Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matthew Cordell

h1 January 24th, 2012 by jules

Meet Davy’s Mom and Dad. Davy’s got these doting folks all to himself, and life is good. That is, till his new, little brother arrives. And then the next one. And the next one. And the one after that.

This is Another Brother (Feiwel & Friends), the new picture book from author/illustrator Matthew Cordell, the second one he’s both written and illustrated (though he’s illustrated many others), to be released at the end of this month. And it’s funny. So very funny.

You can see Davy below and how he feels about these encroaching siblings. Cordell had me at the headband. Clearly, Davy aspires to rock star status. And that’s just it: That’s the kind of detail Cordell will put into his illustrations that ring so true to childhood. You know that kid who was so earnest, tried so hard, successfully reached a certain level of cluelessness as to the fact that others disdained (and quite possibly snort-laughed at) his rock star yearnings? Didn’t care so much that he may have been construed as dorky by others? (Maybe that kid was you. It certainly was me, though I wanted to be an anchorwoman, not a rock star. Er, no comment.) Yeah. That. Cordell nails it here.

Another Brother is being greeted here in the land of early 2012 with a host of starred reviews. “Cordell emphasizes the humor in the once only child’s whiplash of conflicting emotions,” writes Pamela Paul here at the New York Times. “Baby brothers may be a pain, but the havoc they create can be painfully funny.” In Kirkus’ starred review, they note that this “is not just another new-baby book.” Matt’s “humorous text and mischievously silly, expressive cartoon art,” the reviewer adds, “make this one stand out in the crowd.” (Or, as the Booklist reviewer put it, Matthew “takes the old picture-book staple of an only child upset by the arrival of a new sibling and turns it up to 11.”) True, there are tons of very funny details, and Davy’s change of heart in the story—I don’t want to entirely ruin the read for you, but essentially his resentment over his brothers mimicking him suddenly turns into loneliness when they finally stop—is both funny and poignant. And, again, it’s real. It (and many of Matt’s illustrations) speaks so accurately to the awkward moments of childhood. (Let it be said that Cordell is not one to make it all look rosy and impossibly, overly cute.)

“Think Richard Scarry’s warmth and scale, with a minimalist approach to setting,” writes the School Library Journal review about Matt’s approach to his illustrations in this book, which I think can be said for many of his previous ones. Or, as I’ve written here at 7-Imp before, think Steig. Matthew’s illustrations have a freewheeling spontaneity and loose lines that bring to mind William Steig for me (and, as you can see in this 2009 visit from him, Steig is one of his “pen/ink heroes”). I’ve watched Matthew’s books and illustrated titles with interest over the years, and he gets better with each one. I’m so pleased he’s visiting today to share artwork from his career thus far and give me and 7-Imp readers a sneak-peek at what’s next. (He has seven books coming out in 2012 … Dare we say it? Seven impossible … Oh, you get the idea!)

As for setting the table this morning, Matt (I think his friends call him “Matt,” so I’m going to get cozy and run with that here, given that I understand this phenomenon, what with the Julie/Jules thing that goes on in my life) … Where was I? Oh, Matt tells me he’s a “firm believer of ‘Variety Is the Spice Of Life,’ so I don’t settle too long on any one breakfast food. But the one I come back to most often is grits. Sometimes grits with cheese, sometimes grits with butter, sometimes grits with cream cheese, sometimes grits with cheese, butter, cream cheese, and jalapeno. Always with salt.”

Grits it is. And the salt is on the table. Naturally, I’ve got the strong coffee brewing while I set the table for our breakfast.

I thank Matt for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Matt: I am an illustrator, who’s occasionally blessed with a story idea that’s fit to see print.


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


Pictured above: Spreads from Matthew’s Another Brother
(Click to enlarge)


Sketch for an alternate cover
(Click to enlarge)


Jacket
(Click to enlarge)


Case cover
(Click to enlarge)

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

Matt:

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

Matt: I flit around a bit. But mostly, I’m pen and ink with watercolor. Lately, I’ve found a way to use pencil—and make it black—instead of pen and ink. I lucked upon this large-format ink jet printer that prints waterproof ink. This has allowed me to make my drawings in pencil (when I like), scan them, make them black via Photoshop, print out via my special printer on watercolor paper and then paint to finish. But generally, I still love (prefer?) the look of pen and ink. Even if its unpredictability still tends to scare the pants off me.


Illustration from James Preller’s Mighty Casey
(Feiwel & Friends, 2009)

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?


