Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson are an illustrator/writer, wife/husband duo who spend all their waking hours making stuff together: books with pictures and words, obstreperous children, and constant messes everywhere. Other details are available here.
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Well, here we go again. Another something-or-other that sounds like fun and so we’re going to try to do it.
A little background: we have very much enjoyed doing our FB Livecasts, but have felt the nagging sense that we have more to offer than tips on How to Badly Bake Cobbler and What Not to Guess When Matthew is Drawing Even If It Looks Just Like Who You Think It Is (Christopher Walken). We wanted it to fall under the following constraints:
1. We wanted it to be video.
2. We didn’t want to have to do any editing.
3. We wanted it to be short enough that it wasn’t a big commitment.
4. We wanted to share some of our vast moonscape of knowledge.
5. We did not want the moonscape to make us seem too boring.
So here’s what we came up with:
A ten-minute video in which we answer a question from you guys while also attempting some sort of ridiculous feat.
Let it be known that at various times in our planning conversation (about an hour of back-and-forth across the studio) it was going to be called Ten Minutes in Heaven with Robbi and Matthew, Ten Minutes in the Closet with Robbi and Matthew, and then just Ten Minutes with Robbi and Matthew. We gave it a tagline, “Collaboration. Creativity. Catastrophe.” and considered it done.
Matthew even drew up some logo sketches for me (part of the gimmick is that we’ll have a ten-minute timer so there will be no going overtime, and thus the natural hourglass/stopwatch motif):
I was feeling that the whole stopwatch thing was a little too on the nose, and started looking at logos that included stopwatches. They were all super lame.
Ten Minutes with Teddy & Tina, who are a wholesome, loving couple who talk about the following:
We didn’t want it to appear that we were stealing their idea and then corrupting it in the way that we do whenever we steal other people’s ideas, so the whole Ten Minutes concept went out the window. I think Teddy & Tina will be very glad not to be associated with our shenanigans.
Back to square one. We started tossing around the idea of what might invoke “a short time”. Matthew suggested “sojourn” and “idyll” and I must say my eyes rolled so hard into the back of my head I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get right again.
Matthew cleverly came up with “quickie” (surprise) and we thought “Creative Quickie” might be good, except for maybe the fact that we’re trying to appeal to librarians and such, and while I’m not going say that librarians don’t like quickies, I’d venture to guess that it’s not the sort of thing they want to share within their librarian networks.
So it turns out we aren’t nearly as creative as we thought.
But we also wanted to capture the hijinx of trying to do the ridiculous feat. This part of the idea came from our very first idea, which was “Robbi and Matthew Eat Potatoes” in which we would eat potatoes every episode, an idea we never took seriously but made us laugh. We looked up a bunch of synonyms and somehow came across “nudniks,” which I thought effectively captured the ridiculousness, and I thought “Creative Nudniks” might be funny (I thought it was way funnier yesterday than I do right now). But we’d already coined ourselves “idiots” back in the day and figured maybe that time has passed.
Then we decided the tagline should cover the nudnik part of things, so it was back to the main title. And really, the point of the whole thing was that we would be trying to answer one single question in a ten-minute time period. The hijinx shouldn’t be the point.
And then it came to us – Quick Question! Great alliteration! Captures exactly what we’re trying to do! Perfect! A quick google search came up empty, but while I was searching I started to fall out of love with it because it started sounding like the name of a corny local cable access show. Matthew suggested adding the ONE and somehow it seemed more descriptive and less like a catchphrase. We tried to plumb the depths of why that was but basically couldn’t find a compelling answer. Since we only need to pitch this idea to ourselves, we said, “Screw it! We’re done!”
The design went through many iterations, but thankfully none of them involved a stopwatch or hourglass. I realized a lightning bolt said it the best. And so:
Dang that lightning bolt doesn’t read like an “I” with the serif font. Also, those Qs are awfully loopy.
Better, but the lightning bolt still doesn’t read. Plus, what about our names?
Ok, but that handwritten font is not quite it. Plus, we left out the hijinx! Annoyingly, another layer of text to include.
Getting there, but boy does it look grim. Some color?
Whatever the answer is, the answer is not yellow. Or pink.
Oh righhhht, the Robbi & Matthew color scheme is black and orange. I forgot.
And the exclamation points made it much more hijinx-y, even though Matthew usually hates exclamation points. And changing the bottom bit from bar to banner also made it seem a little more fun.
And there you have it.
We will record later this week, post early next week, and talk about it on the livecast on Wednesdays. If you have any questions you’d like us to answer (or 10-minute hijinx suggestions), put them in the comments below!
If you haven’t been keeping up (who has?), we have published a book called The Real McCoys. It’s a great book, a book we like, blah blah blah, I feel like we’ve mentioned it here A. COUPLE. TIMES. BEFORE. But that’s just background intel for this post. If your curiosity is piqued, go on, go ahead and buy the book, but this post (this post!) is about Annabelle Adams, Girl Detective – Moxie’s favorite supersleuthing hero, who at least deserves her own blog entry!
Annabelle Adams is a butt-kicking, feisty, smart and indomitable 12-year-old who gets conscripted to save the world from the ruinous machinations of Dr. Fungo, the short, googly-eyed madman, who, not to take the bad guy’s side, is kind of a creative genius.
She’s recruited by the mysterious Em:
the inventive Floyd:
and the ninja-like ninja (named Ninja):
Great hijinx ensue and many cats run wild, are tamed, and run wild again.
The whole thing is kind of like if they took James Bond and went farther in the direction of “gondola hovercraft zipping through the streets of Venice” instead of “more and more sad faces with Daniel Craig”.
