Monday, September 27, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Lauren Castillo

Today we welcome illustrator Lauren Castillo to Creative Spaces! Lauren studied Illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art and earned her master's degree at the School of Visual Arts's Illustration as Visual Essay program in NYC. Her debut picture book, What Happens on Wednesdays written by Emily Jenkins, was published in 2007. What Happens on Wednesdays received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publisher's Weekly. Publisher's Weekly wrote, "Radiant mixed-media art by a debut illustrator captures the warmth and candor in Jenkins's sparkling slice-of-life tale." 

What Happens on Wednesdays, Lauren went on to illustrate The Pig and Miss Prudence by Linda Stanek; Buffalo Music by Tracey E. Fern; That's Papa's Way by Kate Banks; and Big Cat Pepper by Elizabeth Partridge. Published earlier this year was Alfie Runs Away, a sweet story written by Kenneth M. Cadow about a boy who runs away to his backyard when his mother decides to give away his favorite too-small pair of shoes. I'm looking forward to seeing her next book, which will be published in October, and has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. It's titled Christmas is Here and is a story about the true meaning of Christmas told through Lauren's illustrations and words from the King James Bible.

If you would like to learn more about Lauren Castillo, visit her website or blog. And if you're in the mood to treat yourself (either visually or tangibly) visit her Etsy site where she sells prints of her work.

And now let's step inside Lauren Castillo's Brooklyn workspace. . .

Describe your workspace.

I live in a railroad style apartment in Brooklyn, NY, and the front half is my studio space. It's newly renovated, and pretty spacious and tidy (right now). The best part is that it gets great light during the day! (My last space had absolutely NO natural light.)


Describe a typical workday.

After an early trip to the gym (usually) and breakfast, I spend the beginning of my workday browsing some of my favorite blogs/websites. I'll also do the bulk of my catch-up emailing then. The rest of the day is spent either sketching or working on final art for a picture book, depending on which stage of the project I am in.  I do take several short breaks throughout the day though, for lunch and housework, or to run an errand, etc. Lately I've been trying to stop work by 7 or 8 PM. I find it nice to have a "real person" work schedule! (I used to work late into the night.)

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

My work is always a mixture of mediums, but my favorite result comes from transferring photocopied drawings with acetone (solvent). I’ve used this technique in just about all of my children’s books. But it is highly toxic, and I've recently been trying to find a safer method that produces a similar result. Any suggestions???

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

A wooden card catalog box that my dad refurbished for me, which holds a bunch of old family photographs.

A shelf full of awesome art from some of my (very talented) illustrator friends. (Artists on the shelf are Shadra Strickland, Jonathan Bean, Julia Denos, Paul Hoppe, and Taeeun Yoo).

3. A poster by French designer Eva Juliet which hangs above my computer desk reminding me each day to keep my attitude in check.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Hmm, well this summer I started taking reading breaks to catch up on all the great chapter books and YA novels out there, so it’s sort of become part of my routine. I usually break in the mid-afternoon to read for a while, and afterward I feel rejuvenated and ready to dive back into work. Plus, it’s been so hot here in NY, it’s a great excuse to curl up on the couch for a little!

What do you listen to while you work?

I listen to a bit of everything. From television shows playing in the background, to podcasts, to Pandora (internet radio) and my iTunes collection. My taste in music is vast, and what I listen to really depends on my mood at the time. Right now it's Jónsi and The Postal Service, because I'm feeling bouncy :)

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you're working?

Coffee throughout the morning hours! I'll sometimes snack on pretzels or almonds, but when I'm in a good work groove I can easily forget to eat!

What keeps you focused while you're working?

If I'm working on final art I usually get lost in the fun and challenge of it, and that keeps me going the entire day—sometimes WAY into the night! But when I'm working on sketches for a project, I find that music helps me stay on track. If I'm on the computer though, it can be so easy to get sucked into the Internet!

What aspect of illustrating do you find most challenging and why?

Creating the first few pieces of final art for a book is certainly the most challenging part of the bookmaking process for me. It’s nerve-racking to have to figure out and commit to materials and technique, which I’ll then have to keep consistent for the entire rest of the project (20-25 illustrations).  But after making it to the halfway point, I start to (hopefully!) feel much more confident about the overall outcome of the art and book.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Well, until recently I was sharing my studio space with my then roommate and friend, Shadra Strickland. She is also a children's book illustrator, and it was really nice to have a buddy to "show and tell" art and stories with. I miss having her around!

