Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Author/illustrator Interview: Doug Cushman

I’m thrilled to be interviewing Hen & Ink coop mate, Doug Cushman about his newest book Pigmares: Porcine Poems of the Silver Screen (Charlesbridge, 2012). When I signed with the agency in the Spring, I thought “WOW” for obviously a number of reasons, but having heard many of Doug’s early reader series read-aloud by my children – I was a huge fan and excited to know we were within the same barnyard, so to speak. 

Plus, my husband and I honeymooned in Paris and toured the French countryside so anybody who lives in France has a special place in my heart. Not to mention, anyone who can draw silly pigs and make me laugh is a friend of mine.  Mais, oui?

From the Jacket Flap copy of Pigmares: Porcine Poems of theSilver Screen:

Whether it’s the lonely outcast Frankenswine, the crabby Porker form the Black Lagoon, or the sleep-loving Pigzilla, the creatures in this clever mash-up of poetry, monsters, and piggy puns are sure to curl your tail and tickle your hooves.
Author and illustrator Doug Chushman hams it up in this hog-wild homage to classic monster movies.

Bienvenue, Doug!

Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be a children’s author and illustrator? What were you like as a young child? How did your childhood influence the books you write and illustrate today?

I was born in Springfield, Ohio and moved to Connecticut with my family when I was 14 years old. From Day One (almost), I was drawing and writing stories, copying cartoon characters from the newspaper and inventing my own characters. While in junior high and high school, I created comic books lampooning my teachers, selling them to my classmates for a nickel a piece. So I had a commercial bent of mind from the start.

I watched some of the old westerns on TV like the Lone Ranger and Wild Bill Hitchcock and of course classic cartoon shows like Rocky and Bullwinkle. I read lots of books throughout my childhood, the usual stuff mostly like the Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Sherlock Holmes and some sci-fi. And of course comic books. All of it added to my backlog of references for my own books.

What was the inspiration behind Pigmares: PorcinePoems of the Silver Screen (Charlesbridge, 2012)?

I love old cheap B movies, the corny monster movies. Some of them actually are very well made and have heart to them. Look at Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Creature in Frankenstein, he almost makes one cry. And of course I love drawing pigs. Such intelligence and grace. And silly. What could be better, writing and drawing pigs as classic monsters? A match made in heaven, in my opinion.

What came first the pictures or the poems? The characters or the plot?

There really isn’t a “plot” per se in Pigmares, more of a theme, classic movie monsters parodied in poetry using pigs. I never liked poetry much. One of my high school teachers shoved Rod McKuen down our throats. Awful stuff. I hated him. Never read poetry afterwards. It wasn’t until I began writing my own picture books that I discovered poetry was the perfect vehicle for a picture book text.

In a picture book text each sentence, word, each comma and period is important just as in poetry. The rhythm is paramount in both as well. But even then I hesitated because it was so hard to do. Most of what I read was rubbish and maudlin in picture books. Cute and cheap. Even today most of what I read isn’t worth the paper it’s printed upon (or the digital space it takes up in an ebook).  I was after something that could work on a number of levels, funny, some clever rhymes and a surprise twist and, with luck and a lot of work, some intelligence.

It’s important to note that this is my first, full blown, no holds barred collection of poems, written and illustrated by myself. Even though Pigmares is a humorous poetry book poking fun at classic movie monsters this was one of the most heavily researched book I’ve ever done. I watched and re-watched every movie in the book and researched each one for the Poem Source pages at the end of the book making it a good introduction to the history of each movie. In one case, for instance, I timed the actual screen appearance of the monster. Even the hand lettering on each poster was researched to give a historical sense of the movie, in most cases using the original posters as the main source.

The book took about a year to do although many of the poems were written years before. But, as the book evolved and the format of movie parody and information came together, old poems were rejected and new poems were written.

Which is harder, writing or drawing? And why?

Writing by far. The first draft of anything is always the hardest. I’ve always said that there are no such creatures as “writers”; we are all “re-writers”.  I love playing with words, moving them around, creating an image with just words. But when I can’t, my pictures come to the rescue. In a picture book the words only do part of the job, the pictures only part of the job. But when they work together it’s brilliant. But the reader has to do some of the work too. That is what makes it a satisfying experience.

Can you share one aspect of your writing or illustrating process?

The most fun I have is making a dummy for a picture book. I literally cut and paste (yes, with REAL scissors and tape) and make a collage–book of picture and words, physically moving them around throughout the dummy. The studio is a mess (well, it’s mostly a mess anyway….). But it makes for a VERY active and living process.

Where do you find your story ideas?

Everywhere. My problem isn’t so much finding story ideas as trying to settle on one I want to work on at that moment and KEEP working on. You have to love your idea for at least 3 years or so (preferably longer) because, if that book is accepted, you’ll be living with it on an almost daily basis for at least 3 years.

What’s the best experience you’ve had in publishing? What’s the worst?

I’ve been through pretty much all the experiences, cancelled contracts, rejections, bad printing, etc. I choose not to focus too much on the negative ‘cause I love my job so much. Just knowing I can get up every morning and draw some pictures and write some stories is wonderful. Cliché and maudlin, I know, but it’s the truth.

With over 120 published books, do you have a favorite or a favorite character? And why?

That’s like asking a mother who her favorite child is. And I ain’t going there! ;-)

Whose books do you admire? And why?

E.B. White was a brilliant writer and not just Charlotte’s Web. His prose is simple and clear and seemingly effortless…and hard to achieve. James Thurber is a favorite as well as Dorthy Parker. I read a lot of S.J. Perelman, another humorist from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Then Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Charles Dickens is a favorite.

Can you speak about your successes and challenges in this competitive children’s book market?

For myself, I’ve followed pretty much my own heart, or “gut” while trying to stay flexible in this always changing market. I don’t follow trends or the “genre du jour”.  I can only write and draw what feels right, trying to stay true to myself. It doesn’t always work but trying to work JUST for the marketing trends is a waste of one’s time and talent. I’ve gained a bunch of awards along the way but they really don’t mean much; you’re only as good as your last book especially in this market. The challenge is to move on and hone my craft. I still have to get up each day and try to do better. My biggest challenge is to find something new and interesting that will excite me, perhaps even reinvent myself.

The market in children’s literature is tough but not impossible. I’m not afraid of ebooks, apps and self-publishing, though I am a dedicated print guy. What concerns me the most is content. Any idiot with a computer and a rhyming dictionary can publish a book and tout him or herself as the new Dr. Seuss. But there has to be some “meat” to the story and poems, a good, strong plot line, strong characters, good, believable dialogue, etc. You know the litany. That’s why the classics are still classics, they have all of that. That and a spirit that can’t be taught but can be inspiring and can make a writer push him or herself further and higher.

Cimetière du Père-Lachaise
What are you working on now? And what do you do when you’re not working?

I go out and paint en plein air here in Paris. My favorite place is the grand cemetery Pere Lachaise. I set myself up behind a tomb and throw watercolors around. Sort of a busman’s holiday, I suppose.

If you weren’t an author/illustrator, what would you be?


Tell us 3 things you can’t live without.

A blank sheet of paper, my paints and Delta blues music.

Tell us 3 things you wish were never invented.

Cell phones, screw caps on wine bottles and Abba.

Thanks, Doug!!!

Look for my review of Pigmares: Porcine Poems of the Silver Screen at ReaderKidZ on October 24, 2012.

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