And here’s the good news:
The good news is, we are releasing Annabelle Adams chapter by chapter over on the Real McCoys blog. Every two weeks you’ll get a new installment. We totally forgot to update you over here, so lucky for you, you don’t have to wait for Chapters 1-5, which are currently up at THIS LINK.
Go read, enjoy, and like the Real McCoys facebook page if you’d like to keep up-to-date on chapter releases. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s okay too. Daniel Craig needs his fanbase too.
Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. It was fun (and instructive) to take a few minutes to reflect on what it takes to do what I do.
I figured that, since I took the time to gather these thoughts, I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started.
Without further ado, here is my exchange with Margo:
Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr,
I am doing a research project about Marco Polo at school. For our projects, we are supposed to reach out to an adult in the same professional field as our notable. Marco Polo was also an author, so I found you to be great candidates. The assignment is to ask you about what “soft skills” your job requires. Soft skills are attributes needed to be successful in your career. These skills are more aimed towards things that make a good leader, like participation or focus, not handwriting or geometry. What skills do writers need for every day work?
Thanks you for your help.
Margo T., 6th grade
persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes or read books about writing, the best way to get better as a writer is to write. And write and write and write. Everyone starts out as a terrible writer (just think what awful writers babies are), but anyone who sticks with it gets better. And those who stick with it through frustration and failure are the ones who get a lot better. Robbi and I are always saying how glad we are that we chose professions that we can keep doing and continuing to get better at throughout our entire lives. If we were professional basketball players, we would already be retired because our knees would no longer work properly. Instead, if feels as if we’re just getting started. The bottom line here is that learning to write well takes a really long time. But the more you write, the faster the learning process will be. Without patience and persistence, it’s pretty much impossible to be a great writer. Because it’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work.
observation – Whether your story is about the Roman Empire or a family of green bunnies, it won’t be interesting unless it’s actually about real things that happen to actual people. Their hopes and fears and struggles and joys. And the only way to write things that people will care about reading is to pay close attention to what people actually say and do, how they feel and react in a given situation. So much of what happens to people happens below the surface and is only visible in barely perceptible ways. So you have to look and listen carefully to figure out how people work. Which is to say, writers must be good observers and good listeners.
empathy – Beyond figuring out how people work by studying them closely, writers have to do a little extra magic, taking that knowledge and understanding and using it to see and live the world through their characters’ eyes. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you can’t, at some level, identify with your characters, it’s hard to tell their stories in interesting and authentic ways. Which means that you have to crawl inside the hearts of your villains as well as those of your heroes. You have to open yourself up to a broad range of human experience. You have to be willing to acknowledge the complexity inside yourself. Which many people are not willing to do.
curiosity – The thing that makes one willing do be persistent and observant is an innate curiosity about the world and how it works. You have to be really interested in people and what they think and what they do and WHY they think what they think and do what they do or you probably won’t do the hard work it takes to learn how to write about these things in believable, compelling ways. One of the best ways to sate your curiosity is to read. Not only will you be exposed to people and situations and ideas and happenings that you couldn’t possibly experience in person, but you will learn how great writers perform their craft. Want to be a writer? Read and read and read. Write and write and write.
willingness to accept criticism – I wish there were a single word for this, but if there is, I can’t think of it. The bottom line is, writers don’t work alone. They collaborate with editors (professional or otherwise) to take their ideas and drafts and make them better. No writer EVER sat down and wrote something perfect in one try. That is not how it works. Writers write something, and it is riddled with mistakes (not just spelling and grammatical errors but other kinds of problems, whether with the story or the logic or the characters). Editors read the draft and give feedback, pointing out places where the story isn’t working or where the dialogue is not believable or where the writer has missed an opportunity to add emotional depth to a given exchange. The process of revision proceeds as a conversation between the writer and the editor and it often takes just as much work and time (if not more work and time) than creating the first draft did. Writers have to be willing to accept that they cannot create the best version of their book or blog post or magazine article on their own. And the better they are at listening to constructive criticism without taking it personally, the better their final work will be. I think of my editor as a true partner in the process of writing my books. She always makes them so much better than they would have been had I been working on my own.
And there you have it. Some soft skills I rely upon each day in my life as a writer. Please let me know if you would like me to think of others. And thanks again for giving me this opportunity to reflect on what I do.
I wish you the best of luck with your project. Please let me know how it goes.
One of the best surprises on our trip to the desert was our stop at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch about a half hour outside of Barstow.
As we pulled up to park along the side of the highway it didn’t look very big, but it seemed to magically grow the minute we stepped in among the welded “trees” – noticing how each was constructed from all sorts of scavenged items, from hand-crank sewing machines to pitchforks to surfboards to hubcaps to traffic lights to toilets and on and on. We spent a good deal of time there and probably didn’t see half the treasures inside.
Augie discovered a horn of some sort (that obviously needed tooting).
I’m not sure what this one actually was in its former life (a bed? an industrial deep fat fryer? an electric fence?) but I love the turquoise bottles and the “White Gas” hand-painted on the stand.
If anyone can identify what these rake things are, I’ll give you a prize (some kind of farm implement, I’m guessing?). Bonus points if you can identify the animals from which the dangling bones came.
But my favorite little detail was this “Trick Dog” who somehow caught or tossed coins into a little bank.
After oohing and ahhing for a good long while, we noticed a smallish bearded fellow emerge from the garage-like structure in the back. It was Elmer himself!
