(all Blechman images are not mine, but the property of R O Blechman)
It started on the twenty-second of June in 2013; and I know this because that was the day I bought Behind the Lines, the 1980 R O Blechman coffee-table book, in the Waterlooplein flea market in Amsterdam, where I live. The dealer had a price in it that I tried to erase, but it made the page a graphite-y mess, so I tried to cover it up with a little cartoon.
My thoughts are black and scribbled because I was very depressed at that point in my life – my English agent had just dumped me; he had failed to sell my children’s novel Larp. to Scholastic UK, and I was suddenly shut out by all the people in the business whom I thought were trying to help me. Naïve, I know! But apart from being painful, I really didn’t know how to carry on – I had always wanted to write and draw and I always wanted to do it my own way. But by 2013 I was 52, and I had had no success, and I was too old to try to start a new career – even if I had wanted to, which I didn’t. How could I feel enthusiastic enough about my work to keep going?
I had always liked Mr Blechman’s work, which was a ubiquitous presence in the American media of my childhood – the 60’s and 70’s. I saw his TV special ‘Simple Gifts’ on public television, which I still remember vividly to this day – despite having seen it only once. But when it came out I was 19, and Behind the Lines was far beyond my means; its $32.50 price-tag may as well have been $100.50. Now I could afford it, so I bought it.
Behind the Lines cheered and encouraged me; I hadn’t known anything about R O Blechman apart from his name, and I loved his autobiographical musings that run through the book. But what had he been up to since 1980? Luckily, we live in an age of the Internet, and it didn’t take long to discover the array of publications that he had produced since – including one called Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator, that had been published in 2009. It was all about balancing the demands of a creative life with the demands of the business world – and from a man who had had so much success in both! That was for me, and I ordered it from Amazon straightaway.
This modest little book is a sort of primer on how to remain creative in the world of business, where creativity is nothing but a commodity. I loved Mr Blechman’s erudite yet friendly tone, and the stories he told of all his different experiences in the world of commerce. I particularly enjoyed a sequence in which he described the different permutations of a drawing that he was trying to perfect for the New York Times Op-Ed page, giving us a glimpse into how he can describe a complex idea in a single, apparently very simple, image.
He also spoke more than once about the need to challenge one’s own assumptions. I had always assumed that the only way to become successful as a writer and artist was to first get an agency, and through that agency get a publisher. I knew that my work had to be good, but I also knew that luck and charm had to be a part of it, too. So I never gave up, and had decades of rejection, when I finally landed an agency in London and an agent that loved Larp. Except he didn’t, really. When that situation fell through, and another agent interested in another book of mine – Broadway Bug – also took me for something of a ride, I remembered Mr Blechman’s advice and began to seriously question my assumptions.
Was dealing with these people the only way to get to where I wanted to be? I had a lot of input from my agent, and some of the publishers he had contacted, and all of their opinions were wrong – they didn’t understand my books or my ideas or me at all. I’m sure that there are many intelligent and sensitive people in the publishing business, but I hadn’t met any. The people with whom I had dealt had only shallow opinions, and eyes for nothing but profit. I thought that, if I had met all my publishing contacts for the first time at a cocktail party, I would probably be trying politely to escape from them every five minutes. Why was I wasting my time trying to please them?
So I decided to publish my own work, under my own imprint, the Red Admiral Press. I figured that even if only 100 people on the planet read my books before I die, that would at least be better than having them sit unread in 10,000 agents’ slushpiles.
I started with the picture books I had completed, and I had lots of fun designing the books and laying them out – I think they came out fairly well, considering the limitations of the POD service at Amazon. I sent a copy of Broadway Bug to Mr Blechman himself, to thank him for writing Dear James and for helping me get back on my feet. Not only did he write back, but he sent me an inscribed edition of his wonderful book on the vicissitudes of talent and recognition, Amadeo & Maladeo.
That pretty much made the entire year for me.
When the time came to publish Larp. I had a lot of work to do, because it existed only as an unillustrated manuscript, and I knew that it had to have pictures. I thought that it would look more official for a chapter book if the author and illustrator were two separate people, so I anagrammed my name into a fictional illustrator, Áine McWryat. Then I started to plan and draw. I worked in a simple style, without much (or any) shading, and though they don’t look like R O Blechman, I admit that I did try for his liveliness and directness and lucidity.
I’ve had more than one person compliment me, saying that my drawings for Larp. have a ‘New Yorker’ flavor to them, and since I don’t draw like Roz Chast or Ed Sorel or Bruce Eric Kaplin, I like to flatter myself that they mean someone like R O Blechman.