Thursday, May 19, 2011

Interview with Author/Illustrator Alex T. Smith

Unfortunately, Alex and I encountered a few communication glitches, lost emails floating out in the cyber world, and it delayed our interview. My apologies. In trading emails, Alex and I commented on how exciting it is to meet and talk about craft and books and art with like-minded individuals from so far away! It truly is a gift! So let's get started!

Alex T. Smith considered a career in space travel but lucky for us his eavesdropping and people watching skills got the better of him, and he put his eye for the details down on paper. He graduated in 2006 from Coventry University with a 1st Class Hons degree in Illustration. Eliot Jones, Midnight Superhero (Scholastic UK), written by Anne Cottringer, was his debut book and it won the Coventry Inspiration Book Award, and was long-listed for the Greenaway Medal in 2009. 

Since then, he’s gone on to write as well as illustrate the stories Home (Scholastic UK) and Bella & Monty (Hodder Children’s Books). He lives in York with his wife and four naughty doggies (used to be three, but they just adopted their fourth -- a homeless Chihuahua). It’s an honor to have him here. Welcome, Alex!

Can you take us back a few years and share your path to publication?

As a child I wanted to be one of three things - a chef, an illustrator or a rabbit! ( I thought that was something you could do as a job and would spend ages playing in a 'warren' I would make behind an armchair!) I've always loved drawing and writing and was always being either read to or reading myself. I was very lucky to have a grandfather (Sid) who lived just around the corner and as well as being Head of English at a large high school, was also a writer. He wrote plays and articles, and when he retired he started writing stories for me - one everyday for several years. I would come home from school and find them in our house - he'd leave them for me when he came to fetch our dog and take her back to his house so she'd have some company! You can read more about him on my post Grandad Sid and one of his stories that I illustrated Grandad Sid's Little Book of Stories: Joseph's Adventure. 

As I got older I got really interested in design for theatre and film and worked as a production assistant, then as a designer for a local theatre company who specialized in large outdoor spectacular performances. It really was a hard choice to make whether to study theatrical design or illustration, but I went for illustration. It had been a childhood dream to write and illustrate books for children, and I'm very lucky to have achieved it. I studied at Coventry University and won Highly Commended in the Macmillan Prize whilst in my second year and then 2nd place in my final year. I got my first job illustrating some baby books whilst I was hanging my degree show - very exciting indeed!

Congratulations on the publication of Foxy and Egg (Holiday House, Apr 2011). It reminds me a little of the classic fairy tale Little Red Hiding Hood. What was the inspiration behind this book? Did the characters come first or the plot/situation?

Thank you. I love the story of Little Red Riding Hood and had never thought that Egg could be a version of that! 

If you missed my review of Alex's book you can read it from the post A Foxy New Picture Book.

The idea come in my final year at uni. Our final project was to produce a short animation. I'd never done that before and, to begin, I was stuck as to what my film should be about. I was sitting on a train going to visit my girlfriend (now wife) at her university and inspiration struck! I knew I wanted to do something a bit Film Noir-ish, but also funny, and this little naughty fox and and egg wandered onto my sketchbook and the story arrived from there. When I was taken on by my agent they asked me for some stories to submit to some publishers who were interested in working with me so I expanded my original idea and it was accepted byHodder Children's Books ( one of my UK publishers). My editor there helped me to expand it further into the book it is now!

The inspiration really comes from one of my favourite movies - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I wanted the book to feel a bit cinematic and odd and I love the situation in that film of two strange people in a creepy old house together. (Foxy's outfit is a copy of Baby Jane Hudson's by the way!)

Did you know the ending of the story before you put pen to paper? Or did it evolve through revising? Can you talk a little about your revision process? 

This is going to be hard to answer without giving the surprise ending away! But yes, I knew the ending from the beginning. 
I knew that I wanted to have something unusual to pop out of the egg and for Foxy to be taught a bit of a lesson. In terms of revisions, it was quite an organic process. The original story for my Uni project was very short. It had to be something easy to animate and work as a silent movie ( I didn't want to animate speech - too hard!) When I started thinking about it as a book, I just added a few situations here and there - giving the story more of a sense of place and thinking about how extra bits of the story could be told illustratively through details in the background etc. 
Once the book had been signed up, my editor Emma helped to shape it and suggested a few things such as the egg and spoon race - an idea I thought was very funny and added in straight away!

The book is a perfect blend of text and art. The illustrations complete the story. When do you start the illustrations for a book? After a first draft? The final draft? While you’re in the brainstorming stage? 

