Ten Years and Counting

The other day, at approximately the same moment, Robbi and I glanced over at the calendar, saw that it was 2016, and did a bit of math.

It turns out we have been in Chestertown for ten years now. Even though it seems like we got here five minutes ago.

After the shock subsided, Robbi and I launched into a reminiscence of that day, about eleven years ago, when we realized we were sad. We had what we were supposed to want: great jobs at a fancy design firm, a row house in trendy Baltimore neighborhood, an elegant blue dog named Iggy.

But we didn’t have time to make stuff together. And all we really wanted to was make stuff together.

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And so we decided to make a change.

Plan A was grad school (MFA in fiction) for me. Robbi had gotten a lot out of her MFA. Maybe if I got one, too, we could go somewhere and teach together, and write and make art and that would make us happy. We were full of hope as I sent out my applications.

But the powers that be had other plans. Plan A was a bust.

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And so we came up with Plan B: quit our jobs, sell our house, and move into the hayloft above Robbi’s mom’s pottery studio. Our parents did not think this was a good idea. They were probably right. We were chucking our jobs and our health insurance for the prospect of certain financial ruin.

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But it didn’t matter. We knew we needed to try something different. And so we took a long, hard look at the hayloft in question. On one hand, it was unoccupied. On the other hand, it was full of 30 years of dusty stuff: lumber, broken pottery, cardboard boxes, various branches, old tires, ancient furniture, and other glorious debris Robbi’s dad (the ultimate pragmatist) couldn’t bring himself to throw away.

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And yet we had a plan. And the will. And Robbi’s parents’ permission to proceed.

So we spent our weekends for the next six months clearing out junk, one van-load at a time. Eventually we could see the floors and walls. And so we hung some insulation and some sheetrock.

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And made ourselves a brand-new home.

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The heart of Plan B was to make books until we ran out of money. To make sure we’d actually do it instead of lying around watching TV, we set up a subscription service. People gave us money and we promised to make and send them 10 books in the year to come. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no idea how to make books or publish books or sell books. But we decided to do it anyway.

We gave our venture a name. It was a terrible name. It was our name.

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Armed with our terrible name, we rolled up our sleeves and made some books (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/).

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(We made them on our dining room table.)

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We sent them out into the world. We had no idea if they were any good. But we were having a good time.

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Making books was the end of our plans. We had zero expectations or even hopes of anything beyond the making.

But things started happening.

For example, local painter Marc Castelli (http://www NULL.marc-castelli NULL.com/) showed our books to local bookseller Tom Martin (http://www NULL.bookplate NULL.biz/), who started carrying our books in October and asked us to do our first public presentation in December.

Suddenly, we were standing in front of a (admittedly tiny) crowd who expected us to have something to say. (We had nothing to say.) We mumbled and fumbled and yammered, and afterward sold a few books and even signed our names. It was at that moment we discovered that beyond the pleasure of MAKING books is the pleasure of sharing them with people.

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We got an opportunity to do more of the same a few months later when Carla Massoni of Chestertown’s own Massoni Gallery (http://www NULL.massoniart NULL.com/) included us in a group show of young artists.

Our central piece was a narrative mural that rose up from one of our books and wound its way up one wall, across a ceiling, and back down the opposite wall. But we also showed some framed illustrations from our books and some of Robbi’s clay monoprints. The show put our work in front of a bunch of new people. It made us feel like actual artists. Also, we sold a lot of books. We doubled our subscribership. We met some amazing fellow artists.

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One of them, a painter named J.T., asked to us paint a mural on the wall of a gallery in DC. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, brought sleeping bags, and painted and slept throughout the weekend, finishing in the wee hours Sunday morning. It was a panel from our book For the Love of God (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/for-the-love-of-god). It was extremely large.

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We reached our goal of making ten books together that first year, but (as we had anticipated) we pretty much burned through our savings. It was time to contemplate a return to the “real” world.

But then, at just the right moment, I got a miracle of a phone call from my old boss Clifford, asking if I might like to come back to work half time, from home, as a writer.

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I said yes. (I might have said “hell yes.”) Suddenly fortified with a predictable income, we kept on making books. Because we hadn’t yet run out of ideas.

Inspired by the fun we’d had with our first halting performance at Tom’s bookstore, we started refining our act and taking it on the road. As it turned out, we DID have something to say. We were living a story that people found interesting. And slowly we figured out how to tell it.

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Part of telling our story was finding ways to meet other people who cared about the kind of work we were making. Our Idiots’Books titles are best described as “odd, commercially nonviable picture books for adults.” They are not comics, but we found an approximate relevance and kinship at a couple of small press and comic shows.

