I have been FB friends with Deborah and Bella for a while and am a fangirl of both, to be honest! I also followed with much inspiration Deborah’s posts this past year about seriously pursuing a new(ish) skill/interest, drawing. It is so easy to settle back and focus only on things we are more naturally gifted at; it takes fortitude and courage, I believe, especially as we get a little bit older, to try new things!
[JM] Deborah, you are an established picture book author (The Quiet Book is one of my favorites) but I understand you are also an illustrator wannabe? How did that come about?
[DU] Wannabe is right! I wrote a picture book manuscript that has very little text and is mostly visual, so I wanted to explore the possibility of doing the illustrations myself. Given that so many of my friends are amazing illustrators who not only studied art but also have years and years of experience, I feel a bit silly even exploring this. Ultimately I’m not sure if my time would be better spent trying to get up to speed with drawing—which could take ages—or working on a novel, something else I’d like to do. So we’ll see.
[JM] I love your varied ambitions. What are you doing to hone your illustration skills?
[DU] I’ve dabbled in art in the past, but quite erratically—a watercolor class here, a drawing class there. So over the last year I’ve been taking life drawing. It’s hard! And I recently realized I just don’t love it. I’m much happier drawing non-human animals. I think my next step will be just to do more animal drawing.
Even if I ultimately decide not to pursue illustration, drawing is great for me. I live very much in my head and don’t pay attention to what’s around me, so it’s nice to do something that makes me actually look at things.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
[DU] I grew up in Walla Walla, Washington. That area is a big winery region now, but when I was there it was pretty much wheat and onion fields with a few colleges stuck in the middle. It was a conservative town, and I always felt like an outsider. I think growing up there has made me much more appreciative of the diversity and tolerance in San Francisco, where I live now. I hope that somehow that inclusivity comes across in my work. I feel lucky to be surrounded by so much natural beauty; it feeds my soul.
[JM] I love the Bay Area and its inclusive attitude. Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as a writer.
[DU] Right after college, I had a total-beginner’s-luck sale to one of the top women’s magazines, which led me to believe a writing career would be easy. I was quickly proven wrong! I tried writing everything from greeting cards and puzzles to screenplays, but then it dawned on me that children’s books are the books I love best, so maybe I should be writing them. Then it was just a question of doing all the stuff you’re supposed to do: I read tons of picture books, I read books about writing kids’ books, I joined SCBWI, I joined critique groups, I went to conferences and classes, I wrote a whole bunch of not-so-great manuscripts, and I gradually got better.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[DU] This is my official desk, but I have to admit that I spend a good deal of my workday slouched on the couch, sprawled on my bed surrounded by papers, or sitting at a card table. If I were being graded on my workspace ergonomics, I’d probably get a C minus.
[JM] Can you share an example or two of your artwork? As a stick-figure creator wannabe, I am in awe of your commitment to grow in this area!
[DU] Sure! I’ll attach a charcoal of one of my favorite pigs, some animal sketches in pen and ink, a soft pastel of a landscape, and an oil pastel from my life drawing class.
If you’re a wannabe too, I encourage you to go for it! One thing that I’ve learned from this process is that you really can learn to draw; it’s not some innate skill that some people have and some don’t.
[JM] I love your pigs!! A pig picture book in your future maybe? (With Bella’s permission!) What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[DU] I have some family photos, a canvas print of Luciana Navarro Powell’s wonderful art from Spatter and Spark (an app she and I did together), some of my own work, and some doodles and art from artist friends. A favorite is one my friend Salina Yoon sent after I said I needed a vacation!
[JM] The perfect vacation! Tell us a little about being adopted by Bella Underwood.
[DU] Oh, my Bella! I had two wonderful cats, Otis and Sports Fan, before her. After they had both passed away, I decided it was time for another feline companion. But boy, it was tough to pick one. Otis and Sports Fan just showed up on my fire escape and started living with me, so I’d never had to choose a cat before. I went to shelter after shelter, hoping for some sort of sign. Then one day I went to Pets Unlimited and met Bella, who immediately curled up in my lap, purred, and went to sleep. I definitely made the right choice; I hope she thinks she did, too.
[JM] What are your go-to snacks to keep the creative juices working?
[DU] Lately I’ve been making a healthy ice cream: frozen banana, frozen strawberries, soymilk, and a heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder thrown in the Vitamix.
And of course coffee!
[JM] Bella, are Santa Cat and Easter Cat really collaborative, or truly all your own work?
[BU] So many of the great masters had assistants to execute their visions. I count myself among them. Deborah writes things down, but it’s clear who is really in charge of this operation.
[JM] How is it sharing your workspace with D?
[BU] She is generally respectful and tries not to disturb me. Sometimes she gets frustrated when I sprawl on top of our work, but I’m just trying to gently remind her of what her top priority should be (me).
[JM] What are your go-to snacks to keep the creative juices working?
[BU] My current favorite is fish-flavored canned food. I follow Deborah into the kitchen frequently to ask for food. She heats it up, brings it into the bedroom, I take a bite or two, then I scratch at the carpet so she’ll run back and take it away. She finds this annoying, but I do it to give her some much-needed exercise.
[JM] How do you resolve conflict?
[BU] When one is always right and the other accepts this fact, there is no conflict. Just call me Zen Master Bella.
[JM] Who are your heroes?
[BU] Is this a trick question? Me, of course. Although I have a grudging admiration for Snoopy, who has a Van Gogh in his doghouse; we need one of those around here.
[JM] What are you working on at the moment? Can we hope for more cat stories?
[BU] I’m taking a break now, because I realized I hadn’t been devoting enough attention to my midnight apartment stampedes. Also, I needed more naps. But I would be happy to write more Cat stories should my public demand them.
[JM] I know kittens like Bea the Cat and others look up to you. Have you considered a mentoring role and what advice would you give to up-and-coming kittens?
[BU] Bea is exceptionally adorable, isn’t she? Here is the thing about cats: we are all perfect. I would encourage my fellow felines simply to accept their own perfection. And to be moderately tolerant of the flawed creatures with whom they live.
Deborah’s website: DeborahUnderwoodBooks.com Twitter: @underwoodwriter
[JM] HERE COMES SANTA CAT written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Claudia Rueda, hit the bookstores yesterday! Do come back on Friday for PPBF when I will be reviewing it. I suggest you put your Christmas orders in already and add a copy of THE CHRISTMAS QUIET BOOK and Deborah’s other fall release, BAD BYE GOOD BYE, to your list! Congratulations on your two recent releases and thanks for sharing and DO continue with your art!