The Writing Process: Author/Illustrator Blog Tour

Many thanks to my friend, the lovely Kate Berube for tagging me to participate in this blog tour.  Every author/illustrator on the tour is tapped to answer a set of questions and then passes the interview on to two others – kind of a pyramid scheme of goodness.

Kate and I, along with Abbey Marble (also tagged), are members of a small picture book critique group here in Portland, Oregon. I admire Kate’s work because it is so direct and heartfelt. She tells a story with such beautiful, emotional simplicity:

She’s also makes some of funniest character sketches I’ve seen:

Kate is now represented and is very busy these days with a two picture book deal as well as other projects in the works (see Kate, just when you thought nothing would ever happen). Go, Kate, go!

Now on to the questions:

1. What am I currently working on?

As is so often the case, I start thinking I’ve lost my creative way and then something will pop up (sometimes in a dream, as happened the other night) and I’m off.

So this dream… something about a mouse with poor eyesight thinking he sees his mama. He gives the fuzzy apparition a hug and it turns out to be a twitching cat’s tail.

That’s it, just a kernel, but enough to send me to Wikipedia to look up “house mouse”. Did you know mice do have pretty poor eyesight, hence the sensitive whiskers? Mice who are blind from birth have super-normal whiskers to compensate. Mice are great swimmers and climbers and can jump up to 18 vertical inches. They usually try to maintain contact with a vertical surface (wall hugging) out of fear and anxiety. And on and on… fascinating, right?

Images spring to mind and a story takes shape.

The day came when Mama mouse did not return. The babies, now as big as Mama, save one, poked their heads out into the waning light. Blinking and sniffing, their whiskers and noses signaled all that was strange and new.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Sometimes I wish my work was more edgy and ironic – more stylized and trendsetting, alas it is not. Perhaps that is what sets it apart, the traditional bent and sweetness I sometimes wish I could banish.

I attended a small commercial art school out of high school, but the first year focused on the fine art basics, including a life drawing class which fueled my lifelong obsession with a person’s or animal’s gesture (I’m sure this verges on voyeurism!). In my illustrations I attempt to toe the line – depicting nuanced emotion without tripping into the saccharine or maudlin.

3. Why do I write what I write?

I learned to read on my mother’s lap. We didn’t have many children’s books in our home, but my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia series which included a couple special Childcraft volumes, among them, Storytelling and other Poems as well as Folk and Fairy Tales.

Mom as superhero.

The comfort of being read to by my mother combined with the wonderful illustrations in these books made a lasting impression.

I have no formal education as far as writing goes, nor do I have children (though my dog would beg to differ, when I make him wear his raincoat), and I don’t even have a good memory (except for that time my mom sent me off to Sunday pre-school without underwear), which makes mining my childhood for ideas pretty difficult. But, I do have a firm emotional memory of what it felt like to be a child and can place myself there in mind and body (even without underwear). From this place I hope to create stories with an emotional center and lasting impact.

4. How does my individual writing/illustrating process work?

I think I covered the writing part of this question earlier, so will focus on illustration here.

Once I have a story to illustrate I find a quiet place where I’ll be uninterrupted and read through it, making little art notes in the margins as to where I see an opportunity to enhance or clarify the action or somehow define a character. Then I create a thumbnail storyboard on tracing paper so that I can see it as a whole – the rhythm and bones of it.

If I’ve managed to capture some essence in a thumbnail I’m concerned I might lose by redrawing it, I’ll scan and enlarge the image before retracing it.

I love tracing paper. It’s cheap, not precious. It has nice tooth and enables light to envelop the drawings AND you can work and rework the drawing. It stands up to endless erasures. I prefer a cheap mechanical pencil with an 0.9 (number 2) lead, though I usually redraw some lines or parts of lines with a softer lead for emphasis at the end.

As far as the process of drawing itself goes, I find that it’s a lot like expressing a thought or opinion. I don’t necessarily know what I think or what I’m trying to say until it’s out there. And then it’s “oh, so that’s what I think about that!” (or perhaps I’m not a very deep thinker). So, for me it is a process of drawing and drawing (and erasing and redrawing) and figuring out what the drawings aren’t in order to find out what they are.

So I have a final drawing that I’m happy with, but it’s on TRACING PAPER (how dumb!). But hey, I’ve discovered I can scan the drawing and print it on hot press watercolor paper, let it dry for a day and then I can watercolor over it (not so dumb!). So there’s my big secret.

Also, full disclosure, I am color phobic. All those choices! And I’ve got a drawing I love, why would I want to mess it up trying to paint it (which I can’t erase). I struggle with color, but try to be brave and carry on. Here’s the resulting color “sketch” with watercolor and gouache.

5.   Who are the author/illustrators that you are passing the interview to?

A couple of terrifically talented picture book author/illustrators, again from Portland.

Drum roll, please…

Carolyn Digby Conahan, who discloses the following:

I’m happy to have a job that means I get to explore the world, and any idea I stumble across, or scare up, and call it work.

And Johanna Wright who has this to say about herself:

Luckily enough, I’m now a full-time author and illustrator. It’s the best job in the world and one that I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid. Not only do I get paid to make a mess and make up stories, but I now have a perfectly reasonable excuse for staring off into space for long minutes.

Toot! Toot! (blowing my own horn)

Big whoop… no, I mean it!  My editor at Henry Holt, Noa Wheeler, sent me the new Macmillan, Spring 2011 catalog, bookmarking the page featuring the first of the Rainbow Street Shelter Series books, due out August, 2011. It’s been a joy illustrating author Wendy Orr’s beautiful manuscript. She writes about children, families and their beloved pets in a tender way and delivers a message that needs to be heard.

More good news from The Macmillan catalog…  due out next August, another picture book by fellow Portlander and friend, Johanna Wright. If you’ve read her debut, The Secret Circus, you should love her new book, Bandits, featuring a family of charming (but naughty) raccoons. Yay, Johanna!