About nine months into our adventure, we applied for (and were miraculously granted a table at) the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts Festival (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/MoCCA_Festival) in NYC. The first day, we charged way too much for our books and sold almost none of them. The second day, we made minor adjustments and fared much better. But the real takeaway from the show was that there was this army of other people who were also interested in combining pictures and words in unexpected ways. We were excited and energized.

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Another part of telling our story has been sharing it with students who are, themselves, interested in being creators of some sort. In the winter of 2008, we returned to our alma mater for our first joint teaching gig, where we spent January leading six writers and six visual artists through a monthlong exploration of collaborative book making. They made astonishing stuff. Stuff that they probably would not have made if we hadn’t been there. Our mission evolved from just making books to figuring out ways to empower other creators to make books (or really any creative product), too.

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Feeling bold (and somewhat lonely), we hosted a festival, Subscribers that Rock (http://www NULL.thebarnstorming NULL.com/archives/2007/11/subscribers_tha NULL.html), and invited our talented creative friends to come do their thing. Thanks to Drew, Brian, Rich, other Brian, Victor, Aidan, and Jim for making the trek and dazzling Chestertown with two days of literature, music, stand-up comedy, and string theory.

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Feeling even bolder, we decided to embrace responsibility and welcomed the first of our three (and soon to be four) children into the barn. Alden was extremely small. Every time I carried her to the changing table, I feared that I would break her. The good news: I did not break her.

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Time passed. We changed a lot of diapers. We kept making books. We kept finding new ways to share them. We kept telling our story whenever and wherever people would listen.

People started asking us to do stuff. People who worked in the real world of books. An editor named Liz asked us create a series of DYI, single-sheet recombining narratives (http://www NULL.tor NULL.com/2009/03/09/one-page-wonders/) for the Tor.com website. We called them One-Page WondersI remember getting her email asking if we’d be interested in taking on the project. I remember running around whooping with Robbi, so thrilled were we with the opportunity.

Not long after, essayist named Kim, who we met at a literary conference, asked us to speak at a symposium celebrating the essay.

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We gave a 12-minute talk with lots of illustrated slides. We were sharing the stage with a bunch of real-live writers who had published real-live books and won real-live awards and actually gotten their MFAs. But we made the audience laugh and even inspired a person or two (or so we were told).

After that, we really got the speaking bug. And so we were thrilled when an illustrator named Jaimie stopped by our table at the Small Press Expo and asked us to speak at the illustrious ICON7 (http://www NULL.theillustrationconference NULL.org/). ICON is a huge, international illustration conference where the biggest names in the field convene to share ideas and swap nicely drawn business cards. Based on our (utter lack of) contributions to date, we had NO BUSINESS speaking at ICON, but Jaimie was on the board, and there was an effort afoot to include “up and coming” creators alongside the titans and legends. And so we came and told our story. And made a bunch of new friends.

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It was around that time that an editor named Dan (who we’d also met at SPX), decided to include us in the New York magazine Approval Matrix (placing us, to our delight, in the Brilliant and Lowbrow quadrant).

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(Because who wants to be despicable and highbrow?)

It became our unofficial motto.

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Doing our best to live up to our adopted quadrant, we kept making books. And sharing them with people.

The merry men of Bombadil (https://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Bombadil_(band)), who we met one night after one of their gigs, visited our studio, checked out our stuff, and asked us to create the art for their next album. We felt like the people rock stars turned to for their album art. Because, suddenly, we were those people.

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The same editor named  Liz (she of the One Page Wonders fame) wrote us again and asked us to create chapter illustrations for the online release of Cory Doctorow’s book Makers. This was our biggest commission to date. It was a vast and audacious project to begin with, but we saw an envelope and wanted to push it. Liz indulged our idea to design the illustrations as 81 interchangeable “tiles” (http://boingboing NULL.net/2010/01/19/makers-tile-game-the NULL.html) that recombine in more ways than there are atoms in the universe.

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Our friend Joshua Wolf Shenk, who was then the director of the literary house at Washington College, commissioned us to create a mural on the ceiling and four walls of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. Called Six Degrees of Frances Bacon, it was a huge web of literary greats (and Kevin Bacon), each connected with satirical phrases. It became the anchor for a profile about us in Baltimore Magazine (http://www NULL.baltimoremagazine NULL.net/old-site/arts/2010/07/nobodys-fools).

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On perhaps the most coincidentally important day of our lives in books (though we had no idea at the time) a guy named Jesse, who worked for Disney, bought one of our self-published mix-and-match books at a small press show in New York City. Instead of forgetting about it, some many months later, he shared it with an editor named Erin who worked at Little Brown, and who called us up and asked us if we might like to make a book with her.

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No matter that it was a book about kid-friendly superheroes who aren’t allowed to do anything more untoward than glare at one another. This was our proverbial “big break.” I wish I had a video of the jumping and yelling we did that day.

