Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Emily Gravett

h1 March 18th, 2009 by jules

Emily Gravett; photo credit: Mark HawdonOne of my favorite contemporary illustrators is here today. And I mean one of my TOP-FIVE favorites. With my love of hyperbole aside, I say that British illustrator Emily Gravett is one of the most exciting writer-artists at work today who creates books for children. When she released Monkey and Me in the UK in ’07, The Sunday Times wrote that the title “marks out the exceptional from the mediocre.” I’d say that about all her books thus far. The Irish Times called her a magic-weaver. Her work is daring and one-of-a-kind and oh-so slightly subversive, some of my favorite elements in a picture book.

Remember when she hit the scene with the multimedia wonder that was Wolves (released by Simon & Schuster in the U.S.), the poster child for postmodern picture books of 2006? Turning a traditional narrative on its head, she told the imaginative, suspenseful tale (which also managed to be terrifically informative) of a rabbit with his nose firmly stuck in a nonfiction title about wolves, a book whose subject matter has stepped off the page with a snarl and an appetite, unbeknownst to the rabbit. And the alternate ending? Well, it vies for Best Picture Book Ending Ever. Truly. The book was not only critically-acclaimed, but it also made approximately seven bajillion kidlitosphere bloggers go berserk with glee. Wolves, which started out as a college project, also won Emily the 2005 Kate Greenaway Medal and a 2007 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor.

I still remember Betsy Bird’s spot-on review from ’06: “Some kids will dig it. Others will stare at it with undisguised confusion and then demand a seventy-fifth reading of The Giving Tree. In the end, Gravett has done the near impossible. She’s created something amusing, disturbing, and never seen before.”


“An adult wolf has 42 teeth. Its jaws are twice as powerful as those of a large dog.”

Since then, Emily’s released seven more titles (only some of which have made it over here to the States), and each one excels on multiple levels: 2007′s Orange Pear Apple Bear, which includes just five words, four of which are in the title (“a quietly brilliant book,” wrote Elizabeth Ward at The Washington Post); Meerkat Mail with its “deftly brushed watercolors” (Kirkus); Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears (“the visuals are endlessly startling and fascinating. I keep running my hands along this book’s pages, trying to find the boundaries of what Gravett has devised,” wrote Daniel Handler in The New York Times); and many more.

Emily’s newest title here in the States is The Odd Egg, what Publishers Weekly called a “witty salute to both nature and nurture.” I love it, and I won’t tell you the plot so that it can unfold in all its spontaneity and wit and wonder for you. However, I do hereby officially tack it on to the Straight-Talk-About-the-Food-Chain registry that Adrienne Furness and I began last year.




Spreads from The Odd Egg
(Simon & Schuster, January 2009)
Click on the images themselves to see larger versions.

Emily’s here for seven questions over breakfast. “I normally have toast (vegemite on brown-marmalade on white),” she told me, “but on a Sunday I love baked beans on toast with cheddar cheese on top. Mmmmmm. Washed down with a cup of tea (Earl Grey with soy milk).” So, let’s get the basics from Emily while we set the table for our most unusual toast breakfast. (Hey, I’m always up for a new culinary adventure.) I’ll bring her some Earl Grey tea, and I’ve got my cup of coffee. I thank her kindly for stopping by to chat and share her art work, too.

And quick note: I’ve linked several of these images to larger versions of the files at blaine.org (7-Imp’s host). For those images, I’ve made note under each to click on the image itself to see a magnified version. To miss the details in Emily’s work would be a shame.

* * * * * * *

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

Emily: Both, although I always feel more comfortable saying illustrator.


From Monkey and Me
(Simon & Schuster, 2008)

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

Emily:


Spread from Meerkat Mail
(Simon & Schuster, 2007)
Click on the image itself to see a larger version.

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

Emily: I use an oil-based pencil for drawing, watercolour paints, and general collage. I manipulate and collate the images in Photoshop on my Mac.

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Emily: I live in Brighton in the south of the UK. It’s a great city. Very cosmopolitan and stuffed with illustrators, because there is an art college that does illustration, and it’s only an hour from London on the train. So, easy access to all the publishers.


Spread from Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears
(Simon & Schuster, 2008)
Click on the image itself to see a larger version. (Oh, you just MUST for this one.)

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

Emily: I came to illustration late after a misspent early adulthood living in a bus. After I had my daughter, I fell in love with the books I was reading to her and started an illustration degree {Brighton University}. In my final year (2004) I wrote Wolves and Orange Pear Apple Bear and entered them into an illustration competition, run by my UK publishers, Macmillan. I won, and they gave me a three-book publishing deal.


Spread from Spells
(UK’s Macmillan Children’s Books, 2008)
Click on the image itself to see a larger version.

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

Emily: www.emilygravett.com.

