Steve Jobs, we feel we know him and yet he is something of a mystery and there is an enormous amount to cover. Jessie Hartland has created an illustrated work, a “graphic biography,” that brings the public figure down to a human scale: “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great,” published by Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.
Jessie Hartland is the author of the highly acclaimed graphic biography, “Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child,” described by the New York Times as “bursting with exuberant urban-naif gouache paintings and a hand-lettered text that somehow manages to recount every second of Child’s life.”
For her book on Steve Jobs, Ms. Hartland provides us with an engaging and comprehensive look at one of the great technology trailblazers of our time. “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” is another wonderful example of an all-ages book providing a significant amount of information in a concise and entertaining way. While Jobs is a problematic role model at best, he remains a most intriguing individual.
The full interview with Jessie Hartland follows and includes the podcast at the end.
Henry Chamberlain: Do you believe that your book has brought Steve Jobs down to a human scale and made him accessible to readers? What would you say is your purpose in bringing this book out?
Jessie Hartland: I think more people are reading my book than would normally sit down with a 600-page biography. So, more people are learning about him. He’s such a fascinating guy. I had just turned in the book on Julia Child, which was also a graphic biography, this one was in color. And I was searching for who to write about next. I was considering a scientist or an artist. And then Steve Jobs dies. He seemed like just the right person to write about. It had begun as a picture book, more like the Julia Child book I’d done, for younger kids. The more I read about him, the more I wanted to write about his whole life. My editors had originally envisioned the book ending with the Apple I computer. Only 200 of those computers were sold and that’s not what he’s known for. So, I went back to my editors and said I really wanted to cover his whole life, I want to do it in black and white, and just run with it. I didn’t want to limit the page count and I wanted it to be more for middle grade or teenagers.
HC: What was your thinking with going with black and white? Was that to instantly signal the reader that this is more serious content?
JH: I think a lot of the graphic novels out there are black and white. I like the stark quality of black and white. I like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” I could have used color. It wasn’t really discussed. I think I wanted it to be more about the drawings, the lines, and the words rather than these gauche paintings. If I had done gauche paintings for this one, I probably would still be working on it.
HC: This must be quite pleasing to have these two major films coming out coinciding with your book. That didn’t turn out that way with your book on Julia Child.
JH: Yes, that’s a funny story. I came up with the idea for the Julia Child book years ago, probably two or three years before the film, “Julie and Julia.” I had different editors then and they were saying that no one cared about Julia Child anymore. And so the book ended up without a home. Only later, with my editors at Random House, did the book find a home. The 100th anniversary of Julia Child birth was coming up and there would be press for that. But, had we moved forward earlier, my book would have coincided with the film.
HC: But now you’ve got two major films. The new Alex Gibney documentary, “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” comes out this week, September 4th.
JH: Oh, really?
HC: And then you have what I can only imagine will be a very important film, with an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, simply entitled, “Steve Jobs,” coming out next month, October 9th. There have been all the books, these two major films. I can’t think, in recent memory, of so much notable work springing forth from one public figure.
JH: He’s such an interesting character. Here’s this guy, this rebel, this iconoclast. He dropped out of college after only one semester. And then he takes a calligraphy class. He starts a little company in his parent’s garage with Woz and it grew to become the world’s most powerful company. It’s just amazing. Who wouldn’t want to know more about him?
HC: We’re at a very interesting turning point with graphic novels. More and more people are understanding that they aren’t just for kids, if they ever were, really.
JH: Yes, that’s right.
HC: You create a perfect all-ages book with issues that can be discussed between a parent and child. You bring in the issue of his experimenting with drugs. You bring in the issue of his not ready to be a dad the first time around. These are big issues but kids can appreciate the realities of life and these are things that are fair game to include.
