Tag Archive for James Preller interview series

10 Questions, 50 Authors: The First Ten Installments in One Easy Format

It’s encouraging to see the response to my “One Question” series, the internet’s laziest interview series. We all need that, by the way: encouragement. At least I do. So much shouting into the void, wondering if you’ve been heard, if it’s worth the effort. More readers seem to be finding the series — and clicking “like” — as it becomes better known. Thanks, authors, for your contributions and for sharing the posts. At the same time, some of the older editions have been under-viewed. Maybe you’ve missed a few? So here in one place I’ve brought together the first 10 questions with convenient links. Or you can click here and just scroll through one big bloggy document. Thank you for stopping by. Please note that there are more on the way, featuring Lois Lowry, Todd Strasser, Aaron Becker, Jerdine Nolan, R.W. Alley, David Kelly, Elaine Magliaro, Kurtis Scaletta, Florence Minor, Heather Alexander, and more.

 

#1: “How do you celebrate when the first book finally arrives?” GUESTSLizzy Rockwell, Matthew Cordell, S.A. Bodeen, Laurie Calkhoven, London Ladd.

               

#2: “Tell us about a book that impacted you.” GUESTS: Julie Fortenberry, Don Tate, Rachel Vail, Paul Acompora, Audrey Vernick.

                    

#3: “How did comics influence your work?” GUESTS: Charise Harper, Matthew McElligott, Bruce Coville, Eric Velasquez, Alan Silverberg.

                    

#4: “How does music fit into your work?” GUESTS: Mikki Knudson, Matt Phelan, Charles Smith, Yvonne Printz, Chris Tebbetts.

                    

#5: “How is your work affected by the current political climate?” GUESTSBarbara Dee, Tonya Lee Stone, Jen Sattler, Lesa Ransome, Travis Jonker.

                  

#6: “Tell us about a favorite moment in a recent book.” GUESTS: Erin Dionne, Eugene Yelchin, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Alan Katz, Nick Bruel.

                    

#7: “How does a book begin for you?” GUESTS: Tony Abbott, Matt Tavares, Aimee Reid, Keely Hutton, Greg Neri.

                    

#8: “Let’s talk about rejection.” GUESTS: Jennifer Arena, Kevin Lewis, Donna Gephart, Parker Peevyhouse, Aimee-Joan Paquette.

                    

#9: “How do you cultivate creativity?” GUESTS: Laurie Keller, Nikki Grimes, Jordan Sonnenblick, Liza Walsh Gardner, Steven Sheinkin.

                    

#10: “Can you say something nice about procrastination?” GUESTS: Jo Knowles, Barbara O’Connor, Charles Waters, Jay Cooper, Susan Hood.

                    

One Question, Five Authors #9: “How do you cultivate creativity?”

It lives! We’ve eased into a monthly schedule for the “One Question” series. It takes me that long to come up with a question. Then I rest for three weeks, exhausted. Today comes with an embarrassment of riches, thanks for thoughtful replies from Laurie Keller, Nikki Grimes, Jordan Sonnenblick, Liza Gardner Walsh, and Steve Sheinkin. 

Today’s area of inquiry is difficult for me to summarize. I basically asked about fallow periods, that quiet time between inspirations, and how our artists dealt with that “between ideas” phase. Did they do anything special to cultivate creativity?

In other words, how does one invite ideas into an empty room?

 

Laurie Keller

UGGGH!!! Okay, that being said, it’s a tricky thing sometimes, getting those creative juices flowing. I’m inspired by absurd, silly (but clever!) things so when I’m starting a new project or am stuck in writers’ mud, there are favorite movies or songs or books I go to that will sometimes help me out. But the really elusive thing for me, it seems, is finding the right “voice” to get things rolling.

When I get an idea I’m excited about (which usually pops in my head or unexpectedly crosses my path; I don’t often use the ideas I write down and save), I’ll sometimes write for weeks or months and not get anything I like. It drives me BONKERS! But then, out of the blue, I’ll hear or see some ridiculous, zany, completely STOOPID thing that catches me so off-guard, it somehow turns everything around. I love when that happens! I had hoped after all these years of writing that I could summon that “voice” to show up just when I need it. But it’s all right. I’ve found that there are plenty of Gummi Bears and peanut M&M’s in this world to get me through the long, rough patches.

Nikki Grimes

I rarely experience truly fallow periods in my writing life, these days. I generally move from one contracted project to the next, working on multiple manuscripts over the course of a year. However, I do hit a creative wall, now and again, either because I’m burnt out from the previous project, as I was following completion of my forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Hazards, or because, uncharacteristically, I have no follow-up project. In either case, the solution to the problem is always the same for me: I read.

