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Author/Illustrator Bob Staake Talks About Creating A Mythology By Creating 'The Orb Of Chatham'

"Is 'The Orb of Chatham' story real?"

Since the book was published in the summer of 2005, it's by far the question I'm most commonly asked.

This, of course, doesn't surprise me -- in the least. It could be worse. I honestly can't imagine a more horrible scenario than if people didn't ask me the question. No author, after all, wants to face a public that isn't reading, or are at least curious about, his book.

Even when I first sat down at my computer to create that first illustration for ''The Orb of Chatham' -- the one that appears on the cover showing a mammothly heavy black Orb sitting silently in the grand den of a Shore Road mansion -- I knew the question would come and I would have to decide how to deal with it in a way that didn't provide finality for the reader -- and effectively close the book.

In many ways, that illustration of an impossibly huge, unyielding ball-shape is a visual metaphor for the question itself -- it's the thing that I can't ignore -- even if I tried.

There IS a right way, and a wrong way, for me to answer the question -- but at the end of the day, my answer doesn't matter -- only the reader's does.

"So is 'The Orb of Chatham' real?". My answer will always be the same: "I fully believe the story."

In a selfish effort to escape the heat, humidity and grating Midwestern accents of Saint Louis in August, in 1995 we purchased a summer home on Main Street in the historic Old Village neighborhood of Chatham, Massachusetts. Our joke was that the home may be 300 yards from the Atlantic, 200 years old -- but it's only inhabited by 100 ghosts. It just needed some paint, some plaster, some shingles -- and an artist stupid enough to buy the place.

When we decided in 2003 to pack up and move fulltime from Saint Louis to the house on Cape Cod, I had the luxury of time on my hands. Working from a small temporary studio in my basement, I'd fill my days (and evenings) on my freelance assignments -- working on an illustration for The Washington Post one day, the spreads for a children's picture book the next, a quick cartoon or two for MAD magazine the day after, some character designs for a popular animated show for kids later that afternoon. If I've been fortunate to build a successful career as an illustrator, it's because I've managed to avoid boredom by consciously choosing to work with an ecclectic variety of clients who couldn't be more different from one another. There's no common demoninator to The Wall Street Journal, Hallmark Cards, American Express and MTV/Nickelodeon -- except maybe for the fact that I've created art for them all.

Of all the illustrators and authors I know, I consider myself one of the luckiest. NOT simply because after doing this professionally for over 30 years I get to pretty much do what I please with little interference from a well-intentioned editor or an art director who would rather see a background color being more yellow than blue, but because I get to live -- and work -- in Chatham. How many people do you know who can work on their children's book in the afternoon, and then be pulled Pied Piper-like into their backyard to the hourly chiming of the Methodist Church bells down the street or by the sight of a fox trying patiently to seize a duck on our wetland pond?

The truth remains, had I stayed in Saint Louis and not moved to the Cape, I doubt I would have ever created such an audacious work as 'The Orb of Chatham'. For me, at least, I had to be here to create this book.

In the Fall of 2004, I started reflecting on all the odd stories I'd been told by my neighbors in Cape Cod. How a woman went mad in the house next to mine and how the innocent looking home remains haunted by her ghost. How the eery glow of the lighthouse in Chatham washes across the pitched roofs of exactly five homes in the neighborhood (including mine). How on late night walks through the Old Village, at certain spots one may feel as if they are being inexplicably followed, and when they stop to look back -- nothing.

Then, of course, I was also told by two people -- on different ocassions -- about a mysterious black orb that was said to have visited Chatham in the 1930s. They said if I mentioned it to others, particularly longtime residents of Chatham, that they would laugh it off and deny the event ever occurred -- or say that it was simply a hoax. -- just some local folklore -- scant on details, short of evidence, understandably intriguing -- but an urban legend and little more.

But what if the story, what if 'The Orb of Chatham', really did happen? Could evidence be found? Could clues be revealed by the witnesses who spotted the Orb on that summer night in 1935? What connections did they ave to one another? Was there a deeper story here -- one that could be revealed and pulled back like the layers of an onion?

By taking the very thin premise I had been told of a strange, monolithic orb visiting a small fishing village on the outer elbow of pre-war Cape Cod, my goal was to build the bigger story -- one that asks far more questions than it provides answers -- or any singular answer. Structured as a mystery, the story is only comprised of 293 words and 13 illustrations -- and if the book has been able to captivate and intrigue readers both young and old, it is because it seeks their active involvement in fully "fleshing out" the storyline.

