OK, so I have to confess that I swoon as much over Marlo’s Rhode Island scenic photography especially of her kayaking adventures as I do her FB illustration posts. I am also always on the lookout for folk from different cultures, as this influences our art so much, so it’s lovely to welcome an artist from the southern hemisphere.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter story or pictures first?
[MG] I am both, and lately, in a delightfully balanced way. The words almost always flow first, but are sometimes sparked by an image. Mostly they just shout at me until I focus and write them down. I also work as an editor, and children’s books are my specialty.
[JM] Agented or un-agented?
[MG] I’m un-agented, but I’ve no intention of staying that way. I’m working on two middle grade novels, a picture book, and on some new portfolio pieces, and will very soon be actively looking for an agent.
[JM] What’s your nationality and how have certain cultures/regions influenced your work?
[MG] I’m Australian and therefore prone to irreverent humor and an almost total inability to take myself too seriously. I love witty satire. But I think about Very Serious Things a lot, and I think picture books and illustrated works are the perfect vehicle for exploring Very Serious Things—for any age—and can be their most powerful when thoughtfully funny. I also lived in Japan for three years and love that careful, purposeful sensibility, and have spent 31% of my life in the USA, which suits my one-can-do-anything-if-one-tries-hard-enough attitude.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
As a kid, you would find me drawing, poring over books, or having a costumed adventure in some corner of the garden. If you couldn’t find me, it’s because I was up a tree, secretly spying on you. An only child, I became very good at entertaining myself. I knew I wanted to make books. I started my first “novel” when I was eleven, and wrote and illustrated my first “picture book” when I was fifteen.
At school, I was the “Art Girl.” Everyone knew it. I took it for granted. So I was crushed when I didn’t get an A in art in my final year of high school. I didn’t really pick up a pencil or paintbrush for years after that. I had been the Art Girl, but now I was the archaeology graduate, rock-climbing, English teaching, mountain biking at 2 AM through crowded Tokyo girl. I have always liked adventures. But very often in those Tokyo bars, I was actually sitting quietly by myself, writing stories about the people around me. I still dreamt of making books, but I didn’t dare believe I could actually be a writer. It was something smarter and more talented people did. Everything I wrote seemed overwrought and try-hard—probably because it was.
Then, when I was twenty-five, I fell in love with an old friend, but later that year, he died. As I waded through soul-crushing grief, I decided: “Life is short, and it can be even shorter. I’m going to do what I want to do, and I’m starting immediately. I have no idea how to do this, but no matter how hard it is, or what anyone else thinks, or how long it takes me, I’m going to do it.” It was my way of finding a brilliant, shining lining in a horror I had no power to undo.
And so, after an internship at NOLS in Wyoming, where I had my first real taste of editing and started hashing out a picture book, I returned to Australia, and took a zillion workshops with my dear mentor, Dr. Virginia Lowe. I worked at night in a restaurant so I could devote my days to writing and drawing. In time, I began to work with Virginia, teaching workshops, and then editing. I was a wildlife and landscape artist for a while, sold pieces in galleries, art shows, and by commission. I never went to art school, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a professional artist for a mother. She has always been encouraging and inspiring, and she has taught me so much. “Don’t forget your line of reflected light!” she says in my head whenever I’m painting.
My early picture book attempts had reasonable interest from publishers, including one Penguin Australia were to publish—and they wanted Extraordinary Australian Illustrator to do it, but [insert painful publishing story here. Everyone has some. Be prepared, be very prepared!] By the time my husband—who has always been very supportive of my creative journey— and I moved to Rhode Island…I was still unpublished and a new (and working) mother with scant time on my hands. But I kept trying until I was published, and I have no plans to stop. It hasn’t been easy, and it has been long, but I wouldn’t dream of choosing a different career path. Ya gots to be who you are.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[MG] I love graphite and oils most. I’ve had a vision of the kind of art I wanted to do for a long time, with no viable way of achieving it, but now that I’m working digitally, I can combine graphite and oils! Hurrah! One of the challenges has been transitioning from a traditional painting to an illustrating, and I’ve struggled to do anything I felt was good enough. Now, I’m very grateful for my traditional skills; they stand me in good stead. I was very excited to win first place in the “published” division of the NESCBWI poster contest this year, for the first piece I’ve been pleased with in a long time—and it was digital.
