Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Tim Egan

h1 August 11th, 2011 by jules

Nope, that’s not author/illustrator Tim Egan, though I promise he’s pictured below in the interview. That’s Farmer Fred, one of my favorite picture book protagonists. He’s from Egan’s 2003 title, Serious Farm. Farmer Fred doesn’t smile much. “He wasn’t a sad fellow,” Egan writes, “just very serious.” He subscribes to the notion that there’s nothing funny about corn, not to mention there is no humor in tomatoes. (He kinda does have a point there, doesn’t he?) And, because he owns the farm, his farm animals are all extremely serious, too. See what I mean?

Until, that is, one night when Edna, the cow, declares that “it’s okay to be serious, but not all the time. We need some laughter.” Thus begins the animals’ secret plan to “make the farm more fun.”

I already covered last week at my Kirkus column why I like Egan’s books so much. Today he visits for a 7-Imp cyber-breakfast to showcase some art and tell us a bit more about his work. But I will summarize here again: He’s quite droll—in both his writing and cartoon illustrations—and I happen to like a good Droll. So far, in the over ten picture book titles he’s brought readers, he’s treated us to an understated, low-key humor. “Offbeat,” as I wrote last week, is used often to describe his humor, and in the picture book world, offbeat is refreshing.

I took the chance to invite Egan over for a cyber-breakfast, once I saw he had a new Dodsworth title out. Dodsworth, pictured here, is the star of Egan’s beginning reader series. He’s the same mouse who appeared in 2007’s The Pink Refrigerator—though in this series he is joined by a dry-witted duck—which was launched in 2007 with Dodsworth in New York. Dodsworth is a committed traveler, taking us on journeys all over the globe. In each title, child readers are introduced to the landmarks famous to each city he visits, Dodsworth all the while serving as the duck’s very funny straight man. As a Kirkus reviewer for the first title pointed out, these are James Marshall-esque in style, more character-driven than plot-driven. And they’re funny, some of the best early readers you can hand a child learning to read on his or her own. In this latest title, they zoom through the streets of Rome, the duck finds some white paint and attempts to add a duck to the Sistine Chapel, and they find themselves having to replace coins in Trevi Fountain. Needless to say, other fun adventures ensue.

I like Tim’s answer to my breakfast-of-choice question: “Hmm. I love almost every kind of breakfast, but I suppose Eggs Benedict would top the list. I don’t have it very often, usually only when we’re traveling to pretty places, for some reason. Maybe that’s why I love it so much, because it means we’re on vacation, and I just love being on vacation. Aside from that, my wife, Ann, and I start our mornings with at least two hot mugs of coffee. If we’re not going anywhere, we have three or more cups. We actually call these ‘three-cup mornings.’ I love coffee. And orange juice. And waffles, pancakes, bacon, sausage, bagels, muffins, omelettes and even an occasional piece of chocolate cake. And more coffee.”

What a coincidence, because I love all those things, too, especially coffee. This is going to be a good meal. Good food, good company, Tim’s stories and art to make me laugh. I also hope that occasionally an occasional piece of chocolate cake with some occasional (or more than occasional) chocolate icing shows up as we chat. Anyway, yup, I definitely like to laugh along with his books, and so has every child with which I’ve ever shared them. I thank Tim for stopping by, and let’s get to it.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Tim: Author/Illustrator.

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


Tim’s books around the world

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

Tim: Ink and watercolor and sometimes just plain watercolor.

Spreads from The Pink Refrigerator (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

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?

Tim: My drawings usually consist of nicely-dressed animals (Armani seems to be the preferred formal wear), so I’m not sure if one age group stands out more than another. When I write, the picture books allow a bit more freedom in terms of sentence structure and vocabulary, and the early readers are broken into short chapters, but the animals are still fairly well-groomed and the illustrations are done the same.

Dummy and spreads from Serious Farm (Houghton Mifflin, 2003)
(Click each image to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Tim: We live in sunny California, in a quiet area of L.A., close to pretty canyons and the beautiful, sparkling Pacific Ocean.

Spreads from Burnt Toast on Davenport Street (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)
(Click each spread to enlarge)

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

Tim: I graduated from Art Center College of Design and did editorial, advertising and greeting card work for a few years. I then sent a few story ideas and illustrations to different publishers. The stories were actually rather serious and the drawings weren’t very funny either, and I received an array of rejection letters. But I was always sketching odd little characters in my sketchbooks, and my wife, Ann, suggested I work with those guys more and just write about their funny little lives.

