Mark McDermott

The snake who would not bend

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The story behind the story

Artist Dawn von Flue and author Robb Fulcher wander through one of Von Flue’s landscapes from The Snake Who Would Not Bend. Photo by Nichlaus von Hulsebus

The snake came to Robb Fulcher in the dark of night.

Fulcher was dreaming. In the dream, the snake appeared. He wasn’t your typical snake. He was a snake with a story to tell. Curiously enough, the name of the snake was something Robb had already thought about in his waking hours.

“I had this acquaintance who was this really skinny, stiff guy, really nice, but I thought of him as The Snake Who Would Not Bend,” said Fulcher, an Easy Reader news editor, stand-up comedian, and newly hatched children’s book author. “His arms were always straight down his side. He gave the impression of being locked inside his own body.”

Fulcher woke knowing the snake’s story. It had the feel of an old folk tale, like a story that had been told through the ages. But the snake was a real, live, breathing character hissing in Fulcher’s ear. And his story had not yet been told.

“Once there was a snake who would not bend,” Fulcher later wrote. “His friends slithered around on the warm hard ground. They looped their bodies around the trunks of trees and climbed out onto the branches. They scrunched between rocks to scrape off their old dead skin, and slithered away feeling new again. Sometimes they fell from the trees or got stuck between the rocks. The snake saw this and became afraid. So he went everywhere as straight as a stick, inching slowly forward bit by bit. ‘Better to play it safe,’ he said.”

The unbending snake, as you might imagine, runs into some problems. Without giving the story away, his rigid approach to life threatens to ossify the snake. The contour of the tale was fully formed in Fulcher’s dream. Then, a few months later, he was travelling in Greece, and on a windy night the finishing touches of the story came to him.

“I don’t remember dreaming about the story but I just woke up, sat up, and the wind became sort of an extra character,” Fulcher said. “That really helped out the third act. So one dream and one nighttime experience that was like a dream…that was the whole thing complete.”

The story seemed so utterly familiar that Fulcher – an avid reader of folklore and mythology – felt compelled to check and make sure he hadn’t unconsciously taken it from an existent story. Nothing like it had been written. Fulcher realized it was a children’s story, and he finally sat down and wrote it. Then he contacted several large publishing houses, received numerous one-card responses – “We are not accepting manuscripts by unpublished authors at this time” – and put the story aside for a while.

But he had told a few people about the story, and it stayed on the mind of one particularly creative man with a penchant for bringing such dreams to fruition. Mike Wellman is co-owner of The Comic Bug, a store in Redondo Beach that is home to a community of characters that include writers, illustrators, banjo-pickers, and gleefully nerdy comic book collectors. Wellman is the pied piper of the crew, a tangle-haired impresario who possesses an exuberant can-do practicality.

Wellman heard the tale from Fulcher – a comic book collector who loves Thor and the Green Lantern and sometimes does stand-up at the Bug – and never forgot about it. He believed in The Snake Who Would Not Bend. A couple of years after Fulcher told him the story, he approached his friend with the idea of making the book themselves.

“I edited some other children’s books by that time and learned some things along the way, and I kept going back to this story,” Wellman said. “It felt like this sort of perfectly magical thing that I think a lot of people try to tap into when they do this stuff…I also had a kid now, and this felt like the perfect tale for parents and kids to be able to read together. It’s a very vivid story.”

Wellman introduced Fulcher to artist Dawn von Flue. She and her husband, Neal, operate a kind of one-stop-shop art studio in El Segundo – they are painters, ceramicists, illustrators, book designers, and basically all-purpose artists (perhaps best known for Hermosa Beach’s centennial mural). “Anything that kind of comes along,” Dawn von Flue said.

Her work struck Fulcher. There was an artistic challenge, after all, in presenting a snake as the protagonist in a children’s book. They met and talked snakes and stories. She was interested in doing the project. But then von Flue’s father had a stroke, and she told Fulcher she might not be able to do it because she would be caring for him. He was undeterred. “I’ll wait,” he told her. “You are the one.”

