Interview with Author/Illustrator Denise Fleming

I had the honor of interviewing author/illustrator Denise Fleming.  I became familiar with her work long before I became a children’s librarian.  We share the same hometown, Toledo, OH.  The children’s section of the Sanger Branch library features her characters.  Literally, it’s like walking into one of her books.  Then, in December of 2012, I had the opportunity to meet her in person at a book event.  She shared her unique process of pulp painting.  Check out her latest books, including underGROUND, on her website.  To find out about her upcoming projects, read on!
AK: What do you like best about Toledo?
DF: People often ask why I still live in Toledo, my birthplace. They seem to find it strange that I still am here. Well, first off, it is very affordable. Then there is the fact that my family is here–my tiny family of a sister, brother-in-law, husband, and daughter. Ann Arbor is only 45 minutes away and it’s a great city to ramble around and see art–there is a wonderful paper store and many great restaurants with interesting cuisine. I also love the fact that we have seasons–although, a great winter of snow seems to be a thing of the past. We have a cottage at a spring-fed lake that is only an hour and ten minutes away, so, when I want a change of scenery I can drive there any time of day. My husband and I like to arrive late at night and go right to sleep. When we wake up, we may take a ride on the pontoon boat, visit the farm market, or work in the clay studio behind the cottage. It is a good life. My adult self is not much different from my child self.
AK: Animals in nature seems to be a recurring theme in your books.  What is your favorite critter and why?
DF: I have always felt more comfortable in nature than around people. We have planted our  3/4 acre yard to be a habitat for wild creatures, so we have lots of squirrels, possums, owls, butterflies, raccoons, garter snakes, rabbits, birds, a box turtle or two and, every now and then, deer. There used to be many more creatures–fox, pheasant–but development has cut down on open space. People are surprised when they enter our yard, which is pretty secluded from neighbors with plantings and is so different from surrounding yards. Delivery people always say it is like being on vacation. Our cottage is also pretty wild as far as vegetation goes, and there are lots of creatures there–wood ducks, mallards, Canada geese, muskrats, turtles, sandhill cranes, herons, and lots more. As for a favorite animal–love them all–even when they create problems for me. I think we need to respect wildlife.
AK: How did you discover pulp painting?  How did you know this was your style?
DF: I took an adult continuing ed class with my sister at the high school down the street. We thought taking this class might offset February cabin fever, which is a problem in the midwest. The class description said we would be making handmade paper notecards etc. The colored paper pulp was in huge galvanized tubs. It was like a gigantic palette. Wow! Forget notecards, I wanted to make pulp paintings!!
I then went on to take more paper making classes at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg Tenn., where I poured the first pieces for Count!
Pulp painting was a fit–no question. It was physical, it was process, it really worked for me. Recently I have added collage to the pulp paintings, and I am working on a book where I pour just the backgrounds and collage the foreground. I also have experimented with other media–not paper making. Didn’t work. Felt uneasy. Not me.
 AK: Describe a typical work day.  Do you have any rituals for getting started?  What must you have by your side?
DF: There is no usual workday–it varies enormously. I may draw, design, write, think, redo, edit, whatever. I have no starting time. Summer/spring is my best  work time, as the days are long, and I am much more productive. I do have music on when I work.  That also varies with my mood–maybe Ella, Louie or James Taylor, Nora Jones, etc. As the day progresses, I change music styles.
Mealtimes are random. Breaks are here and there. I may decide to go to the cottage to work on manuscripts as chores are not as numerous there and it is very quiet.
I need a huge glass of ice water or iced tea beside me when I start working. When I am really concentrating, I breathe through my mouth and my throat becomes very dry.
AK: You said that you love strong action words that convey movement and sound.  What is one of your favorites?
DF: Oh gosh, I love words like crunch, slip, slide, swoop, shuffle, I could go on and on.  If it was another day I would offer different words.
AK: What inspires you or helps you shake off writer’s block?
DF: Reading, sitting in the porch swing, running errands, talking to an art friend on the phone, visiting with my daughter, and snacking.
AK: I see in a photo on your website that you have an idea board.  Can you tell us about that?
DF: I post anything that catches my fancy on several big cork boards. Right now there are some great magazine photos of hens, wild colored flowers, children, trucks, baby armadillos, lists of words, articles about reading, baby teeth, cool tiny houses, quick sketches, dancing figures–really all sorts of things to start me thinking. They may never be in a book but may spark an idea that starts an idea chain. Often what I start with is not in the finished book. I also work in different media–clay, cloth, recycled tin cans–the things that I create in those media inform my book work.
AK: Which character in literature do you most identify with? And which one would you secretly hope to be?
DF: Pippi, of course. I now have red hair, a drawer full of striped socks, I’m not too crazy about authority, and would like to live on a houseboat.
I do braid my hair sometimes. I must reread the books. Pippi— here I come!
AK: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer/illustrator?
DF: Ah, this is a toughy. For me it was focusing on learning what I truly loved. Not following someone else’s lead. Doing only what felt right to me. When I first started, I illustrated mass market books, which was a fabulous learning experience. It not only taught me about gutter, page design, and pagination, it made me realize that what I wanted to do was write and illustrate in the trade book field. Prior to this, I was a freelance artist mostly picking up advertising work. I had never taken any book design classes, etc. I learned by studying books I liked and figuring out why I liked them. As for titles, I know you are going to ask–no specifics. I studied hundreds and hundreds of books. I tried all sorts of media. I accidentally found pulp painting, and it all clicked. I had several manuscripts that I was working on writing. Count! and In the Tall, Tall Grass were what came of combining the words and the pulp paintings.  And of course I can’t leave out Laura Godwin at Holt. She was my fairy godmother. She got it from the get go–it was a match. Give a shout out to Laura–my bantering buddy and editor.
So, advice. Go for it! Try all avenues. Join SCBWI. Take classes. Realize everything you do is not precious. And not everyone will like what you do. Work!!!!
AK: Tell us what you’re working on now or a project you finished that you’re particularly excited about.
DF: I am working on several book dummies right now. Experimenting and trying some new things–some of which have been massive failures–“What was I thinking?” ideas. Remember, not everything you do is precious.
I am ready to make finishes on a book titled Go, Shapes, Go! A lot of what I do falls under concept books. I do few regular stories. Although, I have some that I soon will be showing around. I am afraid I have been pigeonholed as only writing/illustrating concept books by my supporters. Publishers are cool with me doing stories, but fans, not so much. Teachers and librarians use my books a lot and concept fits with what they do. Pooh, I say! Not really–I love doing concept books.

