From Timbuktu to Brooklyn, A Local Love Story

Steven Weinberg and Casey Scieszka

Casey Scieszka and Steven Weinberg were strangers when they met in Morocco as exchange students in 2004.  Now, Casey, a writer and native Brooklynite, and Steven, an artist, originally from Maryland, both 27, are Park Slopers–they are enjoying the fruits of their unexpected life path. So what happened between then and now?

Two years after they met, their bi-coastal relationship was still going strong as the duo completed their respective college programs at Pitzer College in Southern California and Colby College in Maine. The two reunited at Park Slope’s watering hole Commonwealth and under dim lights Casey and Steven decided they wanted to collaborate. They never considered that this brewing collaboration might become a professional endeavor, but both agreed that traveling together was a good place to start.

Now in 2011, after a year living in Brooklyn, Casey and Steven have published their first book about their adventures: To Timbuktu (Roaring House Press). The tome chronicles their nonchalant love story – one shaped by a two-year, nine country journey through China, Southeast Asia and Africa. In the beginning of their story, Casey is tossing around the inevitable what-to-do-when-I-graduate-college question. She writes, “Circles, circles, tangents. Should we be deckhands in Croatia, [or] herd reindeer in Lapland?”
I recently had the pleasure of visiting them in their Park Slope home studio to talk about their international adventures, their conflated romantic and professional relationship, and their current project, Shitty Kitty–“a shittily drawn cat who has a fondness for having sex with everything.” Here’s what ensued: I’ve noticed some book stores have To Timbuktu shelved in the travel essay section. But unlike other travel essays, your imagistic writing is stripped of the detailed drama that surely shaped much of your journey. I personally found To Timbuktu to be more informative than let’s say, Lonely Planet, partly because it reads as an unintentional/accidental travel guide. And then it’s also a love story. How would you choose to categorize this book?
Steven Weinberg: When we were in Seattle, it was shelved in the ‘Adventurous Travel Section”.
Casey Scieszka: Yeah, that was a good one. It depends on the type of store. It’s been shelved under ‘Graphic Novel’, ‘Young-Adult Non-Fiction’, ‘Memoir’. It’s tricky because it can really effect how it sells.
SW: We think of it as a travelogue. But there aren’t any illustrated travelogues or really long picture book for adults. It’s a honker, but you can still travel with it.
BTB: The story starts off in the voice of Casey and then matures into a shared voice of Steven and Casey. Can you describe your artistic processes, both collaboratively and individually?
SW: Well we weren’t a collaborative pair in the beginning. [To Timbuktu] is a love story but it’s also a story about learning to collaborate. We’d take scenes that were funny and good stories. We knew what was going to be the punch line moment. I’d hold up the drawing and Casey would read what she wrote.
CS: There was no modesty. No hard feelings. Our editor may have preferred we write the book first and then add the illustrations.
SW: But it was important to us that we work up the images and words simultaneously.
BTB: John Cage was a very influential artist, philosopher, composer, thinker, and mushroom collector in the mid to late twentieth century. His work is often credited as having eliminated the gap between art and life. The outcome of your journeys resulted in a very John Cageian approach to art making— how did that happen?
SW: I think it snuck up on us. It was kind of zen We agreed that traveling made sense for us.
CS: We knew we both wanted to go to China to teach English. I had also applied for a Fulbright in Mali. Two days before we were leaving for China, I found out I had been awarded the Fulbright. Things would have been harder if one of us wanted to be a lawyer or something that required more school.

BTB: What did your Fulbright propose?
CS: To research the role of Islam in Mali’s educational system. I began with a very wide lens. I liked writing short stories as a way to process the information.
BTB: What was Steven doing while you were working on your Fulbright?
CS: I often felt like Steven was working harder that I was—my goal was more fluid. But Steven had to validate each day in a different way.
SW: I was teaching English and working on murals. I had an oil painting studio set up in Ségou. There was a cool crowd in that town and a gallery space.

BTB: When and where along the way did To Timbuktu begin to manifest itself?
SW: We documented the shit out of our time. We had all the raw material.
CS: My journal notes were very introspective. They closely follow our time. And my field notes in Mali were helpful. (Casey flips through an amassed collection of typed, fuchsia tabbed, field notes, all labeled with dates, times, and places). Steven kept detailed sketch books. It wasn’t until we got to Mali that we began to look back on our experiences. When we were living in Timbuktu, we were working on some smaller, ziney projects—a graphic novel. We sent it to a literary agent and received a life changing rejection letter—telling us that we should ‘write’ our cover letter.
BTB: After I read the book, I couldn’t help but to think that you were sharing an idealized artist’s life, one that harkens back to Gauguin or Picasso.
SW: (Laughs) I looked up Gauguin a lot and his trips to Tahiti. He was a creepy guy. He was also taking a lot more than he was giving back. But I worked in some elements of his.
BTB: Were there any other writers or artists that were influential?
SW: In France I took some characters from Toulouse-Lautrec. And I like Guy Delisle’s travelogues through North Korea.
CS: Big Foot books! [by Graham Roumieu]
SW: When you see his form, it’s natural. They are picture books for adults.
BTB: Casey, any writers that were influential?
CS: I prefer non-fiction. But based on our book, you’d never know some of my favorite writers are Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf. Think of someone like David Sedaris—I’ll be reading his work and laughing until I realize that it is actually kind’ve sad.
BTB: How did you end up back in Brooklyn?
CS: Growing up here I knew I was a New Yorker at heart. The art and writing worlds make more sense in New York.
SW: The scene is that much bigger here. That’s why we are so excited about this week’s book signing and Tap Takeover at Mission Dolores Bar in Brooklyn. We get to tap into our audience right at the source.
CS: We also have the attitude that if we were to leave again, we would always come back to Brooklyn.

Join Casey and Steven for a book signing Thursday, May 12, 7:30pm, at Mission Dolores Bar.  Sixpoint Ales will be on tap. More info can be found at

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