Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Laurie Keller

h1 January 26th, 2009 by jules

Laurie KellerDevoted Readers of 7-Imp With Good Memories may recollect that, back in November of ’07, author Jack Gantos stopped by and sung the praises of author/illustrator Laurie Keller. Well, what a good reminder that was that I’d love to chat with her one day. Over one year later (hey, sometimes I’m just really slow) and after the birth of the handy-dandy seven-
breakfast illustrator interview, here we are.

Laurie’s here to join me for breakfast, and can I just tell you how fun it is to chat with her over a cyber-breakfast and how much I wish it were a REAL, in-person breakfast in her cottage in Michigan? Any hugely huge fan of Waiting for Guffman, a movie I’ve seen PRECISELY seven blajillion times and can probably quote to everyone’s great irritation, is a friend of mine. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, thank goodness Laurie’s here for a chat to talk about her books and her very fun art, as I’ve been a fan for years. Laurie’s breakfast-of-choice, you ask? “Well, I’m actually not a big breakfast eater (what a way to start your interview). Most days it’s just coffee. Sometimes I’ll have some yogurt or fruit or toast. My boyfriend makes fantastic fried eggs and potatoes that we indulge in every so often. And I sure enjoy the occasional doughnut — for breakfast or otherwise. But back to the coffee. While I do make it nice and strong, I feel I must disclose at this point that I load it up with a good amount of Coffee Mate French Vanilla creamer. I used to be a black coffee drinker, but a couple of years ago I was lured over to the light side by the forces that be.”

Coffee? Check. Doughnut? Check. French Vanilla creamer. Oh twist my arm, Laurie. (I’m so all about that idea.)

Have you seen Laurie’s new book? Fans of 1998’s The Scrambled States of America (published by Henry Holt) will be happy to know the new title is a sequel, pictured above, in which those wacky states decide to have a talent show. Geography has never been so fun — again.

“It all started quite simply, really. In the middle of the night, New York woke up from a dream and shouted…”

There’s a lot to enjoy here (though Kirkus wins the best line for writing in their review, “this exuberant geographical jamboree will definitely leave readers in a state”), as with all her titles thus far, including Laurie’s clever character asides, one of the many rewards of reading her books; her colorful collage illustrations, always a visual treat; her ability to bring us stories from the most unexpected points-of-view and make them work (doughnuts, states, teeth); and her rampant imagination at work. I believe the New York Times once referenced her “goofball genius” in their review of Arnie the Doughnut. Really, anyone who can bring us art like this…

…wins my life-long devotion as a reader. And her work is always upbeat — a sort of offbeat-upbeat, too. In reviewing Arnie, Kirkus also described her illustrations as “frenetic {and} postmodern.” Bottom line: You always get surprises with Laurie’s art. And you’re almost guaranteed great chuckles from the children with whom you share her books.

Let’s get the basics from Laurie while we set the table for our coffee and doughnuts. Mmm. Doughnuts. (Is there anything they can’t do?)

* * * * * * *

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

Laurie: I’m trying with all my might to be an author/illustrator.

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

Laurie: The books that I’ve written and illustrated are:

The books that I’ve illustrated for other authors are:

Illustrated book covers for:

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

Laurie: I like trying different things, but I mostly use acrylics. Sometimes I do mixed media/collage, but acrylics are usually a part of it. They dry fast and they cover up all my mistakes. I’m starting to use the computer sometimes. I just finished illustrating a book, Me and My Animal Friends, and I drew a bunch of textures and doodles, scanned them into the computer, and did a sort of “cut paper” technique in Photoshop.

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?

Laurie: Most of my books fall into the 4-8 year old range, and I’ve been most comfortable with that age group so far, because they seem to like the little jokes and asides I stick in the margins. Me and My Animal Friends was the first book I illustrated for the 2-5 year old set, and I was asked to simplify my layouts more and make the characters bigger. It was a good challenge for me.

I’ve illustrated a couple early chapter books, and the challenge there was deciding which parts of the story to illustrate, since I only had a few b/w spot illustrations per chapter.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Laurie: I live in North Muskegon, MI, in a teeny cottage in the woods along Lake Michigan. It’s the “Mitten State,” so if you hold up your right hand with your palm facing you, I live just under your pinky on the edge of your hand. Creepy, huh?

