Monday, November 29, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery

Kirby Larson
Mary Nethery
I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving! My husband and I spent our holiday with my side of the family in California and are full of gratitude for the time spent with family and friends, lots of great food, and returning home to our pets who were spoiled and incredibly well taken care of by my in-laws.

The feelings of gratitude continue today as we have a special treat with a joint Creative Spaces interview with authors Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. Together they have collaborated on two award-winning nonfiction picture books, Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival (illustrated by Jean Cassels) and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine, and a Miracle (a collaboration that also included Major Brian Dennis).

Two Bobbies is a wonderful, tear-jerker of a story about a dog and a blind cat (both with bobbed tails, hence the names) who helped each other survive Hurricane Katrina. Their story was featured on Anderson Cooper 360ยบ, which is where Kirby and Mary first learned about the Bobbies and got the idea to turn their story into a picture book. In addition to being a heartwarming story of friendship and survival, Two Bobbies also celebrates the hard work of animal rescue organizations and the many volunteers who traveled to New Orleans to help in the aftermath of Katrina. If there is an animal-lover you are buying gifts for this holiday season, I highly recommend this book. (And Mary and Kirby are donating a portion of their proceeds from this book to Best Friends Animal Society.)

In addition to their collaborations, Kirby and Mary also work on solo projects. Kirby Larson is the author of the 2007 Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky, a young adult historical novel inspired by her great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks Wright, who homesteaded by herself in eastern Montana as a young woman. Kirby's latest book, The Fences Between Us, is leading off the relaunch of Scholastic's Dear America series. The Fences Between Us is about 13-year-old Piper who lives in Seattle in 1941 during the bombing of Pearl Harbor where her brother has recently been stationed. Her father is the pastor for a Japanese Baptist church and when Piper's Japanese neighbors and her father's congregants are sent to an incarceration camp, her father follows, bringing Piper with him. Also make sure to keep an eye out May 2011 for Kirby Larson's next novel, The Friendship Doll.

Mary Nethery is a best-selling author of several picture books. In addition to her collaborations with Kirby, she is the author of Mary Veronica's Egg, illustrated by Paul Yalowitz, and Hannah and Jack, illustrated by Mary Morgan. Mary Nethery's newest picture book is The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star, illustrated by John Manders. Set in Venice in the 1890's, a plain white cat, left to fend for scraps, makes his way into the heart of a cafe owner who has nothing to spare. From the School Library Journal, "Before there was Dewey Readmore Books, there was Nini, also a humble stray, practicing random acts of kindness in 19th-century Venice . . . At the heart of Nini's appeal and talent is the fact that he is simply a charming stray. Nethery has a lot of fun with Nini's story, creating characters openhearted enough to be touched by a purr or a nudge against the shins; she provides an analysis of the fact versus her fiction in the author's note."

To find out more about these authors and their books, visit Kirby Larson's website and blog, and Mary Nethery's website.

Kirby Larson's writing space

Mary Nethery's writing space

Describe your workspace.

When our son went off to college, I took over his bedroom (I had been relegated to a corner of the guest room/sewing room previously). The walls are a soft gold which glow warmly on our gray Seattle days. Two windows bring in light and a spectacular view of two enormous Katsura trees, whose delicate heart-shaped green leaves blaze red and gold in the fall (and also smell like cotton candy!). My office has two bookcases and needs at least two more, a desk, a file cabinet, a rolling file cabinet for work in progress and a dog bed for Winston the Wonder Dog.

Winston the Wonder Dog
Mary:  My office is in a loft area, with two windows to my right. Two rows of white shelving flow along the long wall I face each morning as I sit at my computer. My baby muse, Dash, has a basket on the bottom shelf for musing in. Against the wall to my left stand two Tuscan cabinets filled with books. The ceiling is painted white. Three walls are a chameleon-like magnolia that sometimes looks the softest hue of pink, and the fourth wall behind the cabinets is painted a deep berry called Crushed Velvet, as directed by my Feng Shui Master!

Describe a typical workday.

