Seven Questions Over Breakfast with William Bee

h1 July 31st, 2008 by jules

William BeeWhen author/illustrator William Bee released his second book, And the Train Goes… (Candlewick, 2007), Kirkus Reviews described it as “{a} fresh, visually arresting read-aloud with a lovely old-time feel.” You could say that about William’s other two books as well—Whatever, released by Candlewick in 2005, and this year’s Beware of the Frog (also Candlewick)—but you’d be simplifying his books and his style a bit much by calling them old-timey. There is a modernity to his style as well, what with his ultra-stylized design sense — not to mention the demented, deadpan humor and spirit of at least two of his books thus far (the very Pierre-esque Whatever and the warped almost-fairy-tale world of Beware of the Frog). Kirkus even wrote about Beware of the Frog that it joins “the rapidly swelling ranks of seemingly innocuous tales for younglings in which main characters are suddenly killed off.” (If you’re thinking what in the what the?, you need look no further than Tadpole’s Promise or Ugly Fish as but two examples.)

There are actually many things about William’s style as an illustrator that appeal to me — not just this ability he has to veer from quite demented to totally traditional (as Publishers Weekly pointed out, And the Train Goes… is filled with what they called “English archetypes,” and have you used this book as read-aloud yet? Wonderful, I say). There’s also his web site in which you learn…well, nothing about his books but an awful lot about a few of his favorite things (staying home, giraffes, 1978, tape measures, London buses, Michael Caine, supersonic planes). Dare I say it? Dare I employ the so-overused-it-barely-registers-meaning-anymore “quirky”? Okay, he’s quirky. There. I said it.

random image from Bee's site

So, yeah, my interest was piqued, and I snagged an over-breakfast interview with him. (William tells me we’ll be very disappointed with his breakfast-of-choice: “I usually have half a litre of water and a banana. On Sundays, I sometimes go mad and have two slices of toast with butter and Tiptree Jam, and a cup of tea — ‘Yorkshire’ tea with milk and two sugars.”)

And, best of all, he tells the story behind the creation of Beware of the Frog, which I covered here at 7-Imp. I believe I described it as “seriously funky,” which is a compliment, coming from me.

So, let’s set the table by getting some basics from him. First, though, here is some interior art from Whatever, his 2005 debut title, followed by the front and back of 2007’s And the Train Goes…

illustration from WHATEVER
illustration from WHATEVER

* * * * * * *

7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

William: Both — and designer, too. I trained as a designer, but that led quite naturally to illustration. I think it is much easier for an illustrator to write than a writer to illustrate. In fact, I would never illustrate someone else’s text. The words—assuming you have a story—take a fraction of the time and effort of the images, so why share the royalty? Also it gives me the option of changing the text if I wish. Of course I am only here referring to picture books. The design of books is also very important — from the front to the back.

endpapers for WHATEVER

Endpapers for Whatever (Candlewick; 2005)

front endpapers for BEWARE OF THE FROG

Front endpapers for Beware of the Frog (Candlewick; 2008)

back endpapers for BEWARE OF THE FROG

Back endpapers for Beware of the Frog

7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?

William: My first book is Whatever. The second is entitled And the Train Goes. The latest is Beware of the Frog.

7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety––your preferred one?

William: My first three books were hand-drawn with thin black felt tip pens. The drawings were scanned into my Apple Mac, and coloured—and rearranged—on screen.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

William: I live in Suffolk — eastern England. Approximately 100 miles from london, 40 miles from the sea. It’s very green here. I lived in London for many years, but much prefer the quiet of the countryside.

7-Imp: Can you briefly tell us about your road to publication?

William: Well, it was a little odd. I had been working on a number of ideas, ultimately focussing on what was to become Whatever. I had almost finished a complete mock up, when i was invited to go and see Walker Books in London. It turned out they wanted me to come up with a picture book, as they liked my graphic work. So I obviously mentioned that I was well advanced with a book — and so sent them it. The main changes between the version I sent them and the published book is that the published book is shorter (unfortunately). So quite an easy road.

7-Imp: Can you please point us to your web site and/or blog?


7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell us about?

William: I am working on a new book — which I hope will be part one of a series. {Ed. Note: Sneak-peek image below.} It is completely different from anything I have done before. Very detailed and complicated — with hundreds of characters, all of whom are named and vital to the narrative.

* * *

Okay, the table’s set, and we’re ready to sit down and talk more specifics over our Yorkshire tea. And I must throw in some coffee, even if I’m drinking solo on that one. And we shall commence with our seven-minus-one questions over breakfast, since William opted out of one question. Thanks to William, if I haven’t already said it, for his time.

1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?

William: I’ll use the frog book as an example:

I visited the lady who cuts my hair. Living in the countryside, this happens at her house. She has a sign on the door “beware of the dog.” The dog is a big old Labrador who would only be dangerous if she sat on you…anyway, back in the car on the way home, I heard part of a programme on the car radio about frogs. At one point, the presenter listed various frogs — thus, “tree frog, African frog, red-spotted frog, edible frog, green frog,” etc. etc.

I was struck by the “edible frog” — I mean, how unlucky to be so named. So, whilst driving, I mused on that and the dog sign and thought about a book with a dangerous frog — a frog that eats what we would consider threatening. And of course if you put “beware of the frog” on a garden gate, you need a house and a house-owner. It seemed obvious to make them an old lady — another “creature” who we generally consider vulnerable.