Of the more than 35 books I have illustrated and/or authored, 'The Orb of Chatham' was not only the first I finished completely before even offering it to a publisher, then once I did, I've never been offered a contract to publish a book faster -- getting a committment within a few hours of showing it to the good people at Commonwealth Editions in Boston. Publisher Webster Bull's immediate response was succinct; "I love it!", followed up by the ubiqitous question, "is the story real?".

'The Orb of Chatham' wasn't a book I even considered showing to any of my other publishers like Random House or Viking or Simon + Schuster for two reasons: all would have surely viewed it as "too regional" and anything but mass market -- and if they did get behind it, they'd fail to push it first on Cape Cod -- and then hope for it to gain an audience as it worked off-Cape. But Commonwealth Editions shared my vision for the book, and if it has had any success, it is due greatly to their committment to the project -- and their risky decision to publish it.

It's also interesting to note that 'The Orb of Chatham' that you hold in your hands is NOT the book I originally envsioned. The story and art is unchanged, but I originally saw it as a much smaller book -- no bigger than 6" x 6". It is only after talking with my publisher that I was convinced a larger, more standard size book of 8" x 8" would better suit its categorization as a graphic novel -- one that would appeal to adults as well as kids. More important to me was that the book retain its "democratic" appeal -- the story and the resolution of the mystery being one thing to one reader, quite another to the next.

I'm flattered by those who read 'The Orb of Chatham' and assume the story and illustrations were the result of a decade or more of blood, sweat and spilled india ink at the drawing board -- but the truth is another matter. All the art for 'The Orb of Chatham' was created digitally, drawn not by paintbrush but by a computer mouse and in Photoshop 3.0 -- a version of the software so antiquated that only two people on the planet use it; me and, well, okay -- just me.

Imagine trying to "draw" the Wayside Inn on Main Street with a bar of soap in your right hand. Okay, now try and draw a 19th Century cemetery. For anyone who thinks this is easy or amounts to some sort of technological short cut, you clearly don't understand that a computer is far more temperamental than a palette of gray watercolors. For me, the computer is but a tool -- one that is wielded no differently than a pen, a brush or a smudge of pastel. It's just that since 1995, I prefer to paint on a computer screen -- rather than on a canvas.

It was also essential that the visual style I used was somehow in sync with the Depression-era period in which the story takes place. For that reason I considered it important to create the art in black and white and in an aesthetic highly influenced by the American Regionalist movement of the 1930s, particularly the meticulous paintings of Grant Wood. Other children's book illustrators have been highly influenced by Wood, though few give him the credit he so duely deserves.

Crucial to the credibility of the story, the scenes depicted in the book HAD to look like the actual environments, and because I have walked these locations hundreds of times and am happily blessed with a 'photographic memory', they were done without the aid of preliminary photos, sketches or visual reference -- in vivid, and hopefully eery, monochomatic grays. In the end, it's the imperfect nature of my photographic memory that gives the illustrations any organic and impressionistic aura -- and if I made any mistakes with the scenes, I could easily defend the art by saying "well, this is how I imagine the scene would have looked in 1935". Art isn't a science -- it's a fantasy world -- and a happily forgiving one.

A reader emailed me to say how excited she was to come to Chatham after the book was published -- and to recognize the clock tower of the First Methodist Church on Main Street which is depicted in 'The Orb of Chatham'. She was so excited to realize that the scenes in the book are faithful to the actual landmarks and locales -- when she used the end paper map provided in the book to see the other sites first hand. That's the sort of engagement that makes an author/illustrator smile.

The story, combined with the art, is intended to evoke a dreaminess -- an almost ethereal quailty -- one that almost guides the reader into another dimension, the incompleteness of each illustration allowing each reader to fill in the gaps. For example, I have always believed that it is as important for an illustrator NOT to show things, as it is for him to show things, to a reader. The cover illustration showing the huge orb sitting in the center of the room? The illustration is actually titled 'Before The Fireplace' -- though I have provided no clue whatsoever that the Orb obscures anything -- particularly a fireplace that would clearly be the overt architectural centerpiece of such a room. In illustration, what you don't see is often as important as what you do -- and it certainly opens up endless possibilities for sub-plots and speculation.