Interview with Author/Illustrator Julia Maisen

I had the pleasure of interviewing author/illustrator Julia Maisen.  I became familiar with her work after seeing an article she wrote, “Art Education on the Cheap,” in the March/April 2013 issue of the SCBWI Bulletin.  Check out her work here.

AK: What inspired you to become an artist?

JM: I think that I have always wanted to be an artist, or at least I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an artist. I suppose I was just one of the lucky ones who never grew out of the desire to create.

AK: You mentioned in your article that you never went to art school. Are you self-taught or did you take classes independently? What artists and/or styles were you especially drawn to in your studies?

JM: It’s funny; when you talk about being self-taught it can mean a lot of different things. For me I’ve taken maybe 2 art classes at a university as well as a workshop or two. Most of my instruction comes from books, DVDs and observation. I also make up a lot of exercises for myself based on things I’ve read and suggestions from other artists.

I love the golden age illustrators, especially N.C. Wyeth. Sargent is another favorite artist as is Holly Hobbie, Adam Rex, Chris Van Allsburg and too many others to count.

AK: Where is the most interesting place you’ve gone to sketch? What did you draw there?

JM: I once went sketching at the zoo, which was a lot of fun. I also sketched a lot while on a family trip to France a couple of years ago. But mostly I don’t go anywhere in particular to sketch, since for the most part I’m trying to get an image in my head down on paper.

AK: You seem to prefer watercolors. Why do you like this medium? What do you find most challenging?

JM: I’ve always loved watercolors, in part because they are a great mix of careful planning and happy accidents. As for the most challenging thing about watercolor I think it’s establishing your darks while at the same time preserving your whites. It can be hard to build up darks in watercolors since the paint is so translucent.

AK: What is your favorite technique and why?

JM: I like working wet-into-wet and creating blooms with the water. It’s a neat effect that can suggest interesting textures and add interest to a painting.

AK: I read that you are also a writer. Which came first for you, writing or art?

JM: I’ve always done both, though I think that it took me longer to realize that I could write my own stories just like I could create my own pictures.

AK: Do you write and illustrate your own picture books? What is that process like for you?

JM: I do write and illustrate my own stories, though I haven’t had any of them published yet. Mostly the story starts with an image of an idea and I go from there. In the beginning I’m jumping back and forth a lot between words and pictures until I nail down what the story is about. After that it’s pretty straightforward, with me first writing a final version of the text and then creating the pictures.

AK: What makes you want to write and illustrate for children?

JM: It’s partly because the stories in my head just naturally seem to go there and partly because I think stories for kids have a lot of heart and humor in them, which I like.

AK: What advice can you offer to an artist who wishes to pursue a career in art/illustration without getting a formal art degree?

JM: If you are not going to get a degree, then you have to be committed to pursuing your art every day. You need to be driven to both get better and to put your art out into the world.

AK: Do you think it is better to be an expert or a beginner when it comes to making art?

JM: I think you need both to be successful. You need to be a beginner in the sense that you need to be willing to try new things and new techniques. A beginner is more likely to leap without looking and trusting that in the end everything will turn out right. But you also need the skills and experience that an expert brings to the table. An expert knows a thousand and one ways to direct the reader’s eye and communicate an emotion. That’s a necessary skill to have.

It’s a Great Day to Give Away!

Want to win a free copy of the 2013 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market?

Me too!  Click here for details.  I have the 2012 edition, which I find indispensable.