By Amy Martin | McSweeney’s McMullens | 2012
I went into a coffee/pastry shop called Sweet Things in Tiburon, California and got a ginger cookie for $64! Along with sweets, they happen to feature a small selection of kid’s books that instantly caught my eye. This review is about one of them and the other two are to come.
Symphony City is the first book by author/illustrator Amy Martin and publisher McSweeney’s McMullens. As often happens, I was captivated by the sparing but graphic style of Amy’s illustrations. She combines a bold use of flat color with a delicate, rough line usually in red. Each spread has the sensibilities of a street poster that reads from 50 feet with details that satisfy the curious at 18 inches. No surprise as Amy is an experienced poster designer.
The book opens on the sad face of a little girl and follows her in her yellow hoodie as she heads to the city to watch the symphony. She loses the hand of her adult companion and finds herself lost in the subway. She comes onto a street musician and follows the birds that come from her flute. The remainder of the story she follows the music through the city and watches as it embody the rain, the wind, the trees, and appear in the form of brilliant color eventually finding union with an adult.
This is special book with myriad messages depending to how it’s interpreted. It affords the opportunity to talk about loneliness, courage, the big city, color, cats and the magic and power of music. It is a deeply personal book for Amy and she was generous in agreeing to an interview and telling her story. A lovely look into the muse and magic behind the pages:
cf The story appears to be very personal, what inspired it?
am It is personal. I didn’t exactly have a bunch of story ideas on deck when McSweeney’s asked me if I wanted to try making a book, so I kind of had to go with what was at the top of my head at the moment. Days before I’d lost a job (that I hated) and I was contemplating my own future as a freelancer. I was also processing the dissolution of a ten-year relationship and I was preparing to leave Los Angeles, where I’d lived for almost 13 years. The day I got fired from that awful job, I saw a band called Stars— their music makes me totally freak out and turn super synesthetic and hear colors. Halfway through the show, someone on the venue staff grabbed me from the middle of the theater and put me in the tiny VIP section right in front of the stage. She said, “you look really happy! The band should see you.”
I really wasn’t aware until I’d finished it that the story itself was about moving on from that relationship, job and city into a new, less certain place. Everything I’ve done since Symphony City has been about loss, to some extent. Being lost is such a great place to start—stories about loss and lost-ness always end up being about discovery.
cf She is very sad in the opening spreads. Can you tell me about the 2 figures behind her on the second spread?
am You’re the first person to ask me that question! My parents divorced when I was in high school and I spent a lot of childhood closed up in my bedroom with headphones on, trying to avoid their whole scene. Those figures are definitely stressed-out, bickering parents, and her record player is broken— a really awful situation for a kid who’s sensitive to sound and imaginative. I wanted to start the story with her in a sound landscape that was just totally different than what she would find when she was on her own.
cf It appears to be cast in NYC? Is it?
am It’s not, actually, but everyone thinks it is. The city is kind of a mash-up of Los Angeles (which has a subway that I rode almost every day to get the my job at the LA Times), San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. I only had a month and a half to make this book—from November to January. So most of Symphony City was drawn on planes, Amtrak and hotel rooms all along the West coast. Most of it was drawn in Seattle, as Seattle was kind of where my heart was at the time.
cf The illustrations have a wonderful sense of restraint. How do you decide when to quit adding detail?
am Ha! These illustrations are all first drafts. I knew when I started that I wouldn’t have time to make anything elaborate, and I also kind of wanted to evoke a show poster aesthetic— clean lines and somewhat limited color palette. And I knew that I wanted it to get progressively more colorful as the book went on, so the beginning pages are all desaturated and kind of quiet to accommodate that visual arc. I think mostly that they feel restrained because I didn’t have time to overthink or overdevelop any of the pages.
cf How do you create the illustrations?
am I make everything on my Mac Book Pro, using Adobe Illustrator.
cf This is your first book, how did you like the process?
am It was rushed, and I had no idea what I was doing, and the stakes felt high. Dave Eggers— whom I really admire not only for his creative work, but even more for his philanthropic work— was editing me, and I hadn’t really written creatively since college. McSweeney’s is a super high bar, aesthetically, so that was terrifying. But it was also really romantic and ideal, because I was drawing on a train, moving through the most beautiful part of the country, and considering the interrelationship between my future and my feelings about music in a more plangent way that I ever had before. A lot of the process was walking around in headphones through wintry Seattle and Vancouver, freaking out and listening to this intense, kind of discordant Sufjan Stevens song over and over on my iPod. A few pages were drawn when I was kind of drunk on canned champagne at the Ace Hotel in Seattle on New Year’s Eve. And I got to draw some of my friends in their studios with their instruments, which was really fun. I’d probably do it the exact same way again, if I could.
cf It has a very high production value—cloth foil embossed cover, fold-out dust jacket, uncoated paper, beautifully printed. Did you design the book?
am I did! The cover was the last thing I did, on the train from Seattle to Portland, chugging coffee and listening to The Radio Dept. The gold foil was a nice surprise, as was the paper stock. I give 100% of the production credit to Brian McMullen, the Art Director at McSweeney’s. I’m so happy with how it turned out.
cf Tell me anything more about the book that you would like to.
am My friend Lewisa Gallo was the model for the little girl in the book. I think she was eight or nine, and she let me take loads of pictures of her in our neighborhood in Atwater Village. She was a total sport and I’m very, very grateful for her help.