Lake Michigan

I show {these pictures} to give a feel for what it’s like where I live. There are lots of deer, turkeys, birds, and raccoons and then the occasional owl and fox…

…And snow critters:

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

Laurie: I was living in Kansas City, MO, working at Hallmark Cards as an illustrator. I was falling asleep one night, and an image of states with arms, legs, and faces popped into my head. I remembered that the next morning and thought it might be a fun story to help kids learn U.S. geography. I wrote the story, The Scrambled States of America (which I originally titled “Aloha, Kansas”), planned a trip to New York City, and started calling publishers to try to make some appointments. Ugggh, it wasn’t until later that I learned what a faux-pas that was, but miraculously, four of them did agree to meet with me. They were good meetings, but they all just said, “we’ll keep your work on file.” I fell in love with NYC, though, so I decided to quit my job, sell my house, and move there. I came back to Kansas City and started making plans to move in six months. During that time I got rejection letters from three of those publishers, but the week after I quit, I got a call from Christy Ottaviano at Henry Holt telling me she wanted to publish my story! The assistant art director whom I had met with at Henry Holt hadn’t shown anyone else my manuscript or art samples but did tape one of them up on her door. Six months later Christy saw it, got my manuscript and art samples, and called me that very day. We’ve been working together ever since.

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


7-Imp: If you do school visits, tell us what they’re like.

Laurie: I really enjoy doing school visits. The kids crack me up with their questions and comments. It’s pretty inspiring, actually; they have some great ideas. It’s wild to walk into a school and see art all over the school that the kids have made, based on your books. They make you feel like a rock star.

Typically, I do a short PowerPoint presentation, showing slides of artwork from when I was a kid and in college. I show them where I live and then read a bit from my latest book. We do some interactive things from a couple of my books, and then I do some drawings for them. One is where I draw the outline of their state, and then I have them give me suggestions of what to add to turn it into a character. This usually ends in pandemonium. Then we do some Q&A for about ten minutes. It’s been mostly trial and error to see what keeps their attention and what doesn’t.

Drawing 'Open Wide: Tooth School Inside'

This past fall, since I was promoting The Scrambled States of America Talent Show, I decided it might be fun to have four or five kids come up and demonstrate their “talents.” I was really nervous, because I had know idea how it would go, but it was a riot, so I’ve been doing it every time. There have been singers, dancers, contortionists, joke-tellers, face-makers, and noise-makers of various kinds. One kid’s talent was burping the alphabet. His teacher looked horrified, so after he got to ‘E,’ I stopped him (we’d gotten the gist of it by then anyway). I’ve tried to get teachers to come up and perform, but so far, no takers.

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

Laurie: I illustrated a book (it’s a song) by Ralph Covert of Ralph’s World, called Me and My Animal Friends (Fall 2009). It was a fun project, and it was the first picture book I’ve illustrated that I didn’t write.

And I’m just starting the writing for my next book. I’m still figuring out the story-line and characters, but it’s about smiling. After I finish that, I’m going to attempt to write my first early-reader chapter book.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the table’s set for our seven questions over breakfast, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics. I thank Laurie kindly, if I haven’t already, for stopping by. Oh, and I’ll quickly add: It seems she has a fairly new blog, so go check it out to keep up with her book news.

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?

Laurie: It’s a crazy ride from start to finish every time I make a book. No experience has been the same so far. It took me three-and-a-half weeks to write The Scrambled States of America, and no book I’ve done has come together that quickly since. Do Unto Otters took me years to write. I’ve had major battles in my head learning to deal with those pesky critical voices telling me everything I write sounds “stoopid.” Eventually I get past them. I still write with pen/paper (not on computer ’til it’s all figured out), because I do little drawings and doodles along the way.

My rough layouts are embarrassingly rough, and I don’t usually stick very tightly to them when I go to the finished stage. If I make major changes, though, I run it by Christy first.

A spread from Arnie the Doughnut in the rough-draft stage

Most of the jokes and asides aren’t in my original manuscript; I think of them while I’m doing the finished art. They pop in my head usually late at night when I’m tired and punchy. Christy is so great about letting me work this way. I’ll just email her with something like, “hey, what would you think if New Jersey said…..” and she’ll give me the ‘yay’ or ‘nay.’ I literally make changes and fixes-up until the very moment I send it on its way.

It usually takes me about three months to illustrate a book. That’s working every day from about 8 or 9 in the morning ’til about 2 or 3 in the morning. I keep saying, “next time I’m going to plan it out better, so I don’t end up working such crazy hours,” but it hasn’t happened yet. Next time, maybe?

