Interview with David Small, 2019 Alex Award Winner

The Alex Awards are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. For more information about the award and previous winners, check out the Alex Awards page on the YALSA website.

David Small wrote and illustrated Home After Dark, published by Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company. After his mother abandons them, his father uproots thirteen-year-old Russell Pruitt to a rundown town in 1950s California. Russell tries to fit in while navigating a landscape of homophobic bullies and a serial animal killer.  David Small’s storytelling and lush illustrations capture all the uncertainties of adolescence in this coming of age story.

Becky Reiser, 2019 Alex Award committee member, interviewed David Small about his book.

Your graphic novel Home After Dark,chronicles the 50s-era adolescence of Russell Pruitt. Although it less common to hear about a teen running away with his bike today, do you feel there are parallels to teens coming of age in 2019?
Yes, I do think there are parallels. After all, the process of the body’s hormonal development, the growth patterns of our brains haven’t changed. I’m quite sure kids now process things as they always have; there are just so many new things to process and a new rapidity to it all. We’re all on a roller-coaster of informational overload, but with teens, there is a rush to grow up, and they have the Web, with exposure to matters that are both critical and intangible. There is always, with teenagers, an incentive to seem mature about things which they aren’t even genuinely curious about until certain hormones kick in. There is a sophistication in our youth that wasn’t there in the 50’s, or at least a veneer of it. The overlay of irony and sarcasm which permeates everything nowadays gives kids an air of urbanity, though I’m sure it’s no more than a surface impression.

As I was writing and drawing Home After Dark, I was constantly aware of the differences between now and 1956. Back then, of course, there were –for just one example—no cell phones. We had pay telephones and it cost a considerable amount to call long distance. So, right in the second chapter of Home, Russell’s dad, Mike, moves all the way from Ohio to California without clearly letting his older sister –with whom he plans to live—know that he’s bringing Russell with him. The subtext in my mind was this: the relationship between brother and sister was already strained, and Mike was asking a lot of her to put him up. The cost of the phone call was on his mind as he and she talked, and it “slipped his mind” (in a Freudian way) to mention that he was bringing along his 13-year-old son. (I myself recall so clearly that tension, that pressure, in calling long distance. We used to say, “Hey, this is on my nickle so let’s cut this short,” thinking: The money, the money this is costing!) Anyway, when they get to Pasadena, his sister won’t even let them spend the night. It’s a misunderstanding that might be less likely to occur now, with cell phones and free long-distance.

This lack of easy communication, technologically speaking, happened to overlap with a major theme in my story, which is noncommunication between humans in general, and that, I think, is ageless.

As for a teen running away on his bike being an outdated motif, yes, sure, but today there are so many other means of escape: constant access to entertainment, video games, the Web, drugs, and so on. Besides that, just like his dad dreamed of California as a paradise until he encountered the real thing, Russell has this fantasy of Alaska as a place of freedom. Nowadays most kids know that Alaska is in big trouble because of the changing climate, the melting of the polar ice cap, the disappearance of the salmon, and so on. The romance of travel–to anywhere—is almost gone here in America. 40 years age the country seemed huge, the possibilities for a new life endless. All we had to do was pack our stuff, get in a car (gas was cheap) and move anywhere. In the 50’s that idea of boundless space was rampant in magazines and billboards and in our cultural consciousness. What I’m saying in this book is: we were misinformed.

Home After Dark is powerful, dark, and at times, quiet. Can you describe your process to develop this novel in black and white illustrations without much text?
My process is so instinctual now, it’s like asking me how I breathe! I think most of my influences as a graphic artist have come from films. Not all films, but of certain ones from the late 60’s when I was in college and a whole revolution in cinema was beginning to take place. Then, the French New Wave movies and others influenced by them were travelling over from Europe. They dealt with their characters’ thoughts and emotions and their lives in a more-genuine way than the big studio-produced films. They were low-budget and they were in black- and-white, which I still love. Color complicates everything, whereas when a film is in black-and-white it’s already a parable. It reduces things to essentials.

I recently had a mild contretemps with the owner of a west-coast comics store who said that all comics are grounded in cinema, which may be true to an extent, but one has to ask which cinema? The influence of big-production action films with all manner of breathtaking camera angles and special effects is evident in superhero comics, but you won’t find that in my books. Like Hitchcock, like Polanski, I save the ceiling shots and the floor shots (looking up a character’s nose) for the appropriate moments. Film is a basically wordless medium, and very powerful. Text is filtered in our brains by logic, but images can get past all the guard towers and go straight to the heart. This is their strength, also their danger.

The 1950’s is a decade typically portrayed in such a “Pleasantville” sort of way, but your novel challenges those idyllic portrayals. Why did you choose your setting in the 1950’s? Why California?
I grew up in the 50’s so it’s the decade that left the biggest impression on me. It amuses me to learn that so many young people have a nostalgic “Happy Days” view of that era. Maybe they long to have grown up as naïve as we were then, I don’t know, but it really was a repressed and confusing time. Visually speaking, it was a fun time for design but that design, in practice, produced a lot of cheap, tawdry objects. The landscape disappeared under acres of tract housing and the factories belched poisonous smoke into the air without anyone taking notice.

I chose California because, back then, it was such a symbolic Eden, and I had spent enough time out there as a kid, as a teen and older, to see the green hills that used to plunge down into the Pacific become barnacled with cheap housing developments. (This evolution can be seen starting to happen in Home After Dark.)For a time I lived with an aunt in Carmel –a real undiscovered Nirvana then–and I revisited several times over the decades, watching as it got “found”, choked with traffic, tourists and high-end vulgarity for sale in every shop. I’m still angry about that!

What do you think about your book having a teen audience after having won an Alex Award? Who were you originally writing for?
I was writing for anyone who could relate to my story. I was delighted when it got the Alex, because that happened for my first book Stitchesas well, and it brought that book to a much wider –and equally appreciative audience.

What are you reading now?
This year I’ve been reading a lot of fiction by women, as it happens, not because we’re in the era of #MeToo, but because that’s the way my reading list has fallen out. One great writer has led to a whole series of them: Alice Munro, the forgotten Harriet Doer and the great neglected Katherine Mansfield. Next I’m going to give Willa Cather a try.