I read MAX AND MARLA a few weeks ago after a friend reviewed it, and I immediately reached out to Alexandra for an interview. I think you’ll see why! It is also always a pleasure to have a fellow European on the blog.
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[AB] The stories I write and illustrate usually start with a feeling and a vague (or very clear) picture in my imagination. I try to follow that feeling without thinking too much and put it onto paper: Truly expressing my emotions in that first important image. It always comes with a title. From here a story might unfold or it remains a piece I did for its own sake. However, if it does develop into a story, I usually see it in form of a movie in my mind. That’s when I begin to sketch more and write down key sentences. The next step is to quickly write down the storyline in a first non-judgemental go. Almost as if it was a note to myself. Now I am ready to work out the full complexity of the story in form of a dummy, dominated by pictures. And finally I work out the text and pictures, which leads to a number of changes within the dummy. The whole process seems to be a back and forward between pictures and words. But I think, for now it is true to say: I begin with pictures.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[AB] I was born and grew up in Munich, Germany. I am the youngest of seven children and wasn’t able to travel much as a child. I traveled through books. The Lord of The Rings, for example, was a book I read many times and I imagined myself walking through Middle Earth together with Gandalf and Frodo. So, naturally, discovering the world, became a dream of mine. Once I started to work in Feature Animation, I felt part of an international vagabond family. It allowed me to experience different places not just through travelling. I was living in London, England for a year, before I moved to the United States. Within the U.S., I moved from Los Angeles to New York and back to California, close to San Francisco.
The combination of all of this has helped to broaden my horizon and it allowed me new insights into many different cultures. My husband is from Italy, I am from Germany and we have a daughter who was born in the United States. The perspective of being an immigrant is something I cherish. I couldn’t pin point how exactly it influenced my work, but my background, my stage of life and surroundings find their way inevitably into whatever I am working on. The stories, the art, one grows up with show up later in life as do all the experiences in between.
[JM] I also love being an immigrant. Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[AB] As a child I loved to draw and to read. I have always been fascinated by storytelling and by worlds I didn’t know. Falling into a world of words and pictures has really been something special to me for as long as I can remember.
My mother was a tailor. Many times she would sew pieces of clothing for us children according to patterns she came up with by herself. It always started with an idea or a request by one of us (as well as strangers), or by herself. Then we would go out and carefully choose the fabric, the buttons and thread, which she paid for with the money she had previously earned by sewing or altering something. And then she’d start her magic. The fabric was cut into pieces in the light of the evening lamp on the living room table. The pieces were put together with needles, a first fitting, adjusted and finally sewed together. The result was usually a beautiful winter coat or pants, or – you name it, which I would be very proud of. These moments were tender and in a way, I think, creating a book is something similar. My gentle mother of seven was sewing with passion. It was her inner sanctuary, which belonged all to herself, but she shared it through her creations and the time we spent together while doing it. I still see and hear her working at her old Singer sewing machine with the foot pedal, our family dog sitting by her side.
Working on a story feels much like that play between having the clear, full picture of a storyline and the many pieces of a puzzle, which are put together in the process. You’ve asked me about my journey as an artist. Well, I think, that’s where it all began. I knew quite early, that I wanted to become an illustrator – a storyteller. That set me onto the path to study Graphic Design in Augsburg, Germany and lead me to my first job in Feature Animation at a studio in Munich. As part of my studies at the college, I had to fulfill an internship for the length of one semester at a place of my choice. The opportunity to work at Munich Animation opened the door to a new world. I took it and the journey began.
[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?
[AB] I love working in watercolor and gouache, pencil, colored pencil, ink and the computer.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[AB] The forest seems to be a constant companion in my art. It’s beautiful, majestic and mythical. The subject of friendship and finding yourself have a tendency to show up, too.
[JM] Your debut picture as both author and illustrator, MAX AND MARLA, has just been published by Putnam. How long did you work on this manuscript before submitting it? And where did you get your inspiration for this story?
