I’ve long thought that Dallas Clayton is pretty awesome, but I was still completely floored when he answered my questions with the most staggeringly thoughtful answers and observations. Awesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. If you enjoy this interview half as much as I did, you’re in for a wonderful day! I promise.
Q: For some reason, we all think the most creative writers had either ridiculously happy or tragically lonely childhoods! How do you remember yours?
A: Having a child has made me realize how much of our youth we don’t remember at all. My son is eight years old, which is right around the age my real memories of my childhood start to kick in. This means I’m missing eight whole years of experiences that were probably super fun from my memory banks. If someone created a service to help explore those memories via Universal Studios’ virtual reality simulator, I’d certainly sign up for that! Maybe there would be some good creative-writer back stories locked away in those forgotten years. Otherwise, the rest of my youth was great. Lots of climbing things and throwing things at other things, and then in my teens lots of angry music about the government, and also spray painting.
Q: How do you describe your work? And do you call yourself an artist, a writer, or both?
A: I like to say “I write kids’ books.” That is a really fun thing to say because every person in the world has a relationship to this idea and it’s usually a positive relationship. It really disarms people, as if you said you create rainbows or race dragons for a living. Everyone, especially in LA where I live, is so used to having a dialogue that begins “What do you do?” and then the person is forced to qualify their existence with “I’m an actor, I’m in a band, I’m a director,” etc. The conversation then usually continues with a back and forth about whether or not the person is a popular actor, or in a popular band, or makes popular movies. That stuff is pretty silly. Telling people I write kids’ books takes all of that away and replaces it with cotton candy. It’s like putting your hand over someone’s face and whispering “Shhhhh… look at the sky…isn’t it beautiful today? Let’s go for a swim!”
Q: Describe the first moment you realized that you could make a living out of being awesome.
A: I moved to LA when I was eighteen. Most of my early teens, I would go to shows and sell homemade zines to people (photocopied short stories, journal entries, etc.). When I got to LA, I realized there were so many people here that if I invested the time, I could sell enough zines each day to not have to work. I would go out to shows and galleries and markets with a bag full of stories and talk to strangers all day until my bag was empty, and then I would go get in more adventures and write more stories about them. Ultimately, my children’s book career is just an extension of this logic; make things you care about and share them with people. Making a living is the least important part.
Q: Where do you work? Will you describe the view from your studio?
A: Right now, I’m laying in a giant pile of pillows. I don’t like owning things. I like everything I own to be something I use almost every day. If I’m not using it, someone else could be. It doesn’t seem fair to keep things like that. Like having a cabinet full of books that aren’t being read. Give those away. Those are ideas that need to be shared! I haven’t owned furniture in five years or so because I like my living space to be about creating and I don’t feel creative around couches and coffee tables. As soon as I have to move a couch to dance around my living room, I am bummed. But I also recognize the limitations of this sort of thing. For instance, my friends kept getting mad about sitting on the floor. So as a compromise, I made about fifty of these giant pillows out of old patchwork quilts and stacked them in a huge pile in my living room. It’s the best! You can jump in them, write in them, draw in them, read in them, cuddle in them, throw them around, and make a fort out of them. It’s about limitless possibilities and excellent comfort. Currently, my view is of a drum kit and a guitar…both soon to be played.
Q: Tell us about The Awesome World Foundation, and how we can get involved.
A: The Awesome World Foundation is really just a way for me to give back to people and have fun doing it. It was initially created under a one-for-one model where we donate a book for every copy of An Awesome Book sold, to children at schools and hospitals and camps and places across the world. Since then, it has evolved into more of a way to travel the world and talk to kids about their hopes and dreams, play music with them, read to them, share books with them, paint murals, and explore ideas. I’m touring all the time, meeting kids from preschool to college and beyond, and my demographic is so varied that each city is a whole new experience. With the Harper Collins re-release of An Awesome Book in March, I’m looking toward re-vamping the foundation to include a much larger “public works” component that ultimately allows for me and my circle of creative friends to best use our skills as artists to have a direct and positive impact on kids. If any of this sounds exciting to your readers, they can always email us.
Q: What’s been the best response to your books by a child or adult that you’ll never forget?
