Archive for One Question

One Question, Five Authors #4: “What role does music play in your creative process?”

Sound the timbrels, bang a gong, today the focus is on music. Welcome to the internet’s laziest interview series, where I ask just one question. My thanks to our five guests: Chris Tebbetts, Matt Phelan, Yvonne Prinz, Charles Smith, and Michelle Knudsen. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to visit past editions.

 

Chris Tebbetts

99% of the time, I write alone and in silence. That said, I’ll add that some large percentage of my non-writing time is filled with music. And some amount of that time is filled with bad singing and (yes, I’ll own it) not-half-bad dancing. I sing in the car all the time, and I dance like a fool around my house whenever I get the chance. Because here’s the thing. I once heard a writer at a conference talk about using other artistic pursuits as a way of maintaining her connection with the kind of free-flowing creative mindset that can become elusive at the keyboard, when the job of writing is a daily requirement. And I totally agree. I love to sing and dance anyway, but more to the point, I believe in the tangible benefits of putting myself into that creative mindset on a regular basis, where there are no mistakes, no revisions required, no deadlines, and no audience to pass judgement. For the woman I mentioned above, it was knitting that got her there. Maybe for someone else, it’s doodling, or painting, or designing roller coasters. For me, it all flows from my love of music, and more specifically, from the way I use music to make a private fool of myself, every chance I get.

 

Matt Phelan

Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents started me off with The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jackson 5 records when I was a kid and I just went from there. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life playing in bands, and a day rarely goes by without me fooling around on a ukulele, guitar, or piano.

I often make a playlist to listen to when working on specific books, both in the planning/writing stage and in the final drawing stage. The right music can instantly put me in the “space” of the story. I will usually include music from the time period of the book, but I’ll also go beyond that if the music fits the mood or spirit of the story. For example, Snow White takes place in the 1920s and early 1930s, so my playlist had pop songs from those decades, but also included some darker film scores from the 1930s and 1940s, like Max Steiner’s score for King Kong and various soundtracks by Bernard Herrmann. And for fun, I also included the Bryan Ferry Orchestra which is a great record that takes Roxy Music songs from the 1970s and 80s (which I love) and arranges them like 1920s hot jazz. Sometimes the music is not from the period but inspires the right mood anyway. I wrote and drew the climactic ending of The Storm in the Barn while listening to Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” Whatever works. For my latest book Knights vs. Dinosaurs, I had a song called “Swords of a Thousand Men” by the fairly obscure early 80s band Tenpole Tudors stuck in my head.

I just started listening to the newly released demos for The Beatles’ White Album and I imagine I’ll be obsessed with that for the foreseeable future. Luckily, no matter the book, The Beatles are always a safe bet.

 

Yvonne Prinz

I think a lot of authors don’t give a thought to music as they write but in my case it shapes the story. In some cases it is the story.

My head is full of music.

I was raised by a classical musician who vacillated between Shostakovich and Abbey Road. Music played around the clock in our home. I worked for minimum wage in record stores and now I own three of them with my husband (and a bunch of other music nuts). That in

spired The Vinyl Princess, the story of a cheeky girl who works at Bob & Bob Records and judges people by the music they listen to. I took breaks from the story just to build the soundtrack (I can’t listen to song lyrics while I write).

All You Get Is Me is a social justice story about farm workers set in Northern California. My character “Roar” (short for Aurora) is a reluctant farm girl.  I listened mostly to plaintive pastoral soundtrack music like Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder as I wrote. When it was finished I created a soundtrack with a lot of Tex-mex, Hispanic artists, Mariachi, things a migrant farm worker might listen to.

If You’re Lucky is a thriller set on the dramatic coastline of Northern California. My main character is a schizophrenic teenager named Georgia. I listened to Django Reinhardt and modern gypsy jazz players. My secondary character is a Juilliard trained guitarist of Roma heritage. It’s a dark story. I fantasized about being the music supervisor on the movie a lot.

