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Tuesday 7 September 2010

Interview: Emily Gravett

photograph credit: The Telegraph UK

Kids Book Review is ecstatic to feature acclaimed UK author/illustrator Emily Gravett during our very special Behind the Books feature. We hope you enjoy this wonderful insight into one of the world's finest picture book creators...

Name: Emily Gravett

Title: Author/Illustrator

Website: emilygravett.com

Tell us a little bit about you - work, kids, pets... and do you live in a normal house or some exotic bunny-style warren? Ah - I’d love to be able to say I live in a bunny-style warren, but sadly I live in a very ordinary terraced house in Brighton in the UK. I’ve lived in this house for three and a half years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I left home.

As much as I love it, I have to admit that lately the urge to move has been VERY strong. So I’ve bought an old bus to convert into a living vehicle, in the hope that when my itchy feet get too itchy I can get the sensation of moving without actually having to sell my house! It also means I get to relive part of my youth (I lived in a bus from the age of seventeen until I was twenty-five).

As for kids and pets, I have both. My daughter Oleander is thirteen, which constantly surprises me (where did the little kid in red wellies go?).

I also have two dogs, a rescue Saluki called Otto who’s devastatingly handsome and thinks he’s canine royalty (it’s really very generous of him to allow us to live with him) and a scruffy little lurcher called Edith who has fur the texture of Velcro, which picks up every bit of debris she touches. They make my house smell faintly of dog, which I hate, but they’re worth it.

How long have you been an author/illustrator? I’ve been an author/illustrator since Wolves was published in 2005, so not very long, really! I only thought about making books after my daughter was born. Before that I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life.

What came first in your life – the writing or the illustrating? The writing was an accident. I went to University when my daughter was four to study illustration, and an illustrator is what I wanted to become, but while I was there I needed something to illustrate, so I had to write.

Wolves was a university project intended as a portfolio piece to show publishers my drawing. I didn’t expect it to get published, and it was a huge surprise when people started referring to me as an author.

Can you remember the first book you ever wrote? What was it about? This might not be the first, but it’s the most memorable (probably because I still have it, and am looking at it now).

In primary school we had a teacher called Mr Guilford who made us write a story for an hour a week over the whole year. Mine was called When the World Fell Apart and filled two exercise books. The blurb on the back reads ‘A space story of how the world split in half and one class of 11 and 12 year olds had the job of putting it BACK TOGETHER’ (I think the capitals were for dramatic effect).

There’s also a drawing of me (I presume) wearing a space helmet with a caption underneath that reads ‘A picture from the television programme When the World fell Apart’. I was obviously thinking big!

It’s quite a funny read, mainly because it’s based on my classmates. I can tell who I didn’t like by their fates in the story. Poor Graham Donohue! It culminated in lots of sticky tape and a warning about not peeling stray bits of tape off the street.

Looking back, what is most interesting about it is that I’d written a blurb, invented a publisher's logo and really tried to make it look like a ‘real’ book-just like I still do!

What made you decide to pen children’s books? Do you mean as oppose to adults? That’s easy. I’m primarily an illustrator. I love to draw, and children’s books are where the illustrations are! I think it’s sad that as soon as children become suitably fluent in reading the illustrations become secondary to the text and stop having their own part in the story.

What do you love most about producing books for children? Ooh. . . picture books are a fantastic medium. On the surface they look quite simple, but there’s enormous scope to play with. There are so many ways you can tell a story. It’s not only through words, but the way they interact with the illustrations, and in turn the way they both relate to the structure of the book itself, and the imagination and interpretation of the readers. Ah! I love them!

What is the hardest thing about writing books for children? Coming up with ideas. That’s a real killer. Once you have a germ of an idea there’s something to get your teeth into and it’s great, but trying to get that idea can be awful. I spend lots of frustrated hours/days/weeks/months sat around thinking ‘that’s it, I’m never going to come up with anything again’.

Describe your process – do you write a book first or illustrate it first? I do both at the same time. Picture books are so dependant on the interaction between image and text that I like to be able to adapt either as I go along. I normally start off in my sketchbook playing with the characters and ideas, and then I do little thumbnails of each page. I carry on working in my sketchbook even when I’m doing the finished illustrations.