Kirby:  Ha! No such thing exists. When I’m home, however, I am generally in my office by 8:30 or 9, coffee to my right, work in progress on the screen. I shouldn’t, but I answer emails first thing. When I’m in the thick of things, I do turn off my email and find I get ever so much more accomplished. Most days I’m in my office until it’s time for dinner—though Winston is adamant that, rain or shine, we take a walk around 3 p.m. each afternoon.

Mary: The typical day I fantasize about begins with a lovely breakfast on a terrace in the morning sun, followed by a massage, after which I sit in my office and write twenty pages with ease and no interruptions and then enjoy a nutritious yet tasty lunch prepared by anyone but me! However, back to reality. I have a Pilates class at 8:30 a.m. After that I write or return emails, do promotional tasks, etc. until noon. I return to my office around 2 and write until 4 or 5. Then I return again in the evening for another couple of hours of work. It works best for me to break up my day and not sit for long hours at a time.

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

Kirby: I look across the room at one of my bookcases to a shelf holding a photo of my Write Sisters, women I’ve known for ages who have been key encouragers in my writing career (one of them is Mary). The windowsill to the right of my desk is home to an acorn from Walden’s Pond, a wishing rock from our beach house, and stones I have picked up from various beaches I’ve visited. These mementos remind me of travels and adventures that have enriched my life. On my desk sits a shabby copy of The Synonym Finder, ed. by J. I. Rodale, which I use daily.

Mary: I adore my baby muse, Dash. He sits in his basket as I write. He came to us from what he likes to call an orphanage in Atlanta, Georgia. He really is a godsend—slipping me a great detail when I need it the most, and now that he’s getting Dr. Dictionary every morning via email, he even suggests word replacements! Pictures of people I love, like Kirby, adorn the top shelf above my computer. My other favorite thing is my ever faithful iMac which allows me to work with the least amount of frustration possible.

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

Kirby: It’s not my ritual, but Winston’s: he generally sleeps on my lap while I work so is always trying to get me upstairs to my office as soon as breakfast is over in the morning.

Mary: I wish I had a ritual, but I don’t. I think rituals can be happy things that bring you comfort and safety and assure you that yes, you can get through this really difficult chapter where you’ve got your main character, alone in her bedroom without her cell phone, with a possible intruder, and nothing but a baseball bat for protection, and how am I ever going to be able to write it so it scares the pants off my readers, and . . . Yes, I believe I need to put together a ritual ASAP.

What do you listen to while you work?

Kirby: Nothing, aside from Winston’s snores. I prefer quiet while I work.

Mary: I like silence and the sound of the water tinkling over the rocks in the fountain downstairs. The only time I like music is if I’m writing a particular scene and need the playlist that I think would accompany it—for inspiration. But I’m too easily moved by music—music can be hazardous to my psyche!

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

Kirby: Coffee or a homemade latte are fairly essential and, most afternoons, a cup of tea (I like Harney & Son’s African Autumn or Paris) and a Trader Joe’s Fig Bar, which gets shared with a certain four-legged muse.

Mary: I have a Jura Capresso that grinds the French Roast beans and makes one cup of coffee at a time with a lovely crema. And almost everyday, my husband bakes sunflower seeds for me—they’re excellent for increasing seratonin.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Kirby: My love for what I’m doing! And the fact that I really do see it as a job.

Mary: I’ve learned to be really disciplined. You can’t create unless you produce something, and what could possibly be more heady than creating a universe? And I know I’m meant to write—I feel like the real “me” when I’m writing.

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

Kirby: Always on the computer (old habit from my journalism degree), though I print off drafts and hand revise on them.

Mary: I always write on the computer. But sometimes I need to trick my brain into moving out of the box by writing long hand. I revise both on the computer and via printed drafts.

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

Kirby: It depends on the story. With the nonfiction picture books, because Mary is so great at seeing the story arc and plot points, we tend to write in scenes. With my own work—which has come to be fairly exclusively historical fiction—historical events are the dots that I try to connect with characters and action. I am not an outliner, but I do spend a lot of time writing about the story. I have just this summer used a program called Scrivener to write a historical novel and I liked the rhythm and discipline of it so I'm using it again for the current WIP.

