Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Interview with a Pro - Viviane Schwarz

Here is a very inventive and talented person who creates very special picture books. Viviane Schwarz is the lovely lady behind some super duper stories and pictures, and she has very sweetly let me ask her some questions to share with you all.

When and how did the writing and drawing all start?
My earliest memories of drawing and writing are of scrawling on the back of reams of used printer paper that my dad brought home from work. I was trying to write before I knew how to, thinking that if I just kept at it I would produce something readable.
I was always drawing, mapping, inventing, building... it was all one thing. I drew maps of mars, plans for a lido with huge animal-shaped diving towers and slides, I investigated pop-up books and recreated the mechanisms, dictated stories to my parents and performed them with puppets... I wanted to create the things I saw in my head, and make up more, I never cared what medium they were in.

Here are a couple of diary cartoons about it.

Tell us a bit about your two very latest books, The Sleepwalkers and Welcome to your Awesome Robot.

Welcome to your Awesome Robot is a project I have been meaning to do for a while. It was very fortunate that Flying Eye Books was just looking for unusual ideas because I could not have sold it to a traditional UK picture book publisher. It’s a comic, and an activity book, and a manifesto for encouraging and supporting creativity in a family, with mutual respect. It’s also a story about building an awesome robot, but the other stuff is more important.

The Sleepwalkers is my first graphic novel, and I am so proud of it - it was a lot of work.
When I was a child, I had dreadful nightmares all the time. I really suffered - I didn’t sleep at all for nights in a row, and when I did the dreams were absolutely terrifying. I often fell asleep in school. My mother tried to help me, she said “When you have a bad dream, try calling me in your dream, I will come and kill the monsters.” So I did... I learned to realise that I was dreaming, and to call for help, and often it worked. My mother turned up in my dream (not that I’d seen that movie yet then, but it was just like angry Sigorney Weaver in “Aliens”) and she helped me defeat the nightmares. It was the beginning of me learning to take charge of my dreams - sometimes I just woke myself up, other times I paused and rewound the dream and tried to fix it. It really shaped the way I am thinking and dealing with things as an adult - I know that there are many things to be scared of, and that it is important to deal with them, not add to them. Being brave doesn’t mean that you don’t fear anything, but that you do the right things even if you are afraid. And everyone needs help sometimes, that doesn’t mean they are weak. My books are all to some extent about that.

The Sleepwalkers is the book that is most particularly influenced by my childhood nightmares. I am hoping that it will be read by children who have nightmares as well, and that they feel taken seriously. I am trying to tell them the same that my mother told me: you are not alone, even if there is only you in the dark, there are people who care about you, and there are stronger things than those nightmares in your head.

The book is mainly an episodic story about a team of nightmare-fighting heroes, but it also comes with some little things you can do in the real, waking world: make a tasty milkshake, make a toy monkey that will be a friend. Little rituals like that can be really powerful, and remind children that they have some agency in the world, even if it is very scary at times.

Are you able to tell us what you are currently working on?

Sure! I am working on a dummy for a new book that Alexis Deacon wrote, it’s very funny and quite philosophical, like the other two. I’m also designing characters for a couple of other projects, and planning more craft books.

What are the hardest challenges about writing stories and creating illustrations?

Managing my brain space. It’s hard to switch between projects, and sometimes I get really tired out.
That’s why I live in London - there is always something to go and see, and people to meet for coffee and a chat about all the things one could invent.

Whose stories and illustrations do you admire the most?

Tove Jansson’s.

Do you visit many schools and libraries to meet your readers? What does this involve?

I don’t generally do school visits at the moment. (explanation here). I do occasionally run a workshop, do a panel talk or even visit a school, and I really love doing it, but if I did any more I’d burn out. I’m just not made for that kind of thing, I’m a very specialised creature.

Where do you write and draw?

I have an old-fashioned studio space in central London that I share with some very nice people, which is where I do all my drawing and painting. I do my digital work at home. When I really have to concentrate, I go to a cafĂ©. I like hearing many people talk all at once, and I can completely ignore what they say, it’s just noise. I also like people bringing me tea, it makes me feel important and serious.
Sometimes I visit Alexis to work on things, and we watch movies, I scribble tiny stuff on the sofa and he draws huge things on his amazing standing desk.

