The Snail & The Butterfly has quite a story in and of itself. Trubelo Development chatted with author Dougie Coop to learn how a young snail and old butterfly found their way to a mushroom and each other.
TD: What was the genesis of the idea for The Snail & The Butterfly?
DC: This goes back many, many years, early 1993 actually. I was living and teaching junior high math in Ohio and dating an amazing, wonderful girl who was in medical school in St. Louis. Just madly in love and questioning the long-distance thing. I had a good job in Ohio, and she was the only person I knew in St. Louis. To relocate there was not a logical, rational move, and obviously as a math teacher, my left brain had quite the influence in my decision making. My half-measure solution was to send out resumes, and if I got an interview and a job offer, I would decide then. Life, as it so often does, called my bet and pushed a job offer to the center of the table.
Debating whether to accept it or not, I fell asleep one night on the living room floor of the apartment I was living in with some friends above a laundry mat. I dreamt I was high in the sky on the edge of a cloud looking at the earth below, contemplating whether I could fly, really thinking through all the how, why, what, etc. At some point, I just decided to jump and find out. I remember falling, freaking out, seeing the ground get closer and closer. I didn’t wake up though. Eventually I landed with a dull thud and just rolled over, unharmed. I woke up and knew I should accept the job and embrace the adventure. I reasoned the worst that could happen is, similar to the dream, I would hit with a dull thud and roll over to start again. Making sense of that dream and the conversation I had, I wrote the poem “Advice from an Angel” which is the origin of The Snail & The Butterfly.
Oh angel perched by my side, tell me please, how to fly. To soar above the earth below, full of the pain and sorrow I’m sure to know.
Oh my friend I wish I knew, how to fly so you could too. My wings are weak; my spirit shaken. Yet, it’s all I have; all else was taken.
Oh angel perched by my side, tell me then why to fly. To leap into the clouds below, full of the confusion and uncertainty I’m sure to know.
Oh my friend I wish I knew, how to fly or why I do. My will is weak; my faith is shaken. Yet, it’s all I have; all else was taken.
Oh angel perched by my side, tell me then can I fly? I’ll spread my wings and close my eyes and jump into the hazy skies.
Oh my friend this I know, you have wings, just let them grow. Spread them at your time of flight, for the rest is determined by your sight.
TD: Wow that’s quite a story. So what happened with the girl, St. Louis?
DC: Oh man. As young love usually produces, just utter heartbreak. That move really unlocked a lot in me and opened up the world. I wasn’t equipped nor had the maturity to be the partner she deserved and be true to my own curiosities and ambitions. We’re still friends today, and she has had one of the strongest impacts on my life. She is the one who introduced me to Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also found the American Studies program for me at Saint Louis University where I got my master’s degree. To this day, one of the smartest people I have met, and by far one of the most caring and giving. Truly blessed for the time we shared together.
TD: Perhaps she was the butterfly and you were the snail?
DC: Ha! Never really thought about it like that, but I think that is one of the powerful aspects of the story. We really do form, build, and maintain relationships one on one. We function and exist in groups, but the foundation is one on one: parent-child, teacher-student, peer to peer, boss-employee, wife-husband, etc. In those relationships, one person is usually the snail – the person having a need, a goal – or the butterfly – the person who helps, functions as a teacher. The roles can flip back and forth, but the conversation at any given time is usually between seeker and guide. That is really the heart of The Snail & The Butterfly.
TD: From angels to snails and butterflies is a significant jump.
DC: The move to St. Louis, as I mentioned, was a pretty seminal moment in my life, and I really liked the poem. I thought maybe there was a story in there or something more, so from time to time, I would journal on it. Eventually I came up with the idea for a short story called “The Night Before” which became “Tomorrow”. The concept was in our lives we have two night befores or two tomorrows, depending on your perspective, the night before we are born and the night before we die. In between are our lives. Building on “Advice from an Angel”, I thought what if an angel visited us the night before we are born and took us to the edge of a cloud to show us our lives, all the good, bad, and in between. At the end of the visit, we would fall back to earth to our bodies, and be born the next day, not remembering anything. Living our lives, we figure it all out all over again.
TD: Still a ways away from a mushroom in a garden.
DC: As is a lot of early writing, I thought the story was too heavy-handed and the spiritual, mystical aspect might limit its appeal and acceptance. I kept working on it, iterating through additional versions, one in which the child Carter and the angel became a female baby bird in an egg and the angel was a spirit who visited her. Just still wasn’t quite right to me. I wasn’t comfortable how it was all so ethereal and happening in a dream state. Too much of a leap I think. So it just sat for years.