A: They are all pretty great. Basically, I wake up each morning to a new letter or a new email or a new article or a new photo of someone telling me that what I have made has helped inspire them in some small way. That’s my reality. Every day! Isn’t that crazy!? It’s like waking up each morning to a kiss on the cheek or a gold medal or a really big warm hug. And on top of that, these are people I’ve usually never met, in places I might not have ever been. And as if that weren’t enough, you add to it this idea of people sharing what I make with their kids; these perfectly impressionable, noble little magical minds being given my work by the people they trust most in the entire world: their parents! That is insane! So nuts! When you are two, or three, or four or five, your parents are like gods to you. Having your dad read An Awesome Book to you is like having Zeus say to you “Hey, check out this book. It’s important.” So just the fact that this happens somewhere in the world every day without me even knowing it is BANANAS. So honestly, they’re all just great. People getting tattoos of my drawings is crazy, too!
Q: The first book you read that changed your life…
A: Hmmm. It was probably some really bad punk zine from the nineties, if you can count that as a book. I think that was the first time in my life where I realized “Wait, people can just make things on their own and there aren’t really any rules about it?” That’s a heavy idea.
Books and TV shows and movies and art and chairs and coffee-makers and airplanes and cars all came from somewhere. From someone’s head. Until I got involved in the world of DIY-culture, I never understood that. I think a lot of people still don’t truly understand that. Especially in the western world, we are so far removed as consumers and have been for so many decades. The kids I talk to in schools – whether they are eight or eighteen – most of the time, they still see a book as something that just comes from a bookstore rather than seeing it as something that was once an idea.
A huge part of what I do with touring is to try to remove a bit of the facade of arts and commerce. Let kids know that their ideas are just as valid as some author, or musician, or director who might be sitting in some far-off castle somewhere collecting royalty checks. The internet has done a great job at chiseling away at this notion as well, helping make creativity more about an exchange of ideas and less about an exchange of hard goods. I feel like this is an ideology that I absorbed in my youth and it definitely changed my life.
Q: What’s your favorite way to spend time with your son? Does he understand how cool it is that you wrote a book for him?
A: He’s eight, which is a killer age because he’s basically capable of doing almost any grown-up thing but has a huge portion of his innocence still intact. Because of this, I like doing things together that we’ve both never done before, and going places we’ve both never been. This way I can reclaim some innocence, too, which is important.
It’s not like a chess master teaching you chess; it’s like two people who really don’t know much about chess learning with each other, having fun, and finding the rhythm of the game. I like this because it drives me to get better at things that I might otherwise not have given much effort.
It’s not like he was born into a world where his dad was a successful author. I wrote An Awesome Book because of him. He was five when it came out. He was there for the entire process: me learning to draw, me making mock-up books, printing books, shipping books from my living room, going on tour, doing press, signing with major publishing houses. He was there through it all, which I think is the most important part. It’s not just a situation where I’m the chess master and I’m going to teach him this game through hours and hours of practice. It’s more like “Hey, that game looks really cool. I’ve never played that before! I think I’m going to learn how to play it. Do you want to learn, too?” The goal isn’t to master the game. The goal is to have fun learning how to play it.
A: The Greatest Writer Alive is my first book of non-kid specific poems. I’ve spent so much of the past few years living in kid world that I’ve definitely come to appreciate the work of someone like Shel Silverstein on a different level. To that same end I’ve always really related to the surreal pieces of David Berman. But I think for what it’s worth, both of those guys are creating from a bit of a darker place than I am.
One of my main motivators as a writer is to make sure kids and young adults are aware that it’s okay to not have to tell really sad dark stories if you don’t want to. If you don’t have them in you. You don’t have to go chasing down angst just to write poetry. I think being a teenager, we tend to gravitate toward dark ideas because those seem like they have the most impact, but as a parent I am so full of happiness most of the time and all I want to do is share that with others. Poetry is a great medium for that because you can distill a sentiment down into a few words and it can totally brighten someone’s day. The only trick is not having it sound like a bumper sticker.
Q: What’s your best advice for starting 2012 with an awesome, inspired bang?
A: Try to go somewhere you’ve never been and do something you’ve never done for as many days as you can in a row. Also, wear shoes less. Tell people you love them. And you should draw on your jeans when you get bored…remember when you used to do that? That was fun!
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Dallas. This was a refreshing beginning to my week!
Are you smiling, Friends? More than anything, I love how he approaches parenthood, don’t you? Reclaiming that innocence we all lose a little as soon as we become parents is an incredibly amazing feeling, and one that Dallas has reminded me to revisit. And haven’t we all been in that “What do you do?” conversation? How do you answer? I’d love to hear!
Images and video via Dallas Clayton.