CM: When did you first develop an interest in writing?
DL: I’ve loved to read since I was a little girl; my love of reading led to an interest in writing. Thanks to my mother, I still have some of the “books” I wrote as a seven- and eight-year-old, with titles like Something Happens to Tuggy and The Captured Boys. (You can see the covers on my website here: http://debbielevybooks.com/about/.)
To me, switching from lawyering to writing doesn’t seem like such a giant leap. So many lawyers are word people, and although I know we like to make jokes about impenetrable legalese, excellence in lawyering often depends on excellence in writing. (Not always, I know. But often.) Anyway, there was no single moment when I decided to make the career change. I’d always been interested in writing. I left the practice of law to work as an editor at a newspaper chain that covered the legal profession. And then I left that to write books for young people.
CM: What made you decide to write books for children?
DL: Once I had kids of my own, I rediscovered books for kids. Once again, my love of reading these led to an interest in writing them. Favorites in our house were the Frog and Toad books (by Arnold Lobel) and the George and Martha books (by James Marshall). And, oh, all of Shel Silverstein’s poetry!
CM: What directed your interest to the history surrounding WWII?
DL: I think the combination of my mother being a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and my father being a bona fide war hero (he enlisted immediately after Pearl Harbor, served on a destroyer-escort in the Mediterranean, and was awarded the Legion of Merit after his ship was torpedoed and he tirelessly tended to the wounds of his shipmates, saving the lives of many) made this interest inevitable.
CM: Your book The Year of Goodbyes is a true story based on your mother’s experience fleeing Germany in WWII. How did that personal connection make it easier and/or more difficult to write the story?
DL: The personal connection made it easier because it produced in me a certainty that I wanted—even needed—to tell this story in the way I told it. It also made it easier because I had my mother, living right here in Maryland near me, to interview endlessly, and I had her treasure trove of documentation and artifacts, and I had access to her friends (acknowledged in the book) who also survived and made it to this country.
The personal connection made it harder because—well, because it was personal. It was painful to unearth the memories—for my mother, certainly, who had lived them, but for me as well. But because of that certainty I felt about wanting/needing to tell the story, the pain was something we were both willing to go through.
When I talk with students in schools I visit, sometimes I bring up two seemingly contradictory lessons for writing, and also for life, that I’ve taken from working on The Year of Goodbyes.
First: Be Vulnerable. To do the research for a book like this, which involves investigating and revisiting the deaths of my own family members in the Holocaust, was hard. It opened up old, old wounds and memories for my mother. It meant months of sorrowful research for me. But we both opened ourselves up to the sorrow and the pain, and it made her an incredibly good source for this book, and it made my writing so much better than it was in all the other ways I had tried to write her story—because here I wasn’t telling the story from a distance. Making yourself vulnerable—by which I mean, able to be hurt and to be sad—makes you honest and real and that shows in your writing as much as in your relationships.
Second (and exactly the opposite of the first lesson): Be Invincible. Yeah, be vulnerable but also be invincible about the things you care about—unstoppable, unbeatable. After I’d written a draft of the book, I read an article in the online magazine, Gawker, which began like this: “Remember when you were in like sixth grade and your teacher asked you to read “Number the Stars” and you quietly thought to yourself . . . ‘jeez Louise, how many of these Holocaust books are there?” Well. A comment like that could stop a writer in her tracks. It’s like saying—you dummy, don’t you know the world already has as many books about the Holocaust era as it needs? But it didn’t stop me in my tracks. I was vulnerable in letting myself absorb the story, but invincible in believing that actually, the world *could* use my mother’s story. Maybe I was right and maybe I was wrong, but that is where a willingness to be vulnerable and a steeliness about being invincible led me on this project.
CM: Why did you decide to write The Year of Goodbyes in verse?
DL: I tried writing the book as a straightforward narrative. I really did. It didn’t work. The story seemed to have a will of its own, and practically insisted on channeling itself into the free (and blank) verse format. As you know, nearly every chapter in The Year of Goodbyes begins with one of the handwritten entries from the poesiealbum. Writing the narrative in free verse seemed to flow naturally from, and echo and honor, the poesiealbum entries. Also, one of the things I love about poetry is how much expression can be packed into an economical package. Each word matters so much. I wanted to write my mother’s story in that way—where each word mattered, the way each friend and relative mattered to her.
Another things about writing the book in free verse: Although people, including pre-teen people like mother at the time of the story, don’t walk around talking and thinking in poetry, I do think that free verse is good at capturing something essential about the way we think and react, especially under stressful conditions. It’s urgent and attentive. It creates rhythms, and then changes the rhythms, like a heartbeat that quickens, and then calms, in the face of danger.
Finally, I’ll point out here that the story is told in the first person—the reader is in the head of my mother as narrator. My intention was to make the reader feel as close as possible to the tension, emotions, and events experienced by my mother as a pre-teen. I wanted the reader to experience this real-life person as someone with a young person’s voice. I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable doing this if I had not worked in close collaboration with my mother. But I was lucky enough to have her.
I didn’t write The Year of Goodbyes the way I did for the sake of novelty. I just tried to find the most immediate and accurate way to depict my mother’s last year under the Nazi regime, which in turn, I hoped, would illuminate the shared experience of others who have been persecuted.
CM: Was it easier or more difficult to write the story in verse?
DL: Weirdly, wonderfully easier. I struggled for a long time to write something else. When I turned to verse, the story unfolded.
CM: What was your research process like?
DL :A good answer to this very important question would require another blog post entirely! I’ll just say that I am grateful for my legal training and career. When I was an associate at the D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale), I developed good research skills, really picky, skeptical research skills. Working as a lawyer instilled in me the notion to keep digging, to make sure I don’t draw conclusions before they’re warranted. You don’t have to be a lawyer or go to law school to develop these skills, of course! I’m just giving credit where credit is due.
CM: Is there any advice about writing you would like to pass on to aspiring writers?
DL: Read. Read a lot. Not so you can imitate the writing you like, but so you know what you like, and what you don’t.
CM: What would Jutta want people today to remember about about WWII?
DL: My mother died in 2013, but I know what she would say because she was asked this question many times when she spoke about her experience and when we did presentations about The Year of Goodbyes. She would want people to remember that an event like the Holocaust can happen again. She would want people to remember that demonizing others, scapegoating a minority, refusing to acknowledge the humanity of people who don’t look like you, speak like you, or worship like you—these are all ingredients for the rise of demagogues and their willing followers who would rather blame The Other for their problems, or their nation’s problems, than look for thoughtful and rational solutions.
Debbie Levy writes books—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—for people of all different ages, and especially for young people. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times; before that, a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale). She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Rick Hoffman. Theyhave two grown sons. Besides writing, she loves to kayak, boat, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay region, swim, bowl duckpins, and tramp around the woods. And, of course, she loves to read.
