Rich Dyson is the author of Bearly Dad and You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image, and the editor of Absolutely Unprofessional . He’s also an old friend from my days working at summer camp. We chatted about the value of the printed page and his newest venture writing for/with his kids. (Illustrations by Rich Dyson)
Comello: Do you remember the genesis of what has now become Absolutely Unprofessional ?
Dyson: I had never really written before, but I started what I would call my first absolutely unpublishable novel just for fun, and thought how fun it was to freely write just so my wife Brooke could read some stuff and so I could throw some crazy ideas on paper. Over the span of about a year I did that every night. That was when I was in a band, too, so there was all sorts of creative stuff going on. I remember thinking this would be fun to do regularly some day, to share it with more people. I didn’t; after that I just stopped. Five years later, up in Wisconsin working at a summer camp, one winter day I started writing something else. Same thing: did it for about a year and then stopped. Shared it with a couple friends. Last fall, when I literally didn’t have anything else going on, my son Elias and I were joking around doing some stupid father/son stuff, and I just started drawing and writing. I kept writing and drawing just to see him laugh. He would throw ideas down, and we created the first Bearly Dad book together really just having fun up on the drafting table. In that moment, it was… ‘Oh, this is fun, what if we just shared this silliness with more people?’ And that’s when we looked into how you do that. How can we make this happen without making a big deal out of it?
When I was done with Bearly Dad, we looked at it and Brooke and I were like, ‘Well, this is probably the most unprofessional artwork I’ve ever seen.’ The next day, she called to see if AbsolutelyUnprofessional.com was taken, and it wasn’t. And even the guy on the phone at GoDaddy or something was like, ‘Wow, nobody’s taken that? That’s incredible.’ And that was it. It was because my artwork is so unprofessional—I’m so untrained—we thought we should call it what it is. Set the bar low and have fun with it.
So for the first book, it’s just Elias and you throwing things back and forth. After that came together and you wanted to share it with more people, what was the process for taking the next step?
The book was really just an excuse to put ridiculous ideas into a solid, tangible form. Displaying digital stuff is fun—putting it together and passing it around—but it feels so much more personal to be able to hand Elias a compilation of ideas we put together, that we laughed at while putting together. Showing him online is funny; handing him a book made his eyes open wide. He was like, ‘Dad, can we put some of my stories in books like this too?’ ‘Yeah, we can put together some Elias books.’ To him, then, it was real. It was a simple process to research how to do it. It was easy; everything’s accessible these days. But the main thrust of it was sharing it with others but also being able to hand it to my kids.
For Bearly Dad, how much of what became the book was pulled directly from your life versus stuff you imagined?
I think throughout the book there are ten different wrestling moves that happen—“rumblings” they’re called. I’d say about eight of those come from real life, just stuff Elias and I do. One of my favorites in the book is called “dead rabbit.” I’ve used that one on him for years, where I’d get him on the ground and flop over top of him and pretend to be dead, and he’s suffocating and can’t move and trying to wriggle to get out. Most of the moves in the book are like that. They’re stupid. Really just dumb stuff we’ve done, and then a couple ones I would probably not do in my house. But it’s fun to throw in there. All the names are just silly things that we laugh at. And now that the book is done, he actually has names for some of them that we didn’t have a name for. Now he’ll jump on my back and call it out.
Did you have a sense putting it together that it would be greater than the sum of its parts, with a larger purpose you wanted to have with the book, or is it just a collection of silly stuff you wanted to put together?
It’s really difficult for me to put my time and energy into something that doesn’t have some flavor of greater purpose behind it, no matter what that is. It doesn’t have to be overt. In fact, it can be incredibly subversive in its meaning and purpose. But it has to be there. So one of the ways I look at art is as an overflow of creation. We’re created by a creator God, so whether the art is silly or serious or portrays the Gospel in some way I think is irrelevant, because art itself displays the nature of God. So a stupid, silly book like Bearly Dad, even if there was no other purpose to it, is already displaying God’s creative nature, which is enough, you know? And I love that. That’s tucked into everything. One of the other books I’m working on now, it’s even more stupid. It’s even slightly morbid for a kid’s book, and I love it. But even in the stupidity and the morbidness, there’s a hidden purpose of responsibility. What does it look like for a kid to take responsibility? With Bearly Dad, one of the themes behind it was healthy interaction between a father and son: what does it look like to engage your kids in playful fun? We know that physical touch between parents and kids is important, so if it’s mean and rough and aggressive, that lasts. That impacts the kids forever. If it’s playful and gentle and intentional, that also lasts and impacts forever.
So some of that was going into Bearly Dad while I was writing, just wanting to foster the family dynamic. Also, I love holding books. Just tonight we read two books before bed. He actually read the new book I just made: You Are: A Lump’s Tale About Image. The first print came in the mail today, so he read it and then we read another Dr. Seuss book. And there’s something about sitting there holding a silly book together that just fosters family time. So those two ideas were in Bearly Dad when I wrote it, knowing that we’d print it off and sit around as a family and laugh at the silly ideas we put together.