The final Arnie spread

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

Laurie: Since the cottage is so tiny, I don’t have much studio space. In fact, it’s basically a corner of the living room for my desk and files and part of a wall for a bookcase. When I’m in the painting stage, I have to set up a folding table. It’s pretty crazy that my studio spaces have gotten smaller and smaller over the years. Someday, I’m sure I’ll have a nice studio again, but right now I’m sacrificing studio space for location. One thing I love about living here is that, when the weather is nice, I can go down to the beach to write and sketch.

Laurie’s “bowl of critters”

{Here’s} a close-up picture of my desk with a school photo of a little boy named Ben. I just include {this}, because it was one of the most touching things I’ve had happen since getting into books. I was speaking at an SCBWI conference, and one woman came up to me, telling me that she drove from Ohio (conference was in Michigan) to meet me and give me that photo of her little boy. She said he sleeps with the book Arnie the Doughnut under his pillow, and when it came time to get his Kindergarten school photo taken, he wouldn’t do it unless he could have Arnie in the picture with him. It made me all teary-eyed…still does just talking about it!

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

Laurie: Charles Schulz, Beverly Cleary, Robert McCloskey, Dr. Seuss, the Amelia Bedelia books, the Miss Pickerell series, Nancy and Sluggo, Little Lulu and Richie Rich comic books, and my all-time favorite book as a kid was My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles-Gannett. While I was living in NYC, I had the great pleasure of meeting her at a signing, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the book and was able to have her sign my original copy.

Spreads from Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners (Henry Holt; 2007)

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?

Laurie: I’ve been very fortunate getting to meet quite a few of my favorite author/illustrators over the years, but I have yet to meet my all-time favorite, Petra Mathers. I would give my left arm to meet her. Two other faves would be Joann Adinolfi and Oliver Jeffers. (Are you thinking you can make this happen? If so, any way I can keep my left arm?)

Laurie at a bookstore reading: “{That is the} bookstore owner’s dog, Booker. I sat down to read and he climbed up in my lap to get in on the fun.”

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?

Corky St. Clair: 'I got off that boat with nothing but my dancer's belt and a tube of CHAPSTICK!'Laurie: Lots of things…Amos Lee, Fats Waller, Django Reinhardt, Earl Scruggs, Poi Dog Pondering, J.T. and the Clouds, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Eddie Vedder, Adele, The Dandy Warhols, Coldplay, Marvin Gaye, Louis Prima, Ella Fitzgerald (when I was a kid, I thought her name was Ellafitz Gerald).

I don’t while writing or when I’m doing the rough drawings, because I get too distracted. Once I get to the finished painting stage, I either listen to music or NPR. When I work late into the evening painting, I usually have a favorite movie playing. I pick one that I’ve seen a million times, so I don’t really have to concentrate on it, but it just kind of keeps me company into the wee hours. When I painted Open Wide, I played “Waiting For Guffman” night after night after night during the whole process. I’m surprised that none of those movie lines ended up in my book. Here’s a favorite from the Mayor, Glenn Welsch: “The people of Blaine are can-do people. In fact, there’s a saying in Missouri, ‘If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes.’ In Blaine, I honestly believe, with hard work, we can get that down to three or four minutes.” That KILLS me! What a brilliant movie. {Ed. Note: The one and only Corky St. Clair of “Guffman” fame is pictured above.}

Spread from Grandpa Gazillion’s Number Yard (Henry Holt; 2005)

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

Laurie: In college, I used to do really tight photo-realism {some pieces pictured below}. My portfolio was pretty academic and all over the place, but it wasn’t until I worked at Hallmark that I started doing more whimsical, cartoonish stuff.

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

Laurie: It’s not that no one has never asked me about this, but I’ll include it, because it was a pivotal point in my career. When I was working at Hallmark, I got a chance to be in a four-month workshop with five other artists in order to come up with new, “innovative” ideas for cards {some pictured below}. We got to play around with all sorts of mediums — clay, printmaking, sewing, different papers and processes — and it was the first real chance I got to do some writing. I made over forty cards, and several of the them were accepted in Print Magazine and The Society of Illustrators. It wasn’t easy to go back to my regular job after having such creative freedom for those four months, and that’s what got me thinking about quitting, which I did a year later. I enjoyed working at Hallmark and learned a lot, but I guess I was really ready to try something else.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Laurie: “Shish kebab” is a good one, though I’m a vegetarian, so a shish kebab with, say…marshmallows instead of meat.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Laurie: “Slaughter.” I remember a Simpsons episode where Homer was headed for a slaughter-house disguised as a cow. He didn’t know where he was going at first, then got a glimpse through the eye-holes of his costume and saw a big sign with the word ‘laughter’ on it. A moment later he saw the S in front of ‘laughter’ and panicked. It’s amazing how one letter can completely change a word from something so fun to something so morbid.

