IT WAS A LOYAL READER WHO INTRODUCED ME TO SLOANE TANEN AND HER WONDERFUL WORLD OF PHOTOGENIC TOY CHICKENS. BUT HOW DOES ONE DEVELOP A KNACK FOR RECREATING TINY LITTLE LIFE NARRATIVES WITH A COMMON, POPULAR EASTER TOY? VINNIE BAGGADONUTS PULLS MISS TANEN AWAY FROM SOME VALUABLE STUDIO TIME TO TALK BIRDS, BUSINESS, AND BITTER WITH BAGGAGE....
Vinnie Baggadonuts: What kind of studio are you in right now? This will totally segue right into my real first question.
Sloane Tanen: Itís like a cooperative artists' space. You know, there are painters and photographers, some sculptors. Iíve been in this building for about eight years, in various studios reflecting the financial highs and lows. (laughs)
VB: So, art is your profession, or what you do?
ST: Iím a painter, yeah. And then the chicken thing kinda happened. Iím actually doing it full-time now, if you can believe it.
ST: I am the official chicken lady, which is a terrifying thought.
ST: We got a couple more book deals, so we're doing two kids' books, and then a sequel to the first book. It's kinda taken over.
VB: Well, the reason I asked about the art thing was, I was trying to read more about you, and the most info I could find was the "About the Author" thing in the back of the book. It said you had degrees in literary theory and art history. And I was thinking, "Wow. I went to art school and all I got was a BFA."
VB: Was art first, or did you get these degrees first, and then get into art?
ST: Well, I always painted. I enrolled in the literature program at UVA because Iíve always been interested in it, and it kinda made my dad happier, too, instead of pursuing a painting career after spending God knows how much on college. I was down in Charlottesville for a couple days, and then I kinda freaked out. I just wanted to be back in New York, and back into the arts, too. I missed it a lot. So I kinda compromised with my dad. He said, "Study art history so you have something to fall back on." So I enrolled at Columbia and did that.
ST: And I figured, if worse comes to worse, Iíll become a professor of art history. So, I went into that program and got a good education out of it. But I finished and was like, "Well, thereís more money spent. (laughs) Dad, Iím going to be a painter!"
ST: The paintingís been fine, too. Itís not wildly lucrative, but Iím doing okay.
VB: Obviously. I mean, you live in New York, correct?
VB: And youíre able to pay your bills with it?
ST: Exactly! (laughs)
VB: Does your dad look at what you do now and realize you can make a living painting?
ST: I donít think heís massively impressed with the living that I make, to be honest.
ST: Iím doing what I want to do, so heís happy. And I got married. That helped financially, because my husband does alright. Thatís a nice thing to be able to fall back on, if itís hard to make the bills or something one month. And the chicken stuff is actually a much more reliable source of income, because you get advances for the book, and royalties and all that.
VB: How did that even come about? Iím fascinated by your book [Bitter With Baggage Seeks Same: The Life And Times Of Some Chickens] because I figured itíd just be some typical humor book. Iíd read it and chuckle, and life would be great. But there are so many subtle things in there that I kinda lost my mind over. First of all, itís chickens. Why chickens?
ST: I really wish I had a good answer, but I donít. I always liked those little chickens. At Easter time, youíd see them everywhere. And, you know, weíre Jewish. Itís not like we did a lot of Easter celebrating.
ST: The thing about them was, they always seemed like they were talking to you. Their faces are so blank; you can project any emotion you want on them, and they totally take it on. Every Easter I would pick up a few, so I always had them lying around the studio. And what I was doing at the time was building model houses. Then Iíd light the house and paint the room. I was painting these fairly detailed architectural interiors, and they were fine. The models were cool, too. I started thinking, "Maybe I could just do something with the models." But they were a little pretentious, you know?
ST: One was in a wheelchair looking out a window. I thought it was cool, but it really wasnít at all. Then I put one of the chickens in the wheelchair, and I was like, "That is hysterical."
ST: People would come into my studio, walk right by all the paintings and go straight for the chickens. They were clearly the main attraction. Then I just started making them for friends and family. I would make a little tiny scene or something, and give it to them for their birthday. Then people started asking for them, and things just rolled on from there.
VB: So, when they were passing by your paintings and going right for the chickens, were you kinda bitter?
ST: I was totally bitter.
ST: I was bitter until I got a book deal. Then I wasnít bitter anymore.
ST: Once I saw that it could be profitable, I was like, "Okay! I can stop painting for a while." Itís been kinda nice to take a break from the painting, too. I feel like, when I go back, itíll all be coming from a totally different place.
