'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 22 October 2010

Author and Illustrator Interview: Lisa Hollier and Tracey Roper

Author Lisa Hollier (left) and Illustrator Tracey Roper (right)

This author/illustrator team has one thing many others don't: a close family bond. These two sisters worked together to create the picture book, Hullabazoo! - their first book, and one that you have to see to believe (read our review of it here). Author Lisa Hollier and Tracey Roper talk to Kids Book Review about how they came to create this amazing piece of work.

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story?
Lisa: My sisters and I grew up moving from one remote, small Queensland town to another, but eventually, we settled near Brisbane and I headed off to University to study Architecture. After four long years of study, with my degree in my hot little hand, I went out and found work as an architectural draftsman. Another two years later, I was married, and it seemed to me that my life was firmly set on the course that I had planned for it, until...my son Lochlan was born.

Tracey: When I was younger, I didn’t consider pursuing a career in art or illustration. I loved musical theatre and always planned to follow a career on the stage. But as it turned out, I didn’t enjoy the spotlight as much as I thought I would and so eventually I settled into an office job in Brisbane. After five years of office work, I knew it just wasn’t for me, so once again I started looking for a change. It was at this time, that my sister Lisa and I started to map out some plans for an entirely new career.

When did you first decide you wanted to write/illustrate? And how did you make your start in writing/illustrating? 
Neither of us ever really made the decision to write or illustrate; it was actually a business venture gone horribly wrong that led us onto this path.

In 2005, we hatched a brilliant plan that would make us so fantastically rich that we would never have to work again! We would make personalised children’s books! Obviously this was not an original idea, but to be fair, we did have an original twist on the old method. We would include the child’s picture in the illustrations, digitally altering their photos to make it seem as if they’d been painted into the book. Now on the surface, this seems like a good idea, but there were many flaws in the plan, not the least of which was that we had no-one to write or illustrate the books.

So, after buying multitudes of equipment, teaching ourselves how to hand-bind books, and learning how to write and illustrate, we took our marvellous product out into the world. But, after three years, one very poor attempt at a book, minimal sales and a variety of other problems, we finally accepted that our business just wouldn’t work.

While our business may have been a spectacular failure, we walked away with some ability to write and illustrate children’s picture books. Certainly, if it were not for this misguided venture, we would never have stumbled onto this new career path. And so somehow, through all this mess, both of us had fallen into roles that not only suited us well, but also made us very happy.

What do you love about writing/illustrating for children? 
It’s just so much fun! We love that the only limit is our imaginations and that we can create whatever we want to create. When we’re working together on a book, we laugh... a lot! Sometimes, it’s very hard to get any work done for all of the giggling, but at the same time, this is when the best and funniest ideas come to the surface.

What was the inspiration behind your book, Hullabazoo?
Lisa: Hullabazoo was inspired by my son Lochlan. He has always been so enthusiastic about wildlife (particularly reptiles), and spends most of his time with a variety of creatures tucked somewhere into his clothing. It is a habit which has earned him the nickname ‘Little Steve’ at school, and given me one very important rule – when washing Lochlan’s clothes, don’t ever put your hand into his pockets without looking first!

The plot line, however, came from an incident in my own childhood. When I was about seven years old I went on a school excursion to the zoo and got myself into terrible trouble with the teacher when I accidently dropped my hat into the lizard’s enclosure. I never understood why I got into such trouble - most likely the poor woman was just terrified because she had to reach into the pen to retrieve my hat, but I always wondered... what could have happened?

How long did it take to write/illustrate the book?
Tracey: Lisa completed the first draft of the text in 2006 after about four months of writing. The illustrations were completed in late 2009. When I started illustrating, I spent a lot of my time simply learning how to draw, although despite my perseverance, none of my early attempts to illustrate Hullabazoo made it into the final edition (and with good reason).

In mid 2006, I began art classes with wildlife artist Philip Farley. Philip introduced me to paints (as I had previously been using pencils) and he gave Lisa and me a new perspective on how to storyboard effectively. I learned how to paint in a realistic style and although it was time consuming work, Lisa and I were very keen to have realistic illustrations. The original artwork is painted on A2 size illustration board using acrylic and gouache.

Tell us about your path to having your book published.
By the end of 2008, we decided to get serious about publishing Hullabazoo. So serious in fact, that we moved into the same house to collaborate on the project. We completed the entire book before we plucked up the courage to show it to anyone. At the time we were convinced that no publisher would be interested in taking on a first time author/illustrator team, so we contacted the Queensland Writer’s Centre to inquire about self-publishing. The Writer’s Centre arranged for us to speak to a published children’s book author and illustrator for advice, and it soon became very clear that self-publishing was not an option for us.

The next day, we submitted the text and three of the illustrations to Penguin. When Penguin made us an offer to publish, one of their first questions was, ‘Do you have any more illustrations to show us?’ We tried to break the news to them as gently as possible that we did have more… 20 more… double-page spreads!

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on the path to producing your first book?
There’s a lot of action in Hullabazoo and it took us a while to figure out a way to put together these complicated, action-packed illustrations. We found that the best method was to first photograph the subject matter that we needed for each illustration, and then use these photos to build the entire illustration on the computer before it was painted. However, this created a new challenge for us – how do we photograph flying crocodiles, a choking donkey and a horde of stampeding animals? Let’s just say we became very creative!

What is a typical writing/illustrating day? 
There is no typical day – we work with children and animals!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers/illustrators? 
Here’s what we’ve learned - it’s important to keep moving forward. You may have to alter your course many times, but just keep going!

What books did you read as a child? 
We read a lot of classic tales, adventure and fantasy stories, but one of our all time favourite books is The Eleventh Hour by Graeme Base. This book still has pride of place on the shelf, and was a great source of inspiration for Hullabazoo.

What else do you like to do, other than write/illustrate books?
Lisa: I like to read, I like to cook and I like to spend time with my family. My husband and I will take the kids camping, go to the beach or just generally chill out.

Tracey: When I have the chance to put down my paint brushes, I like to read, play the piano, clean the house (that’s right, I like to clean!), more reading and I love to spend time with my family.

What would be your perfect day?
Lisa: I may have already covered ‘perfect day’ in my last answer, but I guess these days could definitely be improved if there was no cleaning up involved.

Tracey: I love just getting in the car and driving – the destination’s not important. All I know is that when I get there I’ll find the nearest coffee shop, order a giant latte and bury my nose in a good book.

What five words best sum you up?
Lisa: Indecisive, stubborn, funny, perfectionist, spontaneous (words provided by my husband).

Tracey: Perfectionist, friendly, obsessive, conservative, generous (words provided by my sister, Lisa).

What’s next for you?
Lisa: Another children’s book (in the works, due date still unknown) and a third child (arriving late December 2010, if I can find the time).

Tracey: Illustrations for Lochlan’s next big adventure!