What is the best piece of illustrating advice you've heard or received?

I've been very fortunate to have several wonderful teachers and mentors throughout school, so there’s been a ton of great advice shared with me. One thing that I think is important to keep in mind as a newcomer to the field is: Create the kind of art and stories that interest YOU. Don't try to create what you think will please others (the market). In the end, your most honest work will be your best work.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Birthday Book Giveaway Winners!

Thank you everyone for your comments on Zilpha Keatley Snyder's and Lois Lowry's interviews. I wish I could give away books to each of you as a party favor! The birthday chickens drew names out of a hat, so without further ado. . .

Congratulations to commenter Jane, you have won the copy of Zilpha Keatley Snyder's William S. and the Great Escape!

And congratulations to commenter Toby Speed, you have won the copy of Lois Lowry's Birthday Ball!

Jane and Toby, please email me with your contact information (fromthemixedupfiles (at) gmail (dot) com) and I will get your books sent out to you this week!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Lois Lowry

It is an honor to welcome to Creative Spaces Lois Lowry, two-time Newbery Award winner for Number the Stars and The Giver. Continuing with the birthday giveaways this week, I was recently in New York City at a fantastic independent children’s bookstore called Books of Wonder and was delighted to find Lois Lowry’s latest book Birthday Ball. It was actually the birthday connection that gave me the idea of giving away books for the interviews this week. What I didn’t even realize at first was that these were not ordinary copies of Birthday Ball, but SIGNED! And not just signed by Lois Lowry, but also the illustrator Jules Feiffer who you may know best from Bark, George or this little-known title called The Phantom Tollbooth. Comment on this interview and you’ll be entered to win Birthday Ball. (And you can still comment on yesterday’s interview too to win Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s latest!)

When I was in graduate school, I learned that Lois Lowry was going to be a keynote speaker at a children’s writing conference held at the Book Passage bookstore, just a neighborhood away. I’d never attended a conference before and really hadn’t been overly motivated to attend author readings. But this was Lois Lowry, one of my childhood heroes. The author of Anastasia Krupnik, Rabble Starkey, The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, A Summer to Die, Autumn Street and so many books that I loved. I couldn’t pass up hearing her speak.

I attended that conference nervous, unsure, skeptical, but I left it feeling like I’d found the place I belonged. Lois Lowry spoke with such straightforwardness and respect (and humor!) for writing and so many things she said clicked with me. Here are some of my notes from Lois Lowry’s presentations that weekend:

“People don’t give readers enough credit. Readers can make the jump if a chapter ends one place, and the next opens in another.”

On endings: “There is a temptation to wrap things up and explain everything. Don’t keep going and going, explaining everything.”

“Think of the ending as a new beginning.”

Messages books are bleh. (My notes, I’m not sure “bleh” is exactly how Ms. Lowry worded it.)

“The best way to deliver a message is through strong, engaging characters.”

Ms. Lowry won’t remember this, but I had the good fortune of sitting next to her at lunch that weekend. I was too nervous to say much of substance to her, other than telling her I grew up with Anastasia Krupnik and had read all her books. But it was wonderful to get more of a feel for her as a person. When you are enthusiastic about a book--at any age--and you wonder about who created it and have the opportunity to meet them, I at least always have the assumption that I will like the author as much as I liked their book. I have yet to have an author prove this assumption wrong, and Ms. Lowry was no exception. She was funny and wise, gracious and kind.

If you’d like to learn more about Lois Lowry, you can visit her website. She also maintains a blog, which is one of my favorites. But the best way to learn more about Lois Lowry--or at least what I would recommend most highly--is her autobiography, Looking Back: A Book of Memories. It’s a really wonderful collection of photos and anecdotes from her life.

Describe your workspace.

I live in two places: Cambridge, Massachusetts (where my workspace looks like a writer's workspace SHOULD, because it has floor to ceiling bookcases across one entire wall); and Bridgton, Maine, where I am at this moment. I love my workspace here. This is an old farmhouse---1768----and it is attached, as New England farmhouses always were, to a large barn.

Between the barn and the house, connecting them, was a garage (once it would have been the place for the buggies) and a shed with feed bins, which was still in its unfinished state when I bought the property. If you look at the photo in snow, with a wreath on the barn door, you'll see a small window to the left.

But now look at the photograph of what I call the barn garden, the flower garden in front of the barn, and you will get a glimpse of  the new windows---three of them---installed when I renovated that unfinished room and turned it into my studio.

