Friday, October 12, 2007

Snowman Interview

The following is an interview I did for Advance magazine, the largest trade magazine for book buyers. I know, the questions are corn-ball. I did my best to turn them around.

ADVANCE Q&A with Bob Eckstein, author of The History of the Snowman; As a humor writer and cartoonist, where does your funny streak come from?

Bob Eckstein: Grandma was a real cut-up. But I’ve never thought of myself as having a “funny streak.” I’ve been cartooning and writing humor my whole life as my sole source of income and never had another job so I take a kind of workman’s approach to it. I see it as a skill learned and honed having done hundreds of pieces for dozens and dozens of places like Spy, National Lampoon, Playboy, GQ, etc. There’s nothing funny about trying to make a living being funny, let me tell you.

Everyone is always trying jokes on me or suggesting cartoon ideas for The New Yorker, but they are usually disappointed when I don’t reply with a belly laugh. Well, I’m like a doctor, a joke doctor if you will, and if you get naked in front of me I’m going to be very professional and not laugh.

ADVANCE: What sparked your interest in snowmen and sent you on your self-proclaimed “Holy Grail” search for the very first snowman?

BE: I’m a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and I wanted to write a mystery. But I wasn’t interested in solving a murder mystery or writing fiction. I wanted my book to be funny and breezy yet really attempt to break new ground and solve one of life’s mysteries. The book could’ve been who invented love or who said the first joke—although two examples that actually might not have worked. Anyway, I remember walking into Barnes & Noble and imagining I was shopping for everyone I know and asking myself what book, not yet written, would that be. The History of the Snowman. Just like that.

It became clear, early on, when I considered a book on the snowman that I hit the lottery. Not only were there amazing skeletons in the snowman’s closet, but also I learned how thirsty people were for any new story or angle for the holidays. Everyone’s response upon hearing about my book was “What a great idea – why hasn’t anyone written this book before?” I liked the idea that this would be a holiday book that was non-denominational and I was providing a holiday reading choice that wasn’t a cookbook or for children only. It’s a book for all age groups and finally something for the college crowd as well as those who own a glue-gun. As far as holiday books go, The History of the Snowman is a very cool book.

ADVANCE: The History of the Snowman is not just pure entertainment (though it is entertaining)—you spent five years researching snowmen and traveling around the world to talk to historians. Will you tell us about your research, travels, and your most surprising discoveries?

BE: I did consciously make it entertaining and user-friendly. I had no interest in creating something academic where I would be speaking at institutes. And it could have easily gone that way—the first draft was scholarly and much longer but the last thing I wanted was to be the guy who took all the fun out of the snowman. I want to revitalize his image, give him his due…and add humor to history. I’m a gentleman scholar and I love history. And if I can do my small part making history more appealing…

I’m glad my wife convinced me I had to actually go to where historic snowmen once stood. I had no idea at the time that other wrinkles of the story would unfold. I had spoken to heads of departments and libraries who, they themselves, did not realize were sitting on crucial clues to the snowman’s past. It was something I had to go myself and see. An example would be my visit to The Royal Library at the Hague, which houses the largest collection of images in the world (at 8 million+). There I camped out with a magnifying glass and this very real competitive drive to find snowmen in far reaches of their archives (the search was narrowed to the 15,000 woodcuts, drawings, etchings, and paintings categorized as winterscapes.) At this point, the hunt for the first snowman was at its peak. It had become a real full-blown mystery with the clues scattered about in front of me waiting to be strung together. It was incredibly exciting time because even though I hadn’t completed the puzzle, I knew I had everything I needed like when you see the last pieces left to a jigsaw. I was aggressively chasing leads at a break-neck pace jumping on trains, hitchhiking, finding entries in diaries, discovering never before seen snowmen in engravings and tracking down experts hiding in different corners of the world…all very Da Vinci Codey.

My quest culminated with my face-to-face meeting in Amsterdam with a Professor Herman Pleij, a leading authority in medieval cultural studies. His De sneeuwpoppen van 1511 is the only book to tell the story of the Miracle of 1511, a Woodstock-like event in which after a famed snowstorm the whole town of Brussels celebrated by making pornographic and political snowmen. The deep secrets of the snowman were by this time uncovered but I wanted, with the help of my Dutch translator friend, to thank the professor in person for his integral role in solving the mystery. It was time to reflect on our five years of detective work, and like Holmes and Watson sipping cognac while summing up one of their cases, we basked in our findings, almost daring to think that what we had just accomplished may be a big deal and not go unnoticed. When we parted, the professor gave me his blessing and declared he was passing the torch of snowman expert to me.

ADVANCE: In one section of the book, subtitled “Snow Sells,” you write about how the snowman was an advertising darling of the 20th century. Why was he so appealing to Madison Avenue?

BE: Aside from religious figures, the snowman is one of the world’s most recognizable icons in the world and the advertising world has hadcarte blanche to do with him what they wish royalty-free. Easy to work with and pliable to any likeness it’s no wonder the snowman is the darling of Madison Avenue.