People have always talked about the amazing light evidenced on the Cape, particularly water-surrounded Chatham, but I've always been more mesmerized by the amazing quality of the night skies here -- the way the moon backlights against the clouds, the blanket of summertime stars, the lighthouse beam sweeping across the black sky. It's a mysterious place, Chatham is, and being a relative newcomer, perhaps I see this with a hyper-sensitive eye -- though appreciate it no more than any longtime resident of this quintessentially New England town.

In the end, the book culminates with a huge question mark -- and though it tells the tale of an event that took place 70 years ago, it suggests that the story may not in fact be over -- and is indeed ongoing. COULD 'The Orb of Chatham' remain hidden under the mysterious waters of this quaint little Cape Cod Village? Did it arrive here via space, or roll to Chatham from somewhere else -- right across the ocean floor?

You need only hold the book in your hands to initiate the process of witnessing a far bigger story, a far richer mystery, a far heftier steamer trunk of evidence, for the artwork on the pages of the book contains a hidden "code" -- one that can only be unlocked by going to the OrbOfChatham.com web site.

Five cryptographic clues are literally buried in the art, carefully and meticulously planted there by an illustrator 110% committed to the belief that interaction can be created between the traditional literary world and the online environment to instill a tantilizing synergy -- one in which you're never quite sure which came first; the web site, or the book. Ultimately, it is by melding both worlds -- traditional print and the internet -- that empowers and indeed elevates the importance of each individual reader. Without an engaged, piqued and curious reader, a project like 'The Orb of Chatham' simply cannot survive.

Those addicted to crossword puzzles and word games will breeze through the questions that allow one to 'unlock the code' at OrbOfChatham.com. Others will have to work each riddle, but I promise that if you stick with the clues and solve them, the ride is worth the effort. Better yet, the web site includes really creepy music that adds another layer of eeriness to the online experience.

Those who have deciphered the cryptic clues have reported being stunned at what they have found when they have successfully ventured inside the Orb and witnessed its secrets. And does the evidence inside reveal once and for all the "solution" to 'The Orb of Chatham' mystery? For some, it will -- for many, it will completely explode any hypothesis they might have previously formed by reading the book. The story is a Moebius strip -- it curves and sweeps, and often derails, yet it always comes full circle.

Connections can be made from one piece of evidence to the next. For example, a line can be drawn tying Orb witness Isabel Porter to an enigmatic painting discovered in fellow witness Walter Snow's Shore Road mansion. The two words "Stage Harbor" are revealed to be a mind-bending anagram. There's a reason why the Orb would rise and float before the black clockface of a church steeple. Even a seemingly innocuous number, omnipresent in 'The Orb of Chatham' mystery conjoins a stunning group of events both historic and contemporary. Additionally, that number only appears crytographically in two legal documents -- a 1928 map of the Town of Chatham, Massachusetts and a genealogy of the Kennedy Family. The story is that bizarre.

Do I know how 'The Orb of Chatham' ends? Yes, I do. I've followed the clues, I've looked at the evidence -- and I've tied up the mystery. But no, I'm not telling you how I've solved this story.

In the end, when you unlock the secrets, you will believe 'The Orb of Chatham'.

What you chose to believe as an individual reader is entirely up to you.

 

'The Art Of The Orb Of Chatham' was first exhibited at the Munson Gallery in Chatham, Massachusetts. Selected illustrations from the book, reproduced as giclees and pencil signed and titled by Bob Staake, were displayed June 19 - July 2, 2005 to coincide with the release of the book. If you are interested in purchasing one of these unique pieces of artwork, please visit this page

 


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To arrange a book signing, literary event or speaking engagement with the author/illustrator, please visit this page.


Excerpting the Book Reprinting of Hi-Res Artwork:

To download and publish examples of 'The Orb Of Chatham' artwork or a photo of the author/illustrator to coincide with any media interviews or reviews, please click here.

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Written and illustrated by Bob Staake, 'The Orb Of Chatham' is unlike any other of his more than 35 books.

A hauntingly eery tale that meanders through this mysterious New England town, 'The Orb Of Chatham' fascinates and mesmerizes readers both young and old. Take a peek at the book

 

 

 

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, the reports were made upon daylight, though local authorities dismissed them a hoax.

Still, the witnesses' independent accounts were virtually identical; the orb appeared to be made of blackened metal, perhaps six feet tall, and traveled in absolute silence by rolling (though one witness reported spotting the orb "hovering" in the air above a local church).

Two months later, all five witnesses vanished -- on the same October evening -- never to be seen again.

Whether 'The Orb Of Chatham' is truth or fiction remains a mystery to this day.