And the view from those windows is of gardens, meadow, apple trees, wild life (turkeys here; but could be deer or woodchucks or coyote), and (on the day I took this picture) a rainbow.

But back to workspace (though in truth I think the exterior, and the view, is intrinsic to a workspace). The contractor preserved the old barn boards and beams (with their hand-hewn nails) but turned it into a cozy, warm, comfortable place for me to work.

I spend the whole summer here but come up here frequently also during the winter (and it gets COLD in Maine, in winter!) But I turn the heat on in the studio and it is toasty in minutes.

Describe a typical workday.

My dog gets me up early. I have company often here, but I am usually up before my company because of Alfie, and so I use that time, before people are up, to go into the studio and tend my email.  I rarely work when I have company because I am distracted by cooking, entertaining, etc., but when I’m alone here I sit at this desk all day. For many years I didn’t have a phone out here, but I am not one of those people who can comfortably allow a telephone to ring. So although I don’t get many calls when I’m in Maine---still, when I did, I would have to run through the garage and the laundry room and pick up the phone breathlessly in the kitchen. Finally I relented and had a telephone installed out here. It rarely rings, though.

I answer all of the (huge number) of emails, check on my kids via Facebook, and then turn to whatever I’m working on.  Yesterday it was small revisions of a Gooney Bird book which will be published next fall. Yesterday, also, my mail lady delivered (drove up and put it on my porch! It was pouring rain outside and she didn’t want me to have to head down the long driveway to the mailbox) copies of the WONDERFUL illustrations by Eric Rohmann for a book due out next March called Bless This Mouse. Last summer I was doing a lot of research for a Dear America book called Like the Willow Tree; it is set about 30 miles from here, in a Shaker Village, so I spent a lot of time there, but much more time here in the studio, sifting through my notes and writing.

So, as you can see, my typical workday includes bits and pieces from whatever projects I am working on (often there are interviews as well). But always there is an ongoing manuscript, and after getting the other things out of the way, I turn my attention back to that.  In summer I have a lot of interruptions for company, and in winter I do an enormous amount of traveling, so I have become a master of the art of writing-in-spurts. I go back to the manuscript, re-read, often revise a bit, and then  move ahead with it.

When I’m alone here, as now, I don’t worry about cooking or even eating---I just graze and nibble; so I work long uninterrupted days.  But when company comes (and the next batch is arriving late this afternoon) I cook (and shop, and plan) so work gets relegated, as it were, to the back burner. Next Monday I will wave goodbye to my company and then I have a full uninterrupted week to work. That’s rare, and very welcome.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

This would be easier to do if I were at my “regular” home, in Cambridge. It would be hard, in fact, to narrow it down to three. But here?  I love the old photographs on the wall. They date back 30+ years, when I was a photographer of children, and these are some I have saved form those times.  The two large framed prints are by Egon Schiele, of the village in Czechoslovakia, where he lived, called Cesky Krumlov. I have spent time in Cesky Krumlov, during a tour of eastern Europe, and it is a very special place. So I especially love these two views of it. The third thing that is my favorite—it should be listed first!---is my dog, Alfie, who is always at my feet (and is at this moment). You can see a dog bed in the photo of the studio---usually he is curled up on it. But when I took the picture, he was sitting by my feet.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I don’t, really.

What do you listen to while you work?

I sometimes turn on my iTunes, where I have tons of music stored, and find that most often I listen to the Bach Cello Suites.  I bet I have played the Bach Cello Suites 200+ times, and always when I’m working.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Right now I have a cup of coffee beside me---I always bring my morning coffee out here.  Then I switch, later in the day, to iced tea.  I drink gallons of iced tea. In winter, back in Cambridge, usually hot tea.  With lemon.  No snacks.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I have a MacBook that I take with me when I travel (I should put travel stickers on it, the way people used to do on suitcases!) and an iMac back in Cambridge.  You can see the laptop in my studio photograph.  Periodically I email my unfinished manuscript to myself so that it will be on my computer back home.  Like all writers, I live in fear of losing unfinished work.

I’ve lost the ability to write easily in longhand. But occasionally I sit on the screened porch of my house, and now and then I can putter with writing there. Here’s a photo of work I did on the porch: I was adapting my book Gossamer to the stage, and before I began writing the actual script, I had to go through the book, of course, and break it down into scenes.

I did the same thing with the Shaker Village research---sat on the porch with all those notes and put them in order as I figured out how to structure the book.