“I was very single-minded about it because her art was so good and so warm, and I knew she could make a snake that was not cartoonish and also wouldn’t scare you if you were 4 to 7 years old – a sympathetic character, but a sympathetic character that is a reptile,” Fulcher said.

They pondered snakes from a distance. What kind of snake should The Snake Who Would Not Bend be? During that time, von Flue was in Ventura caring for her father when the answer slithered across her tracks.

“It was a very stressful time and I had gone for a drive one morning to get away from it all,” she said. “It was a quiet, sunny, beautiful morning, and I took a dirt road to get up to a peak, and there was a California Kingsnake stretched straight as a stick across my path. I pretty much took that to mean it was a done deal. I called Robb, and he said, ‘Well, it seems as though the snake has presented himself.’”

Over the course of six months last year, the book came together. Fulcher, Wellman and von Flue fleshed out the story, page by page. Von Flue’s husband was enlisted for lettering and book design, and their friend (and guitar player) Nichlaus von Hulsebus (“who is deathly afraid of snakes,” von Flue noted) served as the photographer.

The final product exceeded everyone’s expectations. Fulcher remembers the shock of recognition he felt when von Flue showed him the first page of the book, a striking illustration of a sad-eyed but somehow hopeful brown-striped snake.

“I thought, ‘There he is,’” Fulcher said. “He is better than I imagined him. I love that guy, really.”

Wellman agreed.

“You could have wound up with some episode of Barney, or had this evil serpent – it could have gone bad two different ways,” he said. “But that snake slid down the middle where he needed to be. He did not bend.”

The story, which also involves winds and dreams and some of the most beautiful magical realism this side of South America, is written in carefully crafted, low-to-the-ground language. Fulcher writes gracefully and inventively – there are skritches and scratches, swirls and woggles, slithering and sliding. But most of all, there is resonance: the story imparts something pretty damned close to wisdom (especially coming from a newspaper reporter) about the dangers of becoming too rigid in life.

Fulcher said he didn’t intend for there to be a moral to the tale.

“I really tried to avoid seeing a really specific meaning in it,” he said. “For me, the experience was having the dream. The writing, to me, was like a reportorial exercise – there was this snake, and this is what happened.”

Wellman, however, found some pretty profound meaning in the snake’s tale.

“Every good story, be it a children’s story or the newest issue of Spider Man, has a great message,” Wellman said. “And the message of this book – at least what I got out of it – is being able to sort of squirm your way around in life. If you are so stiff you can’t roll with the punches life gives you, or the rocks life puts in front of you, and you are going to get stuck in place. That’s a very important message for kids, and a lot of adults I know.”

“Robb is one of the most Zen people I know, if not the only Zen person I know,” he added. “I think his experience in life – he’s got great wisdom, and I think it shows in this book.”

The book is dedicated to Fulcher’s mother, Gloria (lovingly known as the Bear for reasons left to Fulcher family mythology) and to von Flue’s father, Bud, who has since passed away.

Fulcher and von Flue said that in the end, The Snake Who Would Not Bend benefited greatly from its handmade, South Bay roots.

“Children’s books right now all kind of look the same – the same style, colors, everything – and that will eventually feel dated,” she said. “To me, this is timeless, like a folk tale. It’s not all these crazy colors popping out all over-the-top like TV.”

“If you go to a bookstore, it’s all kind of The Mouse Who Barfed Neon,” Fulcher said. “That’s what they all could be called now. So you never know what they might have done with this poor little snake.”

Robb Fulcher and Dawn von Flue will sign The Snake Who Would Not Bend 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19 at The Comic Bug, 1807 Manhattan Beach Blvd. in Manhattan Beach. The event will feature von Flue’s original artwork, music by Hang Dog Expression, and a reading for the kids at 1:30 p.m. For more see thecomicbug.com or call 310-372-6704.

Fulcher and von Flue will also read the book at story time, 10:30 a.m. Monday, March 7 at {Pages} A Bookstore, 904 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach. For more see pagesabookstore.com or call 310-318-0900.

The book will be available at stores including The Comic Bug and {Pages}, and will soon be available online through RabbitLandPress.com. ER

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