 

Charles Smith

Music plays a crucial role in my creative process as a poet. Different poems call for different types of moods and music helps me convey that mood. In my book, Brick by Brick, it focuses on how slaves built the White House. To reflect the back breaking work, I looked to negro plantation spirituals sung during slavery and prison work songs. There’s a specific cadence and there’s call and response. This helped guide the pacing. The use of repetition also helped with emotional impact. In most projects, I’ll often use music to establish a rhythm that conveys what I want to say. For instance, in the case of a non-fiction project I’ve been working on that focuses on a motorcycle rider, I wanted the words to move fast like a motorcycle so I looked to fast paced hip-hop. But sometimes I’ll go very traditional and look at the structure of a song and mimic it in a poem. For instance, using a chorus to hammer home a point or image. Overall, the biggest role that music plays is acting as grease to loosen up the creative wheel to help me say what I want to say.

 

Michelle Knudsen 

When I’m writing picture books or early readers, I generally can’t listen to anything. But for novels, I’m nearly always listening to music while I write. I like to create a playlist for each novel filled with songs that capture the feeling of the book for me. The playlist for my upcoming novel Curse of the Evil Librarian (book 3 in my Evil Librarian trilogy) includes songs like Tool’s “The Grudge,” Bryce Fox’s “Horns,” and Melanie Martinez’s “Tag, You’re It.” There are a couple of tracks by Halsey and a few by Depeche Mode and a whole lot of My Chemical Romance. I’ve also got a few songs from Les Misérables in there (this year’s fall musical in my characters’ high school) and one from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was the featured musical in book 2. (There’s more, too, but that seems like a pretty representative sample to go with.) Listening to this playlist instantly puts me in the right mental/emotional/creative place to work on the book, whether I’m actively writing or outlining or going for a walk to try to work out tricky plot problems in my head. The only rule is that I’m not allowed to listen to it at any other time—it’s book music only, no matter what.

One Question, Five Authors #3: “What influence have comic books had on your work?”

Welcome to the third installment of “One Question” — the world’s laziest interview series. Today the focus is on comic books, one of the great wellsprings of inspiration for so many talented writers and illustrators of children’s books.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Eric Velasquez, Bruce Coville, Matt McElligott, Charise Harper, and Alan Silberberg. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to journey through time and space to visit past editions.

 

Eric Velasquez

As you know comic books played a huge part in life. Comic books basically taught me how to read. I found an interest in the characters and stories that I could not find in the reading material in elementary school. I was also fortunate to have a very smart mother that would direct me to the dictionary if I did not understand a particular word in any of the comics, this would later prove to be a key factor in my development. Today,  I am so happy that schools are  embracing comic books as legitimate reading material for students. This makes a big difference in the lives of reluctant readers.

Now, in terms of my work, as a result of my love of comics I wanted to become a cartoonist. I went to the High School of Art and Design to study cartooning. However, in my senior year I was introduced to painting and the rest is history. Because I still love comics there are many aspects of comic book art in my work today, mostly my use of panels and dramatic angles.

 

Bruce Coville

I was 11, and already an avid reader of comics, when Stan Lee unleashed the first issue of The Fantastic Four and launched what became a revolution in comics. That comic, and the cascade of newly created characters that soon followed, provided a real time example of how an art form (though calling comics an “art form” at that time would have generated howls of derisive laughter) could be reinvented and re-invigorated.

By the time I was in my mid-teens I was a devoted Marvel geek. In fact, my first published words were in Marvel letter columns. And, oh, how I wanted to write for them (much to my mother’s alarm).

Oddly, despite my devotion to Marvel, the very first money I made for something I wrote was the princely sum of ten dollars for a story concept I sold to DC’s The House of Mystery. Small change, yes . . . but as a first sale it helped give me confidence that I could be a writer.

Eventually I found my place writing prose for kids. But there is no doubt that comic books were a significant part of what put me on the path!

 

Matthew McElligott

I can remember trading an action figure for my first stack of comics in second grade, then the excitement of bringing them home and spreading them out on the living room floor. They were a mix of titles, tattered and worn, and out of sequence. Some issues began in the middle of a larger story, and others ended with thrilling cliffhangers. The door was opened to a living, breathing world that was not quite fantasy, not quite reality, and I moved in and never really left.

