My favorite part of my day is reading to my four-year-old before bed each night. We cuddle together and each of us gets lost in the story. He loves when I make funny voices for the characters or if it’s a book about science, plants or architecture. Well, two years ago, a book called Home by Carson Ellis sent us for a loop. We loved it! We read it nightly, for weeks. And people must have us pegged, too, because we have received it as a gift three times. So, when I went to my local children’s bookstore last year and saw that there was a new Carson Ellis book, Du Iz Tak?, I had to get it for my son for Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s a beautiful story combining both ecology and architecture. A win-win for us.
When I was asked to interview Carson for Design*Sponge, I jumped at the chance. Of course I’d love to ask one of my favorite children’s book writers and illustrators a few questions — and fresh off her win for the 2017 Caldecott Honor for Du Iz Tak?, no less. It’s truly an honor to give you a peek into the creative working days of Carson Ellis. See my interview with her after the jump. —Erin
I know you live on a farm. How close to real life is Du Iz Tak? and some of the little views from around the farm?
Du Iz Tak? could really be set anywhere outside — in a backyard or in a city park. Anywhere you could find some dirt and a log. That’s one of the things I like about the book: that it might inspire kids to look around them and seek out the microcosmic worlds that exist in ordinary places.
How do you stay inspired from one book to the next?
I often don’t. I only take on projects that I’m excited about and that helps. But everything gets boring at some point. The conceiving and sketching of Du Iz Tak? was inspiring, but painting the illustrations for it was often drudgery. They had lots of repeated imagery and little details that took forever to paint and for months on end I was just sort of powering through it. I don’t think people like to hear that — it’s so unromantic. But not all art can come from some mystical inward fount of inspiration. Hopefully some phase of every project does. But there’s something equally mystical to me in the uninspired part. Sitting and painting blades of grass for hours until my back is messed up and I’m bored to tears because I believe in the concept of the book — that’s an important part of the practice and it’s magical in its own way.
What is your creative process when writing/illustrating?
It depends on the book. I was lying in bed with my kid who was falling asleep when I had the idea for Du Iz Tak?. I lay there in dark thinking the story through — how it would look, how the language would work — until I had it figured out. Next, I typed out a manuscript for it. Then, once I’d talked my editor into publishing it, I made a dummy for it, which is basically a sketched first draft of the book. But I had a hard time figuring out how to tell the story. It’s a wordless book except for dialogue which is all in an invented language so the words don’t help to convey the narrative and every little visual decision was important. I revised the dummy over and over; got feedback from tons of people; kept tweaking it for months. Then, once the dummy felt finished, I spent months experimenting with different mediums, approaches, dimensions of the art. Then I finally sat down to do the final illustrations, the grueling part I mentioned above, which took about six months.
Alternately, I wrote Home in 20 minutes and sketched out the whole book in thumbnail drawings nearly as quickly. The whole thing was conceived in an hour or so and didn’t change much from that point on. I knew exactly how I wanted to paint the art. My editor had very little feedback. It was so simple. It still took forever to paint the illustrations but the creative process was so much easier. And then illustrating novels for kids is a different sort of job all together. I read through the book making notes when I come to scenes I want to draw. I make a list of all of these illustrations, sketch them, get feedback from my editor on the sketches and then do the final art. I still grapple with a lot of the same decisions regarding medium, size, etc. but the process is a lot less complicated than it is when I’m illustrating a picture book because the art plays a much less critical role.
What’s a day in the life of Carson Ellis look like, once you have started on a new project?
I have a couple of kids, so I wake up around 7:30 am and my husband, Colin, and I spend the first hour and a half of our day getting them up and off to school. After that I have some breakfast and do some farm or gardening chores. I have lots of animals that need feeding and, in the summer, I try to spend an hour or so in the garden before I go to work. Then I go to work in my studio which is a little cottage in a field on my property. Work can consist of any number of things depending on where I’m at in a project but it usually involves a lot of drawing and painting. After work I spend time with my family: homework, dinner, baths, reading before bed. Then sometimes I can convince Colin to stay up and watch a movie with me. Sometimes not. Sometimes I work on some crafty thing: a knitting or embroidery project.
Do you juggle projects or stick to one at a time?
I never work on more than one book at a time if I can help it. They take so much concentration — I just don’t have room in my brain to focus on much else. There’s always downtime when I work on books — when I’m waiting for feedback from an editor, for example — so I take on a few odd art jobs here and there to fill that time. Though it’s hard to know when and how long those periods of downtime will be, so I don’t take on much. I do some big, non-book related projects too: album art or a show of paintings maybe. I always try to schedule them so I’m not doing two things at once — so they don’t overlap with a book, for example. But I always fail because I’m terrible at predicting how long it will take me to get a thing done.
How do you manage work time, farm time and family time?
Sometimes very poorly. The farm is the easiest thing to neglect because I’m not actually a farmer. I have a big garden and over 50 fruit trees and I have some animals: two llamas, two goats, a sheep and a lot of chickens. But a lot of the care of these things gets delegated to other people when I’m too busy to deal with it myself. The truly hard thing to balance is my work and my kids: two equally important forces in my life that seem perpetually at odds. When I’m too busy with one, the other suffers. Or that’s how it feels to me at least. And the balance never seems totally right. But, in practical terms: I manage it by setting limits and boundaries. I rarely work at night and on the weekends, and I rarely take a day off from work to do things with my kids. Everybody wins and everybody suffers!
What comes first, the illustrations or the text for a book, or does it vary from project to project?
I think it varies. By and large the text comes first. Du Iz Tak? was a little different because the concept came first and the concept was visual. So I had an idea in my head that was in pictures but the first thing I did with that idea was to write it down, not draw it. It seemed easier to get the initial idea across to my editor that way.
With all the different jobs you’ve held, did you always know you wanted to be a children’s book writer?
As a little kid I wanted to be an artist and I began to be interested in children’s books as a teenager. So, yeah, I think I’ve been working towards this for most of my life.
What are five songs/bands/podcasts (if any at all) that you listen to while in the studio?
Shut Up: Stormzy
Are You With Me Now?: Cate Le Bon
Do Me Justice: S.E. Rogie
Princess Nokia: Tomboy
I’m Coming Home: The Staple Singers
What were you doing when you found out that you won the Caldecott Honor, and what were your thoughts?
I was fast asleep! They called at 4:00 am Portland, OR time. I was so moved that I hung up the phone and burst into tears.