SCBWI Bologna 2012 Author-Illustrator Interview: Barbara McClintock

Barbara riding Paddy

By Mio Debnam
for SCBWI Bologna 2012
at Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Barbara McClintock is an author and illustrator of numerous picture books, which delight with humour and fine details. Her books have won four New York Times Best Books awards, a New York Times Notable Book citation, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor as well as an assortment of other awards and starred reviews.

Barbara, I can’t keep up with your projects… I know that apart from working on Adele & Simon in China, you’ve been illustrating another Jim Aylesworth story, a sequel to Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary (Random House, 2007) and as if that weren’t enough, you’ve just illustrated a book of poems – Leave Your Sleep! How do you work on so many projects simultaneously?

The secret to my success is lots of coffee and little sleep! Also, ample studio wall space to tape up layouts and sketches from multiple books and flat file drawers dedicated to various projects helps me keep things in order.

This is going to be a big fall for me. I have three books coming out.

12 Kinds of Ice is a book of twelve vignettes about ice written by Ellen Bryan Obed with black and white drawings throughout, published by Houghton Mifflin.

Next, Leave Your Sleep, a picture book of Natalie Merchant‘s album of late 19th / early 20th century poems, which she adapted to music as a gift to her young daughter, published by FSG/Macmillan.

And last but not least, David R. Godine is reprinting Animal Fables From Aesop.

I’m currently working on Maria and Mouse Mouse, the sequel to Mary and the Mouse, written by Beverly Donofrio, with Schwartz &Wade, and My Grandfather’s Coat, written by Jim Aylesworth, with Scholastic.

There’s an Emily Jenkins book on the docket with FSG and more books with Scholastic and FSG in the wings.

I’ve had to put Adele & Simon in China on hold as I’ve been working on Leave Your Sleep.

Scheduling multiple projects and publishing dates is a challenge. My editor Frances Foster, my agent Jennie Dunham and I have had to shift projects around to accommodate adding LYS to the schedule.

Can you describe a typical work day?

I’m usually up early, sometimes by 4 a.m. I totter downstairs, make coffee, and sit down at the computer to answer emails, tend to business details, read the The New York Times, the Guardian, and The Huffington Post online. Then I start work around 7 a.m. or 8 a.m.

I listen to the radio, music, or audio books as I work, although I’ve recently discovered instant download programs on Netflix, so… I’ve churned through “Desperate Housewives,” “Mad Men,” which provided artificial comfort in making me feel like I was working in an office, and am now onto “Downton Abbey.”

By noon, I’ve probably kicked the cats off of my drawing board at least once. I eat lunch at my drawing board or in front of my computer. I sometimes eat dinner at my drawing board, too, especially if I have a tight deadline. It’s not unusual for me to work ’til 10 or 11 p.m.

Barbara’s studio
Another peek into her studio

I really can’t do all-nighters anymore and try to get at least six hours of sleep.

A late night at work.

I usually ink all of the drawings in a book at once, and then color everything at once, so I’ll either set out my Higgins waterproof ink bottle, dip pen, and the rag I use to wipe off the pen, or I have my side table covered with ceramic watercolor nests for mixing paint, my watercolors, brushes and bowls of water for cleaning my brushes as I’m working.

Inking in progress
The finished piece

My life is made up of sheets of paper, scraps of paper, thousands of little pieces of tape that I use to put drawings up on the wall, pencil stubs, ink, books, tubes of watercolors, and my computer and iPad. And sleeping cats!

Emma in the back yard.
Helpful Pip

My partner David Johnson is an illustrator, and he’s very respectful of my need for privacy while I work. He’s understanding of my long work hours. It’s wonderful having him around for support, and I depend on his good eye when I’m stuck on a problem with a drawing.

Barbara and David

He’s a fantastic cook and an amazing gardener; from May ’til October, there’s a riot of roses right outside my studio window. It’s a joy watching him draw – it’s like, “Wow! How does he make those lines come out of a pencil and form a portrait of James Joyce?” I’m witness to a miracle, watching him work!

I do try to have some semblance of a social life. David and I get together once a week with four friends to cook dinner and watch an HBO series episode. I nip over to the local T.J. Maxx on occasion. Going to the grocery store is a big outing for me. I drive / take a train into NYC once every few months to meet with an editor, or my agent. My son lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and we have dinner with him every other week.

When I’m really on a roll with work, I don’t talk on the phone, and barely answer emails. I try to take an hour-long walk every day, which means I take a walk every third day – I have to make myself go out, or I suddenly realize I haven’t left my house for days. I never have lunch with friends because it punches a huge hole in the middle of my workday. I just stay focused on the work at hand.

