Andrea Davis Pickney and Brian Pickney, LORETTA LITTLE LOOKS BACK

Andrea Davis Pickney and Brian Pickney, LORETTA LITTLE LOOKS BACK

Zibby Owens: Welcome so much, Andrea and Brian. This is a such a huge thrill to be interviewing both of you and getting a visual element and literary. It’s so exciting. Thanks for joining me on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Andrea Pinkney: Thank you.

Zibby: Let’s talk about your most recent book first, Loretta Little Looks Back. I can’t speak today. Can you please tell everybody what this particular book is about? It’s so unique and interesting. Also, what inspired you to write it?

Andrea: It is a mouthful, isn’t it? Loretta Little Looks Back, say that ten times fast. Maybe I will begin by telling you what it’s about by introducing you to some of the characters. The title is Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It. As Loretta says, “Right here, I’m sharing the honest-to-goodness.” As young brother Roly proclaims, “I’m gon’ reach back, and tell how it all went. I’m gon’ speak on it. My way.” As young Aggie B who is twelve years old will tell you, “Folks claim I got more nerve than a bad tooth. But there is nothing bad about being bold.” This is their three stories. It is the story of the Little family: Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B. It spans from 1927. We begin in a Mississippi sharecropping field. We go all the way up to the 1968 presidential election. It spans three generations. We really get a front-row seat to African Americans on the Civil Rights journey, but also claiming the right to vote. That’s a little bit about the book.

Zibby: You describe this book as a go-tell-it, a monologue novel. The way you wrote it was, even though it reads as a novel, some is more like poetry. Some are more like scenes from a play. It’s all very visual and auditory as well, almost as if it should be on stage as well as a book. Tell me about how you structured it because it was so interesting, this format. Tell me.

Andrea: Loretta Little Looks Back, I am calling it a monologue novel. It really is a mix of poetry, first-person narratives, gospel rhythms, a little bit of blues thrown in. In each of the sections, the characters come out on stage, as you will, and they talk to us. The idea is that we’re really getting behind the eyes of Loretta. We’re getting in the belly of Roly. We’re getting right, right, heart and soul of Aggie B. Kids, young readers, can really feel what they’re feeling. It’s very experiential. The idea also is that the book could be shared with friends. It could be done as a readers’ theater. You can read it quietly and contemplatively on your own. Really, we just want to hear those voices of the three characters. We really want to inhabit who they are so we can experience what they’re going through.

Zibby: Did you consider just writing this as a play?

Andrea: I did. Speaking as one who likes that front row seat — we live in New York City. I spend a lot of time in the theater. That was my first thought. We just strung it together as a narrative, and now it lives as a novel. Maybe it will live as a play or a film someday at some point.

Zibby: There you go, all very versatile. Of course, you have your husband, an acclaimed illustrator in his right. You guys are such a power duo. This is insane. He does all the illustrations. Now Brian, we’re looking at your incredible studio here with all these drawings behind you. Tell me about what it was like working together. I know you have before. What was it like illustrating for this novel in particular?

Brian Pinkey: When I illustrate with Andrea, it’s an amazing process. It’s always different because her approach to writing changes with every novel or every book that she does. My first thing is that I just read the stories over and over again to the point where I know them so well. I start feeling it in my heart. Then I just start making artwork. The best way for me to explain that is to actually show it while I’m talking. This is the paint that I used. There’s gouache here. I have acrylic. I have watercolor. I think with the paintbrush. It’s almost like I’m thinking theatrically. In the case of doing the cover, I’m thinking about what colors would be in the South. I’m thinking blue. I think of the sky. I think of lots of sunlight. I’m making circles. I know in my mind this is going to be Aggie’s face. Andrea talks about her looking back in the title. I thought, what would that be like to be looking back but also moving forward at the same time? I’m thinking abstractly. This is going to be her face. This is going to be land. This is going to be sunlight back here. It’s very wet. The watercolors move very fast. I’m using a sumi brush, which is a Japanese watercolor brush.

Then I’ll go back in just intuitively thinking about brown skin, her face. It’s going to be somewhere here. The soil is also brown. They’re sharecroppers. There’s green for the vegetation that’s growing. I’ll get something very messy like this. Then I’ll just sit with that for a while because you can see I paint really fast. I’m going to show you a piece that I had earlier that’s very similar but already dry. It has to dry. This is kind of my underpainting. Again, I would do a lot of sketches like this until I find one that I like. Then I’ll go back in with another brush called a Da Vinci Maestro, which is a very fine-pointed brush. I’ll go in with black ink. I’m using black ink here and a brush. While I work, I am thinking about the blues and jazz. It’s very improvisational. Again, my hand is dancing while I’m drawing. I’m thinking, this is going to be Loretta Little looking back. I’ll look at hundreds of pictures of beautiful, young, African American girls to get an idea of what she should look like. In my mind, she kind of looks like my niece who is about twelve or thirteen now, very curious. I think, what would it have been like for her if that was her? Just with the paintbrush, drawing her hair. Now I use different pressure. What’s great about this is because my studio is not in the home, Andrea actually does not know what I’m doing when I do it.

