Saturday, September 13, 2008

Interview with Adam Gustavson

Adam Gustavson, the illustrator for A Very Improbable Story and artist extraordinaire was kind enough to agree to a little blog interview here. Here is what he had to say about working on the book and about being an illustrator:

1. How did you first get involved with A Very Improbable Story?

I was contacted by an editor at Charlesbridge over the phone, who made mention of a quirky story they you... about a boy with a cat stuck to his head, that in the course of its narrative would teach the concept of mathematical probability. A boy with a cat stuck to his head? I’m usually a pretty quirky guy, and I’ve always had a leaning toward the matter-of-fact treatment of absurd premises. That said, not many of my published books at the time reflected this, so I was excited to sign on to a project that fill that vacuum of weirdness in my professional history.

2. When I first saw your illustrations, I was very excited that you understood both the style of the content of the book very well. I noticed, in particular, that the illustration of Cindy leaping on the marbles was almost exactly what I was envisioning, when I wrote that page. What gives you your psychic powers? Or rather, was your illustration style simply a good fit for my writing style, or did you alter it in some ways to fit this particular book?

Well, I’m terribly nearsighted, almost to the point of blindness, but I discovered that a diet high in carrots, traditionally beneficial to one’s eyesight, instead informs my clairvoyant senses, which have over time morphed into the production crystal clear psychic visions.

We were out of carrots at the time that I needed to start sketching this project, though. So I had to go with plan B.

One of the freedoms in book illustration is the ability to break from the rectangular format of “the page.” It’s actually a fairly unique freedom, I think. I’ve never met a picture frame manufacturer or found a stretched canvas that was prepared to have characters leaping in and out of pictures, but in the process of turning pages, it’s completely acceptable and at the same time can offset the expectations of both the viewer and the other characters.

In my mind, the most self aware member of a book’s cast, in this case Ethan, is probably smart enough to know he’s in a book. Maybe he’s been in one before, I don’t know. But I like the idea of taking even his expectations of the page turning, tension and release, plot developing rigmarole and turn all of those expectations on their respective heads. So to capture that, well, violation of having his little sister traipsing about his room, I felt she needed to traipse about the book in a similar way, with little regard for the pre-ordained order of things.

I try to do this sort of thing a lot when I illustrate; sometimes, it can bring surprising dynamics to a scene that might otherwise be lacking them. In this case, the scene and the course of the narrative seemed to be just about begging for it.

If I weren’t such a wordy fellow, I might simply say that it made sense to me. And the manner in which the story was written really did fit well into my aesthetic and conceptual sensibilities.

3. How much discussion did you have with the editor about character design? Do you do a lot of preliminary sketches?

None, really. I just thought long and hard about Ethan, where I thought he might live, his build, his popularity in school, his other hobbies, and when I’d procrastinated enough dwelling on and internalizing as much of this as I could, I set about drawing the young feller. The editor was pretty amenable to my leanings, though initially she wasn’t sure my Cindy was chubby enough.

4. One of the stylistic choices you made was to connect the cat, Odds, to Ethan's head, so that it seemed that there no border between Ethan and the cat. What inspired that choice?

That was a bit of a gamble I guess. I’ve always liked the treatment of darks in the work of Edgar Degas; they become a network of deep, vacuous shapes that lead from one to another, with highlights and details seemingly stitched about them. I wanted to some extent for Odds and Ethan’s coiffure to work this way together.

I also thought that if the reader could figure out how to get Odds off Ethan’s head, we’d all be in trouble. There’s nothing worse than attracting heckling from an audience you can’t steer from afar. “What’s he whining about? All he has to do is...” So I felt that if I worked in a manner where the viewer just couldn’t make out where one began and the other ended, we’d all have no choice but to root for Ethan.

5. At a signing, you mentioned that you are allergic to cats (as am I). Did you have to do a lot of cat research to illustrate the book? And are you a Claritin man, or do you go more for Allegra?

Luckily, I’ve had two ill-fated cat projects in the past. For one of them, I popped two Benadryl and wandered out to an animal shelter. I hung out in the “cat room” for an hour or two with a sketchbook, doodling, scribbling and making little notes. The cats, for their part, ignored me and spent the time jumping against the windows trying to kill pretty songbirds outside. I don’t remember much about the rest of that day, but I did eventually go out and buy a bunch of books about cats, so I could study how they jump, sit, lie down, and stalk. I dove back into those books and sketchbooks with A Very Improbable Story, as cats are deceptively difficult to draw and paint; their coats catch light a manner that to me seems very different from other domesticated animals, and their faces are rather compact, so everything has to go in just the right spot. Additionally, one thing that makes cats cats is their eyes...which aren’t incredible expressive. If I was going to get Odds right, I’d have to cheat on the eyes to make them more emotive, which meant the other facial proportions would have to be juuuuust right. My brother’s cat was kind enough to pose for a few reference photos along the way, too.

And I go in for Claritin redi-tabs these days. But if they don’t do the trick, it’s Benadryl and a big nap.

6. Did you like math, as a kid?

Not really. Looking back, I think I had the misfortune of being JUST good enough to land in math classes that were too advanced for me. I liked the theories behind math and mathematical principles, but the fact that math is learned largely through repetition of exercises nearly killed me. Every struggle, it seemed to me, led immediately to another rather similar struggle. I guess I’ve never been terribly patient, so I often turned in homework with the first problem answered and the next five skipped. If there had been cats with gambling problems involved, maybe things would have been different.

7. Is it difficult to become an illustrator for picture books? For a new illustrator, what is the probability of getting paid work?

It does take a lot of work to get there. For one, editors and art directors need to be able to trust your ability to draw the same character doing different things from different angles, to mix color consistently, and handle whatever they throw your way, whether you’ve done it before or not. So for a young illustrator, it takes a fair amount of self-confidence to jump in, knowing someone will say, “Well, you draw flying pigs and rural scenes very well; how would you like to take on a book about a third grade classroom in the suburbs? It has twenty characters...”

That said, I don’t think it’s impossible to land work as a new illustrator. I’ve been told that art directors love discovering people, and I think there’s some truth to that. And there are smaller publishing houses out there, which pay very little but may be more likely to take a chance on young talent. Getting the next book, and the next book...that’s actually a little bit trickier.

8. What would be your ideal illustration project?

More straight faced weirdness, I reckon.

As a kid, I always enjoyed anthropomorphic animals and eccentric adults...the sort of grown ups that don’t offer words of wisdom or proper, responsible guidance, but the ones incapable of editing themselves, incapable of remembering they’re speaking to children. Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Bumble were among them, and Mercer Mayer’s work from the 1970s was loaded with them too. Sometimes I think we’ve gotten very protective of children in fiction as a culture, and I think it would be nice if we could loosen up a bit and at least let them take risks during their flights of fancy.

9. What new projects of yours are coming up?

I’ve been doing a year of historical fiction, which is a lot of fun. I have a civil war era book coming out around Passover entitled A Yankee at the Seder, by Elka Weber and published by Tricycle Press. I was spouting all sorts of Confederate Judaica trivia while working on that baby. I couldn’t turn it off. My current project, for Peachtree Publishers, is another historical piece that I’m not sure I can give away yet, but it takes place in the early 20th century and gave me an excuse to paint a 1904 Packard automobile. And a one legged rooster. You can’t go wrong with a one legged rooster.

Check out Adam's blog!

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