Monday, October 24, 2011

A Peek at the Creative Space of Tom Lichtenheld

Joining us today for Creative Spaces is author and illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. Tom has fifteen books and counting to his credit, including the New York Times bestsellers Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site (written by Sherri Duskey Rinker), Shark vs. Train (written by Chris Barton), and Duck! Rabbit! (created in collaboration with Amy Krouse Rosenthal).

His latest picture book is titled E-mergency! and was created in collaboration with Ezra Fields-Meyer. E-mergency! has a fascinating backstory behind its creation. I'll let Tom fill you in:

"Tom Fields-Meyer, a freelance journalist, decided to write a memoir about raising his son Ezra, who has high-functioning autism. As part of his research, Tom read other memoirs, among them Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encylopedia of an Ordinary Life. Tom contacted Amy for advice and mentioned in passing that Ezra had an idea for a children's book about animals. Amy mentioned it to me and also told me Ezra had done a video on YouTube called 'Alphabet House'.

I viewed the video and was immediately intrigued by the idea of a letter being injured, wondering what would happen as a result. Of course, everyone knows a person can't work when they're in the hospital, so I figured the same would be true of a letter; it would have to be taken out of commission while recovering and temporarily replaced by a substitute letter. Chaos and hilarity would certainly ensue, especially if the injured letter was 'E', the most frequently used letter in the English language.

I contacted Tom and asked if Ezra would be interested in seeing what I could do to extend the story into a book, and he was very excited by the prospect. From there, I wrote a first draft, sketched out the first half of the book, and put together a proposal for Victoria Rock, my editor at Chronicle Books. Victoria loved the idea, so we were off and running.

As much as I'm thrilled with the book we created together, meeting and learning about Ezra made the process of creating it a uniquely joyful, educational, and inspiring experience."
If you'd like to learn more about Ezra, the Wall Street Journal ran this article written by his father or you can visit Tom Field-Meyer's website

Tom Lichtenheld was also generous enough to share a bit of the process behind creating E-mergency! Before we get to his Creative Spaces responses and photos, I thought I'd share that here:

My first sketch after seeing Ezra's video. The note above is from Victoria Rock, my editor at Chronicle.

I decided to make the lead character female because I've noticed that kids default to assuming characters are males.

My favorite illustration in the book. Yes, it's small and incidental, but I love the way the characters look so befuddled. This is a good example of how my first sketches often have lots of personality, which I try to retain as they evolve into finished art.

Four preliminary sketches for one page. I finally settled on the fourth one.

The finished illustration from the sketch above.

Be sure to read all the way to the end of Tom's interview to see some outtakes from E-mergency! that didn't make it in the final version.

If you'd like to learn more about Tom Lichtenheld, visit his website and blog. Now let's take a peek at where he creates his work. . .

Don't be fooled, it never looks like this.

Describe your workspace.

It's a large-ish room over our garage, custom-built as a studio, with lots of windows and a high ceiling. Much nicer than the freezing cold basement where I worked when we first moved into the house. I'd be happy to work here 12 hours a day. Oh, wait, I already do that.

The mess means work is being done.
I keep an ever-evolving stack of admirable book nearby. Here's what I'm drooling over this week.

Describe a typical workday.

Ideas start popping (Freudian slip; I initially wrote "pooping.") into my head when I'm half-asleep at 5 am, so I work on them while still half-asleep, then get up and, if they're any good, run up to the studio to do some rough sketching or writing. I have breakfast, exercise, then go to work. I try to take care of the administrative stuff first, because once I get into drawing or writing it's all-consuming. I'll break for lunch, either at home or a nice walk to the little downtown a few blocks away. Then back to the drawing board for the afternoon and evening.

Scooter critiques my character designs for an upcoming book Zero the Hero.

There's method to my madness. Appearances are organized in yellow file folders, new book ideas in blue.

 What media do you use and which is your favorite?

I use line art printed on watercolor or colored paper, then apply color with a variety of mediums. I've used a variety of techniques for my books, from colored pencils to watercolor to crayons. I switch techniques partly out of curiosity but mostly because I like to use a technique that's appropriate for each book.