He told us how he and his father had started collecting old antique junk they had found while on a camping trip they took in the desert when he was six. They’d return to the desert year after year and look for old dump sites from abandoned mining towns. Pretty soon his dad’s house was full of these treasures and so he took them and began building the bottle trees and incorporating their finds.
As an illustrator, I’ve always admired folks who work from a blank canvas – illustrators usually have something to illustrate, a text, an idea, etc. And, generally speaking, we are making art commercially – to sell. It was so clear that the bottle ranch is a labor of love – scratching a creative itch for the pleasure of just making something beautiful. How humbling to be surrounded by such a profound love of the beauty in forgotten things.
What a magical moment of wonder.
One of the most exciting and vexing and challenging and time-consuming parts of making a book is coming up with the cover, because no matter how many times we’re cautioned not to judge a book by it, the cover is that first impression we can never shake. And so a whole lot of people work very hard to make sure it is a good one.
The process usually begins with our art director Natalie saying to Robbi, “Take a stab at some cover ideas,” which always makes Robbi feel wiggly because as much as she muddles her way through our various in-house design needs, she is NOT a designer and does not play one on television. Nevertheless, Robbi dutifully creates a few thumbnails and sends them along.
To which Natalie responds something along the lines of. “Great! Let’s see that one with the big owl in a little more detail and maybe also that one with the three kids and the owl, but maybe with a little more excitement happening above the title.”
Robbi is extremely excited at this point, because the one with the big owl is her favorite.
And so she draws and draws and sends two sketches to Natalie.
One with a little more detail.
One with a little more excitement.
At this point, Natalie and Erin take the more fully developed sketches to the team of people at Macmillan whose specialty is covers. They have important conversations to which we are not invited so as to protect our tender feelings from the grim realities of the rough and tumble world of selling books.
After the meeting, Natalie writes and says something along the lines of, “That excitement you added above the title was great, but how about having Moxie as a central figure, with the other characters sort of surrounding her like a frame. And be sure to put Milton in there somewhere, too.”
To which Robbi responds with this.
To which Natalie responds, “Thanks! I’ll share this with the Mysterious Cover Committee, but in the mean time, please see what Moxie and Milton would look like in color.”
Which makes sense, because of course the cover will be in full color but to this point, Moxie and Milton have been living in a black and white world.
So Robbi does this, and we all go ooh! and ahh! Because who doesn’t like color?
To which Natalie says, “Great on the color, but as you revise the sketch, keep Moxie in the middle, get Milton out from under her foot (that’s just mean!), keep the upper excitement, create a band of human characters in the middle and another band of non-human characters along the bottom. And separate the bands with color breaks. Sound good?!”
To which Robbi responds by tearing out just a few of her hairs before turning back to proverbial (and literal) drawing board coming up with the following.
We loved how Milton was on a stepladder (accentuating his trademark shortness), and how he is actively involved with adjusting the “s” in “McCoys,” (accentuating his trademark fastidiousness and also introducing the reader to the interaction of image and language that is to be found throughout the book).
Robbi and I were very excited about this cover. We thought it was perfect. We sent it to Natalie.
To which Natalie replies, “YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, but let’s make the colors less depressing and get rid of that extremely creepy bug in the lower left and make your names a bit bigger, forgodsake.”
Because Natalie has powers, she turned the basic elements of Robbi’s sketch into the following.
Natalie also sent us the drawing below, which shows how the bands of color might extend onto the back. Robbi was pleased to see the return of the big owl, which, if you don’t remember, Robbi really liked.
At this point, Natalie and Erin took the cover to the Top Secret Committee of Monumental Cover Design Decision Making, and reported back that, “No, no, no. This is all wrong.”
At which point, Natalie changed into her ninja outfit and chopped down an entire bamboo thicket with one hand while using the other hand to blow up the previous cover concept and coming up with this entirely new one.
To which we said, “Oh yes. This is JUST RIGHT. We love it. You must be an actual designer who also plays one on television.”
To which Natalie responds by sending us a bunch of enthusiastic-yet-inscrutable emojis which make us laugh. It is her way. We love her for it.
In the weeks that follow, we make a bunch of minor adjustments to the above sketch, adding this and subtracting that, improving the color and adding a band with our names at the bottom.
Eventually, the real live book arrives in the mail and we cry a little (me) and swoon a little (Robbi). It’s so beautiful we can barely stand it. The fact that our names are on the cover of this beautiful book hardly makes sense. But there they are.
Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr
We turn it over and have a look at the back.
Maybe Robbi didn’t get her big owl, but we LOVE how the back turned out. It’s a little taste of Moxie and Milton, how they talk, how they relate, the funny faces they make.
And, in full disclosure, Robbi did get a little owl. The nice thing about a dust jacket is that it sneaks around the corners of the covers so that the Committee of People Who Write Compelling Dustjacket Copy have a place to put their carefully crafted words.
And, to be utterly comprehensive, here is the back flap, where the Person Who Describes the Salient Facts of Author and Illustrator Lives (that would be I) gets to have his say.
We love every inch of every panel of these covers. We love the design. We love the colors. We love the texture. We love the kind testimonials from people who know what they are talking about.
We just plain love this book. And hope that you will, too.
One of the great pleasures of publishing a book is the chance to plant a dedication in the front, to express the gratitude you feel to the people whose contributions made that book possible, through help or inspiration, and oftentimes both. We dedicated Babies Ruin Everything to our kids and Everywhere, Wonder to our parents. For The Real McCoys, we wanted to acknowledge those who paved our path from making books by hand on our dining room table to publishing a hardcover novel with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.
