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Member Spotlights

Member Spotlight: Vesper Stamper

illustrator Vesper Stamper and her book Amazing Abe

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? I take very seriously that not only am I writing for adults (both those who read my historical fiction, and those who read the picture books I illustrate to their young ones), but that I am creating worlds for other people’s children whose lives are not in my hands. I want to help people, old and young, to navigate this unpredictable world, and stories can do that. Good stories aren’t morality tales. Those are just boring, no matter who’s writing them. It’s much more important to let things play out with characters that are responding as real humans to how the world actually works. This can be positive or negative, related both to the things we have agency over and the things that are out of our control. This kind of navigation is what books offered me in the midst of an out-of-whack childhood, and what I hope my stories will do for my readers—again, both young and older.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? There is no substitute for just picking up the pen and writing. If you’re truly stuck, start with describing your surroundings, even if you just begin with your cup of coffee! Taking walks, breathing deeply of fresh air, ditching devices, and stream-of-consciousness journaling early in the morning are other surefire ways to get unstuck. Most of the time, it’s not a block we’re fighting against—it’s distraction. And we have that in spades these days.

What is your favorite time to write? I’m freshest first thing in the morning, but sometimes that’s not a practical time for me to write. The more realistic scenario is writing in response to my research, and that can happen in the middle of reading some ancient speech or watching a documentary—something sparks a visual image related to my story, and I have to write it down, whether it’s a fragment or a whole scene. Other times, I have to draw it—I’m an illustrator first, so often the picture comes before anything verbal.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? A stage director friend of mine said that when you’re trying to get inside the mind of a character, you should never go “all the way”, because that can lead artists down a dangerous mental path, and we’ve all seen the outcomes of artists who go too far. It’s very tempting, because artists are open and empathic (notice I didn’t say “empathetic”, because that’s not always true!), but this friend said to limit myself to 85% when trying to embody a character or a scenario. That has truly served me well and saved me from that emotionally obsessive danger zone.

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? I think we’re at an inflection point where more and more artists are leaning away from using their work to prove political points, and back into the Story being enough—back into a movement of re-enchantment. I find political and activism-driven art intensely boring and transparent, and I know that readers do, too; no one wants to be scolded or cajoled. Of course we write about what’s important to us, but there’s a way to do it that doesn’t break the fourth wall and instead trusts the reader. I’m excited to be surrounded by other artists in my life who are just going for it. There are writers whose work literally makes me feel high—I get that rush of transcendence from people like Salman Rushdie or Paul Kingsnorth—and I know I’m swimming in the right inspirational waters when that happens. Those are the intuitions that artists need to follow, and I think the pendulum is swinging back in that direction. Oh, that I could capture a moment of that in my own work!

Amazing Abe: How Abraham Cahan’s Newspaper Gave a Voice to Jewish Immigrants illustrated by Vesper Stamper and written by Norman H. Finkelstein is out now with Holiday House.