I love my porch. I can see the bird feeders from there.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

It is almost always hard to identify the origin of an idea. But here’s a photograph of Alfie, last summer, examining a mouse. I found the mouse, quite unafraid, in my house that day, and carried it outside, Alfie at my heels, quite intrigued.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the mouse, and though I was in the midst of another book, I set it aside and started a book in which the main characters are all mice. It’s the one Eric Rohmann has just illustrated so beautifully: Bless This Mouse.

Everything plotwise is in my head rather than in the computer or on paper.  I don’t really have an “outline” in the classic sense, but I have a feel for the structure of the book, what will flow into what, which tributaries will veer off, and at what turning they will come back. I always see the ending and aim for it, in my mind.  But---to continue the watery metaphor---the actual ebb and flow, the splashing around, the rocks and the quiet pools---they all come with the writing itself.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The story itself.  I get so intrigued by whatever plot I’m working on that I have no trouble at all staying focused.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Alfie is my best office-mate.  But sometimes I will have a writer friend up here in Maine with me: Carol Otis Hurst when she was alive was one. Susan Goodman has often come. My friend Kay Merseth, who teaches at Harvard, and was working on a (since-published) scholarly book.  I have internet access in two rooms---one is the studio, of course, and the other is the library on the other end of the house.  So when writer friends come, we set up shop in the two places, work in solitude, and meet for meals.  (Okay, and wine).  I love that system. Writer friends understand that I need uninterrupted time because they do as well.

If I had to share my actual studio, though, it would be with Yo-Yo Ma.  He could sit in the corner and play the Bach Cello suites.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Don’t waste so much time talking about writing. Write.

Thank you so much to both Lois Lowry and Zilpha Keatley Snyder for allowing us a glimpse into where and how they work! Remember to comment on this interview post to win a copy of Birthday Ball by Lois Lowry, signed by both her and illustrator Jules Feiffer. (And you can still comment on yesterday's post to win a copy of William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder.) I'll draw names and announce the prize winners on Sunday.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Today it is my pleasure to welcome three-time Newbery Honor winner, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, to Creative Spaces. Ms. Snyder is the author of many beloved and award-winning titles including The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid, Witches of Worm, The Velvet Room, The Unseen, The Great Stanley Kidnapping Case, Libby on Wednesday, The Changeling, The Ghosts of Rathburn Park, and her most recent title published last fall, William S. and the Great Escape.

I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books around third or fourth grade and became a huge fan, reading every book of hers my library had in its collection. The Egypt Game is an all-time favorite. My childhood best friend and I (and occasionally her younger brother too, because he matched the role of Marshall) played our own version of the Egypt Game, which as I remember it, amounted to sitting in the dirt behind a grove of pine trees in the corner of her yard. This paled in comparison to the exciting things that happen in the book, and I’m not sure that our version of the Egypt Game lasted very long. But the love for the book and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s stories remained.

Fast forward a dozen or so years, I was working at the Linden Tree children’s bookstore while I was going to grad school and discovered there was a sequel to The Egypt Game called The Gypsy Game. (I was shocked that I could have missed this, but there was a simple explanation: it was published in 1997, 30 years after the original.) Because I was in graduate school for writing, trying to unravel for myself the mysteries of “how do I become a writer”,  I was now not only interested in the books but the writer behind them. So I sought out more information on Ms. Snyder and discovered this essay, which I found thrilling to read both as a fan of her work and because of the informative and practical information she offers about her process.

For this interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Snyder on the phone, so the answers that follow have been transcribed from our conversation. If you’re interested in learning more about Zilpha Keatley Snyder, I highly recommend reading her autobiography posted on her website. You can also connect with Ms. Snyder on Facebook where she occasionally shares photos and recent news. If you'd like a more thorough tour of where Ms. Snyder lives, there is also a 20 minute video interview available through Good Conversations. (You will need to register for a free trial in order to view the entire video. There is an excellent collection of author interviews on this site though, and it looks like a worthwhile subscription for a school or a library.)

As I mentioned yesterday, as part of this special set of interviews (today and tomorrow) for my birthday week, I will be giving away a book from each author. Today I'm giving away a copy of Ms. Snyder's latest book, William S. and the Great Escape! Comment on this interview and you'll be entered to win.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder in her office with her dog Joey.

Describe your workspace.

I have a room on the third story of our apartment. It’s a big room that is meant to be a bedroom, but I use it as a study. I have lots of bookcases and bulletin boards where I post different things. I have a bulletin board with pictures that kids have sent me. I used to get a lot of these, but now that most of my fanmail is email, I no longer get kids's pictures so much. I also have a lot of files up there and my desk.

