Seven Questions Over Breakfast (Marshmallows Included) with Maxwell Eaton III

h1 December 1st, 2008 by jules

Maxwell Eaton IIIHere’s Maxwell Eaton III. He’s rowing his way to my kitchen so that I can ask him seven questions over breakfast. Make that seven questions over “a big glass of orange juice, a big glass of whole milk, and a bowl of dry cheerios.” Maxwell adds, “if I could somehow suck more nutrients out of that meal than actually exist, I’d probably eat it three times a day for the rest of my life. Oh and please add a cup of coffee with way too much artificial creamer in it. But make it a small cup, because if I have too much, I’ll have to throw in the towel on drawing for the day. Shaky hands!”

Well, OF COURSE, I’m going to have coffee, the brown life-blood, and he deserves it after that strenuous rowing adventure. I’ll take good ‘ol-fashioned half-and-half, thanks very much, but—as a courteous hostess—I’ll have “way too much artificial creamer” on hand for Maxwell. See him again to the left here? He’s excited about his new book and is ready to chat. In fact, this is Day One of a blog tour Maxwell is undertaking; scroll down to the bottom of this interview for the remainder of his blog tour schedule. I’m happy to be kickin’ it all off here at 7-Imp.

Maxwell Eaton III is the creator of the the Max and Pinky picture book sagas, two of which have been covered here at 7-Imp (here and here), all published by Random House, and what Kirkus Reviews has called “a warm affirmation of budship.” Max and Pinky are best buds (“Always have been. Always will be”). Pinky loves Max just a little bit more than he loves marshmallows. Which is a lot.

And they both love adventure. They are also superheroes — Mighty Max! And, uh, his stubby sidekick, Pinky. Together they have battled snow monsters, embarked on an Adventure Day or two (every Saturday is Adventure Day, don’t you know?), played in gooey brown mud puddles, stopped falling meteors in their tracks, encountered polar bears in deep blue ponds, and saved whales. And one of them may or may not have been carried away by evil bunnies and the other gotten his head stuck in a fencepost. Max and Pinky have a host of other friends, including the aforementioned polar bear; a horse named Chuck, who likes to refer to Max as “some bald kid”; some groundhogs; and a mouse, often perplexed by Max’s knock-knock jokes. The nefarious bunnies are NOT our friends.


Chuck’s stall from the barnyard pages of Maxwell’s site

In their newest adventure, Max and Pinky are out to solve a mystery: They’ve painted the barn a lovely shade of red, but the next morning, it’s another color altogether. “Whoa, Nelly!” yells Pinky, and they re-paint, try to guard it during the night, only to awake to see that it’s been painted again — this time an alluring plaid. They set out to solve the mystery and find the painter; this involves questioning their pals and a blueprint for one very creative barn alarm, involving splashing chickens, a bowling ball landing on precisely the right spot of a seesaw, and many strings and fans.

The Max and Pinky tales, rife with character asides (usually very deadpan), bold colors, and many visual jokes (usually via speech balloons), are fun and funny. But what really makes it all work is the heart at the center of the stories: The tight friendship between Max and Pinky. For the new title, released in October by Random House, Publishers Weekly writes that Eaton “once again elevates goofiness to fine art. He gets considerable comic mileage out of his simply drawn characters and their dialogue balloon remarks. Even more to his credit, he makes an admirable statement about the nature of friendship without ever turning preachy.” And I say: This goes for all the Max and Pinky tales, which are also—in my experience—big, ginormous kid magnets. To boot, as The Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books put it, the books are offbeat, irreverent, affectionate, wry, and imaginative.


In this January ’08 NPR interview with Maxwell, he shares that he began sketching the characters of Max and Pinky on bar napkins while he was working as a ski bum in Colorado. “Kind of out of boredom almost, I was just doodling and I came up with this character… who finally became Max. I needed the pig to say something, and think something, and show a little sarcasm, observing these ridiculous things that Max was doing… and finally it was just ‘Max and Pinky.'”

So, let’s get the basics from Maxwell while we set the table here for our seven questions over breakfast, and I thank him very much for stopping by.