Matt’s debut as an author/illustrator: 2009′s Trouble Gum (Feiwel & Friends)

Matt: I’ve illustrated picture books and middle-grade fiction, and I don’t approach the two too much differently. Many of my picture books have animal characters, and this has not been the case too much with older books. Maybe people-as-animals skews young? Certainly not always, though (see Steig’s uber-brilliant Abel’s Island). The middle-grade stuff (interiors) generally prints black and white, so no color does take a bit of pressure off as well.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Matt: I grew up in small-town South Carolina but moved to Chicago in the spring of ’99. In ’07, married up, the wife and I moved out to the ‘burbs. To a suburb of Chicago that’s about an hour’s drive north of the city. Very quiet, very clean, very chain restaurant-y. The wife, the baby girl, the cat, and me, we love it here. And it’s great to have a first-class major city at arm’s reach to do big, cool stuff, too.


“Family blizzard of 2011″

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

Matt: It was around the year 2000, and my lovely girlfriend at the time (by golly, she’s now my lovely wife!), Julie Halpern (at the time a writer of ‘zines and an elementary school librarian, now a wonderfully talented writer of YA fiction and an on-break middle school librarian), had a hankering to write a picture book and have me do the illustrations. But back then, I was mostly into highfalutin’ fine art and highfalutin’ graphic design, and the idea of entering illustration had not occurred to me one bit. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, she wrote the story, and then I went and sat on it for about a year (what a bum). Finally I got off my tuchus and dug around in the picture book world. And I say, it did not take long to get inspired! I played around a bit, experimenting with some illustration styles, and came to a happy point. Then I did a handful of finished pieces and a fully-formed thumbnail sketch dummy, and we submitted our book pitch to twenty slush piles at twenty publishers.

Fast forward—nineteen rejection letters later… miraculously, Houghton Mifflin snatched up and published Toby and the Snowflakes {pictured below}.

Like I said, Julie is writing mostly YA fiction now, but I’ve been blessed with picture book and middle grade illustration work (plus a few books they let me write, too) ever since.

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

Matt: Web: www.matthewcordell.com; blog: matthewcordell.blogspot.com; and Facebook, too!: facebook.com/cordellmatthew.

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


Illustration from Phyllis Root’s Toot Toot Zoom! (Candlewick, 2009)

Matt: I have not done a huge amount of school visits. In my early illustrator years, I had a whole other full-time job on top of my illustration one and so I didn’t have time for or seek out school visits. In 2007, I quit that full-time job to make this my full-time job, because the work was quite steady, but outside of illustration jobs I still haven’t had much time to seek out school visits. Having said that, the ones I’ve done were really fun. I just talk a bit about myself, my family, my history as an artist (showing off some of my kid art). Then I find a common thread in my most recent books and do a little lesson on that. A drawing demo. A reading. Some small prizes for kids who volunteer to take part along the way. I love it, actually, connecting that way with the kids. I should do more school visits.

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


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)

Matt: It’s hard to believe, I know, but I have seven titles coming out in 2012: Another Brother (Feiwel and Friends, 1/31); Itsy-Bitsy Baby Mouse (Michelle Meadows, Simon and Schuster, 3/6); Forgive me, I Meant to Do It (Gail Carson Levine, HarperCollins, 3/13); Bat and Rat (Patrick Jennings, Abrams, 5/1); Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom (Rachel Vail, Feiwel and Friends, 5/8); Hello Hello (me as author/illustrator, Disney-Hyperion, Fall); and an as-of-yet untitled poetry collection by J. Patrick Lewis for Boyds Mills Press, Fall.




A sneak-peek of Matthew’s Hello Hello
(Click the last two spreads to enlarge)

I’m currently working on the last two of the above, as well as illustrations for picture books with Hyperion and Simon and Schuster. As well as a poetry collection for Houghton Mifflin.

Whew! So very, very thankful to be busy.


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)

Pictured above: Images from Gail Carson Levine’s Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee and grits are ready, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Matt 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?

Matt: I always start by firming up trim size and page count. Once these things are decided on, I cut up (or rip up) a little rough paper dummy and start loosely planning what bits of text will flow on what pages.

Then I start thinking character sketches. In the beginning of my career, I bypassed character sketches a few times and just dove in and sketched out the whole book and sent in a complete dummy. By sheer dumb luck, this worked out okay on some books, but I soon realized it would be better if the looks of the character(s) were approved before I surrounded them with elaborate settings. For one thing, because you do want everyone on board with the characters you design (main character, at least, is on nearly every page… that’s a lot of backtrack, if editor and art director don’t like the character design). For another thing, because a finished character look will, most likely, influence much else that the book looks like.


