An Illustrated Novella by Garth Risk Hallberg
FILE is honored to present the A Field Guide to the North American Family project, which contains excerpted pages from the illustrated novella A Field Guide to the North American Family, an ambitious new work of fiction by writer Garth Risk Hallberg. This beautiful book contains stunning images by 48 photographers, thirteen of whom Garth and his publisher, Mark Batty Publisher, have graciously allowed us to feature here. FILE editor Beerzie Boy also interviewed Garth on the use of photography in his book. The interview follows below.
Field Guide's storyline concentrates on two families, the Hungates and Harrisons, and their lives as neighbors in Long Island. Their stories are told in 63 impressionistic entries, each containing "accounts of their habits, nesting, dispersion, etc., and full description of the plumage of both adult and young" that are cross-referenced and which "provide several methods for navigation." Each entry is beautifully written and vivid, and whether you read the book straight through or by meandering through its entries, by the end you have taken an heartbreaking journey through an chaotic and intense period in the two families' lives.
But it isn't just the story, its structure, or prose that makes this book so ingenious. The book is a visual feast as well, lavishly designed and illustrated with a selection of beautifully reproduced and tightly edited images that complement each entry. And what makes this even more interesting -- especially to the editors at FILE -- is the method Garth used to gather the images: all of the book's 63 photographs were selected from over 700 images that were uploaded to a companion website. Those images are an ongoing web resource that expands the scope of the work and allows readers to continue to collaborate by adding images that explore the themes raised in the book. We strongly recommend you read A Field Guide to the North American Family; we know you will enjoy it, both for its powerful story and its compelling images and design.
BB: Garth, first let me say that I really loved this book. The design, writing, and craftsmanship of the book are incredible. The photographs are particularly strong and do a terrific job of providing a visual reference for the text. It got me to wondering about how you developed the work: did you write with the intention of including photographs, was including photographs something that you decided on as you were writing, or did the idea occur after you had completed it? And what was the purpose in including them?
GRH: It must have been the spring of 2003 when I started this project...and to be honest, I wasn't yet thinking of it as a project. Everything I write - or at least, everything good - starts as a little nugget: a scene, or a sentence, or a detail. In this case, all I had was a title - Handbook for American Youth, I think it was.
I was working as an elementary school teacher at the time, and I started to stitch together these little vignettes, based on my observations, about a family going through a divorce. But the tone felt too straightforward, somehow, so I started writing the captions, to give a kind of ironic counterpoint. I mean ironic in the strong sense, not the Alanis Morisette sense. You know, "Entertainment is welcomed in most American homes," things like that.
Right around this time, an editor who'd published a story of mine (and who would go on to be the editor of this book), asked if I'd consider writing a novella for his literary magazine. And it suddenly became clear to me: if I wrote this thing as an honest-to-god field guide - a photographically illustrated reference book - I could tell this whole story with the kind of emotional directness I wanted, without sacrificing the ability to be playful.
Of course, once I told the editor that I wanted four-color photo plates for each of the 63 entries, he thought I had lost my mind. Did I know how much money that would cost? Three and a half years later, Mark Batty Publisher arrived to save the day.
BB: Let's talk a bit about how the images were selected for this book. I understand that the images were uploaded via an accompanying website. Did the artists have a chance to read the passage that they were submitting to, or did they submit based on the keywords such as "angst" or "habits, bad"?
GRH: It's funny; I already had the entries and the captions written, and a strong sense of what kind of photographs I wanted, based on some things my friend Chris Eichler was shooting. I wanted images that focused a lot on material culture, on the things we take for granted: vending machines, tennis-ball cans, mailboxes. I wanted bodies, but no recognizable faces. I wanted images that approached the text slantwise; if the entry "Entertainment" was about TV, I didn't want the corresponding photo to feature a TV. I wanted to open up imaginative space for the reader to make connections, rather than furnishing those connections. And above all, that meant avoiding images that were too settled in their meanings - images like advertisements, which often pass judgment on their subjects. You know: Coke Is Great!