[JM] How does your teaching at Rhode Island School of Design influence your work or vice versa?
[MG] My students are inspiring and motivated, and I always learn from our process of working toward a publishable manuscript. I expect a huge amount of them during my courses, and they deliver and are delightful, almost without exception. And it’s so much fun. Some of my students have become very good friends.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[MG] Chaos with stuffed birds and sticks. Actually, I’m very lucky to have such a nice office/studio. Having a dedicated workspace is vital if you’re serious, even if it’s just a tiny corner in a room that has another purpose. I wish mine were tidier, but it won’t seem to stay that way, no matter how much I nag it.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[MG] Sure, I just blogged about my process for the cover for The Genie’s Gift by Chris Eboch http://cleverbirdy.blogspot.com/2013/11/book-cover-illustration-my-process-for.html.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to again and again?
[MG] Yes, little bird people. Nature things. I rarely write to a theme intentionally, but I do find the same kinds of things revealing themselves in my work. There is often a sense of yearning; my protagonists tend to want something they can’t quite define, but which is satisfied by an unordinary connection with another being. I also like themes with a socio-political conscience, and I think satire is a marvelous vehicle.
[JM] Any tips for those just setting out in this field?
- Turn off the TV. Vacuuming can probably wait. Stop making excuses for being lazy, scared, or both.
- Make space for your creativity: physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally.
- Carry a notebook and pencil (or other idea-capturing device) at all times.
- Have a pin board in your line of vision with material for your WIP.
- Don’t think that you can do it alone. Join SCBWI. Find the right critique group for you and your work. Surround yourself with like-minded and supportive peoples. Eliminate the naysayer peoples, or choose not to listen to them.
- Don’t assume you already know how. Take classes, study others’ work, read. And don’t be cocky. Your first book is probably not awesome, but it’s totally awesome that you wrote it. Now write another and another.
- Listen to feedback.
- Be genuinely nice to people and easy to work with. From the beginning, cultivate honest, warm relationships with other writers, illustrators, and others who work in publishing. Don’t be an ass—or, if you will, donkey.
- Draw or write as every day if possible. Advice I wish I had followed sooner.
- Humans aren’t designed to sit in front of computers. Exercise!
- Don’t try to be cute in query letters. Be professional.
- Don’t give up. No one who lacks tenacity makes it. Rejection is only a chance to become a better artist.
- Life is short, and ultimately, you won’t have anyone to answer to but yourself. So do what ignites your soul.
- Living with a creatively determined person isn’t always easy; appreciate the loved ones who give you space and time to create. They’re on your journey, too.
Wow, awesome advice, Marlo, now how about, five fun ones to finish?
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[MG] Adventurous. Amused. Ooops, that’s two. Wordy.
[JM] If you could live anywhere for a season, where would you go?
[MG] Assuming it has to be a whole season, and the season is summer, and that my kayak can come too, Scotland, the Lake District, or the south island of New Zealand, somewhere with soaring mountains, lakes, and mossy rocks, where I can wander and paddle about. Antarctica would be very cool, and Peru, Patagonia, and China are all high on my list, but probably not for a whole season.
[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing?
[MG] Green tea with lemon. It’s a little trigger I’ve trained my creating muscle to, which says, “Come on, my foggy friend, it’s go time-flow time.” I try not to snack; mostly successful. Music is the thing I require most of all.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[MG] Dogs are my kind of people: funny, easy-going, always up for a walk.
[JM] Which literary bad guy do you like the most?
[MG] I suppose it depends how you define “bad,” doesn’t it? I like complex bad. It would have to be Alec d’Urberville.
[JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?
Thanks for such heart-sharing, Marlo. I love stories of great perseverance despite personal pain/tragedy. Your journey is inspirational. A great mentor is such a gift, eh? Thank you especially for such detailed advice to newby illustrators. I wish you continued success.