SCBWI Bologna 2008 Author-Illustrator Interview: Pat Cummings

Pat Cummings traveled a lot when she was young, as her father was in the Army. She has been writing and illustrating children’s books since she graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. She currently lives in beautiful downtown Brooklyn, with her husband Chuku Lee and the ghost of her cat, Cash. Anita Loughrey interviewed her in November 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

Are you a writer as well as an illustrator, and, if so, which comes first, the images or the words?

PC: Yes, I write. Usually, the writing proceeds any work on illustrations, but at times the imagery comes first, particularly if there’s something I want to draw.

Two books I’ve written: C.L.O.U.D.S. and Carousel both started with images. In fact, Carousel began as a series of sketches with only a loose concept to tie them together. The writing and art developed at the same time. Short answer: it varies.

Do you have favorite medium you work in? If so, did the medium choose you or did you choose it? Can you elaborate?

PC: More like a reliable one. I work in watercolor and gouache with color pencil waaaay too frequently. I don’t like the idea of being too comfortable with my default media, so if the story calls for it, I try other things. I’ve used acrylics, oil, pen and ink, pastel, even collage at times. I don’t know about being “chosen” by a medium, but there have been times when a particular one seemed to make more sense.

In Carousel, for instance, there are dream sequences that seemed to “need” the luminosity that oil allows. For Storm in the Night, it made sense to work from dark to light in acrylics since it took place at night and the story was illuminated primarily by lightning flashes. With acrylics, applying light colors to the dark backgrounds works. So I could illuminate a night time scene in the way that lightning might: by applying highlights and flashes of light as needed.

How has growing up as an “Army brat” all over the world influenced your work?

PC: Well, I learned early that what appears “foreign” is not by default frightening, so I think I’ve learned to enjoy exploration. Also, constantly lacking familiarity with new surroundings as a child, my imagination tended to generate exactly the sort of stuff that fills children’s books.

Things and imagery have different meanings in different places, so I try to keep that in mind. I remember going into a store in the U.S. after living in Okinawa and seeing a figure of Buddha mounted on an ashtray. After living in Asia, it was like seeing Christ on an ashtray and it struck me as disrespectful.

I generally feel free to incorporate into my work any imagery from any culture or location, but only after doing my homework. I don’t think imagery should be casually appropriated. So, for example, the fabrics in Ananse and the Lizard are based on textiles worn in West Africa, the source of the story, not other regions of the continent.

Constant moving probably reinforced my love of fantasy. When you don’t know anyone, speak the language, or know the terrain, your imagination fills in the blanks. In Germany, my mother read us stories about castles and dragons, then we’d spend weekends touring castles along the Rhine. It wasn’t hard to imagine dragons climbing those crumbling stone walls. Or in Okinawa, I’d see the front page of the local newspapers…grown-up newspapers…blaring headlines about ghost sightings. I’d walk through villages, dodging little old ladies dressed head-to-toe in black, toting bundles of sticks on their heads. Of course I believed in witches.

I think it was a great way to grow up, and, best of all, it made me love traveling. So now it makes sense to go to the locations in my books to get reference… (and, better still, that makes the trip tax deductible). Maybe being called an Army “brat” all through childhood didn’t hurt either. A tough skin comes in handy when there’s a less-than-glowing review.

Is it true your brother was the inspiration behind some of your books and which ones?

PC: Yes, my brother is a frequent inspiration. He’s Harvey in Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon! and the sequel coming out in January, Harvey Moon, Museum Boy. He’s Petey in Petey Moroni’s Camp Runamok Diary. He’s the baby in Angel Baby, and he’s the Artie of Jimmy Lee Did It. His was an “eventful” childhood, so there are quite a few exposes left to write.

Do you model your other characters on any other people you know?

PC: At times. Sometimes there’s a personality trait I want to capture, and sometimes I have friends and family model for the characters.

What are you currently working on?

PC: I’m painting the pages for Ananse and the Monster, another story about the West African trickster. And I’m working on a non-fiction book, a collection of biographies of notable African Americans.

If you were to illustrate yourself, what would you look like? (please feel free to draw yourself–animal, plant, mineral!)

PC: Interesting question. I did illustrate myself, once. It’s on the cover of C is for City. In one tiny window, in one building under a night time sky, there is a little silhouette of a figure. It was 4 a.m., and I was feeling sorry for myself, no doubt. I felt like the only person awake, with no one to call, working all night to meet a deadline. So I put myself in a window in a city scene where every other window was empty (but brightly lit for some reason) late at night. Quite tragic!
What is the hardest thing about being an author-illustrator for you?

PC: Deadlines. Distractions. Getting to all of the stories I’d like to do. Basically, the need for sleep and exercise is the hard part.

Did you always want to be an author-illustrator?

PC: I didn’t know the word “illustrator,” but I was hustling my classmates in kindergarten, selling ballerina drawings. So yes, I loved to draw from the time I was little, and, seeing that it could help me make new friends and even some pocket change, it never occurred to me to do anything else.

The writing came later as a means of revenge. With three sisters and time on his hands, my brother became inordinately creative with his pranks. He’s given me a lot of material I’ve yet to use. Also, I realized at some point that I needed to write my own stories so I could choose whatever imagery interested me.

What were your other career choices, if any?

