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

Friday 4 February 2011

Author/Illustrator Interview: Peter Carnavas

We love the work of Peter Carnavas, so we're thrilled to have him join us on Kids Book Review today. In this interview, Peter tells us about his life writing and illustrating picture books.

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? I grew up in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast, worked in central Queensland as a primary school teacher and now live back on the Sunshine Coast, having gathered a lovely wife and two daughters along the way. I still have my big toe in the waters of teaching but am spending more time drawing pictures of ducks and funny little people.

What genre do you write in? I create picture books that target all ages. My illustrations are generally suited to children but I try to put layers of meaning in both the words and pictures so adults enjoy the stories too. I’d like to attempt other genres one day – I still have a dream of writing a great novel, though I need to get used to the idea of writing more than a few hundred words.

What other genres have you written in? I wrote a lot of short stories when I was younger, mainly for competitions or zine-like books I gave away to people. At the moment, it’s primarily picture books.

What do you love about writing and illustrating for children? I love the marriage of words and pictures. It’s a wonderful feeling to write a sentence with the knowledge of the extra meaning that will come when paired with an illustration. It’s great watching children read the story in this way as well. You can literally see their eyes dart around the page then soak in the picture and, of course, the meaning.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? I was writing stories before I went to school, often in backwards or mirror writing. I made a lot of little books and one I remember was called “My Turtle Bites My Finger”. We had a pet turtle, Pokey, and he inspired the tale.

Your books cover some serious topics and important issues; are these issues close to your heart? I tend to write stories after being emotionally moved by something myself, so the themes are close to me even if I haven’t experienced exactly what the characters have. For example, I’ve luckily never had to go through what Christopher does in The Important Things, though the theme of remembering the stories behind seemingly unimportant household things is a big part of my family, as it is with most families.

I often start writing a story after reading a novel or an article that makes me stare and think a lot after I’ve read it. So if you ever see me staring vaguely into the distance, you might be witnessing the genesis of a new story. Or I might be trying to remember where I put my keys.

Which comes first – the illustrations or the writing of a book? I usually write the text pretty quickly, as soon as I have the idea. I’ll then spend months scribbling and painting the illustrations, modifying the text slightly as I go. Sarah’s Heavy Heart is the only story of mine that started with a picture.

Your illustrations are beautifully classic – can you tell us about your illustrating process? I do lots of messy roughs, filling many sketchbooks before I pick up a paintbrush. I like to have all the roughs completely done and ready before I start on the final versions of each illustration. When I’m ready, I’ll trace the rough onto watercolour paper using a light box (I’m not quite sure how I ever survived without one of these), then paint and ink.

I never draw a picture properly the first time and some days I just don’t seem to be able to draw at all but I know myself well enough to know that it will come back pretty soon. It’s a bit like an athlete running through a pain barrier, though I rarely get a stitch when I’m drawing.

Tell us about your path to having your books published. I completed a picture book course with Dr Virginia Lowe in 2005, while I was working as a part-time music teacher. I learnt all the fundamentals of picture book writing, especially the concept of stripping back the text to let the pictures do the talking. The result of the course was a dummy of Jessica’s Box, which I sent to New Frontier the following year and was published in 2008.

What’s a typical writing and illustrating day? It varies a lot. I have two young daughters and my wife (studying for her Honours) and I basically split our time between looking after them and taking turns to lock ourselves in the study to work. I tend to do a lot of my work at night when it’s cooler and the house is quiet and I can listen to my records.

What advice do you have on writing and illustrating? The thing that helped me initially was spending many hours in libraries and bookshops, immersing myself in pictures books. I discovered so many authors and illustrators I previously didn’t know and all of these influences helped shaped the sorts of stories I wanted to write. Also, if you really want to do it, then keep doing it, even if it seems difficult.

What books did you read as a child? I don’t remember having any favourite picture books as a child, although I did read a lot. When I was about nine I fell in love with the work of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. I’m still fascinated by them both.

What else do you like to do, other than write and illustrate books? I love doing anything with my girls – reading, swimming, painting. I have always played music and have a lot of instruments – guitars, mandolins, bouzouki, harmonicas, piano accordion – some of which I can play properly. I’m probably at my most relaxed when I’m fishing. I also like birdwatching, which I didn’t expect would happen.

What would be your perfect day? In no particular order: walk the dog, go fishing, swim, eat feta cheese and olives, play music with my brother, read a novel, think of a good idea for a story, roll down a hill with my daughters, beat my wife in a close game of Scrabble.

What five words best sum you up? Quiet, content and slightly tired.

What’s next for Peter Carnavas? I have a new book being released around April. It’s called The Great Expedition and is a playful book about a group of brave young explorers, inspired by Burke and Wills (though much less tragic in the end).

To read more about Peter Carnavas's work, head to his website, petercarnavas.com.

Peter's new book, The Great Expedition, published by New Frontier, is due for release in May 2011.