#FirstPictureBook Q&A


March 12, 2018

Tags: HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW, Natalia and Lauren O’Hara

As children, sisters Natalia and Lauren O’Hara adored the tales their Polish grandmother told on snowy nights and planned to create their own stories one day. Now all grown up, script editor Natalia and set designer Lauren have created their #firstpicturebook together. “Children who love eerie stories will be fascinated" (Publishers Weekly) by HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW —“a handsome debut picture book...beautifully designed" (The New York Times ).

Q. Was HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A: HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW  was the first picture book we worked on. We never imagined it would get picked up because it's our first, and also it's really a dark story. What we said to each other was "let's do a dry run". To give us the chance to develop our storytelling skills in a low-pressure way, and also learn how things like applying for agents worked. When we were picked up by an agent, and later a publisher, we were astonished. 

A: A lot of different things—fairytales, Eastern European illustration, animated films. But most of all it's a personal story, rooted in our own childhood, about struggling with who you are.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A: It was the obvious choice really. We were asked at one point to change it to HORTENSE VERSUS THE SHADOW, which made sense, but we thought that sounded like a prizefight.

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?
A: I plan and draft in a scribbly old notepad and then type up the first full draft later.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A: Hmm. I like how the bandits are hidden on every spread, but Hortense doesn't notice because she's busy fighting her shadow. That was a second draft solution I found to the problem of how to introduce the true antagonists at the start, but subtly enough that we didn't tip our hand that it's not the shadow Hortense needs to fear.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters? 
A: This book only has one named character, the little heroin Hortense. I made a list of names that sounded like they were out of a gothic novel, then we picked the one we liked best. Gothic because it's a genre where you incarnate the terrors young women face, which is what I wanted to do. 

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW? 
A: The idea was clear up until where Hortense cuts off her shadow. I had to figure out what happened after that, though I knew the shadow would have to save Hortense somehow.

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A: I came up with the story and then told it to Lauren. She liked it, so we both went away and started work, talking as we went to sort through our ideas. So the story came first and then the words and images followed hand in hand.

Q. Did HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A: Seriously Karlin. So many. We wrote to every agent we could find, and only one (the wonderful Angharad Kowal at Kowal Stannus Agency), was interested. But after all that, eight publishers wanted the book, which goes to show that sometimes even agents misjudge the market.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW.
A: Disbelief and joy. Our agent called me to say she'd closed a deal with Penguin Random House and then I called Lauren to tell her. We were both laughing with surprise and delight.

Q. What is the best part about working with your sister? What’s the worst part? 
A: The best part is it it feels like we never left the sandpit at the bottom of the garden, the worst part is she finishes her coffee in meetings and then drinks mine.

Q. How long did HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A: Just under a year and a half.

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A: There's a page where Hortense leaves her house at night and the text says she sees nothing, just the dark. It used to be a double-page spread and it was quite lyrical and Lauren's image was wonderfully evocative, but unfortunately it had to be squeezed into a single to fit the standard 32-page format.

Q. Have you read HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW to any kids? If so, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A:  That's always so fun! I don't know why but they really love the bit where the shadow turns into a bear. I'd thought it was quite scary but they laugh their heads off.

Q. Did you create any book swag for HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW? If so, what kind?
A: Lauren designed wrapping paper, christmas baubles and bunting for bookshops. She used to be a designer so she's great at that kind of stuff.

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers or illustrators?
A: Something we've found useful is the discovery that criticism is a bullseye pointing to a problem that the critic might not have worked out. So if your agent or editor says "You need to introduce your antagonist on page 3", it's possible that's not what you need to do at all, but there's almost definitely something wrong with page 3.

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A: I make spider diagrams and lists when I'm blocked.

Q. What is your next project together?
A: It's a picture book called THE BANDIT QUEEN about a baby girl who's raised by bandits. HORTENSE AND THE SHADOW is a restrained, quiet book so we wanted to do something full of colour and chaos. It's published by Puffin, and out in October this year.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A: Our website is nataliaandlauren.com and our Instagram/Twitter handle is @oharasisters. 


March 5, 2018

Tags: THE BOOK OF MISTAKES, #firstpicturebook, Corinna Luyken, Dial Books, 2017

Corinna Luyken submitted manuscripts and book dummies to publishers for 16 years! But it wasn’t until she was inspired by a series of mistakes that she created what would become her #firstpicturebook. Today she talks to us about perfection, progress, and the process of making THE BOOK OF MISTAKES—“a striking debut picture book" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) that “lifts to the level of the sublime the idea of putting one’s slip-ups in perspective” (The Wall Street Journal).

Q. Was THE BOOK OF MISTAKES the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I wrote quite a few manuscripts before The Book of Mistakes! I also made 4 or 5 fully illustrated book dummies. But the first manuscript I ever submitted to publishers (back in 2001) was called Sore Feet. It was the story of a small shoe shop and it’s owner, Cornelius O’Leary. I received a few personal rejection letters for that story, which kept me going for years!