Mary: I spend a lot of time just cogitating and writing down ideas that may seem disparate but begin to work together in some odd way. When I think I’ve got a handle on the story, I begin to shape it by writing a brief sketch of each scene with major plot points, on a big piece of butcher paper—at some point, everything that’s on the butcher paper is transferred to a document. I don’t like outlining. It bores me. But fashioning the shape of a story to the point where I can no longer hold back from beginning to write it, keeps me intrigued and works for me.

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

Kirby: Couldn’t do it anymore. Not even with Mary! I’m too spoiled.

Mary: I think I’d enjoy sharing a workspace! But it would have to be with someone really fun-loving with an offbeat sense of humor—like my husband or my son or maybe even Stephen Colbert! I take myself way too seriously and that can impede my writing. I’d like to be interrupted with goofy ideas and just plain old happiness and laughter. But they’d have to settle down on command!

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

Kirby: Don’t listen to advice! ;-) I think if a writer reads voraciously and learns the basics of her genre, she should avoid using other people’s road maps and create her own.

Mary: Hmmm, follow your muse, write about what makes your passions burn, and create your own path.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Barrie Summy

Joining us this week for Creative Spaces is author Barrie Summy. Barrie is the author of a series of middle grade mysteries including I So Don't Do Mysteries, I So Don't Do Spooky, and the latest installment, I So Don't Do Makeup.

In I So Don't Do Mysteries, seventh-grader Sherry (short for Sherlock) is spending spring break in San Diego with her best friend when she is contacted by the ghost of her mom who was shot in the line of duty and needs Sherry's help in solving a case. Sherry juggles mystery sleuthing, tension with her best friend who thinks Sherry's lost it when she confides that she's been communicating with the ghost of her mother, and a serious crush on Josh the eighth-grade cutie. The story is peppered with lots of funny bits (like the ghost of her mother being summoned by coffee), and is a fun twisty-turny ride.

The second book in the series, I So Don't Do Spooky, was just released in paperback in October, and the fourth book in the series, I So Don't Do Famous, will be published next May.

To learn more about Barrie Summy and her books, visit her website and blog.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace changes depending on how close I am to a deadline and how far away I am from the end of the book!

This is my normal working space: a wide La-Z-y Boy in my living, a laptop, an end table and our dog, Dorothy. Dorothy sleeps in the chair, squished up next to me, whenever I’m writing.

This is my working space if a deadline is looming large, and I still have a bunch of words to go: a hotel!

Describe a typical workday.

Dorothy and I walk Child #4 to school. Once I get home, I make a cup of tea and my breakfast (if I didn’t eat with the kids), and write for the morning. I often write again at night when the house is dark and quiet.

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

Dorothy: She is completely nonjudgmental about what I write.

My blue mug: It is not too big, so my tea doesn’t get cold quickly.

Pencils that don’t need sharpening.

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

Well, I tidy the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. While the tea is steeping, I throw in a load of laundry. I like the background noise AND I like multi-tasking, so it’s win-win. Then I feed our veiled chameleons. By now my tea is at the perfect temperature, so I settle down to write.

This is our female veiled chameleon, Lotta, munching on a cricket. I tried to snap her actually catching the cricket with her tongue, but I just couldn’t get the timing.

What do you listen to while you work?

The sound of the washer, the dryer and maybe the dishwasher. I only listen to music if I need to write faster.

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

Ice water (with or without flavoring), tea, diet Coke with tons of ice.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Getting off the internet! Sometimes I resort to my ancient laptop, which doesn’t have internet access.

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

I write on a computer, but I do keep a running notebook per manuscript, where I jot down thoughts, things to fix, etc.

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

I outline. Big time. Which doesn’t mean I don’t stray from the outline, but I like to write with a roadmap.