Find more information about Debbie, The Year of Goodbyes, and her other books on her website.
CM: When did you first become interested in writing?
LJ: Well, it’s not like I ever had a plan. I’ve just always loved to write. I kept journals from the age of 12, and corresponded for years with a couple of overseas pen pals. Out of college, I worked in a movie theatre and a bookstore —I could see movies for free, and take books home to read, if I was careful not to damage them! After a few months, I answered an ad in the local alternative weekly newspaper for a part-time film critic, dashing off a one-page review of some film I’d just seen. And I got the job — evidently because I was the only applicant who actually sent in something written!
Years later, I still have that job (I’m the full-time critic, now). I also reviewed books for the San Francisco Chronice for several years, as one of their many freelance stringers. And working in journalism has taught me plenty about deadlines, word count, editing, and compromise — all useful stuff to know when you start writing books.
CM: Why did you decide to write a Peter Pan story for adults?
LJ: I think the lure of eternal childhood is something that only appeals to children. As you start to grow up, move away from the home environment, and get to know yourself better, as your horizons broaden, the thought of being stuck in childhood forever would be horrible. It would for me, anyway.
And then, a few years ago, in my day job as a film critic, I was writing a review of a live-action Peter Pan movie. Of the actor playing Captain Hook, I wrote that he really made us feel the tragedy of an adult trapped in a world run by children. Instantly, a voice popped into my head—Hook’s voice—looking around the Neverland and telling me exactly what he thought about this so-called paradise for children. I hit “save” on my review, opened another doc, and started writing down everything he said. That’s when I decided this was a Neverland story that needed to be told!
CM: What drew you to Hook’s story in particular?
LJ: I’ve always loved Captain Hook better than Peter Pan, as a character. For one thing. he’s a lot funnier, and has better lines! Peter always reminded me of all the bratty little boys I went to school with, so I never really fell under his spell, even when I was a child myself. And besides, I’ve always had a thing for pirates!
CM: What was your favorite Peter Pan scene to translate into your own book?
LJ: The scene where I actually show the moment when Pan cuts off Hook’s hand — and how, and why it happens — was very powerful for me to write. And I think it’s a pretty stirring moment in the book. Besides that, I really enjoyed inventing a complete society of merfolk in their underwater Mermaid Lagoon — which is a part of the Neverland that J. M. Barrie never shows us!
CM: Who’s your favorite character in Peter Pan?
LJ: James Hook, definitely! His voice, talking in my head, telling his side of the story, is what set me on course to write this book. And boy, did I love setting the record straight! As I went along, I also knew that I wanted to write a love story for James, and I had a fabulous time imagining who that lucky woman would be, and why. My heroine, Stella Parrish, has her own story to tell, as well, and I wanted her to be a real match for James, in wit, spirit, and courage.
Maybe it would have been fun to write more of the book from her viewpoint, but James’ voice was so strong in my head, I just had to let him take over. But their scenes together, as their relationship deepens, was the most fun part of the story to write.
CM: Was it difficult to write about a story that people are so familiar with?
LJ: Surprisingly, no, because my view of the characters is so different from what people think they know about them. And, of course, I’m not telling the same story that Barrie told. My story is about what happens long after Barrie’s ends, and so I felt at liberty to create entirely new groups of pirates and Lost Boys, and fairies and Indians. Only Pan and Hook, ageless and eternal, remain the same.
CM: What are you some of your favorite (non-Peter Pan) fairytales?
LJ: I’m a big fan of Beauty and the Beast, which is the subject of my next novel. It will be my sort of twisted — well, let’s say unorthodox — retelling of the classic tale! I also loved the Alice In Wonderland and Oz books when I was a child. (Do those count as fairy tales?)
CM: What is the most difficult part of the writing process for you? The most fun?
LJ: Plotting, is definitely the most difficult! I usually come up with a great idea, and then I flesh out the characters and setting, and write a few scenes of dialogue with the characters talking to each other. And everything is all great, and then I think, oh, wait: now they have to do something!
The most fun for me is writing dialogue, for sure!
CM: How much of your books do you outline or plan before writing?
LJ: I never used to outline at all, which is why it took me so long to write a book. Just flailing away, hoping a story comes together by magic is not a good game plan! But once you get a book published, I’ve discovered, and you have a working relationship with an editor, he or she might ask you for a fiction proposal. (That is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole book first!)
This is common in non-fiction; you can sell an idea for a book based on a proposal and a couple of chapters. But fiction writers, particularly first-timers, are usually asked to submit the entire book. So, while writing an outline/proposal is new to me, it makes so much more sense to actually know where the story is going!
Of course, if you start with a proposal, or any kind of outline, it’s not set in stone. Everyone knows that things will change in the writing process — the story may shift direction; characters will occur to you that you haven’t even thought of yet; entire subplots may be added, or subtracted. But as a general blueprint for themes, characters, action, setting, and, oh, yes, plot, a proposal is invaluable. Keep it short, and stay focused — I recommend 10 pages, or less. Save the details for writing the book itself.
CM: What was your querying/publishing process like?
LJ: Chaotic! I had a New York agent for my first novel, The Witch From the Sea, and while her agency sold the German-language rights immediately, she was never able to sell it to a US or British publisher. The German-language editions were gorgeous — hardcover, and trade paperback — but nobody I knew could read them, including me. My agent and I amicably parted ways, and it was another four years before I sold the book myself to a small, indie publisher in the US, and got a copy I could actually read!
I rewrote my query for Alias Hook dozens of times, sent it to scores of agents, then reworked the manuscript with two or three interested agents, each of whom, ultimately, declined to represent me. It was very disheartening. But I’d heard of an indie publisher in England, Snowbooks, that did not require you to submit through an agent, and finally, I was so weary of the whole process, I just thought, why not? I didn’t hear anything back for a long time, and so I thought it was just like sending a query to an agent who doesn’t respond if she’s not interested. Seven months later, I got an email telling me Snowbooks was going to publish the book!
Snowbooks offered no advance, and the royalties were not huge. But they did produce a good-looking book. And there were other perks: the publisher at Snowbooks knew an editor at Thomas Dunne Books in the US, and sent him my Hook manuscript. We chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes, and then he made an offer to publish Alias Hook in the US. They came out with a beautiful hardcover edition in 2014, and a paperback in 2015.
In the meantime, my editor at TDB showed my manuscript to an agent he knew — the intrepid Irene Goodman! She must be the only agent in NYC I had never queried (I’d read somewhere that she wasn’t interested in fantasy, which is what I thought Alias Hook was.) But in the end, she queried me, calling me up on a Sunday and offering to represent me. She also fell in love with my Beast book, which had been on the back burner, and sold it to Candlewick, which will be publishing it in Spring, 2017.
So, the moral is: a) Get your book out there, by any means possible! You only need one person to fall in love with it. And b) Never, ever give up!