What I didn't know was how hard it would be for a single photographer to shoot 63 images. Once that became clear, MBP and I hatched the idea of recruiting a bunch of artists, and the easiest way to do that was with a website. I would go to galleries, check out people's blogs and webpages, and then email and ask them to contribute. And you wouldn't believe how generous people were with their work; there are something like 700 photos now posted on the website.
I was concerned that having too much access to the text would push photographers to try to interpret the story directly, sacrificing that slantwise thing I was hoping for. And so all we gave on the website was a list of the chapter headings - Adolescence, Adulthood, Angst, and so on - and an invitation to respond "however obliquely" to these ideas. Somehow we got exactly what we were looking for. I feel like I dreamed some of these images before I ever saw them. Alana Celii's illustration for "Youth," the final chapter, works so well I can't imagine it wasn't there all along.
BB: Magazines such as the The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine often have images that accompany the stories they publish. Presumably, these are selected by an editor. Who was involved in deciding the final images to use in A Field Guide to the North American Family? What was the criteria for final selection?
GRH: In fact, Gus Powell, who contributed to the book, regularly places his wonderful photographs in The New Yorker. And in dreaming up the illustration part of the Field Guide, I was heavily influenced by the photo-editing of that magazine's Fiction section. The strongest pairings are often the most mysterious; I'm thinking of a diptych that ran with an excerpt of Denis Johnson's Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke: a color photograph of a palm-tree against a brooding sky, and a black-and-white photograph of a young man in dog tags exulting in the rain.
Some great images didn't make it into the book because they just didn't work with the text; portraits were hard to make work, because we didn't want to overdetermine what the characters looked like. I loved some images submitted by a Chicagoan named Aron Gent, which remain on the website, but we couldn't figure out how to work around the faces. And then there's the danger of a striking image overwhelming a more contemplative piece of prose, or a contemplative image jarring with a wild bit of narrative.
The team working on the image selections for the book consisted of editor Buzz Poole, designer Christopher Salyers, and me. I had pretty definite ideas, but we had about 80% consensus on what worked for the book. If Chris or Buzz didn't like something, I'd scrap it, and if I didn't like something they liked, they'd scrap it. In a couple of cases, I asked them to follow my intuitions, and in at least one case, I followed theirs.
BB: When I think of books that have been turned into movies, there only a few that I can think of (One Flew over the Cookoo's Nest, A Clockwork Orange, the Harry Potter books) in which the visual feel of the movie matched the images I had in my head when reading the book. Were you worried that the images you selected kept people from forming those images themselves?
GRH: Yes! This was far and away the biggest challenge of the photo-editing process, and I'm hoping we succeeded. There's the problem of making the visual atmosphere congruent with the tone of the writing, and then there's the problem I alluded to of not wanting to match faces to characters (which also seems to present ethical problems; would the subject of the photograph be okay being portrayed in this light?). And then there's the inevitable sense of deflation a reader feels when she sees an image of a house she pictured with four windows and it only has three. I can only hope A Field Guide to the North American Family strikes the right balance between image and text.
BB: Speaking as a parent who has read many illustrated children's books, I have wondered why there aren't more works of fiction (or poetry for that matter) that are illustrated with photographs. It seems like a great concept. I'm wondering if you have any ideas about why there aren't more.
GRH: Well, it seems to me that there were a lot of illustrated books for grown-ups in the 18th and 19th century. Hogarth, I think, did illustrations for Fielding books, and Thackeray did his own illustrations. I've got a great facsimile of Dickens' Oliver Twist in its original serial form - no compunctions about showing characters' faces there! The novel was always this kind of bourgeois, messy thing. Not at all "high art." But Flaubert had a kind of sacramentalizing effect on the novelist's concept of his craft. I think as the idea of the novel as "high art" caught on, writers became more fixated on the idea of "the text" as self-contained and autonomous.