How do you create your artwork?

I prefer to start artwork on paper - there is an odd disconnect when I make the artwork digitally from scratch. I have a Cintiq tablet that is like a huge computer screen I can to draw on, on an industrial strength metal arm so I can move it about... but it’s a bit like drawing on glass. Great for colouring in and editing, though.
I sometimes use photography as well. I have a collection of analogue cameras, including a big old Rolleiflex twin lens that belonged to my grandfather which takes amazing pictures. (here are some). I love taking pictures of very boring buildings, using long exposure so all the people moving about become invisible, then drawing in new occupants. Here are some.

You have illustrated some stories by your great friend, author and  illustrator Alexis Deacon ... how did you two meet and how has your work coincided in this happy way?

I met Alexis around the time that I first moved to London, about a decade ag
o. We had published our first books around the same time. I liked his work and was curious to meet him.

He really helped me adjust to the life of a freelance children's book artist in the city. You need quite a thick skin for that job, it can get to you if everyone around you thinks deeply caring about children's books is somehow immature. No one would say that of a primary school teacher, but then they don't tend to live in houses covered with picture books, art materials, toys, colour samples, interesting twigs... I had been living a life where people found it odd (maybe charming, but still odd) that I got "childishly" excited about things like a particularly interesting tree or ice cream or dressing up as a superhero. They also didn't generally share my passion for taking apart and reassembling stories all day long, analysing every book and movie in detail... - It was wonderful to meet someone who didn't think all that was weird at all.

For a while I rented a room in his flat, and we invented endless drawing games and stories. I think of him as family.

Do you prefer illustrating your own stories or those written by others?

I like both. It’s a very different challenge... I love to construct a book from scratch but it’s great to sometimes already have a strong structure to work with. The books that I made for Alexis were especially written for me, about things I love to draw.

How do you get ideas for a picture book?

I have a list of books I want to make which I came up with as a child, and I am still not through them. All my books are the ones that I wanted to exist when I was a child.

What is your favourite outfit you've ever worn?

I love wearing my mother’s old clothes. She is very fabulous, and every so often gives me something really great from the seventies. She also knits me dresses sometimes. There isn’t anything better to wear than a dress knitted by my mother.

What is your favourite place in England?

My desk!

Can you recommend a good independent bookshop?

I lived in Peckham for years, and my neighbourhood bookshop was Review. The dog in “The Sleepwalkers” is based on the lovely dog who used to live there. It’s a wonderful place, just a tiny friendly shop on a street corner. You can buy a book there and go have a coffee nearby. All the coffee around that shop is brilliant.

Do you have any pets, and what are they like?

I don’t at the moment. I used to keep finches, and I wish I could keep a parrot. I love birds. My favourite pet was a very plucky red canary called “Hellboy” who cheered me up no end when I first moved to London and was a very poor artist.

When you worked on There are Cats in this Book, did you have to study real cats much in preparation or did they all come out of your head?

Oh yes. The two bigger cats are based on a friend’s cats. I used to stay at her house when I was going to Cornwall to teach, and I was always impressed by the amazing whiskers of the one and the strange doormat-surfing skills of the other.

They kind of changed, though, and after a while I noticed I had kind of based them on the creative team working on the book, the designer, the editor and myself. Just a bit.

What is the most disgusting thing you have ever tasted?

Eel and cucumber soup. I decided to be polite and eat it no matter what.  It tasted like angry mud and I went to lie down in the basement later so I didn’t have to see anyone and I stared at the ceiling and felt completely awful and like everything would be bad for the rest of my life. It was that kind of soup.

Do you have any advice for artists or writers?

Make something every day.

Thank you Viviane, for such a lovely time hearing about you and your work.

Explore more of Viviane's intriguing creations here:

Monday, 13 May 2013

Author Interview - Caryl Hart

I am honoured and excited to introduce the talented and clever writer, Caryl Hart. If you think you have heard me mention her name before, you would be admirably correct. Caryl wrote (among others) the excellent story of The Princess and the Peas, which I recently reviewed. Thank you Caryl, for popping over to Susie and the Pencils to answer my nosy questions. Much appreciated.