PC: When I was a junior at Pratt, I actually thought I’d like to go to graduate school to become an archaeologist. I subscribed to an archaeology magazine and checked with one university about their requirements. When I found out how many science courses would be necessary, I decided that the magazine would suffice.

Do you have a favorite children’s book that you wish you had written and/or illustrated? Why?

PC: You mean, other than Harry Potter for obvious reasons?

I recently read a manuscript by one of my students that I think has a wonderful, surprising plot that I would have loved to have imagined. But no, not really.

I see books all the time and think, “Ooooh, I love the way they’ve drawn their characters,” or “I want to use their same color palette for something.” I might read some lines that seem amazingly right or lyrical or funny and wish I could turn a phrase in so succinct a way. But there’s no one book that I wished I done…other than Harry Potter.

How far ahead do you work? Six months, a year? Longer?

PC: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. My record finishing time is four months. That only happened by cutting my sleep to four hours a night max. That was years ago, and my sleep pattern has never recovered. My longest time was eight years. That was Ananse and the Lizard, and I actually traveled to West Africa and did research, which added to the time.

Actually, I have one book I signed up in 1990 so that might be the longest running one if ever I finish it. Of course, I would like to finish in six months. I would like to own a villa in Brazil too.

What does your work space look like?

PC: One editor cruelly referred to me as working “amidst cheerful clutter” on a book flap. It isn’t all that cheerful.

What’s on your wall over your desk or drawing table?

PC: Hmmmmm. Pictures of family. Pictures of spiders, lions, porcupines. Masks, a lei from Hawaii, dried roses. Two postcards from gallery shows. A 2002 calendar with a picture of my Mom and I on a school visit to Germany. A colorful chart showing five books due by Fall 2007. Two are crossed out.

How has your childhood influenced your illustrations and writing?

PC: I suffered a happy childhood. I could have used some angst. I had funny parents and funny siblings. Everything struck me as funny, and anything funny still appeals to me. I’ve been told that everything is not funny. I know there are massively serious things going on in the world. But my childhood has definitely skewed my perspective.

What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?

PC: Hands down, it was C.S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Going through a closet into another world was too delicious an idea to resist. Portals in general still interest me. Fantasy books had to offer more that just iconic characters like witches and fairies, I wanted be surprised by some unimaginable, alternate reality.

I think that’s why Harry Potter appeals to so many…. You can’t really imagine all of the twists and turns that come your way.

In adult fiction, books by Haruki Murakami give me the same sensation now, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off.

Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half cup of lukewarm tea or in isolation?

PC: All of the above when I paint: I like old, chatty, plot-heavy movies I don’t have to “look” at to follow. Radio shows that pull my attention so I can paint without obsessing, books on tape, music. I’ve worked recently in coffee shops, but it’s too distracting for the long haul.

When writing, I like absolute quiet or very soft jazz or classical music. Complete isolation is great, but if my husband is home, we work in companionable isolation. We’re in a big loft, and his workspace is in view but quite separate. And lukewarm tea is absolutely mandatory.

Do you have a blog or website to showcase your work, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers? Has it proved to be useful?

PC: My website has been under construction for years. I know zip about websites. Periodically, I press students or my brother into adding a line here or there. Very chop shop. Mostly, I hear from people who send spam with outrageous headings.

My website is, and I would love to receive mail that does not offer to enhance body parts I don’t own.

If you could be a character from one of your illustrations who would you like to be and why?

PC: I really resonated with the character of Alex in Carousel. She went right through her bedroom window into her dream. Fortunately, I have great dreams, so I really knew the sort of feeling I wanted to capture when painting hers.

I think I most identify with the characters I have in front of me though. And right now, I’m in love with the porcupine in the new Ananse book. He has the open, trusting, somewhat gullible demeanor of a four-year-old, and I find that appealing.

I’m determined to keep him guileless and eager to believe the best, particularly because his exterior image implies just the opposite. He looks unapproachable, even dangerous. I do like the idea of a tough exterior: admittedly, the world can be harsh, so it seems wise to keep your quills up. Porcupine in this story is slow to think badly of Ananse.

He’s also prone to stutter. I’d choose him because I hope to believe the best of others. I’d also want protective armor to deal with incoming stress, and I’d hope to be surrounded by friends who accepted me, stutter and all. Don’t know that I’d want the quills though. I sleep on my back.

Is it difficult to illustrate somebody else’s writing? Has it ever caused any problems?

PC: No. I can’t remember any real problems. Other people write stories I would never have imagined, so their work can take you someplace new, which is exciting. I’ve always worked with editors who insulate both the writer and myself.

I might get a suggestion from my editor that was a direct request from the author. But it would never be presented as, “The author thinks you should…”

And the one time I remember having an issue with the text, I told the editor my concern, and two new paragraphs magically appeared that resolved the matter. I’m sure the editor never told the author, “The illustrator thinks you should….”

It’s impossible to draw or write what’s in someone else’s head, so I’ve come to appreciate that the editor stands in the middle. Even if suggestions and questions come to them carved on stone tablets from the author, I’ve been fortunate to have editors filter those comments to allow at least the illusion of total freedom. So, no, I can’t remember any real problems.

Phew. I’ve been very lucky to have the editors I’ve had.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?