Andrea: I’m loving it. It’s always a wonderful surprise.

Brian: This is how I work. I’ll look at outfits like costumes of — what did the clothing look like? I want to make sure everything is authentic to the time. I’ll look at cotton fields. How does the cotton grow? All the while, I’m thinking, what is this saying about the main character? She’s looking back over her shoulder here. I’ll take breaks and go back into it with more color. I may do this image four or five times, six or seven times, to get the one that I think is exactly what I want. I can hold this up a little bit on the bigger screen so you can see how it’s coming out. You know the cover of the book.

Andrea: I’m going to hold this up where you can see it. What I love about the cover is that Loretta Little is indeed looking back. What Brian has done so brilliantly is that she’s gazing back at her history, her legacy, and also looking ahead into an unknown future. I really love the cover.

Zibby: I love the cover too. This is great.

Brian: That’s basically the process. In terms of Andrea and I working together, we’ve come up with a couple guidelines so that we actually can stay happily married and work together. Andrea, you want to me start out?

Andrea: Kick it off, Brian. You got it.

Brian: Some of the rules we came up with that — Andrea is an editor and an author. She has an amazing eye for details. I appreciate that, but I’m also very sensitive. It’s very important for me that when Andrea sees something that doesn’t look quite right to her, she words it correctly for me. For example, if she sees Loretta Little’s foot, she can’t say something like, “It looks like a football,” because that kind of hurts my feelings.

Zibby: Has that actually happened?

Andrea: That has happened.

Zibby: It sounded like that might have been an actual .

Brian: Her thing is that if you see something that doesn’t look quite right, she can’t say, “Loretta Little’s foot looks like a football.” She has to say, “Loretta Little’s foot looks unresolved.”

Andrea: It’s unresolved. It’s a work-in-progress.

Brian: Then my self-esteem stays intact. Then I can come up with some lame excuse, or maybe a good one. Andrea always has guidelines for me, which is that she loves it when I read her manuscripts no matter what stage they’re at. As the artist, I do have the peripheral vision of it. I can kind of see it. Her rule for me is that no matter what I think of her writing at the time I must start my comments outs with, “Honey, you’re off to a great start.”

Andrea: We’re all off to a great start one way or the other. Brian mentioned his studio is not in our home. That’s deliberate. Most authors and illustrators don’t meet each other. They don’t collaborate in the traditional sense. The person in the publishing company, the editor, keeps those individuals apart. It seems very strange, but that really is how it works. If I weren’t married to him, if the illustrator of many of my books wasn’t sharing a box of cereal or a tube of toothpaste, then I wouldn’t see what he’s doing in the studio. We don’t talk about it. We do get together once a week on a Saturday. It’s usually from around noon to three o’clock in the afternoon, three hours. We come to the dining table. That’s really when we talk about the work. We have a designated time period. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. I know that if there’s something else I want to say or convey, I wait until the following Saturday. There’s a nice boundary around that. We were talking about work all the time. That meeting space allows us to talk about it and to move on and have a happy family life and a great marriage.

Zibby: This should definitely be your next book, by the way, all these tips. This is great. “Honey, you’re off to a good start” is a great way to really preface any conversation, almost any idea.

Andrea: It’s always true.

Brian: Anyone in a relationship, your partner says they’re going to clean the room, they don’t or they do and you’re not quite happy, you can say, “Honey, it looks a little unresolved.”

Zibby: Unresolved, okay. Good starts and unresolved things, I’m making mental notes here. This is good to know, the secrets to the successful collaboration. I love it, especially in a creative field where it’s not right or wrong. It’s always in the eyes of the beholder, essentially, what the work is from a book to a drawing to everything. Excellent advice. Can I hear a little more about how both of you got into your fields to begin with? I want to also hear how you met. I heard that it was through work or something. Go back in time for me a little bit. Give me some background.

Brian: I’ll start. My family are all in the arts. My father is Jerry Pinkney who’s an award-winning children’s books illustrator. Growing up, I always visited him in his studio and would see him make pictures. I followed in his footsteps in a way. Then I went to art school, university art school, visual arts, and came out and started illustrating and getting freelance jobs and doing books. It was hard work, but I love doing hard work. That’s how I got started.