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

Emily: I try and make school visits as interactive as possible. The kids I talk to can be quite young, so I get them to do lots of shouting out and joining in. I tell them a little bit about how I became an illustrator, using slides with photos and drawings, and then we write a book together with me doing the drawings. It’s fun, nerve-wracking (for me), and sometimes a little chaotic!


Spread from Dogs
(UK’s Macmillan Children’s Books, February 2009)
Click on the image itself to see a larger version.

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

Emily: I’ve just finished a book called The Rabbit Problem. It is based on the mathematician Fibonacci’s sum to work out how many rabbits would be in a field after one year, if he started with just two (male and female). It made me laugh that Fibonacci reduced live creatures to a sum. I imagined that in real life it would not be that neat and tidy. Rabbits are individuals! So the book is more about how the rabbits react to circumstances throughout the year, rather than the maths. I had to draw
A LOT of rabbits — and a very complicated pop at the end!


Spreads from The Rabbit Problem
(UK’s Macmillan Children’s Books, August 2009)
Click on the images themselves to see larger versions.

Emily's Earl Grey tea's in there.Okay, the table’s set for our six questions over breakfast, and now we’re ready to talk more specifics. Once again, I thank Emily for cyber-stopping by.

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?

Emily: Hmmmm. That’s a really difficult one to answer. I always think that if I ever totally understand the process, I’ll either have it made or will be bored and will give up.

Ideas come from a different place for each book. If you’re chasing an idea, it can be very evasive and you can spend months worrying about your lack of inspiration, only to wake up one morning knowing EXACTLY what you want to do. Then it’s hard to understand if the idea came because you were chasing it, or if it would have come anyway, and you could have spent your time watching day-time telly and baking cakes instead!

Sometimes an idea will just pop in. These are brilliant gifts!

When it comes to actually making the book, it’s equally complicated. The more books I make, the more I question if I’m doing it the right way for that particular book, and the more I see that there are so many ways of tackling it. It can be quite overwhelming!

My one constant is drawing in my sketchbook. I normally start in a quite random way, drawing characters and making notes. While I’m doing this, I’m gathering material that could be useful, and doing research. As I draw the character(s) and get to know them, I start to question what their motivations would be? What would make them happy, sad, scared, etc.? Then I make sketches of the spreads in the book.

While I’m doing this, I’ll probably be experimenting with more finished-looking drawings. Scanning them into the computer and fiddling about. I often make a dummy book to check that the book “sounds” right as I turn the pages.

The finished artwork is a mish-mash of watercolours scanned in to my computer alongside scraps from my sketchbook, maps, wallpaper, paper bags, tickets, and anything else that I think might work well for that book. I spend a lot of hours fiddling with bits in Photoshop. I like the books to be a combination of good drawing and good design. They’ve also got to be able to make me smile.

Reading back, I realize that I’ve made it sound like there is a series of “steps” I’m following, but actually it’s much more mixed-up than that. I could be working on a finished spread before I even know what the book is about — and researching and changing things up to the end. It’s messy! (I think it needs to be.) But it can also be amazing fun. The buzz I get when it’s going well is indescribable!

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

Emily: I work in the attic of my house, which is quite cosy. Sometimes it gets a bit too cosy. (My partner is a plumber, so I have a radiator under my desk!) I have a corner desk, and I draw and paint on the long side. I have my computer set up in the corner. I also have a plan chest that’s nearly impossible to open (I rescued it from a skip, while I was a student) and a big beanbag where I lie down when it all gets a bit too much.

I took this photo on a Thursday, so it’s quite messy. If I’d taken it on a Monday, you’d have been able to see the whole desk. If I’d left it until tomorrow, you wouldn’t be able to see any!

The only disadvantage with being in the attic is my sloping walls. There’s not enough shelf space, and the drawings I tape to the walls have a tendency to fall on my head and frighten me.

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

Emily: I was MAD about John Vernon Lord’s Giant Jam Sandwich. It’s a fantastic rhyming story about a village invaded by wasps, and the illustrations are intricate and very beautiful.

I was given a copy of The Giant Jam Sandwich when I was two. I loved it so much I wrote my name in it! (But, much to my sister’s disgust, I also wrote my name on everything in our dolls’ house, too.) I used to write my name backwards. I like to think this is because I’m left-handed. My sister always thought it was because I wasn’t very clever. (But then she was still annoyed about the dolls’ house.)

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?

Emily: I don’t know! It sounds a bit intimidating. I’d have to spend at least a day cleaning — I wouldn’t want them to see my house in a mess. Also, I’d have to bake them a cake…Hmmm, ginger with lemon icing or Chocolate Guinness with cream cheese frosting????! (Which goes with red wine?)