Of course there are also excruciatingly dull psychological reasons why he’s such a popular figure in the media. There’s the human connection we all feel in some way toward him, whether large or minuscule. Companies sought out pitchmen that the common man could relate with—friendly, plump, full of humor—the snowman fit the bill perfectly. The more he was used, the more identifiable he was. His popularity just snowballed.

ADVANCE: Not until finishing your book and seeing the snowman and his influences scattered throughout history did I realize his impact on art and culture. When you first began this project, did you have an idea of how vast the snowman’s mark was on world history?

BE: My initial research showed the snowman continually popping up at cultural benchmarks like Zelig or a frozen Forrest Gump. Quickly I discarded the kitsch snowman of present and realized what I was really on to was nothing less than one of the few activities we probably share with our ancestors and one of man’s oldest forms of folk-art. Every snowfall, every dumping of free art supplies pacified man’s urge to create an image of himself and traveling back in a time we see there was less and less forms of communication and recreation to compete with, making snowman-making only more and more popular the further back in time I looked. As my respect for this art form grew, so did my expectations to what I could find and I began searching deeper and more abstractly. By the end, nothing surprised me to how far reaching the snowman’s history was.

ADVANCE: You are an avid collector of snowman memorabilia, right? Can you tell us about some of your favorite finds?

BE: While my snowman collection (800+) does turn heads—it IS beautiful—it’s more about their historical place in telling the story of the snowman. When I was scouring flea markets and eBay for snowmen items, I was looking for artifacts, collecting clues like an archaeologist at an excavation site. I don’t have knitted snowman toilet seat covers or snowmen salt & pepper shakers everywhere in my house—but I could only because everyone keeps giving me anything with a snowman on it. Truth be told, I promised myself that once I finish having my collection viewed I would start eating the chocolate and marshmallow snowmen. There’s about 40.

But my favorite item from the collection is also the largest and most expensive—a graphic billboard ad for Austrian chocolate from the 1950s that’s exceptional. While many of my favorite items are in the book, most of my collection had to hit the cutting floor (including some of the most amazing examples of postcard illustration) and I’m hoping to one day put out a coffee-table book of the collection. But fear not, The History of the Snowman does include the stranger items from my collection including a photo of a little girls accosting a snowman with a rifle, a Charles Addams painting of a snowman stabbed by a broom and a disturbing picture of the snowman being run over by a car driven by Santa Claus.

ADVANCE: Do you recall building your first snowman? Do you still build snowmen when weather conditions are right?

BE: Ironically, no, but I do recall as a little boy painting hockey uniforms on plastic army men. I realize that’s not the answer one expects but it’s the truth. And I think it’s interesting that when I was very little I did these “political statements” and then I went on to do political cartoons in the ‘80s only to learn that in The Middle Ages the snowman was an early form of political cartooning. Since becoming a snowman expert I do make snowmen and I hope to make some more, à la Beatles, on bookstore rooftops. When my book was bought, I was to meet my new editor at an Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It was a rather somber
establishment until I started erecting snow people outside. All of a sudden the owners of the restaurant came out and gave me food to create faces. When my new editor finally arrived and met me inside I asked him if he noticed anything coming in but said only that there was a large crowd outside the restaurant.

ADVANCE: What are your thoughts on how the global warming trend will affect the snowman?

BE: For better or worse, global warming has made the snowman more popular. Who paid attention to the duck-billed platypus before it became an endangered species? Would the snowman have ever appeared onYouTube in the recent presidential debates if it wasn’t for global warming?

As this problem continues, snowman awareness will only grow. The snowman will become a hugely popular, sympathetic figure and ultimately trigger what I call “panic snowman-making” as many will suffer a (real and misperceived) sense of loss. I, personally, harbor no fears of this being the snowman’s last lap. From what I understand, global warming creates a situation where temperatures will drop with the eventual interruption of the jet stream. No, the biggest threat to the snowman is our youth’s short attention span and increasing inactivity. It’s hard today to grab
anyone’s imagination with anything that requires any imagination. People are convinced that the only things worthwhile must cost an arm and a leg. Some people are probably waiting for Apple to come out with an iSnowman.

ADVANCE: Several of your snowman cartoons are in the book, so I’m guessing you also have a few snowman jokes stored away—will you share a favorite?

BE: Like, why did the snowman cross the road? Or the one about a priest, a penguin, a rabbi, and a snowman walk into a bar? Actually, I don’t know any snowman jokes. In my defense, would Albert Einstein ever be asked if he knew any relativity jokes? Would Shakespeare be asked to regale us with a dirty limerick?

ADVANCE: What’s next for you?

BE: Thanks to the feedback I’m getting, I’m considering a children’s book based on one of the stories in the snowman book. I’d like to return to doing cartoons for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications once things slow down. Meanwhile, my next book will be a graphic novel, a comedy based on the real story of how 17th century explorers searched for paradise near the North Pole.

ADVANCE: Anything else you’d like to add?

BE: If everyone of us went outside and just made one snowman each day, this whole place would look hilarious.


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