David Small is an award-winning American author and illustrator of over 40 books for children. A Detroit, Michigan native, he graduated with an MFA from the Yale School of Art and published his first illustrated book in 1981. His illustrations for "The Gardener" (written by his wife, Sarah Stewart) received a Caldecott Honor in 1997, while his work on “So, You Want To Be President?” (by Judith St. George) earned him the coveted Caldecott Medal for children's illustration in 2001. His widely acclaimed 2009 memoir, "Stitches," was nominated for a National Book Award in Young People's Literature. Small's work has also appeared regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times, among other publications. He and his wife live in southwest Michigan.
Question: Do you prefer “graphic novel,” “comic book,” or some other term?
David Small: You know, I've been in that flurry of whatever terminology—misunderstanding—I'm perfectly fine with the term graphic books, whether it refers to fiction or memoir or what have you. It doesn't bother me. I'm not a purist about comics or anything like that, maybe because I never really followed comics and I don't know much about that world. I don't know much about the graphic novel world either; I wasn't a big fan of them until I read some of the European things. And now—and then of course somebody started sending me piles of them when they heard that I was working on my own. I started receiving some, but I didn't read any of them until I was finished with my book because I didn't want to be infected or influenced, you know. I especially didn't want to see anything that was really tremendous that would make me feel intimidated. So I guess this is a twisted way of telling you that I really didn't know what I was doing, except telling my story in the best way I thought I could. But I know there is a big insistence on people from the comics world; it's as if they want to get their due finally, they want to be respected. And so they keep insisting that these things be called comics. And, you know, if they want to call my book a comic book about my life, that's fine too; I don't care. It is in panels. But I don't use many of the comic book conventions. My influences are more from film and certain films, certain filmmakers.
Question: If not graphic novels, what works have influenced you?
David Small: I'm a reader. I like—I'm a great reader. I keep going back, though, to certain authors, just like I love film, but I keep going back to just five or six certain filmmakers. In literature I like Chekhov, for example; I think he's my favorite. And Flaubert—you know, that kind of concision. But I also like Tolstoy; I love those romances that, you know, weigh 500 pounds and take months and months and months to read. I read the three big novels of Thomas Mann in one year; that was an interesting project. But I've found that, like Chekhov, you have to read him as if he's a short story writer in order to get through those novels. In film I like the guys that came along in the '60s and early '70s, along from Europe: Bunuel and Alansky and Bergman. Antonioni I didn't like very much when I first saw him, but now later on, realizing that even though I found his movies very boring when I was in college, and sort of incomprehensible—or its converse, kind of insult—too easy to understand—going back to them—I have gone back to them recently because I realized that some of his images and sequence were unforgettable. I couldn't get them out of my mind. So it was good to go back as an adult and to see them. And I think certain of his films are just works of genius, some of his early things. And I like the people that those people were influenced by, Welles and Hitchcock. And they, of course, were influenced by silent film. But I don't know much about that medium.
Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen