I’m really excited that Atheneum / Simon & Schuster is publishing FIRSTBORN, my new novel for young readers, in the spring of 2015. It was a long time coming. It’s about wolves, and the idea first came to me on a wolf watching trip to Yellowstone in 2005 with Jean Craighead George. But I think I’m just as thrilled that S&S is first bringing out new editions of two of my older books, The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret.
I must have started writing The Wainscott Weasel in 1990. A few years earlier I’d published a novel about rats set in New York City, so I thought it would be fun to do an anthropomorphic story in a more pastoral setting. Once I settled on the South Fork of Long Island, which I’d known since childhood, a first draft came gushing out—almost as if I’d fallen into a Coleridge-like trance, though I suspect it may have been more to do with the fact that I wrote it on a contraption called a computer. Till then I’d always written longhand on yellow legal pads, but I couldn’t resist the idea of skipping the horror of typing out a fair copy by simply pressing a button and having the finished product come spewing out of a printer. Unfortunately, the computer in question was a primitive IBM XT, and mine was a lemon. The hard drive crashed, and not having backed up the file, I lost the entire hundred and some pages. So I had to try to go back into my trance and transcribe the whole thing again. My other chief memory of that book’s formative stages was the helpfulness of the illustrator. Fred Marcellino, who’d previously illustrated A Rat’s Tale, liked the story but was having fits differentiating the weasel characters. Couldn’t I at least give my hero a distinguishing feature to set him apart? It got me thinking and led to my hero sporting an eye patch, which spawned a whole subplot that enriched the story a lot. As did Fred’s pictures, some in full color, almost unheard-of for a novel. The book was a true collaboration.
As was Mean Margaret, a few years later. I wanted to try my hand at a picture book, and I had a farcical idea of a little girl who devastated everyone’s life that touched hers. I must have rewritten it a dozen times, but every time I showed it to my editor, Michael di Capua, he sighed and shook his head. The story gathered dust in his file till his then associate, Holly McGhee, discovered it. She thought it had potential, and a dozen more revisions followed. No luck—till she asked a friend what was wrong with it. He said it looked like the outline for a novel. Within a month I’d produced a 118-page draft. This was clearly the right form, but it still needed a lot of work. We actually taped our editorial meetings so I could replay them later as writing aids! At the time I thought this was overkill, but later, when the book was nominated for the National Book Award, I realized I may have been wrong. This book, too, was much enhanced by illustrations—hilarious ones by Jon Agee.
I’m very grateful to Holly, and to Caitlyn Dlouhy, for helping bring Margaret and the weasels back to life.
“And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/ Before the taking of a toast and tea.” – T.S. Eliot
Revision strikes me as being one of those topics wholly unsuited for a guest slot in a blog that is mostly about the cheerful side of writers, writing, reading, and books. Here’s why: revision is a horribly beautiful mix of murder (you drown your darlings), joy (you have figured out how to fix a problem), and discovery (same). None of that loans itself to an upbeat, inspiring tidbit.
Instead, let’s talk titles. After all, even if you aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, there is no getting around the fact that titles intrigue (“The Secret Garden”) or delight (“No Fighting, No Biting”), but rarely bore, even if the book itself is boring.
I am epically terrible at thinking of titles.
So terrible that I have yet to come up with a title for a novel that makes it past any editor’s first edit. “My Heartbeat” was called “For Another Year,” and “When I was Older,” originally went by “Juliet and the Idea of Frogs.” My father came up with the title for my favorite book, “The Kings Are Already Here,” and “Stay With Me” began life as “Gold Cufflinks.”
Well, you get the idea. If coming up with a title is an art, it’s one that escapes me.
Some of these title losses I have grieved. My new book will go out into the world under another name, but I will always know it as “The Poet’s Daughter.” However, for the most part I understand that the book you discover in your first draft is not the book you uncover in the revision process. Titles are your canary in the coalmine. They come back to you or they don’t, but either way they tell you something you didn’t know before.
And that, at the end of the day, is the best part of revision (and titles, for that matter). It’s not that it allows for, to quote T.S. Eliot again, “time to murder and create,” but that you learn something new. And since my super-power is being a dork, learning something new is my favorite thing.
Dear young illustrator out there,
Here are a few things I’ve learned while taking a line for a walk.
(1) While on your quest for “style”, try not to mimic others too closely. It’s an excellent way to study and try out techniques, but learning and imbibing all those influences is only half the process. You still need to distill them and create something different. It helps to keep your sources broad and numerous, to create a mixture that’s totally your own.