Then in 2013 when I was living in Vegas working on my second novel, The Investment Club, one of my satellite offices aka a place to escape the confines of my four walls was a really cool coffee shop in the arts district called Makers & Finders. Another artist transplant from Australia who had initially come to Vegas to perform in the Beatles “Love” cirque show also hung out there. In addition to dancing, he was also a painter and had done some of the art in the coffee shop. One of the mushroom and snail pictures caught my eye, and the story just crystallized for me. I loved his whimsical, playful style and knew what was missing in the story. The conversation needed to be concrete and simple between a young snail who went to the mushroom every day determined to climb to the top and fly and an old butterfly who was tired and beaten down by life questioning why the snail even bothered.
The artist, of course, was CJ the Kid. I pitched the idea to him, and he was interested, so I rewrote the story with the snail and butterfly as the characters. We talked about it some, but for whatever reason, it never went anywhere. I eventually moved back to Ohio, and CJ went back to Australia. Another five years go by. It’s September 2021. I reach out to CJ via Instagram to check if he was still interested, which he was. I started sending him scenes one by one, basically just a description of the action and the words, and he would send me back the digital art. A few amazing aspects to this. One, we never once talked on the phone, video call or anything, and still haven’t. All work was done through the app messenger and email. Another was how simple the process was. Most of the time he nailed it on the first try. Not much iterating back and forth. A few months later we had the book done.
Since the genre is different from my other 3 books, I thought I might have to go through all the struggle of finding a publisher all over again. I shared the draft of the book I had mocked up with my publisher Rare Bird Books and they loved it. Rare Bird does a small amount of children’s books with their Tiny Thinker Series and a few others. We’re planning for a late spring release date.
Trubelo: Wow, what a story! From ideation to publishing is thirty years. Quite a journey up the mushroom stalk and finally ready to fly. What have you learned in this process?
DC: Obviously perseverence, but also patience. I’m a grinder by nature and just keep pushing forward with an idea, task, project—whatever I’m working on, but I have learned, it’s also about knowing when to push and when to pull back and wait. I started out as the snail with big ideas and dreams, determined to climb that mushroom in one day and fly. At this point I’m definitely more the butterfly, a bit haggard and weary from the years but still fluttering. This book probably more than anything else I have worked on has taught me all ideas are living things, and as such, start as a seed, gestate, and are born. One can’t rush that gestation period with more sunlight, water, whatever care the seed needs to grow. More is not always the right answer. Often it is just time and patience that is needed. The answers to the questions come when one is ready to receive them. The Snail & The Butterfly just needed thirty years to fully develop.
TD: We have covered a lot of ground and time. What do you see as the core message of the story?
DC: All my writing, regardless of form or genre, I craft in layers, thinking of it much like a chef does in creating a dish. What is the initial flavor, after-taste, and residual nutritional value? I want the story to have breadth and depth with a simple message that anyone will absorb and also deeper levels of meaning for those who want to dig in and chew on it more.
The high level message is we can all do great, seemingly impossible things, regardless of who we are and where we come from, if we believe and persevere. The more sub-conscious, mythic meaning is something I really think is missing in our modern culture. We encourage to dream big and anything is possible, but we’re not really equipped for what happens when we struggle or fail, which will happen to us all at some point. This is one of the reasons why escapism is so rampant, and we seek out comfort, often to excess, much to our own detriment whether it is food, alcohol, drugs or whatever vice. The little snail wants to fly, is determined to fly, but gets scared, doubts itself, goes through all the questions we face in our daily lives. What am doing? Why am I doing this? Is this even possible? The easiest course when faced with these questions is to quit or hide, whether that is actual physical isolation or in other activities, healthy and unhealthy. So the meaning here is that it’s ok to fail, to be scared, to question. Just take a pause, rest, refocus, and begin again.
The resonating meaning, or nutritional value in the chef metaphor, is we need to push through our fears, trust and listen to the butterflies around use, believe in ourselves, and take the leap. It’s easy to get caught up in the solitary journey of life, that we are in this alone, and each need to forge our own paths. The reality is the journey is shared. We can learn from one another’s journeys and also exist to help each other. We are both seeker and guide, student and teacher, snail and butterfly.