(Character sketch for Another Brother)

Once characters are ok’ed, then I just start drawing. I draw loose on cheap, letter-sized copy paper. “Loose” meaning sketchy, yes, but also in that they’re not always complete compositions. For one page, I may draw a character in one corner (with multiple back-up possible heads/expressions, eyes, etc.) and a scene to drop him/her into in another corner. By the time I work through the whole book, I have a big pile of these loose sketches to scan in and play with, splicing together these drawing bits into working images (finished page compositions) in Photoshop.




Sketches from Gail Carson Levine’s Forgive me, I Meant to Do It

When sketch images are fine-tuned, I then take them all and lay out a finished dummy on my Mac, using InDesign. When that’s done, I convert the file to a multi-page PDF document and email the dummy off across the country. Soon after, of course, there’s back/forth where sketches are tweaked and tweaked, until a final, final, FINAL dummy is approved by the good folks at the publisher.

Then, I sit stunned in fear for a bit. And procrastinate, too. But ultimately… start.


Final drawing for Patrick Jennings’ upcoming Bat and Rat
(Click to enlarge)

I take approved sketches and re-draw them. For accuracy, I use a light table and “trace” the sketches—as loosely as possible because that’s how I like it—with pen and ink or pencil or whatever I like. THEN… I scan these drawings in and manipulate (if need be) one last time to get the drawing PERFECT. I then print these drawings onto 140 lb. hot press or cold press watercolor paper (whatever the book “needs”) to be finished out with watercolor.



Color studies from Bat and Rat

Oh… but before I go and get ALL watercolor-y, somewhere back there, I will have done some color studies as well. Usually, I take some final line art or sketches and play around with many, many, many different color combos until I get a good sense of color palette. And then I just paint my way through the whole book.

And then collapse into a Taco Bell-induced coma.


Final Bat and Rat image
(Click to enlarge)

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



Matt: I work out of the third bedroom of our three-bedroom home. There is one drawing table with a corkboard above for tacking inspiration. A poster of Fred Rogers hangs to my left to keep me positive and in perspective. There is a computer table for my Mac, scanner, printer, music, internet research/distractions. There are chests of drawers and shelves, slap full of old notebooks, old sketchbooks, old paints, pens, charcoal, pencils, postcards, posters, photos, action figures, broken eyeglasses…stuff I rarely use or look at, but it’s good to know that stuff is there, in case I need it.




There are archival boxes stuffed full of original art and flotsam and jetsam from books completed (sketches, color studies, dummies, notes, etc.). It’s all usually pretty rat’s nesty. Books and papers and sketches and notes pile up and litter the floor as jobs progress (and when not). Sometimes there’s a smell. My wife calls all of this disgusting. I call it my studio. (I often think back to pictures I’ve seen of Francis Bacon’s studio {pictured below}. Then I don’t feel so… extreme.)


(Click to enlarge)

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

Matt: Picture book-wise, I remember really digging Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss books. I also liked Virginia Lee Burton books. The Little House and Mike Mulligan are burned, sweetly, up there in my brains. (And… if you must know, I possibly maybe might have had a soft spot for, um, Berenstain Bears. There, I said it.)

4. Jules: If you could have three authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose? (If they’re deceased, I won’t tell.)

Matt: I have a long, ever-growing list of illustrators whose work I admire (and envy). I have a much shorter list of illustrators whose work I admire, and haven’t met, and would love to have a cup of coffee and/or wine (but probably a beer) with. The top of this list: Sergio Ruzzier, Cece Bell, Frank Dormer.


(Click to enlarge)



(Click to enlarge)



(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


Illustrations from Patrick Jennings’ upcoming Bat and Rat

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?

Matt: I almost always listen to music when I work. Right now I go to Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Justin Townes Earle, Will Oldham, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes. Sometimes Nina Simone, sometimes Django Reinhardt. Some Randy Newman. Some ’70s Springsteen. If I get particularly curious, I’ll stream internet college radio. WLUW out of Loyola-Chicago’s the one I know.


