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To Timbuktu: Interview with Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg

Steven Weinberg and Casey Scieszka

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to Casey Scieszka (words) and Steven Weinberg (illustrations) who created To Timbuktu: nine countries, two people, one true story. It’s a love story, a travel adventure, and a great combination of words and pictures that’s not quite a comic but is altogether unique and wonderful. (Hollywood pitch: It’s Say Anything meets Three Cups of Tea.)

After reading about their relationship and seeing nothing but Steven’s drawings of them, it was very odd to suddenly talk with them face to face. If you’ve read the book or just seen a few of the illustrations I can confirm they’re both funny, very much in love, and that Steven has even better hair than he draws on himself. (And if the style looks familiar, it’s probably because they did an excellent guest book club comic for us a few months back.)

In addition to their book, they were also on tour with Casey’s dad because they’re handling the online component of his new series, Spaceheadz, which includes a hamster’s Twitter account.

Below are some excerpts from the conversation. You can also download or listen to the entire interview, if you’d like. (There is a bit of explicit language.)

I started by telling them about volunteering in my daughter’s class to help with a pottery project just before I met them, because it reminded me of teaching (which they do in China, at the beginning of their book), and I thought it was a good way to start the conversation.

S: Having to address groups of kindergartners to fifth graders recently for the Spaceheadz book, the kids just want to touch something. Not like in a mean way but….

C: Or you tell ‘em, so, does anyone have questions? And the librarians are like, “So, does anybody have questions about the writing process or the reading process?” You know, good questions. And of course the kids have questions like, “I go to school.”

S: Or like, “I broke my collarbone.” (There’s a collarbone story that John [Scieszka] tells.) And every kid who’s broken their collarbone is like, “I broke my collarbone.” Or, “My dad broke his collarbone.”

C: 20 minutes later, the librarian takes the mic again. “Do you have questions? Not comments.”

S: “The authors are here to answer all of your questions.”

C: “This is a VERY SPECIAL moment.” It’s fun.

I’ve never taught kids. I taught overseas. But I always taught people in their early twenties. And it was easier because I could always have a conversation with them. There was always something I wanted to know that they could tell me. But I never had that joy that kids bring to that whole process. Did you guys teach older adults as well?

Together: Yeah.

S: 9th and 8th graders.

C: We also liked when we were teaching the younger kids, like in Mali. Because if there were a lot of things we didn’t understand, especially when it was like “Who belongs to who? Whose [child] is this?” We would pull over a little kid who was not shy about questions like that. We wouldn’t be wondering if it was appropriate to ask an adult.

S: Especially in Mali. We’d go in households where we didn’t know who was related to who because it would be like a compound with 30 people, half of them were under the age of 10. Especially in Bamako.

I find it a little awkward to ask you about your relationship at the beginning.

S: Don’t at all!

It’s a very odd story. You guys met and then you didn’t see each other very much. And then a year and a half, two years later you guys are….

C: We met the fall of our junior years [in Morocco]. We became friends and we kind of started dating as much as you can while living with Muslim host families. Then we kept visiting each other [after] we were back in the U.S.

S: We were in college on the opposite ends of the country. She was in southern California, I was in Maine.

C: But airplanes go there.

S: Airplanes work. That was pretty impressive. We had met each other in Morocco, so we were really trying to go to as many places as possible!

C: I think it was in that next summer, right before senior year, we both kind of realized…

S: “Ah, you’re a lot of fun to hang out with!”

What was it? You kind of gloss over it in the book.

C: I guess, too, when you meet someone abroad, you’re kind of in a more vulnerable and adventurous place. You get to really know a raw side of someone.

S: We’ve seen [each other] in all kinds of situations, not just, like, polished for a date. (Not that I’m that polished right now.)

C: Is this not a date?

S: It’s a triple date.

If I’m here, it’s not a date.

S: You see people when you’re abroad. You might be sick. Or just confused constantly or trying to express yourself in a language you just picked up recently.

C: Or dealing with big issues like what is my role as an American in the Arab world post 9-11. You have these really intense conversations that you might not have at the bar back at home, so…

S: I don’t know exactly what it was that brought us together…Just sitting on a bus, if you have like a six hour bus ride (or ten hours, or however long you know) you’ll just talk with somebody…

C: And if you only have like a little bit in common that kind of goes a long way when you’re abroad. You meet someone from Pennsylvania and you’re like, “We’re basically the same!” Which like, anywhere else in America, you’re like, “Cool.”

To Timbuktu book cover

Your book is so overwhelmingly positive in its tone. There are people I just hate who I met [while I was living abroad]. You meet people who, if I could, I would just erase from the earth.

C: We kind of erased them from our book!

I wondered!

S: The second half of the book is a lot less happy, happy happy. Three happies. The first half, us in China, we really were so happy just to be living with each other, eating amazing food, not being students, being teachers.

C: And at that point we almost weren’t focusing on meeting other teachers and stuff ‘cause this was so new, we were so new.

I loved the first date, because after you’d been living together you finally went on a date. Is that true?

C: Totally!

S: And it really did go not that well. We both brought some weird date game that we really weren’t sure what to do with.

C: We totally argued. We don’t go on dates anymore.

S: The date’s on the back of the book, I love that the designer took this scene from date number three or two.

C: This is from where I took Steven out to sing karaoke. He’s singing “Genie in a Bottle” right there.

Can you sing that a little for me? (He did. It’s on the recording.)

C: And that’s actually how Steven sings. He’s a talk singer.

From China you went to southeast Asia for a while.

C: We traveled around southeast Asia for a while. That was totally different from being these semi-residents in Beijing where we had our regular spots and our regular friends. We were doing the traditional backpacker.