Reading always stirs my creative embers. I have to be selective about what genre I reach for, though. If I wish to work on a collection of poetry next, I had better not dive into a luscious anthology of personal essays, for example. If I do, in short order, I’ll find myself drafting personal essays. If, on the other hand, my intention is to work on a piece of prose, non-fiction or otherwise, I’d better beware novels in verse or volumes of poetry or that’s precisely what I’ll end up writing. I’d blame this literary misdirection on my muse, if I could, but it’s my own fault.   Whatever genre I feed on is invariably the genre that comes out of me. It happens every time! I suppose that’s the risk of writing across genres, as I am inclined to do. Ah, well. Nobody’s perfect!

 

Jordan Sonnenblick

I am an all-or-nothing writer.  I have published eleven middle-grade and YA novels since 2005, which sounds like the track record of someone who plugs away consistently.  In reality, though, I spend three-quarters of my time trying to think of something to write, and then when the idea finally hits, I crank out a book with blazing speed.  The longest it has ever taken me to write a first draft is four months, and I once wrote two complete novels and a short story in just eighteen feverish weeks.  (Then I got bronchitis and the flu in quick succession.  Don’t try this writing schedule at home.)

As you might imagine, I have put a whole lot of thought and effort into the battle against writer’s block — or, more specifically, initial-idea block.  I have never come up with a foolproof, one-size-fits-all solution, but there are some strategies that seem to make getting an idea more likely.  Anything that engages either my artistic faculties or the language center of my brain, but in a different way, is particularly useful.  As an example, this summer, I started taking Spanish refresher courses at night, reading the Harry Potter books in Spanish, and watching Spanish movies during my daily exercise routine.  Somehow, this freed up my thinking in a whole new way, and I started getting picture book ideas for the first time ever.  I also got a great idea for a memoir aimed toward adults.  This triggered a creative outburst, and I wrote the memoir, followed by two picture book manuscripts.  Right now, I am co-writing a play with an old friend from high school.  I don’t know which, if any, of these projects will sell.  However, I do know that spending a couple of hours a day immersed in another language got me out of a rut, and for that, I am grateful.

Next year: Russian!  Thanks for reading, comrades.

 

Liza Gardner Walsh 

I am currently in one of those fallow periods post deadline and past the chaotic aftermath. I’m dancing around a few projects but I’m also on the hunt. Luckily, I have a day job that provides me with endless daily inspiration. As a school librarian, I’m surrounded by books and children. I also have the good fortune to have recess duty everyday because I happen to believe that the best place to invite creativity is during recess.

So as I find myself on this current “writing recess,” I am noticing everything. I’m trying to follow the Mary Oliver method of living a life, “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This recess also allows me to stretch and to play. Challenges like Story Storm and a self-directed one hundred days of writing poetry prime the well. I also snuck away to a kidlit retreat in Vermont that oozed inspiration.

But perhaps the most fail-safe method of cultivating inspiration is walking my 10 month old puppy. We walk all over our small town. She doesn’t miss a thing. She makes me slow down, notice, and process all those ideas that percolate on the playground.

So my inspiration recipe is this; pay attention, play, challenge yourself, escape if you can, and walk. I think when all this combines, things start to happen. The light turns on again.

 

 

Steve Sheinkin

To me, the time in between ideas is all about trial and error, trying out different potential stories, just mentally at first, when I’m walking, cooking, shaving, whatever. I’ll take an idea and just play with it, just start somewhere and see how far I can take it. If it seems promising, I’ll write out really rough sketches of how the plot might be structured. With nonfiction, I obviously can’t make stuff up, but I find there’s still a lot of creativity, a lot of questions to be answered before I know if a book will work. So I’ll a pick a possible opening scene and watch it. And then I try to get from there to a logical next scene, and to another one, and so on. I’ve thrown out some of my best ideas for opening sequences (or my editor has forced me to) just because they didn’t lead smoothly into the heart of the story. It’s a good system for me, if not an efficient one, and I’d say the only drawback is that I’ll find myself “watching” my scenes when I’m supposed to be listening to people who are talking to me.

 

JP: I’M SORRY, STEVE, DID YOU SAY SOMETHING?

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!

5 QUESTIONS with LONDON LADD, illustrator of “Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglas”

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Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.

London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?

Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!

As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?

It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.

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Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?

I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.

In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.

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Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.

So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?

Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.

Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.

LOL . . . it’s pretty simple. 

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I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.

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Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?

Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.

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We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.

Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.

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There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.

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Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?

I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.

I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.

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Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.

I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.

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Thank you!!!  I definitely understand what you’re saying.  Also it’s vital to have more diversity with the decision-makers in publishing like art directors, associate art directors, editors, graphic designers, etc.  
 
Exactly right. And CEOs, too, while we’re at it. Somewhere I read that you loved comics as a kid. It’s amazing how often I hear that from illustrators, the singular importance and impact of those old comic books. But I don’t really see that visual influence in your work. Am I wrong about that? Or is that something you might try down the line?

True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.

I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?

No love for the Shermanator? Here's Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

No love for the Shermanator? Here’s Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.

People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?

I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.

I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.