What led you to become a writer?

I've always loved the process of writing, but never really thought of it as a job until my daughter Jess was born.  We spent a lot of time at our local library and read LOADS of children's books.  Many were brilliant but some were really less than mediocre.  It was these less-than-brilliant books that really ignited my desire to write for children.  I felt, "can write better than that. If this book has been published, I can get one published too."
I was very naiive, of course, and knew nothing of the publishing industry, but I was determined to give it my best shot. Progress was very slow initially as I was working part time and being a mum as well, so I didn't really get anywhere for a good few years. But then, around six years ago, I gave up my job and applied myself to becoming a writer full time - well, as full time as you can be with two small children.  I have never looked back!

Where do you write?

Until the end of April, I was working at home. I had a space in the house, but it was a bit of a thoroughfare and  FREEZING even in the summer. Working at home is great, but it can be quite isolating, so, at the beginning of May, I began renting a studio in town.  It's wonderful to have my own space where I can leave my things and know they'll still be there when I get back!  I have floor to ceiling windows so I can see the world going by. I have lots of storage so I can display my books, and there are always people around so I don't feel so isolated.  It's early days yet, but I think it's going to be great.  I can even bring Roo, my dog.  She has a new bed in the corner and seems very settled already.

Do you use a computer or a pen and paper to write your stories?

I write mostly on the computer, but carry a notebook around everywhere so I can write things down when they occur to me.  I also use the notes app on my phone to jot things down, and a web book that I sometimes take out to a cafe or outdoor space to write.

How much does your initial story idea or draft vary from the final published version?

That depends on the book.  For example, there were hardly any changes to the text of  Don't Dip Your Chips in Your Drink, Kate!  whereas I completely re-wrote Welcome to Alien Schoolthree times!  Sometimes, the core idea for a book is sound, but I have to do lots of re-drafts to get the actual story line to a place where my publisher is happy. 

This may involve one or more complete re-writes, a total change of setting, or just small tweaks.  A text can change at any time, right up to the point where illustrations have been finalised.  But that's part of the excitement for me.  It can be frustrating, but I've learned to place my trust in the editors and designers I work with. The finished product is always so much better than what I started with!

Do you ever get stuck in the middle of a story and how do you resolve it?

All the time! Especially if I'm writing in rhyme, because I might know what I want to say, but just can't find the words to fit the rhythm and rhyming pattern.  I used to get very anxious and desparing about it, but now I've learned to just take a step back and leave it for a few days, weeks or even months.  At some point my brain will work out what to do - usually at 4am, or when I'm driving or walking the dog.  Then I have a rush of excitement and plough straight back into it.

Which of your published books are you most proud of?

Gosh, that's difficult.  All of them in different ways.  I love Rhino? What Rhino? because it was the first book to be acquired and is great for reading out loud to small children.  I'm also very proud of Whiffy Wilson because Leonie Lord has taken my words and used them to create themost adorable characters.  I'm very proud of the Albie stories as these are proving very popular with children and seem to be encouraging boys to get reading and writing, which is brilliant.  But probably my favouite at the moment is The Princess and the Peas.  I'm really happy with the way the story develops and how well the rhyming works, but the best thing for me are Sarah Warburton's illustrations.  They are absolutely magical.  I could look at them for hours - she's done a completely stunning job.

What's the funniest or sweetest thing a kid has ever said about your stories?

I do lots of school visits so get plenty of feedback from children.  Sometimes the little girls will come up and give me a big hug and say, "I LOVE you!"  which is very sweet.  Children tell me all the time how much they love my books and that I'm their favourite author.  I guess this is one of the reasons I love going into schools so much - it's great for the ego!

Who are some of your favourite authors from your childhood, and currently?

As a young child I loved Dick Bruna - my favourite story was called Snuffy about a little brown dog who finds a missing girl.  I wanted to be the little girl in the story as I always used to fantasise about being an orphan!  Recently I have also been reminded of the Ant and Bee books which I had completely forgotten about.  When I was older I loved The Famous Five - well, who didn't!
I have so many favourite authors now, it's impossible to list them all.  My favourite book of all time is Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, because it is so cleverly written.  

What do you look for in a good read?

