Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Interview with Matt Phelan, Author/Illustrator of Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton

Matt Phelan and I at his Bluffton signing - Book Expo America 2013

I had the pleasure of interviewing author/illustrator Matt Phelan about his book Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton. Check out my original review here. You can find Matt Phelan on Twitter as @MattPhelanDraws, on Facebook, on Google+ and on his wonderful blog Planet Ham.

Now on to the questions!

Raquel: Could you tell us a little bit about your interest in Buster Keaton?

Matt: When I was a little kid, my brother and I would watch silent movies on my dad's super 8 projector. We had Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, but my favorites were our two Keaton films: Cops and The General (which required a few reel changes). I still think of those movies with the sound of the projector motor running.

My interest in Keaton really caught fire after Kevin Brownlow's amazing documentary A Hard Act to Follow came out (If anyone can tell me why this hasn't been released on DVD in the states, please do. I'm afraid my VHS copy might disintegrate from use). I became obsessed with Buster and tracked down all the books about him I could find as well as whatever terrible quality prints of his films I could dig up. This was pre-Internet and before Kino released all of his films on VHS, so there was a lot of poking around in used bookstores and libraries.

I was in film school at that time and I quickly realized that not only was Keaton brilliantly funny, he was the best filmmaker of the silent era period.

Raquel: That’s so wonderful that you enjoyed watching Buster Keaton films as a child! Was it your childhood fascination with him that inspired you to write and illustrate Bluffton or was there another motivation?

Matt: My fascination with Buster has always been a constant in my life. However, it wasn't until I read his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick that I started thinking about writing a story about the summers in Bluffton. That was about twenty years ago. I didn't actually figure out that the main character should be a kid from Muskegon until about 7 years ago. Some stories take time (although I hope future stories won't take quite so long).

Raquel: I think it’s really interesting that you decided to tell the story through the eyes of your main character Henry Harrison and not Buster Keaton. How did you come to that decision and how did that effect the final book?

Matt: By making Henry the narrator, the reader has a way into this story. Who are the vaudevillians? What is their world like? Henry knows next to nothing about vaudeville at the beginning of the story and that is a very useful viewpoint. It helped me figure out how to tell the story. I could ask myself, "What would I do if I met Buster Keaton when I was a kid?" And I think by not having Buster be the narrator or main character, I could get a truer portrayal of him in a strange way.

Raquel: How did you want to portray Buster Keaton and how did you approach illustrating him?

Matt: I tried to be as true to him as possible. For instance, although some have argued that his childhood was near abusive (the rough act, the lack of schooling) Buster never saw it that way. So I'm sticking with his viewpoint on that matter. I've watched and read a lot of interviews with him so I was very careful in trying to replicate his speaking manner. That won't register with most readers but it was important to me. To draw him, I watched his movies with a sketchbook in hand. I found his shorts with Roscoe Arbuckle to be very helpful because he's the youngest in those. I also have photos of him as a kid. The real method is to take all of that in and then draw with that knowledge deep inside. Do the work, and then forget about it on a conscious level. My approach to illustration is not unlike an actor's approach to a role.

Raquel: Could you tell us more about those photos you have of Buster Keaton as a kid? Especially that one you found of him smiling!

Matt: The best photos of Buster (at all ages) are in a book called Buster Keaton Remembered by his wife Eleanor Keaton. There are great shots of The Three Keatons and also pictures of young Buster in Bluffton. The photograph that ends the book was something I came across completely by chance while I was on a research trip in Muskegon. I walked into a house that was having an estate sale and asked if they had anything about the Actors' Colony and Buster in particular. The woman was the granddaughter of a man who had run the neighborhood general store and he was friends with the Keatons. She rummaged around in a room and came back with this amazing photo of a smiling Buster with his father, Joe Roberts, Ed Gray and other regulars in front of their clubhouse Cobwebs & Rafters. She sold me the photo for ten dollars.

(Learn more about the photo and Phelan's research by reading his guest post at the Nerdy Book Club)

Raquel: I love that story! What kinds of research did you do on that trip to Muskegon?

Matt: I rented a cottage in Bluffton for a week in 2010. While there, Ron Pesch who is really the authority on the Actors' Colony (http://www.actorscolony.com/) gave me a detailed walking tour of the neighborhood. Ron introduced me to the current owner of the Keaton property (Jingles' Jungle has long since been taken down). He showed me the concrete wall out back where Joe Keaton carved his name years ago. Mostly, I just strolled around, staring at the lake, getting to know the feel of the place. I walked the base line of Buster's ball field and gauged how long it took to get from the Keaton's place to Cobwebs & Rafters and Pascoe's. I played with my daughter on the shore of Lake Michigan where the grand Lake Michigan Park once stood. It's not hard to see the appeal of the place.

Raquel: I think that’s a side of Buster Keaton that a lot of us are not very familiar with. What do you hope kids (and adults too!) get out of reading Bluffton?

Matt: I do hope the book will inspire interest in Buster and his work and spur readers on to check out his films (especially if they've never seen one). I also hope that the themes of friendship and finding one's place in the world resonate with readers. They are universal concerns no matter what the time period or setting.

Raquel: What are you working on now?

Matt: Right now I'm illustrating some picture books (one of which is the first I've also written). After that, I begin work on my next graphic novel which is a retelling of Snow White in 1930s Manhattan. I think I'm just going to keep writing books that require me to watch a lot of classic movies as research.

Raquel: Now, I've got to ask this question. What is your favorite Buster Keaton film?

Matt: Oh, picking a favorite Keaton film is very difficult. If pressed, I might have to go with The General. But I really love The Navigator. And Steamboat Bill, Jr. And his short film One Week is absolutely perfect. Can I just answer All of the Above?

Thank you Matt for taking the time to answer my questions!

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton
by Matt Phelan
240 pages - Hardcover
Candlewick Press
July 2013

Barnes & Noble


  1. Great interview. And Matt brings up a great point. Why isn't Kevin Brownlow's documentary on Buster not released on DVD in the states! I would imagine if there is a market for his films on DVD/Blu-ray that the documentary would also have a market here.

    I love this idea for a book!

  2. Great story. Wonderful interview. I have always been a fan of Buster Keaton, and the book definitely looks like a great summer read. Thanks for the great story and interview.

  3. Tremendous work! Excellent interview, Raquelle. A top-notch read!

  4. Raquelle~ will you come join us at the Buster Keaton celebration in Iola, Kansas this September? It's a lot of fun! ... Kellee

  5. You have such a knack for conducting interviews Raquelle! I loved getting more background on this wonderful book.

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