Really when it comes to my books everything comes together at once. Sometimes I might start with a little sketch of a character or a situation and the story comes from that or sometimes it's the other way around - a plot idea followed by a character sketch. It's difficult for me to separate the two as I see the story play out in my head as a film.

When I'm writing I might do some tiny doodles about how it would work as a book spread to help me keep track of my ideas. I really get going with the pictures when the text is complete. I'm always very keen on the idea that if you can say something with pictures then go for it. So usually, once the roughs are complete, I meet with my editor and my designer and we see if there are any text areas we can cut and let the pictures do the talking. Then I start the final artwork.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer and an artist? 

Yes, always. I've always loved books and luckily came from a very bookish family. I've also always loved drawing. I can remember the very first picture I drew - I was very very young and I was sitting at the dining table on my mum's lap and I drew a teddy bear. It was really just a couple of very wobbly circles and a bit of scribble but I knew it was a teddy bear and told my mum exactly what was going on in my picture. From then on I was hooked and have had a pencil in my hand pretty much all the time since then!
What or who has influenced your creativity and career?

Lots of people. Grandad Sid as I mentioned earlier, but also my other grandparents who came, literally, from every corner of the UK and Ireland. They brought with them all sorts of stories and I loved listening to them when we gathered together for parties. I only have one grandparent left - Betty - and she is a great source of inspiration as she always has a funny or interesting story to tell. She's forever talking to people she meets in the street and finding out all about them!

Other people who inspire and influence me are my wife, my parents ( who have both worked as teachers) and especially my niece and two nephews. They are such fun to be with, and I don't think they see me as an adult - I'm just one of them so I get to hear all their plans and ideas which are a great resource to call upon when I'm stuck for ideas! They are also my best critics and aren't afraid to tell me when they don't like something! They can be quite blunt!

I had great art teachers at school - Mr Warner and Mrs Goodwin in particular - who both encouraged me endlessly and supported me to do whatever I wanted to do creatively even if my ideas were a bit strange ( a series of large pink and white paintings featuring a glamorous white parisian cat being on of them!)

In terms of other artists who inspire me: Mary Blair, Hilary Knight (one of my favourite books is Eloise)Mirolav Sasek, Lauren Child, Edward Gorey and lots, lots more!

What part of the creative process do you find most challenging and why? Can you share any tips or advice that helps you over the hurdles?

It can be quite challenging to turn an idea into a something commercial. I would say that that is probably the hardest bit of what is a really fun job. A book has to be appealing to children and their parents but also to buyers for the bookstores and sit comfortably, but not get lost, amongst the other books they sell. It can be a bit difficult to trim and shape bits of a story that you think are great, to make it more marketable. But It's all for a good reason - as an author and an illustrator - you want people to buy and enjoy your books so it's a necessary part of the process, and I think the way to deal with it is to think of the final outcome. Also deadlines - they can be an issue sometimes!!

Tell us (or show us) about where you work and what a typical “work” day looks like?

I'd love to show you, but I'm actually just starting the process of moving my studio upstairs ( I work from home). We'd like to have our dining room back so I'm packing up and moving up stairs. 


My new studio is a bit smaller than where I am now but will be cosy and nice to work in - I hope. It will over look our garden and, most importantly, our neighbours' gardens so I can be nice and nosy. I have two desks - a big glass one which works as a lightbox and is my painting drawing desk, and I have a smaller desk with my computer and scanner on it. The current studio has a nice victorian iron fireplace which is home to some fairy lights making it look like a nice warm fire ( this fools my dogs!) and on the mantel piece is this Michael Sowa print and a collection of old postcards and photographs of people I don't know that I've picked up at flea markets. I'll be recreating this with the fireplace upstairs. I also have pinboards full of to-do lists and inspiration. Once I'm all moved into my new studio, I'll post some photos onto my blog.

We can't wait!

As for my typical work day I try to keep regularish hours as it can be easy to work all the time when you work from home and never rest or relax. ( having said that in the evenings I sit in front of the TV doodling in my sketchbook but that's for fun!) So I get up at the same time as my wife and work the same hours she does at her office. I'm usually working on several projects at once so I split my week up accordingly. I work on one book for two days a week, and another for the next two, then spend Friday working on anything else that needs doing - corrections, writing or any editorial jobs that come in. I try to fit replying to emails around that really.