Oh, and a Quick Note About the Two Spreads Below From The Mystery: The colors are off. Now, I didn’t have time to ask Maxwell or Random House about this or to ask them to re-send the images. And I didn’t want to go without them. And I didn’t want to get into PhotoShop and make the colors right myself, lest Maxwell take that oar of his and whop me upside the head for messing with his art, which you kinda couldn’t blame him for if he did. Even though Maxwell told NPR in the aforementioned interview that he’s colorblind and relies on his computer and an art director at Knopf to assist him with colors, it’s not his fault that the colors are wonky in these spreads. It’s just some weird computer phenomenon. So, for those two particular spreads, just pretend that the barn is red, not purple, and that Pinky is…uh, pink. (Hence, the name.) Not light purple. Max’s shirt is really red. Etcetera. Etcetera. Thanks.

Onwards and upwards then . . .

* * * * * * *

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

Maxwell:


Spread from The Mystery, 2008.
“They worked hard all day long . . .”

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

Maxwell: All of my books are drawn in pen and ink and then scanned into the internet machine where they’re colored digitally. When I’m doing little illustrations and sketches for fun, though, I fill everything in with an ink wash and pretend that it’s art.


Vacuuming Bear, 2008; Visit Max’s “Evil Bunny Gallery” for more of his art work.

7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?

Maxwell: I haven’t officially illustrated anything but picture books, but given the opportunity to do something else, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t change much. It’s funny doing books for the little boogers, because a lot of the people who write or email me saying they like the art are teen or college-aged and without child. Although, maybe they’re just feeling nostalgic and it has nothing to do with universal age appeal. Or maybe they’re just six-year-olds pretending to be twenty-two. In that case, Joey Sampson, please disregard all of my tips on what bars to visit in Bozeman, Montana.


Spread from The Mystery, 2008.
“They look for clues. They ask tough questions.
But the mysterious painter can’t be found.”

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Maxwell: I grew up in Cornwall, Vermont, went to college in Canton, NY, came up with Max and Pinky in Dillon, Colorado, saw my first book released in Saranac Lake, NY, and am now living in Tucson, Arizona, where I’m still one address ahead of my junk mail. I’ve decided that I really have a perfect lifestyle for becoming a credit card scammer. I just need to make friends with a Nigerian general with access to significant unclaimed funds and I’ll be all set. I’ll also need an email address like bghf33vg9@hotmail.com.


Carl, 2008;
Visit Max’s “Evil Bunny Gallery” for more of his art work.

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

Maxwell: Briefly wrote brief book. Sent brief book to agent. Agent sent brief book to editor. Editor used brief book as coaster, briefly. Decided that coaster might work better as brief book. Editor had brief lunch with agent. Both tried brief book as coaster and as book. Spilled martinis. Placed brief orders for new martinis. Brief martinis. Decided to commit to brief book format. Negotiated long contract. Sent long contract to me. I carried long contact for brief book in briefcase for brief while. Signed long contract. Now brief books are out and publisher is rethinking coasters, long term.

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

Maxwell: http://www.maxandpinky.com.

The site has got it all. Fun, adventure, good laughs, some tears, home improvement tips, electrical schematics, guitar chord diagrams, medical advice, gardening know-how, and the occasional cynical talking horse. And plenty of coloring pages and do-it-yourself puppet show activities so that parents don’t feel left out!


Flip, 2008; Visit Max’s “Evil Bunny Gallery” for more of his art work.

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

Maxwell: I’ve got a few non-Max and Pinky picture books in the works, but my most exciting project right now is a couple of graphic novels for 7-9 year-olds called The Flying Beaver Brothers. I’m lobbying for this to be the Library of Congress Cataloging Summary for one of them:

Surfing, skateboarding, scuba diving, booby traps, killer whales, gluttonous seagulls, embarrassing hats, doomsday refrigerators, and diabolical stand-up comedian penguins? Just a long weekend for the Flying Beaver Brothers, Ace and Bub, who will do their best to win the big surfing contest, save their island, and, of course, catch an occasional nap. Just don’t forget the maple syrup! Dam!