I like books that give me an insight into what makes people the way they are.  I love contemporary world fiction because I was terrible at history and politics at school.  Books such as The Kite Runner, God of Small Things, The Bookseller of Kabul and Falling Leaves are among my top reads because they paint a really vivid picture of real lives in other cultures.  I also love reading young fiction and teen fiction - I adored Twilight and the first Hunger Games book though sadly I did not felt quite so passionate about the second and third books in these trilogies. 

If you could choose any type of dwelling to live in, what would it be?

A treehouse, definitely.  I love being in the middle of nature and a tree house would be the perfect place to feel safe and connected with the wildnerness.

If you happened to find yourself on a crazy adventure, what would you want it to include?

I'd be brilliant at surviving in the wild by hunting and fishing and building little dens to sleep in.  There would have to be a beautiful wild boy and lots of action.

If you could invite any famous people, past or present to a tea-party, who would you choose?

I'm not very good at famous people.  I never know who anyone is.  So I'd probably invite some of my author / illustrator friends.  They are the people I feel most at home with and I'm sure we'd have a brilliant time.

Describe your favourite pair of shoes (that you own).

Keens.  They are incredibly comfortable chunky walking boots.  I'm quite small, and I love wearing really BIG shoes.

Thanks Caryl!  

We're looking forward to reading your latest book, Catch That Rat! 
when it comes out in July. 

You can find out more about Caryl and her books here:

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Illustrator Interview - Sarah Warburton

This is Sarah Warburton and she is super cool, with an awesome drawing talent.  She is also very kind, because she has taken the time to answer some questions about her work and inspiration, to appear here on my blog. I hope you will enjoy reading her interesting comments and will go off to explore some of her brilliant picture books for yourself.

Thanks so much, Sarah, for visiting Susie and the Pencils and sharing your thoughts with us.

Firstly, how did you develop as an artist? 

As a small child I always drew. I always drew horses on the back of cornflake packets. I spent hours copying the front covers of my favourite books. It wasn't until I was older and saw Quentin Blake drawing on Blue Peter that I realised it could be a job! I think it was from then I decided in my heart that I wanted to be an illustrator. I never really thought in a million years that I actually would be though.

I went from A-levels to art college. At college my drawings skills weren't the best. My people all had horrible ugly faces and long noses. My colour palette was very dark and shadowy too. I thought I was being 'edgy' but really it just looked dreary. As I tried to make a living I had to make my characters better looking. I soon began drawing in a more realistic style in watercolour and ink. This honed my drawing skills but after a while I found it frustrating. It was then I dipped my toes into the world of digital colouring when a friend introduced me to Photoshop. I didn't have a clue how to use it so I used the tools like paints and just scribbled. It's this technique I use today. I found with Photoshop I could switch to using a pencil instead of a pen and this allowed my fingers to speed up over the paper. This in turn made the images I drew feel more scribbly and energetic. 

What materials and tools do you use to create your illustrations?

I've tried all kinds of materials in my time. I have a graveyard of pens in my studio which I've tried with eagerness but I have never quite found the 'fluidity' I want. So I always come back to the bog standard 2B pencil and a piece of paper. Then I scan my sketch into Photoshop and basically begin colouring in. In Photoshop I can sometimes colour the original line to a different colour which works well for me to create a softer look at times. Sometimes I also bring in a texture such as fabric, or scrunched up paper which I can use in backgrounds or clothing. This can be really fun. I also sometimes create an old fashioned watercolour wash for a sky or underwater and scan that in too. I still really love the accidents you get with watercolour and ink that you just can't recreate with anything else. Occasionally I will create a whole sketch with pen and coloured ink because I love it - but I love the control that Photoshop affords me, especially creating artwork for books where little changes can happen very late in the day.

Describe your working environment.

I have a wooden garden studio at the bottom of my garden. I love it. It has a little pitched roof and is painted in cheery blue/green with white windows. I have a wood burning stove in there. Sometimes in the winter it can get so hot I have to open the door! It's my own little hobbit hole and I love it. I have everything I need in there - my computer, my pencils, reams and reams of paper, hundreds of books, a little armchair, pinned up pictures of my own work plus work that inspires me. It does get rather messy. Sometimes discarded paper can cover the whole floor. The only thing I don't have is a kettle and a toilet. Sometimes in the winter I really hate the 30 second 'trudge' to the house to use the loo. Sometimes I work through the night, which can be interesting. I've seen badgers, foxes, shooting stars. Just lovely.