I start off with a recipe box with dividers for the main sections of the book. Then I slot in note cards with scene ideas wherever I think they’ll fit in the story.

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

Besides Dorothy? Hmmm…John Cusack, perhaps.

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

Plow through the first draft, no matter how horrible you think it is. Because you need something to revise, and you can’t revise a blank page.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Peek at the Creative Space of Alfred Currier and Anne Schreivogl

Today we have a Creative Spaces first--an artistic duo sharing their workspaces with us. Sweethearts Anne Schreivogl and Alfred Currier are fine artists whose work has been represented in numerous galleries, mostly throughout the Northwest. 

Alfred Currier illustrated How Far to Heaven, written by Chara Curtis, a picture book about a grandmother and granddaughter who find Heaven in their everyday, natural surroundings. He studied art at the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio and the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Plein air landscapes are one of his preferred styles of painting. Plein air means to paint "in the open air" and Alfred has traveled widely, painting on location. In his studio, Alfred enjoys working with impasto, which is a thickly textured style of painting.

His partner Anne Schreivogl works in acrylic and also paints plein air oil landscapes. Her work has been showcased in numerous galleries, including a cataloged solo show titled "Holding to Creativity" that featured 40 paintings illustrating the lines of a poem she wrote. I love this quote from "Holding to Creativity": How does one entice the little rascal of creativity into the studio? Sort of like a cat: ignore it. Pretend you don't care. Plod along predictably, and before you know it, it's curling around your legs, meowing for attention. 

Alfred and Anne live and work together in Washington state where their studio connects to their house, with a courtyard that Alfred described in one of his recent blog posts: "Warm weather keeps me outside, so my painting days are kept short, my paintings kept small.  Lately I've been having fun painting in my courtyard just enjoying the sun.  The bees are buzzing, birds are chirping, and kitty is just basking in the warmth of it all with no reaction to birds dive-bombing her." Maybe it's the chilly winter weather creeping in here in Colorado, but that description sounds so blissful to me!

To learn more, visit Alfred's website or Anne's website

Describe your workspace.

AS: We each have our own studio spaces within a building about 20 feet from our house, across the courtyard. Both have high ceilings, with full-spectrum lighting. I have a loft I can perch in, where I doodle and write.  A drawing area provides the starting point for ideas.  Often I find inspiration in the comfy loveseat, with my feet up, watching the starlings pecking on the skylight windows, wondering what’s going on in here. 

Anne's studio space
 AC: My studio space is 16’ high ceilings, with north light, 14’ x 24’, with some storage area, comfortable couch, lots of paint, and sketchbooks. I keep it mostly austere, devoid of color, so as not to influence my color sense when painting. 

Alfred's studio space

Describe a typical day.
AS: lt would be interesting to watch a sped up video of my walking path throughout the day. Lots of pacing. I am constantly trying to step away from a painting in order to see it fresh and respond to it. I will often start the day with a cup of tea, nestled in my little library in the house. 

I’ll read books and poems, stare out the window at the other birds in the tree. Then I’ll go to the studio and start doodling and drawing to relax and get back to that "five year old having fun" feeling.

Once I feel the shift, I’m ready to paint. Unlike Al, who works one painting at a time, I will have several going at once.  The one leaning against the wall on the corner gets to be very interesting when I feel the pressure from the one actually on the easel.  I will sometimes throw the canvas on the floor and paint from all 4 sides, working it as an abstract, to strengthen it.

I don’t have a "typical day". I tend to build momentum and work long hours for several weeks, then paint less at other times when I’m focusing on framing, documenting work, or delivering art to galleries for shows.

AC: I start my mornings slowly, trying to keep my mind unencumbered then drift into the studio around 9 or 10am.  If I can get 5 hours in a day, I feel good. My biggest issues are outside interferences and the refrigerator.

I, too, start with sketches that I’ll work on, either from imagination or done directly in the nearby Skagit Valley fields, of the migrant workers.  I don’t like to work from photos.

