What a treat to host the talented Lori Mortensen today in celebration of her latest book, Nonsense: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt illustrated by Chloe Bristol). Her essay is a reminder of how potent those early connections with literature can be sometimes leading to — in this case — a wonderful new book!
Where did my picture book biography, NONSENSE, THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt illustrated by Chloe Bristol) begin? I was reminded of this brilliant, eccentric creator one day while I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about him on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded familiar, and I was confident he’d illustrated one of my most memorable books from childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found it, THE MAN WHO SANG THE SILLIES, a collection of odd poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:
Before the children say goodnight,
Mother, Father, stop and think:
Have you screwed their heads on tight?
Have you washed their ears with ink?
The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.
Since Gorey was a brilliant and unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and especially took note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been STRANGE MR. SATIE, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing. It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going—the very best kind! This was a happy occurrence because most of the time, the writing doesn’t fall into place so easily. Most of the time, my writing starts with a kernel of an idea—a title, an irresistible illustration of a character, or a phrase—then, I find my way as I go, wandering down one path, only to turn around, and try another. It’s that middle phase where I feel lost, that many stories would simply end right there, if I didn’t push to keep going, knowing that I will find my way eventually. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.
After a few suggestions from my invaluable critique partners, the manuscript was off to my agent. Unlike my earlier picture book biography, AWAY WITH WORDS, THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD (Peachtree), that had an unusual 10-year-journey from first draft to publication, NONSENSE! sold quickly to Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I was thrilled!
I’ve always loved disappearing into the pages of a book and experiencing the world through someone else’s eyes. When readers step into the pages of NONSENSE! THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY, I hope they’ll enjoy the unique, curious, and brilliant world of Edward Gorey, celebrate their own unique individuality, and even come up with a few anagrams using the letters in their own names. (My favorite anagram? Just call me Merlin Noserot!)
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent titles include, Nonsense, the Curious Story of Edward Gorey (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), about a Victorian traveler who defied society’s boundaries for women and became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily, (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in or out, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, upcoming releases, teacher activities, and critique service, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com.
I wonder how Lori Mortensen pushes herself to get past that lost-in-the-middle part of her story?
Thanks for your comment, Gretchen! If I believe in the story from the outset, then it helps motivate me to keep going and find my way to the end. And after many years and many manuscripts, I’ve learned that manuscripts always get better with revision.