How do you tackle illustrating a new book- what processes and planning do you go through?

First, I get to read the story. Normally this can be at the early stage where I'm deciding if I want to do the book. Occasionally I've read a story that is great, but I can't picture anything in my head and I really don't feel confident that I'm the right person to do it. Although, that has happened and I've gone on to actually do the book and have loved every minute (so I can be trusted to make the best decisions sometimes!). Often after that I'll go for a meeting with the publisher. Sometimes the author is there, sometimes not. The publisher often has some great ideas of how they see the book looking and will give me notes of what they'd like the main characters to look like. Once I was told I wasn't allowed to use brown! (I have a tendency towards the darker colours). Keeping that in my head really helped with my colours and I created something really light and fresh. Then I go home and start thinking about the character. Character sketches are the most important. These have to be right for the story to be engaging and appealing. After I'm happy with a character I'll email through some sketches. After everyone agrees on what the character should look like, I begin the rough sketches for each spread of the book. This is my least favourite part as I find it so hard. My 'roughs' are the most detailed things and are virtually a black and white version of the final artwork. I find it impossible to do them quicker or looser. For me the roughs are a hard slog, but they are necessary for everyone so I don't spend hours and hours on a spread that's utterly wrong. With the book 'Mabel and Me' I was extremely lucky in that I got away with doing virtually no roughs. I did some very simple thumbnail sketches and asked if I could try a couple of spreads straight off. The publishers agreed, and I sent through each spread as I did them. It was amazing to me that they hardly asked me to change anything. It was a wonderful experience and really fresh and exciting.

Do you always get a picture right first time or do you do a lot of sketches?

That really depends on the story and what mood I'm in! Sometimes a character is just behind my fingers waiting to be drawn fully correct and right first time around. As if they've been waiting in some kind of cosmic waiting room. It's amazing when that happens, just so exciting. Then you have a nervous wait to see if the publisher and the author like it too. Other times it's really hard to find the right character and I can draw pages and pages without even getting close. I get really grumpy when it's not going well. Also, sometimes I can fall in love with a character, but the publisher doesn't feel the same and it all gets changed to look completely different. That can make me grumpy too. There have been times when I've drawn a character throughout a book but I'm still thinking "I wish he looked the other way". 

I can have mental blocks about certain spreads. Sometimes I think it looks really dull or too similar to the last spread and I can't think of how to get it right. When this happens I try lots of things. A chat with the author (if I know them well) can sometimes work wonders. Designers often have wonderful suggestions and you think "Of course!" Occasionally I'll just leave it and try a different page or a totally different project! I'm guilty of surfing the net for inspirational pictures and the work from other illustrators. However this can have a flip side in that if you're feeling a bit down because your work isn't quite going to plan, and then you see lots of images that you think are amazing - it can chink away at your inner confidence and have the opposite effect. It's a hard line to tread. The inspiration does strike eventually.

What is your most favourite project you've ever worked on?

There are so many that I've loved for so many different reasons. The 'Princess and the Peas' by Caryl Hart (Nosy Crow) was a joy to do as it was such a great story and had so much I could put in it. It was also the first time I'd tried to do a princess story with light, fresh colours. However, the princess story doesn't follow the conventional path and the story flips on its head. Really good fun to draw. 'Dinosaurs in the Supermarket' was fun purely because of the crazy Dinosaurs I got to draw. I fell in love with the bright blue T-Rex. However, if you MADE me pick just one I'd have to say 'Mabel and Me' by Mark Sperring. Mark is one of my closest friends (or should I say "My bestest, bestest friend") and in all the years we've known each other we've dreamt of doing a picture book together. The characters of 'Me,' the mouse with an inner confidence in who he is, and his friend Mabel, a girl of few words but no less confident - just struck a huge chord in me many years ago when Mark told me the idea. When I see the book it just gives me a warm glow.  It's so hard to pick just one though. Can't I have at least 5 favourites?

