Illustrator L.K. James likes working with contrasting ideas and the idea that household objects can reflect a personality. Today she tells how she used these concepts to build her #firstpicturebook THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE—"an original, deftly crafted, and entertaining picture book story . . . certain to be an immediate and enduringly popular addition to family, elementary school, and community library collections " (Midwest Book Review).
Q. Was THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. No, but it was the first one I finished and the first I tried to get published.
I don't remember what the first one I wrote was about, but at the time I wrote The Full House and the Empty House, I was interested in Aesop's Fables. I tried to write a handful of stories aimed at turning the form on its head. Stories that had some ambiguity and couldn't easily be boiled down to one glib moral. Most of these were very bad, but it was a very useful exercise.
Q. What inspired THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE?
A. At the time I was drawing a lot of household objects, and thinking about the role they play in our lives when we are young and old. How they project and inform our identity and how they often express our relationship with the material world.
I was also playing with these personified houses with arms and legs who would eat dinner together and dance around and go walking through the forest. I liked the idea that the things inside a house-character could express their personality.
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The title of the first draft was just "The Empty House." As the story evolved, it became less about that house and more about the two houses' relationship, so the titled evolved too.
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite scene to draw was all the stuff flying around inside the Full House when it dances. This was one of the images I wanted to draw from the beginning, so it was always in the first draft, and it never really changed because it was one of the images from which the rest of the story grew.
Q. What made you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. I wanted to avoid favoring either perspective of my two main characters, and that was most easily done in third person. I wanted this story also to feel outside of time, almost like a fable, so again the third person perspective felt appropriate.
Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE?
A. At first, the whole story was just a few lines of prose: when the Full House danced, the beautiful things inside it jangled around, and when the Empty House danced, it could jump high into the air because it was so light on its feet. From that the rest of the story grew as I began to ask myself what this relationship meant and how it might be explored.
Q. Did you write the story first, then illustrate it? Or did the images appear before the words?
A. The image of the houses and many of the objects in them had been floating around my sketchbook when I drafted the written version. The next step was thumbnailing, which brought them both together. Doing so changed the story a lot. The images pushed the narrative in unexpected directions, and the narrative brought out new images that hadn't been there before.
Q. Did THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Yes, plenty. I was lucky enough to pitch this book in person to Ripple Grove Press at a conference. As a bookmaker and printmaker, I was able to show the publisher a physical prototype of the full book during the pitch, and I think that was a big help. So much of my idea was already alive in the colors, the paper, the book design, and the printing process of my dummy. I think that it allowed them to trust my vision more easily than if I had emailed them a PDF of a storyboard or a written synopsis.
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE.
A. I was thrilled, of course, and grateful. But also nervous—it is my first book.
Q. How long did THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. About a year and a half—the offer came after I pitched the book in August 2017, and the publication date is February 5, 2019.
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. In the first draft there was an image of a sandwich flying apart in mid-air inside the Empty House. I loved it because it was kind of funny, and sandwiches have always been one of my favorite things to draw. I ended up cutting it, though, because although it expressed the right action, it didn't express the right feeling for that moment in the story.
Q. When you read THE FULL HOUSE AND THE EMPTY HOUSE to kids, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. My favorite part of reading to kids is when they get lost in the details of the interiors—for example, there are these funny framed pictures of other houses hanging on the walls inside the characters, like family photos in a world where everyone is a house. There are little sub-narratives like that all throughout the book, and I love it when kids notice those.
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?
A. Always be collecting ideas and don't be afraid of abandoning a story if it isn't working. I like to brainstorm ideas a lot, and then see what I'm still excited about the next day. I hate feeling trapped in a story I don't like, so I'm always trying to keep story-generation process as fluid as possible.
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?
A. Sometimes I force myself to write a new story start to finish in 30 minutes, then do that for ten days in a row. Most of it is junk, but it gets me thinking in unexpected ways and generates lots of raw material—which is far better than agonizing over the perfect story or staring at a blank page.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. Right now, I'm working on a book about a duck who lives in a hotel and doesn't know what it's like to be outside in the wild. I like working with opposites or contrasting ideas (full/empty, inside/outside, wild/tame) and seeing what happens when you shake them up.
Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)
A. My work is on Instagram (@lkjamz) and my website (lkjames.com).
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