Monday, October 25, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Caroline Stutson

Halloween is right around the corner and so for this week's Creative Spaces interview it's my pleasure to welcome Caroline Stutson, author of By the Light of the Halloween Moon illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. By the Light of the Halloween Moon opens with an illustration of the legs of a child dangling off a dock on a moonlit night. The text says:

A toe!
A lean and gleaming toe
That taps a tune in the dead of night
By the light, by the light,
By the silvery light of the Halloween moon!

When you turn the page a cat joins the dangling legs and the text says:

A cat!
A thin black wisp of a spying cat
Who eyes the toe
That taps a tune in the dead of night
By the light, by the light,
By the silvery light of the Halloween moon!

The story grows from there with the cat being joined by a witch and a ghoul and all manner of fun and spooky creatures. It's a charming, musical story and one of my all-time favorite Halloween picture books.

Her latest picture book, Cats Night Out, had me at hello with its combination of two of my favorite things: cats and dancing. The book is gorgeously illustrated by J. Klassen and is already garnering some potential Caldecott buzz. These are serious dancing kitties too, their somber faces concentrating on their dance moves, which is a brilliant and comical match-up with Caroline's fun rhythmic words like, 

"Ten cats line-dance, keep the beat
in rhinestone boots on Easy Street."

Caroline is also the author of Mama Loves You (illustrated by John Segal), Mountain Meadow 1 2 3 (illustrated by Anna-Maria L. Crum), Pirate Pup (illustrated by Robert Rayevsky), Night Train (illustrated by Katherine Tillotson), and several other picture books. To learn more about Caroline Stutson visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is in an office that I share not very graciously with my husband. I don’t have a sign saying: QUIET, AUTHOR AT WORK but my husband has learned to tread lightly when I’m at the computer and I go through the same sort of tiptoeing around when he is busy in his workspace doing woodcarving.

Most of my writing involves paper and pen these days since I’ve stopped working on chapter books and middle grade novels. I try to make my manuscript the best I can  make it before going to the computer. When I’m not at the computer, most of my writing takes place wherever I settle, indoors or out depending on the weather.

This yard belongs to our last house. Sigh. I used to love to sit out by the pond and write. But the house was falling apart so we moved to a house with no yard at all. But I still dream about our enchanted cottage.

In my office there is a just right green chair with a footstool where I usually start my writing day.

Seymour in the green chair.

I love looking at my favorite writing things. There’s a bookshelf crammed with poetry collections and treasured picture books that I like having close. Whenever I’m stuck, I reach for one of those books to get going again.

One wall holds dog and cat pottery storytellers and my Tattered Cover signing medals.

Another holds a quilt I made for our grandson when he was a baby. A third has three illustrations from old picture books and two framed illustrations that Anna-Maria Crum did for Mountain Meadow 1 2 3. 

I have waited many years for an office like this one; I never stop appreciating how fortunate I am to have it.

Describe a typical workday.

I do my best work early in the morning. When I’m not dashing off to storytelling or preparing for telling stories, I write all morning and return to it after lunch for an hour or two. I used to be able to write for much longer periods of time. But I have a back that does better walking than sitting and a mind that gets foggy if I write too long.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits?

I don’t have many rituals. I try hard to write every day because it’s much easier to have an established routine. I don’t allow myself to read mysteries and novels in my just right green office chair in hope that sitting there is saved for writing only. 

What do you listen to while you work?

Because most of my picture books are rhymed, I’m constantly reading my work aloud which requires quiet. I love listening to music and public radio but don’t dare do either one while I’m writing.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Keeping focused is a challenge. If I’ve been working on something for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be improving, I set it aside and work on a different project. That helps me see the first manuscript with fresh eyes when I return to it.

Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

When I was trying to write middle grade novels, I used an outline even though I didn’t want to use one. I much preferred using index cards with scenes on them that I could move around easily. (Maybe this is one reason my novels weren’t very good.)  For picture books I make sure I have at least twelve distinct scenes that have actions related to each other, a cause and effect chain. With picture books it is important that the setting changes frequently to hold the interest of the reader and furnish strong illustration possibilities.