JH: I didn’t want to leave out the low points in his life. His denying the paternity to his first child with his high school girlfriend. And, of course, the drug use. He said so much about how important that was. He really liked these psychedelic drugs and they gave him a different viewpoint of the world. For him, it was like looking down from another planet and seeing the big picture. It helped him with his intuition and imagining what kind of products people would want in the future before they knew what they wanted. He didn’t like to do market research. He liked to quote Henry Ford, another great businessman. Ford would say that, if he left it up to the public to decide what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.
HC: I wanted to ask you about your process. You do a variation on storyboarding. I imagine that you work larger than print size and then reduce your pages to fit inside your binder where you can then shuffle them around as you need.
JH: Yeah, I work a little bit bigger than print but not by too much. Those binders are really important. This book took up two of them since it was so long. The pages let me shift things around. It’s really important to organizing the material. It took two years to siphon through that quantity of material, to winnow it down, and get everything in order. It took a while to wrap my mind around the fact that iTunes came around before the iPod. And then the events involved with Pixar were complicated to sort out.
HC: Where did his catch phrase, “Insanely Great,” originate from?
JH: Oh, I think that goes way back to when he was a teenager. Yes, I love using that in the book. Woz had the idea for a home computer and his employer, Hewlett Packard, wasn’t interested in developing it at that point. And then Woz showed the circuit board to Steve and Steve says, “Insanely great! Let’s start a company!” Jobs was the great salesman with the big picture. Woz was this engineering genius.
HC: Steve Jobs was at the right place and at the right time in so many ways.
JH: Yes, he grew up in and spent his whole life in Silicon Valley. It used to be known simply as Santa Clara Valley. His father was a machinist. He was adopted. His biological parents were graduate students at the time. One of the parents objected to the marriage on religious grounds. Steve was adopted, grew up in the suburbs of Santa Clara. His father worked in the tech industry. He didn’t go to college but he was a tinkerer and he and Steve would go to the local junkyard, fill up the truck with things, and do projects together. They’d put things together. There were tools all around. And the neighborhood was just swarming with engineers. Steve got to know a lot of the neighbors and how things work and what was going on. It was a very exciting time in what was to be known as Silicon Valley.
HC: Steve could just pick up the phone and start talking to the founder of Hewlett Packard.
JH: Yes! That’s right. He needed some parts for his frequency counter, a device that measure the pulses per second in an electronic signal. He had some of the pieces he needed but he was missing some. He knew that the head of Hewlett Packard lived nearby. So, he looked up Bill Hewlett in the phone book and called him up. Bill was so impressed with the young Steve Jobs that he offered him a summer job.
HC: I am looking at a page from your binders. And I was thinking last night, what if Steve Jobs was standing beside you and looking at your process. He might say to you that he had an “insanely great” way to speed up your work flow. However, I am not sure that I would classify your system so much as “low tech” as “hands on.” I don’t believe that there would be a satisfactory alternative for how you work.
JH: I like having little bits of paper around. I like sketching in a cafe and then slip that work into a binder. It is so hands on. And I love painting, working in gouache. This whole book was done in pen and ink. I went through six bottle of India ink and 24 Prismacolor pencils. It’s all hand-drawn. And people will snicker that I didn’t use a computer. But I did. With the gray tones, I had an assistant help me prepare all those files.
HC: Thanks so much for this chat. I know you want to pursue more graphic biographies. You have the one about pioneering computer programmer Ada Lovelace.
JH: That one, the Ada Lovelace book, is written by someone else and will be a picture book for younger readers. Currently, I am working on some art for a local show here on Long Island. The art will resemble totem poles. These will be called, “floatem poles.” They’re made from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up on the beach. And I’m working on some other books. I’m working with an entomologist on a book about insects. And I’m working on a book that features Tartufo, a truffle hound and that will be set in either Italy or France. I am going to Europe in a week to research that.
HC: I wish you a great trip. And thank you for your time.
JH: Thank you.
The podcast is below:
You can find “Steve Jobs: Insanely Great” at Amazon right here. You can visit Jessie Hartland right here.