Amy Novesky has written children’s biographies of such artists as Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. This autumn, she published Imogen: Mother of Modernism and Three Boys, a picture-book biography of modernist photographer Imogen Cunningham illustrated by Lisa Congdon. This past week, Novesky, who also works as an independent book editor, opened up about how her very personal connection to Cunnigham underlies Imogen.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Imogen? What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you learned about Cunningham during the research process?
Amy Novesky: As with all of my books, I read every book about the person or the subject that I am writing about that I can find. There is no one definitive biography about Imogen, but I was greatly influenced by the book, Mother’s Days, published by Little Bear Press, which focuses on Imogen’s photographs of her family. But books are not enough. They are secondary sources. It’s important to connect with primary sources if and when you can. With this book, I lucked out in that I connected with Imogen’s granddaughter Elizabeth Partridge, who is an award-winning children’s book author herself. I had emailed her years ago to inquire about writing about her famous grandmother. I wondered if perhaps she was planning to write such a book, in which case I would have ceased and desisted. She never responded, which unnerved me a bit, and I put the idea aside for a few years, which is not unusual for me to do with my stories. But then I pulled it out again one day, and, as luck would have it, Elizabeth was speaking at a bookstore near my house. I braved another email to her to see if she would talk with me about Imogen. She not only responded this time; she agreed to meet with me and to read my manuscript. She read my story closely and emphasized the importance of specificity, which I greatly appreciated. For example, I wanted to weave Imogen’s famous photograph of an unmade bed into the theme of the story: the idea that a mother of three didn’t likely have time to make her bed. But, in reality, this photograph was taken in the 1950s, long after Imogen’s sons were grown (the story is set in the early 1920s). Elizabeth pushed me to create a story that young readers would care about. Hopefully I succeeded. I also worked closely with her sister Meg, who runs their grandmother’s estate, and I viewed her documentary film, Portrait of Imogen And I had the privilege of meeting Imogen’s son, Betsy and Meg’s father, Rondal Partridge, the “mischievous twin” in my book. I interviewed him at his kitchen table at his lovely Berkeley home, over fresh baked bread and fresh apple juice. This is the first book that I’ve had access to and support from the immediate family of my subject, and it was invaluable. I don’t think I would have done this book without it.
A surprising fact about Imogen: I seem to recall reading that there were belly dancers at her memorial. I love that. I had a belly dancer at my wedding. So San Francisco….
Kidsbiographer: Cunningham, like you, lived in San Francisco. How did the city inform your writing in Imogen?
Amy Novesky: Like Frida Kahlo living and painting in San Francisco, which is the subject of my book, Me, Frida, the city of San Francisco definitely inspired me in writing Imogen’s story, as did the city of Seattle, and especially, Queen Anne, where Imogen grew up, and which I have a connection to; my sister lives there. Imogen was so loved by the city of San Francisco, a day was named after her (November 12th). She also had a connection to Sausalito, the town in which I live, just north of San Francisco. She was friends with a circle of artists who lived here in the 1960s, and she even starred in a provocative little short film called “The Bed” which was filmed in the hills above my house. And, I’ve had more people tell me that they met or knew Imogen. She’s a local girl.
Kidsbiographer: Throughout Imogen, you employ a spare prose style, not unlike Cunningham’s stripped-down, yet lyrical approach to photography. I especially enjoy the parts of the narrative in which you list her various subjects, often in short sentence fragments. These passages capture both the rhytm of photography and Cunningham’s acute eye for beauty. How did you compose this part of the book?
Amy Novesky: It’s no secret I’m a big fan of spare and lyrical writing. And I like lists. With regards to the artists I write about, including Imogen, I think the art speaks for itself, and I really just try to get out of the way. Imogen, too, was an unsentimental person, and so I resisted being too flowery, despite many of her subjects being flowers. I wanted the language of the story to reflect her sensibility and her aesthetic; she didn’t expect life to be smooth and easy and beautiful. That said, she believed there is a little beauty in everything. That little beauty gave me permission to make the story a little pretty.
Kidsbiographer: As I noted in my review, Cunningham combined a career and motherhood in an era when most women could not freely choose either. What sorts of conversations do you hope Imogen will spark about women’s lives between kids and adults?
Amy Novesky: Imogen’s story resonates with me because I am also a mother and a working artist. I am a wife. I am a householder, a term I love: I am the holder of the house. I am the childcare. Being a mother is my primary work, of course. But I can’t not write. Not only because I love to, and because it fulfills me creatively, but because I must. My income is necessary for our family, and it’s all I know how to do! Like Imogen in the story, I work from home. I’ve been housebound. I wrote through my pregnancy and nursing a newborn. Frida, Imogen, and my Billie Holiday book are all products of that time. Much of my work is done in those stolen moments: while my son is at school, while he sleeps. But sometimes I need to work while he is by my side. That is just the reality of being a working/stay-at home mom. I’m lucky to be able to do my work with him, and that my work is related to kids. And I think it’s important that kids know that work is not separate from life, that it is important to the family, and hopefully something we take joy in doing it – be it washing dishes, folding laundry or photographing famous people.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about Imogen?
Amy Novesky: The most gratifying feedback I have received for the book was when I sent my advance copy, my only copy of the book, to Rondal Partridge, after hearing that he’d had a health scare. He’s in his 90s. I wanted him to have the book. His daughter Elizabeth sent me a photograph of him reading the book from bed. He was smiling. It meant the world to me.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any upcoming projects?
Amy Novesky: My next book, Mister and Lady Day, about Billie Holiday and the dogs she loved, will be published in June. And I have no less than five stories out with editors now! Two are about artists, one is about baseball (a story I wrote with my son), one is about a family who sails around the world, and another is about the ocean. Cross your fingers for me.