Now, decades later, I understand that there are specific, formal reasons why that world was so enticing. Reading the works of Will Eisner and Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud really blew my mind, and I began to appreciate the formal structures that allow comics to do things no other medium can. Here’s an example I love to show my class:

 

 

At first glance, this panel by Jack Kirby may not seem particularly noteworthy. In fact, it might seem kind of juvenile. But dig a little deeper and you’ll notice something really remarkable: this panel is showing us the past (the dialog), the present (WHAK), and the future (the recoil from the punch) all at the same time, and our brains don’t explode. How does that work?

I’m still trying to figure this stuff out, and it informs everything I do as an illustrator. Good thing I made that trade in second grade.

 

Charise Harper

Words and pictures together makes sense to my brain.  My father is French, and when I was eight years old, my French grandmother started to live with us for six months of the year.  My brother and I could understand French and speak a little, but this was a big change for us.  Our house was instantly one hundred percent French speaking only.  Not only that, but our parents wanted us to read and write in French too.  So what did they do?  They bought us French comic books — lots of them.  This was huge!  At that point, I personally owned maybe six books.  My family did not have a lot of extra money, and now suddenly, we had stacks of Tintin and Asterix comic books.  My brother and I struggled through the books, looking at the pictures, deciphering the words and understanding more and more on each subsequent read.  These comic books changed my life.  They gave me an understanding of French humor, enabled me to interact with my grandmother and imbued me with a love of comics.  Using words and pictures together is my literary comfort food — my happy place.

 

Alan Silberberg

Confession: I was an Archies comic book fan. When the whole Marvel vs DC argument comes up at polite dinner parties  (I know geeky people!) I shrink back into the world of redheads and jugheads. I think reading stories about (unrealistic) high school where bullies and blondes and friendships were the norm gave me an idealized vision of life — that I liked to skewer in my writing. When the underground comics scene became (sort of) mainstream I was drawn to Ralph Bakshi and R.Crumb and other far out cartoonists and their styles. Jules Feifer’s early work and later Lynda Barry’s personal comics gave me a sense that telling my own stories visually was acceptable. In the Publishers Weekly review of Meet the Latkes, my cartooning style is described as “if I drew the book hopped up on chocolate gelt.”  And to me . . . that says it all!

One Question, Five Authors #2: “Tell us about one book or comic you loved as a child.”

Welcome, readers, to the second installment of “One Question” — the interview series where I do as little work as possible. Personally, I always enjoy hearing authors talk about books they love — particularly those books that made a difference early in their reading lives. The books that helped light the fuse.

Much thanks to our five guests below: Paul Acampora, Rachel Vail, Don Tate, Audrey Vernick, and Julie Fortenberry. Click here to read the debut installment if you missed it the first time around.

 


Paul Acampora

In those years that astronauts were still wandering around on the moon, I discovered The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. The book featured Keith and Ralph, a couple boys about my age (at the time) in an off-the-beaten-track world that seemed a lot like my own. Keith and Ralph had families and rules and squabbles and accidents. They wanted adventures and they made mistakes. They were just like the cousins and friends and classmates that surrounded me. It’s true that Ralph is a mouse who rides an awesome red motorcycle, but that’s not really the point. Rather, The Mouse and the Motorcycle made it clear to me that real-life adventures were possible. And if Beverly Cleary is right (spoiler alert: she is) adding friends to the mix makes real-life adventures almost inevitable. When I grew up, I did indeed get my very own awesome red motorcycle just like Ralph’s. I don’t have the motorcycle anymore, but I still have the friends which means I’m still having the kind of real-life adventures that books are made of.

