by Gary Turchin
Today I’m happy to introduce you to poet, performer and educator Gary Turchin. I met Gary at the meetings of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). We met and talked about the book he wanted to publish, If I Were You.
I told Gary that full-color illustrated books were a stiff challenge for self-publishers, but I could see he was pretty determined. Last weekend he handed me a copy of a beautifully-printed and bound book, just arrived from the printer.
I asked Gary to tell his story, and here it is.
When people ask me what my new illustrated book, If I Were You (IIWY), is about, I sometimes fumble for an answer. “It’s not about ‘about’,” I’ll say, but that answer gets quizzical looks and doesn’t sell books. Other times I’ll say, “it’s about joy and wonder, and being fully alive,” and while that is true, people still want to know what the story is “about” and I have to say there is no story, just moments from a life, whimsical, poignant, and profound moments.
Emily Muise of What Book Is That? online review site (she gave IIWY an A+ Rating), said,
“If I Were You isn’t so much a story as it is a sort of manifesto.”
She’s probably right. A manifesto that declares life is good, that living with enthusiasm, with exuberance, is the only choice worth making. Who am I to write such a manifesto? We’ll get there. First let me tell you how the book came about.
The seed for If I Were You was planted in 2001, when I first had the If I Were You train-of-thought, and wrote some of the If I Were You-isms that are actually in the book. Ism’s like:
“If I Were You, I’d invest in rainbows, they’ll always be worth something no matter who’s in charge;”
“If I were you, I’d learn to make a thousand things out of chocolate, and only one thing out of Jell-O.”
It was a train-of-thought that just popped in my head one day and intrigued me as a writer and poet, and so I followed it until its waters got muddy. Has that ever happened to you? You start out with an idea, you work it, and then you get lost. Is this it? Is that it? You can’t make up your mind. If I Were You got muddy for me like that after some months of developing it, so I closed the file and moved on for a time.
Time passed, and I literally forgot about it, until 2007 when I came across one of the “If I Were You” files in my computer. I clicked it on a whim, thinking, “What was that about again?” It opened and I read it with beginner’s mind, fresh, un-muddied mind, and I liked it! I really liked it. I liked the spirit, I liked the attitude, I liked the writing, I liked the feeling it gave me.
By this time, I was in a new place in life entirely, because in 2005 I’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I was trying to live my life with more enthusiasm, trying to appreciate what I did have, as opposed to what I didn’t, trying to squeeze all the juice out of my precious life while I still could. IIWY was a perfect fit for me now, even more so than when I’d started it six years earlier. I’d been thinking about my legacy, and of leaving something behind “filled with light.” IIWY fit the bill.
So I rebirthed the project and started working it again. It evolved; I got feedback. I had a new finished draft, and I started pitching it—the writing only, I had no intention of illustrating it—to the big-bad-wolf publishing world; editors, agents, the usual suspects. And I got the usual response.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t fit our publishing needs…”
I did get a couple of nice comments, including one agent who wrote, “I love your poetic language, please feel free to send other projects my way.” But when I did send her another project, her response was “please don’t send me any more of your proposals….”
So If I Were You languished another year, when something fateful happened. I lost my job working in the communications department of a local children’s hospital. The department was cut in half. All the writers were let go.
That night, my first after being laid off, I resolved that I was going to make If I Were You into a book, one way or another. I set it as my mission, and I, the missionary. I was 58 years old, had no job or prospect, and the Parkinson’s was creeping into my bones and body, but here I was resolving to create something absolutely sweet and life-affirming and juicy. Was I mad?
Hold the question.
Meanwhile, I said to my self, why not try my hand at illustrating it? I’m an artist, but not an illustrator. But, I thought, let me play and see what I can conjure. I’m nothing, if not resourceful.
