Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Elise Primavera

h1 January 20th, 2011 by jules

Here’s an interview that I had planned to post around Christmas, one of the last interviews of 2010, as it features author/illustrator Elise Primavera, who included some illustrations below from some of her Auntie Claus titles. Clearly, I didn’t quite meet my goal, now did I? Consider this a gift to those of you who are a) Elise fans and b) still haven’t taken down your Christmas tree.

I had the opportunity to meet Elise, who has been writing and illustrating books for children for over twenty-five years, in 2009 at the Southern Festival of Books. Little did I know till then what a wonderfully dry and wicked funny sense of humor she has, though I suppose if I had paid more attention I would have figured that out from her pen-and-ink drawings, such as this delightfully disturbing one:

Elise is best known for her bestselling Auntie Claus titles (this being the most recent) from Simon & Schuster and her Louise the Big Cheese books (also Simon & Schuster), the latter illustrated by Caldecott Honor Medal Winner Diane Goode (with this one being the most recent in that picture book series). But, never one to rest on her laurels, she has tackled other age ranges as well. In 2006, she wrote and illustrated her first novel, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls from HarperCollins (School Library Journal calling her illustrations for this title “small artistic gems”). In 2007, Elise launched a graphic novel/chapter book series with Fred & Anthony Escape from the Netherworld (Hyperion). “Expertly blending short blocks of text with pages from a Netherworld travel guide and quick-sketch cartoon panels,” wrote Kirkus, “Primavera…never lets up on either the laughs or the helter-skelter action. A series kickoff with kicks galore.” Her latest picture book, Thumb Love, is about a young girl who decides to break her thumb-sucking habit. Wrote Publishers Weekly, “while the illustrations—mostly vignettes—feel a world away from the lavishness of her Auntie Claus series, they make their point with wit, empathy, and frisky color.”

And that’s just it: Elise is always up for surprising us. Changing her game. Switching up her style. Let’s find out what new things she’s up to these days. She’s joining me for breakfast. “Every morning,” she told me, “I have the same thing: McCann’s steel cut oatmeal (that I make for the week and nuke in the morning). I add blueberries, pineapple, honey, and cinnamon. Sometimes I throw in dried cranberries or cherries and walnuts. Of course, coffee -– 2 cups.”

Oh, good. A coffee-drinker. Let’s get right to it, and I thank her for stopping by…

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Elise: I’m an author/illustrator.

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Elise: {A partial list of Elise’s books thus far}:

…I think I must have somewhere around forty books by now.

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

Elise: I have worked in a lot of different mediums. I started out working in watercolor and then did some books adding gouache to the watercolor. I did two of the Auntie Claus books in pastels; the last one I did in acrylic. I also love working in black and white, using pen & ink.

Jules: 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?

Elise: I have illustrated books for various ages: picture books, a chapter book series, and a middle grade novel. The illustrations that I’ve done for my picture books have been a lot more involved. For instance, the first two Auntie Claus books I did on 20” X 30” boards that I coated with a gesso and a pumice stone mixture and then did an under painting with gouache. It took me two years from sketches—which I did very tightly in charcoal—to the finished art. But then from 2007 – 2008 I did a series of four graphic novels/chapter books, the Fred & Anthony books, that were done entirely in marker and black watercolor. For my novel, The Secret Order of the Gumm Street Girls, I had a lot of fun doing the interior art in pen and ink. I hadn’t worked liked that since my days in art school. I used those old fashioned Speedball pen nibs that you dip in the ink. In the beginning, I had my share of blobs and accidents with those pens, but I loved working that way once I got the hang of it.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Elise: Red Bank, NJ, is a great little town that has kind of an arty feel. There’s the Count Basie Theatre, a movie theater, the Two River Theater Company, some galleries, and of course Starbucks and No Joe’s (which sells even better coffee!). We have a wonderful independent bookstore down the street, called River Road Books. I lived in NYC before I came here, so the culture shock wasn’t too bad. I’m near NY to get in whenever I want but have more room to work, so it’s been really good for me here.

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Elise: I was a fashion illustration major in art school. I did do some freelance fashion illustration early on for Seventeen magazine and Henri Bendel’s in New York. But that business was drying up because of the use of photography. I decided I wanted to try illustrating children’s books. I put together a portfolio and started to make the rounds and got a book jacket to do from what was then Harper & Row. After that, I got a little picture book to do from Margaret McElderry that was in black and white with a pre-separated cover. I had no idea at all how to even to do a dummy! It was definitely learning-as-I-went-along.

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


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

Elise: I am about to begin writing a couple of middle grade books about girls and horses. I will be doing the art for them as well. I have two picture books that I wrote and somebody else will be illustrating. One is called The House at the End of Ladybug Lane, and the other is called, Who Needs Love? They will both be out in the next couple of years. There will be two more Louise the Big Cheese titles coming out in 2011 and 2012.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, table’s set. Here’s our cappuccino, and let’s keep on keepin’ on. We’re ready to get a bit more detailed…

1. Jules: 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?

Jacket sketch for Thumb Love

Elise: The first thing I do when I’m illustrating a book are character sketches. I’ll work on tracing paper or copy paper –- something really cheap that I don’t mind throwing out. I will do a ton of these until I start to feel like I’m getting the right character. There’s so much to consider, and I really do spend a lot of time doing this, but I don’t always get to the point where I feel like I’ve totally nailed it. I figure as I do the dummy I will get the character down. If there’s research to do, I’m doing it right at this point and gathering it all around me to use for inspiration.

