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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Prof. John Plotz’s timeless tapestry

Published: August 22, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

This April, Professor John Plotz (ENG) released his first children’s book. “Time and the Tapestry: A William Morris Adventure” includes stunning illustrations by Phyllis Saroff, who learned the style of William Morris to design the book cover, 16 illustrations, marginalia and decorations for chapter openings. The book features two orphaned siblings who embark on a time-traveling adventure based on parts of a Morris poem. With the help of a giant blackbird, the children end up in an uncompleted William Morris tapestry and explore art’s meaning.

Plotz’s story was inspired by his two young daughters, Helen and Daria. “They are elementary-school-age now, and I loved rediscovering books from my own childhood with them: Le Guin, Tolkien, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain.”

He was also influenced by William Morris, who was a 19th-century English artist, writer and politician. Why Morris? “Because he lived, breathed, slept, dreamt and ultimately devoted every waking minute to his vision of art that could not only beautify the world but make it a better place: through beauty, justice and equality. It’s a hard vision to hold onto, and it can get mired in contradictions, but he called it ‘artist’s socialism,’ and he died young, worn out from fighting for it. So it kept me going late at night, trying to convey how inspiring I found that dedication,” said Plotz in an interview with The Hoot.

“I knew that I wanted to write something different about him, not just another academic article, and when I met a children’s book publisher who asked me about possible books, this leapt right into my mind,” said Plotz.

The best part about writing the book for Plotz was discussing the story and its characters with his children. “Nothing about the writing was more fun than telling my kids the stories, or trying out passages on them. The more we talked, the more important the giant blackbird character became,” he confessed.

Despite the repetitive writing process all authors must go through, Plotz was not burned out by edits; his love and passion for this book overshadowed the blood and tears shed into it. “I struggled way less because it was such a pleasure to sit down at the end of the day, or the beginning, and turn my mind away from schoolwork. But that doesn’t mean I spent less time or sweat on it. Somebody told me this summer, ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ That’s more or less how I felt about this book, even during the third round of revisions.”

The book’s first review came from Publisher’s Weekly. It notes that while it is “filled with scenes that reveal the larger-than-life artist and his family, companions and many accomplishments, the story never fully takes on a life of its own. The book, however, shows Plotz’s considerable knowledge of, and passion for sharing, all things William Morris.” While not completely positive, the review is still good press for Plotz and his writing.

Plotz said that he does have plans for more children’s books. “My next book, which I am working on now, is about Mark Twain, right at the end of his life. Best thing about it so far: I realized that at the key moment for my book, Twain was living in Greenwich Village in 1900, only two blocks away from one of the first movie studios, set up by Edison and a few other early moviemakers.”

Plotz is a professor of English at Brandeis University, specializing in Victorian literature and the novel. He was a recipient of the Brandeis University Dean of Arts and Sciences Mentoring Award in 2006. Plotz also writes for Slate Magazine.