Perfectly suited to her field of expertise, Amy's first title was the picture book biography The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A tale of the genius Ramanujan (Candlewick, April), about a young mathematical genius from India who grows up to reinvent much of modern mathematics. Her Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life (Enchanted Lion) came next in June, and Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Candlewick) landed on shelves in September.
Amy is active in SCBWI-Illinois and was a recipient of the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, partnered with the incredible writing coach Esther Hershenhorn. Her writing has won an Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a Christopher Award. We're so grateful Amy took a little time to talk about her creative process.
QUESTION: The Zhou Brothers' story has ties to Chicago, your hometown and mine. Can you talk about how this story came to be? How did you learn about them?
AMY ALZNAUER: Every third Friday of the month the Zhou B Center in Bridgeport (right down the street from the Sox stadium) holds an open-house. You can walk through the open studios of the artists who work there and also tour the permanent and rotating gallery spaces. Often there’s someone out front with a chainsaw carving up ice or wood into something beautiful (or at least fascinating). On one of these visits, I sat down in their bar and started thumbing through the Zhou catalogues. I soon came across a statement about the process of collaborative art that floored me.
People think collaboration is about harmony, said one of the brothers (and I’m pulling together a few different statements here). But they’re wrong. It’s like this: you make something beautiful. Someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together.
I was immediately struck by how this statement captured not only the struggle of making art, but the struggle of loving another person, and even the struggle of loving a nation through turmoil. I imagined a story that would weave together those three strands – the brothers’ relationship to each other, to their country (through the Cultural Revolution which devastated their family) and to their style of collaborative art.
Q: Your year in books has been tremendous. How did it happen that you had three books hit shelves in 2020? Are there more to come?
AA: Thank you! Well, it wasn’t supposed to happen quite like that. Two of them got bumped from their original pub dates, which for better or worse landed everything in a short five-month period. There’s actually one other out this year, 1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change (Candlewick), which makes two books with “revolution” in the title released on September 1!
Right now, I’m doing so many projects surrounding these books – creating short films, working on a book-donation and classroom art initiative, helping to curate an exhibit at Emory University (on Flannery O’Connor and the Black artist Benny Andrews), working on designing a geometric art game, and putting together a huge math + storytelling conference. So I’m struggling to find time for my future projects, but also dying to get to them!
Q: Your books celebrate painting, literature, mathematics and speak to children in a sophisticated way. Who is your ideal audience and how do you want them to experience your stories?
AA: I’ve never stopped loving picture books, and I guess I assume others feel the same way, so I write for both children and adults. To me the best way to make a book function on multiple levels is through metaphor. Metaphor is really the process of bringing disparate things into relationship, so in that way it creates both plot and the working out of ideas (why do these unlikely things go together?). So for example, in Strange Birds, there’s a little girl on a quest to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. But there is also a girl becoming a woman who will strive to write the strangest, most beautiful stories. The quest is for everyone, but older readers might also be inspired to think about how our life’s work grows out of childhood fascinations, how birds are like stories are like people, and maybe even the nature of strangeness. And I think when you write this way, the illustrator often has the chance to infuse their art both with beauty and concept, which again makes it function on different levels.
Recently a mathematician contacted me about The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, saying that he was inspired by the book to revisit one of Ramanujan’s theorems. And he actually wrote and published a paper that mentions my book as the inspiration. He opens with this: “We loved this book. It turned out that this book can be enjoyed by all ages from 0 to ∞.” Then he closes with what he calls “morals” for his adult, mathematician readers, the first of which is: “Read Children's books.” So that pretty much sums up my wildest hope – that my books will be read by all ages and that they’ll inspire creative work in others.