Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Q&A with Lynn Curlee

Lynn Curlee is the author and illustrator of the new young adult biography The Great Nijinsky: God of Dance. His many other books include Ballpark and Brooklyn Bridge.  

Q: What first got you interested in Nijinsky, and at what point did you decide to write a young adult biography of him? 

A: For the first 20 years of my career I was exclusively a gallery artist. The Ballets Russes, and its star dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, became the subject for a series of lifesize paintings right in the beginning of my career. These paintings became my second one man show in New York in 1974. 

At the time, I read a bio of Nijinsky, and became interested in the subject, but that was that for a long time. In the mid 1990s, I began a second career as author/illustrator of nonfiction picture books for older kids. During the next few years, I published a total of 13 books. Then in 2008, when the publishing industry sort of imploded during the financial crash, I turned once again to painting, and did some more lifesize Nijinskys. 

It was at this point that I decided to write a bio, but this time for young adults, instead of kids. I wanted it to be a serious and complete bio, and Nijinsky’s story involved homosexuality, and insanity. I wrote the first chapter late in 2008, then put it aside because other commitments were more pressing, but then returned to it late in 2013. I found my publisher and editor in 2016, and It went through six drafts before it was ready for publication.  

Q: How did you research his life, and did you learn anything especially surprising? 

A: My research was straightforward. I read everything I could find, and I looked at every photo that I could find. The most surprising episode of Nijinsky’s life was, I think, his inexplicable marriage to a groupie/stalker who was virtually a total stranger.  

Q: You note that you first painted Nijinsky in the 1970s. How did the painting and the writing work together for you as you created the book? 

A: The painting and the writing were totally separate projects. Unlike a kids book, where the pictures need to follow and illuminate a text, the Nijinsky paintings are more a series of formal portraits that enhance the narrative, but do not really illustrate it.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from his life story? 

A: The most important takeaway is that even the most successful, accomplished, and famous people have the same problems as everyone else, and that mental illness is an equal opportunity affliction. It may strike anyone.  

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I have a couple of project proposals under consideration, and I am currently working on a new manuscript, which is intended to be another nonfiction picture book for older kids, and which is a total departure for me, subject-wise.

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: The Great Nijinsky – God of Dance was totally a labor of love, and the most rewarding publishing experience I have had. My wonderful editor, Yolanda Scott, and her fantastic crew at Charlesbridge lavished time and expertise on this project above and beyond anything I was used to. The art direction is inspired, and the book is gorgeous, even if I do say so myself. 

This is exactly the book I had hoped it would be, even before I knew exactly what that was.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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