However, now that I have a laptop, I very often sit in the living room. My room up at the top of the house tends to be colder in the winter and hotter in summer than the rest of the house. So I very often just sit in the living room on the sofa with my laptop and write there. There’s just the two of us in the house now, my husband and I, so it’s fairly quiet and private.

Describe a typical workday.

Well, that varies. My husband and I go to the gym three mornings a week--Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--to work out. And so I used to write in the mornings but now I write mainly in the early afternoon. I don’t work as many hours as I used to. There was a time I might write five or six hours a day, but now it’s more like two or three.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

My room upstairs faces back behind our house which is just a wooded hillside and gives me the feeling that I’m a long way from anything. There's nothing out there but deer trails and redwood trees. So that’s probably my most favorite thing about that room, along with all the pictures on my bulletin board.

Downstairs, I like that I’m close to the kitchen where I can get a cup of tea easily (that’s where I’m sitting right now). It has a nice view out big front windows, so it’s a pleasant place to sit.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I don’t know if you’d call it a ritual, but one thing I have done for years is when I start a new book I start character sketches of the main characters. When I used to do it in a notebook I would leave a whole page for each of them or important characters, and I would add new things as I began to figure them out because I didn’t know the characters that well at first. Now of course I do it on the computer. I just add to them when I think of new information. And it’s very helpful, because I’ve found that in writing the character sketches I very often get plot ideas. A person with a certain type of character, certain view of life, would be apt to have a particular problem that could be worked into part of the plot.

What do you listen to while you work?

Absolutely nothing. I don’t listen to music or anything. Oh, sometimes I have to--my husband is a pianist and if he’s playing the piano . . . But anything that might have words in it would be very distracting.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Tea. I drink several cups of tea a day. As for snack, I try to avoid that. Although I generally try to keep a bowl of what I call snacking fruit available. Very often grapes or cherries or something like that.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Oh, I don’t know. Not being interrupted? Which is hard to come by because there’s the phone and front door and time to do various things during the day. But . . . well, I know--just getting interested in my characters. When I’ve gotten to know them pretty well then I’m curious about them, and as I write I discover more things about them. And that’s one of the greatest interests for me in writing.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

When I first began to write, my first book I wrote all out in pen and ink on a pad. My husband, who types very well, which I think goes along with being a pianist--very fast typist--he typed it for me. Which was very kind of him because I’m sure he didn’t think I was ever going to sell it. After that I started working on a typewriter. I could do action and sometimes narration, but I never could compose very well on the typewriter because if you make a mistake then of course you have to try to erase it or throw the page away and get a new page. So anything the least bit difficult, I would keep a pad and a pen right by the typewriter and write it out. Now, of course, there’s the computer. I love working on the computer.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

In the past I would write the first chapter or so, just getting the feel of the story and the point of view of the main character. But then I would take a lot of time and do plotting. At that time I would write what I thought of as a plot page. When I was teaching I would say it was like writing a book report before the book has been written. Just a very short form of the story, but with a general idea of what the ending is going to be like. I find it very difficult to write without some idea of the ending. I know there are other writers who say they just start writing and see what happens, but I don’t seem to work that way very well. I always seem to get my characters into a mess that I can’t get them out of, a situation that doesn’t mean anything. I try to have a plot page.

Years ago, when writing some very difficult young adult books, I would outline chapter by chapter. I’d have a page for each chapter with a line down the middle. On one side I’d write the action or what is to happen in this chapter. And on the other I’d put information or narration, which would be narration that gives the reader more information about where the story is going. And I would try to work some action in with some narration so it wouldn’t get boring.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Well, my husband of course. But if you mean some figure in history or writer of the past, then maybe one of the Brontes.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

I remember one thing my first editor told me, that was Jean Karl at Atheneum. My first book was fantasy and quite a few of my books have been. She said: If your story is a fantasy, you must let the reader know what the basis is, what the underlining factor is for the fantasy. You can’t have magic happening here and now with no reason for it, no thing it arises from, no cause. The reader begins to feel there’s no need to worry because something magical is going to happen that solves this problem whatever it is. So you have to limit the magic in some way and make it have a basis.

Advice from Ms. Snyder herself:

Get to know your characters well, and keep at it.

Remember to comment in order to enter yourself to win a copy of her latest title, William S. and the Great Escape!