Working within the narrow creative parameters of the Disney/Marvel universe, we rolled up our sleeves and made the best book about pacifist super heroes that we possibly could.

This book provided the occasion for a writer named Lela Moore at the New York Times to write a little piece (http://artsbeat NULL.blogs NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2010/11/10/the-idiots-guide-to-publishing/) about Robbi and me, Idiots’Books, and our first foray into commercial publishing.

And it gave us a chance to show our editor Erin that we were willing to work our butts off, that we always met our deadlines, and that we were fun to collaborate with.

It was around this time that Bridget, an editor at Chronicle Books—yes CHRONICLE BOOKS (http://www NULL.chroniclebooks NULL.com/)—offered to publish a gorgeous hardcover version of our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Ten-Thousand-Stories-Ever-Changing-Happenings/dp/1452114072/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474818851&sr=8-1&keywords=ten+thousand+stories).

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About which, Pulitzer-prize winning book critic (and all-around stellar human being) Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review (https://www NULL.washingtonpost NULL.com/entertainment/books/ten-thousand-stories-an-ever-changing-tale-of-tragic-happenings/2013/12/11/9d664514-60fd-11e3-bf45-61f69f54fc5f_story NULL.html) in the Washington Post.

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In what is perhaps the peak moment of her past decade, Robbi had the opportunity to interview the legendary Robert Crumb, live, on stage, a block from our house. Apparently unaware of Crumb’s reputation as a difficult interview, Robbi did her research, came loaded for bear, and stood toe-to-toe with this legendary creator. While winning his heart in the process.

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We kept making books, but without making it our explicit mission, we also started spending more and more time on stage talking about them. Through our appearance at ICON7, we met illustrators Melanie Reim and Anelle Miller, who gave us the ultimate honor of presenting the keynote address at the Society of Illustrators (https://www NULL.societyillustrators NULL.org/) Educator’s Symposium.

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One day at the AWP conference (https://www NULL.awpwriter NULL.org/awp_conference/), we met a guy who, after leafing through our Idiots’Books offerings, suggested that if we were to offer a subscription-based book club for kids, he’d buy ten club memberships on the spot. We thought about that for a while (our initial thought was, “no way, that’s too much work”) and launched Bobbledy Books. (Our subsequent thought was “this is too much work, but we will find a way.”)

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Bobbledy gave us the opportunity to ask our friends Drew Bunting and Brian Slattery, genius musicians and songwriters, to pour their heart and soul and musical wizardry into three incredible children’s albums.

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And the chance to collaborate with composer, actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, and one-man-band Jordan Allan White (http://jordanallenwhite NULL.com/) on a fourth. (For anyone in the Atlanta area, Jordan’s musical puppet show Loggerhead Island is about to open at the Georgia Aquarium. It’s amazing. Check it out.

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Another notable project came from fellow Williams College alum Ashley Weeks Cart (http://blogalacart NULL.com/), who commissioned us to create a poster-sized illustrated bucket list (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/ephropology-101-the-williams-bucket-list) of the Williams College experience.

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It was an extraordinary amount of work, and we’ll probably never do anything like it again, but it was an opportunity to push ourselves in yet another creative direction. (If you are keen to get your hands on one of these, we still have a few left (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/products/ephropology-101-the-williams-bucket-list).)

The election of 2012 came around. The cast of characters seemed too odd and problematic to resist the opportunity for satire. And so we created a three-panel mix-and-match book that allowed the reader to recombine the physical characteristics and position platforms of the ten most prominent candidates into 1,000 possible candidates. Our good friend Josh created a slick interactive version that you can still play today (if you are nostalgic for days when folks like Herman Caine and Rick Santorum were the leading edge of nutty.)

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And then there was our letterpress adventure, a flurry of exploration of an entirely new medium in partnership with our friend and printer Jodi Bortz. We made cards and invitations and family trees and stationery. Even though Robbi and I are taking an indefinite vacation from the letterpress game, Jodi has created her own enterprise, Blue Canary Letterpress (http://bluecanaryletterpress NULL.com/), which still offers many of Robbi’s designs in addition to plenty of Jodi’s own. Her shop is about a block from the barn, and you can swing by to see the Chandler in Price in action most days.

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We must give thanks to Elise, who gave us a chance to take the stage at TedX. (If you decide to watch the video of our talk (https://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=Vqx7qMPyYG0), take heart to know that my microphone issue gets sorted out about a minute in.)

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And to Gabby Blair of Design Mom fame, who asked us to come speak at Alt Summit (http://www NULL.altitudesummit NULL.com/), and who recently paid us the ultimate compliment of featuring our picture book Babies Ruin Everything (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Babies-Rudrin-Everything-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250080576/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1469307003&sr=8-1&keywords=babies+ruin+everything) among her Four Picture Books You’ll Love column (http://www NULL.designmom NULL.com/category/childrens-lit/).

