Brian Floca’s commute to his Brooklyn studio might be by bike or on a train, but it’s the F train, not the majestic steam train we see in his 2014 Caldecott Award-winning book. And, when he gets to work, it will not be the grand expanse of prairie he sees from his window, but the Gowanus neighborhood—right next to his very own Superfund site, the Gowanus Canal. It’s not quite the same vista as the open water of Lightship (2007). Out of the windows of his studio, he can see some sky and a bit of brick, but nothing of the openness he depicted in Moonshot (2009, both S & S).
No matter where he creates these books, this Texas native’s love of landscape is obvious to all who read them. Whether it’s the plains of Nebraska, the vastness of outer space, or the waters of the ocean and the Great Lakes, Floca is drawn to open space and how folks travel through it. His curiosity moves his books forward, often requiring him to work and rework his illustrations until he gets them just right.
At times, Locomotive (S & S, 2013) wasn’t an easy ride. Taking more than four years from conception to publication, the project took a lot of twists and turns. What started as the story of one locomotive’s journey west became the story of one family making its way from Omaha to Sacramento. Filled with emotion, drama, and more than a little bit of humor, this is much more than just a train book. Floca has created a book with something he admires in steam engines, “the fascinating combination of the simple and intricate.” It is this balance of story and fact, tiny details and panoramas that takes readers on a ride they won’t soon forget.
Do you consider Locomotive historical fiction, nonfiction, or something in between, especially in light of it winning a Sibert Honor?
It’s a great question and nobody ever asked me that. For the body of books that I’ve made recently, beginning with Lightship and Moonshot, I really started off thinking that I was making a picture book, and it was just going to happen to be a picture book about something that was real, and I was going to try to get the information in the book as accurate as I could. And that’s sort of the category where they exist in my mind: they’re picture books that happen to be about real things. How these books get filed by other people is sort of up to them. But, I do feel a responsibility to be accurate and correct in the books and the material.
It’s an interesting question whether it’s historical fiction or nonfiction. It’s a representative family. I can’t say these are the Smiths who traveled from Omaha on this particular day, but they’re representative of people who would have made that trip and did make that trip.
How did you get started with children’s book illustrating?
I got into children’s books through a break in college. I was a student at Brown, doing some drawing, some writing, some cartooning, a history major, and not sure what I would do or be able to do with any of that after school. Then, junior year, I was able to take a great class with David Macaulay at the Rhode Island School of Design, just down College Hill from Brown. Around this time, the children’s book author Avi, who was living in Providence, had a manuscript that he’d started to imagine might work as a graphic novel. Avi asked Macaulay if he could recommend a comic-strip artist, and Macaulay introduced us. The next spring, I did an independent study with Macaulay, working with Avi’s story. At the end of the semester, I had four sample chapters mocked up, which Avi sent with the complete manuscript to his editor, Richard Jackson, and, in October, Dick signed us up for the book, which became the graphic novel City of Light, City of Dark. I’m aware of what a break I had in connecting with those three while still in college. Locomotive is dedicated to Avi; I’m still working with Dick, who edited Locomotive; and I’m still in touch with Macaulay, whose work has always been an inspiration. These three mean a great deal to me.
A number of your friends and colleagues alluded to the fact that this project was a bit challenging for you. Can you tell us some of the most difficult, challenging moments you had? Did you ever think of dropping the book?
Well, there was a lot to figure out, just in terms of how the engines worked, where the line went, what people wore, and things like that. But the one that required the biggest rethinking, was that in the initial drafts as a through-line for the book. I had imagined this one locomotive and this one crew that readers were meant to follow across a landscape from the point of origin to destination. That crew and their efforts and that engine were to be the drivers and sort of the emotional heart of the book, to carry us through all the information. When the book began to become about the Transcontinental Railroad, one of the things I learned was that one locomotive and one crew would not, in fact, take a train all the way across the country. The trains would receive new engines at points along the line.
And so my through-line went missing at that point, and I began to worry that the book was becoming terrifically shapeless. The family or the passengers’ role in the book had to be elevated to compensate. I wanted to try to allow them to carry that narrative a little bit. I also then tried to elevate the idea of the road itself, because that, of course, is another through-line; that’s really where the opening lines of the book come from, “Here is a road, made for crossing the country….” I remember reading a John McPhee interview in which he talked about looking for the right opening for a story: “It’s got to deliver on what you promise. It should shine like a flashlight down through the piece.” So that opening felt like the right flashlight for this book.
It’s interesting to think that things can change that much from the initial concept to completion. I can see how that could throw you. You’re known for redoing the same illustration over and over until you’re satisfied. Are there any drawings that you’d want to redo now if it were possible?
It’s a dangerous question to ask. The relationship that I or I think anyone who makes books has with their material is a relationship based on looking at that material and asking, again and again, how can this be better? What else can I do with this? And even when the bound book lands on your desk, it’s hard and it can take some time to shift from that relationship with the book to being able just to look at it as something finished. So I try not to look at my books too much after they’re done.
How much sleep did you lose worrying about factual mistakes, either in the text or in the illustrations?
I did worry about it and I still worry about it, though I ran drafts of the book by curators and historians at the Nevada State Railroad Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, and one of the engineers of the replica locomotives at the Golden Spike National Historic Site at Promontory Summit. It’s hard to prove a negative, to know you didn’t get anything wrong, but I had good responses to the drafts of the book and was very glad for that.