S: That came at the best time ‘cause like the winter in Beijing, it’s really cold out there. And there’s no heating, or there’s rarely heating in buildings, and the schools have their windows open.

C: The last month we were freezing. So we were like, “We’re going to Thailand!”

I like that scene where you’re going to some town you’d been to before.

C: Yeah, in southern China.

And you’re trying to find the town that was there.

C: It was shocking. That was a huge theme of my time in China because the first time I’d gone there was eleven years ago and there were roads in Beijing that weren’t even paved and people were biking everywhere, definitely.

How long ago were the scenes in China?

C: 2006.

S: The spring.

C: Fall.

S: Would that have been fall?..I’m not one who remembers the calendar.

C: No, ask me about dates. Someone asked you, like, “When was this trip?” You were like, “A year ago.” You said that today at the high school.

S: No!

C: Yes you did.

S: Maybe.

C: This is part of the process of writing the book. “I remember this way.” “No, I remember this way.”

S: Two minds working together. Casey’s really good at keeping a journal. I had a lot of cartoon-a-days I do when I’m traveling. We always double check.

C: Sometimes I would write something and read it to him after and he’d be like, “That’s hilarious. Totally not how it happened.” Aw damn it.

And then your cheese run in Paris, which I could relate to.

C: We were totally missing that cheese or bread or wine.

S: Paris is a nice place.

C: It’s also where our parents met for the first time.

S: They kind of wanted to see us. It had been a while.

C: They weren’t going to come to Timbuktu to visit. We thought, oh god, this is going to be awkward but at least we’re going to have all these stories…

S: …we could fall back on if there was an awkward moment. But we really didn’t talk at all. We felt like we were little kids because they really hit it off.

C: We were at the kids table.

S: They hang out without us now.

And then you went to Mali. Why did you pick Mali?

C: It was my choice because I had applied for a Fulbright Grant to look at the role of Islam in the education system there. I wanted to go somewhere that was Muslim because I wanted to ask about religion and stuff that had always been a question for me. And I wanted to do something that was in schools. And I really liked my experience in Morocco but I didn’t want to go back to Morocco.

S: In Morocco we heard about Mali a fair deal. It’s kinda like the opposite end of the Sahara and it has a lot of the same music.

C: And they had had some education reforms recently, and I realized it would be a less hectic place [than Senegal], a bit more adventurous. I could go live in Timbuktu.

That just sounds cool.

C: When we were in France and about to go to Mali I kind of had a moment of like, oh my god, what do I know about Mali? I know such a limited amount. What did I just sign us up for?

I think everything I know about Mali I learned last week [reading your book]. You guys seem to sink right into languages. That’s what impressed me the most. I met people who had lived in Korea for ten years and never learned a word.

S: I’ve always had the attitude, ‘cause I’ve never been that good as a classroom language learner, that if I’m in a foreign country I’ll just use all the words I know. I’ll use them as much as I can. It’s like a very blunt hammer.

C: I think one of the first days I realized, I have a huge crush on this guy, was when we had an assignment that involved Steven walking around (this is in Morocco) asking different store owners about the portrait of the king that they have in every store.

S: The king is doing different things sometimes. Normally it’s this one picture. But sometimes in cafes he’ll be sipping tea or coffee. Driving schools, there’s one of the old king getting out of a car.

C: I was just shadowing Steven. He’s asking people in Arabic. And I was so nervous to go and ask people in my Arabic that I was just learning, and I see him walking [up] to these people and just being like, “Picture! Royalty! King yes okay maybe am student!” I’m like, who is this guy? He has no shame. This is wonderful. The Moroccans just totally loved it.

Steven and Casey (Steven eating a cookie)

What is your advice for people who go abroad?

S: Just do it.

C: Take a moment to learn, even if it’s just like, three phrases.

S: “Maybe, problem.” [Those are] words you can know in any language! There’s a couple words I nailed as essential for not offending people.

C: You can kind of gesture and get a lot done with those.

S: Do your best to find somebody who you can kind of know there.

C: Anybody who [you know who has] any…local connection. It goes a long way.

What do you think you gave up by going together?

C: Language skills

S: I think you learn a lot more…

C: You learn more when you don’t have each other to go home and talk to. Ultimately, I think we gained a lot by being able to go together, because sometimes if you’re traveling alone you can be like, I’m just going to stay in…But if you have someone else who is like, no, we can go out together, it brings you out more.

S: And you can ride the gender divides really well. Women wouldn’t want me in the kitchen, they’d want me with the guys, which could become boring sometimes because in a lot of foreign countries guys just sit there and get served…So I could hang out in the kitchen sometimes with Casey.

C: Or vice-versa. I could go do things only men in the local country could do because of my male escort, if you will, he snuck me in.

You had that incident in the market in Mali where somebody grabbed [Casey] and people were throwing rocks at you guys. That’s pretty terrifying stuff to read.

S: Timbuktu was a really hard town to be in. It’s harsh around the edges. And [it’s] not the same, people in southern Mali are really friendly, and they joke about other tribes. There was a civil war in Timbuktu in the early 90s so the ethnic groups up there don’t joke about [that].

You guys just jumped in and out of social groups because you were outsiders.

S: Yes. That was a really nice thing to do.

What do you want to plug before we close?

C: You can go to All The Way to Timbuktu to look at a map of where we went, cartoons Steven did, and Shitty Kitty. (She even appears in the book.) We do that comic together. And when we came back we founded a nonprofit called Local Language Literacy. We were talking about language issues — we ended up taking one of the stories I [wrote] and translating it into Bambara with my Bambara tutor, and it ended up being the first Bambara novel ever published in Mali. And we’ve raised money to publish about 1600 books that are now being used in high schools and adult literacy classes. Now we have a picture book that we’re working on with a Senegalese author, so it lives on.

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