CM: Do you have a favorite Peter Pan movie/book adaptation (other than your own)?
LJ: Well, the 2003 movie, Peter Pan, is the one that inspired me to write Alias Hook. (Thank you, Jason Isaacs!)
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
LJ: Keep reading: get inspired by books you love, and learn from the ones that don’t work for you. Keep writing: it doesn’t have to be perfect; the act of writing begets better writing, if you just keep at it. And never give up!
Lisa Jensen is a film critic and newspaper columnist from Santa Cruz, California. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where she reviewed books for 13 years. Her adult fantasy novel, Alias Hook, was published by Thomas Dunne Books in 2014. Her YA fairy tale fantasy, Beast: A Love Story, will be published by Candlewick in 2017. Her swashbuckling historical novel, The Witch From The Sea, was published in 2001.
TK: I got started in art at a very young age. It was one of few things that I was really passionate about, and something I knew I wanted to pursue as a career for as long as I can remember. Whenever adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d always say “a children’s book illustrator!” or “an artist!”. As far as education goes, my experience is pretty limited! As a kid I took a few painting classes, and last year attended a couple online lectures, but I never did go to art college. I work best at my own pace, and felt like art college just wouldn’t work well for me.
CM: Did you work other jobs before freelancing? What are some of the benefits and challenges of freelancing?
TK: Freelancing and running my Etsy shop are my first and only jobs, actually! I’m only just starting out in my career, so that may change, but as of right now it’s the only thing I’ve ever known. It definitely comes with many benefits and challenges, yes – being able to work from home and in my own time is something I really enjoy, but it also means keeping myself in line and making sure I don’t procrastinate and miss deadlines, or overwork myself and stress out.
CM: How did you develop your personal style?
TK: It was a long, loooong, never-ending process, and still is! I tried so many different styles and techniques before I even knew what I wanted my work to look like and represent. Once I finally decided that, it became easier to make stylistic decisions and develop it into what I wanted. I feel like developing my style was like building Frakenstein’s monster, in a way – I’d watch animated movie or look at illustrations and pick out certain things I liked about the faces or proportions, and try to make it my own and incorporate it into my art.
CM: What are some of your favorite things to draw?
TK: I just really love everyday people, like maybe a lady walking her dog or someone caught in the rain. I find simple things like that really charming and enjoyable to draw. Some of my favorite projects I’ve worked on are probably fanart pieces, or any time I get to draw plants and trees!
CM: What materials/programs do you use most often?
TK: Definitely Photoshop and my Wacom tablet. I use them almost every day, and they’re often my favorite materials to work with.
CM: What artists have had an influence on your work?
TK: Far too many to recollect! I’m really inspired by Laika films (The Boxtrolls is a favorite of mine), Renaissance paintings, and illustrators like Mary Blair and Claire Keane.
CM: Many of your pieces feature characters or elements from books. Do you often find inspiration in mediums other than art, and do you have any favorites (books or movies) that have influenced or encouraged your art?
TK: Yes, absolutely! I’m often inspired by books and films, as well as music, nature, and just people in general. There’s something about watching/reading my favorite film or book that just fuels my creative fire! Familiar stories like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland are my favorite.
CM: Do you ever experience art block? If so, how do you deal with it?
TK: I’m sure every artist does at some point, and I’m definitely no exception! Whether it lasts a day or a week, I find the best way to get over it is to just draw my way through it. I try to work on small, un-intimidating pieces like flowers or small portraits.
CM: What is a style/medium/new art challenge you would like to try in the future?
TK: Some day I’d love to work with gouache or watercolor! I don’t work in traditional media very much, so I’d really like to conquer my fear of the paintbrush in the future.
CM: What are some of the most important lessons about art you’ve learned through your own experiences?
TK: Artists are often faced with a lot of decision-making, so I learned a lot about being independent and making my own artistic choices. I would often catch myself thinking things like “I’ve never seen that done before, I can’t do that” or drawing something a certain way just because it’s how someone else did it. I learned how to draw that way I would, not the way someone else would.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
TK: Start where you are, learn all you can, and be determined! If you’re just starting out, don’t stress about developing a style – start with learning the basics, with anatomy, form, and color. Challenge yourself and set artistic goal! Be persistent, and don’t get discouraged!
Taryn is an American artist currently living in Colorado and working as a freelance illustrator. Outside of art, her hobbies include reading, blogging, and obsessing over her fandoms.
AD: I went to art school. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid to late 90s, then went out in the world and worked in L.A. for a while. Eventually I felt like I was getting distant from illustration, which is what I went to school for and what I love doing the most. So I went to grad school and went to New York and the School of Visual of Arts and got my master’s there. At both schools I had a really good time and learned a lot. So that was my formal education.
When I was a teenager I did some summer art classes at the local school, the Art Institute of Boston. My high school had a solid art program, which was Brooklyn High School. But even as a little kid it was always something that I did and was encouraged to do. I had a lot of support from my folks and friends, and it was the way I related to the world and learned about myself and my own thoughts and connected with people early on.
CM: How did you get into illustration?
AD: There’s a couple ways of answering that, the technical side and the interest side. I’d begin by just saying that illustration was the thing I identified with, loving books, book covers, picture books, and reading. I read a lot, so that’s how illustration became the art that was a means to directly connect to people. But also it felt relevant because it addresses specific ideas. As wonderful and open ended as art can be, culturally speaking and emotionally and personal and all of that, illustration, for me, has a quality I identify with specific to fulfilling objectives—communicating a specific idea. In the case of books it’s communicating the essence of a story in one dimension. I like that. There’s a very tight framework, and within that there’s plenty of room to explore.
But on a technical side, it’s a long, slow process. When I got out of school I was sending out postcards to publishers and researching, going to libraries and bookstores and looking at magazines and books and who published that, and that looks cool, that looks like maybe they’ll like my stuff, and tracking down art directors. It takes a long time, and that slowly evolved with email. For me, that was the late nineties and early 2000s, and it became prevalent to have websites up and direct people towards that. Now everyone does that, and it’s a lot easier to shoot an image over to art directors and hope they’ll check it out. And that’s basically the common thing I had to do, annually, bi-annually sending out email cards and inviting people to check out my work.
These past couple of years I’ve sort of stopped reaching out because I was getting overwhelmed with work. That ebbs and flows, and it when gets quieter and I’ll poke back up. Because that’s the thing specifically about illustration as a career: there’s no security. You never know. You can get it into your head that this is it, I’ve really made it, and you’ll find out the next year that it’s not quite as busy. All that very familiar, at least for me, feeling of ‘will I be able to pull this off for another year?’
But you just stick with it if it’s your thing. That concern of making a living is significant, but it’s one of those things you have to decide and then go with. The time I made that decision ultimately was going from high school to college. This is something I really enjoy, it’s really important to me, but does it make sense to do this as a career? It seems like years and years of jobs—temping and art department work in the film industry, and all different kinds of jobs in the time you’re on your own and having to make ends meet. At some point I was able to stop doing that and focus on making images and paintings for illustration and galleries.