I turned on my computer, opened Photoshop, and started playing. I’d only used Photoshop for adjusting photographs before, but I knew it had a lot of other capabilities. I just started experimenting with the tools and features and that’s how the images evolved, one after another.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted my “characters” to look like, so I had the crazy idea of selecting the head off a baby picture of mine and putting it on a drawn-in body. I thought of it as a holding pattern, until I figured out what he should look like. A couple people saw the sketches and laughed; they found them funny. I decided to do it that way in the book. I went through all my baby pictures. There weren’t that many, and only a few were happy pictures. I did find one fairly decent shot and that became the “me” character, at least for a while.
While I’m a confident writer, I wasn’t sure about my illustrations, so I went to an illustrator’s conference sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I usually go to the writing seminars, but this time, I signed up for the illustration one.
I put my book out for the other artists, and the instructor, to see and they embraced me as one of their own. That was a big step. I would later run into some “interference” about my illustrations from other artists I met along the way, and I got knocked off my perch a few times, but in the end I did stick it out. I know my limits as an artist, and I think I worked within them. I think the art is successful in its primitive-ness. Some of it is even grand.
Bolstered by the support of “real” illustrators, I made color copies of the book and sent them out to the usual suspects, agents, publishers, editors, the like. There was no “like” in them for If I Were You now. Not even a nibble or comment. Maybe it was the not-really-for-kids esthetic (I call it a whole family book, not a kids’ book), maybe it was the non-story-ness of it (that “not about ‘about’” business), maybe it was the quirky, idiosyncratic style of the words and pictures together, I’ll never really know. But the die was cast: self-publishing was my only ticket. I resolved to do it.
I started doing my homework. I joined the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA), absorbing the experience of other like-minded creators, like Joel Friedlander. I learned about printing overseas, even found my own Asian-based printer, through a fellow writer. I was afraid, though, of making a big mistake, so I hired a print broker to help me, as an insurance policy. I’d met the broker, Joanne Bolton, at the SCBWI illustrator conference, and she helped me through with great aplomb.
But before I committed to “the big print”, I made a small run (50 books) using high-end copy-technology. And I sold them (at a barely break-even cost) for the 2010 holiday. I went to a friend’s Christmas Day gathering, and I shared it. People lined up to give me $20. These weren’t purchased for gifts, this was already Christmas Day. They just liked it.
That was the last push of confidence I needed to green light it.
I started my final drafts of the images. I consulted with a “real” designer. Things changed, I added borders, redrew a few pages, changed fonts, changed covers, added pages, subtracted pages.
But the biggest change came when I got a call from my brother, David. He had on his wall a picture of our Grandparents at their 50th wedding anniversary. For some crazy reason, at this moment in time, he decided it needed a new frame. When he popped the picture of our grandparents out, he found underneath, what he called the best picture of the two of us as children ever taken. He described how happy and lit up our faces were, and I said, oh my gosh, you have to send me that picture. It might be perfect for my book.
Indeed it was perfect. My expression is exuberant. I swapped it in for the one I’d been using. It was the perfect final touch. I can’t help but feel it was a gift from my long-departed grandparents, or from my Mom who no doubt hid it there knowing David would discover it 40 years later in the nick of time to be used in my book. It certainly was a gift from the universe at exactly the right moment.
On August 5, 2011, a pallet of books was delivered to my home, shipped from Hong Kong. On August 27, I had a book launch at an art gallery in Alameda, California. The art was blown up and framed on the walls. I’d done the fine art prints myself while taking classes at a community college in Berkeley. More than 100 people came. I did a reading and sold more than 75 books as well as a couple of large prints.
I’m in a dozen stores as I write this, with more to come. I’m scheduling readings and more art shows to display the book’s art. Someone is threatening to make a movie about me and the book. I’m in business. I have a book, filled with light, and I feel confident it will find its way into our culture. I’m not sure of the route it will take, but roots it will grow, and branches and leaves, and more fruit, I hope. What makes me say that?
The same sense that drove me to manifest the book in the first place, out of what could be called hellish circumstances. But it wasn’t hell I turned to, though hell was beckoning. No, it’s heaven I conjured, a peaceable kingdom here on Earth. Only a madman, or a visionary could manage such an undertaking under these conditions. And I don’t feel mad.