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The blogger, innovator, and conference creator Laura Mayes saw our dog and pony show at Alt and asked us to come speak at Mom 2.0 (https://www NULL.mom2summit NULL.com/).

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It was there that, wandering around the exhibitor halls one afternoon, we found our way onto the TODAY show set and accidentally discovered that we enjoy sitting together chatting on video.

And then there’s design director, Lisa Kelsey, who we also met us at ICON7 (see what a big deal THAT turned out to be, thank you Jaime Zollars (http://www NULL.jaimezollars NULL.com/)!), and offered us the opportunity to be profiled (http://www NULL.familycircle NULL.com/family-fun/relationships/modern-life-matthew-swanson-and-robbi-behr/) in an issue of Family Circle magazine.

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And let us stand up and shout from the rooftops about how much we love and trust and would be nowhere without our magnificent advisor/truth teller/literary agent Meredith, who has (so far) boldly sold five of our book projects to Macmillan.

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And this seems like the perfect moment to (re)introduce our (very nice) editor and publisher Erin Stein (she of Super Hero Squad fame), who a few years ago started her own imprint at Macmillan and, in a dramatic flourish of believing in us, promptly acquired five of our book projects.

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Erin gave us the thrill of publishing our first hardcover children’s book (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Babies-Rudrin-Everything-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250080576/ref=sr_1_1?s=instant-video&ie=UTF8&qid=1469307003&sr=8-1&keywords=babies+ruin+everything) this past July.

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Erin gave us the thrill of making and anticipating the arrival of our second hardcover picture book Everywhere, Wonder (https://www NULL.amazon NULL.com/Everywhere-Wonder-Matthew-Swanson/dp/1250087953/ref=pd_sim_14_1?ie=UTF8&pd_rd_i=1250087953&pd_rd_r=FX8AB8XKTBXFFK5Z0RG6&pd_rd_w=xQJOn&pd_rd_wg=ukjd8&psc=1&refRID=FX8AB8XKTBXFFK5Z0RG6) this coming February.

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And she has given us the truly mind-boggling thrill of working on and publishing our first illustrated novels, a middle grades series called The Real McCoys, the creation of which is currently occupying the lion’s share of our waking moments (and plenty of our non-waking ones, as well), and which will arrive on bookshelves sometime next fall. Here are the main characters, Milton and Moxie. 12378001_10207973449206382_7050087709629606737_o (http://robbiandmatthew NULL.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/12378001_10207973449206382_7050087709629606737_o NULL.jpg)

Beyond the books and gourmet donuts (Erin really knows how to host a production meeting), Erin won our hearts during our first official visit to the Macmillan offices in the Flatiron building (yes, the Flatiron Building that we always stop to gaze up upon and take pictures of ourselves in front of and wonder what’s happening inside of) by taking us on a private tour of the 18th-floor balcony and letting us know we have a second home in New York.

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What started out as a desire to not be sad has turned into an decade-long avalanche of creative opportunity. The range of things we’ve had the chance to make and do and experience over the past ten years defies belief, let alone my ability document them all.

In an attempt to remember, I just looked up at the shelf of stuff we’ve made. 70 books (https://shop NULL.robbiandmatthew NULL.com/) and counting. Four children’s albums. A handful posters and broadsides. A line of t-shirts and onesies. Various cards and postcards and invites and business cards and logos and websites and original art.

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A bunch of nice write ups in various newspapers and magazines.

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Dozens of talks and workshops and class visits and critique sessions on colleges, schools, conferences, and libraries across the country.

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It’s impossible to hold in our heads at one time. And so we wrote it down here. To remind ourselves that it happened. To remind ourselves that it’s only the beginning.

A million thanks to the people mentioned throughout this post, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Without the rest of you, we probably wouldn’t have made it past the first few projects. Our creative lives have been possible because of the army of other people who supported our adventures these past ten years by:

  • subscribing to Idiot’sBooks or Bobbledy Books
  • buying our books at shows and online
  • hiring us to do do custom books and illustrations
  • reading our blog
  • watching our children
  • making us dinner
  • helping us stuff envelopes
  • sending us care packages
  • giving us hand-me-downs
  • putting up with our nonsense
  • helping us fish in Alaska
  • simply showing up and living this story with us

Thank you, thank you, to all of these people.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.

2 Comments

  1. Wow, what an amazing retrospective! We missed you guys at SPX this year but it’s great to see all the world-conquering you’ve been up to since last year. Excelsior!

  2. Beautiful! What an amazing ride its been. Congrats on 10 years!!