CM: When you’re illustrating for books and designing book covers, how much do you know about the story before you try to make these images that are going to represent the story?
AD: There are a couple of answers to that, too. The short answer is yes, that’s definitely what I prefer. Every time I get offered a job to do a book, one of the first questions I ask is can I read it. Sometimes that’s super easy, which is the best, when the art director says yes, I’ll send it to you. I read the whole thing and take notes and that’s when I am in the most grounded place.
Because here’s what happens sometimes as well: either it’s a brand new book or it’s still being written, so you can’t read it. Things come up where you can’t always read it and that makes things a little shakier. The art director will sometimes say this is what the story is about, or get you some kind of summary, which is okay. If that’s what you have to work with, you work with what you’ve got.
I’ve had the whole spectrum of experiences, where I’ve been able to read it and be grounded in knowing it. I’ve had times where the art director hasn’t read it, for one reason or another. Either they’re lazy—I’m not going to say that’s the case, maybe they can’t because they have too many projects—but then it’s a somewhat tricky situation. When you’re in different places where the author clearly knows what they’ve done, the illustrator has read the book so they know what’s going on, and the art director has a pretty good idea but just not too specific. So the best situation is when everyone is on the same page. The art director has read the book, the illustrator has read the book, everyone has read the book so they’re working from the same place. But it’ll happen when there’s a mix there, where not everyone is as informed as would be ideal, but often times there are good reasons where it’s a business and people are busy. That’s the long answer.
It’s really important if people are interested in doing books and book covers, you have to love books. You can’t just be a person who likes making pictures. The story is so important, so being familiar and understanding what the characters are about and the language is important. It’s not just knowing what it’s about, but it’s important to know how it’s written and the tone and the subtext and that stuff that’s in the words themselves. It’s all important. If you’re getting it right you’re being true to the characters and the story.
CM: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve illustrated?
AD: I’ve had so many that have been great. The Raven Boys series I’ve been involved on, that’s been pretty terrific. [Maggie Stiefvater] is a really great writer, and it’s fun to be involved with something that’s so popular. And the characters are really solid, so I’ve enjoyed that a lot.
The Netrunner cards that I’ve been working on for a number of years now, that’s also been fun. It’s been a really interesting mix. That’s one of the things that’s fun about being an artist/illustrator is having access to so many different worlds. While The Raven Boys takes place in more or less the real world, though there’s a kind of magical quality to it, The Netrunner world is in cyber space. So that’s always fun to go from one world to another, to go into this dark, cyber digital battlefield. I like that place too.
There’s a cover I’m working on now that has been really challenging. It’s a sequel to a cover of a book, which I think is coming out next month. It’s called The Guns of Ivrea, which is a really fun, hard fantasy novel. It has magic and some old-timey monsters in it. The first cover I did I’m happy with, another great project where I was given full access to the story right as it came off the writer’s computer. And now I’m working on the sequel to it, and it’s totally my idea. It’s really tough, there’s a big battle scene in it, and I’ve been going through the text to find really specific details about armor and weapons and the emblems of the different armies—all the stuff I want to make sure I get right. Because while you can tweak stuff up later on, I want to get it as accurate as I can. I don’t really do a lot of big, complicated ensemble group images, so I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but trying to take it one step at a time. There are so many facets to this, and right now I’m focusing on trying to orchestrate a big battle. It’s great. I always like a challenge and not always doing the same thing, so any chance I get to do something a little different I definitely enjoy learning new things and trying to solve a new problem. But it’s also tough.
One other project is the branding of Mexi Kai. I moved out to New Zealand back in 2011 and was invited to create the imagery for a Pacific/Mexican food trucks company. I had a really short period of time to conceive of and craft the look of the company and template the art for the truck as it was being built. It was all new and challenging in scope, timeframe, and the stakes were high, but a rewarding experience.
Illustrating Fat & Bones and Other Stories was another enriching yearlong venture. I was hired to draw about 10 or so images and ended up doing many dozens. The art director gave me free reign with the artwork and once I figured out how to capture the creepy, gritty look and feel of the story, there were so many characters and moments I wanted to depict. It was fun to just run with it.
CM: What do you think is the hardest thing about illustrating a story?
AD: I think it depends on the story. There isn’t one answer to that question. I think my experience has been that the hardest thing is being true to that particular story that you’re working on. There’s always balance between doing your own work that feels personal and distinctive, what’s generally referred to as style, but that’s a word I don’t really like using it at all. But doing what is really your own, and then fulfilling the needs of the story—that particular story and the voice of that author and that world. And finding the place where those two meet. If you can do both at the same time, then that’s the successful piece.
But we’re speaking entirely about the story and the illustration, and not at this moment the business stuff, because there’s all kinds of challenges that can come with that, with all these other people involved—marketing departments and all the money, deadlines, all that stuff. So we’ll put all that other stuff aside and talk about the story and addressing the story and making a compelling and very true image for it.
One of the things I notice that I do, if I can, is put everything on the cover if I can distill it down to an image that really captures it all. Then maybe touching on secondary themes on the back of the cover. With everything going more and more digital you see this a bit less, but when you hold the book in your hand you can see the back. We’re seeing less and less of that, but regardless, if I can, I cram in a second note on the back to give a fuller presentation.
So there’s distilling it all down to one image on the cover and then saying there’s another aspect or quality or detail and letting the back being the place where you continue that a bit more. I find that rewarding, if only for myself, even if it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get seen much.
CM: Are there any books that are special to you or that you would love the chance to illustrate?
AD: Oh, totally. A book that has been something I’ve wanted to do, and I know where it belongs—it’s a Penguin book so I couldn’t just do my own version—is The NeverEnding Story. It would be really fun to do. I read it years ago, but I reread it recently and realized that it’s a book which is mostly known because of the movie, which was terrific—fun and visually imaginative—but that doesn’t really do anything for the book. And for a person who is a real devotee of literature, I would love to visualize that book because there are so many differences that really deserve to be realized from the text and not as comparisons to the movie, which is at this point thirty years old. I’ve done some sketches to kind of fantasize a little bit about it, so maybe sometime I’ll get a call to work on that, that’d be terrific.
One thing that’s been happening that I’ve noticed more is all these public domain books that have been published and are classics and have been out for a while. There’s places like Creative Action Network that do covers for these books, which is totally cool and legal, so I’ve been doing a little of that. This is just covers, not interiors, because there’s a bunch I would love to do interiors for as well, but it’s been nice to revisit some of my favorites and play around with what the covers would look like.
I just finished reading and doing a cover for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. With stuff like that, it feels kind of like a piggy back to make an image for something that’s already so substantial, but it feels good. I enjoy it.