VB: Since this first book came out, have you tried to get gallery shows or sell your paintings, and the people are like, "Youíre the chicken lady! Why arenít you painting chickens?"
ST: (laughs) Itís funny, I havenít tried at all. There was a gallery in Boston I was going to do a solo show with, but I couldnít. He wanted 14 paintings, and I only had four done! I didnít have time to do it, so I had to cancel that show. Thereís a gallery in Connecticut, too, that had asked for some stuff, but I havenít really had time! You know how it is. You paint a lot of stuff, but sometimes what you do is sort of shit. You have to leave yourself enough time to come up with something good. And without that time, Iíd rather not be doing it. Itís hard to focus on both things, you know? Nowadays, the chickens take up 100% of my mental capacity!
VB: So, did you propose your chicken book, or did someone see it and say, "I work for this publishing company. Weíd like to make a book of this."
ST: I didnít propose it. I mean, never in a million years did it occur to me as ever being an actual book. I was in California one summer, and I didnít have a studio there or a good space to be working in, so I started building the models. It was easier than painting, and it wasnít as messy. Then I started adding the chickens, and had four, maybe five completed boxes. People would come into the studio and be like, "You should do a show with these," so I shipped 'em back to New York. An editor friend of mine, who I actually dedicated the book to, came down and saw them and said, "This would be a great book. I should get some agents down here to look." And the first agent she sent down, I totally clicked with. She thought, "Why not?"
VB: Right on.
ST: Then we had to photograph them. I had three or four people try to do that, and they would sit the camera in the box. It was awful. The guy who works next door to me [Stefan Hagen], heís a product photographer. He was overhearing all these conversations, but Iíd never really spoken to him.
ST: But he was amazing! He took everything out of the boxes, and we did these elaborate set-ups. Each of those shots takes three or four hours. Theyíre like little movie sets. Once I saw that it could be pulled off with the photography, we sent out eight images in spec to various publishing companies, and a few people were interested. This was not a million dollar book deal or anything, but it was good. I was excited.
VB: You know, you said it took three or four hours to shoot. After the third or fourth time I read it, I started looking at things and thinking, "You know, thatís probably her kitchen floor. And she probably scrubbed that kitchen floor until it was pristine just to set that mirror there, and have that anorexic chicken standing in front of it."
VB: Then Iíd start looking at every page, thinking, "Oh my God. She hand-sculpted a tiny, personal computer!"
ST: When I first started doing them I built all of the furniture. I never played with dolls when I was little, so I had no idea they have dollhouse stores, where they sell almost everything in miniature form. I was able to buy a lot. And now, if I can buy it, I buy it. Iím able to make most of it, but itís so time-consuming.
VB: Aw, you totally debunked the myth you had going for yourself.
ST: (laughs) I know. But you know what? Thatís not even a myth I can keep going. The people who actually make all that stuff would freak out if I started taking credit for their pieces. I mean, all that food and everything, forget it! Asparagus? Soft eggs? No way! Itís amazing what they do, these people.
VB: Yeah. So, how would you come up with your ideas? I mean, what would you come up with first? Would it be the overall concept, or the line youíd write beneath it, or was it a totally random thing?
ST: It definitely starts with a concept, and then I try and come up with a line thatís really funny. The visual is the last part of it. Once in a while Iíll see a prop thatís really cool, and thatíll spark an idea. Usually, though, Iíll be hanging out with friends, and someone will say something ridiculous, and Iíll translate it into the chickens, somehow.
ST: It started as people coming up to me and saying, "Could you make one for my friend?" Theyíd want their friend's most embarrassing situation created with the chickens. Somehow, with the chickens, everythingís harmless. People donít take anything personally. You can get away with a lot more, which is the fun of it.
VB: So, now when you go into these dollhouse accessory places, do you walk in and see something that works? It's like, "Oh my God! A miniature banjo! Iím going to recreate this kind of scene!"
ST: Definitely. I saw an old-fashioned well. It was beautiful. When I saw it, I didnít know what I was going to be able to do with it, but I knew I could come up with something. So, in the next book, thereís something about a well, and a boy falls down it, and his parents are tired and just want to drop down a GameBoy to him and call it a night, you know?
ST: If the prop is that great, I canít pass it up. Theyíre really expensive, though. People say, "You got all this money to do the book!" But so much of it goes to buying props and stuff.
VB: Couldnít you work out a sponsorship deal? "Hey, Company, hook me up with some free stuff and Iíll mention you in my book!"