I took that sage advice and sent a story, called Root’s Pond to Margaret Raymo, an editor at Houghton Mifflin. She liked the story and called to see if I had any other ideas. I lied and said, “Of course” and then started writing in a panic that night. About two months later, I sent her a story called Friday Night at Hodges’ Café {illustration pictured upper left}, and she called and said, “We love this. Let’s do it.” That was over fifteen years ago, and I still can’t believe it. Since then, Margaret has been my editor on all my books with Houghton, and she’s just amazing at knowing what works and what doesn’t. What a special gift that is.

Sketch from Friday Night at Hodges’ Café (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)
(Click to enlarge)

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


Spreads from Roasted Peanuts (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Tim: They’re one of my very favorite things to do. I love hearing what kids think and showing them how books are made. Mostly, I love drawing for them, because they sometimes applaud when I’m finished. I do a slide presentation and talk all about the mistakes I make in both writing and illustrating, and they seem relieved to know that I make so many mistakes. It’s also fun getting them all excited and worked up. Then, just as their screaming reaches a crescendo, I leave. Great fun!

Spreads from The Experiments of Doctor Vermin (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)
(Click on last two to enlarge)

Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Tim: I do teach in the summers at Art Center, my alma mater. It’s invigorating and inspiring to see all the amazing talent out there. It can also be very intimidating when your students are so damn good. I just smile and tell them that they’re brilliant and then go to my car and cry.

Illustration from Dodsworth in Paris

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

Tim: I’m currently working on a series of early reader books about a little guy named Dodsworth and a crazy duck that’s traveling the world with him. They’re great fun to work on. I have a few different stories of where they’re going next, but I’m not 100% sure which one it will be.

I’m also working on some animation projects with our sons, Chris and Brian. Chris is a great writer and musician and also the voice of the main character, and Brian is a fantastic artist and animator and is doing amazing things that I can’t do. They’re helping me develop a short little cartoon series, along with the voice talents of Ann and some really close friends. It’s always fun heading down new roads, and I love seeing the characters finally start to move and talk, as they’ve been doing in my head for years.

Three Men in a Tub

Party at Ben Franklin’s

Mmm. Coffee.Coffee’s ready, and the table’s set now. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Tim again for visiting 7-Imp.

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?

Tim: My work always starts in my sketchbooks and almost always with a drawing of some sort. I start doodling little drawings and, if things are going well, I’ll begin developing some sort of story. It’s a very loose and organic process, and I never really start with any kind of concrete idea. I realized years ago that I need to begin in order to get anywhere. If I actually just sat and waited for some great idea to materialize, it wouldn’t. For me, it’s better to just start creating and see what happens.

Dummy and final illustration from Metropolitan Cow (Houghton Mifflin, 1996)
(Click each to enlarge)

Once an idea begins to develop, I’ll do a very rough mapping out of how it might fit within the confines of a book, sometimes 32 pages, sometimes 48. From then on, it’s pure frustration and sweat to try and make things work. If I actually get to the point of making a dummy (usually a few months and dozens of versions later), I’ll hand it to my wife, Ann. I’ll pace around nervously in the studio, waiting for her response. If she comes out and says, “I like it,” I know it’s a failure and she’s just being nice (because she is nice). But if she comes out and says, “I love it!”, I’m on to something and I proceed from there.

Tim and Ann Egan

Tim: “Sketchbook insanity”
(Click to enlarge)

From Tim’s sketchbooks; click each to enlarge

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

Tim: My studio is about twenty steps from our back door. It’s a quiet, great space and I love being in there. It’s filled with old tin toys and other fun things we collect. We built a large bookcase that opens up like a secret door and behind it is a small workshop where four elves live. Okay, there are no elves, but the bookcase really does open into a little workshop.

The super secret stealthy bookcase

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Tim outside his studio

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

Tim: I’ve been a huge fan of illustrators, painters, and designers of all kinds since I was a kid. Everything from old TV Guide covers by Jack Davis to great painters like Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. And, in no particular order, N.C. Wyeth, Al Hirschfeld, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Etienne Delessert, Norman Rockwell, Rembrandt (I love putting Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt in the same sentence just to get a reaction), Leonardo Da Vinci and the great Bernie Fuchs. And, of course, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, James Marshall and three hundred and forty-seven other people.

Spreads from The Blunder of the Rogues (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)

4. Jules: 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?

Tim: Maurice Sendak, Etienne Delessert and Seymour Chwast. I’ll bring the wine.

Color study and illustration from Distant Feathers (Houghton Mifflin, 1998)

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?

Tim: I do listen to music while I draw, but I write in silence, because my brain can’t think and listen at the same time. My musical taste is all over the place, so a huge mix of The Beatles, Sinatra, Mozart, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Keith Jarrett, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Nelson. Too many to name, but they’re all great.

