Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jackie Morris

h1 December 3rd, 2009 by jules

Author and illustrator Jackie Morris visited 7-Imp about this time last year, but she’s here this morning for a more detailed interview. Jackie, who trained as an illustrator at the Bath Academy of Art in England, now lives here in Wales and has won international acclaim for the many books she has written and illustrated. As I said last year, I struggle to find the words to describe her art work without sounding…well, totally trite, and I ended up deciding to go with words of praise from School Library Journal about her illustrations, since they nail it: “The undeniable beauty of the delicate watercolor illustrations, with their dramatic use of line, coupled with soft, earthy tones, lend the characters and landscapes dignity and timelessness.” So, we’ll just go with their words again. Yeah, what they said. Or, in the words of the New York Times, Jackie is capable of bringing us gorgeous fantasies.

Since last year, Jackie has brought us one of my favorite books of 2009, Tell Me a Dragon, which was released by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books in October and which showcases the dragons unique to the imaginations of a handful of children, inviting readers on the final page to “tell me about your dragon.” Jackie writes this about the book at her site:

The idea for Tell Me a Dragon came whilst working on the Terry Pratchett Discworld calendar. In Guards! Guards!, there is a place where dragons sleep and wait to be summoned. They are created by the imagination of those who summon them, and when I was working in schools I began to ask children, if they had a dragon, what would it look like? Some answers were very simple, but some lit the children’s imagination until the air echoed with the sound of dragon wings. One day someone asked me, if I had a dragon, what would it be like. I realized that almost every day it would be different. Some days I would like a big dragon to fight battles for me, sometimes a small dragon to curl around my ear and tell me stories. Each day a different dragon, but each one mine. And so I wrote Tell Me a Dragon.

“My dragon is made from the sun and the stars. Sparkled with stardust, all night he follows the silver moon-path across the sky.”

Kirkus calls this a “beguiling invitation to the diverse, fantastical realms of dragons…Morris’s deft hand with watercolors expertly conjures an inky sky, fiery warmth radiating from a lamp and icily harsh climes while still capturing the striking details of sharp talons, delicate wings and snaggle-toothed faces. Together with the brief verses, the images will appeal to all who love to make believe.”

So, let’s get right to our breakfast, especially since Jackie sent so much art for us to pore over. “Hmm… breakfast,” she told me. “A bowl of muesli, usually dorset cereal with cranberries, sprinkled over greek yoghurt. A cup, and it has to be a lovely cup (I do like nice ceramics, because if you leave your washing up around it just looks like art and not like filth) of coffee, and then a walk with dogs and cats or both. I get up very early in the summer, around 5 or 5.30. Later in winter.” I have to say that I do own some lovely coffee cups, so let’s get them out, set the table for our breakfast chat, and get the basics from Jackie. I thank her for stopping by.

* * * * * * *

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

Jackie: Yes, both. I like to illustrate other people’s words, but I also like to write. Very different experience. When you illustrate your own words, you can write and illustrate with the words and the pictures.

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


{Ed. Note: For a comprehensive listing of Jackie’s books, see this page of her site.}

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

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is a sketch of one of the illustrations just below from Tell Me a Dragon (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, October 2009).}

Jackie: I usually paint in watercolour and also use gold leaf. I love the way the colour comes off the brush, the purity of the colours, and the way they can be layered and layered for a depth and richness of colour.

{Ed. Note: Pictured here are images from Jackie’s Tell Me a Dragon.}

Cover art: “My dragon is as big as a village, jade-winged and amber-eyed
with a tail as long as a river.”

Front endpapers

From the title page

Detail of the sun-and-the-stars dragon, pictured at top of post

“My dragon eats sweet, perfumed flowers. When she laughs,
petals ride on her breath.”

The City Dragon (and the photograph of Philadelphia used to create that spread):
“My dragon is snaggled-toothed, fierce and brave.”

“My dragons are tiny, with whisper-thin wings of rainbow hues.”

“My dragon is a sky dragon. Together we ride to the secret music of the wind.”