ST: (laughs) No. That miniature world is a dying art. They need the money. Kids donít play with that stuff anymore. Itís older people who collect that stuff. Iím like the youngest person that buys this stuff.
VB: You said you bought this well for the next book. Is that Where Is Coco Going?
ST: No. Where Is Coco Going? is a children's book. The book after that is the sequel to Bitter With Baggage.... Itís basically going to be the same sort of vignettes. Then thereíll be a fourth book-- another childrenís book-- but for five- and six-year-olds. Where Is Coco Going? is basically a picture book. Itís really simple.
VB: Was that something that they asked you to do after this first book came out? Or was that just an idea you had in addition to the first book?
ST: I had an idea for a childrenís book, which I mentioned to them. They said they loved it, and they wanted to buy it. We started shooting that book, but it didnít work out, so they said to come up with other ideas. They wanted to do a childrenís book. The thing about-- I keep calling it the "adult" book, which makes it sound like itís porn with chickens.
ST: The thing about that book is, kids really like to look at all the pictures, but, of course, they donít know what the lines mean.
VB: Whatís the weirdest thing thatís happened since the book came out? Like, have you gotten calls from MTV, like, "Host our Summer beach house... with your chickens!"
ST: (laughs) No. I havenít gotten that call, thank God.
VB: Have you done a lot of publicity for this?
ST: When it first came out, I did a lot. The publicist at Bloomsbury was amazing. She got a lot of good press. It all happened around Christmas, which is why I think the book sold pretty well. People would buy a few for their friends and give them as gifts. Itís the kind of humor that either totally speaks to you, or doesnít at all. And a lot of people didnít get it. When it first came out, I would go on Amazon and read a lot of the reviews people would leave. Sometimes, Iíd be completely devastated, because some people would leave the meanest shit. I mean, this book is not offensive. How could you take this personally?
ST: The meanest shit, like, "The author of this book shouldnít have children."
VB: Oh my God!
ST: Horrible, horrible shit. Most of it was really nice, but I would just focus on the negative ones and not let them go. Iíd try and figure out who it was, like, if it was an ex-boyfriend.
ST: When you go out in the public world, you gotta be ready to get your head blown off. People are very excited to do it on some level. Psychologically, the whole thingís been kinda interesting.
VB: Now, I talk to a lot of musicians, and if I like what they do, in my head, I convince myself that theyíre the biggest, most popular band in the world. Then it turns out that theyíre biggest crowd ever was 2,000 people, and Iím like, "Oh." So, in my head now, Iím imagining youíre selling millions of copies and youíre on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
ST: (laughs) No, youíre having the same problem again.
VB: It happens every time. But you know what? Even if I have evidence to the contrary right in front of me, I think, "No! This is bullshit! Itís propaganda! This person is making millions, selling billions of product!"
ST: (laughs) I wish. No, the book has sold about 80,000 copies, which is really good for a book like that. The publishers are really happy with that. Iím hoping it hits 100,000 because then I get a bonus. So, Iím telling all my friends, "Buy a couple copies!" As far as it improving my financial situation tremendously, it hasnít changed that much. I got to go shopping and buy a few things, which is nice, and I had to pay the photographer. Heís basically my partner in this; heís such a big part of it. So, he gets a big chunk of the money.
VB: I donít know how out and on the shelves this is now, since itís not a brand-new book, but do you get calls from old boyfriends who are like, "Howís it going? Saw the book. Letís get lunch... your treat!"
ST: (laughs) No, that hasnít happened. I get calls from people I never knew who say they knew me when I was a little kid, and weird shit like that. The other thing is, the book isnít so out there. Itís not like I wrote The Da Vinci Code, you know? Not that many people have seen it.
ST: There were about two weeks where I felt like pretty hot shit, but that passed pretty quickly.
VB: Do you expect this same sort of success with the childrenís books?
ST: Childrenís books are different. From what I understand, picture books donít do as well as they used to, because people buy the same books that you read as a kid, you know? Stuff like The Velveteen Rabbit and Goodnight, Moon. Classic books always sell, and then there are two or three breakthrough books a year. You just hope that yours is one of those.
VB: I only have one real question left. Iím totally not making this up, either. Weíve asked it to everyone for the last six years. Do dogs have lips?
VB: You donít even have to think about that at all?
ST: Iím a big dog person. Dogs have lips. Well, it might be a wraparound gum.
VB: Right! Okay! Now youíre saying what I want to hear. So, they arenít lips, then?
ST: (laughs) I guess I wouldnít say theyíre a "lip", but they serve the same purpose. I think a vet would actually call it a lip.
VB: What do they know?