Jesse Post (now proprietor of the fabulous Postmark Books) worked at Disney when he stopped by our table and bought a copy of our mix-and-match book After Everafter during an indie press show many years ago. A few years later, he took it to a production meeting at Little Brown, where he gave it to Erin Stein, who then hired us to write and illustrate a mix-and-match book about Spider Man, Thor, and friends. Erin, whose contributions to our story merit a post (or novel) of their own, is the publisher at Imprint (a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), and the editor of The Real McCoys.
Bridget Watson Payne, an editor at the estimable Chronicle Books, rolled the dice on two unknown creators and acquired our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories, giving it an editorial refresh and honoring it with the Chronicle name. We loved working with Bridget. She is smart, honest, and hilarious (and recently, an author in her own right). So when we were looking for an agent a few years ago, we charged Bridget with helping us find the agent version of herself. Meredith Kaffel Simonoff was first on Bridget’s list of recommendations. We emailed with Meredith. We met in person. We fell in love. Within a year, we had signed five book contracts, including The Real McCoys books 1 and 2.
This business is no solitary venture. The author and illustrator are just one part of a vast web of smart, talented people who work their tails off to make books happen. We have been lucky to work with (and count as friends) some of the very best of them.
Robbi is a raccoon.
By which I mean, she comes alive when the sun sets and kicks into full gear when the most of us are ready to climb into bed. Her natural creative sweet spot is 10:00pm -2:00am. We’ve known this for a long time, but in the interest of spending time with her family by being awake during roughly the same hours, Robbi has behaved less like a raccoon and more like a prairie dog for most of the past decade. Except during stretches of intense creative production that demand nothing but her best and most efficient creative output.
We find ourselves in such a stretch.
The books in The Real McCoys series are long (336 pages) and illustration-heavy (roughly 1,000 individual drawings in each book). The number of hours required to illustrate each is patently absurd, and the only way Robbi can manage the feat is to abandon normalcy and work through the night. Every night.
Here’s what her desk looks like right around 3:00am.
I am wired like a boring old human being conditioned to mirror the path of the sun. Which means I completely decompensate as 8:00pm rolls around. I’ve always marveled at Robbi’s nocturnal prowess, wondering how she manages it. I woke this morning with the answer. In the dead of night, Robbi decided to document her current method for keeping the Sandman at bay. I present it for you here. Lest you decide the time has come to create 1,000 illustrations:
Recommendations for your next all-nighter (by Robbi):
1. V8 + Energy Drink:
I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it seems to be working better than multiple cans of Coke and piles of Almond Joys. It gives the impression of being healthy by saying it has a serving of vegetables and fruits in it along with B-vitamins. Added bonus: very cool packaging design. All four flavors are delicious but don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out. A steady dose of energy without the crash.
2. Sweetzels Ginger Snaps:
I did not realize how effective the actual act of chewing can be against falling asleep, especially when it feels like you are chewing little dollops of granite. (There is a reason Almond Joys are more effective than Mounds.) This particular brand of ginger snaps is not only brain-rattlingly crunchy, they also have a nice sharp ginger bite (“made with real ginger”!) When Matthew couldn’t find this brand, he purchased a different brand, which got soggy by 4am and had no gingery bite (and were much more sugary tasting). I gave him exact directions on where these could be found at the store, so don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out of these too.
I have three podcasts I am slowly burning through.
a. Lovett or Leave It :
Features hilarious former speechwriter for Obama who also happened to graduate from my alma mater with a math degree seven years after I graduated from there with an English degree. Which is to say, even writers don’t waste their time with English degrees. Also hosted by other Obama insiders. Funny, smart, engaging, but probably only if you’re a lefty.
b. Pod Save America :
This basically has the same line-up as Lovett or Leave It and is equally smart and entertaining but with fewer silly games. Slightly more wonky but still goes down quite well with ginger snaps.
I happen to know Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor a few years back. She started this podcast to get conscience and “soul” back into politics. Earnest as hell but refreshing to hear people working for change without cynicism and with a great deal of hope. Loved her chat with firebrand Barbara Mikulski and great to hear her talk across the aisle with Gov. Hogan. Looking forward to more, there’s only three episodes so far.
I’m not late to this game! I swear! You all might be totally over this by now, but I gotta say when it’s late and you’re feeling done, crank up some Yorktown and get the fuck back up again.
If your all-nighters do not involve Photoshop, then they will not be nearly as fun. Highly recommended.
And there you have it. Perhaps now that this intelligence has been shared, scores 336 page, 1,000 illustration middle grade novels will spread like wildfire across this great land. But somehow I doubt it. Something tells me that Robbi is able and willing to stay up all night and thrive not because of the above list of worthy diversions and delights.
It’s because she is a raccoon.
Hello, friends. Our first heavily illustrated, beautifully printed, funny and heart-warming whodunnit of a kid novel The Real McCoys comes out in two short weeks. Robbi and I are extremely excited but are also trying to do whatever we can to help this book we love find its way in the world. From talking with other authors and people in publishing, it sounds like strong preorders can do a lot to help a book get noticed, shelved, shared, etc.
OUR REQUEST TO YOU: if you were planning on buying this book anyway, doing so now instead of after it comes out would be a huge help to us. And, even if you are currently kidless, consider picking up a copy or two for birthday or holiday gifts. (Crazily, it can be had for just $10.33.)
I’ve included links to various online retailers below, but you can also preorder from your local bookstore. Apologies for the overt ask, but in this case, if you are willing to give this book a loving nudge, we would be extremely grateful. Your support means the world to us.
[For your calculations, the sweet spot is grades 3-7, but it would also be perfect for parents to read with younger kids—and I wrote it to be funny to all but the most humorless adults].
