Guest Post: Illustrator Mike Benny Interviews Author-Illustrator Don Tate

From his official website: “Don Tate is the award-winning illustrator/author of more than 25 trade and educational books for children.

“With a bold, dynamic style, Don’s oil and acrylic paintings bring to life the pages of the children’s books he illustrates.

“This self-trained painter and digital illustrator has demonstrated extraordinary range in style and medium — each book possessing a distinctive style of its own.”

Don’s many books include: Ron’s Big Mission, written by Rose Blue and Corinne Naden (Dutton, 2009); I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin, written by Walter Wangerin Jr. (Paraclete Press, 2007); and Sure as Sunrise: Stories of Bruh Rabbit and his Walkin’ Talkin’ Friends, written by Alice McGill (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

He makes his home in Austin, Texas.

Mike: My biggest impression of you when I think about your work is your talent and ability to juggle many jobs at one time.

You seemingly switch gears at ease and bring your talents to every different skill you jump into. Working at the paper, writing your own stories, illustrating others texts and all the while blogging and tweeting about each endeavor.

Is this a skill you have always had or one that you have worked at?

Don: Thanks, Mike. I love what I do in my career; I’m having fun. Hopefully, that shows through. I like variety. I wouldn’t be happy to sit in my studio and do the same thing every day.

Looking back over the past month, I designed a poster for Take 190 West, an arts festival in Killeen, TX. I spoke to four groups of kids in Dallas and Arlington, at schools and libraries. I began illustrating several educational projects. I interviewed four nationally renowned illustrators for the Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later campaign, and I read books and posted reports on the BBS blog. I plotted away on a novel I’m writing.

All this in addition to working part-time at the newspaper! And believe it or not, this is the abridged version of my schedule. But it was a fun ride.

[Due to the delay in posting because of Cynsations’ queue system, Don is referring to events that took place earlier this spring.]

Mike: Do you find it more stimulating to put a project aside and concentrate on another for awhile?

Don: Typically, my deadlines dictate what can be set aside and what will get worked on. But I do like to change things up frequently.

I enjoy working digitally, using Adobe Illustrator and/or Photoshop.

When I feel like I need to get away from the computer, I’ll propose painting a project in oil or acrylic.

Mike: Speaking of your different strengths, do you ever wish to focus on just one thing? If so, which one tends to get the most attention.

Don: If I could take a year off without the worry of income—har-har-har—I’d set my art projects aside and write only. I love writing! I love revision. I love the craft, picking and choosing just the right words, shaping a story. Writing is art.

Illustration gets the majority of my attention because that’s how I pay my bills. When I write, sometimes it feels like I’m stealing time away from what’s important, making money to pay those bills. But my ultimate goal is to establish myself as a writer, too. That way I can earn a bit of income from it, and it won’t feel like such a guilty pleasure.

Mike: I follow your blog [Devas T Rants and Raves!] regularly, and I have always enjoyed your honesty about all aspects of your life and work. Do you have any stories about clients reading your blog?

Don: Thanks for reading the blog. I became a blogger about six years ago. A “blogger” because, at the time, I didn’t have much confidence in my writing abilities. As a blogger, I could sort of claim to be a writer. But if my writing stunk, or just plain didn’t work out, I could hide behind the status of “amateur blogger” and no one would notice.

Also, blogging gave me an excuse to write every day, something I knew was important for developing my skills. Within a couple of months, my readership began to take off. People like Cynthia supported the blog and made positive comments about my writing. My confidence grew.

Soon, I felt confident enough to try writing a picture book manuscript, which I entered into a writing contest and actually won. A publishing contract followed.

A few of my editors and art directors read the blog and have posted comments. Some encourage me to keep writing when I’ve slowed down.

Mike: Has blogging generated new work for you?

Don: Hard to gauge. On occasion, I have received art projects as a result of the blog and from tweeting. Occasionally, someone will see an illustration I’ve posted and want to commission something. But the blog really isn’t a money-making venture.

Mike: We also have children in the same age bracket; are they impressed that daddy is a writer and an illustrator? Or are they like mine where Dad is just Dad?

Don: My daughters are grown now, but they are very excited about my work.

One time I purchased a book illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators. I spoke on and on about how fantastic his illustrations were.