 

Rachel Vail

One book I really loved as a kid was Blubber, by Judy Blume. I remember wondering as I read: how did she KNOW? Not just about the overt, senseless, casual cruelty of some kids, but also about MY complicity in the cruelty: the rotten, rotting feeling of seeing somebody be mean to a less powerful kid, and deciding to do nothing. Choosing just to go along, because otherwise I’d be putting myself in danger. And it felt like that, no exaggeration: like danger. Judy Blume captured the complex ethical calculus of being a kid, making choices — the truth of it, the power and the cost of it. Humor and relatable details made the story feel real, but the empathy I felt for every character is what made it feel TRUE. I was particularly moved by the respect Judy Blume was showing to me as a kid, as a reader, as a person. (I felt she was writing for me, in particular, of course. Her writing is that intimate.) She was telling it to me straight, and trusting me to think through what it all meant. There were no tidy resolutions, no morals to print on a poster. It was just, here’s how we sometimes treat one another, and how it really feels. What do you think?

 

Don Tate

I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid. It is embarrassing to admit — especially to kids! I had trouble with comprehension and retaining what I’d read. So I tended towards the visual. My favorite book was our Better Homes and Gardens Illustrated Medical Encyclopedia. I loved it because of the cool illustrations. I also loved our Funk and Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedias. They were heavily illustrated. Inside, I learned about all kinds of things, but I was drawn most to the diversity inside. I learned about people from all over the world, I saw people who looked like me. In high school English literature classes, I pretty much refused to read what was presented to me as classics. The Grapes of Wrath, Greek and Roman Myths, Poe, I just couldn’t get into those. I sketched my way through those classes. I didn’t become a reader (for enjoyment) until I was in my early 20s, when I discovered the book Black Boy by Richard Wright. It was a memoir about his life. In Richard Wright, I saw myself. After that, I became a lover of reading. I read all of Richard Wright’s books, and especially loved Native Son.

 

Audrey Vernick

I was a voracious reader as a child, in part because I lacked the kind of friends I read about in books. I had friends, but our relationships never seemed to measure up to the epic friendships in the books I loved most.

The book that hit me right in the center of this spot was The Secret Language, written by the legendary children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom.

Victoria was only eight years old when shipped off to boarding school. What?! Boarding school? My brain had to grow and shift to entertain this new-to-me reality. Vicky was shy and miserable and hated boarding school (this reader, who faked sickness to get out of day camp, could relate to that). And then, impossibly, a strange and funny girl, Martha, befriended Vicky. And shared with her secret words — leebossa, ick-en-spick, ankendosh.

When I think about this, I’m almost inclined to feel sad for young-me, but the truth is I found literary friendships very satisfying. They fed me something I needed — in a way that actual eight-year-old friends could not.

Unexpected friendships. That’s still a pretty sweet spot in my reading — and writing — life.

 

Julie Fortenberry

The Little Golden Picture Dictionary (the original 1959 edition) left a lasting impression on me. I still have my copy. Each page has eight words with descriptions like, “alligator—The Alligator has sharp teeth,” and “kitchen—Mother cooks in the kitchen.” (Later editions have been updated to correct a few unenlightened words and descriptions.)

I’m still fascinated by the little Tibor Gergely illustrations. (Gergely was mostly self-taught, but studied briefly in Vienna. In 1939 he emigrated to New York where he illustrated several New Yorker covers.) It’s so obvious that he loved his job. The pictures are detailed but uncomplicated. And like a lot of Golden Book illustrators, Gergely’s style is both realistic and cartoony. His illustrations of people and animals are great, but even his illustrations of mundane objects (glove, iron, pie) are still intriguing to me.

I don’t remember anyone reading this book to me, so I guess I was able to decipher most of it on my own. I think it was the first time I saw the world arranged in an orderly way. The whole book is very tidy and sunny, like the best kind of kindergarten.

One Question, Five Authors: “How Do You Celebrate on the Day the Book Arrives?”

