Well, the baton has been passed to me for this Writing Process Blog Tour which, I just discovered, has been zipping through the internet for a while. Author Laura Ghel tagged me for this literary cyber-chain letter (but no Ponzi scheme or death threats involved if you DON’T send this out to your closest 157 friends…). I told Laura that writing about the creative process is impossible to explain but she admitted that she used to dissect rat brains and learned something from THAT. So a writer explaining his art is no different than looking at a dismembered rat brain (I’m assuming that’s what she meant….). My agent Erzsi Deak (http://henandink.com/), suggested me as well. She’s the author of a book I recently illustrated, Pumpkin Time! She posted her processes here on the Pumpkin Time web site and for this blog tour as well. I’ll be talking more about our book later.
So, with a big thanks to Laura and Erzsi, I’ll attempt to describe the indescribable.
Rat brains notwithstanding…..
How does my writing/illustrating process work?
I subscribe to the metaphor that if you dissect a frog to see what makes it tick, you wind up with a table filled with dead frogs. The creative process is impossible to describe. I’ve illustrated around 130 books, 30 or so I’ve written as well. Each book is a new experience, a fresh, blank slate. Which means, in theory, that I’ve 130 ways (so far) to approach a book. But there is one guiding rule I always follow: a picture book is a team effort, a true collaboration between the author and illustrator. It drives me nuts when I hear an author say, “MY illustrator …” as if they owned me and controlled the total creative process. By the same token, an illustrator has no right to force his/her style/vision on the author’s text. It’s an equal arrangement, 50-50, to make the whole book.
In Pumpkin Time, Erzsi’s text is sparse, almost ethereal. It suggests what’s happening in the spread. I needed to read between what she wrote and what she really meant. Evy, the little gardener, lives in a dreamscape, where pigs and rabbits play badminton, cows and chickens crush grapes and donkeys fly through the air in boats. Her own reality (and ours) is her garden and what she dreams it will be (as shown by the cloud shapes in the first spreads). My job as illustrator was to keep Evy’s reality (and the reader’s) intact while showing the madness of the surrounding activity…but keeping it all “real.” Each scene needed to be crazier and crazier with Evy completely oblivious to what was going on. Kids can handle that, going from the real to the unreal, from truth to fantasy. It’s an easy journey that most adults have forgotten. That was my interpretation of Erzsi’s intention as the book sped to the final climax of the feast.
The rest of my job was simply the “grunt” work of laying out the sketches, designing the characters, making the dummy (it’s always black and white ink, rarely in color), collecting detailed reference on the plants, tools, animal anatomy and costumes (and designing fashionable gardening boots, of course). But always with the purpose of bringing out the text’s underlining message while adding my own zaniness to the mix. In a sense I completed what the text began to say. Then, I traced off my sketches onto watercolor paper, resized some of the characters, mixed my ink to redraw my illustration before I paint, and then I…. Oh dear, I think I see a table filled with dead frogs…
Why do I write/draw what I do?
I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was 8 years old and I haven’t stopped yet. I’m a storyteller, pure and simple. I have to write or draw. Drawing and writing is the same thing to me. I write in pictures and draw with words. Like Egyptian glyphs there’s no separation between the two activities. When I die and stand up in front of Saint Peter (assuming I go in that direction) and he asks me what I did in my life that was worthwhile and contributed to humankind, I’ll just respond, “I drew pictures and made up stories.”
Maurice Sendak once said, “You cannot write for children. You can only write books that are of interest to them. ” If I have one advantage over many of the writers in my field, it’s that I haven’t forgotten what it was like be a child. So I write what interests me, the me when I was young. Even with the advances in technology, climate changes, faltering social structures, media bombardment and the everyday tomfoolery of our 21st century world, kids haven’t changed all that much. They’re still curious and willing to explore the world. They laugh, love, hate, eat, pee, cry, run away and fight, as they always have. These universal truths haven’t changed through the centuries so I try to tap into them as I’m writing. I remember the anger I felt when I wasn’t picked for the baseball team and it happens with kids today, just the same. So why do I write what I do? To show kids that I was there once, just like them.