It reminds me of becoming a person—you’re never one thing, and you continue to evolve over the years. I think my work has shifted and changed over time, and early influences have come and gone, though a few (like Jim Henson, Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein) remain the same.
We recently had the pleasure of asking long-time Pippin artist Pascal Lemaitre how he found himself as an artist. We thought it’d be fun to share his answer here; hope you find some inspiration for yourself from this wonderful and fascinating answer.
Every kid draws and then some stop at a certain age. I went on because I saw my father painting and I thought it was cool. I was proud of my father. I met some artists and I loved the way they were. Of course I drew images I saw. I have a lot of father figures.
I wanted to be a serious artist. A painter. Dramatic self-portraits.Paint or die. Then I decided I needed to accept who I was.I was just a guy who liked to draw funny weird stuffs, that's all.
In a way it freed me of the burden of willing myself to be "someone". I decided it was time to embrace who I was to avoid a future full of frustration and bitterness. On that path I saw there was a brotherhood of non-serious artists. It helps. Then it's all about getting a life that brings intensity into your art. That's why I spend a good chunk of time far from my drawing table. This process of learning to accept yourself is common to every human being, but when you draw you bring that in your line. Here’s another way to think about it:
-Get a life.
-Unfortunately you need to work a lot to find who you are. Because it's when you try different things that you find which one suits you better.
-Drawing is like dancing. You need to practice a lot.
-Read books. Philosophers. Poets.
-Fall in love.
-Walk in the forest.
-Build around your dream.
-Be generous, you will create a flow and people will help.
-Life is crazy. It takes so much time and energy to build a person, and life is so short. So don't think too much about it. Focus on your art and life.
-Our work is about collaboration. So listen to art directors, editors, agent, and writers.
-See it as a way of sharing knowledge and learning. Editors are not enemies. We build together.
-Money is a tool. So invest your money in a trip where you'll discover the world.
-Break the walls in your head.
-Listen to you, Don't follow the crowd.
-If you study and there’s no pain, that means something is wrong.
-To grow up is hard. To broaden your art you need to go against your habits.
-Look at small children. The way they draw. Their intensity. Their need. Do this just to remember why you draw and to keep the pleasure of it.
Without missing a beat one of the other students said, “I think they’re arriving at 2 o’clock.”
The journey to discovering my own voice was a long one so I’ll try and be brief (and you know I can be long-winded when I’m not careful!). Actually, the journey of discovery seems to be ongoing. I’m fairly restless where my “style” is concerned — always pushing for the next big thing, as it were. I’m usually happy with my art when I’m finished with it but can always see other ways I might have done it, which leads neatly into my next illustration project, and that one into the next. It’s a nice organic process.
In my case I saw a lot of students enter the illustration program at the Alberta College of Art who I thought were very decent picture makers. But then I spent some time looking through the graduation show (as I neared the end of my first year of general studies). To my surprise almost all of the illustration students were producing work that could only be called “good illustration”. It looked like illustration. It was good. But it was boring. I quickly changed my mind about my area of study and chose to study drawing and printmaking in the fine arts program.
The illustrators whose work I truly loved spoke with such a strong and powerful voice that they somehow transcended mere illustration. I wanted to be like them! Eric Carle. Stephen Gammell. Lane Smith. Jack Kirby. Chihiro Iwasaki. Bill Sienkiewicz. Anything they laid their hands on always looked only like their own work. Their voices were so strong you could identify their drawings without having to read their names on their books. That’s the kind of illustration I wanted to make! I decided that studying fine art would be a better way to find that voice because that voice doesn’t come from studying illustration techniques and doing illustration assignments. It comes from searching deep within yourself and finding who you really are. It comes from observing the world around you and learning where you fit. It comes from experimenting with different media and trying to express different ideas. I tried video installation projects. I tried abstract expressionist painting. I spent hundreds of hours doing figure drawing and learning anatomy and color theory.
The funny thing was when I graduated from art college I was further from a career in illustration than I’d been when I started. I showed my work in a gallery with some printmaking friends and thought about the future. I needed a job! So I took my burgeoning digital skills and found myself a graphic design job (not as a designer but as a production guy — I did digital typesetting; colour-correcting photos; pre-press; etc. And some designing.) And all the while I spent my free time drawing comics. I knew that my real calling was to draw Spiderman for a living! I still have a big pile of rejection letters from my submissions to Marvel and DC comics. I actually got pretty close to a professional comics gig with both of them before realizing that I was doing the one thing that had discouraged me from studying illustration in the first place: I was imitating other artists. I could draw pretty well (as evidenced by almost getting the coveted gig with DC Comics) but I took a step back and realized that my voice was nowhere to be seen. And I started to hate my drawings because of that. And it was REALLY hard work. So I kept my nose down and did my design job and thought about my dream illustration job.
