I have known Brian online for a number of years being an avid fan of all his fun fictional bat picture books (an often maligned and gorgeous/important critter.) If you don’t know this series, please check them out here. His new picture book, GATOR DAD, hit the shelves a week ago, so it seemed the perfect timing to host an interview with him on Miss Marple’s Musings. Don’t miss an opportunity to win a copy of GATOR DAD when I review it on PPBF this Friday!
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[BL] I’m an author/illustrator—I’ve illustrated a number of books I didn’t write, but really enjoy creating my own stories. To me, the story itself comes first, and both words and pictures begin to appear. I sketch whatever I first see, and write down whatever I first hear. And then the process is about making the two play together well. The hope is that, in the end, they combine to make a richer story than either could have done on its own.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[BL] I was born in Princeton, NJ, and grew up 13 houses beyond the town line, but still with a Princeton mailing address. This caused some confusion for me, as it was Princeton, but not Princeton at the same time. I lived on a wooded road with only a single house on the opposite side, and deep woods both on that side and behind our house.
So it was a very rural-feeling place to grow. Building forts and dams in the woods, digging up antique bottles from streams where farmers had dumped them, running wild until the dinner bell rang. As a result, most of my work to date has a pastoral feel. I’m not a city kid. In fact, Gator Dad is the first book I’ve done that was overtly set in a city, but the alligator dad and his kids still escape to “the wild,” their local park.
[JM] Thanks for sharing the quiet of Cherry Hill Road with us. Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[BL] I never expected to end up as an author or illustrator. As a kid, I believed firmly in innate talent, and didn’t feel I had it. I always liked writing and drawing—I think that if you’ve experienced the magic of getting lost in a story, some part of you has to wonder if maybe you have any of that magic in you, too. Illustrator / author Harry Devlin (the Cranberry series, among many others) had visited my school in 5th grade, and I thought that doing books sounded like the best job in the world.
(PHOTO-Wonderful treehouse) But I didn’t feel talented, so didn’t think it was for me. I went to Brown University thinking that I was going to become a clinical psychologist, and work with kids. While there, I started doing illustrations for the college newspaper, including political cartoons. I began to think that there might be a job there—a steady job doing art!—and I ended up with 140 rejections from newspapers around the country. So art school was the next step, and after a few years as a freelance editorial page illustrator with a number of clients, I began to think again about children’s books. An unexpected encounter with Susan Sherman, then art director at Houghton Mifflin (now at Charlesbridge) led to my first illustrated book, and I found myself doing what I’d only dreamed of doing sixteen years earlier.
[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?
[BL] Right now, I’m finding a lot of satisfaction painting with acrylics on paper. I work traditionally, beginning with a toned underpainting which sets up light/dark relationships in the piece, then add colors on top of that. The underpainting helps to unify the overall palette, and educates me about the brights/darks to come.
[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?
[BL] I don’t know if it comes through in my illustration work or not, but I think shelter is very important to me, in lots of different forms. I seem to like drawing critters’ homes, in whatever shape they take, and they’re always safe, comfortable spaces.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a GATOR DAD or a WIP, and the process of creating them?
[BL] This is an image of the gator dad helping his kids to build an enormous pillow fort. I start by redrawing my sketch onto a piece of thick Strathmore paper, then inking in the lines so that I don’t lose it when I start painting. I work traditionally—beginning with a brown-toned underpainting in which I get rid of the white of the paper and figure out the shapes of the shadows in the image. Then I apply light and dark colors on top of the underpainting (chiaroscuro), trying to make everything I paint subservient to the lighting effect I’m trying to create. In this picture, I’ve worked on the lamp and have started coloring in the pillows/blankets that make up the fort. The characters are all still in their brown underpainting tones.
And here’s a sneak peek from my NEXT book: Got to Get To Bear’s!, which publishes in 2018. It’s a graphite drawing, enhanced in Photoshop, which is currently the jacket image for the book
[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid?
[BL] The first books I can recall buying with my own money were paperback collections of comic strips which I’d buy before family trips, to entertain myself on long drives—“B.C.,” by Johnny Hart, and books with work by Mad Magazine’s Don Martin.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[BL] It’s often a mess! When I’m working on a book, I’ve got papers taped to the walls, shoved in on top of books on bookshelves, etc. I’m one of those people who is clean but not neat (i.e., untidy, but no pizza crusts or moldy coffee mugs), and in the midst of the clutter, I know exactly where things are. I only do a deep cleaning when I finish a project and am getting ready to start on the next.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[BL] I’ve never wanted to display my own work in the house, because I know it too well. But over time, you have pieces in exhibitions, and you’ve got all of this framed artwork, and somehow it seems to fit the seasons (snow, Thanksgiving, etc.). We’ve got some original artwork from Kurt Wiese, a block print from 1970 Caldecott Medal book Drummer Hoff by Barbara and Ed Emberley, David MacPhail and Judy Moffatt, and one little oil sketch I particularly like, a 1914 painting by Edward Loyal Field.
[JM] What is the greatest piece of advice you have received?
[BL] Two greatest pieces of advice come to mind: “The secret to a long marriage is . . . four or five choice things not said, daily.” And “never cook with the kitchen drawers open.”
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban) in the world?
[BL] I think it would have to be Bryce Canyon, in Utah. We took long tent camping trips as a family when I was a boy (see “buying books,” above!), and the Grand Canyon left us feeling a little cold. Maybe it was too grand? The enormity of it as seen from the Rim parking lots made it impossible to take in? I imagine my feeling would have been different if we’d taken a mule ride down into the canyon. But the colors and vistas and ranks of hoodoos at Bryce were astounding.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[BL] Cats! Currently, two shelter cats: Dylan, a sleek Russian blue /Siamese (?) mix, and Atticus, a very solid tabby (one nickname: Potato).
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[BL] I love transformations—whether it’s the growth of a story from first idea to finished book, a pile of wood into a useable piece of furniture, or taking tiny seeds and watching them grow into things that you can harvest and eat. I’m an avid vegetable gardener, and after eight or so years of a shaded garden, we took out a number of trees threatening our house (two fell on it in the last three years), and this spring feels like a rebirth!
[JM] I love your thoughts on the importance of transformation, and as an avid gardner myself understand how this is an annual metaphor for us. What as your first paid job?
[BL] My first paid job was selling greeting cards door to door, probably fourth grade. My best friend and I earned a couple of great things doing it, including a pair of walkie-talkies, but I think we always suspected that the card company was doing better than we were out of it. We’d ring the doorbell, make an impassioned plea, make a sale. The longest I’ve been employed by someone else in my life was three months. Maybe the greeting card sales set my fate as a freelancer?
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[BL] I actually don’t have a particular snack or drink that helps while I work. I’ll have a cup of coffee in the morning—a good, dark Sumatra, and that gets me going. But if anything’s in the studio, it’s just tap water. No sipping tea as I work, no nibbling biscotti, nothing. It would be a much more colorful answer if I said I sustained myself with Weetabix dipped in Scotch!
Brian, not all my interviewees do this, but you have managed to give us a sense of your childhood and evolution to this wonderful calling (it’s so much more than a job, right?) of being an author/illustrator for children. Good luck with promoting GATOR DAD, which I have asked our elementary school librarian to purchase! BTW, love your advice!