David Small Talks with The White Rabbit’s Grandniece

Posted by on October 6th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

DAVIDSON: What response did you want?

SMALL: For my readers and for myself I wanted the same thing: to remember what it was like to be a child. This wasn’t easy and it took me a while to work my way into it. My first impulses were too easy and false. I made myself as a six-year-old into that kind of know-it-all kid character we have all become so familiar with, the prototype of which is Bart Simpson. Bart, in his snarky way, always seems to thoroughly understand the hypocrisy of grownups and freely comments on it. It’s all very entertaining, and it gets a lot of laughs. The problem is, it’s totally wrong. It’s a fabricated vision of childhood as it’s actually lived by real children.

Kids don’t know what the hell’s going on. They can’t. They haven’t been alive long enough to understand. But they do see and they do remember. The understanding may come along later, but often, by that time, it’s been warped. My conception of my early home life was so twisted by my distance from it, I couldn’t even see my parents as human beings. So, bringing it all back to life, on paper, was a sophisticated kind of play therapy. Drawing it out, as an objective observer, I began to understand the situation from all points-of-view, not only mine, but my parents’, my brother’s, all at once.

It’s not easy to remember. The technique I used was totally visual. At first I could remember nothing so I started by trying to recall one room in my house, and to do that I began with one object: a lamp. When I could see the lamp I could suddenly see also the table it was on, then the color and texture of the rug it sat on, then the sofa next to it., and so on. Once the room was furnished, all the ghosts came back and began doing their thing. It really worked.

DAVIDSON: Very cathartic?

SMALL: Very.

DAVIDSON: How many different ways did you try writing it as a graphic novel?

SMALL: I made at least 12 different versions of the book, all very different from one another. First of all, as the memories began flooding back, there wasn’t any organization to it. So, the first three or four versions were chaotic. Holly, my wonderful literary agent, who was then also my editor (we hadn’t sold the book yet), let me just spew things out. I would send her these piles of disconnected scenes and episodes. After about six months of this, she called me up one day and said, “David, honey, all of this is terrific, I love it, I hope you don’t stop. But I want to remind you that books have themes. They have chapters. You’ve really got to find some way to organize this so you can allow me and your readers access to this world.” That’s when I started cleaning up my act. It was a very difficult period for me because I wanted to tell the truth, but it was coming without any sequence, chronology, or any of those things that makes a history readable.

I finally found a way to do it but it necessarily involved… well, sometimes a bending of the facts, a rearrangement of times and places. For example: I had two cancer operations, as in the book, but in reality they each took place in different hospitals, in different cities, one in Detroit and the other in Cleveland. The whole trip to Cleveland in the car, the checking-in to the clinic, all that was originally in the book, but it didn’t add anything to the story. It took me a long time — several versions — to realize that all of this could easily be condensed by eliminating the trip to Cleveland. When I did, I found out I had not disturbed the universe. Lightning did not strike me dead! I had not contorted the essential truth of the tale, I had only played around with time and made the story easier to follow.

DAVIDSON: Are there any parts you cut that you wished you’d kept in?

SMALL: I cut out a lot of the stuff I knew about my mother’s lesbian life. I should tell you, at one point I actually thought of scrapping the whole thing and instead, making it a book about my mother. She, I told myself, was the one with the truly terrible life. But to do that I would have had to make up too much stuff. I really know so little, it would then have become a work of fiction.

I would like to have told more about my mother’s hidden homosexuality, because I felt it was such a tragedy, but I didn’t really know enough.

DAVIDSON: What do you think your parents’ reaction would be to the book?

SMALL: I don’t know. My mother would probably have been furious because that was her reaction to everything: she was mad if the light was red, mad if it was green.

My editor once asked me the same question and I said, “I guess they never would have spoken to me again. But then, what would have been any different ?!”

I can tell you what my one living relative — my brother — thought about it: He loved it. Ted and I had not spoken civilly together for almost 40 years. Then, when I sent him the book, he said it was like a snapshot of his youth. He even allowed himself to be interviewed by the New York Times when they did a story on me. Ever since then, we’ve been talking again. I have my brother back. If nothing else had happened with this book, that would have made it worth my while.

DAVIDSON: Do you know what Harold thought?

SMALL: He loved it as well. He told me he read it three times. But he said, “I just have one question. Why did you make me into a bunny?”

I said, “Harold, it’s not a bunny. It’s the White Rabbit. It’s a character from fiction.”

“I know,” he said. “But it’s still a bunny.”

Sometimes a bunny is just a bunny, but never to an analyst!

DAVIDSON: Do you think analysis would have helped your mother?

SMALL: I’m not sure she would have ever tried it, there was such a stigma in her day about seeking mental help. There had been nuttiness running in her part of the family for a long time, obviously, and the tradition there was to simply ignore it.

DAVIDSON: Did your grandmother ever get a specific diagnosis?

SMALL: She was crazy.

DAVIDSON: I mean, “crazy” doesn’t really mean anything. There are specific diagnoses.

SMALL: You’re right. I don’t know. She tried to kill her husband and she ended her days in a locked ward, but I learned of all this years after the fact. I never heard a specific determination. As a kid I thought Grandma was “crazy”, but the only proof I have of it is what I saw, the look she had, the things she did to me. Then I was taught to pretend that she was my sweet, loving picture-book granny, which made me feel crazy!

I got a letter last fall from a man who grew up in Connersville (the town where my grandmother lived), who had read Stitches and realized that he knew my grandparents. He wrote, “Your step-grandfather, Papa John, was exactly the way you depicted him, a warm, generous character. I also remember your grandmother Nell, and that I didn’t want to know her.” To have this confirmation of my own childhood intuitions coming from a complete stranger was… well, it was liberating, after all these years!

DAVIDSON: People often repeat the negativity they grow up with. How do you escape from it?

SMALL: Face it. Recognize it. Admit to it. Above all, don’t carry on with it and don’t hand it down to the next generation. That’s what Harold taught me. I’ve tried to take the best of him and to make that my tradition.

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