Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Barbara Johansen Newman's Blog Book Tour

My dear friend Barbara Johansen Newman (barbjn to those who hung out with her on the Illustrators' One-list) is out promoting her brand new book, Tex and Sugar, all over creation.

And to help her get the word out, some of her friends have formed a blog book tour for her. Read my interview with her, below, and then visit these other interview spots on the web this week for a more detailed look at Barb. She has a fascinating background and smart insight into the children's book industry:

Dotti Enderle's blog - Monday
Elizabeth Dulemba's blog - Tuesday
Kim Norman's blog - Thursday
Karen Lee's blog - Friday

I was surprised when I found out you have a history with puppets. I made lots of puppets over the years, and when I was little I dreamed of being a puppeteer. But you actually lived my dream! Did making puppets affect how you create art now? Have you been tempted to make puppets of your more recent art?

Hey, it is never to late to get back to puppetry! My husband and I think about doing some day again when we both have more time. I would like to create stories that I could turn into puppet plays some day.

Puppets are essentially character portraits, and when I create the protagonists and supporting players for a book, I think along those terms. I try to pick out the visual clues for clothing, expression, hair and settings that define the essence of the stars of the story.

I am actually planning on Tex and Sugar puppets and dolls right now! I haven’t decided which to do first, but I am leaning toward the puppets because they are more portable and I will be able to use them for school visits.

Your publisher is making a big splash with your newest book,Tex & Sugar. What does it feel like to get the star treatment? And how do you think it will affect your next book?

It feels very validating. I’ve been illustrating for a long time. The people at Sterling really believed in this book from the beginning, and I am happy that they enthusiastically got involved with the promotion. I love doing promotion, too, so it is great to think of being on a team with them and sharing the goal of seeing the book get out there.

Of course, now I have been a little spoiled. Who wouldn’t be? I very much want my next project to find the same enthusiastic support. I am working on a story that has a kind of timeless and universal theme. The setting is fun and the characters are funny. I hope it has the same appeal as Tex and Sugar. Of course, one never can predict anything in this business. But, Sterling has been wonderful to work with and I hope the next book is as well received as this one.

If you make picture book dummies, can you describe them for us?

I sketch everything out on full size watercolor paper. I just start brainstorming and let the ideas flow freely. When I sketch, I make sure to listen to something, or talk on the phone so I can sketch from the back of my head without thinking. Eventually the page begins to take shape. But it’s just the beginning.

I then scan in all the rough sketches and start to play around in Photoshop and Painter, until I get them just right. I take a long time with this. It takes a while to clean up the pencil marks, move things around and change sizes, flip images, draw some more, and so on and so on. This goes on forever. I do very detailed dummies.

Eventually I will print the first dummy on to cardstock and construct a book of sorts to see how it flows and to make sure the proportions are right. When I have it exactly where I want it, I print out the line art on to watercolor paper and start painting.

What's your process after an editor asks you to illustrate a manuscript?

I read the story several times and wait for the movie in my head to come through loud and clear.

First I have to see the character (s). I will make sheets of character studies until I see the face that says: this is the guy! I then take that guy and draw him in several poses and outfits and settings. I do this with all the story characters, like someone in charge of casting (BTW, I am always “recasting”movies I see, too). I see manuscripts like I am a movie director. I compose shots and figure out which scenes to shoot, I decide whether or not I need a close up, and then I start filming.

Do you have an art rep? Ever have one? Got any good horror stories?

I do not have an art rep. I have had a couple. I worked for years without representation, but wondered if I was not as much a pro without one. So I signed on with a couple of them.

Guess what. I still got most of my own work, and I still had to fork over a large percentage to reps who did nothing to get me the kinds of jobs I should have had. I got those myself. So it did not work out for me. It was a big mistake.

Frankly, I think that the 25-30 % art reps take is steep nowadays. We are no longer married to having offset hard copies printed to send around. Web sites do much of that work, so potential clients can narrow what they are looking for and a rep can tailor the samples sent, and print them out on office printers.

I think that literary agents have a much more reasonable fee of 15%. And that is well deserved. But 30%? I don’t buy it.

What's your dream job right now?

Here is one of my dream jobs: I want to work on astory that takes place in a fifties diner, with a jukebox and lots of funky diner patrons. Those patrons would drive in ‘55 caddies and ‘57 chevrolets. They’d wear herringbone suits and shirtwaist dresses and hats and pearls. There would be dogs and cats, even if the patrons were humans.

And when they got home they would sit at chrome and formica tables and eat off of Fiestaware before going into the living room to watch a console TV with rabbit ears. Of course, the parakeet would talk nonstop.
My other job would have something to do with Elvis. I love Elvis.

When I first met you online, you were hanging out on the Illustrators list (which is now a community of 1200 on Yahoo Groups). You were unfailingly patient in answering newbie questions, so I felt my questions were never too dumb to ask.
You talked about your art *and* your writing, freely, so I could see that my own hopes of being an author as well as an illustrator were achievable. You were a voice of reason, experience and inspiration. I learned an awful lot from you.
Grovel, grovel, grovel, question: Do you have any advice for those who are not quite new to the industry, but not real experienced yet, either? Like, me?

Geesh, how do I show a blush on line? Thanks for those nice words, although I honestly don’t remember doing anything special.

First, I have to say that I could easily write an advice column like Dear Abby for illustrators, but, I’d pass on offering the writerly advice. I feel like more of a newbie in that department than you are for sure. You write that part.
Still, I have plenty to say about art and I have a bit of the Jewish/Italian/Norwegian mother in me who likes to mentor an awful lot.

So I would tell aspiring children’s book creators that it is key to read a lot of what is being put out there, and to spend countless hours drawing--drawing as though the pencil is a part of one’s hand. Putting down images that pop into your head should come as naturally as writing a simple word. It needs to flow. And it needs to be one’s own handwriting, so to speak, too. One artist’s art should not look like anyone else’s and that only comes with drawing your fool head off. That is not to say we all don’t get inspired by things we see. We do. But when push comes to shove, our art has to be our own. It should be so natural that we couldn’t imitate someone else if we tried and our art shouts only our own names out.

You also can’t underestimate how important it is to develop a very thick skin and be willing to set yourself up for a lot of failure, frustration and floundering. Still, you have to have a certain amount of naive arrogance, too. That’s a contradiction, I know.

This industry is nutty. It makes no sense. If it made sense Madonna would not be calling herself a book author, or getting away with “writing” books and then not putting the illustrators’ names on the front of the books. I am still waiting for the media and kid’s lit world to be as outraged about that as much as how poor the books were.

So you have to be willing to ignore all the common sense in your head that tells that publishing is a dice toss. It is. And the odds are stacked against you. Still, I’d say it’s worth the gamble, because it is very satisfying to create a book. Of all the illustration work I have done, nothing compares to doing a book.

Thank you, Barbara! You continue to inspire me.

Catch Barb's other interviews this week at:
Dotti Enderle's blog - Monday
Elizabeth Dulemba's blog - Tuesday
Kim Norman's blog - Thursday
Karen Lee's blog - Friday

1 comment:

Kim Bookwriter said...

Great interview, Ruth. Check my stone stoop blog. You've been tagged!