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

I’m an only child. I’m not so good at sharing. I don’t think I could share my workspace with someone else unless we were working on a project together. But I’m always happy to have my dog Seymour and my cat Maisie nearby when I’m writing.

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

The best advice I’ve ever gotten is to read, read, read. I heard someone once say you have to read at least 100 picture books to truly know what a picture book is; I believe that reading good and not so good books hones our writing skills and inspires us to write the most wonderful book that we can.         

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Renata Liwska

This week we're welcoming illustrator Renata Liwska to Creative Spaces. You might recognize Renata's work from Nikolai the Only Bear by Barbara Joosse, Skylar by Mary Cuffe-Perez, A Puppy is for Loving by Mary Labatt, or Little Panda which she both wrote and illustrated. Her latest book has generated a lot of buzz and accumulated many fans (me! me! I love this book). If you've been following the Creative Spaces interviews for awhile then you'll know this book made an earlier appearance here when the author, Deborah Underwood, was featured. Yes, I'm talking about New York Times bestseller The Quiet Book,
the serene story that made a showy splash in the picture book world this year. Renata Liwska received the gold medal from the Society of Illustrators 2010 Original Art exhibit for distinguished illustrations with The Quiet Book, and she was also chosen as a finalist for the 2010 Governor's General Literary Award by the Canada Council for the Arts. Deborah Underwood and Renata Liwska have paired up again to create The Loud Book which will be in bookstores near you in 2011. Red Wagon, the second picture book written and illustrated by Renata, will also be published in 2011.

Renata is originally from Poland and currently lives in Calgary with her illustrator husband, Mike Kerr. To learn more about Renata, visit her website or her blog.

Describe your workspace.

A few months ago I would have said cluttered. I can be sentimental about stuff and it was starting to pile up. When I finished The Loud Book earlier this summer I decided enough is enough and removed anything from my studio that wasn't necessary for work or inspiration. It's been pretty wonderful so far, the first week or so I wanted to dance around because I had so much more room!

Describe your typical workday.

I should say that I really have two workspaces, my home studio and a coffee shop.  I like to draw at the coffee shop for a couple hours each day, it is often the most productive part of my day! Otherwise I work in my home studio. I don't really have a set schedule, I just try to be as productive as I can.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

When I am working in my studio I am usually coloring my illustrations in photoshop using a tablet. When I first started illustrating professionally I was painting in acrylics or oils, but a client who had seen my sketchbook was interested in my pencil drawings. So I figured out a way to color the drawing digitally by multiplying transparent layers over the drawings. It is a really good way to work, maybe too good sometimes. I have to watch that I don't have too many layers, the files can get pretty huge! Especially a two page spread.

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

First I would have to say my sketchbook. In truth, my sketchbook is my workspace. It is small and convenient to use, and essentially allows me to carry my studio with me. This way I can work wherever and whenever inspiration strikes.

Second would have to be my pencils, I can't draw without them of course! As I mentioned before, I changed from painting to drawing several years ago. I thought I would miss painting, but I really don't, I love drawing so much. It's such a perfect way to work for me.

Lastly I should mention my iPod touch. It's been an amazing tool. I use it constantly, for music of course, but also to check my email, look for references or inspiration, and to take things like a PDF version of my book dummy around with me wherever I go.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits?

I think it is many smaller rituals that make up the larger ritual of making art. I have small rituals, such as I like a warm cup of tea when I work in my studio. And others such as going to the coffee shop and drawing. When I am out, I like to listen to music.

What do you listen to while you work?

I love internet radio. Lately I have been listening to old time music from the 1930s. I often find my drawings dancing to the music. I also love listening to old radio shows such as "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar". An insurance investigator with an expense account!

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

As I mentioned I find drinking tea while working very relaxing. As for a snack, I often make a banana sandwich. Which is a nice piece of multigrain bread, a banana spread with a butter knife, and sprinkled with sesame seeds.

