So as many of you saw in my review about two weeks ago, I really enjoyed December’s poll winner read, The History of the Snowman by Bob Eckstein. Bob is a cartoonist, journalist, humor writer, and the snowman expert. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Post, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Village Voice, and more. Well Bob was awesome enough to respond to my review and he agreed to do an author Q&A post with me! Very brave of him I might say, since I’ve never done one before. So here we are. Enjoy! (And also, click pictures to embiggen them.)
When did you really decide to pursue researching the snowman? Did it start as a hobby, or did you set out with the intention of writing a book about him?
In 2000 I decided to write a book, a mystery in fact, after being asked by agents if I would be interested in being represented by them and writing a book. I was a columnist for TimeOut and Village Voice at the time and agents wanted to take advantage of the following I enjoyed. I didn’t want it to be a crime mystery but one that answered one of life great mysteries. Who told the first joke? Who made the first sandwich? I went with who made the first snowman after strolling the bookstores during the holidays realizing there were no good holiday books for all religions, nor any for adults aside from cookbooks or religious titles. I have always been fascinated with extreme cold weather and have a small library just on all things to do with the Poles. I was very lucky as I learned early on in my research that I had hit the jackpot and was entering territory no one had pursued before. Nobody knew the snowman had a history rich with sex and violence.
As for snowmen as a hobby, during my seven years of research I had collected valuable snowman antiques–I have about 800–but I saw them simply as clues to the puzzle.
You mention that you did a lot of travelling while researching the snowman – where did you enjoy travelling the most? Which journeys gave you the most beneficial research?
I think Bruges, Belgium is the most beautiful city in the world–the medieval homes, the canals and the sheer lack of modern times. One important stop I made was the beautiful coast of Iceland and visiting the place where A Journey to the Center of the Earth starts. It was a crossroads in my life for many reasons and just to share one, I eloped while I was there.
The pivotal moment in my travels was in The Hague where in The Royal Library archives is the oldest depiction of a snowman, a tiny illustration in the margins of a medieval Bible. That period was very exciting and almost Da Vinci Code-ish. You’ll see what I mean from this excerpt of my notes…
“…my three-week journey to reach Professor Pleij began by plane and then a trolley to the Brussels city museum, where old maps charted the snowmen made in 1511 that Professor Pleij wrote about in his book, De sneeuwpoppen van 1511. Days later, an express train took me to The Royal Library at The Hague, where I met with experts to discuss the particulars of the first printed snowman in that historic, illuminated manuscript from 1380. I was also curious about any other snowmen that may have existed in their art catalog—the Royal Library’s collection of images is the world’s largest, at 8 million. I focused on the approximately 15,000 woodcuts, drawings, etchings, and paintings created before 1750 that were categorized as winterscapes, examining each suspicious mound of snow with a magnifying glass.
After I accomplished that arduous task, I hitched a ride to Amsterdam from an old friend who also acted as my Dutch translator. Once inside the city, I made my way to the university by foot. Our route took us past some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions: a quick peek in “The World’s Smallest Art Gallery” (the size of a closet), a brisk walk through the red light district and past its famed Banana Bar flanked by bikers offering coupons…and a hurried tour in Rembrandt’s house, where the famous artist went bankrupt, only a snowball’s throw from the center of the city.
Finally, I arrived for my long awaited appointment with Professor Pleij. As the leading authority in medieval cultural studies and, more importantly, snowmen in the Middle Ages, our lengthy conversation regarding my fieldwork was invaluable. At the conclusion of our meeting the distinguished professor gave me his blessing and declared he was passing the torch of “snowman expert” on to me. My Dutch friend documented the moment and our good-bye handshake with photographs and asked if I remembered where we passed the Banana Bar.
That trip sounds amazing! Okay, so what’s the most interesting thing you learned about snowmen in your research?
The snowman making is one of man’s oldest forms of folk-art. Man has always had a primal instinct to do two things. One, make a depiction of himself and two, have the urge to put one thing on top of another.
I do have some advice for writers which I should follow myself more frequently. What is killing creativity in this day and age, are distractions in the form of iPhones, music, TV and all multi-tasking. This is why many say I get my best ideas in the shower. We have stopped being by ourselves and feel a need to constantly be entertained.
I agree 100% – ever since I got a smartphone I feel like I spend half the day on it. How did you like the process of writing and publishing a book? What was hardest, and easiest?
It’s difficult financially without juggling other jobs and that keeps one from finishing their book. I have columns (Consumer Reports, Time, Inc), do ten cartoons a week (New Yorker) and do freelance illustration and all of those are necessary to pay the bills. Once you finish the book you learn that if you are truly committed to make the book a real player in publishing, then the work has just begun. Promoting the book is 80% of the job. Last year I did over 60 TV and radio interviews. I spent $1,000 on books I gave people that could help the book in some way.