As you can tell, it’s a slightly more sophisticated book for my more cultured readers. It’ll have all of the literary references of a Salman Rushdie novel but with more dirty diaper jokes.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set. Have coffee. Have creamer. Have marshmallows in case Pinky stops by. We’re good-to-go with our dry Cheerios, too. Now we’re ready to talk more specifics . . .

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?

Maxwell: When I’m creating a book, the first thing I do is type it up on the computer. I don’t worry about page counts or how it’ll break down, but I write out the story line by line, usually including what the characters are going to say. This is what the first few pages of Superheroes would look like:

Max and Pinky are going to play superheroes.
…and we’ll wrestle giant turtles and eat lightning!
And marshmallows!

First they practice superhero moves.
Watch out!
Yikes!

Anyway, you get the idea. I used to sketch out the story first, but I’ve found that it’s far too easy to get attached to a drawing and keep it for the wrong reasons. Typing a line is quick and easy to erase or re-do. There’s nothing to fall in love with. So after I type up a story I go through and whittle it down to fit within the standard thirty-two-page format, grouping pages that will appear side-by-side. At this point, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what each page will basically look like. There isn’t a lot of debating what moment will best illustrate each line of text, because each page really only has one line of text so everything basically depends on the dialogue. If a character is yelling “Ouch! My Toe!” then we’ve got a pretty good idea what he’s doing. Pretty straightforward. After I’ve got all of the text organized page by page, I quickly sketch the whole story out in a little pocket notebook. It forces me to draw small, and when you draw small you don’t cram in a bunch of unnecessary dialogue and action. After this I move to drawing paper, sketching each page in pencil and finally going over it with pen and ink (a nice way of saying Sharpie). Then I scan it, color it, get it stamped by a Notary Public and email it in triplicate to the necessary authorities.

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

Maxwell: I try not to work on books in my little home studio/office, because I don’t get anything done unless I’m uncomfortable and out of my element. When I was living in Saranac Lake, New York, I worked in the basement of the public library where they have a room with a big long table surrounded by hundreds of stuffed animal specimens from the Adirondack Mountains. I modeled the seagull in The Mystery on a couple of dead gulls perched on the wall there. And the best part was there weren’t any windows, so you had no passing distractions or sense of time. Unfortunately, I got the boot and have been looking for a good place to work ever since. Somehow that search has taken me to Tucson, Arizona. Although I’m just realizing that searching for a workspace that’s dark, windowless, and free of clocks may have me winding up at the Desert Diamond Casino down the road. If they install a taxidermy exhibit, you’ll know where to find me.

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

Maxwell: Some favorites when I was young were the Max series of wordless picture books by Hanne Turk. They were about a mouse named Max and his little, semi-living, toy cat. In one book they rake leaves. In another, Max bakes cookies. In most cases, they were a perfect model of innocence. However, my favorite was A Lesson for Max, where the little mouse gets cigarettes out of a vending machine and gets sick after smoking. Boy, you couldn’t get away with that today! I guess 1983 was a very different time. Or maybe the Austrians just know how it’s done.

Another illustrator that I loved back then and find has influenced me today is Joseph Wright, who illustrated Frank Muir’s What-a-Mess series of picture books. This guy was the master of what you might call the peripheral character narrative (I just made that up, but I’m banking on nobody calling me on it). Basically, along with the main character’s story each page was loaded with a bunch of little bugs and gnomes and birds that were living out their own little episodes. It’s kind of what I try to do in The Mystery with the groundhogs, but not nearly as complicated or detailed. Actually, Joseph Wright’s stuff reminds me a lot of Martin Handford’s Waldo books. Just a million characters all running into each other. They’re great.

{Ed. Note, July 2011: Illustrator Steve Cox tells me the following: “Joe Wright did indeed illustrate Frank Muir’s books, but the image you have used was actually illustrated by myself. It was used on a promotional brochure for a licensing company called Link Licensing, who co-produced the animated TV series in the late 1980s. I ran a design and illustration company, which specialised in merchandising, and What-a-Mess was one of many characters we used to work with.” Thanks to Steve for the correction!}

Other influences were D.C. Beard’s American Boys Handy Book. I lived my life by that book, and I’m surprised it didn’t kill me. Think The Dangerous Book for Boys, only actually dangerous. The war kites had broken glass attached to them, and I’m pretty sure there are references to picking up bottles of mercury at your local hardware store.

