Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New favorite book: Speakeasy Dollhouse

My best friend from junior high and beyond, who I also lived with in college, is the renowned artist Countess Cynthia Von Buhler, who is the most talented and beautiful woman ever. You'd kinda want to hate her for it, except she's also exceedingly nice and funny -- and she works harder than anyone I know. (I know her as Cindy, but you should call her Cynthia.) She started out as an illustrator, but she's not one to rest on her laurels, so she just keeps doing more amazing, diverse work including performances and installations. She's illustrated many books (most recently the Evelyn Evelyn graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics, and writes them herself as well (But Who Will Bell the Cat?, The Cat Who Wouldn't Come Inside).

Cindy's maternal grandparents lived in the Bronx and ran speakeasies during the Prohibition. Then her grandfather had an ice delivery business. One day her grandfather went out with one of his four children to collect a debt, leaving his pregnant wife at home. He was murdered. In August Cindy raised $16,811 via Kickstarter to publish a picture book for adults and produce an immersive play influenced by Sleep No More in New York City, all to explore this murder.

Everything Cindy produces is gorgeously detailed, and this project is no exception. For the book, she photographed dolls and sets to tell the story, which is similar to the technique she used for The Cat Who Wouldn't Come Inside.

I'm always excited to get a new book, but this one is especially exciting to me because for a lot of it, I was there. Even though the book is ostensibly about a murder that took place during the 1930s, the story is also about Cindy's own life. This project is also exciting to me as a writer and editor, because it represents a new wave of publishing, and I wanted to know all about how my friend put it all together. She's always got a million project brewing, but she took time to answer some questions I sent her. (Thanks, Cindy!!) Here they are:

Knowing you for such a long time, it seems like an idea that maybe was percolating your whole life; I remember hearing the story about your grandfather's death. How long did this project take?

I have been thinking about it my whole life, but I never envisioned it as a book until I realized that a graphic novel would be the perfect medium for such a thing. I officially started my research two years ago. As for the art, I started exactly one year ago.

This was your first Kickstarter project, right? Did you try to take it to a traditional publisher first?

I did not. I usually write and illustrate children's books. This is a picture book for adults. It is an unusual project and I felt that I needed to show a publisher what was in my mind rather than try to describe it using only words. I'm not interested in self-publishing. I see this book as a dummy book paid for by my beloved fans. I'm interested in finding a publisher for the series, but on my own terms. If that means that I need to create a few of the books before I sell the project, so be it. Thanks to Kickstarter and the play I now have a built-in audience hooked on the series.

The book is brief autobiography of you, tied in with your mother's story. What was your mother's reaction to it?

At first she was resistant to the idea, but now she loves it. She is intrigued by my findings, but constantly says that I have an overactive imagination and that I always tend toward far-fetched scenarios. My whole family was up in arms when they saw my grandma doll naked while giving birth in the test photos. They weren't upset about the nudity as much as the fact that a naked Mary Spano was not believable. They felt that such a pious woman would be covered while giving birth. I gave her a white nightgown in the finals, but the image is still rather graphic. My mother's response to the book birth scene was, "There is too much blood. It's a birth, not a murder." I disagree with her. I watched birth videos as reference and there was a great deal of blood. But overall she is thrilled, especially when the evidence points to the fact that Grandpa was a victim rather than a criminal. The verdict on that is still not out. My mother loved the play, but she said that watching her own birth acted out was "surreal."

Besides looking through old newspapers at the library, what other research methods did you use? Did your mother's tin box have any clues in it?

I ordered the court, police, and autopsy records from the NYC archives. These were incredibly helpful. Ancestry.com is a fantastic research tool. It provides census reports from the 1920s and '30s, death records, birth records, cemetery records, and military records as well as the usual family tree listings. Identity-finding websites and the online white pages have also been useful. A journalist from The New York Daily News gave me the phone number of a reputed Gotti crime soldier's lawyer. When I hit a brick wall trying to find the murderer's children, a private investigator who was intrigued by my project offered his services for free. I'm also very good at stalking mobsters. I call them on the phone and drive to their houses to spy.

