This is so exciting! Thank you to Jen Corace for tagging me! Jen illustrates gorgeous picture books, including one called Telephone, written by Mac Barnett, that's coming out in September. I met her at a camping party a few years ago and we slept in a van together. Now she is my soul mate and spiritual wife, and sometimes she calls me from her bathtub. OK!
What am I currently working on?
Last week, I turned in NIGHT LIFE to McSweeney's. It's a picture book about insomnia, anxiety, risk, art, and a nighttime bike ride through the city to the zoo. I've been working on it for the better part of a year, and I'm really excited about it. I hope people like it. Now that it's finished, I'm animating the pieces into a trailer. I haven't worked in AfterEffects since college, so that should be really fun. I'm pretty sure it'll kill my computer. I'm also starting to plan some workshops I want to run as part of the book tour.
In addition to making kid books, I'm also an art director at a newspaper in Portland, and for the next month we're putting together a big, glossy city guide and also a music festival, and I'm in charge of the visuals for both. I just finished up my first semester teaching college. And I'm working on a number of illustration commissions. And a bunch of proposals for other picture books. And maybe moving to Chicago? I don't know. It's kind of a mystery.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
That's such a good question! I'm not convinced that the work itself is that much different, but maybe my background is. I only started doing picture books in 2010 - I was 35 - and I'd had really no driving interest to make anything for kids until I got invited to pitch to McMullen's. Previous to making Symphony City, I was (and still am) an editorial art director, mostly focused on political journalism, and I'd just made a bunch of show posters for bands. I hadn't read a picture book since I was three or four, probably. I got some reader feedback from Symphony City that it didn't look like a kid's book, which seemed kind of weird, because it IS a kid's book. So, maybe that's what they CAN look like? I don't know. I've seen a lot of picture books from Europe that look pretty experimental, and I think picture books in the US are swinging back to being more conceptual, more abstract, more graphic. I'm excited about it.
McSweeney's is really wonderful to work with because they've been willing to sign up relatively nascent ideas and then make a lot of space for me to figure them out. My Symphony City pitch was one paragraph about a psychadelic vision quest loosely tied around street musicians. The Night Life pitch was a LITTLE more roughed out, but certainly it wasn't in any kind of manuscript form, and the story changed a LOT during the process of making it. I was pretty sure it was going to be about the relationship between nocturnal life and being an artist. The initial inspiration was expatriation and homesickness and diaspora, and was maybe going to explore the Harlem Renaissance, or the Lost Generation, or the Ballets Russes. I didn't decide until I'd been working on it for six months. In fact, two months before my deadline, I got an email from my editor saying, "So, your book is due soon. What's it about? We're not worried if you haven't figured it all out yet, but we're curious? It's going to be great!" I ended up making a more personal, character-driven story, but just that McSweeney's trusted me so much to get there my own is maybe kind of rare.
Why do I write what I write?
I write for the adults I know who had rough childhoods, and for kids who are still struggling. I write a lot about the things I'm going through. Symphony City was about ending a ten-year relationship and subsequently falling in love with a musician. Night Life is about a complicated friendship with an artist who struggles with depression. I worked on a story (above) about processing the grief of losing a pet when my mom had cancer in 2012. An adaptation of Sleeping Beauty I've been working on is about not getting married too young. The next two proposals I'm working on are more straightforwardly developmental; one is about tantrums, the other (below) is about a five year-old deciding which color to paint her room (though it's development has totally been informed by reading Dept. of Speculation, which I'm completely obsessed with). All of my ideas, I think, are about finding a window to a better world. A lot of kids have great childhoods, but so many don't, and I have so much empathy for them, and the adults they become. When I was a kid I was hyper-attuned to the emotional lives of the adults around me, and I was weird and melancholy and had imaginary book clubs about Toni Morrison novels with cats and spiders that lived in my house. I LIVED in books, and I learned so much about the world beyond my house/family/hometown from reading about other people's lives. Books are so, so powerful.
How does my process work?
It's a real shit show! Mostly I fall in love with weirdos and then drink wine and go on super long walks at 3am and mutter to myself and have really intense dreams, and then I'll work for 15-30 hours at a stretch, in my bed. I also read a lot (lately Dybek, Doerr, Marquez, Leslie Jamison, and tons of poetry), I watch a lot of movies. One part of my process that's challenging is that I have to SEE (and subsequently draw) a whole story before I write a word of it. Symphony City didn't get words until a week before I turned it in. I mean, I'll fill up a google doc with stream-of-consciousness notes about what I want it to MEAN, but until the whole thing is drawn - like, almost FINAL DRAWINGS - I have no idea what the story is; it's all a silent movie that's been cut up and I'm picking up pieces off the floor and assembling them into a narrative around a theme I'm obsessed with. So I have to figure a more traditional process, probably. I also make a playlist for every idea I have, so that at least I'm reined in by a consistent tone while I'm working out an idea. But, I mean, if I'm really being honest with myself, they're ALL just full of Nick Drake songs. I'm very lucky to have a patient and compassionate agent who listens to all my weird ideas and isn't afraid to say YEAH THAT IS NOT A PICTURE BOOK, but who is also great at identifying the good stories living inside of bad (or at least not kid-friendly) ones. I'm keeping a list of all the ideas that can't be easily allegorized for children, and someday they will live in a book of excruciating personal essays. WHICH LEADS ME TO...
I've known Megan Stielstra since I was 12. We both grew up in Michigan and met at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp (the same one from American Pie, true story) where she was studying theater and I was studying flute (I know). We reconnected a couple of years ago when she stayed with me in Portland during a writing conference, and we (I) got super drunk and she dropped a lot of wisdom on me about living like an artist and she changed the course of my life. Her kitchen in Chicago is one of my favorite places. Her new book of (not excruciating) essays, Once I Was Cool has been earning stellar reviews, OF COURSE. Get it, Stielstra.
My ladyfriendship with Margaret Wappler is one of the very best things to come out of my time living in Los Angeles. We worked together at the Los Angeles Times and were Silverlake/Los Feliz/breakfast/reservoir walk pals and I totally miss her. She writes for all the smartest places (DAME, The Believer), and the novel she's finishing is going to blow everyone away.