Why do you write books? I write books because I’ve never found anything else which gives me quite the same buzz and sense of satisfaction.

Your first book, Wolves, won the Kate Greenaway Medal – what inspired you to write a book that would potentially give children the willies? As I mentioned earlier, Wolves was a university project. I didn’t think it would be published, and because of that I didn’t worry about any notions of what I thought might be suitable for children, I just wrote something that I thought was funny.

Which of your books is your favourite and why? My favourite is Orange Pear Apple Bear, which was another university project. I think I’m so fond of it because it was really quick to write!

I had been working on a project that wasn’t going well. It was due to be handed in on Monday morning, and I was worried. On Saturday night I went to bed reading Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, which is a book about grammar (which as you can probably tell by this interview is not my strong point).

Something about the use of commas must have sunk in because when I woke up I had the words ‘Orange Pear Apple Bear’ going around in my head. I abandoned what I was working on and eleven hours later I had made Orange Pear Apple Bear into a little board book.

Normally when I write a book, however enthusiastic I am about it and however much I’m enjoying it, there comes a time when doubt creeps in. With Orange Pear there was no time for doubt. It was a fantastic day!

What do you think comprises a great children’s book? I have no idea! A really great book has a dimension that is impossible to pin down, and unfortunately impossible to replicate, too. There’s no special formula, or if there is, I wish someone would tell me what it is.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book writing journey? When I first decided I wanted to be an illustrator, there were a great many practical blocks and obstacles to overcome. There was no university near where we lived, so I had to move my family across the country. We struggled financially, and it was hard to juggle college and illustrating with everyday life and childcare. It was a difficult time for all of us, but they were practical problems so together we worked out practical solutions.

By far the greatest blocks and obstacles when it comes to making books nowadays are in my head. They are about doubting my own ability and skills, and whether the book I’m working on is going the right direction. Even silly little things like deciding on the right colour for something can take an age. Although I talk to my editor and friends about my work, writing and illustrating is mainly a solitary pursuit, which makes it hard to gain perspective sometimes.

Describe a typical writing/illustrating day for you. I get up, have breakfast with my family and take the dogs out for a walk. This normally lasts about an hour, so by the time I get home Oleander has gone to school, and my partner to work. I start work by checking my emails and sorting out any mail that needs answering, then spend the rest of the day working on whichever book I’m doing. (Unless I’m between books when I spend the day trying to come up with new ideas and feeling frustrated.) I stop work when my daughter gets home from school and do domestic stuff, then I’ll often go back up to my studio and work for a couple of hours after dinner.

When are you at your most creative? I don’t think there’s a particular time of the day when I’m at my most creative. It’s normally when I’m feeling relaxed.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? My partner Mik is a plumber, and when I used to worry that I would never get any work as an illustrator he used to wave a set of drain rods at me and tell me I could come and work for him. I’m not sure what would have been worse, unblocking toilets, or working for Mik (we’re both far too bossy to work together).

If I could choose anything, I’d like to be an old fashioned forger making counterfeit money and passports, etc. Brilliant fun!

What books did you read as a child? I read all-sorts! My favourite picturebook as a small child was John Vernon Lord's superbly illustrated The Giant Jam Sandwich, which I made my parents read over and over.

I had an older sister who was a big reader, so I used borrow all of her books. She read Swallows and Amazons (which I loved), and Tolkien (which I hated). I remember loving Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borribles, and as I got older, I used to raid my mother’s bookshelves to read her books - whether I understood them or not (which I usually didn’t).

Do you have any writing tips for our readers? If you are bored writing then it will probably be boring to read. Read your writing out loud (I don’t know why but this always helps me).

Name your top five interests:

Describe yourself in five words: I’m really sorry, I can’t.

What’s next for Emily Gravett? Ooooh - who can tell? Life is constantly throwing new and exciting challenges at me!

Emily's first book in cahoots with an author was released on August 6. Cave Baby was written by Julia Donaldson and is published by Pan Macmillan. Emily told Kids Book Review that illustrating for someone else is a completely different experience from doing her own books - and she's interested in seeing how the book is received by the public. Well, I'm sure! Look out for a review of this book on KBR very soon.