The most revealing item in the tin box was the burning-in-hell prayer card. The photos and paraphernalia also gave me insight into my grandparents' personalities. I wish that my grandmother had kept the police photos of her husband after he was shot. The back of the "we regret to inform you” death letter had a handwritten note by my grandmother indicating that police photos accompanied the letter.

Random question: I love the pattern swatches you use as design elements. The houndstooth ones on your Olan Mills spread remind me of those pants you used to have -- remember them? The others, too, totally remind me of you! Where did you get them?

Yes! They reminded me of those skinny-legged corduroy pants I used to wear too. I had one pair of the magenta pants and another blue, exactly like those patterns! I found all of the patterns in the book on a stock photo site. The big pink flowers reminded me of the wallpaper in my parent's kitchen, remember that? It was god-awful and amazing at the same time.

Also, I thought for a second that the photo in the upper left was my Olan Mills portrait. I was scared!

I'm so glad that you noticed that! I specifically remember calling your mother to sell her an Olan Mills portrait session. How could she resist her daughter's best friend? I chose that photo because it looked like you with your feathered blonde hair. I had a great deal of fun with the images on the walls. The therapist scene is a replica of my Connecticut therapist's office. She is an artist herself and the paintings on the walls are her own.

Did you make the dolls, or modify them? Did you make the clothes for the dolls?

I bought high-quality articulated plastic doll forms. They are bald and they all look the same, even the sexes. I added features and body shapes using flesh-colored clay and cooked them lightly in the oven. If you cook them too much the plastic will melt. Then I added hair (they also have pubic and chest hair) and painted their features with gouache paint. I did make a lot of the clothes, but I also found larger doll clothes and altered them to fit my smaller dolls. The scuba flippers on the last page were a find. I got them from a Spider Man action figure. You would think that Spider Man could swim without flippers, wouldn't you?

Anything you would do differently next time, or if you had to do it over again?

I would add the evidence collage materials to the book. I did not have all of my evidence ready for book one when I sent it to be printed. This is why I made a separate evidence booklet. Other than that, I really love everything about it: my family, the dolls, the actors, the speakeasy, New York City. I hope that my love for it is contagious.

I know the performance is a big part of this project, and since I couldn't be there (sob!), I'm wondering what you learned from it. The pictures I've seen are gorgeous.

My slogan is "The speakeasy is our dollhouse and the actors are our dolls." I see myself as the only audience member. I am "The Time Traveling Revealer of Truth." Even the ticketed guests are actors to me. They are all my dolls to play with! How cool is that? The difference between dolls and humans is that I cannot predict how humans would respond in a given situation. For example, Katelan Foisy, the actress who plays the wife of the murderer, asked me if she should be angry or scared when her husband kills my grandfather (her supposed lover). I asked her how she felt and she said that she was scared, so we went with that. This type of research will be invaluable as I write the rest of the graphic novel series.

If someone wants to buy this book, is there any way to get one now?

Good question. I made enough for my Kickstarter backers with 100 left over for my agent and promotion. At the shows we ended up selling most of those. I'm going to have to print up additional copies. Currently, the only way to get the book is to buy one at the show. I probably should have a web store to sell my books and art, but I'm too busy writing, creating, and directing to think about that.

What's next?!

We have a whole 2012 season of off-Broadway performances in NYC. Buy your tickets here!

Book Two is written, but I need to create and photograph the artwork. To do that I need funding. I'd also like to make a stop-motion book trailer. This also requires funding. It looks like there is another Kickstarter in the near future. I could stop and wait for a publisher or producer to swoop in and buy/option the book, but I feel that that would ruin my momentum. Either way, I plan to go forward full steam ahead.

Photo of Cynthia Von Buhler by Margee Challa ©2012
Artwork by Cynthia Von Buhler ©2012

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