Are you a doggy person or a cat lover, and why? And do you have any pets?

Well, I'm a doggy lover. However I'm extremely allergic to cats, dogs and virtually all furry creatures. It's very sad. My son is allergic too. My daughter however is dog crazy and spends all her days dreaming about owning a dog. I wish one day it could come true. We do have a grumpy guinea pig who dislikes everyone, which I'm allergic to as well. Last year my daughter saved up for a hamster and to my delight I'm not allergic to him. He's hilarious, very active and loves coming out to play. I'm really fond of him. Makes me want to do a story with hamsters.....

Who are your favourite illustrators, past and present?

That's hard to list. They are so many. I'm discovering new illustrators all the time that just make me go 'wow!"

Past:  E H Shepherd, Edward Gorey, Mary Blair, Tove Jansson.

Present: David Roberts, Tony Ross, Alex T Smith, Emma Chichester Clarke, Jon Klassen, Marc Boutavant, and so many more!

What excites you most about books and illustration?

Simply finding a great story/idea matched with inspiring illustrations. Seeing or reading something that makes me so excited I want to go home and draw something. There's no feeling like that. The last time I felt like that was re-looking at 'The Moomins' display in my local bookshop. It was the black and white drawings that excited me so much. I went home to look up others on the web. I'd love to do a black, white and one colour book like that.

What is your most favourite thing to draw?

Odd animals that make me laugh. I always love the sinister dark and ghostly things. I love a bit of history and period architecture. Chimney pots and 'roof-scapes' (old rooftops and chimney pots have fascinated me for years).

What role do you feel Public Libraries play in encouraging a love of books in children?

Libraries are essential for children and the whole community. When I was younger I loved the library even though I had lots of books at home. There was something magical about the smell of the books. That exciting idea that you may be about to read the most exciting story you'd ever read. I feel that libraries are our 'Book Churches'; in that people, especially children, can come together there to experience the joy of books. Communal story time and book groups are wonderful for everyone to share ideas and enthusiasm. Sadly some children don't often have a story read to them at home - the library is a lifeline for these children's imagination.

What is your most favourite place on Earth?

Anglesey, where I grew up. As it's an island it has lots of beaches, but they differ vastly from each other. On one beach there's miles of huge soft sand dunes, and then just a mile around the corner there's a beach entirely of light grey pebbles, rock pools and a lighthouse. I love the sea. 

I also love my bed.

What advice would you give to artists wishing to work in the world of publishing?

I get asked this a lot and I always give a slightly different answer because it's a really hard question! 

There are no real rules to getting into the world of creating books. Many people come to it from all avenues through so may different ways. The main thing would be to have a passion for your market. Research your local library or bookshop. What kind of thing would you like to do? If you want to write, do you want to write a picture book, an early reader or a young adult novel? All of them have certain lengths and formats and you need to research this. If you want to illustrate, be passionate about illustration. Plenty of times I've asked prospective illustration students which illustrators they love and they can't come up with any names. If you want to work in children's illustration at least 4 names should trip off your lips with huge excitement. 

Practice, practice, practice. Don't get too set on a 'style'. A style will merely be what's natural to you. There's nothing worse than seeing such an overworked 'style' that looks lovely for one image but you can't imagine transferring it to a different story idea. I've never considered that I have a 'style'. I just draw how I draw and naturally it looks vaguely similar. I'm always looking and changing. Having a style set in stone will only limit you. 

Don't give up. I always liken illustration to how I imagine being an actor is. Lots of auditions and a fair bit of rejection. Often your peers appear to be doing better than you and vice versa. There's no linear way into the industry. Just keep going, learning and enjoying. Most importantly, keep CREATING. The more images you generate the more you can circulate out into the wider world. If you sit in your room and never draw anything or show anyone anything you won't get anywhere.

Get a copy of the 'Writer's and Artists Yearbook'. Its an invaluable resource with up to date information on publishers, agents, industry contacts etc. It's updated yearly with informative articles on the business. There's a specific one for the Children Market too.

Finally, if you could pick any story in the world to illustrate, what would it be?

Tough call, but I'd love to have a stab at 'A Christmas Carol'.

Best Wishes,  Sarah xx

Find out more about Sarah's books, and follow her blog: