(interview with Carson Ellis continued from yesterday...)
VKBMKL: Any children's book illustrators that you love that you discovered as an adult? Or is there a book you find yourself buying over and over again to give to your son's friends?
CARSON: I discovered Alice and Martin Provensen five or six years ago and I couldn't believe I hadn't known of them before. I feel so kindred to them - it seemed impossible that they hadn't been influencing me my whole life. Also, Taro Gomi, Mitsumasa Anno, Miroslav Sasek, Ivan Bilibin, Wanda Gag, Tove Jansson, and Tomi Ungerer, who I didn't truly discover as an adult - I read Crictor and Flat Stanley as a kid - but I don't think I really understood what an amazing, weird genius he was until recently.
As for oft purchased books, I've bought a lot of copies of both Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams and My Friends by Taro Gomi. They're two of my favorite board books and board books are my favorite gifts to give to new parents.
VKBMKL: Did you go into illustration with children's books in mind or is that something that came about later on?
CARSON: I've wanted to illustrate children's books since I was a kid but I didn't study illustration in college. I grew up in New York but was strongly, mysteriously drawn to the University of Montana, where I got a painting degree because they didn't offer illustration classes. I assumed it would be more or less the same idea. It wasn't. I graduated knowing nothing about illustration - not what an art director does, nor how to use a computer, nor what the term "editorial illustration" means. After college, I was a painter and I worked a lot of cocktail waitressing and bartending jobs. My first illustration gigs were the work I did for The Decemberists - album art, flyers, drawings for t-shirts and websites. More and more people saw that stuff and it led to editorial work, which eventually led to book work. So it was always the goal to illustrate books but I came to it in a long, roundabout way.
VKBMKL: As the subject matter hits home for this blog, can you tell me how the idea for the "Reading Frenzy" print came about?
CARSON: My friend (and fellow vintage kids' book enthusiast) Chloe Eudaly owns an awesome little bookstore in Portland called Reading Frenzy. I made the print for her to sell there. It's a portrait of Hank who really exists in a perpetual reading frenzy, though this illustration is a bit staged. If this was an actual portrait of my son reading, half the books in this pile would be Eyewitness Books. It's an ode to Hank and his love of reading but equally to the books I especially love.
VKBMKL: I've always been fascinated by married couples who work together in children's literature: Ruth Krauss and Crocket Johnson; Leo and Diane Dillon; Martin and Alice Provensen. How has working on The Wildwood Chronicles with your husband changed your home life and how has it affected you as an artist?
CARSON: It was fun and challenging. In general, I've found there's not a lot of collaboration happening between authors and illustrators of books these days. Illustrators are typically handed finished manuscripts and there's not really an invitation to offer criticism or feedback. And, in my experience, it goes both ways - I've never gotten feedback from an author on my sketches and, in a couple of cases, the author didn't even see the illustrations until the final art was all done. So, of course, working with Colin was really different. We thought about Wildwood, talked about it and worked on it around the clock. Creative collaboration can be a messy and painful thing though, especially when undertaken by people who love each other and who are comfortable being honest with each other about what they like and don't like. We fought over things in a way I never would with another author. There's something to be said for having an editor as a diplomat and go-between. That said, we've been collaborating for over ten years on all things Decemberists so we're not strangers to that process; to hurting feelings, melting down and then somehow, in the end, coming to accord. Disagreeing seems an inevitable part of the process for us but I think we've gotten pretty good at it. I also think there's a sort of telepathy that happens between married couples that really streamlines creative collaboration. I can often picture what Colin is envisioning when he writes a passage and he can often picture what the illustration will look like when I draw it. In this way, once we settled on how Wildwood would look - it's medium and palette - the interior illustrations came really easily and peacefully.As for how it changed our home life, I'd say, occasional bickering aside, it was very sweet. We're both always working on something - each of us knee deep in some all-consuming project - and it was fun to have that project be the same thing for both of us this time. Our household revolved around Wildwood for a couple of years. We were always thinking and talking about it; Colin read Hank and I new pages at the end of every day; Hank was totally wrapped up in it. We were really immersed in that world.
VKBMKL: And one silly question about your husband. In his music, as in what I've read so far of the book, he's a very lyrical writer. He often uses dated phrasing and words, and I wondered if he talks like that in real life or if he keeps note books where he collects words that strike him?
CARSON: Ha! No, he doesn't talk like that. He's an articulate guy and an eloquent speaker when he wants to be. He loves lyrical, multi-syllabic words and I guess he'd use words like palanquin and bombazine and arabesque if they came up in conversation but, really, how often do they come up in conversation?
Thanks Carson. My husband and son have been reading a chapter a night of Wildwood for the past few weeks, and it's right up my son's alley. Nature and fantasy combined is his perfection.
For more on Carson, check out her books, her blog and this interview with Seven Impossible Things. Thanks for reading kids!
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