Q. Congratulations on your book Sterling, Best Dog Ever ($23.50, Raincoast Books). Rumour has it that your book was accepted to the first agent you submitted it to. Amazing. What did that feel like? Were you surprised?
A. I was shocked! And thrilled. I’d been researching agencies trying to find someone keen on author-illustrators with an editorial attitude and at an established agency. I knew I’d need an agent both because many big publishers don’t accept manuscripts from un-agented folk, but also because if there was any interest, knowing me, I’d probably just offer to work for free; I tend to haggle in reverse and really needed a strong advocate. I got a call back from Greenburger the following week as an agent, Wendi Gu, was just starting out and wanted to take me on. She’s now at Janklow & Nesbit and is everything I hoped for; creative, communicative, passionate and tenacious.
Q. What kind of comments did you receive?
A. Both my agent and publisher, Farrar Straus Giroux (FSG) / Macmillan, had similar words about loving the tenderness of the tale. I think the fact that I’m an illustrator was instrumental in securing a contract because they could already see sketches of how I visualized it and the main character was a big part of the appeal.
Q. Did you have to make any changes? What were they?
A. Oh, there were lots of changes. I knew there would be, but it is hard to let go of how you envision your story. There was character redesign, a revised ending and a new opening. But collaborating added so much; the beginning needed more backstory so the lonely alley and factory scenes were added, and they’re some of my favorite spreads. I’m thrilled I got to work with Grace Kendall as an editor as she had a great sense of what to cut away and what needed strengthening.
Q. How did you come up with the idea of Sterling and his decision to be anything anyone wanted him to be as long as they kept him?
A. The ‘idea spark’ came from having a childhood dachshund of my own that couldn’t relate to other dogs. She stood on the kitchen table and would lay on her back if you took her outside.
But the idea of Sterling’s adaptability in an effort to be loved came from that overwhelming unconditional love I have for my daughter; when she was small she was seeking praise for her achievements and I wanted a story that said it is not your talents and skills that people love you for, it is you.
Q. You come at writing visually, meaning you have the images in your head before the words, so can you please share your creative process. How did it work for Sterling? How difficult is it to then find the right words to match your story?
A. At the start the only writing I do is getting down a strong synopsis sentence. Then I sketch characters so I have someone to visualize in the story. I spend weeks, or months, going for walks with my dog while visualizing the scenes, often like a little film playing. Then I break it down into the right page turns, much like finding the impactful frames in animation story boarding. Words or phrases pop out during the process too, and once I have a sketched dummy of the book I really start moving images and words around simultaneously.
Q. How long was the process for creating Sterling from first idea to final product? Did it undergo a number of changes? Did your art itself change from initial concept to final product?
A. It took about three months to write and sketch out before it was ready to send to agents, and then a tremendously long, but typical time, before it became a final product: three years. It was accepted by the publisher six months after I first wrote it, but it was eight more months until I started working on edits, and then final art. From the time the cover art was approved until it got on shelves was just more than a year.
The book looks fantastically different from the original dummy; I love comparing them. Initially I’d tried a more caricatured style than usual and that was significantly refined to feel less cartoon and focused more on heart.
Q. Is Sterling your first published book? Have you written other books that haven’t been published that you hope to dust off and attempt to have them published?
A. This is my debut picture book, though I do have a local activity book out, too. I’ve just finished the artwork on my second book, Little Juniper Makes It Big, coming out next year with FSG – Macmillan. I’m fortunate that FSG loved STERLING so much that I have a third book contract with them as well for 2020. I’m just starting work on that new one, but I still need to carve time aside to dust off a whole box full of story fragments that I can’t wait to assemble.
Q. Is writing/illustrating your own books the only thing you do? What else do you do? Do you illustrate for books for other people? Illustrate other things?
Professionally, I am writing and illustrating my own books all the time now. To work constantly I’ve had to figure out writing books that are three years away while illustrating things that won’t be seen for two years and planning launch parties for the book coming out this week. I love the idea of illustrating someone else’s book too, but so far I haven’t been able to squeeze that in. I used to illustrate giftware products, like wee hedgehog candle holders, but now all my creative energy is focused on story making. And birthday parties. I love planning parties with my kid.