Currently, I'm using a new medium called Pan Pastels. They're cakes of fine powder, applied with a small sponge. I like the medium because it's more like drawing than painting, which suits my talents. I can use masks and friskets, and I can work reductively (a fancy word for "erasing."). I also like that the final product looks a bit like a lithograph.

A rough sketch, done with a brush pen.

Finished line art, also done with a brush pen, as seen in the photo.
Left: Color from the cakes is applied with a small sponge. Right (close-up): Then I add some texture with colored pencils.

I do use the computer in my process, but only to scan my pencil drawings, then turn them into line art in photoshop. I print the photoshop art onto the final paper with a large format laser or inkjet printer.

I've dabbled in creating art digitally, but here's what I've discovered; the process is not nearly as joyful as putting marks on paper. I've spent four hours working on a computer illustration, been marginally pleased with the result, but then realized the process was more labor than love. So I will probably always defer to more traditional mediums.

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

Practically speaking, 1. Mac 2. Large format printers 3. Cool new taboret from Ikea, full of magical art supplies. Emotionally, 1) my wife, when she comes up to organize my appearances, do my accounting, and critique my work. 2.) Scooter, our cat. 3) A photo of my parents.

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

Studio Rules:
1. At work by 8:30 a.m.
2. Shoes must be worn after 8:30 a.m. (this prevents the 'working all day in PJs' phenomenon)
3. No working past 11 p.m., otherwise I'm useless the next day. If I need to catch up, I get up at 3 or 4.
4. Exercise daily, no matter how busy you are.

Mr. Brush helps with painting.

What do you listen to while you work?

During the day, I stream a public radio rock station from Minneapolis called The Current. I like 60% of what they play, tolerate 30% of it, and detest the rest, but it keeps me, you know, current.

At night, Public Radio News, also from Minneapolis.

No, I don't live in Minneapolis, but I used to. For anyone who's paying attention and knows the city, you'll notice that any skyline in my books is Minneapolis. Love that Foshay tower.

"O" and "E" head out for their promotional tour for E-mergency!

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

Water, mostly, but every other day I get a diet coke, which is poison but I love it, especially from the fountain at the nearby 7-11. A guy needs a vice.

Everyone in the studio gathered around to see this award when it arrived last week.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

It's a struggle, what with emails, marketing, correspondence and social networking, but I remind myself that the book I'm working on is my employer, and my employer doesn't take to slackers.

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

Longhand when working on rough concepts, then on the computer when I'm getting seriously into a manuscript. I prefer to write on the laptop, in a corner or out of the studio. Trains are good, coffee shops work, too. When I'm working with Amy Krouse Rosenthal, we meet at a hipster coffee shop where we resemble everyone else hunkered over their journals and laptops.

The light in the studio is often more interesting than the art.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

Initially I just roll with it and try not to over-think anything, just letting it happen. Then I go back to see if anything makes sense. Sometimes I'll use a tried-and-true structure as a crutch. For instance, I used Joseph Campbell's Heroic Journey as a template for Bridget's Beret. And I'll try some other devices, like a two-part ending, or a circular ending.

For me, book ideas rarely come to me fully-formed, but they often come from a single doodle with a general idea behind it. I put all these doodles up on a wall, then work on them until something rises to the top.

These dog and cat doodles have me thinking about doing a book that's all black and white images. It might be called "Doggy Do," which of course, would be about things that dogs do.

At a school appearance, a boy asked me a question about a snail, which got me thinking about--and drawing--snails. This might become a story about an adventurous snail.

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

Drawing and painting. Oh, wait, that's the entire process! Seriously, I know so many illustrators who are so much better than me that it's hard to accept anything I put on paper. I am not a very good draftsman, meaning I'm not good at drawing a thing so it looks like that thing. I once had to have Eric Rohmann show me how to draw a dog's butt. Honest. And painting terrifies me. In fact, I'm avoiding it right now. On the upside, I do recognize that my initial sketches are often my best work, so the challenge is to not wreck the sketch as it evolves into an illustration. My writing partner, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, recently responded to a sketch I sent her by saying something like "If you overwork this sketch I will kill you." Motivating stuff.

