed.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those of us who want to write picture books?
A. If you can't stop thinking about even the faintest notion of an idea, a character, a little phrase, write it down and see what it turns into. Many times I've jotted down an idea that I think is totally silly, but after considering it objectively, sometimes months or years later, I realize there might be a whole a lot more to it. My second published children's book, TOO MANY TABLES, is a perfect example. I woke up one morning with the title phrase and a very vague idea floating in my head, but I thought it was just another silly blip in the consciousness to forget after a few minutes, certainly not anything to turn into a book. But after I wrote it down I saw that there was something special about it, and then I was totally surprised when Ripple Grove Press chose that particular book over stories I had labored on intensely for years. I am now even more careful to write down as many of my "silly" ideas as possible, and have since fleshed out what I think are some really solid and compelling stories from some of those seeds, some of which I hope to be able to share publicly soon.

Thank you so much for asking me to be a part of your blog, and for letting me share some of the process with your readers. It is always nice to look back and reflect on the journey as I move forward onto newer projects.

To learn more about Abraham Schroeder, visit his website.
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