Monday, 5 August 2013

Jackie Morris - author interview

 Today we're very excited to welcome Jackie Morris to the blog. Jackie has had many, many books published - some as author/illustrator, some as illustrator for others' words - but this year has seen two new ventures from her; firstly as the author of East of The Sun, West of the Moon - a retelling of the old folk tale, aimed at adults and older teens - and now as the author of Little Evie in the Wild Wood, a book illustrated by someone else! Jackie kindly agreed to answer my questions about the whys and hows of seeing someone else illustrate her work.....

Your latest book is something slightly different for you - a collaboration with artist Catherine Hyde who provided the illustrations while you wrote the story. Is this a move away from illustrating for you? or just a one off? 

Originally I wrote Little Evie in the Dark Woods to illustrate it myself. The thing is I have many ideas, so many. So I have about six texts waiting to be worked on. At the moment I have about 4 novels, one almost finished, 3 at early stages, 3 picture book texts written, 4 or 5 at ideas stages and some nibbling at the edges of my imagination. It takes me about a year to do illustrations for a picture book.
So, when I was talking to Catherine on the phone one day and we were chatting away and I asked her what she was doing now that all the art for firebird was completed and she said, ' well, I'm not sure.' Her work is so rich and wild that I asked if she might like to have a look at a text I had written, to see if it made pictures dance in her mind's eye and she said yes.
It's so nerve wracking sending a text to someone. I had never sent one to an artist before, only to my editor at Frances Lincoln. I was so pleased when Catherine came back with an enthusiastic response and also hearing her talk about it she 'got' the text in exactly the way it was meant to be read. You never know when there are only words, how people will take them. But she understood exactly where I was coming from, how, why.
I didn't hand over these words lightly. I had images in mind of what I thought some of the book would look like. Each book for me is different. Some begin with a picture. Some begin with words. It's only when I sit down to really start on a book that the two things, the words and images meld together. So in my mind Evie was quite open. 
Also I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. I love writing. I love it so much. I love the place I inhabit when I am hunting a story, chasing words. I didn't want people to see my writing as just a vehicle to hang my pictures on ( this was one of the comments in a rejection letter for Tell Me a Dragon from a publisher who will not be named. That would be an example of someone who just didn't 'get it') And I wanted, I really wanted to experience what it was like to have someone take the bones of my text and clothe it in the flesh of their art.

Previously you have collaborated with other writers while you have provided the illustrations. Did this collaboration prove different in any way?

When I began illustrating picture books I didn't write. Looking back that seems so strange now. I didn't even write a journal. I illustrated other people's stories. This was because I thought I couldn't, even though my head was filled with ideas and images, I just thought I couldn't. It was something other people did.
Being given a text by a wonderful writer is like being given an amazing gift. I have been so lucky. I have worked with Caroline Pitcher, Mary Hoffman, James Mayhew, Vivian French and Ted Hughes ( sadly Ted died so I didn't get to work directly with him but I have a wonderful letter from him saying how much he liked my illustrations and I worked on How the Whale Became at his request. Even thinking about this makes me feel a little teary. What a gift. I learned so so much about writing from Ted Hughes, not just through reading these stories over and over, but also from his book, Poetry in the Making)
I had always wondered what it felt like for these authors to have their words taken and 'pictured'. I wanted to know what that felt like, as I thought it would teach me something about how to work with them.

Obviously, you're used to visualizing how you would illustrate your stories but how does it feel to see someone else doing this?

Once I handed Evie over to Catherine and we persuaded my publisher that Catherine and I were a perfect combination ( something Janetta Otter-Barry was quick to see) it was time for me to step back. Catherine is a wonderful artist with a great vision. It is a little nerve wracking to hand over your 'baby' to someone else. I didn't tell Catherine that Evie is a real person. The 'look' of the book was her territory, not mine, though I am glad that we did talk about some things. Catherine was an artist not an illustrator and hadn't studied book design, and although she has two other books to her name the design approach to these was very different. So we did talk about layout. My memory is that Catherine and Janetta and Judith Escreet chose the size/shape of the book together. But this is really Catherine's territory, so maybe I should let her speak about this.
What I can say is that while Catherine worked on this I was working on East of the Sun. Both are books about a girl leaving home for the first time, both similar in theme, but one with small pictures. At the end of the day when I came to my computer and saw Catherine's progress, from early tentative sketches to discovering the character of Evie, the wolf, the wood, to finished pieces, each drawing, sketch, was a joy to see. So that was what it felt like. A complete thrill.

It's maybe a bit early but what has the reaction to this book been? Are there die-hard Jackie Morris fans who would rather see a book that is just your work?

I have loved reading the book in schools, at festivals. Children adore the dark walk through the wild wood, the wolf, the child. They love the language that rolls along, and oh how they love the paintings. And so do I.
Usually I read it along with other books of mine, and some notice the difference. What I love about the children's response is that they just love the book and really it doesn't matter who did the words, who did the pictures they just love it. I love that. In this age of celebrity authors the children's response is that a good book is a good book and if it doesn't interest them it doesn't matter who wrote or illustrated it.
Adults now and again are not so open minded. One lady wouldn't look at it. Even when I tried to open the book to show her how beautiful the pictures were she put her hand on it to stop me. So she never saw the wonderful wolf. She never saw Evie, so small in the forest, she never saw Evie riding home in the setting sunlight with owls hooting and she never heard a breath of a word I had written. I felt a little sad. My words had no value for her.

What are your plans for the future - back to illustrating? more writing?

Plans for the future? I have 5 books out this year: East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Little Evie, with Catherine Hyde, Song of the Golden Hare, The Wilful Princes and the Piebald Prince with Robin Hobb and Harper Collins and Starlight Sailor, written by James Mayhew and published by Barefoot Books. I have 2 picture books on contract with Janetta Otter-Barry books and 2 pending. I am about to finish a new re-telling which will be taken to Janetta first to see if she wants it on her list. I want to do some painting and writing texts for other illustrators will free me up to be able to do this and I do, yes I do have a dream list of illustrators I would just love to write for.
I am hoping to repay James Mayhew. Years ago when I was on the verge of throwing in my brushes with children's books he wrote Can You See a Little Bear for me. Such a gift of a text. I promised then to do the same for him. We have a text with a publisher now and are waiting, waiting, brushes and fingers crossed to hear, and hoping. Working with James will be a different experience again. He is steeped in the art of books like no one else I know. I am hoping to learn from him and the whole experience as indeed I learned from Catherine.
And I want to find another text for Catherine too as I loved working with her and I think we work well together.

And you may notice, if you are sharp of eye, that at the beginning of this writing I got the title of my book wrong. The title was edited, and I didn't notice.
Originally I wrote Little Evie in the Darkwoods.
I think someone in marketing suggested this might be scary.
The book is called Little Evie in the Wild Wood and I can honestly say that it is one of the most beautiful books I have had the great pleasure to work on.
Reading it makes me smile, and there is so much in its pages for me to look at.

Many thanks, Jackie, for stopping round and best of  luck with future projects

Readers can of course buy Little Evie in the Wild Wood , and any of Jackie's other books, from Amazon but the authors are running a special competition through a selection of independent retailers - details of which can be found on

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