Thursday, August 27, 2009

Zachary Pullen: Making a story one page at a time

Featured in the Winter 2008 Edition of the Wyoming Libraries Roundup
On a typical Wyoming street lined with cottagestyle homes and white picket fences sits a green house. Not a neutral green or a green found in the landscapes of the West, but a vibrant, alive green. And inside this house is exactly what you would expect to find — an artist.
“When we looked at this house I was plain white and the trees were so overgrown that the house was hidden.
So we cut back all the trees and started painting it. When I did, all my neighbors, and even my parents, asked if I was sure I wanted to paint it that color. But it’s fun. It fits our personality,” says Wyoming artist and author Zachary Pullen.
Pullen lives in Casper with his wife Renate and four-year-old son Hudson.
Not only is Pullen a storyteller through his art, but now he’s a storyteller through his words. He recently wrote and illustrated his first book, Friday My Radio Flyer Flew, which will be released in May.
The title came to him one night when he was trying to get to sleep.
“I told my editor that when I was trying to go to sleep I kept getting a flash of a title. And all I had was a title, Friday My Radio Flyer Flew. My editor said it sounded like a great book.”
“It’s about a little boy who tries to get his dad’s old radio fl yer airborne and his week of trying. He has good days and bad days, so every day has its mark,” Pullen says.
And that’s where it began. Pullen says it took more than a year and a half to have his title on the Simon and Schuster schedule.
It was a waiting game, but Pullen couldn’t imagine handing it over to anyone else to write.
He met the challenge of writing his first book with a little apprehension. Although Pullen was a storyteller by nature, he had never used words to tell a story, it had always been through his paintings.
“Storytelling is the base of everything I do, but I was a horrible writer in high school and got horrible grades in writing class,” Pullen told his editor.
Instead, Pullen used his illustrations to tell the story and wove words within that story. Time spent with his son inspired some of the book.
“Kids can inspire anything if you let them. That is, as long as you’re open to it and not frustrated by what they’re doing.”
There are some shared traits between the boy in the book and Pullen’s son, Hudson.
“I think the main trait is that stickto-it-ness. He’s just gonna do it no matter what.”
Pullen says he and Hudson are both in the book.
The dad in Friday My Radio Flyer Flew plays a secondary role, similar to the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. Pullen says he likes to think of himself as that kind of father.
“I think it’s not as much inspired as it is just day dreamy-ness about what would it be like, or how would I act in this situation? Would I be the cool dad who let him wreck or would I be
the one to wrap him up in foam so he didn’t get hurt?”
“I just kind of let him do his own thing, call it spoiled if you want. But it’s my job to observe and let him do his own thing. Let him be a kid. There are no leashes around here.”
Pullen previously illustrated The Toughest Cowboy and The Greatest Game Ever Played in addition to several cover illustrations for other children’s books.
The Toughest Cowboy was the first book Pullen illustrated. After doing a number of covers, his editor from Simon and Schuster called to say they’d been looking for an illustrator for this book for four years and asked if he’d be interested.
“I was trying to act all cool and said, ‘yeah, send me the manuscript and I’ll take a look.’ Inside I thought ‘yeah of course I’ll do it, I don’t care what it is,’” he says.
The book just so happened to be The Toughest Cowboy. Pullen was a perfect fit for the story, especially since he was from Wyoming. But the funny thing about illustrating this book was his editor didn’t even know he was from Wyoming. He just knew Pullen lived in Upstate New York. The book was never expected to sell as well as it did. It is currently in its fourteenth printing and will be available in paperback soon.
“To work on The Toughest Cowboy, I bought a plane ticket and went to Wyoming. I shot something like 27 rolls of film of landscapes. I had a road trip in a convertible. It was the dream job. I got to see my family and come back here.” Pullen says.
Pullen grew up in Casper and attended Casper College. He later received a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art and Design. It was there, Pullen found, he could make a living by being an illustrator. After graduating from college in 1998 he moved back to Casper, got married and headed to New York.
“I knew I couldn’t get started here, not at where I wanted to be.”
In addition to book illustrations, Pullen also works as a freelance illustrator for newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and magazines like Esquire. He made several of these contacts while living in New York. “I would go once or twice a week into the city, troupe my portfolio around and get some really harsh criticism. Some people said ‘oh, we like your stuff, we’ll give you a call.’
After a while, you learn to take those comments with a grain of salt,” he says.
But his big break came during a meeting with New York Times Art Director Steven Heller. Heller was one of his harshest critics.
“When looking at my portfolio— which I had slaved over—he asked me to put my portfolio together and find the door. At that point I had no idea I’d end up working for him,” Pullen says.
As Heller left, he told Pullen if he didn’t hear from him within the week to give him a call.
“By the time I got home, I already had a message from him.”
Pullen says it’s difficult sometimes to work so far from the Big Apple.
“I really like the get-in-your-face approach. It’s much easier to say no to someone on the phone, but when I was in New York City I could meet with people face-to-face,” he says.
Living in Wyoming has been difficult, especially working as an illustrator in the publishing business.
“Everything works so slowly and I can’t go to the city, go to their offices and say ‘OK let’s move on this now.’
I depend a lot on their secretaries or assistants to pick up the phone and call me back.”
But Pullen says there have been a lot of positives in returning to Wyoming. For one, he gets to spend more time helping and contributing to the community he grew up in. He especially enjoys speaking with elementary students.
“There’s always a few kids who really stand out,” Pullen says. His own son played a role in the Pullens returning to their home state. Pullen and his wife want their own son to go through the Wyoming school system, the same system and community that he’s trying to give back to now.
For information on Zachary Pullen’s school or library visits, go to

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