Illustration from The Trial of Cardigan Jones (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
(Click to enlarge)

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

Tim: I’m left-handed when I draw and write, but I throw with my right hand. And I can stand on my head.

Tim’s watercolors of Rome, Venice, and Yosemite

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Tim: “Hilarious.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Tim: “Depressing.”

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

Tim: Love, trees, the ocean, the mountains, traveling, dogs, birds, food, laughter, good conversation, wine, chocolate, beef tacos, life.

Jules: What turns you off?

Tim: Mayonnaise.

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

Tim: “Balderdash!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Tim: Waterfalls.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Tim: Shattering glass.

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

Tim: Monkey trainer.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Tim: Shark trainer.

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

Tim: “Hey, Tim. Sorry you fell off the roof, but there’s a party with all of your old friends down the road. Just take this classic red 1957 convertible Thunderbird through the forest until you get to the little independent bookstore on the corner. There’ll be plenty of free drinks, the best food you’ve ever had and a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe. Friends and family that are still alive will be here in the blink of an eye and from here on out, it’s all good times…and you don’t need sunscreen! Enjoy!”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Tim Egan. All rights reserved.

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

19 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Tim Egan”

  1. Thank you for introducing us to another steller author/illustrator. I love these!

  2. LOVE LOVE this! Thanks so much, Jules and Tim!

    Been a big fan since Hodges’ Cafe. How could I not love an artist who features cafes, a pink refrigerator, burnt toast and elephants in soup pots? Sigh. And would you look at those Three Men in a Tub? I want to marry the Baker!! *swoon*

  3. Delightful!

  4. Thanks for this great interview and this gorgeous work!

  5. Oh now THIS was a very fun break in my writing day. Thank you, Jules and Tim.

  6. I love these books! What fun to see the process!

  7. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast a blog about books « Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Tim Egan […]

  8. Thanks for this, Jules! I so adore Dodsworth (ever since the Pink Refrigerator). Now I’m inspired to look for some of Tim’s earlier work. Thanks!

  9. Thanks so much for introducing me to Tim Egan’s work, Dodsworth especially. I am always on the lookout for great Early Reader books to review on my blog but am especially excited about Dodsworth since my son should be able to read them on his own in the next few months. Also, thanks for the extensive look at his books and paintings.

  10. Thanks, Jules & Tim, for this fabulous, fascinating, and comprehensive interview!

  11. Thanks for the great interview and great photos posted. Tim Egan has been a pleasure for me and my children to discover. Children’s books with real wit and heart are difficult to find but Tim cranks them out steadily and wonderfully. Dodsworth, the duck, the tigers at hodges cafe and everyone at serious farm is so great to read and meet in Tim’s books. Again, thanks for the insight into his creative process and a look behind the curtain.

  12. Rockin’ interview. This is a visual style I wouldn’t usually been drawn to, but the pictures and the stories share the same warm tone, and mesh so well. We’re big fans of the Pink Refrigerator and several of the Dodsworth books…

  13. Great interview. Loved the “heaven” answer!!

  14. I needed a full day to look over all the great work.
    Today was the day! I love it!
    Love, Rita

  15. I went to high school with Tim and fondly remember watching him sketch ink drawings to illustrate the school paper. I would visit him at his chicken coop in the backyard of his parents old Valley farm house. There he would work in pen and ink well into the night by candlelight. Oh, and he was always barefoot. I have not seen Tim and Ann for years, that’s probably because i now live in Peru.

  16. I’m an old friend looking to get in touch with time. Our company sells books and we want to do an interview. Please have Tim call me at Mackin Educational Resources

  17. Hi, Tim. I just read this and love your answers. Your books are delightful. I know we haven’t seen each other in many years, but in my mind’s eye, I can always see you and Jerry Atencio in my classroom. Those were very,very,very good days.
    Patrica Brown

  18. Yesterday I encouraged a friend to buy your books, Tim. Decided to send follow-up web sites, and stumbled upon this. HOW WONDERFUL! I have such treasured memories of being with you and Ann, Chris and Brian! I get updates, but couldn’t resist adding to these comments. I want readers to know that, good as you are as writer and illustrator, you excel both as a loving and, yes, hilarious, human being. And readers should know that many titles in your illustrations bear names of family members. I am proud to be included in Distant Feathers. You and your family are just the best!

  19. public library associates sometimes recommend books and in my case, write blogs…this spread about Tim Egan’s creative process was just what I needed to share, even more enthusiastically, his work…

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