I roughly planned out the story and showed it to the publisher. It was somewhat different from the one that was published. At one stage—my favourite—the horrible creatures were children (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sorts). And the end of the book was rather darker—I thought Hitchcock—but the introduction of goblins and trolls etc. to replace the vetoed kids meant I needed a less thoughtful ending.

gobbling up the Giant Hungry Ogre
But oh, dear, she doesn't look very pleased about that...

2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space for us.

William: I have supplied a few pictures. It’s all looking rather tidy…I have a fair amount of floor space in front of my desk, this is for drawing and generally making a mess. I sit on a sofa and have the keyboard on my lap. {I} have never sat as if at a desk. I have lots of books and a big t.v. in the corner. One of the best things about living in the countryside is that I can go for walks in fresh air and spot various—harmless—wild animals. I like to take a scrap of paper and a pen to jot down ideas — or even write out texts.

3. 7-Imp: As book lovers, it interests us: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

William: I can’t remember all of them. And it was usually the illustrations that particularly caught my attention. E.H. Shepard’s for Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter, too. When I was a bit older, I remember reading the wonderful Charles Schulz. I liked the pen illustration of John Tenniel for Alice.

4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators or author/illustrators — whom you have not yet met — over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

William: Right — well, I would merely wish to be a fly on the wall. They can talk amoung themselves. As it’s a fantasy, I see no reason why they should {all} be alive. I’d love to hear the conversation between Charles Schulz, Richard Scarry, and Maurice Sendak.

5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

William: I only listen to music in the car. If I am actually required to think—not a constant—then I go for a walk. When simply drawing, designing, or colouring in, I either have the radio—BBC Radio 4—or the t.v. on. Radio 4 is a voice channel, with programmes about history and science, as well as news and politics. If it’s the telly, it’s usualy old films on DVD. Yesterday, it was “To Catch a Thief” — lovely scenery.

6. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

William: What car(s) do I drive…Well, thanks for asking. At the moment, I have three cars. A day-to-day modern German car — it’s boring, but it is 4-wheel drive and turbo-charged. Much more interesting is my 1968 Daimler V8. Lovely to be in, lots of leather and wood. It makes a lovely sound. The nice thing about old cars is that people enjoy seeing them about, but they are not flashy like a modern sports car would be. My other motor is a 1930 Austin Ulster racing car with which I compete in events — mostly off-road. It can do 55mph max, which is terrifying.

William's 1968 Daimler V8
William's 1930 Austin Ulster racing car

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

William: “Car.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

William: “Official.”

7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

William: …Old buildings, a field of yellow buttercups, Brands Hatch, a large cheque.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

William: An audience, most modern architecture, shopping, rules.

7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

William: “Sugar.”

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?

William: Bird song and a nice burbling V8.

7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?

William: Hip hop.

7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

William: I like what I do. Health willing, I will never have to stop.

7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?

William: Telephone sales.

random image from Bee's site

* * * * * * *

All art work used with permission of the illustrator. All rights reserved.

11 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with William Bee”

  1. *Swooning over Yorkshire tea, cars, British accent*

    Lovely interview, Jules and William! I do like quirkiness in all forms :). Is that the tidiest office I’ve ever seen or what?

  2. i adore whatever, and i need to get a copy of beware the frog. william’s books are such a pleasure to look at!

  3. thanks, you all….yes, Jama, that’s one tidy office, but doesn’t he say he doesn’t actually use it like an office? that he doesn’t use his desk as a desk? maybe i should try that!

  4. […] William Bee (interviewed July 31), pictured here: “One of the best things about living in the countryside is that I can go for […]

  5. A new discovery for me and a breath of fresh air! I look at illustrators work everyday (including my own) but this stuff is so different. Bought “Whatever” and “Beware of the Frog” for my nephew, I love how dark they are.

  6. Krina: Me, too! Good stuff, huh?

  7. […] Because Beware of the Frog is still one of my favorite weird-ass picture books, I bring you my 2008 interview with the guy who puts the very quirk in “quirky,” British author/illustrator William […]

  8. […] you like to know more about the delightful Mr. William Bee, here’s an interview done by the blog Seven Impossible Things Before […]

  9. Would you please approach Candlewick Press and ask them to publish Beware of the Frog again?
    My students love the book, but my copy is very worn.


  10. […] Bee visits 7-Imp today to share some images from two of his 2015 picture books. (Bee visited 7-Imp back in the day for one of my favorite “breakfast” […]

  11. My grandson, Luca, and I could not read BEWARE THE FROG often enough. It was so sad when we had to return the book to the library.
    The book is not published in the US, but I found a copy on Amazon at $27.13!!! outrageous, I thought, but paid for it, with shipping. When the book arrived there was a small tag that read $2.00; naturally, I felt cheated big time, so I returned the book. Barnes & Noble claimed to have a copy for $14.57, but when I tried to order it, was told it was not available. WHY IS THIS BOOK NOT PUBLISHED IN THE US OF A???
    I would like to invite William Bee to dinner…I make great, fresh, tortellini as only the BEST Bolognese can do. Please forward my email to him so I can honor him the next time he slums to the NYC/NJ area.
    Thank you.
    Mary de Stefano, grandmother to the scalawag, Luca de Stefano

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