Me, I'm kind of agnostic. Obviously we're all postmodernists now, or whatever comes after that - we have no illusions about the autonomy of anything anymore. But I would like to think that the Field Guide doesn't sacrifice its dignity as a piece of fiction because it has photographs. To me, the beautiful work of the contributing photographers makes the reading experience doubly valuable.
BB: Are there any illustrated works of fiction that inspired this book?
GRH: Yes. One huge influence was a novella called Willie Master's Lonesome Wife, by William H. Gass, whose daughter Catherine contributed a photograph to the book. I was a student of Gass the Elder in St. Louis. Like Catherine, he is fascinated by the book as an object - meaning typography, illustration, etc. And Willie Master's Lonesome Wife is a classic experiment in trying to merge text and image.
The novels of W.G. Sebald are wonderful in their use of old photographs - and in asking the reader to figure out the connections between the visual and the written. On a nonfiction note, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a huge inspiration. Walker Evans' photographs, no less than James Agee's words, are a vivid example of great art that treats human beings with reverence. And finally, I stole the idea of an "openly structured" book from Julio Cortazar's decidedly non-illustrated Hopscotch. But then, just this weekend, I saw that Archipelago Books is putting out a book by Cortazar illustrated with photographs! Maybe we're returning to the age of illustration...
These are photographers featured in the A Field Guide to the North American Family project, listed in the order in which they appear. Click their name to view more of their work on their web site:
- Tema Stauffer (Frontspiece) is a photographer based in Brooklyn. She graduated from Oberlin College and received an M.F.A. in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her work has been shown extensively in Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York, including the Jen Bekman Gallery. Tema teaches at The International Center of Photography.
- John Putnam ("Chemistry") is a Brooklyn-based nature/media photographer. His work is featured in Green Design and CBGB: Decades of Graffiti.
- David Shulman ("Custody Battle") is a New York-based photographer whose work has also appeared in FILE.
- Chris Eichler ("Discretion") grew up in Washington, DC and studied photography and painting at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Currently living back in Washington, he continues to practice photography, working towards something.
- Liz Kuball ("Entertainment") was born in Washington, DC. As an undergraduate at Indiana University, she dropped out of introductory photography class after the first week. She holds a Master's in English from Butler University and a Master's in writing from the University of Southern California. She lives and works in Southern California. Her "In Store" project was also featured in FILE.
- Shane Lavalette ("Freedom") is currently studying for his B.F.A. at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- Ben Huff ("Integrity") is a photographer living in Fairbanks, Alaska.
- Sandy Carson ("Meaning, Search For") is a Scottish photographer who has called Austin, Texas "home" for the last seven years. His work can bee seen in Vice, Hamburger Eyes, The British Journal for Photography, JPG Mag, Thrasher, Skateboarding, and The Austin Chronicle, to name a few.
- Maury Gortemiller ("Midlife Crisis") is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Georgia. He is also a dedicated competitive apneist, and hopes to set a breath-holding world record by late 2007. His work has also appeared in FILE.
- Christy Karpinski ("Phase") was born and raised in Arizona. She recieved her M.F.A. in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2005 and currently teaches there. Her work has also appeared in FILE.
- Alexis Pike ("Sacrifice") holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa and works in Portland, Oregon as an artist, college instructor, racehorse trainer, and parent. Her work has been featured in Rivet magazine, and a portfolio of her images was reproduced in the Fall 2007 edition of Exposures magazine.
- Catherine Gass ("Vulnerability") Catherine was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, received her M.F.A. in photography from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is currently a professor in the photography department. She is also the photographer for the Newberry Library in Chicago. She is the recipient of a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Grant as well as a 2003 Chicago Artist Assistants grant.
- Alana Celii ("Youth") Alana was born in Chicago and is currently pursuing her B.F.A in photography at Parsons School of Design. She lives in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in FILE.