What keeps you focused while you're working?

This is a big challenge for me as I can get distracted pretty easily--I love watching cute pets and animals on the internet! I am always trying to find ways to stay focused. As part of my recent reorganizing of my studio I have separated my drawing table and computer table to try to stay on task. But deadlines are what really keep me focused. Although with children's books often taking me six months to a year long to complete, the deadlines can be a problem too!

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

Mike and I share our studio space. It works well when things are going well creatively, but we can get distracted if we are under a tight deadline or such. One of us usually goes out to work so we don't distract each other in these situations.

Otherwise, perhaps it could be one of my characters brought to life. They could pose for me, do funny things, and inspire me with their antics. Practical stuff like that. Oh yeah, and they could dance too. Mike and me don't dance very well, but the characters in my drawings dance very well.

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

I am not sure what is the best, but since the discussion is about creative spaces there is a really appropriate comment by director Brad Bird in the DVD special features on his Pixar film Ratatouille. It's a very informative interview with Brad Bird and a chef, Thomas Keller. They have great advice that applies to children's book illustration as much as film making or cooking. In discussing creativity, Brad Bird says that you need to observe what kind of environment puts you in a creative state of mind and then try to recreate that environment. I think that idea works on many levels. For me I am always trying to put myself in a situation where I can do my best work.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Hilary Wagner

This week we get to peek at the creative space of debut author Hilary Wagner. Her first middle grade novel, Nightshade City, was published this month.  

Nightshade City is about an underground kingdom of rats where three orphan rats band together to overthrow an oppressive ruler. No less than author Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) recommended the novel saying, "Fans of Redwall and the Warrior series will love this heroic tale of good versus evil in a subterranean society of rats. The world of the Catacombs is so compelling readers will wonder if it really might exist under our city streets."

To learn more about Nightshade City you can visit the book's website where you can view the trailer, read reviews, and learn some cool rat facts. (I was fascinated to learn that rats can learn their names and will come when called, and that they have belly buttons!)

In addition to writing, Hilary is also a talented painter. (I believe the piece on her wall is one of her own.) She has a degree in fine art and her paintings have appeared in numerous galleries and exhibitions in the Chicago area, where she lives with her family.

And now let's learn a little about Hilary and where and how she writes:

Describe your workspace.

I write on my favorite couch in the family room, nice and cozy in the corner. This room always seems to give me inspiration. It lets just enough natural light in and has all my favorite colors. Note the glaringly red painting on the wall! ;)

Describe a typical workday.

A workday with me is never typical! I have family, which includes two small children, a job, and a neurotic dog, who always seems to need to go outside when I'm at a pinnacle point in my writing! ;)

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

1. I love my Acer laptop, sounds silly, but it's my baby! I can't imagine having to replace it.
2. My statue guy--David. He's thoughtful, quiet and digs all my ideas!
3. My stone rat, Juniper. My daughter named him after one of Nightshade City's main characters. He's the one on the cover.

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

The only ritual I can think of is emailing myself my MS, even if I only add one paragraph! I'm always worried about losing data, even with a zip drive because I had one fail before, but luckily I could retrieve everything from email. Email is the poor man's (or in my case, the lazy woman's) zip drive!

What do you listen to while you work?

I usually keep the TV on very, very low--just audible. I like to have a little background noise or my mind will only concentrate on the silence. Many times, I have my 2 and 7 year old playing in the background, who frequently mimic stampeding elephants, so you can imagine how deafening pure silence would be!

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

I'm a coffee snob! I have one of those amazing grind and brew pots. I've got to have fresh coffee--sad I know, but I like to blame Starbucks. They've totally spoiled me. In the afternoon, Diet Pepsi Max is my main man, I'm slightly addicted! I only have one though or I get way too cold!

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Gosh, I suppose the pure drive to create! If only I had the same focus when it came to housework, my husband would be so thrilled! ;)

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

Usually on my laptop, though late at night, I've been known to write an entire scene longhand and then add it to the MS in the next day.