Studio helpers Scooter and Reba.

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

Anyone who's doing creative work. When it gets lonely up here I consider renting out space in an architect's office, just to be around other people who are making things.

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

I have a drawing from a second grader on my wall that says "Are you riting a book right NOW?" It reminds me that none of the other things I do around here matter if I'm not riting a book right NOW.

*Bonus* Emergency! Leftovers

Part of my process is to create a collection of miscellaneous gags that can be included as needed. I keep these nearby as I'm sketching out the story, always looking for an opportunity to use them. By the time the book is done I invariably have a few that--due to space or better judgment--get left on the cutting room floor. Such is the case with these.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Peek at the Creative Space of Carmen Agra Deedy

Carmen Agra Deedy has been writing for children for over two decades. Born in Havana, Cuba, she came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1964. She grew up in Decatur, Georgia, where she lives today.

Her books have garnered high praise and awards and include The Library Dragon, The Yellow Star, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, and 14 Cows for America.

Her latest is her middle grade novel debut, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, co-written with Randall Wright and illustrated by Barry Moser. From the publisher Peachtree:
In this playful homage to Charles Dickens, unlikely allies learn the lessons of a great friendship

Skilley, an alley cat with an embarrassing secret, longs to escape his street-cat life. Tired of dodging fishwives' brooms and carriage wheels, he hopes to trade London's damp alleyways for the warmth of ye olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. He strikes a bargain with Pip, an erudite mouse: Skilley will protect the mice who live at the inn, and in turn, the mice will provide Skilley with the thing he desires most.

But when Skilley and Pip are drawn into a crisis of monumental proportions involving a tyrannical cook, an unethical barmaid, and a malevolent tomcat, their new friendship is pushed to its limits. The escalating crisis threatens the peace not only of the Cheshire Cheese Inn but also the British Monarchy!

Unbeknownst to Skilley and Pip, however, they have a secret ally: a famous author who scribbles away many an afternoon in ye olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. . .

The Cheshire Cheese Cat has received glowing reviews include a starred review from Publishers Weekly who wrote, “Expertly realized characters and effervescent storytelling make this story of unlikely friendship, royal ravens, and “the finest cheese in London” a delight.”

If you’d like to learn more about Carmen Agra Deedy, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

Official workspace, or de facto?

I do have an office in my home, and I do write at my desk on occasion—okay, that is only marginally true––I really write everywhere. I have a laptop and I have it for a reason. I write on planes, and at my neighborhood coffee shop, and in bed at night (my own bed, a hotel room bed), a plastic chair at La Guardia when my flight is canceled . . . My schedule includes a generous smattering of travel, and that sort of life demands flexibility from a writer.

I truly love my cheery little office. It’s just so elusive these days. . .

Describe a typical workday.

My workdays vary greatly. I visit over a hundred schools a year, in and out of state. If I happen to be home, I will spend the day with school children and the evening with my family. My husband and I will make dinner together, wash our dishes, and then our dog, George Bailey, will take us for a walk. We inevitably wind up on the porch where we sit and talk for an hour or two. George is a rather long-winded storyteller, I’m afraid.

I don’t usually sit down to write until quite late. Being something of a night owl, this arrangement suits me nicely.

If I’m on the road, my evenings are pretty dull: I order room service, eat, then stay up and write for a while. Except for those times when I don’t . . .

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

In my office (the titular writing space) I keep a number of things that have special meaning for me. The place seems to have a magnetic quality for the flotsam and jetsam of my life.

My granddaughter’s crib. Ruby and her parents live in Brooklyn. The crib isn’t used regularly, but it is always at the ready. And it’s such a happy little thing. I love having it nearby when I work from home.

The painting of my dog and BFF, George. It was a gift from my husband, and I adore it.

A wonderful clock, created by my daughter, Erin, from an old book of Robin Hood tales.

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

Avoid, avoid, avoid. 

When the avoiding is done, then it’s work, work, work.