I saved lots of money (design pays really well!) and spent my free time putting together a portfolio of what I thought were terrific illustration samples. My art used to look vaguely like Marilyn Manson album cover art — it was a strong mix of my fine art “voice” with digital techniques that I’d taught myself by studying Dave McKean’s wonderful Sandman covers and Bill Sienkiewicz’s amazing graphic novels.
I showed this portfolio to Doug Fraser who said, “Your drawings are beautiful! They’d look great on my wall but I’m not sure what art directors are going to do with it.” I’m stubborn. I booked a trip to New York, Toronto and London and took my portfolio on the road for a month. My first meeting was with Steve Heller at the NY Times who said, “These are great but I can’t use them. They’d look great on my wall, though.” And that set the tone for my month of showing the portfolio.
However, in Toronto I managed to have one particularly nice meeting at an ad agency. The Art Director I met liked my portfolio, even though he agreed that it would look better on his wall. And, since my portfolio was fairly slim back then, asked if I had anything else he could see. The only other thing I had was my sketchbook, which goes everywhere I go but is never shown to anyone. So I showed it. He was puzzled by it. Where the portfolio was dark and brooding and full of muted colours and foreboding (the goth influence was pretty heavy) my sketchbook was full of silly, light-hearted drawings — the sort of things one draws on a napkin while talking on the phone. He put them side by side and compared, then said, “Now if you can take the rich textural elements of your portfolio and mix-in the fun and frivolous side from your sketchbook I think you might actually have something really cool! Come and see me when that happens.” That was an eye-opener. It had honestly never occurred to me that you could try selling something to art directors that took only a few minutes of your time and was, for all intents and purposes, SILLY. It had never occurred to me that my voice might also encompass that FUN side of my personality — the side that I didn’t have to work hard at.
Luckily I’m a good listener. And this AD was right. I began to morph the fun art with the dark, textural stuff and slowly the art began to look more and more like MINE. And the organic approach I had always used in my sketchbooks took over the way I looked at paying work. My palette got brighter. My drawings became more and more accessible. And I was having more fun than I’d ever had before!
I had a chance meeting with Bill Sienkiewicz at a comic convention a couple of years ago (I still have a soft spot for comics). I watched him draw and listened to him chatting with a couple of fans. When they left I pulled out a copy of Grumpy Bird and showed it to him. I told him how I had loved his work when I was in art college (and still did) and how, while I never tried mimicking him, I had borrowed a bunch of his techniques and applied them to my own art, which was definitely in a similar vein back then (the dark, brooding gothic phase). I explained that Grumpy Bird was a direct descendent of his own twisted drawings. He laughed and said something like, “I LOVE it when someone can take something that I took from someone else and turn it completely of its head and become something else altogether.” He put Grumpy Bird beside one of his dark fantasy drawings and you couldn’t see the resemblance at all. I like that.
So my advice to illustrators? Listen more than you talk. Listen with both eyes and ears. Because sometimes other people know your work better than you do. Sometimes they see what you can’t because they aren’t invested in it like you are. Also, your voice comes not from your mouth, but from your hands. Let your illustration do the talking for you. And if you have listened just right, and processed everything carefully, you might just find that you have something to say. And never stop listening! Because when you think you’ve found your voice you might just be surprised when someone else can answer another piece of the puzzle for you. And because no one likes a big talker! Ha Ha! Your style is your brand. It’s your identity. It is what makes someone look at your work over the hundreds (or thousands) of other illustrators out there. Be proud of it.
And that's my three cents worth!
When my mother read me the Babar books, I entered a wondrous world where elephants wore spats and old Cornelius was drawn with wavy lines to show how shaky he had become with age.
And who came to the rescue of Babar and Celeste when they needed help? The Old Lady, that's who. I really loved how small she was in comparison to the elephants, yet she was powerful in ways that the elephants were not and I imagined myself helping the elephants the way she did. I loved the art in these books; it had so much detail that I discovered something new with each rereading. The simply-told stories were filled with action, ingenious plot devices, and even tragedy. I sobbed when one of the elephants -- Babar's father? -- was shot. The text was printed in script, another grace note in this elegant elephant world.
– Where do you like to read most and at what time of day?