“My dragon is an ice-dragon. His breath is snowflakes.”

Story Dragon (and detail): “Curled around my ear, my dragon sings sweet songs and tells me strange stories from far away and long ago.”

Back endpapers

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?

Jackie: Most of my picture books are for older children, though with Can You See a Little Bear? and Starlight Sailor the audience is much younger. Also Tell me a Dragon, although I try to squeeze in details and suggestions for stories that may be going on outside of the words attached to the picture. I try to free the imagination to wander into and out of a dreaming landscape.

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Jackie: I live in Wales, or rather on the edge of Wales, in a small cottage which until recently was held together by spider webs. I hadn’t realized until a few months ago quite how literally this was. As I sit typing, I still only have half a roof and the front of my house is still waiting to be re-rendered and a new cooker put in, etc.

I am almost surrounded by the salt sea with its ever-changing light, by moorland and craggy rock, by birds of sea and land, by heather and harebells. I came here 17½ years ago and fell in love with the place, and living here has only deepened that feeling, for place and for people.

The only other place I would like to live is Venice. What a contrast!

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

Jackie: I had no intention of working in children’s books, and my early career was as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers and jackets for adult publishers. After a series of greetings cards for Greenpeace and Oxfam, I was approached by a publisher to work on my first children’s book, Jo’s Storm by Caroline Pitcher. I started this the week after my son, Tom, was born.

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


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

Jackie: School visits are always a great opportunity to see how books work with their audience, to play with new ideas, and to pick up new ideas and nits!

Two pieces for the Musicians Benevolent Fund
(Click to enlarge each.)

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

Jackie: I am currently working on The Ice Bear, a book that started with a very vivid image of a child surrounded by polar bears, like the centre of a daisy with polar bear petals. I had to find out then how he got there and what happened next.

I have written a few stories now, and most have transformation as a central theme. I always try to leave space in my stories — for conversation. This is hard to explain and may come out all wrong, but The Seal Children, The Snow Leopard and The Ice Bear all have at their centre a creature that is human but also animal. In The Seal Children, the mother is a Selkie — part seal, part human. Each book deals with the subject of loss or death or separation without being preachy about it, I hope, and seemingly without bookshops noticing. Makes them sound grim, but they aren’t.

In The Ice Bear, the polar bear gives birth to twin cubs, but Raven steals away one of the cubs and places it where the hunter will find it. But when he unwraps the bundle of fur, he finds inside a child. Children never question this magic of transformation. Though once I was talking at a school about The Seal Children, and a young boy said, “we know that mermaids are real, but are Selkies, too?” How I loved that child.

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

(Click to enlarge.)

Soon I will be working on a book of nursery rhymes, and I love these anarchic rhythm dancing nonsense verses. Also, I have been chasing a dragon story to follow the success of Tell Me a Dragon, and only when I stopped chasing it did I find it, so now I need to gather the words and rough sketches together for that.

Mmm. Coffee.Our table’s set now for six questions over breakfast, and we’ve got our coffee in our lovely cups. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Jackie again for 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?

Jackie: It depends on what it is I am working on as to how I work.

Sometimes, as with The Seal Children, a story comes to me. The Seal Children is set in a real place and real landscape, where I live. Day after day I wandered past and among the ruins here until they whispered a story to me, threaded through with myth. Most of the story came when I was walking in mist, and I could hear the seals singing in the cove about a mile away. It is strange how sound travels on misty days.

But, even though I had the story, it was only the encouragement of friends that persuaded me to write it. I was stuck in traffic on the M25 London ringroad with a friend, Catherine Davies, and we were talking about stories, and I was explaining to her why it was that I couldn’t write and how I wanted to illustrate this story that was in my head. She gave me the courage to put pen to paper, as did James Mayhew.

Illustrations for Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy

There was something very painful about working on The Seal Children. Both emotionally and physically, the story was very close to me. I had recently separated from my husband and was broken in many ways. I painted by day and, when evening came, I would wander through the landscape that I had been painting, watching the seals and the birds that lived both here and on the paper.