But, you’ve never seen such resistance to writing when a deadline first looms! I will scrub the toilet, refold the linens, and label the spice jars, if it will gain me one more nanosecond of lollygagging.

What do you listen to while you work?

Words in the background when I’m trying to write?
No can do. 

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

Hot tea; a homemade brew of chamomile and star anis is my favorite.

What keeps you focused while you're working?

Once I truly immerse myself in a story, I don’t need anything to keep me focused. I become most obsessed. It’s the whole “getting started” thing that I find paralyzing (it’s a bit like that childhood dream where you are trying desperately to run, but your feet won’t obey the command).

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

All notes, research, and story arcs, are written longhand. The first clean draft is then entered into my laptop, and I continue in that medium until the near-final draft. At that point I print it out and edit the hard copy. I enter the changes . . . then repeat the process two or three times.

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

I start with an idea. It may be something I’ve seen, thought, felt, experienced, remembered, or twisted my ankle upon. If it feels like it could be the beginning of an intriguing story, however, I let it play out. To state it with more clarity: I think about it, read about it, and talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.

As I go along, I write down everything, every morsel of information, in notebooks. When I have enough for a proper story, I write an outline. This process could take weeks, months, or years. Then, and only then, do I begin to write any substantial prose.

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

Teddy Roosevelt. I’d prefer to have the live specimen, of course. There’s not enough room in my workspace for a dead president, no matter how fond I am of him.

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

Write what you really think.

Your list of erstwhile friends may grow longer––but you’ll hardly miss the buzzards. As for your true friends? Like Pip, I’ve found that they become often more loyal with every line of truth you fling into the universe.

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Peek at the Creative Space of Linda Ravin Lodding

Creative Spaces is back, and today we're going international!

Linda Ravin Lodding is celebrating her U.S. debut as a picture book author with this month's publication of The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Flashlight Press). Soon to follow will be her UK picture book debut with Hold That Thought, Milton!, illustrated by Ross Collins (Gullane Children's Books) and Oskar's Perfect Present, illustrated by Alison Jay (Gullane Children's Books).

Originally from New York, Linda Ravin Lodding has lived in Europe for the past fifteen years and currently lives in The Netherlands. The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister is already earning praise and rave reviews. From Darrell Hammond, best-selling author and CEO of KaBOOM!, "This book is a joyful and funny reminder to kids and parents alike about the importance and power of play."

To give you a taste of The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, here is the book trailer:

Linda has two upcoming book events in the U.S. if you are interested in meeting her and learning more about Ernestine. She'll be in New Jersey on Oct. 29 at The Town Bookstore from 2 to 4, and at Books of Wonder in New York City on Nov. 5 from 12 to 2.

To learn more about Linda, visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @lindalodding.

Describe your workspace.

I’m a fairly nomadic writer, but for the past three years I’ve lived in a tiny one-windmill town called “Wassenaar” in The Netherlands, outside of The Hague.

My village, Wassenaar -- notice the policeman on bike!

Our 1930s house is a typical, 4-floor Dutch townhouse and my "office" is on the second floor. My desk faces glass doors that open up to a balcony overlooking a small brick-walled garden.  I put my desk in front of the window so I can see the birds gathering in the trees, watch the neighbor's cat jump from roof-top to roof-top and gaze at the ever-changing Dutch sky.

The front of our house.

Family room which is the central hub-bub of our family life.

The back garden.

Sometimes, when I need a change of scenery, I’ll bike over to Bagel Alley or the local public library.

Our neighborhood hangout, Bagel Alley (notice that Oreo Cake. Heavenly sinful!)

In the summer, my writing workspace is in our summer house in a small fishing village on the west coast in Sweden. The room where I write was a later addition to the house and was previously used as a café for the summering guests that served coffee and "kanelbullar" (cinnamon buns) and fresh strawberries.

Describe a typical workday.

I don’t have very typical days, but most mornings involve getting my daughter off to school (which doesn't require a lot of effort). Once she’s off, I usually grab a cup of coffee and head up to my desk while still in my bathrobe and my hair looking like a wigged-out madwoman (which is why I'm not submitting a photo of this. But, if you do notice the position of my desk, you'll see that everyone else in the neighborhood is able to see me in my full wigged-out state).