Andrea: I fell into children’s book publishing, and really book publishing, a little bit by accident, which happens to a lot of people. I did go to journalism school. I wanted to be a journalist, which I was. I worked for a lot of the leading women’s magazines. I was the contemporary living editor at Essence magazine. Part of that job at Essence was that every month I had to fill a section with information about African American children’s books. This was in the mid-eighties. I would call up publishers. I’d say, “Send me your best books.” There weren’t a lot to send. Now someone who works in publishing will do anything to get that coverage in the media. My editor-in-chief at the time, Susan Taylor, said, “Andrea, you’ve got to fill this section.” I said, “Susan, I can’t. There’s just not enough books for every month.” I met someone at the BookExpo America conference. I said, “Hey, we need the black Baby-Sitters Club. We need more board books for babies. We need biographies.” We got to talking. One thing led to another. I got my first job in book publishing at Simon & Schuster where I was a children’s book editor. Then I went on from there. Then I started writing books. Brian was illustrating textbooks at the time. I kept saying to him, “You should call your editor at this-and-that publishing company and tell them we need a black teen series, board books for babies, mysteries, fantasy, adventure, biographies.” He said, “Well, why don’t you write some of those books?” Here we are.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing. With so many ideas of what you wanted to do, how did you even decide where to begin?

Andrea: As a magazine editor, I almost feel like you’re installed with a radar. When you’re working for a magazine, you have to have ideas constantly because you have to be filling that magazine every month, long lead, four months ahead. The radar is always up. I was saying to my then fiancé, maybe somebody should do a book about the dancer Alvin Ailey. Is there any children’s book about Duke Ellington? Has anybody written just a little cute series for babies? Just riffing on the ideas. Brian was saying, “You do it. You do it. You do it.” Again, here we are. Always got the idea mill going.

Zibby: Then from an editor perspective, tell me about ushering in other people’s work on these same themes and topics. What’s that book like on basically both sides of the fence, so to speak?

Andrea: I work as a publisher and editor in a publishing company. I work at Scholastic and I’m an author. I do have a lot of ideas. They’re not always the books that I am inclined to or that I have the right voice to write them myself. Part of what I love to do is think, here’s an idea, who would be amazing to deliver this? I’ll often contact that person or their agent or ask somebody, first, “Is it a good idea? Who do you think would be a great person to write it?” It works both ways. Let me just say that when I’ve got my author hat on, my editor switch is turned off. I can’t edit myself. When I have my editor/publisher hat on, the author has gone to sleep. I’m there in service to help other writers tell their stories.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Can we go back now to Loretta Little Looks Back? Now I said it right. There we go. In doing all the research for the book, you mention in the note at the end how you had talked to so many people and got real oral histories including many people from your own family. Can you talk to me a little about what that was like and how you conducted that research and investigation?

Andrea: My family and Brian’s family as well, our families both come from the South, mine from Virginia, Brian’s from North Carolina. I grew up hearing a lot of these stories on front porches, summer evenings, fireflies, sweet tea, hearing about the legacy of Civil Rights from members of my own family. Somehow, those stories stuck with me. The other thing is that I will say that both my parents were Civil Rights foot soldiers. My father marched with King. I was born a few blocks and a few days after the March on Washington happened in Washington, DC. I’m the kid who — they say, what did you do this summer? We had the same summer vacation which is that my family got in that wood-panel station wagon and in July, we went to the NAACP Annual National Convention every year. We went to the National Urban League conference. Right before school was going to start in September, we went to something called the Congressional Congress. I would hear African American notables giving speeches. My family would have to talk about it. I’d be like, ugh. I dreaded, “What did you do this summer?” Everyone said they went to the beach. They went to camp. How often can you say, “I went to the NAACP National Convention”? Looking back, it stuck. A lot of what you read in Loretta Little Looks Back are from those experiences. Hearing Fannie Luo Hamer, the Civil Rights voting activist, plays a role in Loretta Little Looks Back. Those are the kinds of speakers I heard as a kid myself, like Aggie B is hearing in the story.

Zibby: In terms of what was from your own life versus fiction, did someone in your family get cancer from harsh materials that were sprayed in the fields for mosquitoes? Did that happen? Did the MS happen? What was real and what did you make up?

Andrea: There is a part in the book where a parent dies of cancer as the result of pesticides that are used coming on new to the scene in sharecropping. I won’t give it away. I will just say that did not happen. I have had a parent die of cancer, so I infused the emotions of that young girl into that experience.

Zibby: I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t give anything away. I was just wondering. I like to know.

Andrea: Not at all, no.

Zibby: I’m really sorry to hear about your parent’s experience. What about the disease of the nerves, as you talk about in the book?

Andrea: One of the characters has MS, multiple sclerosis. No, that is not my own experience. It’s not the experience of anyone I know. Again, people that I do know, family members, have had similar afflictions, and so I infused it in the book. I was really fortunate to work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society to get all the depictions correct and infuse it with the history of that disease. Everything is really on point.