The next step is to do a dummy. I don’t work on a computer, so I’m still doing every thing the old-fashioned way. I cut up the text and start to figure out how it will break up and what will be on each page. I do several versions of this, trying to get the design elements of the book figured out. I’m also thinking about what medium I’ll do as well, because that will affect all sorts of things, too. I do a lot of prep work before I even think about doing a finish. I always do a black-and-white dummy that is fairly tight. I’ll use everything from pencil to markers to charcoal.

Once the dummy is done and everyone is happy (editors, art directors), I start to do some color sketches to figure out the range of colors that I want to use. Then I’m able to move on to doing the finishes.

(Click to enlarge spread.)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

Elise: I have a really great workspace. I bought this house in 1999. It was built in the ’20s and has a craftsman-style feel to it. My reason for falling in love with the house was that it had a porch that faced north. The light was fantastic, and I knew immediately that it would be my new studio. Most of the money went into rebuilding that porch into a studio. Above it was an attic. I had the builder take down the ceiling. This opened it up to allow for high windows. The whole thing had to be insulated. A few years later, I had the outside porch re-done and a patio put in. I had the yard fenced off and trees planted for privacy so that it’s my little retreat from the world. Lulu, my dog, wanders in and out all day so it’s really nice for her!

Next to the porch was a large walk-in closet that I have turned into an office. Lately I’ve been spending more time in there, because I’ve been doing a lot of writing.

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

Elise: I was sick all the time as a kid. It was one cold after another. In fifth grade, I had scarlet fever and a month later came done with rheumatic fever. It was literally an entire summer in bed. During that time, I think I read every Harvey Comic that they produced. I loved them all! Richie Rich, Little Dot, Casper, Wendy the Witch. This was also the time that I started to become interested in drawing, because I tried to copy the cartoons.

After that I read The Hobbit, and I think this was the book that got me hooked on reading. I read The Lord of the Rings; I loved Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time, The Phantom Tollbooth, and then The Earthsea Trilogy. I loved The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland. I was very into horses as a kid, too, so I read King of the Wind and the Misty of Chincoteague books, too.

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

Elise: I love Raymond Briggs’ work. The Father Christmas books, The Snowman, his book about his parents, Ethel and Ernest. His work really touches me. I would LOVE to meet him. Also Lynda BarryThe Greatest of Marlys, One Hundred Demons, What It Is. I’ve loved her work for years! And I would also like to meet Cynthia Rylant, who I am in awe of!

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

Elise: I have a very strange conglomeration of songs. I’ve got the Rachel Portman soundtrack to Chocolat, some Laura Nyro, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Pat Metheny, Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga. But then I have Danny Elfman’s Alice’s Theme, some Avenue Q from the soundtrack, theme song for Angels in America. I don’t listen to music when I work, though -– only when I run or exercise or walk Lulu. When I’m working, I need it to be completely quiet.

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

Elise: I know it’s wrong, but I have watched practically every episode of The Real Housewives.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Elise: “Fantod.” I saw this word in an Edward Gorey book years ago. It was with this hilarious drawing that you really have to see to appreciate. It means an outburst of emotion or a fit –- which I tend to have periodically.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Elise: “Alls.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Elise: All sorts of stuff: A Broadway musical, a song, seeing art, going for a run, taking a shower, reading the paper, a weird dream, talking to friends, etc.

Jules: What turns you off?

Elise: An impossible deadline to meet makes me hyperventilate — not good for the creative flow.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Elise: “Goddammit!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Elise: The rain outside my window in the middle of the night.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Elise: Any noise emanating from under my bed in the middle of the night.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Elise: Let me put it this way: I wouldn’t mind being Julie Taymor for a week.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Elise: Probably lawyer or doctor. Way too much responsibility.

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

Elise: Sorry, but I’ve got to go with Jack Gantos’ line: “Shaken? Or Stirred?” Might I add: “Red? Or White?”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and photos used with permission of Elise Primavera (with the exception of the comic book cover). All rights reserved.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

12 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Elise Primavera”

  1. I love Elise’s cranky, snarky, absolutely truthful work. We did one book together years ago–BEST WITCHES– and her art was so perfect for it. The editor told me that she used to arrive at the office in witch drag. I wonder if she does that with every book.

    Thanks for featuring her, Jules. Overdue really.


  2. Jules! GREAT interview, and how generous of Elise to share so much work. Love, love, love her studio. And hey – I got to hear her speak at the Southern Festival of Books too! Please tell me you and I had a chance to talk? 🙂 e

  3. Elizabeth, yes, I introduced myself. I think I caught the tail end of your talk? We did meet, for about one minute. Next time, let’s make it longer!

  4. What a feast of art over breakfast. Thank you so much for featuring so much artwork, Jules and Elise. And Elise, I have house envy…

  5. Wonderful interview. I always love seeing the
    space where someone creates. Her artwork
    is delicious.

  6. This is great stuff. Really enjoy the feel of her work and sense of humor. Nice studio too.

  7. So glad to see this interview with Elise….thank you! xoxo Diane

  8. Great interview! Beautiful artwork! Great to see the sketches & finishes & get some insight into Elise’s process.

  9. What a wonderful interview! I adore Elise’s body of work, and it is so much fun to see her fabulous workspace.

    Thanks so much for this post!


  10. Jules,

    Great post! I’ve been a Primavera fan ever since I read Jane Yolen’s poetry book “Best Witches.”

    I love Elise’s house and her studio.

  11. Jules,
    thank you for this treat! I have been an Elise- fan for many moons and take her books out many times a year. I feel fortified by them. My first love was THE THREE DOTS, 1993 and a year later PLANTPET, which is one of the most wonderful children’s books in the world, period. Her studio walls should be plastered with awards and wine should flow from a special faucet after working hours.

  12. Wonderful interview w/Elise. She is funny and original – and her work reflects that. Loved seeing all the ‘process’.
    And yes, she does have one of THE best workspaces “evah”.

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