Robbi has traveled to the Alaskan tundra every summer since 1976. I’ve been going up since 2000. Alden has been ten times so far, Kato eight, and Augie six. Jasper just made his inaugural visit.
For all of those years, we have lived with Robbi’s family and various visiting helpers at the Behr family compound, a sharing of extremely close quarters that requires patience, tolerance, and frequent olfactory forgiveness.
Sensing that the sheer bulk of our bulging family unit was starting to wear on the nerves of our fellow inhabitants, Robbi and I decided late last summer to relocate to a modest cabin on a patch of land her family owns a few miles down the beach.
The cabin above was built by a web diver (a person who is hired by the captains of fishing boats to untangle nets and ropes that get accidentally caught in their propellors), but he moved out about five years ago. At 12′ x 16′, it is a perfectly fine size for a single man to live in for a few weeks in the summer. But upon further reflection, it seemed a bit small for Robbi and me and our four energetic offspring to inhabit without constant duress. And so we spent the winter scheming about how we might increase our square footage.
One plan was to attempt to build a sort of rickety shed adjacent to the diver’s cabin. We knew that it would not be a particularly NICE building, but we hoped it might give us a place to store the children for necessary moments of adult respite.
But then we thought of Tim, our carpenter friend from Missouri. Might he be sufficiently tempted by the scent of adventure to bring his talents to the tundra for a few weeks and build us a proper house? We asked, and it turned out that he was. We spent several months discussing an expansion. Tim sent us a drawing that looked like this.
We said, “Heck, yes.”
Tim suggested that we acquire various tools and hardware and lumber and such and sent us a list.
Robbi spent many late night hours online ordering things. I tried to leave her alone during these times, surly as she is when ordering tools and hardware and lumber late at night.
June came. Robbi left for the tundra. A week later, I joined her. As luck would have it, the tiny bush plane that brought me to our lonely stretch of beach flew directly over our building site. Ours is the little red cabin on the left side of the U.
As even greater luck would have it, the pilot then flew past the site from the other direction, allowing you to see how the cabin rests at the top of a hill, on the edge of the bluff, overlooking a meadow just above the beach.
On the night I arrived on the tundra with our builder friend Tim (on the right) and his dad Denny (also a builder) in tow, we drove up to the building site and had a look at the generous quantity of gravel that had been dumped and carefully leveled by our friend James. Back in civilization, we’d dig and pour a proper foundation. On the tundra, we use gravel. Lots and lots of gravel. I thank James and his loader for placing the gravel so that I did not have to haul 500 buckets of the stuff, as Robbi surely would have made me do otherwise.
I cannot resist taking a moment to shamelessly brag that I am co-owner of a shipping container, which is the tundra equivalent of a garage. We used the container to ship up the tools and lumber and hardware and such (in the belly of a massive barge that made its way from Seattle to Coffee Point, AK), and once it arrived, we set it on gravel, leveled it on sizable wooden chunks, and used it to keep our belongings safe from bears, which, powerful as they might be, have not yet found a way to open shipping containers. Yet.
Before we headed off to sleep that night, I took one more photo of the building site. Here it is. Gravelly and flat and ready for anything.
The morning came, and it was time to begin. We had only 16 days to build a house, and so there was no time to waste. We started by bringing lumber.
Tim and Denny started by setting heavy timbers into the gravel. Known as “grade beams,” these sturdy lengths of wood would serve as the building’s foundation.
Setting the grade beams involved digging. Tim later admitted that digging is his least favorite aspect of building. Which is why I’m glad we were able to get the digging out of the way early.
Once the grade beams were in place, it was time to lay the floor boards. Denny instructed us to place them every 18 inches.
Not long later, a framework emerged.
Because Tim is a thorough and conscientious builder who wants our toes to be as warm as possible on cold tundra mornings, he insulated the heck out of the floor. And yes, “the heck out of” is a technical term used by carpenters to describe degrees of thoroughness.
Once the floor was insulated and covered with plywood, we laid out all the windows we had managed to collect to see how we might arrange them for maximum light and air flow. There will be no electricity in our house, and so no lights, and so we want to give the sun as many chances as possible to creep inside and help us see things.
Various of us held up the various windows in various configurations while Robbi stood in the middle of the floor and waved her hand majestically. We tried various configurations and eventually she was happy. Or at least content. One never knows with Robbi.
One of the various of us was my father John Swanson, good friend of Denny, father of Tim. He came along to lend a hand and get his first in-person glimpse of our Alaskan shenanigans.
Because Tim does not mess around, soon there was a wall.
And then another wall.
Two walls seemed sufficient. I was ready to move in. But Tim insisted that the living experience would be considerably enhanced if I’d let him keep going a bit longer.
And so he laid out the studs for a third wall.
Which, cut to specified lengths and artfully combined with various nails, suddenly became a lot more wall-like.
Tim requested plywood.
More nails were deployed.
Various of us were then gathered for our best imitation of a barn raising.
I have never before participated in the lifting of a wall. It was rather exciting.
The third wall came together in two large chunks, but because Tim doesn’t mess around, the second was erected within moments of the first.
“NOW can I move in?” I asked.
Tim said something along the lines of, “Not until I cut you some windows.” He took out a marvelous tool called a Sawzall (saws all, get it?) and traced the outline of the window through the framing.
Suddenly, we had a view.
The quality of the view did nothing to deter my desire to move in immediately.
But Tim was already off to building the fourth wall. To keep me distracted, Tim handed me a rake and suggested that my energies might be better spent creating a grade that sloped away from the house, to protect the foundation from rain that might otherwise puddle up and cause the grade beams to rot.