My daughter took the book from my hands, flipped through the pages, and said, “Dad, I don’t get it. Your art is just as good as his.”

My daughter was 16-years-old at the time. Compliments didn’t come easy, so that made me feel good.

My son is eight-years-old, and whenever he attends one of my literary presentations or book signings, he becomes inseparable from me. He insists on being in all the pictures, and many times, he has even in on the signing, autographing his name alongside mine.

Mike: You have commented before about how you thought having your first book being published would open many doors to the publishing world. You and I have both realized that immediate success is not the norm and that it is a slow grind. How do you find new work these days, and how has it changed over the years?

Don: New work? What new work? The picture book market has cooled quite a bit in the last few years. I feel fortunate to have two books that will publish this year. But my current contract bit the dust due to the slow economy. Another book paid an initial advance, but has been on hold for nearly two years. So my schedule is open (hint, hint, to any interested editors).

My first trade picture book published in 2000. After that, like you, I thought I was in like Flynn. That manuscript offers would automatically fill my email box. But that’s when the real work began. Fortunately, thanks to editors and art directors who believed in me, offers continued to come my way.

Things have changed quite a bit since I entered the field. The biggest change: digital art and the Internet. That will continue to change with books going digital.

At one time, artists invested hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars in art source books, hoping to get noticed by publishing houses. They mailed color samples and tear sheets. Or they made trips to New York, where they could drop off their portfolios at publishing houses. These are still valid avenues today.

But now there’s Blogger, Twitter, Flickr, deviantArt, illustrationmundo and every online portfolio service imaginable. More ways to get noticed. But also more ways to get lost in the crowd.

I don’t have a magic answer. I do the best work that I can, make a lot of noise on the Internet. And pray. That helps.

Mike: Now that you have written your own picture book, can you describe the difference between the two processes? Are you visualizing the pictures first and then filling in with text, or is it the other way around?

Don: Every author-illustrator works a bit different, and every book can require a different approach.

Me, I tend to begin with words. Funny, that coming from an artist, huh? But I see the story with words first. I write and rewrite and revise, thinking visually, of course. Sometimes along the way, I will sketch, if it will help me to figure out a scene.

Before I crossed into author territory, I had no idea about the back-story of a manuscript. I knew nothing about the five years or more of writing and revising 29 times. The 15 rejections. The fired agent. The editor who ultimately made an offer but switched publishing houses before the contracts were signed.

This is not my personal journey, but I’ve heard nightmares.

As the illustrator, I receive the final manuscript polished and ready to go. The project will be in-and-out of my hands in a year or less.

Mike: How is it to have someone else illustrate your words?

Don: Well, I don’t really know, yet. R. Gregory Christie is the illustrator for the Bill Traylor story [It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low, forthcoming)], and I haven’t seen the art yet.

Like most authors, I’ll have to wait until the art shows up on my doorstep in the mail. I don’t mind that someone else is illustrating the book. I submitted it with the understanding that that might happen. I don’t have the time to illustrate ever story that I write, so I’d love to turn some manuscripts over to other illustrators.

[Shown is R. Gregory Christie’s cover for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U. S. Marshal, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (Carolrhoda, 2009).]

Mike: We have both illustrated races other than our own. Did you find it challenging? Was there an obstacle that sticks out in your mind?

Don: Hair. Illustrating convincing Caucasian hair. That took me a few tries. I have it down now, but I really had to work at it.

Mike: What would be your dream project at this point in your career?

Don: Every project for me is a dream project because I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. But that’s a boring answer, so I’ll go all Hollywood on you.

Like my aunt Eleanora E. Tate, whose Just an Overnight Guest (Just Us Books, 1997) was adapted into a movie, wouldn’t it be cool to author a picture book that becomes so popular the movie rights get purchased and then adapted into an animated movie? Books, movies, video games. Happy Meals! But I’m not getting any younger, so that had better happen soon.

Cynsational Notes

Mike Benny has been illustrating for more than 15 years. His clients include Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster.

His books include America’s White Table, written by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear, 2005), The Listeners, written by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear, 2009), and Oh, Brother! written by Nikki Grimes (Greenwillow, 2007).

Mike has received two gold and two silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, and he makes his home in Austin, Texas.