I fell in love with a new picture book this year, Old Rock (is not boring). It was created by an author and illustrator, Deb Pilutti, who I didn’t know much about. So as a curious admirer, I invited Deb over for a chat. And lo, here she comes now . . .
Welcome, Deb. Normally I’d offer a guest a big comfy bean bag chair, but in preparation for your visit I’ve had a glacial erratic, originally deposited in the Adirondacks, hauled into the spacious offices of James Preller Dot Com. So, yeah, have a seat on the rock.
Thank you. And I’m glad you mentioned glacial erratic! It’s a term I became acquainted with while writing Old Rock.
Yes, erratics resonate with me. There’s even a chapter titled “Erratics” in my novel, Blood Mountain. It serves as a metaphor, in that scene, for being left behind. Anyway, I understand that your book began with a doodle?
Yes — I drew a picture of a rock with a face on it in my sketchbook and kept coming back to it. I wondered if I could write a story about the character, and then I quickly thought, Well, that would be a boring story. Rocks just sit there! And that became the concept. Old Rock’s friends think life as a rock must be very boring.
On a secondary note, I often walk in the woods around Michigan with my husband and dog. Sometimes, we come upon a giant boulder, with no other rocks or boulders around, and I wonder how it got there. Short answer: glaciers.
Is that a normal working method for you? I’m always curious about writer-illustrators. How does that internal tug of war between artist and writer work? Bernard Waber once told that he thought the writer in him tried to please the illustrator. Who’s in charge inside your head?
Good question, I’m never sure who’s in charge. I work both ways, either by starting with an idea, or from a sketch or doodle. Whatever takes hold, really, because it has to be something that is going to be engaging and keep my interest for 32 pages and more than a year’s worth of work.
There’s so much mystique attached to that eureka moment: getting an idea. Oooooh, magical. But the important thing is to roll up your sleeves and work that idea. In your case, a rock as a character seemed appealing and original. But hardly a book.
True. And that’s what initially steered me away from the idea. But then I started asking questions and doing research. The more I learned about rocks and how they were formed and then thought about the history of the earth and what a rock might have witnessed during that time (EVERYTHING), the more the story developed.
Most young people, and many adults, have an uncertain grasp of historical time. Ten years ago seems like ancient history. That’s one thing I love about Old Rock. It subtly brings the reader into geologic time . . . earth time . . . rock time.
It is hard to get a handle on thinking about such an enormous span of time, but many people are familiar with the dinosaur periods or the fact that glaciers once covered much of the earth. It’s amazing to imagine that the rock that I’m sitting on now might have been a resting spot for a T. rex!
You thank two people, Larry Lemke and Lacey Knowles, for sharing their knowledge of the natural world. At what point did you bring experts into the process?
Larry Lemke is a geologist, and Lacey Knowles is an evolutionary biologist, and fortunately for me, they are also my neighbors. While it is a story about a talking rock, I wanted everything that occurs in the story to be plausible. I talked with Larry early in the process, when I was deciding what type of rock to use. Originally, I had Old Rock starting as a blob or lava, but quickly decided that a volcanic rock wouldn’t be right. I decided on a metamorphic rock, like Gneiss, so that Old Rock could develop underground and eventually be unearthed during a volcanic explosion. I knew that rocks don’t erupt out of volcanic vent the way lava does, but Larry let me know that it
was possible that a rock could be blasted, along with part of the volcano, during a pyroclastic explosion. Lacey studies insects, so I asked her about beetles and also the type of plants that might be around during the Jurassic and Cretacious periods. She also works at the University of Michigan Natural History Museum, which was a good place for research. Once I had a final version, I showed it to both again.
I get the impression that being in nature is important to you.
It is. When I was young, my family camped. It was an economical way for a family of 7 to travel, but it was also fun and a great way to see the country. I continued camping and hiking with my own children. Michigan is a wonderful place to get out and enjoy nature.
Where did you grow up, Deb? What was your childhood like?
I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana, a midwestern college town. My father was a high school English teacher and writer and my mother was an art teacher, but stayed home after she had children. My brothers and sisters and I did plenty of art projects at home with her. I had a lot of free time and liked to read and draw and play outside, but I also watched a copious amount of t.v. I credit Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Chuck Jones and Jay Ward as my first teachers in design, storytelling and animation.
And then, one day, you decided to become a hot-shot children’s book author?
Hahahahaha . . . oh sorry, is that a question?
I can’t tell anymore.
It was a meandering route. I spent most of my adult professional life as a graphic designer. I got to work on some really fun projects, like being on a team that designed the environmental graphics for Cartoon Village, a Warner Brothers Theme Park that featured . . . Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and company. One of the amazing things about that assignment was that there was a whole backstory for the area and rides. It became my job to immerse myself in the world of the characters and design graphics for them. And I KNEW these characters. I understood their stories. I had basically trained my whole life for it. The better I understood their stories, the better the design. The same is true in making children’s books.
I like that. You weren’t mindlessly blobbing around in front of the television as a kid, you were studying for a career!
It took me a while to figure out that making books was what I wanted to do. When I did, I spent time learning about the business, like how to make a book dummy, how to submit. Admittedly, it took longer than I anticipated.
Well, it was worth the wait, because you are making terrific books. What’s next? Do you have a new book coming out?
Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero came out in November from Macmillan/Holt. It’s a companion to Ten Rules to Being a Superhero. Lava Boy tries to teach his superhero action figure how to fly. It doesn’t always go as planned. It was fun to revisit the characters and develop a couple of new ones. I’m not gonna lie, it has been really difficult for me to create over the last year. I’ve got a few ideas for new projects and I’ve been feeling more optimistic lately.
I have faith that those ideas will come. Oh, hey, almost forgot. You have a border collie! Our rescue dog, Echo, is part border collie, part anybody’s guess, probably Pit. So smart and energetic. We got lucky.
Aren’t dogs the best? Our last dog was a quirky border collie named Wilson. Right now we have a quirky Australian Shepard named Tater. She’s an energetic rescue dog and needs a LOT of walks. I can’t imagine going through a pandemic without her.
Thanks for coming over, Deb! It was great to meet one of the new stars in the children’s book galaxy. Keep it up!
Thanks for the hospitality, it was a pleasure!
As for me, James Preller, I’m the author of the Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent picture book, illustrated by the Mary GrandPre, is titled All Welcome Here. And coming this Spring, look for my new middle-grade novel, Upstander. Thanks for stopping by. Onward and upward with the ARTS!