It’s been several months now since I unveiled the subject of my current project, Dr. Seuss. Since that time, papers have been signed and we’ve made things officially official (the formal announcement should be arriving any day now), and I’m very excited about spending the next year not only with my subject, but with my editor, John Parsley, who I worked with on George Lucas. It’s doubly thrilling, in fact, because I was able to follow him from the offices of the fine folks at Little, Brown (where we worked on George Lucas) over to Dutton, where John now serves as Editor-in-Chief. It’s a good place to be; Dr. Seuss was a staple at Random House (which now owns Dutton) for nearly his entire career (it’s where he also established Beginner Books), so it seems only fitting to be working on his biography under the larger roof of Penguin Random House. I’m delighted to be there.
I’ve started my research–but first thing’s first: I had to stock up my library shelves with All Things Seuss. Mostly, I ordered books in large bunches from Amazon and other booksellers, which really threw off the way Amazon generates its recommendations. “BASED ON YOUR ORDER HISTORY,” it tells me, “YOU MAY LIKE GO, DOG, GO!” Which, I suppose, is certainly true.
But not everything Seuss wrote or drew is in print and easily available; I had to scour eBay, for instance, for The Seven Lady Godivas (a book Seuss called his “greatest failure . . . it was all full of naked women, and I can’t draw convincing naked women”). eBay was also my go-to to procure copies of two small humor books Seuss illustrated (but didn’t write) back in the early 1930s called Boners (by Those Who Pulled Them!), and its sequel titled (wait for it . . . ), More Boners. I know, I know . . . the jokes just write themselves.
My next task was to start gathering and reading as many existing books on Seuss as I could find . . . and really, there aren’t many (some terrific analyses of his work, but only one real bio, dating to 1995). Beyond that, one of my first big dives was into newspaper and magazines archives — mainly just New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, as well as some selected magazines like Saturday Evening Post and Life — for contemporary accounts, interviews, reviews, cartoons . . . pretty much anything I can find. Even in a limited scope like this, archival research is one of my favorite parts of the project.
Then, as I always do — because I’m terribly analog — I print everything out, three-hole punch it, and file it (for the most part) chronologically in binders. Naturally, new binders get added as things proceed, and I have to change some of them out with larger versions as I stuff them full. But this is how I start developing one of my most crucial documents: a timeline of the entire life that I can refer to as I write, and make sure everything is in order.
At the moment, I’m deep into research on the years from 1922, when Seuss* entered Dartmouth, to the end of World War II, when he returned to the United States determined to write books that mattered.
When I’m done here, I’ll work my way backwards to his childhood, which will be the perfect excuse to head for Springfield, Massachusetts, where I can walk the streets Seuss walked as a boy, scour the local archives, and visit the newly-opened Dr. Seuss Museum.
* Yeah, I know his real name is Ted Geisel. For the moment, I’m simply referring to him by his pen name.