After some quick emailing (who am I kidding? This is NEVER quick), I get on my "Oma Fiets" (Grandma Bike) for errands or to the gym.  I then scurry home to check and respond to more emails. Once I become thoroughly disgusted with myself for not having good focused work habits, I start to “work”.

My Dutch "Oma Fiets" -- in Holland, the rustier and beat-up the bike, the better!

At the moment I'm spending time promoting my debut, The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister, preparing for school visits, putting final touches on my second picture book, Hold That Thought, Milton!, and working on polishing other texts.

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

1) Photos of my far-flung family and places that I've visited are some of the most meaningful things in my space.

2)  My handmade Ernestine doll that my friend Paulette Kingsbury-Quimby recently sent me. She made Ernestine with a gorgeous belted purple coat (which I wish came in my size!), sneakers, and a beautiful daisy crown just like the one Ernestine wears in the book.

3a) Wire head scratcher. It looks like a medieval torture device but it’s great at stimulating my brain creativity. But sometimes my husband goes running off with it.

3b) And when I'm writing at Bagel Alley, my favorite thing is the Oreo cake which drives me to distraction!

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

I don’t have any rituals but if I'm feeling creatively sluggish, one thing that is certain to get me in the writing groove is to read a big stack of picture books. Even though I don't read Dutch, I love going to our local Wassenaar library to pour through their section of Dutch children's picture books.  I become absorbed with the illustrations which usually tell their own story. (And the library is located right next to Bagel Alley. How convenient!)

Dutch children's books which offer me inspiration (even though I don't read Dutch :) ).

What do you listen to while you work?

Seagulls, kids as they bike by the house, and the clip-clop of horses heading for an outride to the beach. For a New Yorker, these are very exotic sounds!

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

A crunchy apple with crunchy peanut butter. Green ice tea or coffee.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

It's a constant struggle--so many things call to me--emails to read, Facebook statuses to update, Etsy things to buy, food to be eaten. But usually, two things work for me:  1)  A deadline! and 2) Being in the "zone" with a piece of work. There's nothing more wonderful than to be sucked into a story and realize that hours have gone by (and I haven't answered, purchased, or eaten any of those things that usually scream my name.)

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

Always on my Mac. It's by far the quickest way for me to get my thoughts down "on paper" and, periodically, check on word count. I also love to highlight things in different colors and change fonts so in the end my draft can look like a crazy quilt (but when I send the draft to my editor it's back to basic black text and Times New Roman).

Conversely, I like to edit in longhand. Printing out the draft and sitting with a pencil for edits helps me slow down and tap into another, quieter, part of my brain.

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

I have a file full of story ideas, possible book titles, character names, opening sentences–all of which I like to think are sitting and marinating in their own juices until they’re ready to be cooked. The difficult thing, for me, is turning those ideas into fully-developed stories with a beginning, middle, and satisfying end.

I don't have any elixir other than just to start writing. At some point I usually hit the wall and have to put the story down. That's when I live with the story off the page--mulling over plot points or word choice while I'm on the treadmill or chopping veggies. I'll also bounce ideas around with my wonderful writing buddies.

Once the story is in reasonable shape, I find that making a dummy book from the text to be quite helpful. The dummy helps me see how the page turns work as part of the story and I can assess whether or not I have enough material for unique visuals on each page--key for picture books writers.

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

My 13-year-old daughter, Maja. Fortunately, I usually am sharing my work space with her. She's either doing homework at the big Parson's table behind my desk or practicing the piano (to the right of my desk.) She's such lovely company and great critique partner. (I think I'm going to have to move into her college dorm room!)

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

My picture book texts became exponentially stronger when I began to think visually. As Verla Kay says, every sentence, every phrase, needs to bring up a visual picture. Read all the great picture books and study the form--look at what the text “says”, and what the visuals "say". Picture books, ultimately, are a dance between words and illustrations and it’s key to understanding how the two work together. It’s like learning to waltz alone.