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

Laurie: My wacky three-year-old niece, dogs riding in cars with their heads out the window, watching my cats wrestle, bugs, animals, old people, kids, walking on the beach or in the woods, music, David Sedaris, David Letterman, Christopher Guest, Jiminy Glick, Mike Judge, Charles Schulz, Pee-Wee Herman, Ted L. Nancy, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, yoga, misfits and under-dogs, inanimate objects.

Laurie with her niece, Rilynne

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Laurie: Narrow-minded people.

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

Laurie: I’m not much of a swearer, but there’s a look my cat, Jules, gives me that makes me think she could come up with some good ones if she could talk. (Hey, Jules, I have a cat named “Jules”! My other cat’s name is Digger…sorry, Eisha.)

Top photo: Jules’ glare; Below: Digger, chillin’

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

Laurie: My mom’s and my boyfriend’s laughs.

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

Laurie: Adults yelling at kids.

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

Laurie: I play the banjo, and if I were better at it, I’d love to perform with a bluegrass band…making the world a better place through banjo music (I just added that last part because I doubt it’s ever been uttered before…certainly never set to print).

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

Laurie: Politician.

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

Laurie: “Laurie, they all thought you were crazy but you were right — all of those inanimate objects that you bought, so they wouldn’t be left alone on the supermarket shelves — they really DO have feelings.”

Laurie as a child, painting

* * * * * * *

All photos of Laurie; photos of her studio; photos of her family, both furry and otherwise; and sketches and art work courtesy of Laurie Keller. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.

27 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Laurie Keller”

  1. Love the ‘innovative’ cards!!! Great lettering

  2. As always, the Breakfast With Illustrators thing is the best idea, EVER. I just breathe in the life and quirks of all of these fabulous people, and it reminds me to live a broader, more colorful life in my own way, to take risks and make sacrifices for what feeds my soul.

    What a terrific place for a cottage. How wise Laurie is to find her place and stay there so that she can fill it with what she needs and be happy. She looks like she’s having the time of her life. And I really love that someone made geography and states fun!!! Kids everywhere must adore this woman.

  3. What fun and frenzy! I’ve never seen “Waiting for Guffman.” *hangs head*

    BUT, I’m also big on Nancy and Sluggo, Little Lulu, and doughnuts! And I do have the problem with the eyebrows in the soup.
    Her deer look like my deer.

    Me, and my molars, thank you for this wonderful interview :)!

  4. Oh, my. The book-loving kindergardener—he will grow up to win the Caldecott if there’s any dramatic justice in the world.

    This interview is amazing. Her teensy, snow-covered cottage. The glare of her inmate cat. That poster: “maybe I’m famous…” The framed Lincoln on her wall. The banjo love….I’m kind of stunned. This was so much goodness, it’s no wonder she doesn’t need breakfast. She IS the engine that gets everyone started this morning. Go forth and fearlessly CREATE! That’s what this interview says to me.

  5. Hmm . . . maybe I’m famous and don’t even know it. I like that idea more than I should. The laughter/slaughter thing really got me thinking. I am sorry to hear that there is no Eisha cat, however funny Digger’s sleeping posture is.

  6. This is just a great interview. (Suspect you knew that while it was underway.) I mean, really — Guffman? the Arnie the doughnut kid? the amazing Hallmark cards that apparently never made it to the store in the mall? the (understatedly) photo-realistic painting of the toddler with food schmeared all over his face?

    And then, as Sara mentioned, there’s that one photo of Laurie Keller’s cottage: the picture of Lincoln, and especially the banjo. The banjo. Which brings me to her art:

    These illustrations are to a lot of illustrations like banjo music is to acoustic guitar. I mean, the things just leap and rattle off the page and go dunk-dunkadunka-dunk, y’know?

