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

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Author interview: Gus Gordon

We are just so delighted to welcome talented and very lovely author/illustrator Gus Gordon to KBR today with this colourful and creative interview. There's even a sneak peek at his new book, out September. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have!

Who are you? Gus Gordon, I’m told.

What do you do? 

I write and illustrate books for small people and older people who like small people’s books.

Where can we drool over your stuff? 
Well, you can see some of my stuff here: www.gusgordon.com and facebook.com/GusGordonbooks or just go into a bookstore and ask. If they don’t have any of my books, get very angry. Make them cry if you can.

What’s your story? I grew up, the oldest of four boys, in northern New South Wales, on a farm so high up in mountains that my ears used to hurt. Naturally on the farm we had many animals – just regular animals, not ones that talk (although my ears were hurting so maybe I just couldn’t hear them).

At school, I was the kid who drew. This didn’t make me any more popular. It just meant that I wasn’t bullied as much (most kids couldn’t be bothered as I didn’t threaten their existence in any way that they could figure out).

After school I worked as a stockman on humungous cattle stations in northern Australia. I even went to agricultural college until I eventually decided that I should probably play to my strengths. So I became a dentist.

That didn’t work out (it was the dentist’s chair that I really wanted) so I moved to Sydney and went to the Julian Ashton Art School in The Rocks. That was a heap of fun. While there, I got my first gigs drawing cartoons for magazines and newspapers but it wasn’t really working for me, and the money was horrible. Thank goodness my wife had a real job!

Then one day I was asked to illustrate my first children’s book and that was it - that’s what I wanted to do. So I bought a dentist’s chair and a surfboard and moved to the northern beaches. Sweet!

What came first in your life – the writing or the illustrating? Definitely the illustrating, although I was writing stories quite early. As a child I was a fantastic daydreamer (I still am, although now it fits very conveniently under the umbrella of work). Nothing felt better than writing a story and then drawing pictures to go with it. I had a freakishly short attention span and spent most of my education looking out windows.

What made you decide to pen children’s books? 
I always wanted to write them but was too busy illustrating other folk’s books. Then out of the blue, in a sketchbook, came an idea about an adventurous chicken. This turned into Wendy and before it was published I had written a story about a dog, which then became A Day With Noodles. All of a sudden I had two books out there.

What do you love most about producing books for children? The money. Kidding! For me it’s about having the opportunity to take a child on a journey that they would never otherwise take. I hope that they have been excited or moved in a way that is beyond their control.

What’s your process when creating books? Do you write the text or illustrate first? It always begins with a drawing – normally of an animal doing something. Then it gets all weird. A bit of writing, then some drawing (roughing out really basic story boards). Writing, drawing, writing, drawing.

At some point, I will then sit down and write the whole thing – start to finish. And then it’s back to story boards and plot ideas. I thought this system was going to get more refined but it hasn’t. It’s actually a very organic process, as I have to find that place where the text and the illustrations have some sort of harmony and are not competing.

You've been working intensely on a book that you've described as the biggest project you have ever undertaken. Can you tell us a little bit about Herman and Rosie? No. Okay, maybe a little bit. It’s an urban tale (always wanted to tell an urban tale). Herman is a crocodile who lives in a very small apartment (in New York). He works a dead end office job in town during the day and plays his oboe on the roof at night. Rosie (a deer) lives in the building next door and is an aspiring jazz singer who is struggling to make ends meet. It’s a story about being lonely in a big city; about connections and the way we see things.

It has been a huge book project for a bunch of reasons. I did a heap of research which, naturally, included a New York trip where I wandered around sketching everything I thought I may use in the book (my hands nearly fell off, it was that cold!).

Secondly, it was very tricky writing a dual narrative story where both characters had equal weight. The challenge was writing it in such a way that it didn't lose its cadence while I jumped back and forth between their stories. 

Lastly, because it was very much a mixed media book, it took some time sourcing the right collage materials (old maps, postcards, etc.) It was a lot fun but geez it took some time. Thankfully Penguin were very patient.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you’ve experienced on your book-creation journey? I battle with myself mostly. Maintaining the confidence to see an idea through. Sometimes I think ‘this is ridiculous, no one will come with me on this!’ There are often times when I worry that I can’t tell the story the way I want to tell it – that I don’t have the chops. Generally it works out in the end but I have to push through the doubting thoughts and have faith that I’m going to figure it out. If that doesn’t work then I need to get some sleep.

an exclusive peek at Herman and Rosie

What’s a typical writing/illustrating day? Lately it’s been far from typical. Get down to the studio at 5:30 – 6am and work until 10pm at night. Crazy, I know. Normally it’s more:

8:00 Arrive in studio (coffee in hand)
8:00 – 8:30 Read some book and music blogs (this can sometimes go ‘til 9:00)
9:00 Get some more coffee
9:10 Figure out the theme music for the day/book
9:30 Worry about what I need to do; phone someone (anyone)
10:00 Start panicking as day is quickly whittling away
10:30 Coffee
10:45 (see 10:00 above)
11:00 Pick up pencil (or paintbrush)
12:30 Make a vegemite and cheese sandwich
12:45 Pick up pencil (or paintbrush)
12:45 – 6:30pm Work somehow gets done

When are you at your most creative? 

In the shower. My head is clearest here by a country mile. It’s a great place to come up with ideas.

What advice do you have on creating great children’s books? Geez, you’re asking the wrong person. But, I guess if I was threatened with a Chinese burn, I suppose I would say…

1. Just write. This is an old one that I continually tell myself. Get it down, don’t analyse too much until it’s done.

2. Don’t worry excessively about the age group that you are supposed to be writing for. This is a sure fire way to stop anything you’ve got going creatively.

3. This from a good friend, ‘How can I make this great?’ I think about this a lot. Don’t settle for ‘good’.

4. Create a really strong character.

5. Wine can be good for inspiration but not for application.

If you couldn’t be a writer/illustrator, what would you be? I’d probably be playing an instrument in a band or doing something else creative that didn’t earn any money.

What books did you read as a child?

1. Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham
2. Harry The Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion
3. Everything by Roald Dahl
4. Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry
5. Lord of The Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien

Name ten children’s books you love.

1. Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham (this book started everything for me. It’s why I write anthropomorphically – $5 word!!)
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl
3. Bartholomew and The Bug by Neal Layton
4. The Enemy by Davide Cali (illustrated by Serge Bloch)
5. Mr. Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs
6. The Iron Man by Ted Hughes (illustrated by Laura Carlin)
7. Catherine Certitude by Patrick Modiano (illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé)
8. The Chicken Thief by BĂ©atrice Rodriguez
9. Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie by Joel Stewart
10. Adelaide, The Flying Kangaroo by Tomi Ungerer

What else do you like to do, other than create books?

 Family, friends, music, cheese, wine, hats, basketball (yes, basketball!).

What would be your perfect day? See above.

Which book character is most like you and why?

 Man, that’s too hard! Ahhhh… Okay, Mr Peek from Mr Peek and The Misunderstanding at The Zoo by Kevin Waldron. He has a happy default setting but has a tendency to worry sometimes.

What’s next for Gus Gordon? Sleep. Then I’m illustrating a picture book called I am Cow, Hear Me Moo by Jill Esbaum for Penguin US. Then a picture book for Hachette by Lisa Shanahan. Then my next book, which might be about a duck. Or not.

Keep and eye out for Gus's gorgeous new book - Herman and Rosie - this September, published by Penguin.