You might think it would be easy to collaborate with someone who’s dead, but for Philip Stead, that was not the case. Throughout The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine—Philip and Erin Stead’s very funny and profound take on an unpublished story found in the Mark Twain archives—Philip and Twain argue about various narrative points. In one exchange, Philip asks what happens next. Twain deadpans, “She died.” “Right then?” Philip protests. “Would you rather she ate the chicken [an endearing main character] first?” “No, I would not...,” says Philip. Twain retorts, “Then perhaps write your own story—”
It’s this sort of sly Twainian humor, along with Philip Stead’s clever, empathetic voice and Erin Stead’s expressive woodblock-and-pencil illustrations, that make this rescued tale a revelation, the story we never knew we were waiting for.
For among all the sympathetic chickens named Pestilence and Famine, the awful, ridiculous kings and their spoiled sons, the magical seeds and the heartbreakingly sad, brave boys, the story is ultimately about gratefulness and friendship, about how to live in a world where we treat one another kindly. It’s a book we need now more than ever.
Q: Were you approached as a team? And did you really experience a moment of panic at the thought of taking on a Mark Twain story?
Philip Stead: We were approached as a team, yes. But the first and maybe most terrifying part of the project fell to me. I had to get to know Mark Twain and help him finish a story begun more than 100 years ago. Yikes! So I took myself to a cabin on Beaver Island, a sparsely populated piece of land in the middle of Lake Michigan. I stayed there alone until I’d completed a first draft. I always write my early drafts by hand. The results are messy but I’m less self-conscious and more open to experimentation when I write by hand. I believe strongly we would help children become better writers by getting them off the keyboard.
Q: Did you read a lot of Mark Twain before starting this project? Do you have a favorite Twain story?
PS: The most important piece of reading I did was The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Twain tried many times to write an autobiography, but he never quite felt he’d gotten it right. Then, near the end of his life, he came up with an idea. Instead of writing his life’s story, he would spontaneously speak it. Reading these dictations was incredibly valuable to me because it allowed me to hear Twain’s real speaking voice. Since Oleomargarine began as a tale told out loud in the moment, this became a very important resource for me.
Q: Did the story come first and the illustrations later? Or did you two go back and forth as it developed?
PS: The story began with me. I worked in secret for several months before handing it over to Erin. It was Erin’s job to figure out how a story as long and as strange as Oleomargarine could work as a picture book. After Erin had done the difficult work of pacing out the book, the project again became a collaboration. We talked through every new idea, we edited bits of text, we designed the cover together. Really, it was like any other book we’d done, except much, much longer. The one difference, I suppose, was that we had a third collaborator throughout the whole process—Mark Twain!
Q: How much did you depart from Twain’s narrative? Did Erin draw new characters that you ended up putting in the story?
PS: Whenever possible, I used the exact wording of Twain’s notes inside my finished prose. But I did add quite a bit to the rest of the story. Two important characters, the chicken and the skunk, were at least partly my creations. The chicken was all mine, except for her name—Pestilence and Famine. During my research I discovered the Twain family had a cat with that name. Or maybe it was two cats? I never did find out! The character of Susy was there, but Twain had her as a kangaroo. I decided she ought to be a skunk instead. Why? I’d rather have readers decide for themselves why. As for Erin, she didn’t create new characters, but she did affect how I thought about characters that were already written. Pestilence and Famine would not be nearly as sympathetic if Erin had not drawn her with such dignity.
Q: You brilliantly channeled Twain’s sardonic wit. Did you really feel he was in the room with you—approving or disapproving?
PS: Ha! Oh, I’m sure he would disapprove of some of my decisions. But that’s one of the big reasons why I chose to make him a character in the book. I felt that if I was going to make changes to his story, it was only fair to give him a chance to protest.
Q: Erin, what is the favorite part of your very complex art-making process? And how much do you discuss the characters before drawing them?
Erin Stead: My favorite part of the process is actually the simplest—pencil. I finish each image by drawing with pencil. I like how honest and direct a pencil can be. As for the characters, often Philip and I discuss a little bit about a character before I begin drawing. For example, for the character of Johnny, we wanted a boy who looked vulnerable but also capable. That was a tricky balance. Other times I just start drawing and find the character.
Q: As in your Caldecott-winning book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, animal-human friendships are the linchpin here. Why do you choose to tell stories through this lens?
PS and ES: We recently had our first child, a baby girl. We wanted to write a letter to her, something she could read later on and know a little about what our hopes were for her. After spending some time in front of a blank paper, we ended up writing only one sentence: Be kind to animals. It just seems that if she can figure that out then the rest of life’s decisions will come easy.
Q: I loved your themes of gratefulness (“I am glad to be here”) and friendship (“I am glad to know you”), and how these sentiments could save the world. How do we teach children, or adults, this?
PS: That’s a tough one. Can kindness be taught? I’m not sure it can. Most people have kindness inside of them already. In Johnny’s case, all that was necessary was that he be given an opportunity to express it. The animals called for him to “make a speech!” And the giants asked, “Do you not hate us?” The words were present in Johnny without him knowing it.
Q: Do you have a favorite book you’ve worked on?
PS and ES: We love all of the books we’ve worked on. But it will be hard to top Oleomargarine. We’ve never worked as hard or as long on any book (almost three years!). All the things we’ve worked to express in our past books are present there. In fact, it occurs to us now that they are all present right there in the nightingale’s song.
Photo: Nicole Haley