Questions With the Author: Timothy Susanin

The author of Walt Before Mickey, Timothy Susanin, contacted me after I posted my review of his seminal work on Walt’s early career. I was interested in how he was able to complete such a thorough job of researching Walt’s early life and Tim agreed to answer a few questions.

  • Was there an initial inspiration for writing the book? 
    I got hooked on learning more about Walt and his career after the chance purchase of Bob Thomas’ excellent 1976 biography, “Walt Disney:  An American Original.”  My wife and I (finally) took our three kids to Walt Disney World, and as we were leaving, I bought the book in the Emporium to read on the plane ride home.  The book left me wanting to know more about Walt, and I started reading everything I could find about him, and watching his movies and shorts, dating back to the 1920s.  There is not as much out there about Walt before he became famous with the appearance of the Mouse in 1928, so I ended up looking for that information on my own.  (I have spent a large part of my legal career doing investigations, and I like doing them).  I did not set out to write a book about Walt’s career before 1928, but as I pulled my research together, this book resulted.
  • What was the most surprising discovery when you were researching? 
    My research taught me that Walt was more like what you would expect rather than the cartoonish (and frequently negative) person seen in some books written after he died.  He was fun, artistic, entrepreneurial, and a frustrated actor.  I was surprised by how much I liked the Walt I came to know.  There were a lot of other, smaller discoveries, too.  So many of Walt’s early colleagues were not really known other than by a reference in studio record.  It was fun to track down who these people were; what they did after Disney; what happened to their lives.  Some became famous on their own; others’ lives ended tragically.  (One drowned, one supposedly spent life in prison).  But there were a lot of twists and turns in the chase and in the information that I found.
  • You mentioned that you approached several people about writing the book and they thought you should do it. What made you decide to write the book?
    What was the toughest part of writing it?  I thought that others — especially people who know Walt and animation better — might have been able to do something interesting with the new information I cound about Walt in the 1920s.  In the end, I felt that others who are interested in Walt’s career would enjoy this 1920s timeline as much as I did, and so forged ahead as the sole author.  It was exciting to solve what in my mind was the mystery of his first 10 years as an artist.  So the researching and laying out the story was fun.  Maybe re-writing, editing and footnoting was the hardest part.
  • Do you have a writer that inspires you? 
    Putting aside the Disney biographers, I loved Edmund Morris’ three-part biography of Teddy Roosevelt and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s recent book on Lincoln. 
  • What is your favorite Disney-related book? 
    There are too many to pick just one.  I read the Christopher Finch book when I was young, and still love it.  During my current research, in addition to the Bob Thomas book, I kept going back to Mike Barrier’s recent bio of Walt.  I think you really get a sense of the man from both of those books.
  • Did you find that you needed to do a lot of travel to do research or were you able to do it virtually?
    I had no budget for the book (because I had no publisher until after it was finished).  Thus, I never made it to Kansas City or L.A.  When my real job took me to New York or Washington, I would make sidetrips to the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, MOMA, and the like.  I visited the studio when work took me to Burbank, and the Walt Disney Family Museum construction site when work took me to San Francisco.  Otherwise, it was lots of virtual work and lots of phone calls with librarians around the country!
  • What’s next?  
    I am a lawyer in my real life.  I don’t know if this book will lead to more Disney-related work or not, but I hope so!

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