My dogs feel the constant need to 'help' me. I tend to have to sit perched on the edge of my office seat so that one Chihuahua can lie in comfort behind my back and another on my lap. The big Chihuahua is usually at my feet or riffling through my waste paper basket and our elderly Yorkshire Terrier likes to sleep on my armchair. She snores....

I can relate. I have a snoring Shih-Tzu curled at my feet while I write :)

When my wife comes home I usually cook dinner and try to switch my brain off from work mode ( not always easy!)

You’re agented with Arena Illustration, one of the most well known illustration agencies in the UK. How did you find each other? And what is that working relationship like?

Great! Really, great. The team at Arena are some of the loveliest bunch of people you could meet. Funny, fun, supportive and always on hand with great advice. They make my life easier by letting me get on with drawing and writing, whilst they deal with contracts and clients, and getting me the best jobs to work on.

I met them just as I left uni. I was working on some baby books with Campbell Books and I mentioned to the art director that I didn't have an agent and did she think I should try and get one? I wasn't really sure at that stage what agents did. She told me that her friend ran Arena and she put me in touch with them. I went to see them with my portfolio and I instantly liked them even though I was really nervous. I knew of Arena and they had lots of artists on their books that I really liked. We had a nice chat and I left my portfolio with them as requested and just expected it to be posted back to me the next day or something. I didn't hear from them for a couple of weeks until they rang me to say they had got me a job illustrating an American school book and said they had an appointment to see the editor and art director at Scholastic 
(who gave me my first proper book deal a few months later). I haven't looked back since.

There's only four people at Arena so you quickly develop a close relationship with them. It's nice to know you have a group of people supporting you and looking out for your interests. The world of publishing can be a bit of maze so it's good to be guided by people you trust.

If you can, please tell us about what you're working on now?

Lots of things! I've just put the finishing touches to a new picture book called Ella ( a couple of sneaky peeks can be found on my blog) and have completed the third title in my young fiction series Claude. Now I'm working on a couple of editorial jobs for a women's magazine, a great young fiction series for girls written by Karen McCombie, a baby book for a Swiss publisher and, very exciting, am just about to start on a sequel to Foxy and Egg, called ( although this might change) DANCING WITH DANGER... 
Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

1. My dogs even though they are really naughty!
2. Cake. It's my favourite food ever. (Especially Victoria Sandwich cake)
3. My Moleskine sketchbooks and the brightly coloured mechanical pencils from a shop in the UK called Paperchase.

To learn more about Alex T. Smith, follow him on his blog or to see more of his portfolio visitArena Illustration.
Did anyone pick out the British spelling of words in this interview? I found four words, how about you?

Thanks, Alex!! I can't wait to see what Foxy and Egg get into next! And the release ofElla (Scholastic, 2012).

Writing Advice

Some of the best writing advice I've ever heard or read came in today's post at Cynsations. Award winning and New York Times Bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith interviewed Egmont USA Publisher Elizabeth Law and Author Allen Zadoff. Allen's latest novel My Life, The Theatre, and Other Tragedies (Egmont, 2011) is now available but you may remember his novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have (Egmont, 2009). It won the 2010 Sid Fleischman Humor Award. 

Here are a couple of the highlights for me. But you really need to read the entire interview. Trust me. It's worth interrupting your writing time. Also, there is an opportunity for a 30 page critique and phone call with Elizabeth Law to be won! Don't miss out! 

Not to mention, Allen and Liz are just plain hilarious together. A working relationship to admire. Another reason why it's important to find that "right" editor. The one that clicks with you. The one that can't get your story out of their head.

Allen said, "Don’t try to write like other people. Let go of the idea you have to be literary or make words dance like Cormac McCarthy. Just write like you. Your job is learning how to do that."

Additionally, his take on how he processes an editorial revision letter, he calls them "notes", is a thought-process every writer should embrace whether you're gleaming feedback from an editor, agent or someone in your critique group. 

Liz said, "Allen hadn't approached my edits like a checklist, he had taken what I said and then gone much further." 

Isn't that what we should all be doing when we receive feedback? Taking the manuscript to a whole other level. How do you do that? Go read the interview. The clues are there!  

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Life Makes the Writing Life Hard

So it's been a little crazy at our house lately. Actually a lot lately. It really hasn't slowed down since the beginning of 2011. 

