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

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Author/Illustrator Interview: Andrew Joyner

Today we're joined by author/illustrator Andrew Joyner, whose new book series contains a gorgeous and loveable pig by the name of Boris. Who could resist that?

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? I grew up in Mannum, South Australia, a small town on the Murray River. I now live not too far from there, in a town called Strathalbyn on the edge of the Adelaide Hills, with my wonderful family and a continually expanding flock (sheep, ducks, chickens, guinea pigs, and so on).

I've always loved books and drawing, although I've taken the long way round to becoming a children's book illustrator. I went to uni and studied English Literature — for a little while I even thought of becoming an English academic. And by a little while I mean four (maybe even five!) years, which is how long I spent working on my still unfinished PhD.

I was always drawing though (maybe that's why I didn't finish my PhD) - for the university newspaper, for band posters, and mostly just for fun. After uni I worked in a record store and around that time I began to send out some illustration portfolios to newspapers and magazines. After my fair share of rejection I finally got a teensy tiny drawing published in The Bulletin magazine. I think it was for a health column on the connection between obesity and adult bedwetting. I drew a barrel-shaped man, dressed in pyjamas, going over a waterfall. From there I just began to get more and more illustration work. So a few years later I found myself illustrating full time, for a whole range of newspapers and magazines.

I've only come to children's books quite recently. My first picture book was The Terrible Plop, written by the brilliant Ursula Dubosarsky. Ursula knew my work from School Magazine (a fantastic literary magazine for children published by the NSW Education Department). She very bravely suggested me as a possible illustrator to Jane Godwin at Penguin. And thankfully Jane and Penguin were even braver, and signed me up to illustrate The Terrible Plop. I learnt so much just from working on that book - from Jane and Ursula, and from our editor Tegan Morrison and our designer Megan Pigott. I must owe them some kind of tuition fee.

What genre do you write in? The Boris books are the first things I've written and I would say they are books for younger readers, somewhere between a picture book and a chapter book.

What do you love about writing and illustrating for children? I actually like drawing and writing for a particular audience. It may sound restrictive, but I find it quite liberating. In a way it takes you out of yourself - all your efforts are concentrated on telling a story to a child in the most effective and entertaining way possible. It influences every aspect of your work - from the style of your drawing through to the content and tone of your writing. Plus it's so much nicer than just gazing into the mirror!

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Yes, I do. It was an adventure story set on the Murray River, involving some kids in a canoe, a tiger snake and a can of fly spray. The kids saved themselves from the tiger snake by emptying a full can of fly spray on the snake's head. Fly spray in the 70s tended towards high - rather than low - irritant. The teacher read it out to the whole class and they all found it hilarious. The thing is, I hadn't meant it to be funny. I just thought of it as a thrilling adventure story. But I happily went along with their response.

What inspired you to write your latest books, the Boris series? In a sense, the books came from an aimless doodle. Although really, it was my publisher at Penguin, Jane Godwin, who was the real inspiration. When I first started on The Terrible Plop with Ursula, I showed Jane a few different animal drawings. At the time, given I was working mainly for newspapers, most of my animal drawings had different politicians' heads stuck on them, so I really had to search around for something even vaguely appropriate.

I had this doodle lying about of a dishevelled looking warthog wearing a jumper and shorts, above which I'd scrawled "Boris." I'd drawn it one day while looking through a book of Rene Goscinny's Nicholas stories, illustrated by the great Sempe. Jane must have liked it, because quite a few months later she told me she had an idea for a new series of chapter books, and she thought that Boris would make an ideal character. He did need a bit of a makeover though. (Andrew's guest post, showing the original drafts of Boris, is coming up on KBR later today!)

Which comes first – the illustrations or the writing of a book? This still surprises me, but I actually do all the writing first. And then once I have the complete manuscript, I edit it by trying to draw it. I'm really learning as I go though, so I expect there'll be more crossover between the writing and the drawing as my work develops. Maybe.

Can you tell us about your illustrating process? My sketches are a big, scribbly mess which I gradually whittle down to something I like. I use soft, dark pencils (2B to 4B) and LOTS of sheets of cheap paper.

My final drawings are always in brush and ink, on cold press (aka medium surface) watercolour paper. I try to make my drawings look spontaneous and energetic, so I'll often work by putting my rough on my custom-made light table (a beloved office object, made for me by my very clever father-in-law), laying a clean sheet of watercolour paper on top, and then inking directly onto the paper without any preliminary pencilling.

For Boris and The Terrible Plop, the colour was done digitally, but with hand-inked overlays, just to give it a slightly warmer, human feel. The process looks quite mystifying to an outsider. There'll be my brush ink drawing, and then next to it there'll be a sheet of cartridge paper with all theses splodges of ink on it which will make up the colour parts of the final illustration. It makes sense to me though. And it stops me getting too hung up with what's on the piece of paper. For me, the artwork isn't my drawing - the thing on the paper - but the final printed book. Plus I've always loved the look of old picture books - in fact, any old colour printing - where each colour had to be done as a separate drawing or overlay. So I think there's a bit of nostalgia in my technique too.

What’s a typical writing and illustrating day? I work from home, so I get started around 9 am, once the kids are at school and the sheep and chooks and ducks have been let out and served breakfast. And then I just get on with whatever I need to do that day, be it drawing or writing or both. There's always some kind of deadline to meet (or just politely acknowledge as it sails past). I always finish work at 5 pm - there's my family to hang out with, and of course sheep and chooks and ducks which now need dinner and locking away. Sounds exciting right! I really try to avoid working at night (after the kids have gone to bed), but inevitably I do (especially when working on a series - they are lots of work). And I keep the weekends free.

What advice do you have on writing and illustrating? Finish what you're doing. Be it a drawing, a piece of writing, or a picture book, it's only when you finish something - when you go through the whole process - do you really begin to learn how to do it.

What books did you read as a child? Well, there were lots of picture books but the ones I especially remember were Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, James Marshall's George and Martha, and Judith Kerr's The Tiger Came to Tea. A little bit later, I remember Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows having a big impact on me. I also read and enjoyed Punch annuals, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, The Hobbit, and quite a few comics.

What else do you like to do, other than write and illustrate books? I love listening to music, reading, hanging out with my family, going out to restaurants, walking in nature - all the things that people usually like to do. My wife and I also love to go for country drives, especially if we don't know where we are going or the road we are taking. We've done it for years, long before we had kids. I think it's why we like living where we do. There are so many funny little roads weaving through the hills and countryside. Our kids, though, haven't really embraced this activity. But their desperate, exhausted pleas of "Where are we going?" remain unanswered.

What would be your perfect day? A family day trip! A meandering drive to Port Elliot (a lovely sea side town in South Australia) for fish and chips in the Soldier's Garden followed by a walk along the coast. We would then hop back in the car and head to Deep Creek for a walk through their beautiful stringybark forests before settling under a tree, on a hill overlooking the ocean, surrounded by hundreds of kangaroos. Possibly, there would also be a platter of soft European cheeses involved. Cheese is my tragic weakness.

What five words best sum you up? I was going to say "Who moved my cheese?" but that's only four words so I think I'll go with "There's no place like home" (I've got bright red sneakers which I can click together while saying this).

What’s next for Andrew Joyner? Well, I've just finished the next two Boris books (phew), which will be coming out in June 2011. And I'm just about to get started on a few new picture books, including a new one for Ursula which is all about elephants. Too many elephants, in fact.

For more about Andrew Joyner's work, check out his website, andrewjoyner.squarespace.com.

Read our review of the first two books in Andrew Joyner's Boris series

Read Andrew Joyner's special guest post about Boris's big illustrative makeover