Next lifetime, I’ll have some sort of job that entails lots of travel and intrigue. Maybe espionage, or a career as an international trend-spotter for Target? Or I’ll just be independently wealthy, and sleep in.

What’s your favourite part of the creative process?

Getting into the ‘zone’ when I’m working, where I’m so totally into the process that I don’t really think about the act of drawing, or painting. All of the research and years of study and practice, even my pen and brush seem to dissolve, and there’s a direct communication between the image forming on the paper and the act of forming it. The image seems to draw itself.

It becomes an almost out-of-body experience; I’m just a vessel for the visual information to pass through on its way to the paper. This all sounds totally weird, I realize, but it’s a sensation that’s pretty amazing.

It’s a little like asking a mother which one of her children she loves most – but is there a book that you’ve written and/or illustrated which is closest to your heart, and why? 

Oh dear! Tough question! Every book is an opportunity to reflect on who I am, and how that relates to common things in all people, even if the story is about a gingerbread man, or a whale in a nightie.

I’ll say my favorite book is the one I’ll do ten years from now, because maybe I’ll finally figure out the answer to some profound questions about childhood, or learning, or creativity, or compassion, or curiosity.

I love the elegant and detailed art you create – every book is different but you have a distinct style. What influences drew you to develop this style?

Maurice Sendak has been a huge inspiration. I’m a big fan of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century French and English artists. Why?

The mystery, beauty, humor, and wide lapels on men’s jackets from that time period really appeal to me.

You often set your art in the past, but if you had a time machine (which could take you backward or forward in time) and a month to spare, where and when would you choose to visit, and why? 

I think I’d do a lot of moving around to different centuries in my month abroad in Time Travel Land…

Théodore Géricault by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1816

I’d love to spend time with Eugene Delicroix, JJ Grandville, Theodore Gericault, Honore Daumier, Gustave Dore, and Rosa Bonheur.

But I’d also like to hang out with Jacques Callot, Antoine Watteau, and Edouard Vulliard.

Phew! Major time travel whiplash, jetting around from the 17th to the early 20th century!

I’d be schmoozing and dining and genuflecting to my mentors mostly in France, but I might pop across the channel to the U.K. to have dinner with Randolph Caldecott, Thomas Rowlandson, James Gillray, George Cruikshank, Vanessa Bell, and George Stubbs.

Or maybe all of these artists and I could rent a very big house in Gascony for a month and hang out, take walks, sketch, paint, and eat. We would of course have the best chefs from each century preparing our meals – and why not? Nothing encourages good drawing as much as the smell of good things being cooked in the kitchen.

I love the story about how, as a college student, you phoned Maurice Sendak out of the blue to ask his advice. Has this ever happened to you, and if it did, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?

There have been many aspiring illustrators and authors who have emailed me, or talk to me at book signings.

I always encourage folks who want to be published illustrators and authors to join SCBWI – there’s no better way to be in the loop about how to find an agent, format and submit a manuscript, develop a dummy book, and find a vast support network.

And I believe that one has to keep trying and not give up – read, research, write, draw, revise, and do it all over again and again. I think hard work, patience and persistence ultimately pays off.

Lastly, I’ve been dying to find out where Adele & Simon are going next – any plans?

Once there’ve completed their tour of China, maybe Mexico? Russia? Kenya? The world is their oyster!

Many thanks, Barbara, for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk to us!

Cynsational Notes

Mio Debnam is currently working as a writer and an editor of children’s books, having ‘retired’ from the world of journalism, where she worked as the Editor in Chief of two daily children’s newspapers for several years. She has had short stories and articles for both adults and children published, as well as a middle grade fantasy novel, four picture books, and several educational readers.

The first six in her kidsGo! series of travel guides for kids were published in 2011.

Mio started on her present career path early, editing and writing stories for school and university newspapers; getting her hands inky learning how to print the old fashioned way.

Mio Debnam

After a decade working in the
financial markets in London and Hong Kong, she returned to her first
love and has been working with words ever since.

To get inspiration for
her writing, and to keep up with ‘what’s hot’, Mio has become expert at
eavesdropping on her children’s conversation, as well as those she
encounters at school visits and the creative writing workshops she runs.
She is the Regional Advisor of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators, Hong Kong Chapter.

The SCBWI Bologna 2012 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Showcase in conjunction with Cynsations. To find out more, visit the SCBWI Bologna Showcase Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.

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