Joining me in the raking effort was friend and fellow Chestertonian Stu, who had joined us for the summer, and who distinguished himself on the tundra by being game to help out in whatever way possible, whether fishing or raking or smiling at Jasper.
While Stu and I were raking, Tim harvested old barge wood.
When Robbi’s family first moved to the Behr family compound, there was an old salting barge on the property. It was so large (80 feet long) and sturdy, Robbi’s dad thought the family might live in it, but a fierce winter storm damaged it badly and rendered it unlivable. Over the decades, the barge slowly broke apart, but many pieces of it remain. Tim thought some of the timbers might make excellent exposed beams for the new house, complete with the old nails (or is this an appropriate occasion for using the term “spikes” instead?) that still poked through the wood.
It took considerable hoisting.
And much shimmying and banging (both technical carpentry terms as well, apparently).
But eventually, the beams were in, and they looked amazing.
It was around this time that Tim had an idea. The original design had called for a small sleeping loft above the kitchen and bedroom. Tim proposed changing the pitch of the roof to allow for more headroom in the loft. This would mean more work for Tim, but ultimately, a better house.
We thanked Tim and gave him the thumbs up. Tim is the kind of guy who does things right.
We shifted from a six pitch to a seven pitch, for those of you in the know about such things. For those of you not in the know, I thought you might enjoy this photo of not quite parallel lines.
After placing the barge beams horizontally across the building, Tim added additional vertical beams that would hold up the roof.
While Tim and Denny framed the roof, we busied ourselves with such mundane and extraneous activities as salmon fishing.
And beach dancing.
I went back to the site a few hours later to find this.
As I have suggested already, Tim really and truly doesn’t mess around.
Suddenly the house looked like a house. I raced down the hill to get Robbi, thinking she would be pleased to see the progress.
I was not wrong.
We climbed into the sleeping loft and poked our head above the rafters. Instead of an unsatisfying, rickety shed, a beautiful, bona fide home was emerging.
We took a moment to celebrate Tim. But just a moment. He was already racing off to build more. If we had celebrated Tim as much as we had felt like celebrating him, our house would still not have a roof.
The next day it rained. Mother Nature had the gall to get our new floors wet. Would the dampness deter the builders, we wondered?
It did not deter my father John Swanson from getting medieval with the chop saw.
And it did not deter Tim and Stu from putting the sheeting on the roof.
Before Robbi calls me out for throwing around the term “sheeting” as if I were a veteran builder, which I am not, I will freely admit that I am throwing around the term “sheeting,” which is the way you say “plywood” when it is being used to cover walls or roofs and etc. I learned this from Tim, he who does not mess around.
As the sheeting went up, I walked inside and had the pleasing sense of being an enclosed space.
Meanwhile, August brooded.
Around this time, three of our college friends stopped by to stand cheerfully in front of the diver’s cabin for the sake of posterity. And to help us move many sheets of plywood (I mean “sheeting,” of course) in out of the rain. And to revel in the statistical unlikeliness that five people who graduated from the same small liberal arts college in Massachusetts would all spend their summers commercial salmon fishing in the same small corner of Alaska.
While construction proceeded apace, Alden Swanson reviewed the manuscript for my next novel. (Erin Stein would have been so proud.)
Which made me want to hug her as the sun set.
The next day, Tim completed the most brain-intensive part of the construction project, which was framing the “hip” where the two roof lines would meet on the far corner of the new house, a process that called for various beveled and mitered edges and such. I am glad that this part was Tim’s job and not mine. My job was staying quiet and far away from Tim while he did math, which is, apparently, a big part of creating effective buildings.
Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the summer was when Tim (Sawzall in hand) sawed out the window of the sleeping loft.
Or maybe it was when John Swanson, my father, taught Jasper how to play cribbage?
Or maybe it was when August, exhausted from brooding, swooned into a four-hour faceplant on the window seat.
Once the roof sheeting was on, Tim stapled tar paper over the roof sheeting so that the rain could no longer insult our floors with dampness.
At which point, it was time for yours truly to step in.
Those of you who have been following our exploits for a truly long time might remember the epic Fourth of July 2006, when I insulated the entirety of our barn in four days so hot and humid that my knees sweated. Ever since, I have carried an irrational love of insulating spaces I will some day inhabit.
I grabbed my hammer stapler and set to work covering every inch of the interior with soft, pillowy insulation.
My father, John Swanson, and I collaborated in this process. He cut the bats (“bats” is how we carpenter types refer to long strips of insulation) to the proper size.
And I stapled them securely into every nook and cranny. In the process, both of us became thoroughly covered in microscopic bits of glass fiber. Which might have been unpleasant, if not for the overall thrill of the enterprise.
At one point, somewhat weary from the thrill of the enterprise, I stepped outside and saw that Tim had begun the process of covering the tar paper with metal sheeting.
I stepped back inside and resumed my thrill-seeking ways. Eventually, the entire ceiling was insulated.
When I stepped back outside again, the sun was out, and the metal roof was nearly complete. If I have not previously mentioned it, messing around isn’t on the menu of things Tim even contemplates doing.
As we drove back down the hill that night for dinner, I glanced over at the house, which was looking ever more plausible by the moment.
Robbi had spent the afternoon filleting fish.
And so we had to drive them up the beach to the deep freeze at the fish processing plant.
Robbi drove. Alden and Jasper and I hopped into the back of the truck, and we headed out.
As we passed our fishing sites, we stopped to admire my hand-painted “Swanson” site marker sign (thank you, Stu!). Growing up in Kansas, I would never have believed that one day I would have a commercial fishing permit in Alaska.