Greetings, my Nation of Readers (though perhaps “wee village” is more like it). Anyway, I’m grateful to anybody who stops by. I started this particular spot more than 10 years ago. During that time, I’ve tried to self-promote relentlessly in a way that’s not too grotesque . . . to provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the creative process . . . and to shine a light on different artists and illustrators whose work I admire. Usually that’s taken the form of long, sprawling interviews which require considerable time and effort. 
Recently I had a new idea: Ask the same question to a number (5) of authors and illustrators. I hope in this way we’ll illuminate the process and, hopefully, help introduce you to some of the great people who are out there, doing such high-quality work.
And, hey, less effort for me!
Today’s question: “How do you celebrate on that day when the box arrives, and you finally hold a finished book in your hands?”
Let’s hear it for our special guests: S.A. Bodeen, Matthew Cordell, London Ladd, Laurie Calkhoven, and Lizzy Rockwell. Huzzah!
S.A. Bodeen
I’ve done different things over the years. Most recently was when copies of The Tomb arrived. Per usual, I ripped it open and took one out and removed the jacket to look at the actual book. (Yes, I do that every time.) Then I read the jacket to see what state I live in. (Sometimes they get it wrong. In their defense, I move a lot.) Then I put the jacket back on and showed it to my husband and he said “We should celebrate.” If the box arrives before dinner, we go out. Last night the box came after dinner (I made fish tacos, which were actually killer), so I suggested Culver’s, where he had a root-beer float and I had a vanilla malt.

Matthew Cordell

I’m probably my own toughest critic when it comes to my books, so I’m always a little nervous about opening up a box of finished books. It’s a little weird to look at something you made many months or over a year before you see the finished product. As artists, we are (or should be) constantly evolving and getting better as we work. So, a lot can change in a year’s time. I guess my personal celebration is flipping through a book several times. The first time with one eye closed probably. Each time looking at it gets a little easier on the eyes. Each time, seeing less of the flaws and more of the achievements and fond memories from the time spent collaborating and creating. Then it feels good. Then I take a picture and share it on social media. I hope that isn’t too bleak of an answer to your question.

London Ladd

It’s an easy question. After I open the package I touch and squeeze the book because I like feeling it before opening it. The new smell, the stiffness of the hardcover, the heartwarming note from the publisher…all of it really makes me so happy. Afterwards I look at the front cover and back to check out the design and font, I still get a thrill seeing my name on the cover :).  I open it and quickly scan the book jacket and then examine through the pages for all the things I should have done better and make mental learning notes on what not to do for the next book. I really love creating pictures books but I strive to be better.

 

Laurie Calkhoven

I’m afraid I’m a sad failure when it comes to celebrating my work. Part of the reason is the question of WHEN to celebrate. The day I accept the offer? The day –- weeks later –- when the contract arrives for my signature? The day – even more weeks later –- when the countersigned contract arrives with the advance check? The day that lovely box of books arrives? What about publication date? I DO usually pop a champagne cork or two with my writer’s group when I accept an offer. The other milestones are hit or miss depending on deadlines and whatever else is going on in my life. Sometimes I buy myself a piece of jewelry or a ticket to a play when the check arrives, but publication dates tend to pass without any notice from me. Lots of writers throw book parties (and I happily attend), but the idea of having one for myself makes the introvert in me want to run for the hills.
Lizzy Rockwell
I can’t say I have a ritual with this, but it is always a thrill. Like most thrills, it is mixed with a bit of fear. What if I find a mistake, what if I think I could have done better? Once it’s a book, all those choices that I agonized over are now finite. It’s so gratifying to see all the hard work by the editor and art director that pulls it all together. Things like end-sheets, typography, color matching, printing, paper quality, that I have nothing to do with, make such a difference. And it is the first time I have held the book in my hands, and read it start to finish, in color, while turning the pages. I always make a physical dummy booklet to draw my sketches in, so I can see and feel how the pacing goes as you turn the page. So until I see the printed book for the first time, that narrative continuity has been broken up into distinct parts over the many months that it takes to do all the editing, and complete the finished art. So there is a deep satisfaction when the book finally arrives in the mail (a year after I last saw the paintings). It’s my chance to hold the physical object, read, look, and turn the pages and finally see it as a unified work of art.
If readers care to suggest questions for future posts, please make a comment below!