And it’s going to be okay.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Pumpkin Time is not really a garden book. It doesn’t lay out instructions for planning a vegetable patch or how to feed and water your plants, though it does show a number of jobs involved in maintaining a garden. Rather, it’s a celebration of the seasons and, on one level, shows the reader that there is some stability in an ever-changing world. Kids need some structure in their young lives, a rock-steady regimen that’s familiar. They want something they can count on as this crazy, incomprehensible life swirls all about them. A garden is stable, earth solid, with predicable events throughout the year. Evy’s garden is her center, her grounding to the Earth, the taproot to who she is. She shows that with a little determination, focus and getting her hands dirty, she’ll gather a generous harvest to share with her friends in spite of the goofiness whirling around her.
That’s where the turkey comes in. He’s Evy’s alter ego. They wear the same gardening boots, which connect reality and the dream world. He reacts, in a sense for Evy, to what’s going on. I drew his expressions to convey surprise, joy or confusion. My illustrations create that connection between the dream world and the solid earth of the garden. And they do it with a little wink to the reader, saying, “We’re going to have some fun here.” Pumpkin Time illustrates the joy in the cycle of seasons and the reassurance of Mother Nature in a bewildering, and at times zany, world. That and the fact that cows look really good in fancy hats.
What am I working on?
Sorry, but you’ll get no answer here. I’m superstitious about droning on about what I’m doing now. I always have 4 or 5 things in process in various stages of completion. It could be only character sketches (many of my own books begin with a character drawing in a sketch book), rough outlines, complete dummies, full-blown illustrations highlighting a new style or approach to painting, text with chapters or even a line of dialogue or just a book title. To relax, I drag my easel and watercolors and plop myself down in front of a Parisian bridge, mausoleum or chateau and paint. And of course there are the myriad piles of sketchbooks that clutter my studio. I always return to those to pick up new ideas, looking at them with a fresh eye. With time, ideas can age and mellow like wine, to become richer and more complex…or turn into vinegar. It’s all grist for the mill.
So what am I working on now?
Tombstones, flamingos and onion soup.
Let me introduce you to the next authors I’ve “tagged” to carry the torch for this Writing Process Blog Tour.
First is Dian Curtis Regan. We’ve published two books together, Monster Baby for Clarion and The Snow Blew Inn for Holiday House. Filled with lots of humor and just plain ol’ good writing, Dian has published board books, picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, and anthology stories.
She is a former “Member of the Year” of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the namesake of the “Dian Curtis Regan Library” in Venezuela.
Dian was born and raised in Colorado Springs. After graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder, she taught school in Denver until deciding to “take one year off to write.” Way more than a year has passed and she is still writing full time.
Her books have won many honors, including Best Books for Young Adults, Children’s Choice Awards, Junior Library Guild selections, Los Angeles Times Recommended books, New York Public Library’s list of 100 best titles for young readers.
Dian has lived in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Venezuela. Presently, she lives in Colorado.
Dian has lived in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Venezuela. Presently, she lives in Colorado.
Learn more about my good buddy at: http://www.diancurtisregan.com/home.html
The second author I’ve tagged is Sandra Guy. Born in Hong Kong, she lived there until going to read English at Bristol University. After graduation she worked in advertising, theatre and with young homeless people before fulfilling a childhood fantasy of moving to Paris to write.
Sandra has written articles, poetry, stories, short films and the odd monologue for contemporary artists. Her special interest is teen fiction. Her writing has appeared in books and magazines in the UK, France and the United States. A prize winning poet, she was a recipient of the Patricia Paignton Scholarship Award for Poetry (in Paris) and the SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.
Sandra has lived in Hong Kong, London, Paris and Rome but currently resides in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) where she writes and practices Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Learn more about Sandra at www.sandraguy.com