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

I don't outline, in fact I'm not quite sure what an outline is. Ha, ha! I guess the best way to describe my technique is "scene building". I let one scene build onto the next and the best way for me to create those scenes is through research. It really opens up my mind, especially when I'm stuck. Research is my solution to writer's block--always seems to spark an idea. I always picture a story like a house, something you build brick by brick.

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

Someone who doesn't talk a lot! ;) Seriously though, I'd love to work alongside Rick Riordan. I would think he does a lot of research for his novels and would love to see how he keeps it all organized, though I think he would be far from impressed in regards to my note taking, unless he's a major fan of random scribbled on paper scraps and old envelopes scattered about the house!

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

As writers, it's hard not to let noise from the outside world have an effect on your writing. Whether you are on the hunt for an agent or your first book has just released and you're worried about sales, you have to take a step back, breathe, and write. My agent and I had a long talk about this at one point and it's really helped me. At some point you have to realize you're doing this because you love writing and that love has to be your main focus.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Wendy Mass

Joining us this week to share her creative space is author Wendy Mass! Wendy Mass is the author of ten novels including A Mango-Shaped Space, Leap Day, the Twice Upon a Time fairy tale series, Every Soul a Star, 11 Birthdays, Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, and Finally. Her books have been translated into 12 languages and nominated for 41 state book awards, and A Mango-Shaped Space was awarded the Schneider Family Book Award by the American Library Association.

Her latest book (out in book stores this week!) is The Candymakers, a puzzle mystery about four 12-year-olds who enter a candymaking contest. Kirkus reviews writes: "Set in a candy factory as tantalizingly fragrant as Willy Wonka’s, this half-mystery, half–jigsaw-puzzle novel is a mild-mannered cousin to The Westing Game and When You Reach Me. . . . Sweets fans will love the gooey sensory details. Earnest and sweet, with enough salty twists not to taste saccharine." The Candymakers has its own website where you can learn more about the book, watch a video of Wendy talking about writing and researching the book, and find out more about the "I Want Candy!" sweepstakes.

A movie is being made of her novel Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, scheduled to come out in 2011. Wendy wrote about visiting the set on her blog which you can read about here. You will find an abundance of fun and useful information on her website. For writers, she has a great essay on her outlining method (which she refers to below) posted here. And now let's take a peek inside Wendy Mass's creative space:

Describe your workspace.
Ah, a room of one’s own. My house is overrun with toddlers so about six months ago I started renting an office about ten minutes away from my house. It’s located right on the boardwalk that surrounds a lake. I love having a place I can go to that’s just for writing. I’ve decorated it with things that remind me why I love what I do, even on the days where the ideas and the words just aren’t coming. Sometimes the door to my office is blocked by an outdoor table from the restaurant next door who set them up each morning and each morning forget about me. It’s always fun asking people to move while they’re eating. Once some nice women felt sorry for me and offered me wine. Here is the view from my window:

Describe a typical workday.
Drop off the twins at Pre-K, do the typical suburban mom stuff—CVS, supermarket, post office, then get to my office and settle in. If I’m in the research stage of a book I might go to the library first, otherwise I’m pretty much in front of the laptop until school gets out. Having written half the books before I had kids, it’s hard to adjust to writing on such a tight schedule. Knowing I have a shorter time each day does make me focus more, so there’s that. Still, if anyone has any secrets on juggling the two successfully, send ‘em my way.  

I call this part of the office Contemplation Corner. More accurately, it's where i go when the words start to swim on the screen and I curl up on the black and white chair and take a 10-minute power nap. Or 20.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
I found this mirror with the colorful ceramic tiles down in Key West, Florida. I was there about ten years ago for a writing workshop to work on what would a few years later become my first novel A Mango-Shaped Space. I met Judy Blume there, and gave her a copy of a nonfiction book I had written called Great Authors of Children’s Literature, which included a chapter on her. I got up the nerve (I don’t know from where!) to slip a short story into the front with my email address on top. She emailed that night and invited me to her house for lunch. Whenever I look at the mirror, it reminds me of her warmth and generosity, and how grateful I am to have someone I admire so greatly as a friend.   

