Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say’s Silent Days, Silent Dreams is “an imagined biography” of deaf, autistic and dyslexic artist James Castle, but more importantly, it’s a tremendous and haunting tribute to a great artist by a great artist. Say shares a look behind the creative process and his hopes for the book.
There’s a lot to love about James Castle’s art. What do you admire the most about it?
I admire the directness of James Castle’s art, which reminds me of Zenga—the style of painting in Zen. He drew what he saw without thinking in the abstract medium of language that turns paintings into ideas called “isms.” Castle bypassed the ism-stage because he had no language: He couldn’t hear or speak or read, and he was also autistic and dyslexic. Ironically, his misfortunes nurtured him into one of the most original American artists of any period. His pictures come straight from the heart, and they are very moving.
It’s clear that you felt compelled to make this book and tell Castle's story. What started as a portrait of Castle as a favor you owed a friend became this book. Did you respond to previous projects with that kind of driving passion, or did this top them all for you?
Starting a new book is always exciting and scary. In this one, there was more scare than excitement: The little grove I wandered into turned out to be an endless forest. It was a kind of calling for me: I had to find out how a child without hearing or speech—and possibly autistic and dyslexic—had managed to teach himself to draw and succeeded in producing a vast body of artwork from reclaimed wastepaper trash bins. But I had no idea how to start the project. It’s not the kind of a book for which I could write an outline and lay it out in thumbnail drawings. Freelancing was the only way: I didn't have the nerve to ask for a contract for a book that was a confused mass of ideas and images. I went for broke, and did go broke, and finally asked my editor, Arthur A. Levine, for a contract. He was most understanding.
Why, in particular, did you decide to tell the story from the point of view of the nephew?
As the loosely connected story emerged through the drawings that were spread out on the floor, there were always gaps that needed filling. In those gaps I often put in drawings in my style as asides, to let the readers know that they were reading a story told by a third party—a kind of digressive pauses, or varied spatial experience, as though going from a small room into a hallway, then into a large room. It seemed to me that the text needed a particular person or personality to reflect this third party. The brilliant idea of choosing Castle’s nephew, who had known James all his life and was instrumental in bringing his work the attention of the public, came from Arthur. Let me go public here: Thank you, Arturo-kun!
You mention in the book’s author’s note about using some of the materials Castle did (sticks, soot, spit, etc.) to recreate his art, as well as drawing with your nondominant hand. What was that like? Did you go through tons of drafts for those pieces?
Castle managed to teach himself to draw with most primitive drawing materials such as soot, spit, burnt matchsticks, liquid laundry bluing, on bits of trash paper he collected around the family farm. I thought about him for a month, and remembered my own childhood when I had drawn in secrecy, hiding from my father. Drawing with my left hand reverted me to a 5-year-old boy who drew with total concentration; it was a kind of meditation in these dreadful times. I drew helter-skelter in many sketchbooks, and since I draw best when I’m not thinking (bypassing the word-processing stage), I cut out the sketches that turned out well and used them directly in the book. Though I did hundreds of drawings that didn’t make the cut, James Castle had a liberating influence on my work.
You also mention in the author’s note what incredible range Castle had and that, for this book, you decided to concentrate on his drawings. Is there maybe another book in you that focuses on some of his other mediums? Or are you done telling his story?
This book begins with Castle’s birth and ends with his death, which puts it in the biography genre. But my intent was to try to see the world through Castle’s eyes and try to portray an artist who knew no language, who did all his thinking in pictures. It’s an imagined biography of a person who was entirely entrapped inside a silent body, to which art gave a peephole out into the world. With this book I want to invite my readers to imagine what James Castle endured and created works with humblest of materials that speak to us today. And I hope I’ve accomplished that!
What’s next for you?
I’ve been working on a simple experimental work that’s getting more complicated every day. It’s hard to be simple—as Zen practitioners know but will not say. James Castle just did it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Silent Days, Silent Dreams.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.