Q. What inspired THE BOOK OF MISTAKES?
A. It started with a series of mistakes. For years I drew with pens because I liked the fluid feel of ink on paper. I liked how, with pen, a line can take on a life of it’s own. But often that life would lead to shapes and marks I hadn’t intended and could not erase. Because I loved to draw - and loved to draw with ink - I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world.

And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught.

In my years working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I started to notice a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hand asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. It became my job to help them see the possibility in that mistake, to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love.

This all came home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes, only pattern and line and color and texture. And she LOVED to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it.

And it broke my heart.

Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now.

So I wrote this book. For her. For them. For me. For anyone who has ever made a mistake.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title came before anything else. Originally, I was thinking of something along the lines of The BIG Book of Miskakes, which was a phrase that I wrote down in my notebook a few years before the rest of the story came along.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. The thing that made me laugh out loud, when I was writing the story, was the frog-cat-cow. Which I still love. And of course the tree! I drew the tree seven or eight times to get it just right (in part because it crosses the gutter twice) and I never got tired of redrawing it. Both of those were in the first draft. But I also love the spread where you see the silhouette of the forest, and just the topmost hint of the girl’s glasses. That page turn makes kids gasp when I read it in classrooms. One or two kids will see it first, and let out an audible “oh!” and then suddenly all the kids are looking to see what they saw, and then there will be a chorus of oohs and ahs and kids saying “It’s her! I see the girl!” It’s so fun!

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person? 
A. The first half of the book came to me, all at once. And that was just the way it arrived! The second half was another matter, and took an entire year to sort out.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE BOOK OF MISTAKES? 
A. I had a pretty good sense of the first half of the book. Which, at the time, I thought would be the entire book. I knew I wanted to include real mistakes that I make when I draw… so that first part was pretty easy. Originally, the story ended with the giant tree. And a line about how she wasn’t a mistake but was meant to be. But when I sent it along to (my now agent) Steven Malk, he felt like the ending could be stronger. It took me almost a year to find another way to end the story. It wasn’t easy, and I experimented a lot. And so I started to experiment with big splashes of ink. After that, it all came together pretty quickly, and the book doubled in size!

Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. With this story, the words and pictures came simultaneously.

Q. Did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A It didn’t. I have received many rejection letters—I’d been sending out manuscripts and book dummies for almost 16 years. But when I wrote The Book of Mistakes I knew it was better than anything else I’d written. So I sent it to Steve Malk, an agent at Writers House, with fingers crossed. And fortunately, he loved it (except for the ending). But it was still an entire year of revising the story before I came up with the ending as it is now. At that point he signed me on as a client and we sent the book out. It ended up going to auction, with five publishers interested in it. That part all happened very quickly, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. So it was seventeen years of very slow progress and then a few weeks where everything came together very quickly!

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE BOOK OF MISTAKES.
A. I was over the moon! My husband and I both were. We jumped up and down a LOT. It was a pretty incredible time.

But then, pretty quickly, I realized there was still a lot of work to do! Which is a good thing, because in the end it is our relationship with the creative process (not the excitement of finding an agent and having a manuscript published) that will feed the next project, and the next…

Q. How long did THE BOOK OF MISTAKES take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. It was very close to finished when we submitted it, but I did have to ink up some of the final scenes and redraw the tree, and then assemble some of the bits and pieces in photoshop. All of that back and forth with the publisher took another year.

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?
A. Yes! There was a part in the original story that had to go. A boy, with extra wide fingers.

I still love him. But early on, Steve said something about how I was starting to repeat myself with that character and line. And as soon as he said that, I realized he was right, it had to go.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. It takes patience and persistence, nothing in this industry moves quickly. (They call it the hurry up and wait industry for a reason.) But if you really love what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about making books for kids, you will persist. And your art will get better because of that. I have a favorite quote from Ira Glass that are worth repeating here:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me. 
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.  
And the thing that I would say to you, with all of my heart, is this—most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase—they went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.  And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you've got to  know it's normal.  And the most important thing you can do—is do a lot of work.  It is only by going through a volume of work that you will catch up and close that gap.  And the work you're making will be as good as your ambitions. 
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It takes a while.  It’s gonna take you awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. And you've just got to fight your way through that— okay?” 

—Ira Glass 

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. As far as writing or illustrating exercises, I would just recommend this Chuck Close quote! Which I have found to be absolutely true and incredibly helpful. So much so, that I’ve quoted in a few other interviews, but I think it bears repeating over and over (and over) again:
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.” 

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I just finished illustrating a book called Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have A Horse, written by debut author Marcy Campbell, which is coming out August 14, 2018 from Dial Books. It is essentially a story about compassion and kindness. And seeing the world a bit differently. (The publishers description is: “Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse--the best and most beautiful horse anywhere. But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse? The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn't get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important.”)

So now I am working on two new projects—one is my next book as author/illustrator. It is called my heart, my heart and is a meditation on/celebration of the heart. The art for that one is all monoprint printmaking and pencil, so it will look quite different from The Book of Mistakes!

I am also illustrating a middle grade novel by Carolyn Crimi, called Weird Little Robots, which will be released from Candlewick in the spring of 2019.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
t: @corinnaluyken
IG: corinnaluyken
fb: corinna Luyken illustration