I also loved A.B. Frost’s illustrations for one of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus books. And, of course, Ernest Shepard’s work in The Wind in the Willows. Classic animal illustration. I love it when they look real.

I know the question is about what influenced me as a kid, but these are all books that still influence me today as well.

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

Maxwell: Well, you’ve closed off the easy way out of this question! Living? Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite illustrators are gone, but maybe those are the only ones I’ve allowed myself to enjoy. Even as little Maxie Eaton da Terd (my grandma’s name for me…), I never really had heroes or people I looked up to (geez, that sounds depressing). I recognized things that I liked in what other people had done, but I was almost achingly self-conscious about appearing to follow someone or emulate anyone. If I really liked something someone was doing, I felt like I was somehow changing my own work to be like theirs and that drove me nuts. This caused me to pull away from anything I liked in books and art later in life (it sounds like I’m writing a memoir at seventy-five right now). And I mean pull away with my own work and my own style.


A.B. Frost (1851-1928), “He made some hootch and tried it on the dog,” 1921.* India Ink over pencil with scraping out on board. (Image in the public domain.)

I think, looking at Max and Pinky, you wouldn’t say that I’m at all influenced by Edward Gorey, Ralph Steadman, Pericle Luigi Giovannetti, or Palmer Cox. But this is the art I like to see. If I look at anything that’s even closely related to my work, I end up coming down with an incredible creative block that can only be cured by week-long breaks where I think about going to grad school. It’s like when you’re in high school and the teacher assigns a paper or story and hands out an example from one of her past students. It’s all you can think of! You can’t get John Linlsey’s report about pirates off the coast of Somalia out of your head! That’s how I am when I look at other picture books, so when I do read them, I tend to steer clear of anything that’s at all in the same realm as what I’m shooting to create. A lot of safe bets for me are much older books or art that has nothing to do with children’s books.

Short answer: I guess, if I could sit down with three illustrators (not necessarily exclusive picture book people), they would be Hudson Talbott, Bill Watterson, Edward Koren, and some good bourbon. But not too much! We mustn’t to forget the children!


Pinky, a crow, and Max, 2008;
Visit Max’s “Evil Bunny Gallery” for more of his art work.

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?

Maxwell: I wish I was one of those people who can write, draw, and create while listening to music, but it’s completely impossible for me. I’m probably the only person on earth who considers listening to music while coloring to be multitasking. You ought to see me talking on a phone and driving. Wait, no you shouldn’t. Forget I said that! Anyway, when I’m not working and coloring I listen to a lot of Willie Nelson, Mississippi John Hurt, and M. Ward. And old Steve Martin albums. They’re a real staple.

6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Maxwell: I didn’t try pizza until I was twenty-three. There. It’s out.

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

Maxwell: Other books are definitely a major influence for picture book authors and illustrators, but is there anything else that you look to for inspiration?

First of all, thank you for asking. You always know just what to say!

That’s too kind.

No, no, no. You’ve earned it. Really.

Well, thank you. Anyway, your answer.

Marx Brothers movies.

That’s it?

That’s it.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Maxwell: Two words: “geezum crow.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Maxwell: “Cheers.”

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

Maxwell: Reading and writing letters (not emails), for some strange reason.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Maxwell: Haircuts.

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

Maxwell: Hold your tongue and say “aw, ship.”

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

Maxwell: Loons calling.

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

Maxwell: Buses.

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

Maxwell: I wish they still had jobs where you got paid to drive people’s cars across country. Like on the film, Vanishing Point. I think I’d be pretty good at that. Only without the police chases and Cleavon Little on the radio.

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

Maxwell: I can never be a waiter. Complete respect for them, but I don’t like being around a lot of food and tend take idiot patrons personally. Although thinking about how they receive most of their income, I might see if my publisher is willing to pay me under that table and in cash.