With The Snow Leopard, I wanted to do a book about a snow leopard. Simple. I thought I was in control, but somehow a story came into my head about this guardian spirit and a child and a search and soldiers. Later, as I wandered the World Wide Web (the publishers budget didn’t allow for wandering the Himalayas), I found stories that echoed mine, shapeshifting snow leopard women, leopards that changed into snow storms of leopards to drive deamons away. I wrote out a sketch of what I wanted in the story, then drew out small thumbnail pictures and worked the words and the stories together. I went in search of snow leopards and found them in Welwyn Garden City, a leopard called Shadow and his family. The words and the pictures worked together.

(Click to enlarge all leopard images.)

With Can You See a Little Bear?, I had the great good fortune to work with James Mayhew, author and illustrator of many books for children. I, as an illustrator, think he is a wonderful writer of picture books, as he leaves so much space in the text for the illustrator to colour. He wrote Little Bear for me so that I could play. We had had many hours on the phone talking about ideas for books and how we wanted a simple text that gave space for a child’s imagination and paintings full of detail so that they could read the picture as well as the words. I worked quite closely with James on both this book and on Starlight Sailor. (The process for Starlight Sailor can be seen on the blog, sometimes long and tortuous. I learned a great deal from doing this book, not all of it good.)

Tell Me a Dragon is another book that I wrote and illustrated, and this one is different again. The idea is that on each spread a different child talks about their dragon, and each one is different. My hope is that the book will inspire children to imagine what their own dragon would be like. Each page also has a story or more locked up in the image for the imaginative child to pull out if they wish. It should have been easy, but it wasn’t, and right at the end a small dragon leapt into it, demanding that he had his own story. Over the next few months, I searched and searched but only came up with dead ends for my little hatchling, until the other day when I went walking in sunshine to look for the story and decided instead to let the story look for me. And so now I have another dragon to catch, but some idea of some of the words that I need to catch him. And I think I will work on the images first and let the words come second.

(I also worked on lots of religious books. The last of these is Little One, We Knew You’d Come {pictured right}. This was written by Sally Lloyd-Jones and published in the U.S. by Little Brown and in the U.K. by Frances Lincoln. I tried to dissuade the publishers from commissioning me. I had done far too many religious books and am not a Christian, though I did grow up with these wonderful stories. In the end, I was persuaded, as the publishers wanted a book that was more about the human side of waiting for a baby to be born.)

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is an illustration’s journey from beginning to end.
This is from
Little One.}

{Ed. Note: Pictured here is another illustration’s journey. This is the cover art for
The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems (Barefoot Books, 2007).}

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

Jackie: I have worked in many places — the corner of a bedroom, the corner of a living room, a caravan, a room in my house. Recently, I had my attic converted into a very long and low studio space. The views from the window are stunning — across to St. Davids Cathedral and Skomer and Ramsey Islands or up the hill, where I love to walk. The studio is still in the process of being built and is cramped at the moment with two tables and three plan chests and a sofa, various polar bears and a raven, two stuffed owls and a kingfisher. Out of the window I can also see my glorious copper weather vane which was made for me by Karen Green of Greens Vanes. I gave her a story that I had written, a retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon (which is still looking for a publisher, if anyone would like to see the manuscript), and she made my beautiful bear who fits so very well with the story.

When I write, I like to do so on the hill above the house where I live. I find that it helps to walk to catch the words and to sit and watch the birds fly; away from the distractions of the computer and phone is essential to the peace of mind I need to catch a story. I usually walk with dogs and cats to the top of the hill and sit among heather and long golden grass in a place in the shadow of the wind. I usually write with a pen in a moleskine notebook, sometimes just catching ideas like butterflies and pinning them to the paper, sometimes writing whole passages. Then, at home in my studio, I would work it up on either a macbook or desktop.

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

Jackie: When I was young, I really struggled with reading. I persisted, because I wanted stories. I love listening to really good storytellers, those ones that make pictures dance in your head.