This sign that spells W-R-I-T-E in symbols rather than letters, was from lovely Cedar Falls, Iowa where I spent a week doing school visits last year. It’s over my desk and whenever I’m tempted to start surfing websites about who celebrities are dating/breaking up with/getting a restraining order against, I look at the sign and remember why I’m sitting here. 

Most of the other stuff was made for me by kids. The sign with my name spelled out of candy bar wrappers makes me hungry every time I look at it (as does the constant wafting of food smells from next door). I love the Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life boxes, because no two are ever the same. This one is filled with the kids’ own thoughts on what the meaning of life is. I wish I had them before I wrote the book because they are really smart. 

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? 
Nope. I wish I had a ritual of remembering my computer chord, since I forget it every other day and have to drive all the way home.

 Everyone should have a larger-than-life-sized stick-on of Johnny Depp on their wall.
What do you listen to while you work?
I never listen to music when I’m in the early note-taking or outlining stage. Sometimes I’ll put it on when I’m further along into the book, and then it’s something fast and upbeat (currently Lady Gaga is in heavy rotation on my iTunes) in an attempt to get my fingers moving faster along the keyboard. 

Don't Piss off the Fairies. 'Nuff said.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Water and candy. Then more candy.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The looming deadline of whatever I’m working on and the wish to not let my editor down by being late. 
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I take notes and write the outline in a spiral notebook (each novel gets its own notebook). Then I write the actual book on the computer. I think putting pen to paper for the initial steps is a more direct route from your brain.  
How do you develop your story ideas? 
Once I find the topic that I want to write about, I go to the library and find every book or magazine on the subject. I start in the children’s room with the simplest books. Learning about how a solar eclipse works is much easier in a book for 5-year-olds than one for grownups. Then once I understand the basics, I’ll dive deeper into the subject, with the goal of approaching the topic in a way I haven’t seen before. I could have basically put my local librarian’s children through college with all my fines.  
Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
I always outline. Sometimes if I have enough time, I’ll outline the entire book first. Mostly now I do a rough outline of the story, then outline each chapter before I write it. If I had a choice, I’d rather outline the entire book first. If I let the muse lead me, she would lead me to wander the streets aimlessly, bemoaning my career choice. The books would wind up way too long and would stray off the topic too much. Some people complain that outlining a novel takes the fun out of writing it, but I gotta say, staring at a blank screen without knowing what’s coming next is a lot worse. Especially on a deadline.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
Someone quiet. An artist might be a nice companion. No clacking of the keyboard keys and I’m in awe of the creative process of people who can paint or draw so it would be fun and inspiring to see that process close up. If it didn’t have to be someone human, my cat Fang was a great officemate (may he rest in peace in cat heaven with all the tuna fish he desires). He used to sit on top of my computer and purr all day. Guess that wouldn’t work with a laptop. I miss him.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
I heard the wonderful Paula Danziger speak once at my local library and she told the story of how she and her good friend Avi would set a goal for the amount of words or pages they would write in a certain time period, and if they didn’t meet their goals, they had to donate a small sum to the other person’s political party. Now THAT’S motivation for you! I need to do something like that. Another thing that has stuck with me is early on in my career, I asked my agent (the wonderful Ginger Knowlton) if she thought I should write any specific kind of book, like any trends that might be coming up, or any topics editors mentioned they were looking for. She said I shouldn’t think about that, that I should only write the books that were inside me, that I was passionate about. At the time I remember being a little frustrated by that, thinking it would be a lot easier if someone just told me what to write, but over the years her advice has proven to be right on target

I've just returned from a family vacation and trip to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, and will have this week's Creative Spaces interview with author Wendy Mass up shortly. Stay tuned!