7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Maxwell: “That was just the warm up, bud. Now you get to do it again but as a dinosaur during the United States’ westward expansion. You see, I like to keep things interesting. Non-linear. Keep ’em guessing. Anyway, get down there, have some fun, and for gosh sakes, don’t start any prairie fires. Those are a real pain in the neck to put out, and frankly, I just don’t have the time these days. You need anything while you’re down there? A few bucks in your pocket maybe? You sure? Come on. Just take it. It’s a few bucks. Just some pocket money in case you see something you like. Seriously. Take it. Ok well, I better get back to work. Bunch of people coming and going. You know how it is. Take it easy and I’ll see you in about twenty years or so. Whoop. Said too much. Bye!”

* * * * * * *

* No animals were harmed—or inebriated—during this interview.

* * * * * * *

If you’re jonesin’ for more Maxwell, here’s the schedule for the remainder of his blog tour:

And don’t forget Minh’s ’07 interview at Bottom Shelf Books with Maxwell “The Velvet Wolf” Eaton III in which he discusses (or not) his experience in almost being overrun by an army of heartless aliens with eyes that shoot red-hot lasers and it was up to him to convince them that humanity had redeeming qualities worth preserving by showing them one picture book that truly demonstrated our worth as a species. Good times.

* * * * * * *

Author photo and sketches and art work courtesy of Maxwell Eaton III and/or his web site and/or Random House. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

Illustrations from THE MYSTERY © 2008 by Maxwell Eaton III. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, New York.

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15 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast (Marshmallows Included) with Maxwell Eaton III”

  1. Super interview. What more can I say!


  2. Whee! That was fun!


  3. Now THIS is a guy whose work makes me wish I had to learn to read all over again. (That’s supposed to be a compliment, not sure how it sounds to everybody else though.) If there’s anything I like better than plain old smart-intelligent people, it’s smart-intelligent people who are also smart-alecky.

    What’s cool is how simple the artwork is, but how convoluted the wordplay layered over it. The imagination and the text could have been supplied by Pieter Breughel (the younger guy, with all the twisted demonic grotesquery, writing for (say) Charles Schulz.

    Thanks for interviewing him!


  4. Briefly:

    Love Pinky and marshmallows.
    But Pinky looks like marshmallow.
    Want to eat Pinky.

    Crushing on vacuuming bear.


  5. Thanks, you all. I’m checking in for the first time today — a bit later than usual for me. But thanks for stopping by and having breakfast with me and Maxwell.


  6. Jules,
    I just finished semester classes and I HAD to treat myself to reading 7 impossible…to refresh my mind! Thanks for being there! How are the girls?


  7. Lordy, what a ride. Love the brief answer and the art. Thanks guys…


  8. Paddling, is what he’s doing in that photo. With a paddle.

    Not to be nitpicky. 🙂


  9. Devon, you got me. Did I say “rowing”? He’s ever-so paddling.

    Jama, I just got your “briefly” joke. I’m slow sometimes.


  10. I know you had the link to Maxwell’s future blog engagements, but his illustrated 10 Tips for the Parents of Ricky the Reluctant Reader from his guest post at The Well-Read Child is worth further mention — genius!


  11. Oh Jeremy, thank you. That is awesome-ness right there.


  12. […] I were more organized I would have declared this Blog Tour Week here at 7-Imp. First, Maxwell Eaton III stopped by, kicking off his tour at 7-Imp, and now Cece Bell is here in the midst of her own tour […]


  13. […] Maxwell Eaton III (interviewed December 1): “It’s funny doing books for the little boogers, because a lot of the people who write or […]


  14. […] colors (for fretful Piggy and the pair’s imaginative romps into the wild). It’s like Maxwell Eaton III meets Antoinette Portis and perhaps even Maria van Lieshout in a bar and they go buy Mo Willems a […]


  15. Re: What-a-Mess.
    I was interested to see the What-a-Mess illustration above. Joe Wright did indeed illustrate Frank Muir’s books but the Image you have used was actually illustrated by myself. It was used on a promotional brochure for a licensing company called Link Licensing who co-produced the animated TV series in the late 1980s. I ran a design and illustration company which specialised in merchandising and What-a-Mess was one of many characters we used to work with. I had the pleasure of meeting both Frank Muir and Joe Wright sometime around 1990 and they were both charming and entertaining company.


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