Where did your love of trains begin? Were you a train-loving boy?
I was, but I don’t think in a particularly pronounced way, to be honest. I think Lightship, Moonshot, and this book really start with the landscape. I’m interested in traveling through a landscape—in that sense of movement and sense of place—and then, from there, go back to the vehicles that make the trips to those places possible.
You start thinking about how those steam engines work, and they become interesting in their own right. You figure out one small thing about how they worked and that leads you to the next, and it becomes sort of like solving a puzzle, and the machines become interesting in their own right. The principles that move them are so simple, but the engineering that makes those principles work is so ingenious. So there’s really just a fascinating combination of simple and complex.
If you could take any train trip in history, is there one that you would take?
I haven’t thought about this before. I’m trying to think of famous train trips I might want to take and all I can imagine is Harry S. Truman and his whistle stop tour! Put it this way, I would love to be able to take this trip on the Transcontinental Railroad, absolutely.
Tell us about your relationship with your editor Richard Jackson. Can you explain how you work together? Has he always been your editor?
It’s a terrific relationship that goes back 20 years at this point. There’s a lot of trust in it, which is hugely important. I think he trusts me to try to get things right, and he trusts what’s catching my interests. And I completely trust his intelligence and taste and humor. He has an ear for language, an eye for visuals, and a great sense of pacing and of theater, which is always in the mix when we’re making a book. I know that he’s going to ask the right questions when a book isn’t working, and that he’s going to help me see why it’s not working.
I remember working on Moonshot, and there was a complicated maneuver the spaceships do that I was trying to explain visually. I sent him, I don’t know, 15 different ways we could do those drawings and lay out that page, one after the other. I just started thinking, “God, this is getting ridiculous. Is this really worth all this trouble?” And Dick said, “Well, I don’t know. They all work, but none of them sing.”
That was what I needed to hear. I needed someone else to care that much about those kinds of details, and to be patient about them and invested in them and to want to see them done well. So his expectations for a book are very important to me. I know the level of concern he has for the quality of everything that goes into the book—the writing, illustration, design, production. What I do is try to live up to that.
I like how you use the endpapers and the endnotes to extend the text and to avoid overloading the story with information. How difficult was it to maintain the focus on the locomotive and family when there was so much information to consider: the Chinese workers, the African American workers, the Native Americans, the bison. How did you manage to keep the story flowing?
This was one of the hardest things in making the book. This one train trip touches so many stories, and all through the making of the book there was a tension between keeping the book streamlined and focused and bringing in more of those other stories. I was conscious that if the focus went too far from the train, the book could easily spin out of shape and become not very interesting to anyone, and then it doesn’t matter what’s been put in or not put in. The goal was always to keep the train at the center of the book, to keep the book moving.
Let’s talk about the case cover. Did you always plan on having a different inside cover: the locomotive on the paper cover and the bison on the case?
The idea came into my head pretty early on. There is, as we just discussed, so much to this story, so much that this story touches, and the case cover just felt like, ah, well, we can’t stuff everything into the book, but this is a space where we could address some of that and add another layer or level to the book. It’s something I’m really glad we were able to do.
It’s stunning. One of the big rules when one serves on a book evaluation committee, which you may or may not know, is that you’re not supposed to look at F&Gs or galleys at all. You’re not supposed to get those images in your brain because the book is not finished.
It’s a good rule! As a serial reviser, I really appreciate that rule.
Who did you use as models for your characters, and what’s your process when working from a reference? Everything looks so natural and spontaneous; I assume they were inspired by still shots of some sort. How do you do that when you’re relying on old photographs?
Sometimes I have people, often the people in the studio, sit down and pretend to be driving a locomotive or pretend to be reading Harper’s Weekly or what have you. There’s a drawing of where readers are looking over the engineer’s shoulder as the train goes through the desert. That’s basically Sergio Ruzzier’s shoulder. Almost everyone in the studio has been co-opted at one point or another, but for one reason or another especially Sergio. I’ve got pictures of him as the conductor shouting, “All aboard!” and as a passenger reading. Having said that, I have more embarrassing pictures of myself posing than of anyone else. I’ve shoveled coal, I’ve hawked Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, I’ve stared into the toilet, I’ve done it all. I started keeping a jacket and hat at the studio so I could have them at hand as props whenever they were needed.
Speaking of the studio, I know that you work with lots of people around you. How does that affect your work?
Yes, so it’s Sergio, Sophie Blackall, Edward Hemingway, John Bemelmans Marciano, and up until a year, year and a half ago, John Rocco was there, before Eddie. That’s been our only cast change so far. It’s a great setup. This is such a particular and quirky way to make a living and a life. It gives and asks a lot, and it’s fantastic to be with other people who are also trying to do it and whose work you admire and respect so much. We all work differently enough that we don’t feel like we’re treading on one another’s toes, but we’re enough in sympathy that we appreciate one another’s work for what it is.
It can make you feel a little bit vulnerable at first, sharing a studio and having other people see you struggling with a drawing or a painting, which inevitably happens. I feel like the idea of trust keeps coming up in this conversation, but you know, we all sort of trust one another. That level of comfort in the studio is what makes the arrangement workable.
Do you plan on wearing a costume to the Newbery/Caldecott banquet this summer in Las Vegas?
Dick Jackson has been pushing me for a long time now to get a good pair of suspenders. We’ll have to see.