As we drove up the beach, we hit a heavy midday fog, and the world grew strange and mysterious.
Jasper was not fazed.
Alden had a standoff with a formidable stack of pallets.
Which she won, of course.
While Robbi stored our fish at -10 degrees and I took a shower inside a corrugated steel container, Alden and Jasper contemplated life’s mysteries.
The next day, Kato and I headed down to the building site. He drove. There are no rules in Alaska.
On the way, we stopped at our fishing site to say hello to Robbi and Erica and admire their catch.
On the aforementioned U-shaped road that leads to the new compound, we found evidence of a visitor. A large visitor with a large foot.
Did we let this keep us from the task at hand?
We did not. In addition to installing installation, I am capable of applying paint. And so I did.
Meanwhile, my father John Swanson caulked the various windows and other trim.
For his part, Tim took a break. But, unlike other people whose breaks might resemble sipping lemonade or sitting idly in the shade, Tim used his down time to furiously transform a heap of scrap lumber into a smoker, complete with sliding vents for temperature control.
While Tim “rested,” we painted. The far side of the diver’s cabin was in particular need of attention, battered as it had been by five tundra winters.
The cabin stands on the bluff above the river, so the front of the house doubled a billboard announcing that the diver was there and saying how to get in touch with him—a white diagonal stripe (the universal “diver” symbol), and “VHF 10,” which is the channel boats were supposed to call when their propellors needed untangling.
We were torn about painting over the stripe and “VHF 10.” We liked how it looked and wanted to respect the history of the building, but we also didn’t want to confuse boats into thinking I’d be willing to put on a snorkel and meddle with their propellors. And we liked the idea of creating a fresh canvas on which to make our own mark in years to come. And so I opened a bucket of red paint and started a new chapter.
Slowly, surely, the walls turned Apache Red and the trim turned Souful Grey.
Breaking countless OSHA and child safety regulations along the way.
It is worth noting that Jasper refused to lift a finger, contributing nothing but criticism.
In spite of his infantile laziness, the rest of us pressed on. The weather was extremely cooperative, and we kept painting for three straight days.
Meanwhile, back at the main compound, Robbi cut salmon fillets into thin strips for smoking. After cutting and soaking the strips in brine, we hung them to be dried in the sun. This process of “glazing” creates a dry, hard outer layer that protects the fish from cooking (as opposed to slowly growing smokily delicious) during the smoking process.
We loaded the smoker onto a truck.
And brought it to the main Behr family compound, where we lit a fire and let the smoke do its work.
Magic happened. For three straight days, we filled Tim’s creation with alder smoke. The results were quite delicious.
While the fish smoked, the painting continued. Under normal circumstances, Robbi will not let me anywhere near the top of a ladder. But these were not normal circumstances. We were building a house in 16 days. Certain precautions had to be thrown to the proverbial tundra wind. Certain risks had to be embraced.
Inside the house, Tim and Denny were busy covering all my beautiful insulation with 1/4 inch sheets of plywood (otherwise known as sheeting).
As detrimental as this was to my legacy, the sleeping loft suddenly emerged as an actual space where actual people would actually sleep, with a window where actual people would gaze out at actual bears leaving actual paw prints in our actual driveway.
Not content to obscure only some of my insulation, Tim sent out to conquer every inch of the interior while standing heroically on stacks of sheeting.
Does this look to you like a man who messes around?
Outside, a bald eagle flew by.
Inside, Robbi swept out the sleeping loft, which Tim had made more accessible by building a sturdy ladder.
Once the sheeting was hung inside, the exposed beams suddenly emerged as the gorgeous pieces of history that they are.
Outside, my father, John Swanson, began the process of cleaning up the building site by artfully stacking hundreds of pieces of scrap lumber on the bed of one of the two abandoned and non-functional pickup trucks that grace our new “yard.” (Every “yard” along the beach is littered with abandoned pick up trucks; if your yard were to be abandoned-pickup-truck-free, you would surely be mocked.)
That night, we had sockeye salmon prepared in four different ways, because why not?
The next day Dad and I built special frames around the windows that would eventually hold the sheets of plywood we use to protect them in the winter. From bears. From high winds. And etc.
It started to rain, so Tim and Denny installed the front door.
And then they built a kitchen.
Because, why not?
Once the interior of the new building was complete, the final step was connecting it to the diver’s cabin. Tim removed the studs and insulation from the wall they now shared.
And then the sheeting. Suddenly our house seemed to double in size.
Meanwhile, Dad threw caution to the wind ad removed the chimney (we’re replacing the wood stove with a gas one).
And then he burned some trash (there’s nothing else to do with it in our corner of the world).
All was well in the world. The project was nearly done. All Tim had to do was hang sheeting on the walls of the diver’s cabin, and he’d be free to put away his tools and take the next day (our final day on the tundra) off. The next day, I should add, was his birthday. He had never previously worked on his birthday as a matter of principle and policy. Which was why he had budgeted his time accordingly. The end was in sight. Nothing could go wrong.
Until it was revealed that one of the walls of the diver’s cabin was completely rotten, the result of faulty flashing (another carpenter’s term that has to do with the material that prevents water from getting in around windows and such).
The studs were rotten and so was the exterior sheeting.
And so the wall was removed.
Tim was remarkably graceful about all this. Remarkably. Because he likes to do things right. Because he does not mess around.
To cut to the chase, Tim worked on his birthday, sheeting the new wall, finishing some trim, and cleaning up the site.
