Q&A with Author Caleb Melby
Why did you choose to focus on this one period in Steve's life and his relationship with Kobun Chino Otogawa?
|Author Caleb Melby |
All considered, a full-length biography was out of the question. Jesse Thomas of Jess3 had talked with Forbes managing editor Bruce Upbin back in the spring of 2011 shortly before I arrived in New York City, wanting to do a collaborative story that looked at the development of Steve's design aesthetic. That focus really got at the heart of both Steve and Apple, without requiring a more comprehensive longitudinal narrative.
Steve, throughout his life, dabbled in numerous modes of self-improvement and self-actualization. He experimented with drugs and, for a time, he only ate fruit, believing that doing so would keep him from sweating (talk about devotion to perfection). Zen Buddhism stuck with Steve the longest, and Kobun was Steve's mentor, in both Buddhism and design. The Buddhist priest was so influential in Steve's life during the mid-80s that Steve named him NeXT's spiritual guru. But what really got me was the strong parallels in their worldviews - they are both rule-breakers and innovators. The idea of telling those stories in tandem really excited me. What's the most interesting piece of information you found out during the research for this story?
The overarching narrative about perfection was, and still is, the most perplexing theme I encountered while researching this. I wanted to know what the "Buddhist" perspective on perfection was. Now, to talk about "Buddhism" is kind of like talking about "Christianity." There are numerous sects with their own schools of thought and particular traditions. I'd ask my sources: "What does Buddhism say about perfection?" They all laughed at me. I guess I'm kind of revealing my doctrinal Catholic roots, but I expected a clear-cut answer. There wasn't one.
Steve believed in perfection. Kobun didn't. He believed in self-betterment, sure, but he also believed in achieving peace within oneself and with one's surroundings. Perfectionists are never at peace. In popular culture, we like to think of Buddhist priests as being these absolutely serene and wise individuals. But Kobun's life was filled with tumult. In the end, that's what drives these two men apart. One of them wants to be the perfect innovator making perfect products on a massive scale. The other is working to achieve peace with himself, his family and his surroundings. When Steve starts having tremendous success again in the 90s, he and Kobun no longer see eye-to-eye. Perfection is the nail that drives that splinter. What didn't make the cut that you really wish you could have found room for?
I've mentioned before that I drew inspiration from Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson when writing this. I wanted to focus on the relationship between Steve and Kobun, like Watterson did with Calvin and Hobbes, which meant actively excluding scenes that would introduce characters that would bog down the development of that relationship. So a lot of scenes didn't fit. Laurene Powell was incredibly important to Steve, and Kobun officiated the couple's marriage. But I couldn't introduce Laurene only to make her disappear. Their marriage is one of the best-documented public interactions between Steve and Kobun, but I had to let it go. Why tell this story through a graphic depiction rather than in words?
The written style of the book is kind of epigrammatic. It mirrors the style of the koan, a storytelling and learning device used largely by Rinzai Zen Buddhists (Kobun was a Soto Zen Buddhist himself). It's pithy. This style fits better with Steve's actual mode of conversation than it does Kobun's. Steve is a dramatic, direct speaker. Kobun was wise beyond measure, but he was also something of a rambling lecturer. Had I not edited down those talks, they would have crowded the beautiful illustrations that Jess3 created. But there were wonderful kernels at the center of Kobun's lectures. So that was the point, to get to the essence of Steve and Kobun in such a way that the story could largely be told through images. In the end, this is an inherently visual story. The meditating, the calligraphy, the aging are all innately visual. It's also a book about design. You can write about design, or you can illustrate design. This is a story that was meant to be told graphically.
From the Back Cover
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs (1955–2011) had such an enormous impact on so many people that his life often took on aspects of myth. But much of his success was due to collaboration with designers, engineers, and thinkers. The Zen of Steve Jobs tells the story of Jobs's relationship with one such person: Kobun Chino Otogawa. Kobun was a Zen Buddhist priest who emigrated to the United States from Japan in the early 1970s. He was an innovator, lacked appreciation for rules, and was passionate about art and design. Kobun was to Buddhism as Jobs was to the computer business: a renegade and maverick. It wasn't long before the two became friends—a relationship that was not built to last.
This graphic book is a reimagining of that friendship. The story moves back and forth in time, from the 1970s to 2011, but centers on the period after Jobs's exile from Apple in 1985 when he took up intensive study with Kobun. Their time together was integral to the big leaps that Apple took later on with its product design and business strategy.
Told using stripped-down dialogue and bold calligraphic panels, The Zen of Steve Jobs explores how Jobs might have honed his design aesthetic through the study of Eastern religion, but in the end, he took from Zen only what he needed and left the rest behind.