Husband's work has been out-of-control busy like on-call 24/7. He's always on-call 24/7 but in the past it hasn't really been that bad. There have been sporadic busy times when things get crazy for a week, but then things slow down and life is good. Not that life hasn't been good, but it's been super hectic with his work and that in turn ends up affecting us all. Wife, kids, dogs. Of course, we adjust and adapt and we rearrange the schedule and make it all work, but in the process a few things get dropped. 
On top of that, it was an unusually busy spring with writing events. All good, let me tell you! All good. But it does add another layer of business to our schedule. Then the kids were sick. A lot sick this spring. Yuck! Never fun! And I had house guests for a month, my mom and her beau, which was a blessing, but it definitely made it challenging to write and concentrate when I'm used to just listening to the dog snore. Instead, every few minutes, I heard, "Not another prisoner! Dang you! You'd better not go out, again!" My mom and beau are card sharks. They played every morning, for hours, while they sipped their coffee.

So what is it I'm trying to say here? Life makes the writing life hard.

Life gets crazy sometimes. It doesn't always stick to our schedules. And it doesn't like routines. LIfe has no routine. We must try and find organization and routine in amongst the chaos and craziness. And sometimes we have to relax our reigns on routines and adjust and adapt and rearrange the schedule to make our writing life work. 
It's not easy. 
We don't like change. 
We're habitual creatures. 
So there you go. I just gave you three excuses to use for why you can't change your routine. But you won't use one. Why?
Because I know you're not a quitter. If you were, you wouldn't still be reading this blog. So relax the reigns. Adjust. Adapt. And rearrange the schedule. Make your writing life work for you. Don't let the craziness of life drive your writing into seclusion. No hibernation allowed either. 
You're a survivor. A roll-with-the-punches kind of person. A get-up-after-life-has-knocked-you-down kind of person. 
Think of it this way...
It's harder not to write then it is to write.
So when life seems to be affecting your writing life try this: be flexible, have an open mind, try something new, just write and in my case, wear ear plugs.  
Hubby has been working from home for a month now.
On the phone. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Crack a Smile

I've been told by my critique partners that the novel I'm working on right now has great humor in it.

"This line cracked me up." One partner said. And another one said "I couldn't stop chuckling in several places. I had a smile on my face throughout the entire chapter." Yay! Don't we love to hear those kinds of comments. The validation that some of the techniques we're using are working. 

After reading the chapter on "Hyperreality" from Donald Maass's Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make your Novel Great, I think I need to vamp up the humor even more. Take it over the top. Get crazy. Step into the shoes of my character and have a spaz attack. I like the thought of that. How fun does that sound?

Maass says "Every novel should, somewhere, at least make us crack a smile."  Don't you just love that line!

One of the things I'm already doing in the novel is my character has no problem slinging the insults. She's also sure of herself to a fault and at times sounds a little too ridiculous. It makes for several humorous situations. There are funny names and her voice reeks extreme. But what are some of the other techniques I could employ?

How about interjecting a little more hyperbole? Or how about changing an expected outcome to be unexpected? Maybe a little more slapstick? Or reversing the order of something fairly straightforward? How about escalating a ridiculous situation until it borders on the absurd? There are thousands of ways to be funny and I think it's time to experiment with a few more methods and see which ones will work in my manuscript.
So here's a challenge for you and me. Take an existing chapter or scene and write in some humor. Kids love exaggeration and silliness. Rewrite your chapter with humor in mind? Try several different techniques and see what happens. Deliberate misunderstandings? Funny voices? Insults? And remember we need to laugh at ourselves just as much as we need to laugh at others. If not, more so. 
I remember a time when my ex-husband left the 7-11 carrying two icy coke slurpees.  He had a huge grin on his face. He was already slurping the syrupy ice through the red straw. He was so enamored with his slurpee that he forgot he was walking, too. He didn't lift his foot far enough off the ground and caught his toe on one of those parking cement blocks that was next door to our car. He careened forward and disappeared from my view.  I grabbed the door handle and quickly hopped out of the idling car. I raced around to where I'd last seen him. There he was on the ground, elbows and arms outstretched in front of him. Chin touching the cement pavement. And in his hands were the two slurpees. I asked him if he was okay and he nodded and smiled. 
"I didn't spill a drop," he said. "Not a one."

He was so proud of himself. And I couldn't stop laughing. I buckled over as he lay on the ground and tilted his slurpee to his mouth and slurped. He looked hilarious with his cheeks sucked in, looking up from the ground. His blue eyes tickled mischief and he started to laugh, too, at the absurdity and awkwardness of the situation. It's one of my favorite memories we shared together.
What kind of situation can you create for your character that unleashes your humorous side? I'm sure you can come up with something. I double-dare you to try!