He showed up at the main Behr family compound at dinnertime only to find a surprise party waiting for him. The surprise party included a truly magnificent, Alden-Swanson-made hat.
It was a festive affair. Everyone got in on the celebration. Everyone but Jasper, who refused to wish Tim happy birthday, but who did consent to be labeled appropriately.
There were two cakes.
And hugs all around. If you ever meet Denny, don’t let him fool you. The man loves to make faces at babies.
After dinner, we went outside to get a group shot. Missing from this scene are Denny (who was taking his own photo at the time) and Gina, who was setting up our “official” Alaska 2017 group shot on her fancy real film camera.
Here is the “official” Alaska 2017 kids photo, taken with my non-real film camera. (That handsome fellow on the right is Robbi’s nephew, Raiden.)
That night after dinner, Robbi and I drove up the beach to have a first look at our new home in its fully finished state.
Gone were the tools and scraps of lumber. Every window was framed. Every seam was trimmed.
We gazed out the window and pinched ourselves. It was absolutely spectacular.
The sun was setting as we went outside.
I’m not the type who is prone to taking photos, but it seemed important to document the moment.
Thanks to 16 days of feverish work from a bunch of fiercely talented and dedicated people, our little house on the tundra was finished.
A blank canvas atop the bluff, waiting for us to move in.
The next morning, it was time to leave the tundra. On our way to the air strip, we stopped with all the kids to take their first official measurements on the ladder to the sleeping loft.
And to take this photo of our remarkable team. Thank you Denny and Tim, and thank you, Dad, for giving us your time and expertise, your sweat and your love. Thanks for your patience and creativity and insistence on doing things right. This house could never have happened without you. You’ll be part of every day we spend there, every memory we make moving forward.
Here was my final glimpse of the place as we drove up the beach to catch our bush plane. My one regret is that I have to wait eleven months to move in, to lie in my bed and hear the wind whistling up the bluff, to look out those windows and check on our nets.
I never like to wish away a moment of time, but as far as I’m concerned June 2018 can’t come fast enough.
About five years ago, Robbi decided that we were going to start a small press that would publish children’s picture books. After all, we made books. We had kids. Our kids liked books. We liked our kids.
The one small problem was that I’d never written children’s books before and didn’t really know if I could. So before we committed to starting Bobbledy, I set out to see if I’d be up to the challenge.
For 100 consecutive days, I wrote a children’s book manuscript. Or, at least, I tried. Some of my efforts quickly turned dark or bizarre. But a handful turned into books that we’ve gone on to publish: Bobby and the Robots (day 44), Archipelago (day 49), The Imaginary Dragon (day 54), and Henny Wampum Had a Really Big Head (day 61), and The Girl With Frogs In Her Ears (day 72) all grew from seeds planted in that 3+ months of flailing.
And then there was In Egypt, There Are Pyramids (day 64). I remember writing it while sitting at the table in our cabin in Alaska. It was the first sunny day in a week, and the world seemed very beautiful.
The original copy was a string of simple observations about the world:
In Egypt, there are pyramids. In Arizona there are canyons.
In your grandma’s house, there are doorknobs. On the playground is a swing with one chain too many on one side.
And so on.
The book didn’t have much of a point, but we liked how it sounded. In turning it into a Bobbledy title, we created a frame: a little boy would explore the world, taking in the large and small beautiful things that he saw wherever he went.
We kept the title as it had been when it tumbled out of my brain.
Robbi did some gorgeous illustrations:
We finished the book and were ready to send it out to all the kids in the Bobbledy Club. But before we sent it to the printer, we decided to share it with our agent Meredith. She liked it and decided to send it along to Erin Stein, our editor and publisher for Babies Ruin Everything.
Erin also liked the book. So much, in fact, that she asked if we might like to publish it with Macmillan instead.
To cut to the chase, we said yes.
We wondered if there was a catch. And there was. But it wasn’t really a “catch” at all. She already loved the idea and and the tone and the voice and the look of the illustrations, but she wanted to sharpen the focus and clarify the message. Which caused us to think hard and do a lot of work on the text. It also led us to scrap all but one of the illustrations I showed you above and to come up with a whole bunch of new ones.
Most important, it led us to make the book a whole lot better. That’s what editors do, and Erin is very good at her job.
Now that the book has been rewritten and re-illustrated and designed and proofed and is sitting at the printer waiting to be born, we can give you a glimpse of version 2.0.
The protagonist is still the same little boy.
But now he has a dog.
He still travels the world observing the very large beautiful things. But now there are a lot more critters on the savannah.
Halfway through the book there is a pivot. For the first stretch of pages, the boy has been “traveling” the world by reading books and imagining points distant. But then he looks out his window and sees that wonder and beauty is all around him. Pretty much everywhere he looks.
At the bottom of the swimming pool, for example.
This illustration was retained from our original version. I’m pretty sure my heart would have broken if it hadn’t.
The book still springs from a place deep inside of us. But now it has a new name.
We’re thrilled with this book. Its message and central imperative is one that both of us hold dear: to move through one’s day with open eyes, deliberately seeing the world, registering the beauty to be found everywhere.
We’ve recently found out that the publication date is February 7, 2017. Which means that, after waiting more than forty years to publish our first trade picture book, we only have to wait four months for the next one.
If you like the sound of the book, or just want to support us, Everywhere, Wonder is available for preorder now (FYI, preorders help a book a lot; many thanks if you’re able to add a copy to your library).
You can also like the book on its Facebook page.
We’ll be posting more photos and news in months to come, but we wanted to “officially” announce our new arrival. The due date of which, happens to be two days prior to the expected delivery of our other pending release.