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

Sunday 24 October 2010

Author/Illustrator Interview - Grahame Baker-Smith

Kids Book Review is all verklempt at featuring awesome talent Grahame Baker-Smith in this sensational interview. This incredibly talented illustrator recently released a beautiful book – Farther – which we reviewed right here on KBR, and he’s also just the loveliest man ever. Enjoy!

What’s your story? I was born in a small village in England near the town of Bicester surrounded by fields and farms. I remember being outside most of the time, playing in the woods and by the stream a half-mile away from our house.

At primary school, during the summer months, we went on ‘nature walks’ which I absolutely loved. The whole school just walked through the fields observing things like cobwebs and ferns, grasses and wildflowers.

I feel incredibly close to and nourished by nature now and I’m sure these early experiences, this appreciation of the wonders of the natural world, simple and surrounding, helped to root me in the feeling of belonging to the Earth.

I had a go at doing a job, but I knew it was never going to work for me! At various times I worked in retail and, (improbably) a roofer! But I wanted to tell stories more than anything else, and I wanted to make pictures to go with those stories. I knew that a life spent doing anything else was going to be a terrible waste.

Now I live in Bath in the UK with my wife Linda, also an artist, and our three extraordinary, talented, argumentative, temperamental, wonderful children.

How long have you been writing and illustrating? I started to earn money from illustrating in 1985. I always wrote, even long before this date, but I think for me I had to be knocked around a bit by life, have some edges rounded off and learn a lot of stuff about myself and other people, learn some things about love and loss, before my writing had anything at all to say about this whole, long process of growing up and becoming fully human.

Farther is the first book I’ve done that I feel has some real truth in it about the way I think about life and some of the complex relationships we all seem to insist on developing!

What medium to do you work in? For a long time I used purely 'traditional’ media. Watercolour, acrylic, pastel, pen and ink, etc. Then, some time around 2004, I started to experiment with Photoshop.

Exhausted and in need of a new stimulus to my work, I spent months - frustrating, agonising months - working until 3:00am, often with my baby daughter on my knee, trying to figure out how on earth Photoshop and computers worked and how I could use them in my own way to make something ‘natural’ and in accord with my own feelings.

So, now, I still paint and draw, I use photography and scan natural materials, make some things from paper or fimo and generally ‘play’ and mess around, but it all ends up in the wonderful compositing space that is Photoshop. 

What style would you call your work? I honestly have no idea.

Why do you illustrate? Partly because, for whatever reason, I seem to be wired that way. I would, and indeed DID, make pictures constantly, obsessively, told stories through them and yearned to express something of the human condition through them, long before I ever got paid for it. If no one paid me now I would still be doing it. Iit isn’t about the money; I just arrived here like this! I can’t help it!

What did you draw as a child? I painted rockets, spaceships, planets and aeroplanes. Later I painted the Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Daredevil. When I was fourteen I wrote and illustrated three issues of ‘Captain Magna’ – my own comic! My sister kept them for me, I remember feeling good about those.

Where has your work been published and do you have any awards? Well, Farther has been published in Australia as well as the UK.Leon and the Place Between, the book I illustrated to Angela McAllister’s story was published in the UK, USA, France, Romania and Korea. This book was short-listed for the Kate Greenaway medal and the UKLA award but didn’t win either [Ed: only a matter of time].

In fact the only thing I have won in my life is the hand of Linda, my wife! That is an impossible thing to beat.

What inspired you to write Farther? The inspiration came from a few places. I have a 14-year-old son who is completely at ease, as his generation all seem to be, with technology. When he was little, he could take a mobile phone and find all kinds of uses for it just by ‘playing’ and instinct. He has taught himself to write and create computer code, a language called C++, which impresses me hugely. I don’t understand a line of what he is writing and am happy with that. I think it’s good that our children do things that the parents can’t understand, they need their own arena of expertise, it is a natural progression; I want to see him race past me and fly.
I also thought a lot about my own father. Like many of the fathers of his generation he worked long and hard, was very ‘hands-off’ when it came to rearing his offspring, never changed a nappy or pushed a pram. His life was swirling around and in me when I came to write Farther - with the addition of my own experiences as a father, too. I am slightly obsessed with my own ‘dreams’ and ideas, sometimes lost in them and distant. But, the fathers of my generation, like the grown-up boy in the penultimate spread, have cradled their children in a conscious, tactile way.

How did you find a publisher for Farther? The publisher is Templar based here in Dorking. They published Leon and the Place Between and looked at and liked Farther when I was about half-way through the illustrations for Leon so it became a natural thing to do for them as the next project.

I have the first draft of Farther in my notebook and very few of the words as written there are different to the final text and none of the content was changed by the publisher. They are wonderful to work with, very creative with a very special attitude toward making books.

What are the greatest obstacles you have experienced on your creative journey? The greatest block is myself, always myself. For a long time I felt something ‘chained up’ inside me.