I've read that before the Industrial Revolution, it was considered natural for people to fall asleep at night, awake for a stretch, and then fall back into a 'second sleep.' I was relieved to discover this because I am a 3 a.m. waker upper and this is when I read. This year, by the glow of the flashlight from my phone, I read my nocturnal way through all four volumes of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biographies, which are absolutely brilliant. I also read books while riding on the Jitney between Sag Harbor and New York city, but during the day when I'm home, I read the paper and magazines.
– What are your writing habits? Got any? Where do you write, when do you write, on what kind of computer or in what kind of notebook?
I work on a MacBook with an elaborate ergonomic set up involving a split keyboard that tents higher in the middle than on either side and a stand for my MacBook that elevates it so that I'm looking straight at my screen without tilting my neck. I have a mouse that I switch from left to right sides every week or two. I also have a pile of books on a table that's my stand-up desk. I take my laptop over and work there for an hour or so at a time.
I don't have any set time when I have to be in my office, but I usually go in about 8:30 or 9. I try to do some work every day, seven days a week, and I like the rhythm of that. I'll start my day writing or answering e-mails or making necessary phone calls, and then I settle into work around 10:00. But sometimes, if I'm writing a longer piece -- say a Myth-o-Mania book -- and I'm into the first draft, I'll jump right into work and let e-mails and everything else slide for days or even weeks until I'm finished. The only constant in my day is my dogs. Toby can tell time to the minute, and every day at 3:00 I hear his toenails clacking on the floor of my office as he comes in to stare at me, unblinking, until I get up and give him and Pinkie their supper.
They are like old retirees who show up for the early bird specials. After they eat, we go for a walk in the village and do some errands and my work day is over.
– What are you working on now? What has the process been like so far? What are the highs and lows with this project(s)?
I'm about to go back to work on what I hope will be a series of stories -- maybe graphic novels for the 2nd-3rd grade set -- starring a duck. We live on a cove in Sag Harbor. I hear ducks quacking all the time, and it always sounds comical to me --QUACK wack wack wack wack -- like the punch line of a duck joke. That's all I'll say right now about this project, as I'm in the middle of it and talking about work in process is like letting the air out of a balloon.
– If you could offer one tip that has been more important than any other in your writing career, what is it?
This certainly isn't a career-making tip, but here goes: When I get stuck or I feel as if my story is tying itself in knots, I get up and do something else. Taking a walk is great because I'm looking around and not really thinking too hard about anything and if I'm lucky, up bubbles an idea or a phrase or something that leads me to be able to untie the knots in my plot -- all with no conscious effort. It surprises me how often this works -- by thinking of something else or nothing in particular, part of my brain is working to get me back on track. Thank you, brain!
We asked Harry Bliss how he found his own, distinct voice in illustration recently. We were so fascinated by his telling that he agreed to let us post it here. Enjoy the many guises of . . . Harry Bliss!
Style came to me after years of being inspired by artists as far apart as Ben Shahn to Charles Schulz.
I spent years mimicking these and dozens of artists I'd admired in some form and it was very good for me in terms of developing hand control, familiarity with mediums or simply keeping my 'chops' up. If you go back and look at my work twenty-five years ago you'll see a lot of different styles, depending on the assignment.
I had illustration jobs (mostly book jackets) that needed, say, an Art Deco look or a renaissance feel, so all that influence came in handy. Still, at some point you want to find your own look and this comes, ironically enough, when you stop searching for a style.
For me, it was The New Yorker that really forced me into straight drawing, just an idea in my mind traveling from my brain down to my hand and onto the paper with nothing to look at— pure visual communication. This of course is the central component in drawing gag cartoons. Think of a James Thurber drawing, the crude beauty and expressions in those works— masterful stuff that was so pure. One day, a prominent New Yorker writer came across Thurber trying to copy something in front of him, working from life because Thurber felt his drawings looked too crude at best, and the writer said, "What the hell are you doing? Stop that! It you get any better you'll be mediocre!" Ha!
It's sort of tragic, but my father never found his visual 'voice' because he couldn't shed the other great artists whom he'd loved — all his stuff looks like a Gorky or a Avery or some impressionists he's trying to mimic. My uncle too, spent most of his life trying to be Andrew Wyeth. Here is one of his paintings. It’s great, but you'd swear it’s a Wyeth...
When I draw now, whether it's for a picture book, cartoon, New Yorker cover, or 'doodle', they all look like a 'Bliss' — it just happened. I guess the influence gets washed out of you over the years and that's when it gets really fun. I had a 75-year- old painting teacher, Lou Sloan at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), call it 'freedom' and I liked that quite a bit.