There’s a lot more I’m not thinking of, like A Wrinkle in Time, Narnia. Narnia would be amazing. These are the kinds of books that really got me into reading and are so close to my heart, like the literary equivalent of Star Wars. They defined my childhood. Stuff like that would be really terrific to spend the time on.
There’s always the balance between doing projects for work because you need the money and it’s your career, and then there’s the stuff you want to do for yourself in terms of exploring as an artist and doodling to see what it might look like. There’s always a balance there. I have a handful of pet projects that probably won’t go anywhere and are things I’ll just put time into when I’m a little less busy, and then I’m busy I push them aside.
There’s a lot of stories out there that would be great to dedicate time to and realize in my own world.
CM: A lot of your fine art features animals, and many feature certain animals predominantly than others—like foxes, wolves, ravens. Are there reasons why animals, or those animals, feature so strongly?
AD: One of the reasons I really connect to illustration is because there’s a framework to respond to, and I like that. I’m not spinning in my own juices or my own tiny world. It forces me to adapt and address ideas outside of my own head. So when it comes to my fine art world, in a way this becomes a lot less explainable because so much of it is coming from a more emotional and comfortable place.
In terms of the animals, I really don’t know the answer besides that I’m a big animal lover and have always been more comfortable painting a fox than a person. It’s as simple as that.
Extrapolating from that, there’s the initial connection of us and animals as living beings. I really, as a human being, connect easily with them, both as pets and going out and traveling and seeing animals in the country or watching nature programs. Those are some of my favorite things.
So it’s a simple human connection, but if we want to get a little more exploratory about it, I could say that the draw is a way to explore what I think are meaningful symbols and symbolism. There’s a whole language that we as humans ascribe to forms, where animals anthropomorphize and take on so much rich meaning for us. That’s something that I really identify with as well. Birds are a big part of that. Lately it’s been foxes and wolves. I go through cycles. I don’t think I’ve had a year where I do one animal and move on and never do that animal again.
So there are animals as animals and animals as symbols. I really enjoy how a depiction of a bird flying can denote so much—specific and open ended—quality, like freedom and aspiration. In the U.S. bald eagles are the symbol of freedom. In other cultures, birds are prominent as symbols of messengers, emblems of a greater aspiration, like Icarus flying towards the sun.
So that’s the kind of language I really gravitate towards and find meaning in. I’m motivated to use this language as meaningful symbols because I find it’s richer and deeper than if I were doing imagery that had very specific iconography. I have done it, but I don’t connect with it so much because I feel very aware of time and permanence and how in a couple of years the cell phone we use now will look outdated. I don’t like getting hung up on specifics that will date anything or be a means to separate a person from the imagery, so I tend to gravitate towards things that by and large have a timeless quality.
So that if you have a piece on your wall that had some meaning for you, that in five, ten, fifteen years, that painting would still serve you in some way. I’d like to think that if you’re in a great mood there’s something there, and if you’re depressed that this piece on your wall can be there for you and be supportive through those up and downs that come with life.
The other thing I find is that animals, animal forms, are much more varied than human beings. There’s so much variety, everything from claws and horns to wings and scales to fur. There’s so much variety and opportunity for dynamic forms and shapes and textures. I really enjoy all of that and getting lost in it. And even at times pushing even further into fantastical and monstrous, that’s always fun to push beyond and not feel beholden to what exists as we know it. Obviously you can tell that within the subject of the form, there’s a whole other space, and that’s this abstract world. The animal form is in many ways allows me a recognizable window, a relatable form, so that once I have that there’s a chance for me ostensibly to take your hand and go into a whole other open ended place that’s not defined, but seems to be a realm of emotion and meaning and exploration and the unknown.
So that’s a thing to identify with. Oh, that’s a bird, and you can freely float into it and through it and whatever you can find in that space is there for you. I don’t do much in the way of total abstraction, which is totally legitimate, but I find personally I like to trend between both worlds—between the real world and the totally open world of abstraction. That’s the space I like to be in, a little bit of that trickster, messenger, architect is the one I really identify with.
CM: What artists have influenced you or that you have enjoyed and learned from?
AD: There are so many. I used to do this thing where I would write the name of the artist, a painter or a writer or a director or a musician, and put them on my wall, and the wall would be covered with this post card of names because I always felt this need to not have these names deep in the recesses of my brain but to be out and visible, something of an acknowlegment. So there are a lot.
A lot of them, I’d say the really formative ones when I growing up, were illustrators, which should not be a surprise. That’s where I found myself. A lot of painters and a handful of contemporary artists, but I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older I’ve been seeking out less the work of others and trying to hone my own. So most of the names are a bit older, at least for me. They were more significant when I was younger.
M.C. Escher, even though he’s pop-y and a college poster kind of guy. That thing where I was talking about going between worlds, I think he was on a whole other level of being able to do that, to create imagery that is occupying multiple worlds at the same time and was really brain-opening work. Escher was a big one.
Klimt as well, another popular college poster, but just so gorgeous and visual. And the way that he introduced abstract shapes in what became his very own language. He was very terrific too.
When I was a little kid what blew my little brains was my introduction to the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. That’s not one artist, but probably half a dozen or so illustrators doing that, but these really wonderful black and white, somewhat graphic—in terms of black and white, not violence—of all these images of griffins and creatures. That’s something I’d love to do one day. That’s always been a pet project, to do my own monster manual.
I have to mention Joseph Campbell. I feel like his name has come up recently because Star Wars is out again. His work, which I was introduced to as a little kid through Star Wars but then got to understand how significant his work was, the sort of stories that are universal. That was always so significant when I was younger and has always stuck with me ever since.
Another guy who I keep going back to do is Andrew Wyeth. It’s so interesting how narrative his work is without there being much of an explicit story—so small and delicate and of one small area. There’s layers and layers, and for me a sense of story there. There’s such incredible skill in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s too caught up in itself. His work feels really raw.
Winsor McCay was a big one, who did Little Nemo, and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, which I grew up with too. I’d say Calvin is living in me, like he’s living in a lot of us—a spastic little kid with this tiger. I always loved the quality, the juxtaposition of simple, playful, genuinely cartoony imagery with content that was surprisingly thoughtful.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and illustrators?
AD: First and foremost, and stuff like this is what everyone hears and goes without saying, but at the same time when you’re asked this questions you have to say it, which is you really have to love it because it doesn’t pay well and it’s regularly terrifying whether or not you’ll be able to make enough money to support yourself. It requires love, and that means the dedication of time. It can be challenging to not go out and do stuff with your friends and not get caught up in distractions, and we all know there’s plenty of those today.
It takes going through the arduous process of learning all the fundamentals, technically, which means stuff like still lifes and figure drawing, learning light and shadows and from there developing an understanding for capturing narrative and story, and all that preliminary stuff to get to the place where you can let go of it. There’s not a way of skipping around it, and one of the great things about going through art school is they put you through that gauntlet.