We had few books in the house when I was growing up, but once I had cracked the code of reading, I would take out book after book from the library. I seem to remember long hot summers reading in the garden or in the hills, books about horses, including My Friend Flicka and The Silver Brumby books. And also wild wolf books, like Call of the Wild and White Fang. I loved books about animals. Tarka the Otter was a favorite, and only when I re-read it again last year did I appreciate how utterly beautifully written it is, like a long prose poem in praise of wild Britain.

I didn’t go to a gallery until I was about sixteen, but wanted to be an artist from the age of six. I was told that I couldn’t be. I was told that I had to learn a proper trade so that I would have something to fall back onto. But all I wanted to do was to draw and paint.

Favorite books of mine are A Wizard of Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, so so so much better than the turgid Potter books. (Can I say that?) In Sparrowhawk, Ursula Le Guin created a character who is flawed and oh-so-much more human than the perfect Mr. Potter. And dragons with style.

(Click to enlarge.)

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?

Jackie: Angela Barrett, Brian Wildsmith, Shaun Tan (illustrators). John Irving, Ursula Le Guin, and Robin Hobb (authors). And, by time travel, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Rackham, and Ted Hughes.

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?

Jackie: I listen to Radio 4 a great deal when painting. I don’t have an iPod, but CDs that go round and around are all things by Karine Polwart, Seth Lakeman, Urusen, Yo Yo Ma, Leonard Cohen. If all my CDs were taken away and I could only keep one, it would be Vespertine by Bjork with its wonderful music box magic and snow music.

From Vivian French’s Singing to the Sun: A Fairy Tale
(Kane/Miller, 2008)

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

Jackie: I carry a tremendous weight of guilt that I put my work before all things. I feel that I don’t really give enough of my time to my children, because I am so wrapped up in stories and at the end of the day am happier when left in peace to get on with work than at most other times. I fear sometimes that I miss so much of my children’s growing up, because my mind is somewhere else. But then I guess loads of parents feel like that.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

7-Imp: What is your favorite word?

Jackie: “Yes.” “Shubunkin.”

7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?

Jackie: “No.” “Hate.”

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

Jackie: Beauty, colour, animals, beautiful music.

7-Imp: What turns you off?

Jackie: TV, celebrity, violence, drunkenness, coke heads and self indulgent hippies, merchant bankers, junk mail, greenwashing bullshit, marketing people.

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

Jackie: I have long-favoured the anglo saxon “f” word.

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

Jackie: Musical boxes, waves on a shingle beach, wind in the heather, blackbirds singing, porpoise breathing, cello, fiddle, seal song, rain, wind in a raven’s feathers.

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

Jackie: Christian hymns (the devil has all the best songs), crowds, gunfire, fighter jets overhead, screaming, bombs, Abba songs (set my teeth on edge), anything from The Sound of Music.

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

Jackie: Tattoo artist.

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

Jackie: Soldier.

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

Jackie: I would like her to say, “I think there are a lot of cats here waiting to see you.”

* * * * * * *

Photos of Jackie and her studio and all the illustrations and sketches are courtesy of Jackie Morris and used with his permission. All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred. He was created by Matt Phelan, and he made his 7-Imp premiere in mid-September. Matt told Alfred to just pack his bags and live at 7-Imp forever and always introduce Pivot. All that’s to say that Alfred is © 2009, Matt Phelan.

6 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Jackie Morris”

  1. Wow. These are stunning. I love the Ice-Dragon and the Ice Bear close-up, especially. What a visual treat this morning. Thank you!

  2. Great interview, I feel I know Jackie’s heart a lot better now.

  3. Fantastic Interview!

    Jackie is such an inspiration to me and I loved getting to see into her world from yet another perspective.

    Thank you 7-Imp and thank you Jackie for being!!

  4. Delight! x

  5. […] which features one chipmunk’s night-time adventure. I’m also including spreads from Jackie Morris’s The Cat and the Fiddle: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s […]

  6. […] here is one I did a long time ago with Seven Impossible Things. Blog this! Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook share via Reddit Share with […]

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