{Ed. Note: I just HAD to go and look up this wonder called Chocolate Guinness cake, which was entirely unknown to me until this moment. I found this picture. I’m so totally going to make that, and I can’t wait until it is in my life. THANK YOU, Emily.}

Edward Ardizzone, self portrait (1952) © Tate GalleryI’d want Edward Ardizzone . . . but he’s dead! Now I’ve gone blank. There are too many! Will you please just send three you think I’d like? Thank you!

{One More Ed. Note: Edward Ardizzone’s self-portrait, circa 1952, is pictured here.}

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?

Emily: I normally listen to Radio 4 (radio plays, current affairs station), while I’m drawing. If I’m writing, I find any noise too distracting.

As for music…I like punk. I’ve had Rancid in my CD player in my car for over a year!

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

Emily: When I get nervous or bored or need to feel better about myself, I clean and bake a cake.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Emily: It changes frequently, depending on what’s going on. I wouldn’t like to have to choose just one! I do love most swear words, though.

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Emily: “No” (but only when directed at me).

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

Emily: Junk shops, old books (and new books), stationery shops, and talking to people who are excited about illustration. Also eavesdropping on conversations in public places.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Emily: Ooooh…arty types who act superior. (I’m not great in galleries.)

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

Emily: Laughter.

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

Emily: Bass beat heard through a wall. Urgh! It makes me feel physically sick!

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

Emily: I’d like to be a forger. I think I’d be good at it.

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

Emily: Anything involving sewage.

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

Emily: “Red or white (wine)?”

* * * * * * *

Opening photo of Emily: Photo credit — Mark Hawdon. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster.

Spreads from THE ODD EGG © 2009 by Emily Gravett. Published by Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. Posted with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

All other illustrations and photos—with the exception of the book covers, the cake, the tea pot, and the image of Edward Ardizzone—courtesy of Emily Gravett. All rights reserved and all that good stuff.





33 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Emily Gravett”

  1. Another great interview, and a great cake possibility to boot! (Are you going to share the recipe or do we need to go looking for it ourselves?!?!)

    Emily Gravett is a TREASURE! It’s been so fun to watch her writing/illustrating career take off like a rocket (even though we have to wait a year to get her books in the US!)


  2. Yum! Giant jam sandwiches, chocolate guinness cake, loads of rabbits, and fabulous artwork. Thanks for a very fetching interview :) !


  3. Mary Lee, I once asked a UK blogger to send me one of her new titles (in exchange for a gift certificate to an online bookstore) so that I wouldn’t have to wait so long!

    And, yes sirree, I totally found a recipe and linked it. It’s up there in the name “Chocolate Guinness” itself. I just had to add a pic, too.

    Jama, yes, Emily’s books are original and daring and clever AND fetching, indeed.


  4. Thank you for this interview, Jules. You know how much I love Gravett’s work.

    Oh, and did you tell Gregory about the Fibonacci rabbits? I can’t wait to see that book!

    And Chocolate Guinness cake? Um, hello, yum.

    I did a class at the library for my coworkers this past fall talking about children’s book illustration, and I used Wolves as my primary example, because it’s just so beginning-to-end well done, so many details that add up to an interesting and engaging whole. Plus it was such amazing good fun to read it aloud to a group of adults. They all gasped and laughed–I think it changed a few people’s minds about what children’s books are or should be.

    Orange Pear Apple Bear is one of my storytime favorites. The wordplay is such fun, and I love watching the way kids react to it.

    I’m with Mary Lee in that I am SHOCKED that it continues to take, like, a year for Gravett’s books to get to the US. So unfair.


  5. I know media corporations — publishers, studios, and such — usually insist that their artists or products ultimately must end up serving the US market. But add Emily Gravett to the extensive list of things I am soooooo jealous that other countries (particularly the UK) get to see before we do!

    Utterly unlike anything I’ve seen from anyone else, her work is. And you’re right — being able to zoom in on those images enhances their effect tremendously.

    The published work is marvelous but I think my favorite single image above may be the one from her sketchbook, with her notes asking why the little meerkat would do this or that. That little face just seems to tremble with unanswered questions of its own.

    What the heck is that little blue creature which looks sort of like a thinking slug (original by Rodin, reinvented by Gravett)? If you tell me that is one of the ideas which she is talking about in that vicinity — the ones that come upon her by surprise — I will have to fall over, all over again.

    Thanks for a great interview!


  6. As I read, I started making a mental list of all the (funny! wow! beautiful! dang, that’s cool!) things I wanted to comment on, but it all exploded exponentially, just like those rabbits. I’m on the floor. Do not help me up. I just want to lie here and think about how glorious the day is. And whether I’d like red or white.


  7. John, I wasn’t sure about that blue creature. It might be from one of her books (believe or not, I haven’t seem ‘em all, despite my geeky fan-dom), but I figured it was a sketch??