How much research did you do with other children’s literature before writing the book?
I think just being a dad I have natural research going every day. And we have a library of kids books. We’re always challenging Elias to read one he has not read yet, or in a while. We have a lot of books from the 1950s and 60s, that old-style illustration and storytelling. Those are some of my favorites. So there’s a natural element of research, and then there’s just tapping into what Elias enjoys reading. What do the characters look like? How does the story flow? But as I started doing the art and writing it out, I realized I really do write a certain way. It’s not smooth and it doesn’t flow poetically. It’s very jerky and almost frustrating. I realized that so much of my personality came out while I was writing. I didn’t want to change that, because it really is me. Even Brooke, after reading the newest one, she’s like, ‘Man, it really is just an overflow of your personality.’ Part of that is frustrating and part of that is exciting, because you want your art to be an overflow of you.
How does your daughter Ada fit into all of this? Do you have her in mind for future stories, or do you want to focus on the father/son aspect?
I focused on the father/son dynamic for Bearly Dad. For A Lump’s Tale, I actually had her in mind. Image is such a huge topic in our culture today, and media plays a role in that. It’s everywhere, and it’s not usually healthy if we’re honest and look at the serious eating disorders that exist and the amount of money we spend on clothes, to reshape ourselves, tattoos to change how we look permanently. I have tattoos and I pierced my ears at one point, so I understand wanting to modify yourself to look a certain way. So I think about Ada: she’s two and she’s innocent to the degree that she doesn’t think about any of that yet. She has this natural giddiness about her. She wants to look cute and pretty, and part of that is because we tell her that all the time, and part of it is that she’s naturally wired to think that way as a girl. Now she’s leaning into the positive side, but very soon she’s going to hear conversations about weight. She’s going to see girls dressing five or six years older than they ought to. So as I was writing this book, I wanted to preempt that conversation with her at a very young age, where image plays a role in her life. It’s an issue for boys as well, to be the right kind of masculine and all these things. But she was in my mind for this one, so Brooke and I could use a kids book to foster a conversation very early on with who she really is.
How has Brooke been involved in the process of putting all these books together?
She’s awesome. A big part of it is just encouraging me to go ahead and do it. On an emotional, mental, and spiritual level she does that. On a tangible level, I would say she is the overall editor of just about everything that happens. She reads through everything, she goes through a couple drafts. I’m a pretty hard guy to work with, so she has to make notes on the computer and email them back to me. If she tells me in person I’m emotional and I get offended or defensive unnecessarily, so we have this system worked out. The first time she sends it to me, it’s ‘Hey, change this, maybe the character is a little too this’ or whatever. If I’m sitting clear-minded I can take it. She’s always right. Always. So I’ll draw it all up and write it out and hand her a copy to flip through. She’ll mark that up and we’ll talk about it, and I won’t be a petulant child at that point.
And she’s great with Adobe programs. I’m learning some of it to save her the time and energy, but she scans and crops everything and formats the pages and shows me the fonts. I’m pretty picky, so she’ll usually put a draft together and then I’ll come back and usually end up rearranging each page and changing fonts and sizes and all that. Then we let it sit for a week or two, then come back and make more changes. She publishes it, does all the copyright work. Pretty much if it’s technical she does it. She’s brilliant at all that. It’s a lot of fun. She and I have had a lot of time working together. We’ve been in ministry together. Even as a married couple we’ve spent a lot of time together, so it’s fun to do a silly project with her. It wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t doing it. I wouldn’t take the time to learn Adobe and all that stuff.
What are you working on now?
I finished the illustrations of a script I put together about two months ago. I have a mental idea of trying to put something out every two to three months. I probably have three or four developing story lines in the works now. I started one about four months ago and did about three-quarters of it before putting it down, just to put some distance between it. I have projects laying around all over the place. I have one kids book that will come out probably in another two months. It’s funny, I was describing it to Brooke and thought that this is one that if I ever had a chance of being picked up by a major publisher, this is the idea they would look at and say, ‘Dear God—what were you thinking?’ So I’m excited to put that one out.
There’s another one that’s been brewing for some time, and it clicked the other day. It’s an overflow of the word oikos, which is Greek for ‘extended family.’ It’s this concept of doing life together with a larger community than just the immediate family. I wondered if I could put something together that would help foster movement in living that out. I won’t say much more than that, other than it’s not a kids book. It’s not a novel. It’s a book of ideas that you can use either as a family or missional community to spur on movement. I got to spend a chunk of the afternoon today at a cafe writing out fifty percent of the first draft, just because it was so fresh. I wanted to get it all down while it was still there. It’s so important because it’s important to my family, and it’s important for living on purpose. I’m realizing that while it’s a new idea, so much of it is already in me and in what we’ve already done as a family. I’ve talked about it for years so putting it on paper is crazy easy. I’m excited about it.