As for making it as an illustrator, sometimes I don’t even know what it takes because it sort of feels like it’s a different time now then when I started. When I was younger, it was getting work in the hands of art directors, but I was coming up at the tail end of the time when illustrators would sit down in meetings and talk about portfolios and meet art directors. I did that, but it wasn’t like my teachers would say that was all they did. These days that’s very rare. There’s, in a way, no need. Everything you need is online with your own site, with your own work, and that’s what art directors will respond to.
So it’s a mix of things, which means it used to be a challenge to get stuff seen and be met with, and now the challenge is getting people to really pay attention to work because there’s so much. Now a new illustrator and me and someone who is way more successful than me are all in competition with each other and with the rest of the world. There are no borders. That’s both fundamentally wonderful because it means the bar is higher and higher because any art director can work with anyone they want from around the world, but it can also be overwhelmingly challenging because how can you possibly compete when there’s so much phenomenal work out there?
All you can really do is focus on what is meaningful to you and put the time in to understanding the fundamentals of crafting a compelling picture, and familiarizing yourself with the companies—publishers, games, books, cards, whatever it might be—with those that you respond to because there’s a much greater chance that they’ll respond to your work and reach out.
So much of the work that I have had over years has been something that crossed my path, and I thought that looks really cool, like the Netrunner project I’ve been working on. I’ve been working with them for a number of years. I just saw it and I thought it looked really neat, I wonder if they’re hiring. I emailed the art director and she got right back to me and we’ve been working together ever since.
Just be prepared for a challenge. It’s very hard to get work. On top of that it’s very hard to make a good image. There are multiple layers of challenge, but it’s rewarding when you get these little successes along the way because you’re fulfilling the need of a career and a fulfillment of your creativity.
There’s nothing better than working on a project in front of me at my desk and then going to doing something else and still working on it in my head. I enjoy how it can be both an external, physical craft that I’m doing with my hands and my eyes, and that also occupies my inner world, solving problems and composition and figures at the same time. If that’s the kind of thing that the person reading this gets excited about, then this is definitely a great field to be in.
Just know that you’re going to get an enormous amount of input that says you shouldn’t be doing this. That is to say, people in your life might say to be more realistic, or when you are presenting your stuff you’ll get an enormous amount of that. And I get that all the time too. Everyone who’s in a creative world where you’re trying to put yourself out there, gatekeepers will say it’s not working. You have to deal with that all the time and build up a thick skin, and at the same time have a super thin skin because the work requires that degree of investment and sensitivity. You really can’t be a totally detached, unemotional artist. It just doesn’t work. You have to be able to handle both of those things, both of those areas of experience—the harshness of it, and the open, loving, sensitive side of it.
If you’re aspiring to be an illustrator, I believe strongly in knowing the source material. I mentioned already that I always read, whenever possible, the books I’m illustrating. If you’re depicting Frankenstein’s monster, for example, there is so much imagery already out there. Ignore all of it. Reading the original text, not just a summary either, brings an intimacy unlike anything else. That is essential for the work we do. Be true to the story. Be true to the characters.
Additionally, I highly recommend traveling or better yet living abroad. One of the perks of being an illustrator is that as long as you have access to the Internet you can email files from anywhere. Experiencing other cultures, cities, and landscapes first hand will live with you and inspire you for the rest of your life. If you can manage it, buy a plane ticket and go.
Adam S. Doyle’s paintings exhibit in New York City, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and in Europe. A lifelong reader, Adam loves illustrating books and book covers. Additionally, he enjoys crafting images for card games, greeting cards, album covers, theater and concert posters, package design, and dreamscapes.
LB: I’ve drawn and painted since I was little- mostly inspired by my Grandad who used to paint beautiful watercolours. I followed the traditional route (at least here in the UK) of a foundation course in art and design, before studying for a degree in Graphic Design at Camberwell College of Art, which is part of the University of the Arts London. I graduated back in 2007 and have been freelancing ever since.
CM: What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned in art school?
LB: That mistakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing! At the end of my degree I was working on a fairytale story book that I wrote, and planned to create illustrations that would be laser cut into layers of wood. I spent a fair amount of time and money on the laser cutting, only to realise afterwards, that the black and white designs that I created to be cut were far more striking that the final wooden pieces. So the style I now work in was a rather happy accident!
CM: How does storytelling play into your art?
LB: I think storytelling and silhouettes have always gone hand in hand, showing a layer of detail but leaving so much more to the viewer’s imagination to make up for themselves.
One of my favourite things is hiding small details and objects- a key, for instance, within my illustrations which hopefully adds to the storytelling element.
CM: What drew you to fairytales?
LB: I’ve researched quite a lot of narrative theory- Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Vladimir Propp’s formula for fairytales, etc., and I think it’s the timeless, simplicity of the tales combined with their history and universality that interests me the most, and the fact that they seem to be part of our collective unconscious.
It fascinates me that these interconnected stories have survived through time and from before the written word- they can be seen in so many different, and unrelated cultures. For instance with Cinderella- there are Chinese and Italian versions, even examples within Greek and Roman mythology.
Plus of course, there’s so much rich, visual language to play with that I think, for me, they’ll always be a joy to illustrate.
CM: What are some of your favorite fairytales and why?
LB: I love the Tale of the Juniper Tree for it’s imagery- a story that starts off similarly to Snow White, with a kindly woman, wishing for a child- she has a son as red as blood and as white as snow but is so overcome with joy that she dies, and the husband remarries. A while later the evil stepmother tricks the son into reaching down into a chest before shutting the lid, decapitating him. The stepdaughter buries his bones under the Juniper tree and the tale ends with a beautiful bird who brings gifts to the father and daughter and revenge for the stepmother by dropping a millstone on her. Pretty dark really! I also love Sleeping Beauty, The Snow Queen, and the humorous twist of The Food of Paradise.
I love reading new takes on old tales, so books like Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, based on Snow White, Rose Red and Bitter Greens, by Kate Forsyth, loosely based on Rapunzel.
CM: How did you get into silhouette art?
LB: I’d never actively thought about using silhouettes, but looking back at the development of my work I could see plenty of examples of them- I’d used this medium almost subconsciously, from ink drawings to papercuttings.
Working in silhouette has it’s limitations and means that you have to really think about what information you want to convey in an illustration, otherwise everything ends up blending into one unreadable shadow. I find this enforced limit and simplicity, opens up more possibilities.
CM: What has been one of your favorite projects to do?
LB: One of my favourite but most challenging projects was working on illustrations for Taschen’s two books, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. I created around 50 illustrations for each book, to quite a tight deadline, which really made me step up my game. Collaborating with Taschen’s art director, Noel Daniel was a very enjoyable experience.
