Gary Golio speaks to SLJ about his latest picture book, Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey (Clarion, 2012), which deals with the tumultuous life of the legendary jazz musician.
What made you want to write a picture book about the life of John Coltrane?
When I was 17, I bought my first Coltrane record and was moved by the heartfelt quality of his sound. I had heard about his addiction history and knew he was great player, but only years later—as I listened to WBGO, the great jazz station—did I become really familiar with his depth and range. Some time after I’d finished writing my first picture book, Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow (Clarion, 2010), I heard a Coltrane birthday broadcast…and it was my mother’s birthday, as well. Because of that, I felt inspired to delve into the man’s life, and again, it was the qualities of heart and tenderness—in his story and in his music—that convinced me to write about him.
Coltrane had a complicated life and your book deals with some serious topics like drug abuse and alcoholism. Did you feel they were essential to the story, and did you have difficulty addressing those issues with a young audience?
I tried to discuss those topics in a way that would lessen some of the mystery often attached to them. As a therapist myself, I know that drug use is just a side-effect of difficult things that happen or exist in a person’s life, whether it’s poverty, trauma, the loss of a parent or someone close, and various kinds of abuse. People use drugs and alcohol to try and balance out feelings of sadness, pain, lack of confidence, or confusion. It’s never really about the substances, but always about what’s underneath. For John, the loss of all the men in his life (father, grandfather, uncle), at an early age, left him vulnerable to a certain loneliness—even emptiness—that was temporarily relieved by alcohol and drugs, despite his spiritual nature or maybe even because of it. He was a very sensitive teen—like many of the kids I work with today—and the power of his story lies in the fact that it’s a very human tale, about losing one’s way and finding it again. Kids can understand these things if we’re honest and straightforward in our talking or writing about them.
Tell us about the research you did for the book? What surprised you most about Coltrane?
I did a lot of reading about Coltrane’s life, from a variety of sources. This wasn’t simply to understand the arc of his life, but to benefit from different perspectives on the man and insights into his character. What surprised me most about Coltrane’s life were the details about his childhood. He was deeply affected by his father’s and grandfather’s deaths, and suffered panic attacks, tremendous self-doubt and grief because he lost his footing, part of his emotional foundation, at the age of 12/13. And of course, this was only intensified by living in the Jim Crow South. As a child, I experienced some emotional challenges of my own, and I still marvel at how people survive such powerful—and seemingly destructive—forces.
Spirit Seeker deals with spirituality. Are you spiritual yourself or did you include it because it was a big part of Coltrane’s life?
I’ve always been very drawn to the spiritual side of things, from my early exposure to Christianity to a deep interest in Eastern philosophies—Buddhism and Taoism—as a teenager and adult. I also nearly died as a result of an accident when I was 24 years old, and that experience changed my life in profound ways. It was a spiritual moment for me, and became a touchstone of sorts for everything that followed. Coltrane had a similar experience when he decided to stop using drugs—he experienced a revelation—and it put him on a new path, one that led to his work with Thelonius Monk, his reunion with Miles Davis, and his development as a band leader and composer. A Love Supreme is really all about his spiritual transformation, his rebirth, and the gratitude that he felt for being able to use and develop his talents. It’s a jazz lovesong, and you can hear Coltrane himself speaking the words “A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme,” over and over. It’s also about a personal approach to the Divine, and how each of us interprets that connection.
You’re a clinical social worker and psychotherapist who works with kids and teen on issues like addiction. How does it influence you as a writer?
Don’t tell anyone, but I’m really still 16 (though my wife might put the number considerably younger than that). I love teenagers because I tune into that age frequency, which is filled with longing and hopefulness, a search for the ideal. Teens want so much to believe in the goodness of the world, but they’re easily disappointed and often have trouble sustaining confidence in themselves, or faith in other people. And who can blame them? Which is why they need to be given inspiring examples—like John Coltrane—in books and movies. Teens are very susceptible to inspiration.
What do you think is the appropriate age that parents should start telling their kids about substance abuse?
So many parents I know—well-meaning parents—send mixed messages to their kids about substance use, and especially about drinking. Sure, it’s funny to see Cheech and Chong carrying a three-foot joint, but when adults start telling “war stories” about their adventures at Woodstock or Bonnaroo, we can’t blame kids for wanting to experiment. And teenagers will experiment—they want to learn about life on their own—but if we talk to them while keeping a cool head, the lines of communication can remain open. Teenagers also have advanced B.S. detectors, so if we say one thing and do another (like get drunk at a party or smoke a joint in the basement), then they feel there’s a double standard. Most of all, kids want adults to be consistent, honest, and reliable, and while none of us is perfect, it’s important to match our words to our behaviors as parent, caregiver, teacher or mentor. There’s really no perfect age for discussing substance use with kids, because every child has different needs and experiences. Ideally, it should be an ongoing conversation.
What do you hope kids take away from Spirit Seeker?
The book isn’t didactic, just a story of one person’s persistence, a desire to do the best he can with what he’s been given. Everyone’s best is different, of course, and we may feel that some people fall short of what they could accomplish. But life is more subtle and rich than that—things aren’t always so simple—and we can never say where someone will end up, given sufficient support and encouragement. Coltrane would have been the first person to thank all those—musicians, family, and friends—who helped him along the way, all of whom he saw as embodying Spirit in one form or another. We’re very much interdependent on one another.
You’ve also written books about Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Can you explain your fascination with musicians?
Music and musicians are fascinating! I love music and can never really get enough of it, given my taste for just about every genre: world music, jazz, pop, blues, symphonic, rock, folk, country, bluegrass and electronic. John Cage, Eminem, Bessie Smith, Bartok—I could go on forever—they’re all fair game, depending on the mood I’m in. Only problem is, if I listen to something intently and repeatedly during the day, I hear it all night in my sleep!
How does Rudy Gutierrez’s illustrations enhance your words and how closely did you collaborate?
I wish I could take credit for choosing Rudy, but that honor goes to my beloved editor, Lynne Polvino, of Clarion. She has a great talent for pairing picture book authors with illustrators, and even though she graciously asks my opinion, it’s not really the author’s call. Picture book authors and illustrators are pretty much kept apart (for their own good and the sake of the book!), but Rudy asked that I be present when he brought in his paintings/illustrations. So the folks at Clarion had his paintings—some of which were 5 feet high by 3 feet wide—set up around a large conference room when I arrived, and one look took my breath away. At that moment, I realized that the book wasn’t about me, or Rudy, or maybe even about John Coltrane, but about the themes of Art and Spirit that are at its core. I’ll also say that Rudy has a big heart, full of Spirit, and his sincere dedication to Coltrane’s story and music shows in those incredible images.
What are you working on now? Maybe something on Billie Holiday? I know my kids would love that.
Funny you should say that, because I always wanted to do a picture book on Billie but never found a way that made sense. Fortunately, Carole Boston Weatherford did write about her—for a teen audience—with Becoming Billie Holiday, a powerful, beautiful book. As for my present projects, I recently sold a picture book text called Bird & Diz, about the creators/creation of Bebop, and also finished a picture book text on Charlie Chaplin, another fascinating subject. See—I don’t just do musicians!
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