In this installment of Conversations with the Artist editor Glenn Hovemann shares his discussions with author Joseph Anthony. Two of his books, In a Nutshell and The Dandelion Seed, have been published by Dawn and were illustrated by his wife, Cris Arbo. Joseph is also the author of Innerworld (published by Bonneville Books), a young adult novel about finding what it takes to change the world.
Glenn: Joseph, I think of you as a kind of wise guy — not in the wisecracking sense, but as a kind of person that likes to step back and look at the big picture of life. And seeing the big picture, you like to convey ideas very simply, going right to the core, so to speak. As an editor, you don’t give me much to do — the manuscripts I receive from you are extremely lean.
Joseph: Yes, it’s true. And that reminds me of the first The Dandelion Seed manuscript Cris and I sent you. Much of the story was told in pictures only, from the time the seed left the garden to when it landed in the snow, there was only the illustrations. You requested that text be added to accompany those pages; so as sparse as the story is, it started out even leaner!
Glenn: Gee, thanks for giving me a few words!
Joseph: This tendency is partly a byproduct of my screenplay writing, because screenplays have all the fat trimmed away.
Glenn: Your stories read a bit like parables.
Joseph: A parable is a good word for what I strive to do, which is to write in such a way that the story can be read on many levels. That way a child can get something meaningful out of it, and a parent reading the story can get something meaningful as well, even after being asked to read the story again and again.
An early version of the first page of The Dandelion Seed
Glenn: So in The Dandelion Seed you chose to tell the story of a single, humble seed that many people consider to be a weed. And in In a Nutshell you told a more historical story about an acorn seed and its life as a tree. Simple stories, both.
Joseph: Simple stories, hopefully with some depth. For example, one thing I wanted to do in In A Nutshell that I was unable to do in The Dandelion Seed was to incorporate the web of life and the continuity of all life into the storyline. The Dandelion Seed hinted at that continuity through the lifecycle of a single species, but since all species are interconnected I wanted to show that, too. This happens through the death and resurrection of the oak. Incidentally, the only illustration suggestion I had in the original manuscript was for a human community to develop throughout the oak tree’s life. Cris was able to give a lot of subtext to the story that wasn’t in the words, which helped a lot in carrying forward the concept of continuity in a way young readers could appreciate.
Glenn: These stories can be read literally, as an event of nature, or symbolically.
Joseph: Exactly. One of the greatest validations of this for me came when Cris and I attended a book event and one of the participants told us she was using The Dandelion Seedin her hospice work.
Glenn: Wow, that’s really special. It gives me a whole new appreciation for the book, seen from the perspective of someone facing death. When the dandelion seed first blew away, it found the world bigger than it ever imagined – and more frightening, and lonely, and beautiful. But after it settled down and the rain and sun came, it shared its leaves with deer and nectar with bees. And eventually its own seeds were carried away on the wind. It learned not to be afraid. That’s powerful.
Joseph: Symbols lie at the heart of what it means to be human. Symbols cross the barriers of race, religion, and age. That’s one of the reasons I strive to incorporate it at a fundamental level into my writing. Joseph Campbell’s writings on myth and symbolism were an early inspiration to me.
Glenn: I hear you have quite a varied background to draw upon as a writer. You were even a musician in the Navy, a corrections officer, a massage therapist, and a carpenter — wow!
Joseph: Where to start?! My background informs my writing, but hopefully my writing isn’t limited by my background. And I must say, the occupations I’ve had have each been the best thing for me at the time. I loved playing the trumpet and since my trumpet teacher was a retired Navy musician I was more than happy to follow in his shoes, getting paid to travel and make music. I visited about 35 countries on five continents during the four years I was enlisted which really expanded my world view. Of all the places I went to, though, none were as unique as the Virginia Department Of Corrections. Humanity really gets pared down to a basic level in a prison. Coming away from that experience, which lasted a year, I realized the greatest thing I learned was how important it is to stick up for myself. I did come away a stronger person.
That experience helps me in the construction field as well, because as a supervisor I have to stick up for myself and the company I work for to make sure things get done right.
Glenn: How do you get your ideas for books?
Joseph: I remember writing The Dandelion Seed while driving home from work in an old Datsun station wagon. I was thinking how human beings tend to avoid growing up spiritually, because it’s difficult. I’m no exception. And I thought how ironic it would be if another of God’s creatures was to resist its own inevitable development. The first creature that came to mind was a rose, because a rose is so beautiful. That evolved to become a weed, to represent everyman, whose beauty is perhaps less obvious. When I’m first working on an idea, I like to sit and think about what moves me the most, what really is important, and go from there.
Glenn: Is there anything else you want readers to know?
Joseph: Never stop dreaming. I like to add an inscription at book signings that translates to folks from all walks of life: “Live your dream!”