I also recently created about a dozen illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to mark the 150th anniversary. It was a personal project so being able to experiment with new techniques and create a handmade, limited edition book was wonderfully satisfying.
CM: What are some of your favorite things to draw/paint/paper cut besides fairytales?
LB: Definitely buildings and architecture- I’m obsessed with the idea of cities and their place within nature. Castles are always on my list of things to draw.
CM: How did you get into the publishing/packaging/design industry?
LB: One project followed another, starting with a fairytale commission for The Guardian newspaper, and leading to several book projects. I also got my first packaging commission from Anatomy Wines, a Colorado based winery, creating a gothic wine label and have since worked on packaging for gin, perfume, biscuits and more!
CM: How do you balance your personal artwork and your professional projects?
LB: The balance is always tipped one way or other, and it always seems that I’m most inspired and itching to work on my own ideas when I’m swamped by client work. The trick is to write these ideas down in lists and pick up where I left off in quieter times.
CM: What do you get when you get art block?
LB: Hitting a creative stumbling block is incredibly frustrating. Here is my advice, which I really need to learn to take myself! Move away from where you usually work, give yourself some time and breathing space, go and see lots of different things- art, music, books, films, etc- things you wouldn’t normally do just to give yourself some new perspective. And try not to give yourself a hard time. Creativity seems to work in peaks and troughs, for me, at least.
I recently read Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, which was very useful, and teaches you to create your own ritual and habit around your working practices, and provides you with tips for when you’re in a bit of a rut.
CM: Who are some artists you have learned from?
LB: I think I’m most inspired by Victorian artists and classic book illustrators. The attention to detail from artists such as Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielsen all make me aspire to be a better illustrator.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
LB: After leaving art school I really wished we’d been taught a lot more about the business side of illustration and freelancing, so find out as much as you can about life outside of art school and the realities of the art world, negotiating, contracts, etc.
Laura Barrett is an illustrator from South East London, who creates intricate and decorative silhouette illustrations and monochrome patterns from her home studio. With an emphasis on storytelling and an attention to detail, her illustrations are inspired by the darker side of folk and fairy tales, as well as traditional Scherenschnitte (paper cutting). She likes to explore these themes using silhouettes, created by drawing with a graphics tablet straight in to Adobe Illustrator and loves to work in striking black and white. Since graduating from University of the Arts London in 2007 she has been working with a variety of international clients, including Ted Baker, Taschen, Toni & Guy, Hachette and The Guardian.
NE: Apart from the blurred years of elementary school, I never took a single art class in my life! I’ve been drawing ever since I was 4 or 5 years old, but it wasn’t until last year – after I finished law school – that I began focusing completely on art and art alone. In fact, I’m planning on making 2016 a very big year. I’ll be taking Film and Animation classes here in Brazil and hopefully abroad as well!
CM: What got you into paper art?
NE: I’ve always been a very crafty person, but I think that what really got me into paper art was the wonderful artwork of The Little Mermaid made by one of my favorite artists ever: Brittney Lee. I stumbled across her blog last year and I was so amazed that I decided to give it a try.
CM: What is your process for creating pieces with paper?
NE: As to my process, I usually start with some doodles and sketches on my sketchbook. It’s really messy at first, and sometimes even I can’t see how the whole thing is going to turn out! It normally takes me three or four days to finish a piece, and I often try to use different kinds of paper so I can have a wide variety of colors and textures. The same goes for my gouache paints and watercolors.
CM: What are the challenges of working with paper?
NE: I think that the main challenge of paper art is trying to achieve the sense of movement easily found in a digital illustration, or even in traditional acrylic/gouache/watercolor paintings. That’s because my technique consists basically of little pieces of paper glued together. It can seem a bit static at first. The perk of working with paper, however, is the awesome 3D effect that it provides, which I’m constantly trying to improve.
CM: You’ve done quite a few Disney pieces. What draws you to create Disney art? (Or art from different fandoms, like Sherlock and Game of Thrones.)
NE: Disney means a lot to me because I grew up surrounded by it. Stories like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and The Beast, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella have always been present in my life. I love the whole fairytale-princess-mermaid thingy so I guess that this passion for magical things is in everything I do.
Speaking of passion and magic…the fandoms. Oh, don’t ever let me get started on them. But for the purpose of this interview, I’ll just say that British shows are one of my favorite topics to discuss. Any day, anytime. I’ll definitely start working on some Doctor Who pieces soon because…well, David Tennant and Matt Smith. Not necessarily in that order haha!
CM: You’ve also done a few Audrey Hepburn pieces. What about Audrey appeals to you as an artist?
NE: I think Audrey will always be my greatest source of inspiration. To me, she is one of those people that you wish that could have lived forever. Her timeless style, grace, and class are the very qualities I try to bring to my own style of drawing and art in general. She had that rare kind of innocent beauty and elegance that you just can’t find anywhere nowadays.
CM: Where did you get the idea to create your own model of Bag End?
NE: At first I had this idea of making some sort of night lamp shaped like Bag End, but only the front door and the Hill, like a bonsai tree. I thought it would be so pretty to see it lit up on my desk. But then this little idea became much bigger, and I decided to build the whole thing, with rooms and furniture, just like a dollhouse. The first thing I did was to cut holes on the wood to make the round windows and doors. That was definitely one of the most difficult things to do! My mom helped me a lot (she’s a far better artist than me!) during this part. After that, I began putting together the walls and room dividers, painting them, installing the floor tiles and so on.
All this crazy adventure took about one year and a half – I started it in July 2013 and finished it in November 2014. I had to pause the project for a bit because I was studying a lot during the time. The materials I used…let me see, I used pinewood for the walls and pretty much for the whole structure, mini bricks, static grass, many kinds of decorative stones, MDF wood for the most delicate parts of the house, and Fimo clay for the food and garden flowers.
CM: What was the most difficult thing about this project? The most fun?
NE: Apart from cutting holes on the walls, the most difficult thing about the entire project was figuring out a way to build a replica as close as possible to the real hobbit hole. The obvious problem was the fact that Bag End is essentially a tunnel, round with curved walls. Carving the wood to make it round was pretty much impossible so I decided to change the whole design. The most fun part of building my miniature Bag End was probably having to watch The Fellowship of the Ring and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey over and over again!
CM: What did you learn from this experience that was different than your other art?
NE: I definitely learned a lot about construction and architecture, and I had to figure out how to set up the electrical wiring, install tiles, window panels and everything else that there is in a real house. This is the kind of art that you only make once in a lifetime, and it’s completely different from everything that I’ve ever done before, but if I had to I would undoubtedly start it all over again from scratch. In fact, I’m planning to start building a 221b Baker Street dollhouse soon…
CM: Are there any new mediums, subjects, or styles you’d like to try in the future?
NE: As I mentioned earlier, I enrolled in Film and Animation class, so I guess I’ll be starting to work with digital illustration soon enough. I also want to create some pieces based on animals, like horses and cats. I just love their elegant silhouettes!