Before I went to college I worked in a very natural way, painting all day and walking in the parks and meadows of Oxford in the evening. I felt free and that I was on an exciting journey of exploration. Going to college (which happened by accident really) was a good thing for me to do but it confused me enormously for many years. It made me realise I had been working in a very narrow way and there were so many other things, so many ways of doing things, entire universes to explore!

Upon leaving college the pressure of finding work left little time for working on any meaningful expression of my own ideas though I did experiment with lots of different styles and media. There was a fear, deep down, that I can’t really name, that even though I was earning a living and doing quite well something inside me had become ‘lost’ since the time before going to college.

Perhaps it was a fear that I would try to say something that I really wanted to say, something that had some true part of my experience as a person in it, and it would come out sounding and looking trite or ordinary and I would have to face the fact that I perhaps did not have anything to say after all.

Or that my work would be rejected – to do the best you can do and to have it ignored is a very painful experience. When you follow a dream and put everything you have into it, it engages you on every level, if no one wants what you so earnestly and full-heartedly offer it feels like a very great and isolating defeat.

So, now I am at a different stage. Some five years ago I came to a point of real despair with my work and knew something had to give or change. I opened myself up to the possibilities of working with computers, all the other techniques I had learned over the years I threw into the air, cut them up, and let them fall as they would, allowing everything to be used in new ways and trying to be open, as open and trusting as possible, to the creative process.

Now I feel something is ‘unleashed’ and that, somehow, I can dip into a ‘stream’ of ideas and thoughts and work with the material of my life and experiences in a way that feels natural again, like in my days in Oxford, but with a better grasp of techniques and complete consent to my intuition to lead the way.   

Have children’s books always been of interest to you? There is nothing that really stands out from my childhood. Once I’d left home and was spending all day obsessively painting and drawing I remember loving the work of Nicola Bailey, particularly her Mouse hole Cat and La Corona. She painted jewel-like watercolours. Now I really love Dave McKean’s work, (we were at college together and are still friends) Nicoletta Ceccolli and Sara Fanelli and, I really admire Shaun Tan’s work.

What do you love most about writing books for children? I don’t honestly know if I do write for children, not that I feel children shouldn’t have books specifically written with them in mind, it’s just that I don’t think I’m very good at that, I just have to work with what comes out and hope that children will like it.

Farther is really the first book I feel comes from an emotional and real place in me. It was just ‘there’ and it’s published and marketed as a children’s book but I hope it can be enjoyed by anyone who likes the marriage of words and pictures.

For me, that is the great buzz of the whole thing, to dream up an idea or story and then create a world within which the tale is played out, to do it with all your integrity and heart and maybe provoke a feeling, an emotion in another person who you will never meet apart from through this book. It’s a marker isn’t it, it’s like saying; ‘I was here and this is what I made of a little of it.’

Since Leon and the Place Between came out, and especially since it was short listed for the Greenaway, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few people, a lot of them children, and in some cases they have been excited about the work and have made wonderful drawings and paintings of their own. We all find inspiration in many different places, we need that, it’s like some magic potion to be excited about someone else’s work to the point where it spurs you on in your own. If anything that I did could do a little of that sometimes then I am very happy.

What advice would you have on illustrating for a living? Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t possible, and if it’s what you really want to do with your life never, never, never give up. To spend your life doing something that doesn’t nourish you in a profound and satisfying way is a waste.

What do you really love to do in life? My family is of course of paramount interest in ways too numerous to be covered in several hundred sheets of paper. I love music, I love films, I love reading, I love cooking and philosophy and learning about how the universe works and ancient history and thinking and, naturally painting, drawing, writing, I couldn’t live without these things and would very soon die.

Can you name your top five children’s books of all time? Well, that’s impossible to answer. I love Where the Wild Things Are and Shaun Tan’s Arrival (but I don’t know if that’s really a children’s book.) The Tiger Who Came to Tea has always been a huge hit in our house. I also really like the old stories, the folk tales – Rapunzel, Snow White, etc. Also, legends – Greek, Norse, Indian, all fabulous stuff.

What books did you read as a child? I don’t remember ANY stories in particular at all! I devoured books on space and space flight. At about eleven I went through a big Alistair Maclean, Agatha Christie, Edgar Alan Poe phase.

If you couldn’t be an author/illustrator, what would you be? There is nothing else I could be, I just cannot contemplate or imagine doing anything else. I have had a couple of other jobs for a very brief time after leaving school but I knew I couldn’t survive in this world by having a job, a thing I did for money. Considering how much of our life is spent working I just knew that what I did for a living had to be inextricably bound up with what I am and what I created.

Describe your perfect day. One in which no one dies of cruelty or sadness and everyone has what they need.

Describe yourself in five words. Just like all other humans.

What’s next for Grahame Baker Smith? I’m writing a graphic novel called Tales from Terramaunia which I’m going to illustrate, too. Apart from that, who knows? I’m going to try to stay open and see and enjoy what happens.

Any parting words? I would like to say how thrilled I am that Farther has been published in Australia and that people have said nice things about it. I would love to, one day, see your amazing country first-hand.

See more on Grahame’s work at http://www.illustrationweb.com/