You might not have heard of Rebecca Dudley yet, but I’m guessing you will. Her wordless picture book Hank Finds An Egg comes out next month and it’s already gotten plenty of attention, including two starred reviews and a great write-up by Elizabeth Bird of Fuse 8. Published by Peter Pauper Press, a venerable gift book and stationery company that had never before done a children’s book, Hank Finds An Egg is told entirely through a series of luminous photographs of Rebecca’s meticulously constructed dioramas. Her path to publication is an unusual one -- she started by posting the diorama stories on her blog, then self-published two of them as a way of demonstrating to risk-averse publishers that the stories would work as books. I asked her to stop by the blog to talk about her journey.
Dashka: When did you start making these incredible dioramas? How did you start?
Rebecca: I have been an architect for 18 years. I have always loved making models. In 2003 and 2004 I started building and photographing dioramas to make calendars for my friends and family. I kept a sketchbook of ideas and in the fall I took two weeks to shoot all 12 months.
Dashka: How did you go from calendars to making a book?
Rebecca: By 2007 I had a story. I made a mock up of a book and I had a great meeting with an editor at a big publishing house. For about three years I tried to edit the story to please that publisher but we didn't seem to have the same vision for my work. After those three years I had so much pent up energy for making new stories I felt like I was going to burst. I bought my first digital SLR and signed up for a digital photography class with Rachel Herman. I took hundreds of pictures a week, sometimes hundreds in a day. I would come to class with tons of pictures and after about four months of this Rachel said "STOP IT! There's a story here. Next week come in with the story. No new pictures. Just EDIT." And she was right. So I did that for the next few weeks and realized I really liked working that way: taking a bunch of pictures, loosely organized around an idea and worrying about the "story" later.
Dashka: When did you start your Storywoods blog? Were you thinking about building a platform and an audience when you started or did you just want people to see what you'd done?
Rebecca: I thought I would build a readership and then some publisher would find me and my huge audience irresistible and offer me a book deal. It didn't quite happen that way, but the blog was really important to getting the book deal. An art director at Peter Pauper showed it to a senior editor and they loved it. It would not have happened without the blog.
Dashka: Was your blog readership a selling point, do you think?
Rebecca: The blog is not very popular. But it is popular enough to do three things: 1. get some much-needed feedback, 2. find a great agent, 3. find a great publisher. Some days my visitors are in the single digits. I had a big spike in traffic when the Renegade Craft Fair wrote about it in 2010, and another when Maria Popova tweeted about it last year. Some very nice Canadian librarians love it. I don't watch my traffic carefully, but once in a while I'll look at the places where my readers are and it is so exciting: Ukraine, Korea, Japan, Germany, Russia, Belgium, England, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, London, Paris. It is motivating, thinking of this disparate group of people brought together by a little group of photographs.
Dashka: There are lots of short stories on the blog. Why did you choose this particular one to be a book?
Rebecca: A lot of the stories on the blog feel slightly unfinished because they are part of one long meandering story. The story on the blog has been developing for three years now and there are still so many story lines I have started that I want to cultivate. But I chose the story of Hank finding an egg for the first book because it has a nice story arc. It is already an unconventional way to make a book, with these elaborate photographs and no words, so I wanted the story to be really clear, to unfold and resolve in an unambiguous and satisfying way.
Dashka: Once you began working on the book, did you discuss adding words or did you and your publisher agree from the beginning that it would be a wordless book?
Rebecca: Hank Finds an Egg had words when I first wrote it, four years ago, but after working on the idea for a few weeks I realized the words didn't add much. I have always wanted to make a wordless book and my editor at Peter Pauper was excited to do a wordless book too.
Dashka: Are there differences between making a blog and a book?
Rebecca: The big difference between the two is that the blog is just a stream of images and the book is made up of paired images, punctuated by several triptychs. The triptychs really help show how alive Hank is. You get to see how he makes things and how he moves. The other big difference is the amount of time I took to shoot the book. All my blog posts were conceived, built, shot, edited and posted within a month. The book took about six months to shoot, and the publisher was responding to images along the way asking for more of this and less of that…mostly MORE of this! Ha! Which turned out to be a good thing. (Spoiler alert!) They wanted to see the baby birds emerging from their eggs in several steps. It was so much work, but people really like that series of images.
Dashka: What did the publisher want less of?
Rebecca: In the blog post Hank offers his prized pine cone to the momma-bird in lieu of the egg, because he's grown attached to the egg and he has two pine cones and only one egg. I liked this storyline because it shows how much he wants to care for that egg, but nobody understood it. So I was OK letting it go. If you go to the blog you'll see it there and wonder what he's doing with that pine cone.
Dashka: Tell me a little bit about how you make those beautiful photographs. Do you make everything in them?
Rebecca: Every blog post takes a couple weeks to build, leaving me a couple weeks to shoot and edit. I make everything in them but this sounds a little more impressive than it is because one of the many fun things about working this way is that I can reuse set pieces. If you look at the trees carefully you will start to notice a tree from one scene is used from a different angle in another scene. The underbrush gets reused, everything gets reused. I make all the "critters," Hank, Li'l Smokey, the mites, Skipper, the birds, everybody. After I shoot the story I take the set apart so there's really no going back if I want to add a photo after I have disassembled the set.
Dashka: Is your whole house filled with tiny magical things? Or do you have a studio where it's all contained?
Rebecca: I have a studio and it is packed. I try to keep all my work in there for the sake of my long-suffering husband but it has a way of leaking out onto the dining room table. About an hour before he comes home there's a flurry of tidying up.
Dashka: How do you plan to promote the book?
Rebecca: Peter Pauper hired a publicist to help promote the book. I am really grateful. I do not have an instinct for promotion. At all. Since the book is wordless I will be doing "craft events" instead of readings. It's going to be a bit messy and noisy and fun: Everyone will make a diorama!
Dashka: Ooh, I want to come! Will the books mainly be sold through the publisher's stationery and gift book network or will it also be in bookstores?
Rebecca: It will be distributed to bookstores and it will be in the Children's section, not the gift section. Peter Pauper did a great job with this. It is a first for them, but they are really smart and enthusiastic and doing everything right.
Dashka: What words of advice would you give somebody interested in following a similar path?
Rebecca: Short term: get some feedback and make friends with people who love your work. That might mean taking a class or approaching people whose work you love, or starting a blog. As personal as your work may be, you need to be a little social. Long term: I remember waiting for my first teacher evaluations from students. A very experienced professor emeritus put his arm around me and said "whatever they say, just remember, you will never reach everyone". It's so true. Not everyone will love what you do but don't let that stop you from doing your great work. Oh and this is really important, also from my experience as a teacher: I think a lot of people feel, probably unconsciously, like this is not the right time to do their best work, they hold back because it might not be convenient to do their best work right now, or it might not seem like the moment they had imagined for when they would be doing their best work, or, and this is the most common scenario, they are afraid they won't have anything left after doing that great thing they are "saving" for the right moment. Let go of any preconception about what that moment looks like and do your great work now. Do not wait.
Dashka: Oh, that’s wonderful advice! Thanks so much for sharing your story!