Which artists inspire you?
NE: I’ve also already mentioned Brittney Lee as a contemporary artist that greatly inspires me. Some other awesome people that I admire far too much for words are: Eyvind Earle, Mary Blair, Eric Larson, Glen Keane, Lorelay Bové and J. Scott Campbell.
CM: Do you have any new upcoming projects you can share?
NE: As for new upcoming projects, I plan on building a miniature of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson’s legendary rooms at 221b Baker Street, complete with Persian slippers and many types of tobacco ashes! I’ll continue working on my Audrey pieces – there are still a few Breakfast at Tiffany’s outfits to be done and after that I’ll jump to the My Fair Lady, Roman Holiday and Funny Face ones (phew!). I recently started watching Downton Abbey and I loved it with all my heart…
Like I said, I love far too many movies and shows, so it’s fair to say that my head is constantly filled with ideas! I’m also working on some original characters, and I’m trying to put together a little art book, like a portfolio, which will soon be available on my Etsy shop.
Ta-ta for now guys!
Nathanna Érica is a Brazilian girl who loves to draw, paint and cut paper. She also loves to build things and watch movies. The Seventh Art has pretty much defined her life in numerous occasions. She grew up waiting for her Hogwarts letter. Then she wanted to personally take the One Ring to Mount Doom and make sure that everything that is green and beautiful in this world would be safe from the shadows of Mordor. Sometimes, she’s sassy like Holly Golightly, singing Moon River by her window. Sometimes, she’s like the Dark Knight, on the rooftops, waiting for a chance to fight crime and injustice. She likes detective stories. And detectives. She also loves fish and chips, red buses and black cabs. If you can carry on a conversation with her about all those DC and Marvel superheroes, she’s already your best friend. She sings all the time. Just like a Disney movie. Yep, that sums it up.
CM: How old were you when you wrote your first novel-length story?
TG: I started what I thought would be my first novel when I was in 5th grade, but of course I didn’t finish it, or the next, or the next. I actually completed a novel for the first time my senior year of high school.
CM: What are some (fiction) books that shaped your own writing and what did you learn from these books?
TG: Oh I love this question: my inspirational novel trifecta is The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and Beauty by Robin McKinley. I’d read them all by the time I was thirteen, and read them over and over and over again, out loud, recording myself reading parts of them, just getting into the story and language. Although I still love Jurassic Park and never stopped being slightly obsessed with dinosaurs and monsters, I think the other two influenced my writing more, because of the poetry and strange fairy tale like language and settings. I’ve loved almost everything McKinley and Rice have written in some way or another. The Witching Hour was a huge influence on my debut published novel Blood Magic and its follow-up The Blood Keeper in theme, style, and tone.
CM: In college you majored in Gender Studies, how did what you learned in that major affect your writing?
TG: The basic idea of Gender Studies is that it’s a lens through which you can analyze ANYTHING. So really, this major gave me a tool for living my life in a way to understand my world and work to make it better. Gender studies is about power and relationships, it’s about pop culture and politics and literature, but from a specific perspective that suggests gender is a cultural construct and also part of everything. So other than the ways my education has directly affected my writing (through character and storyline and feminist themes), it’s also taught me about layers of motivation, world building complications, conflict, and discourse. Literature is a conversation, and our modern American conversation must include gender (and race and sexuality and ability and and and) so I think my education gave me a leg up in a lot of ways.
CM: You write a lot of short stories, what do you enjoy about writing short stories?
TG: I love that they can be simple one-off thoughts that you expand to your heart’s content.
CM: Do you think it’s more difficult to write short stories or novels?
TG: Oh by time investment alone novels are harder, but that said, they’re so different and require such different skills it’s hard to compare. In any given moment of writing, they can be equally hard.
CM: What do you learn about writing when you write short stories?
TG: The Merry Fates project where my critique partners and I wrote a short story a week for a year was a really specific attempt to improve our writing, so it might not work in a similar way for writers who aren’t doing that overtly. But I learned so much about hooks in particular – what does and doesn’t work to get a person to drop everything and read right now. I learned how to succinctly characterize and especially honed my world building because I love huge world fantasies and in a short story you have to be able to build the rules hard and fast.
CM: What drew you to write young adult fiction?
TG: Mostly the fact that I love writing about passion and choices, and choosing who you’re going to be as a person is basically a teenager’ job. I love writing about formative choices, first kisses, first murders, first monsters. 😉
CM: Your United States of Asgard transposes Norse mythology to America. Why does this particular mythology appeal to you?
TG: I was drawn to Norse mythology in two ways: first via reading a story about Odin that said he created poetry. As a writer I loved the idea that a god of death and war could also be the god of poetry. The very idea delighted me, so I learned everything I could about Odin, becoming obsessed by the connections between sacrifice and art. The second way happened in graduate school when I dropped my gender studies classes to learn Old English. I was in a really terrible mindspace because of US politics and my dad had just been sent to Iraq, so I was angry and scared all the time, and very aware that in 2004-2005 the US had become overtly a warrior culture. Just like the Anglo-Saxons I was reading about in Old English poetry… and the Norse poetry before that. I love – and am disturbed by – that this ancient poetry about war and love and politics and sacrifice is still so relevant. That’s why I knew I needed to write about American mythology and Norse mythology at the same time.
CM: Why do you think so many authors and readers are drawn to mythological stories?
TG: Archetypes and universal human emotions! It’s like fairy tales and religion – you can find similarities across cultures. Writers want to communicate emotions and experiences to readers, and mythology offers a familiar way in to that, a language to use, interpret, and reinterpret.
CM: Now that The Apple Throne is out, what new writing projects are you planning that you can you tell us about?
TG: None! Haha, sorry, but other than to say I’m working on several projects, YA fantasy stand alones, and gearing up for another series, there’s nothing public I can say. That’s one of the downsides to a career in publishing – lots of secrets and secret projects and obligations not to talk about anything. I do have a book coming out in October with Maggie Steifvater and Brenna Yovanoff called The Anatomy of Curiosity about writing and how we write.
CM: What are some books you’ve read recently that you enjoyed?
TG: I loved Uprooted by Naomi Novak, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, and the Maiden Lane series by Elizabeth Hoyt.
CM: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
TG: Always have adventures when you can, and when you write, focus on being your most passionate, not your best. Best is for revisions.
Tessa Gratton has wanted to be a paleontologist or a wizard since she was seven. Alas, she turned out too impatient to hunt dinosaurs, but is still searching for a someone to teach her magic. After traveling the world with her military family, she acquired a BA (and the important parts of an MA) in Gender Studies, then settled down in Kansas to tell stories about monsters, magic, and teenagers. She’s the author of the Blood Journals Series and The United States of Asgard Series as well as more than a dozen short stories.