“‘I could read you a bedtime story,’ she said. ‘I’ll read to myself,’ I said. I got a book, the first book I saw, and climbed with it into my bed. It was a very big book. I opened it and started to read. That very big book had very long words that I didn’t understand. But I kept pretending to read.”
Illustration from Julie Sternberg’s
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie (Amulet, 2011)

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

Matt: I’m a life-long fan of comics. Not the stand-up variety (which ain’t bad when it’s good). I’m talking more the sequential-art-in-print kind. Started out WAY young with Sunday “funnies” (Schulz=King). Then it drifted into superhero comics for many years (Spider-Man… I don’t still read him, but I still dig him). Which has since led to, in post-adolescent to grown-up years, the more true-to-life “graphic novel” form (à la Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics).

Luckily, my wife shares in all of this. We went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time, together… on our honeymoon. Five years later, our daughter got carted around that con floor when she was just a teeny-tiny eight-month old. She was the baby in the wrap strapped to Mama’s chest. She was the baby with the Princess Leia wig.







Illustrations from Rachel Vail’s upcoming
Justin Case: Shells, Smells, and the Horrible Flip-Flops of Doom

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


Matt: As a new-ish dad, who has only somewhat recently begun getting books signed by illustrators for my daughter, I find that some illustrators simply sign their names, some sign and draw, some do something completely different (Erin Stead made a cool stamp of one her drawings that she puts in Amos McGee!), and then there’s Sendak, who—I believe I heard—doesn’t autograph at all. It’s interesting to see how different artists handle the autograph “form.”

QUESTION: As an illustrator, how do you autograph your books? Just sign? Just draw? Sign and draw?

How to sign a book had never occurred to me until the very first time I had to sign one. When I opened that book and opened my pen, the bookseller said “OH! Are you going to draw a picture? We had Lane Smith here last week and he drew a different picture in every book he signed!” *pregnant pause* … Then I knew how I was supposed to sign a book.

Unlike the inimitable Mr. Smith, I do not have the confidence to pull off a completely different drawing in every book I sign (I pretty much have 1-2 different drawing ideas for every book I’ve illustrated). But I’ve come to think that drawing something in that book is my duty. This is what I owe you, dear reader, for investing in a book that I helped to create. An original drawing. (Not 100% original per se. But any drawing, sketched quickly, is unlike any other one of its kind, drawn before or after.) This is, of course, excused at say a school visit or some packed house where you have, oh, 100 or so books waiting to be signed. Although a scribble might still be in order, if possible.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Matt: “Gubernatorial.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Matt: “Mucus.”

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

Matt: People who I think are cool.

Jules: What turns you off?

Matt: People who think they are cool.

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

Matt: “Turkey-ass.” Back story: In my twenties, I visited a farm where there was a turkey. This turkey had the most indescribably disgusting butt. (I’m no expert…maybe all turkeys have gross butts, or maybe it was just the one guy with the one gross butt.) Whenever I want to dispense my lowest-of-lows insult, I let “turkey-ass” fly. It mostly surfaces when I’m driving.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Matt: The munchkin voice of my toddler filling the house first thing in the morning.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Matt: The munchkin cry of my toddler when she’s really, REALLY upset (not faking it).

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

Matt: Not that I ever sit and think about this (I love my job), but given the chance here (and admittedly, this is a wee bit random), I would say, “I want to be an oceanographer.” I am equal parts terrified/stone-cold-fascinated by the vastness and mystery of the ocean and all things that live in that place we air-breathers cannot. Wow. P.S. No, I am NOT a “beach guy.”

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Matt: Sports.

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

Matt: “Chill, baby, chill.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images used with permission of Matthew Cordell. All rights reserved.

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





30 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Matthew Cordell”

  1. This has made me happy on about sixsquillion levels.

    One: Fred Rogers, natch.
    Two: Forgive Me, I Meant To Do It
    Three: Itsy Bitsy Babies in snow that’s hip deep to Mom and Dad
    Four: Wives dragging spouses into illustration. If only this worked for everyone!
    Five: Did I mention Fred Rogers?
    Sixsquillion: Another illustrator who is happy and content.

    Man, “art saves” is the truth.
    Thanks for sharing a bite of cheese grits and a hefty dose of the imaginary world with your readers today. ♥


  2. …oops.
    Sevensquillion: the HEADBAND!!!!!


  3. I love Matthew Cordell. He is the real deal and he always reminds me of Arnold Lobel. Just that full commitment to the work, the craft, and to CHILDREN. It’s not just an ego thing with Matt, he’s communicating. I totally believe 100% in his talent; a special guy. Someday I hope to meet him!

    Thanks for shining the spotlight on him.

    James Preller


  4. LOVE this interview. Such wonderful talent, such a wonderful messy creative studio, and such wonderful stories. Thanks to both of you for showing the inside of genius.