Q. You lived for a year in Provence where you ate butter croissants, wandered medieval streets, biked through lavender fields and created the final artwork for Sterling. That sounds like a pretty fabulous year. Why did you decide to leave British Columbia to live in France?
A. La France est magnifique, it’s true! Provence was warm and beautiful and filled with inspiration. We decided to go when our daughter seemed interested in learning French and we all liked the idea of sampling life in another country. My husband is a web designer, and as we’re both working from home, “home” could be anywhere. With some luck and serendipity, we found a family in France on a home exchange website that wanted their kids to learn English. After a mountain of paperwork, we ended up trading houses, cars, schools and even our big wonderful dogs for the year!
Q. Would you have liked to stay longer?
A. Absolutely not (though my husband would have). While I’d like to go back for a month one day, because I wasn’t fluent I found the year a very long time away from my favorite thing: connecting with family and friends. The language barrier kept most of my relationships frustratingly superficial and I felt pretty isolated for much of the winter. Sunny as it was, I even missed the wet, grey west coast.
Q. Why Provence?
A. If you speak French, I can imagine no better location. It was stunning at every turn. The weather and people were warm, the cheese and wine were cheap, the architecture and history were riveting.
Q. Did living in France inspire you to create? Did you come up with other ideas while you were there?
A. Being struck daily by awe and beauty, as well as by discomfort and fear, provided the emotional arcs every story-maker probably thrives on. And of course cicadas chirping in the heat made a pretty relaxing sound track to let those ideas percolate. I expect many stories will come of that year!
Q. What was your favourite spot in Provence?
A. There are innumerable picturesque and must-see locations in Provence, but there was something magical about going off the beaten track and finding a village with no ice cream or soap shops. The village of Lurs was perhaps my favourite of those out-of-the-way treasures.
Q. Favourite thing to do?
A. I never tired of meandering the twisting roads too narrow for the smallest cars without a map. And trying to capture with pencil, pen and camera the many textures of the ancient structures: the peeling wood shutters, the brick patterns laid by Romans, the stone steps slick with 1,200 years’ use.
Q. Looking through your Instagram feed, I see you draw dogs a lot, especially various types of dachshunds, which is the type of dog Sterling is as well. What type of dog is your studio dog? Did that dog inspire the creation of Sterling?
A. I draw dogs all the time. Can’t get enough. I have a big red dog, Sooka, who’s a rescue from northern B.C. She was built for tough terrain and is nothing like the dachshund, Lady, that inspired the tale. Sooka makes a cameo in my second book, though you’ll really have to hunt for her. I’m really a dog-addict; I could never be without the unconditional love and humour that they bring to my life.
Q. You now live on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, working in a studio with various wildlife, including deer and rabbits, bounding by. Does nature inspire your creativity? How else do you get inspired to create art?
A. I treasure my home nestled in a forest of the gulf islands, even more so having been away so long. Most of my stories are crafted and finished on my hikes, but the story inspiration often comes while traveling in bustling cities, places where you can feel how, despite all our differences, humanity is essentially the same whether in Paris, Marrakesh or Katmandu. I feel like I have plenty of idea sparks to work from my travels and am thrilled to just settle here for a while and craft the tales.
Q. Are you working on anything right now? Can you tell us a bit about it?
A. My next story, Little Juniper Makes It Big, is about a clever but small raccoon that feels adults have made everything too large. It takes a new friend, and a lot of fun contraptions, before she manages to see things from a new perspective.
Q. What is your dream project? Do you hope to do any other type of writing/illustrating in the future.
A. It took a decade to get here, but I am already working on my dream projects – stories I’ve written and illustrated with the support and guidance of great editors and art directors. I hope to keep rolling along like this in picture books, and perhaps do some middle grade spot illustration work in the future as sketching with a pencil is my favourite way to create.
Congratulations again. Sterling is a super sweet story.
Thank you so much for talking the time to discuss my books with me!