The pluses outweigh the financial shortcomings (I did spend over $25,000 on the research and for the permissions rights in the book so it wasn’t until I sold over 30,000 copies that I started to enjoy a profit.). I received a lot of wonderful letters and feedback from people who adore the book. As for the process of writing, I’m like a Victoria Secret model–we both work in our underwear.
HA! I loved your cartoons and drawings sprinkled throughout the book – have you ever considered some sort of snowman comic strip, or a book of your collected cartoons?
Thank you! I decided to add an intermission in the book which I thought was a cool idea. It was the world’s best snowman cartoons. There were a couple of spaces to fill and I drew a couple of cartoons myself. After the book came out cartoon-great Sam Gross from The New Yorker invited me to their famous Tuesday lunch for my birthday. I had a great time and asked how I could get a part of the action and so I returned the following week with ten sketches under my arm. I sold my first New Yorker cartoon on the first try, which I was told never happens and I became a cartoonist Since then I do cartoons regularly for Barron’s, Wall Street Journal, Playboy, Reader’s Digest, Funny Times, Salon.com, Narrative, Mad, America as well as the major magazines in Europe like Spectator, Prospect, Private Eye and The Oldie. And this year I was nominated Cartoonist of the Year by the National Cartoon Society. So I feel very lucky about that and one day there will be a Best of Bob (B.O.B.) box set e-book which will be interactive and include multi-media. But that’s on the back burner.
This month I ghostwrote the comic strip The Lockhorns and quit due to the lack of money there is in it. So no, there will not be a snowman comic strip. I do about 400 gag cartoons a year now so that easily fulfills my cartoon itch.
The B.O.B. box set sounds awesome, I’m looking forward to it! Speaking of, can you tell my readers about any upcoming books or projects?
I just worked on two books; a parody children’s book called Sarah Palin’s American History, which was shelved because she dropped out of the race. Maybe it will resurface later, it’s pretty funny. The second book I only illustrated; Bill Pennington’s On Parcomes out next year. Monday I begin illustrating a cookbook for Better Homes & Garden.
Next year I will finish my book The Sea Below Us, a humorous graphic novel that is a diary from 1850 based on the true story of searching for the missing Sir John Franklin in the North Pole. Even though it’s fictional, I researched this book for twelve years including spending one week on the Star of India in San Diego, the oldest working ship in the world and the model for Master & Commander. I will be drawing and reporting in live time at this year’s Super Bowl for The NY Times (I’ve been working for the Times for over thirty years. This year I wrote a story about my mid-life crisis.). Long term wise I’ve been working on a TV special based on the book which has bounced around from studio to studio.
I’m can’t wait to read The Sea Below Us, it sounds great! I’ll be eagerly awaiting a release date. So just out of curiousity, when did you last build a snowman?
Last year, it would have been during the last snowfall. Anytime I make a snowman now it, for better or worse, is a photo op for someone. That time it was a feature about me in The NY Daily News.
Okay and to wrap things up, what three random things do you want your readers to know about you?
Well, if anything, I’d like to be known as nice person. In return I feel like I’ve gotten to know the nicest people and at the end of the day, I can’t think of anything more important.
Okay, fun facts. You want some fun facts. I’m guessing career-wise I have a few; I wrote an editorial for all three NYC newspapers on the same weekend in 2009 (Daily News, NY Post and New York Times’sports section). And one other one is in the eighties and nineties I was actually a media star of sorts in Japan. I even did a fashion spread there. An interview like this condenses the highlights of a career into a few paragraphs but for every success, every submission accepted, there were dozens of rejections and years of frustration. Bob Mankoff (New Yorker Cartoon Editor) told me the most important quality to being a successful cartoonist is dealing with rejection. So I want to temper all my bragging here with some humble pie.
Personally, ummm…I was once a tournament Scrabble player and I have Mel Gibson’s whistle from the movie Mad Max.
Bob, I’d like to thank you SO MUCH for answering all these questions here today. I’m very grateful and had a lot of fun! And I look forward to all of your future work.
I encourage everyone to pick up Bob’s book – in fact clicking this link will take you right to Amazon so you can buy it right away. And if you’d like to know more about Bob…
Visit Today’s Snowman for all the snowman news!
Pick up some decorating ideas via Bob’s Smartass Idea for the Home!
*I received no compensation for this interview, nor do I receive any compensation if you buy the book. I’m merely a happy reader trying to spread the joy.