Pictures can serve as portals into worlds we’ve never been to, and the artistically-inclined need only draw those worlds before they step inside.
When New-York based writer and illustrator Steve Sheinkin first collaborated with academic and fellow author Ilan Stavans on an online comic, the unconventionality of sharing a story was surprisingly enjoyable for the pair. They enjoyed it so much, Sheinkin said, that they soon after launched a “bigger, more ambitious” project together, comparing drafts and scenes over dozens of emails and lunch meetings.
A year-and-a-half later, El Iluminado emerged, a graphic novel that blends historical non-fiction, cinematic suspense and situational humor (Stavans himself is a character in the book, and doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at his expense) into one vividly-illustrated package.
“We didn’t really plan on it necessarily being a book,” Sheinkin said. “We just thought it would be fun to tell the story, and it just kind of gained momentum.”
Both authors are Jewish, but had very different upbringings: Sheinkin, raised on the East Coast, described his religious background as “very normal,” while Stavans grew up in Mexico City in a predominantly Jewish, Yiddish-speaking community. Sheinkin’s comic series Rabbi Harvey was what originally acquainted the two authors, and their different takes on a shared sense of heritage led them to focus on a very special faction of Jewish history in El Iluminado: the story of “crypto-Jews” in the Southwest, based in Santa Fe.
Sheinkin had never been to the city, but was immediately stricken by the unique beauty of its architecture and culture.
“I didn’t have much of a connection, and it was fascinating to go there and see the place,” Sheinkin said. “It really looks like nothing else I’ve ever seen in this country. ...It’s just culturally different.”
This stranger-in-a-strange-land experience proved to be useful artistically: because Santa Fe is so visually distinctive and rich in history, it almost begged to be put on a page. Sheinkin, however, took no chances, taking hundreds of pictures during his visit and saving pages upon pages of source material for the novel.
“I didn’t want to make stuff up,” Sheinkin said. “I really wanted to get the color palette right, and the architecture, so that did take a lot of research.”
Stavans recently wrapped a book tour for El Iluminado, and while Sheinkin was only able to make it to one event, he was thrilled to see the positive reception to an unconventional story that caters across genre boundaries.
“It’s fun to see people’s reactions, and have this really strange combination of being kind of silly and fun, but also having a serious story and serious questions involved in it,” Sheinkin said.
Sheinkin has two new books on the verge of release: Bomb, another Southwest-centric story of the global race to make the first atomic weapon, and Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, an outrageous crime thriller that sounds like it may have beaten the writers of National Treasure 3 to the punch. He’s also discussing another potential project with Stavans, but in the meantime is thrilled to collaborate with a budding artist at home: his 6-year-old daughter.
“I never set out to teach her, she just saw me doing it so she started doing it too,” Sheinkin said. “There’s something very natural about it with kids.”
Purchase El Iluminado, a “deep mystery of epic proportions” with a Southwestern twist, here on Amazon.
El Iluminado; Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin; 208 pages; Basic Books publishing