Then I will return to the studio, block in color, and over 2 - 4 weeks build up layers of color and texture to create an impasto painting.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

AS: Although I use oils when I’m plein air painting, my mainstay in the studio are acrylics. The qualities and colors are excellent now and I can build layers without it graying down.

AC: I prefer oil but I like to draw too.

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

AS: I have these huge daisy-like flowers that make me feel like a bug in one of my own paintings. They make me smile daily. 

Second, birds and birdhouses are a common motif. My last name “Schreivogl” means “screeching bird”. I adore birds but ironically am extremely allergic to feathers. So they find their way into my art.


Lastly, I have a bulletin board with quotes and drawings constantly changing and inspiring.

AC: The stereo, my couch and favorite photos- of my sweetheart, Anne, and my old dog, Boo.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits?

AS: Every year we break away from the studios and go somewhere for a month to paint. This would be “plein air” (outdoor) oil impressionistic type painting.  It hones our technical skills, we discover new places, and return to the studios refreshed.

What do you listen to while you work?

AS: I think we can answer this one together. We both like a variety of music anywhere from reggae, to classical to hard rock. It depends on what mood we’re in with the painting as to what we play. Music is a big part of our art. We even have extra-insulated walls between the studios so we can each play to our heart’s content without disturbing one another.

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

I love green tea.  Eating with paint on my hands is not a good idea, but I will break from the studio several times a day and forage around the kitchen like an anteater. Usually I come up with a snoutful of raisins or walnuts.  On rare days I’ll discover an open bag of potato chips on the counter.

Homemade coffee. And whatever’s in the fridge at the time I’m pacing. These aren’t necessarily my snack and drink of choice, but what’s around.

He also likes to crunch on ice. CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

This may sound strange, but as I think about it now, we may both start out, each in our studios quietly, but within five minutes one of us will come bursting into the other’s studio (we tend to leave our doors open), with some brilliant crazy idea we want to share. Or we make crazy faces or are goofy.  I’ve never thought about this consciously, but after about 5 minutes of that and a good laugh, we both seem to be able to settle down into our own work in a relaxed state. I’ll leave it to psychologists to analyze this unusual behavior.

When I’m actually painting, what keeps me focused is connecting to the feeling I am trying to express (usually joy, wonder, or just loving the paint I’m playing with). The more I get into ‘feeling’ as I paint, the world just falls away from me and I move into timelessness.  Hopefully the technical skills are working away quietly in the background, keeping the painting together.  You learn all the skills over many years, then try to put them away, forget them, and paint with heart. Probably not unlike with writing or playing the piano.

AC: I try not to labor over my paintings. Pacing allows me to keep stepping back and returning clearly to the canvas. That way I can keep my paintings fairly loose from a close up standpoint.

In the book How Far to Heaven, it was a different mode of painting in that my focus was to be subordinate to the words of Chara Curtis, the author of the book. I tried to keep the paintings simple and austere at the beginning of the story, then escalate the emotions in the paintings as the words were also being escalated along the story.  

This a different approach than how I approach my studio work which is more impressionistic, using an impasto (thick) application.  My interest is with color and texture. Close up my paintings fall apart into abstracts, but step back and they are recognizable forms.

What aspects of creating art do you find most challenging and why?

AS: The hardest part is getting started.  How does one entice the little rascal of creativity into the studio? I find it’s sort of like a cat: ignore it.  Pretend you don’t care.  Plod along predictably, and before you know it, it’s curling around your legs, meowing for attention.

AC: Staying fresh, generating new ideas, and adhering to the process of painting and creating, rather than painting with the end result in mind.

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

Al, if I could duct tape his mouth shut and nail his shoes to the floor. :)

Boo, my deceased dog, was my best companion. I know she looked like a dog, but she was really a little person.  Never said anything unkind about my artwork, either.

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

I can’t remember which well-known Impressionist artist said this, but I come back to it over and over: “Don’t paint the tree that you see, paint the tree that you feel.” You may have all the tools and techniques in the world, but what do you have to say?

Best advice I’ve ever received is to develop the hide of a rhino and paint for the process of doing, not for the end product expected.