    I followed the link from his comment above to Bookie Woogie’s blog — very cool in its own right, a Dad and three kids (ages 5-10) reviewing kids’ books. In the current post, they take on Knuckleheads, written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Michael Slack. Here’s one of the reasons Gracie, age 8, loves it: “The pictures look like ‘Scrambled States of America’ and ‘Arnie the Doughnut’ because the drawings are kind of cut-papery and there are little picture-thingies off to the side of the pages.”

    Is that great or what?

    And since Jules is actually your nickname, can we prettypleasepleaseplease start calling Eisha “Digger”? I mean, “Eisha” is a gorgeous name. But one should not sneer in the face of serendipity, should one?

  7. I’ll second calling Eisha Digger if she’s game!

    Wow, that was an eyeful. Thanks for this bit of romp!

  8. That snowy little cottage is right about where we go in the summer so I think I’ll just trot over there and beg Laurie to maybe, um, illustrate a, um, book of mine!!! Unless you think her cat’ll glare at me if I do that. Yeah. That wouldn’t be good…

  9. Me and My Animal Friends looks like a super fun book – I hadn’t seen that one yet. I love the bold colors and patterns of Laurie’s work. I love the snowmen in chairs too. What a delightful interview!

  10. Very nice. We’re big Scrambled States fans here–and even have the Scrambled States game. We played it just last night.

  11. I’m a big fan of Laurie’s books, and now I want to go live in her house.

    Susan, Lucas and I are also Big Fans of the Scrambled States of America game. It’s how he quite accidentally learned how to spell all the states’ names last year. (Lately, we’re playing Boggle, which, seriously, there is nothing so humbling playing Boggle with a nine-year-old and having him find words you aren’t finding.)

  12. I’ve been called worse.

    Jules, thanks for putting this one together. Fab as usual. And Laurie, thanks for being so awesome. Like everyone here, I’m as much in love with your house as your books now. My favorite part? That “Evil B Gone” sign.

  13. Thanks for another sparkling breakfast interview! I’m glad Laurie is out there adding humor and understanding to the world.The naked pink pipe cleaner boy makes me especially happy.

  14. This interview was great- made my evening. We love Scrambled States and now I’ll look for all of Laurie’s books. BTW those are the sweetest, kindest eyes on an elephant I’ve ever seen!

  15. Laurie ROCKS. Thanks for the great interview. Always inspiring to see her stuff!

  16. I love Laurie’s work–the zany way she looks at life inspires me to look at it a little differently. I was always curious about that cottage. And yep, I’m even more envious now that I’ve seen it.

    Thanks for this wonderful interview.

  17. […] Read the outstanding Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interview w/ Laurie Keller. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)ASK Author: Scrambled StatesThe Scrambled States of America (1998)The horror! Neil Gaiman’s spooky book wins NewberyWhat We’re Reading: The Siblings’ Busy Book (including an author interv… […]

  18. FINALLY put Do Unto Otters on hold at the library! I can’t wait to read it. I love the Golden Rule and I love otters. 🙂 Seriously!

  19. […] a local bookstore tomorrow, and I’ll get to meet her. In person, that is. I cyber-met her in early 2009, and I immediately liked her. I knew I liked her books, but then she had to up and tell me about […]

  20. […] Long-time friend and author, Laurie Keller, had introduced me to Laura Huliska-Beith several years prior to my receiving Kimberly’s […]

  21. […] understood and embraced that vital, rebellious spirit of the Krauss-Sendak books: Lane Smith, Laurie Keller, Kevin […]

  22. Spencer: “I liked when you were at the picture when you were teaching those kids how to draw a tooth.” “Your cottage is much whiter than I expected.” “That library sure looks like mine.”

    Josie: “I love the cards! And you are so pretty!”

  23. […] morning over at Kirkus, I chat with author-illustrator Laurie Keller. I do that annoying thing people do where they ask what it’s like to write humor, but hey, […]

  24. […] that’s to say that today I’d normally have some art and maybe even early sketches from Laurie Keller’s Arnie the Doughnut chapter books, because we chatted last week at Kirkus. I will be posting those […]

  25. […] at the beginning of the month, I chatted with author-illustrator Laurie Keller over at Kirkus about her new chapter book series about Arnie the Doughnut. The first two books in […]

  26. Tuesday, February 22

  27. […] of the artists I admire most I have been lucky enough to meet. (So I can leave out Jon Klassen, Laurie Keller, Loren Long, Carson Ellis, Lane Smith, Jillian Tamaki, Ted and Betsy Lewin, among many others.) But […]

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