    Everyone, as I was just telling John elsewhere, that cake might SERIOUSLY be in my future sooner than I think. My husband is all, how much cocoa do we have? and how about I pick up some Guinness on the way home. HOO HA!


  8. Guess who will be picking up some new Emily Gravett books on her trip home to England this summer? (Actually, I’ll be heading over to Amazon first because I can’t seem to find her US books in local bookstores). Those dogs are just fabulous, and I can’t wait to read “The Rabbit Problem”. I am so jealous that she gets to live in Brighton, which is one of my favorite cities. My brother will be moving there this summer, so I will have more opportunities to visit. He likes baked beans on toast too. That’s a very British breakfast/lunch/dinner – cheap, filling and tasty – except for me who gags at the thought of baked beans. Yep, I’m an odd Brit who does not eat baked beans or drink tea. Well, enough about my quirks. Emily makes me want to be a children’s author/illustrator – too bad I can’t draw. Another wonderful interview.


  9. I LOVE Emily’s work and I’m so happy you were able to do an interview with her! Excellent job! Thank you ladies :)


  10. Oooooh!!! We lurve Emily Gravett! She is absolutely in our five funniest authors as well! Thanks for the fantastic interview! Must go bake a cake!
    The Three Silly Chicks


  11. A book by Emily Gravett? Gotta grab it!


  12. Thank you! I absolutely adore the sneak peaks into her process and studio. Fabulous author and illustrator!


  13. Thank you for introducing me to Emily’s work. It is avante garde without being snooty. I love what she does and how she does it. It really feels, looks and sounds like its from the heart.

    Kudos!


  14. Love the spirit of Emily’s work, the cake,, which made me hungry, the amazing, delicate draftsmanship.

    Thanks !!!!!


  15. Wow- beautiful work, and so inspiring. Thank you for sharing!


  16. Emily, your books are always fun and funny. :)


  17. Emily sounds so cool! I read Wolves in my local bookstore just recently and I quite liked the “original” ending. :D


  18. Fantastic website & interview!!!! It was an absolute treat to read this interview this morning. I totally have to make a Chocolate Guiness cake, too! I love the illustration and stories of Emily Gravett!!!


  19. [...] in the States, but I haven’t run into any from Great Britain. A pub session with Quentin Blake, Emily Gravett, and Viviane Schwarz sounds like [...]


  20. [...] lion’s claw marks on the wall so entirely take my mind to Emily Gravett’s Wolves, which is a good [...]


  21. [...] of all, I got an iPod Touch. LOOK AT ME, FINALLY ALL 21st-CENTURY. I also had some more of the Emily-Gravett-inspired Chocolate Guinness cake, pictured here, my birthday-cake request this year. My friend, Natasha, [...]


  22. [...] Mélanie Watt (Scaredy Squirrel), Emily Gravett (Wolves), and Jenny Offill (17 Things I’m not Allowed to Do Anymore). Such funny books must have [...]


  23. [...] she is both illustrator and storyteller. Thankfully, she answered the question in her feature on 7ImpossibleThings where she apparently feels “more comfortable saying illustrator.” One problem solved. A million [...]


  24. [...] Read an interview with Emily Gravett about Wolves on the Pan MacMillan website. Read another interview with Emily on Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. [...]


  25. [...] she is both illustrator and storyteller. Thankfully, she answered the question in her feature on7ImpossibleThings where she apparently feels“more comfortable saying illustrator.” One problem solved. A million [...]


  26. [...] she is both illustrator and storyteller. Thankfully, she answered the question in her feature on 7ImpossibleThings where she apparently feels “more comfortable saying illustrator.” One problem solved. A [...]


  27. [...] here’s a link to the lovely books blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, from which I filched this [...]


  28. [...] is a blog with an interview with the author and copies of spreads from the [...]


  29. [...] Witty Emily Gravett‘s rabbits…read an interview with her at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast… Fifi Lapin,  dahling, and dressed for Easter… ..and after all these years, [...]


  30. [...] * Because it’s cause for great excitement in my world when she releases a book and AND because she introduced me to the existence of Chocolate Guinness cake, I bring you my 2009 interview with British author/illustrator Emily Gravett. [...]


  31. Hi Jules, I’m sure I could never recreate the twisted route I’ve followed today to end up here with Emily Gravett (or Emmily Gavitt on the frog book) but thank you so much! I know I began at 7 imps this morning quite some time ago, and intended to write there to thank you for most recent post. But there you are or here I am. I just enjoy these so much. And I only know Apple Pear, so think of the treats my granddaughter and I have in store!
    Your late arriving fan,
    Katy


  32. Aw, thanks, Katy! Enjoy.


  33. […] I want to share some art from each book. And, in the case of Emily Gravett, I’ve got a couple of early sketches, too. Above is a thumbnail from one of her sketchbooks. […]


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