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Norwich’s David Macaulay brings his latest work to Bookstock

  • Bestselling author and illustrator David Macaulay of Norwich, Vt., speaks about immigrating from England to New York City in 1957 aboard the S.S. United States, pictured behind him, during an interview in his studio in Norwich, Vt., on July 23, 2019. He wove that experience into his new book, "Crossing on Time", which he will be speaking about at Bookstock. 20190723-vn-macaulay-rr (Rick Russell photograph)

  • David Macaulay of Norwich, Vt., an internationally- bestselling author and illustrator, sits underneath a mammoth he created while discussing his work during an interview at his studio, in Norwich, Vt., on July 23, 2019. Described as a "master explainer", he has created over 30 books telling how things work. 20190723-vn-macaulay-rr (Rick Russell photograph)

  • A collection of his books translated into foreign languages sits on a shelf in David Macaulay's studio in Norwich, Vt., on July 23, 2019. author and illustrator 20190723-vn-macaulay-rr (Rick Russell photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, July 25, 2019

Above the doorframe in David Macaulay’s home studio in Norwich hangs a small painting of the SS United States. Throughout Macaulay’s years as one of the world’s foremost illustrators, the ship has always been in the back of his mind.

Finally, he’s telling its story. And with it, a little bit of his own.

Crossing on Time, published in May by Roaring Brook Press, showcases the grand steamship that triumphed in the global rivalry to build the fastest and best ocean liner and capped a vital era in transportation.

It also marks the first time Macaulay has made an appearance in one of his own books. The SS United States carried Macaulay, his mother, brother and sister from Bolton, England, to their new home in the United States in 1957, when he was 10 years old.

Weaving together those stories, as well as the story of the ship’s designer, William Gibbs, the book is so ambitious, so sprawling and complex, it almost didn’t get made.

“I really wondered if I would ever finish it,” said Macaulay, 72, sitting in the spacious studio he shares with a calico cat named Scribbles, a few days before his scheduled appearance on Saturday at the annual Bookstock festival in Woodstock. “I worked on it for about a year or so, and then I just kind of gave up.”

It wasn’t just that Macaulay was overwhelmed by the task of researching both the history and design of the great ship and producing both the illustrations and text. It turns out the celebrated children’s book illustrator, winner of numerous prestigious awards and creator of such modern classics as The Way Things Work, Cathedral and Castle, was suffering from a common ailment: a crisis of confidence.

“It was a topic I was never sure anybody would care about,” said Macaulay, who had already shelved a couple of other book ideas just prior to taking on Crossing on Time. “I had to rediscover it.”

By finding new ways into the material, Macaulay also gained a clearer sense of why people should care about the book. It’s not the subject matter, he realized, so much as the invitation to slow down and take a close look at an object, its construction, its impact, its place in the grand scheme of things. To pay attention.

“I want (readers) to know how much fun it is to understand how things work,” Macaulay said. “I want them to know the joy of asking questions about the everyday things around them. If you do that and give it some of your energy, it will reward you.”

If he understands the why of his book, Macaulay, well known for works that defy categorization, still isn’t sure who his readers are. But he’s OK with that.

“The happiest vision I have is people sitting together to read a book,” he said.

To that end, Macaulay has provided multiple entry points into the story, both from a visual and narrative perspective. In the prologue, the reader meets a young Macaulay, lying on his belly on the floor, toy pistols in his pockets, examining a drawing of the Empire State Building, one of the first feats of engineering to captivate his imagination. The boy returns briefly on page 51 and then takes over the narrative in the final chapters, but the bulk of the book belongs to the ship’s history and design.

It explains how, prior to the steamship era that began in the early 1800s, transatlantic crossings were at the mercy of the winds, and how steam engines originated as a way to pump water out of coal mines. It describes the evolution of steam engines and the shipping boom that arose out of the technology. The reader then meets a young William Gibbs, sitting in his bathtub reading books about ship design: a clear parallel to the young Macaulay and, perhaps, a prototype of the sort of kid who might be attracted to Macaulay’s books.

“I think Gibbs and I would have enjoyed each other’s company,” Macaulay said.

Over the next 35 years, Gibbs set out to design and build the world’s fastest and best steamship, a feat he accomplished with the SS United States in 1951, just a few years before airplanes replaced ships as the primary means of transoceanic travel.

Macaulay tells Gibbs’ story mostly in terms of his technical accomplishments. But that doesn’t mean his humanity is altogether absent. As in Macaulay’s other books, there are human stories under the surface.

“I don’t have deep insights about human interactions. I’m much more comfortable talking about putting one stone on top of the other,” Macaulay said. But the book, “does reveal something about people,” he said. “Gibbs never gave up on this idea of a big ship that would be faster and bigger than anything else. … I don’t think he could have ever predicted what was going to happen, but he never gave up.”

Readers who don’t give up on the story will be rewarded with a gorgeous, fold-out cross-section of the ship, each room recreated and labeled in meticulous detail. There’s even a dog kennel with a missing dog that readers can hunt for on the ship, a typical Macaulay gesture.

After that, Macaulay describes his own voyage to join his father in New Jersey, where he’d taken a job opening a knitting plant. With images of the Empire State Building filling his mind, the boy explores the decks of the ship, dines on ice cream, watches Disney movies and sits alone beneath the windows of the navigation bridge, vainly hoping for a chance to steer the enormous ship.

The experience didn’t shape Macaulay in any profound way: His childhood in England, roaming the woods at will, “made me who I am more than anything else,” he said.

But the trip set the course of his life, as it did for so many thousands of other immigrants in those days. After completing his grade school and high school education in New Jersey and Rhode Island, Macaulay studied architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“I loved studying architecture, but I didn’t want to be an architect,” he said. “I realized I wanted to make things myself that I could completely control.”

Setting his sights on illustration, Macaulay first pitched a fantasy book about gargoyles to a publisher. Looking at his sketches, the publisher had a different idea. “He said, ‘Nobody’s actually telling us about cathedrals,’ ” Macaulay said.

He accepted the challenge, and his first book, Cathedrals was published in 1972, immediately establishing his credentials as an artist with an engineer’s eye. He remained in Rhode Island, illustrating books and teaching illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design, until about 13 years ago, when he and his wife, Ruthie Murray, went looking for the best public school they could find for their two young children. Their quest brought them to Norwich, where they purchased the only house on the market, a sprawling New Englander hemmed in by hydrangeas, steps from downtown.

In his years here, Macaulay has made a point of getting out of his studio and connecting with the community. He’s a well-known face at the Norwich Bookstore, where he often comes in to sign books for patrons. He also participates in Vermont Humanities Council lectures that take him to communities around the state, and enjoys being part of events like Bookstock.

“I like talking about what I do,” said Macaulay, walking back his original statements about the frustrations of making the book just a bit. “In the end, it’s a lot of fun.”

Currently working on a new science book featuring the popular woolly mammoth from The Way Things Work Now, Macaulay hopes to soon give readers another first: a taste of the people, places and things he sees in his own daily life. He’s contemplating a book about the way people encounter the world while walking dogs.

“You see things when you’re walking dogs that you might not otherwise see,” said Macaulay, who walks his two poodle mixes, Stella and Astro, every day. “You have to keep stopping. It gives you a different perspective.”

Bookstock takes place Friday through Sunday in Woodstock and features more than 40 writers. For information, visit bookstockvt.org.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.