Friday, 7 October 2011

Fantasy lives

I have spent all this week pretending I am Ursula Nordstrom. While I type up proposals and estimates and web copy and bash out emails about wireframes and webforms and whatevers, inside my head I've been Nordstrom, at my desk in New York, banging away on my typewriter sending hilarious, heartfelt, cajoling, placating letters to Ruth Krauss, Maurice Sendak and E.B. White.

This is because I'm reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, the most gripping book I've read in months. It's not because the letters between the editor for childrens books at Harpers Booksand various writers, illustrators, friends, enemies, librarians, reviewers, teachers and children are full of drama and intrigue. They're more like a wall of words coming at you, in a tone that I'm sure some would find annoying but which I find entrancing. I've just finished her letters to E.B. White about the illustrations for Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web - she auditioned a number of artists, but settled on Garth Williams:

You will see that in the sample drawings for Stuart Little Mr. Williams did one picture in different techniques. We like the more detailed technique, don’t you? He was careful about lots of small but important details. For instance, in the picture of the doctor examining Stuart, Stuart is standing up. Mr. Williams had him lying down in the first sketch but changed it because he was afraid he might look like a little dead mouse if he were lying down. (That is probably a silly detail to pass on to you, but it was somehow encouraging to us.)

The exchange over Charlotte's Web is especially endearing; here she is on a round of changes to the illustrations:

On #1 Garth has changed the position of the door. On #2 he re-did it so that Fern has hair more consistent with the other drawings. On #3 he re-drew it so Mrs. Arable looked less like a young girl, more like herself in other drawings. (On #3, if you agree, Mrs. Arable looks a bit whiskery-y and we can have a couple of the little lines taken out. I may be imagining it through.)

Nordstrom's voice reminds me a little of Tammi Taylor in my great crush 'Friday Night Lights' - an impossibly friendly bulldozer of politeness, enthusiasm and relentless forward motion. It's such a pleasure having her inside my head right now.

(You can read a proper review and more extracts in this Open Letters Monthly article, which is where I first heard of the book.)

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