Zibby: Tell me a little more about your actual writing process. For instance, the chapter Billy-Club Bullies which was bam, bam, bam, tell me about sitting down. Where are you typing these words out? Give me a visual of how you’re getting it done, how you structured it. Do you have Post-its everywhere? What’s the process like? Then where are you when you’re pounding these out?

Andrea: No, I’m not sitting in front of a keyboard, mostly. My husband will tell you. Here’s an example. I get up at four in the morning. I’m up. This happened today. I go out. I’m walking. It’s dark out. I’ve got a big hoodie with a big zippered pocket in the front and a pen. This morning for example, it was raining. I came in dripping with the big hoodie and stuff in the front pocket, it’s like a kangaroo pocket, this little rickety pen and a notebook. That stuff hopefully will end up in a book. That’s how Loretta Little Looks Back started and many of the books. I eventually get to the keyboard. My writing is really from four AM to about six or six thirty in the morning. It takes many forms. Yes, I have Post-it Notes, scraps. It eventually gets to the keyboard, but I don’t get up, sit down, and start writing.

Zibby: Wow, what a process, four to six. Then you do your regular work the rest of the day?

Andrea: Yes. In a non-COVID moment, I change clothes and go to my office in Lower Manhattan.

Zibby: Then what time do you go to bed? How much sleep are you getting?

Brian: Not enough.

Andrea: I go to bed pretty late. Not enough, yeah.

Zibby: Pretty late, wow. I guess that’s one of the perks of not needing as much sleep. There you go. Do you also get up at four AM, Brian?

Brian: No. I maybe roll over when I hear her get up. I get up around seven and usually leave the house around seven thirty, get to my studio these days around eight thirty, and have my own creative process. I’ll get to the studio, look at everything I have to do for the day, and then meditate or do yoga. Then I have a whole kitchen here. I make my food and everything. Then I just start sketching and painting. I’m working and meditating and moving all the time. I usually don’t even sit in a chair. I’m either walking, moving, working, or taking a nap. I love taking naps, which is part of my work because my ideas come to me when I’m meditating and napping. Then I put them on the paper.

Zibby: How convenient is that? I want to put napping into my workday. Let’s see if my kids really go for that. No, I’m working. No, really. What are you working on next? I know this book is coming out. Do you have more coming down the pike together, separate?

Brian: Yes, we’re always working on several projects at the same time. Some are in the concept phase. Some are in the sketch phase. Some, I’m working on finishes. I have projects that I’m working on that I’ve written. I have projects I’m working on that Andrea’s written. Some, we don’t even know yet what they’re going to be.

Andrea: The next one, I’ll just tell you, is something for very young children. That’s all I’ll say.

Brian: We can’t talk too much about the details of it, but it is in progress and process.

Zibby: When are you going to write your memoir? When is that going to happen?

Andrea: Brian, are you working on your memoir?

Brian: I’m always working on my memoir, a memoir of some sort. It just keeps shifting and changing. It’s a lot of my growing up, just being creative and playing with art and images and imagination. Most of the books that I write are about imagination. Most of the books that I’ve written are somewhat autobiographical.

Zibby: Amazing. You two seem to have it all figured out. I’m incredibly impressed. The marriage and the workflow and the meetings on Saturdays and the creativity and the awareness of how you work best, I’m very impressed, I have to say. What advice would you both have to aspiring artists and aspiring authors?

Brian: My advice to aspiring artists is to make art. Art is to make art. Find a way that feels most true to you to make art. For me, it’s with traditional materials, watercolors, gauche, ink. I let myself change. Sometimes I discover a medium I had never used before. Working with acrylic is pretty new. Some artists work on computers. They work on iPads. Whatever feels natural and to just make art. Continue to draw every day. Make art every day. That would be my first — and look at people that you admire.

Andrea: I would say the same thing. Writers write daily. People say to me, oh, come on, do you write on your birthday? Yes. Do you write on Christmas? Yes. Do you write on New Year’s? Yes. Do you write when your house is a mess? Especially, because I don’t want to clean it. Writers write every single day of the week under all circumstances and conditions. Is everything I write publishable? Most of it isn’t, but I’m in the act of pursuit of the craft. I also say read everything. Push past that comfort zone. I hear a lot of people say, I don’t do fantasy. I’m not a mystery kind of person. Read those books. Read everything. Become a sponge. It would be like me saying, I think I’m going to become a ballerina and just do it every now and then. You have to work at that. I would say, writers, just always be in the act of pursuit of doing it.

Zibby: Love it. Thank you. Thanks so much to both of you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for sharing your beautiful work in every format and all your marriage tips. I’ll probably have a better day because of it.

Andrea: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thanks so much for your time. Buh-bye.

Andrea: Buh-bye.

Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney, LORETTA LITTLE LOOKS BACK