  5. Wow! This was a wonderful interview…and SEVEN books! So much to look forward to for those who love picture books and poetry for children. Thank you for sharing Matt’s take on family, children, the art of making books for kids, signing books and himself. So good to get to know him in this way.


  6. Matthew, I make a stamp for books because I am terrified of drawing on demand. The coordination it takes to meet someone, sign a name, and make a drawing…I just don’t think I have it. I admire your courage.


  7. A beer for breakfast sounds great! I would probably go for a Guinness or a Boddingtons.


  8. Love looking at your workin’ space. And 7 books this year- Incredible – Congrats!


  9. This was a great read. Thanks for sharing, Matt, and thanks for the usual awesomeness, Jules.


  10. Matt,

    I’ll take tea.

    Yeah, I know. I’m the…

    Party.

    Pooper.

    Congratulations!

    Frank


  11. Travis! Your comment reminds me. Duuuude, I meant to link to your previous Matt interview. Here we go, everyone: The wonderful 100 Scope Notes interview from 2010.

    Now carry on …. !


  12. Thanks so much to everyone for stopping by and for leaving such kind comments! And special thanks to Jules for this mighty, mighty gracious breakfast.


  13. Great interview!
    Lots of interesting thoughts and visuals here.
    Congratulations on your success, Matt!
    -stacy.


  14. I am in love at first sight with Another Brother, and with Davy. Everything about this post made my day, including Gail Carson Levine’s title. Thanks for another fabulous interview, Jules.


  15. Mr. Rogers AND Dylan in his studio? I love this man. And yes, the headband and those twelve little brothers. A scream! Seven books this year? Magic grits.

    Thanks for this dose of pure joy. :)


  16. I really enjoyed this interview. Matthew, I love your work. I have a copy of trouble gum sitting in my studio, given to me by Rich at Feiwel and Friends when I began my book with Rachel Vail last year. Trouble Gum is a fine book. As are all your others.

    Two things I loved about the studio pictures:
    1. the magic wand on the floor in front of the computer.
    2. the two comic boxes beside your desk. My wife, when we do our spring cleaning/sorting/purging, often asks if I REALLY need them. They take up a lot of room. And, like you, I hardly ever look at them. But it’s nice to know that they’re there.

    Great interview as always, Jules!


  17. Seven books in one year? Wow, that is a work ethic, and he does such wonderful work.

    Also, I am going to start using “turkey-ass.”


  18. Amazingly wonderful as always!! And I had fallen head over heels before I saw the Mr. Rogers poster…


  19. [...] talented wife, Julie Halpern. Someday I hope we’re all in the same room! In my opinion, Matt is a hugely gifted illustrator, and a true artist, and an heir in his approach and dedication to Arnold Lobel, who is one of my [...]


  20. [...] story (and I don’t think writing in picture books is discussed nearly enough). I’ve also left Matthew Cordell’s Another Brother on my coffee table to cheer me up in the last few weeks. That book is [...]


  21. [...] Read an interview with Matthew Cordell at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. [...]


  22. [...] to author/illustrator Matthew Cordell, Tammi Sauer may very well be the busiest picture book author of [...]


  23. [...] one will be released in June. Don’t miss it. It’s now right up there for me with Matthew Cordell’s Another Brother as one of the funniest picture books of 2012 thus [...]


  24. [...] & Illustrator: Matthew Cordell Check out the interview at Seven Impossible Things Before [...]


  25. [...] post? Well, speaking of 2012 picture books, that spread is from one with which I am deeply smitten, Matthew Cordell’s hello! hello! To be clear, this one is not out yet—it’ll be released by Hyperion in [...]


  26. [...] an interview with him relatively soon, not to mention Stephen Savage. I’ll also be showcasing Matthew Cordell’s hello! hello! later, as well as Candace Fleming’s and Eric Rohmann’s Oh, No! And, if [...]


  27. [...] grab a coffee before you go read 7 Imp’s feature with Matthew. It’s [...]


  28. [...] at the Kirkus Book Blog Network, I chat with author/illustrator Matthew Cordell about his brand-new picture book, hello! hello! That link will be here, and if you like this book [...]


  29. [...] week at the Kirkus Book Blog Network, I chatted briefly with author/illustrator Matthew Cordell, pictured above, about his latest picture book, hello! hello! (Hyperion, October 2012). I’ve [...]


  30. [...] above is author/illustrator Matthew Cordell’s contribution to Peter Reynolds’ International Dot [...]


Leave a Comment