[AB] The dummy (I submitted words and images combined in a dummy) for MAX and MARLA came together rather rapidly, once I started to seriously get to it. The characters, though, were simmering inside of me for a couple of month before I started to work on the story. I simply had very feelings about these two and their relationship. At that time, however, Max and Marla had no story, no shape, no body attached to them. It all happened when I watched the recent Sochi Winter Olympics. Something sparked and the essence of the story started to unravel quite rapidly. Perseverance, imagination, childhood memories of my best friend and me playing with the sled in winter, a cup of hot chocolate to bring the frozen hands and feet back to life – all this played a role in that moment of inspiration. The world, the mountains and forests, Max and Marla live in, are part of my core and where I originally come from. This is a feeling, not a thought, because the story could really be taking place anywhere. From the raw beginnings (thank you, Marcia, my dear agent, for your editorial input at that early stage!) to the dummy I submitted, passed about a month or two. BUT, and this is a humongous BUT, the possibility for this story to come to life in this rather quick way, originates in events which took place much earlier. I have been working seriously on two other stories since about 2011. Penguin has picked up both long before Max and Marla were even an idea. These two stories are at various stages and each has a different mood with a very personal tone. They came from other deep places within and are still in development. Without those experiences, in particular, my story LOLA’S HEART, MAX AND MARLA wouldn’t be what it is today. These first two stories, as well as their serious grounds to grow, opened up inner doors to many more stories. It was extremely liberating. In a way, MAX and MARLA tell the story of exactly that journey, too. MAX and MARLA is a story about perseverance and above all friendship. About overcoming, what might be perceived as failure. The Olympic Spirit encapsulates all of this and shows up in many aspects of our lives.
Truly, the inspiration for MAX AND MARLA has many (more) layers. It’s a very simple, but deep story.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[AB] This is a work-in-progress of a piece I did for Tallulah’s Tap Shoes.
[JM] You have worked on two series as an illustrator: The Tallulah books, written by Marilyn Singer and The Magical Animal Adoption Agency, written by Kallie George. How collaborative have these books been and how do you feel like the characters have developed through the series?
I don’t collaborate directly with the writer, but rather with my editor. Having brought the characters and their world to life over the span of a couple of books and therefore years I certainly have a close relationship to these characters and I feel, for example, with the Tallulah picture book series, a strong co-creation between Marilyn and myself. Tallulah has been true to herself in each book, but deepened nevertheless. It feels to me, that she has become wiser from book to book, from experience to experience. Her world is believable and a fall back, she, as much as the readers can count on. The series has been growing organically throughout the time Marilyn, our editor, and I have been working on it.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[AB] My studio is cozy, not very tidy and it has a lot of light. It holds most of the books I cherish, always a cup of tea and many blankets. Unfortunately it’s not very well insulated and so it gets a bit cold in winter.
[JM] Love how many windows the studio has. What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[AB] I have a Lisbeth Zwerger print and art from some of our artist friends on the walls. My daughter’s sculptures, my husband’s art and at times I hang up my own art. But according to my mood, I take it down again.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state, urban or national) in the world?
[AB] Englischer Garten in Munich, because it’s beautiful and it holds many memories.
Redwood National and State Parks in Northern California. The Redwood Tree is the symbol of the environment I live and hike in today . A couple of years ago we visited the Giant Redwoods close to Oregon. This has even deepened my appreciation for this exceptional species and the forests, which make one feel the history of this world.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[AB] Cats. We have three of those furry little monsters.
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[AB] My cold feet. That is probably not a secret at all! I’ll keep the secrets a secret!
[JM] First paid job after high school?
[AB] Working at the Munich Airport and at Lisboa Bar in Munich. Both were fun jobs, which helped me pay for college.
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[AB] Chocolate and cookies. Very original, right?
Thank you so much for taking us on a small journey through your art and journey. You have to tell us the cats’ names now! Wishing you continued success for many more magical picture books like MAX AND MARLA!