Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Susan Gal

h1 August 21st, 2012 by jules

Author/illustrator Susan Gal, who began her career in illustration by doing poster and calendar art, followed by work as an animator, is relatively new to creating picture books, and I’m glad she decided to do so. Since her picture book debut in 2009, I’ve followed her titles with interest. As I once wrote here at 7-Imp (and as the Kirkus review noted for her debut title), there is a warmth, not to mention an Ezra Jack Keats vibe, to her artwork. A Keats vibe, yes, but Susan still has a style all her own — as you’ll see in the artwork featured here in the interview today.

Susan’s newest picture book, Day by Day, released by Knopf in July, is a joyous celebration of family and community, which has been met with good reviews all-around. As you can see in the sketch and final spread below, her work can be textured and colorful, though in more than one of her picture books thus far, we see how expert she is at conveying night-time spreads with clarity, warmth, and beauty.

“Day by day, the seasons turn.”
(Click images to enlarge)

Let’s just get right to the interview, since she shares so much artwork today, not to mention we’re having a “fresh-pressed mug of Noble’s Ethiopian ‘Worka’ blend coffee with steamed milk and steel-cut oatmeal with seasonal fresh fruit, topped with toasted almonds.” Mmm. I’m ready to eat and see lots of art.

I thank Susan for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Susan: Illustrator — and working hard to be an Author/Illustrator.

(Click each image to enlarge)

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


Early reader

Chapter book

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

Susan: Currently, I’m working with charcoal on newsprint with digital collage. I try to mix it up and experiment with different mediums. I would like to work in a different style on my next book.

“Getting digital”
(Click to enlarge)

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?

Susan: Luckily, I have the experience of being both a kid and an adult. I try to approach each project in a way that’s visually stimulating for the kid-in-me, for children, or the kid-at-heart adult in my grown-up work.

Magazine cover
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

(Click to enlarge)

Susan: Berkeley, California, east of the Golden Gate Bridge [captured above].

“My family, trekking ‘into thin air'”

“My best friend, Wanda Woo”

“Wanda and her book”

Susan’s daughter at “a well-attended book reading”

Susan’s aunt and uncle, two inspirations for her

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

Susan: Illustrating for magazines, newspapers, posters, greeting cards, and early reader and chapter books is very rewarding, but I’ve always wanted to illustrate a picture book. Instead of waiting for the right book to find me, I took the plunge and decided to try my hand at writing and illustrating my own picture book.

Greeting cards for Marcel Schurman
(Click first one to enlarge)

Magazine cover
(Click to enlarge)

Newspaper work
(Click each to enlarge)

Book cover

Poster for ice cream shop in Vienna

Night Lights and Please Take Me for a Walk came about simultaneously. When my Please Take Me for a Walk dummy felt ready to send into the world, I researched which publishing houses I thought would be a good fit for my dummy and mailed it off. Within two weeks, a major publisher emailed saying they liked Please Take Me for a Walk and were considering publishing it. A few months later, they turned it down. Another publisher expressed interest in publishing it, if I made some changes.


— Two spreads and a sketch from
Night Lights; Knopf, 2009
(Click last two to enlarge)

Changes were made, but still no go. In the meantime, I re-worked my illustration portfolio and was thrilled to sign with the illustrious illustration agency Morgan Gaynin Inc. My agents, Vicki and Gail, presented both Night Lights and Please Take Me for a Walk to the wonderful Nancy Siscoe at Knopf. Knopf offered me a contract for both books and has published all four of my books to date. Nancy has the awe-inspiring talent of taking on a diamond-in-the-rough book dummy and working with me to polish it into a bright, shiny picture book.

Sketch and final Wanda illustration (on dedication page)

“Please take me for a walk.”

Three illustrations and a sketch from Please Take Me for a Walk; Knopf, 2010

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


Jules: If you teach illustration, can you tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator?

Susan: If I taught illustration, I would like to teach children. I admire their willingness to express whatever comes naturally to them, and I’m inspired by that freedom.

In addition to children’s art, I’m influenced by the photographer Dorothea Lange [pictured below] and the painters David Hockney, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alex Katz.

(Click to enlarge second image, a photograph by Dorothea Lange)

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

Susan: In between creating new book dummies, I’m working on illustration assignments.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, the coffee’s on the table, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Susan 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?

Susan: I formulate a book idea in my head for a few months before putting pencil to paper. Then I jot down the story and begin to re-write and refine it. From there, I staple together a small dummy and start to lay out the pace and timing of the story.

(Click each image to enlarge)

Book dummies
(Click to enlarge)

I don’t let myself start to sketch until I feel okay with the sentence structure. For me, the easier part of the process is creating the artwork, so I don’t allow myself the joy of drawing until the story is developed. Once the sentence structure is in place, the real fun begins!

Character design is the most exciting part for me. While working in animation, I learned how important it is to know your characters. If they aren’t real to me, then there’s no point in spending time with them and bringing them to life in my story.

Character sketches

Sometimes a character’s personality is pretty complete from the start. Other times, the character evolves as the dummy evolves. I spend a lot of time sketching the characters to get a feel for them. I like to stay very loose at this stage to keep the drawings fresh and allow for spontaneous things to happen.

When I feel as though I have a grasp of the character, I scan my sketches on the computer and begin to digitally place them in a spread. Working digitally allows me the freedom to move the character around in space. Eventually the drawing ‘tells me’ where it’s going and I start to cut and paste it together and bring it to life. At this stage, I’m still working in black and white, so I can focus on the composition and design.

Cover as a work-in-progress
(Click each image to enlarge)

“Neighbor by neighbor, pigs say, ‘Welcome!'”
(Click last two images to enlarge)

“And inch by inch, the garden grows.”
(Click images to enlarge)

“Layer by layer, pigs shed their clothes.”
(Click images to enlarge)

“…and one by one, pigs cannonball!”
(Click images to enlarge)

“Hand in hand, pigs give thanks.”
(Click images to enlarge)

When the spreads are finished, I put the dummy together digitally and send it my agents for their feedback. Once I have their blessing, it’s off to my editor. While I’m working on the sketch phase of the dummy, I’m thinking about the palette I want to use for the final art in the book.

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

(Click to enlarge)

Susan: My studio is a cozy room on the upper level of my home. It has high ceilings and large windows with northern light. I love the fact that it faces east, so when I start my day the studio is filling with sunlight as the sun rises. I like how the light changes as my work day progresses.

“Lovely northern light”

“The view from my studio”
(Click each to enlarge)

Christmas lights add a festive touch during those late night deadlines. As you can see, I paper my walls with photos, drawing, poems, etc. — anything that inspires me.

(Click each to enlarge)

“A few of my favorite things”

“Beloved wall of books”

“Yak bell from Nepal”
(Click each to enlarge)

“Wanda, my studio mate”

“Hazel enjoys the morning sun, too …”
(Click each to enlarge)

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

“First ‘book,’ second grade”
(Click each to enlarge)

Susan: I loved reading and drawing for as long as I can remember and spent hours copying the illustrations in my favorite books. The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams, were a huge influence on me. I think they fueled my passion for backpacking and the outdoors.

I also loved the Grimms’ fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and any stories about a kid having a thrilling adventure.

In one of my favorite books, Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters, an eleven-year-old Zulu girl is chosen to go on an elephant hunt with her chieftain father. How cool is that?

“My trusty, well-loved thesaurus”

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

Susan: Mary Blair, Garth Williams, and Alice & Martin Provensen.

Dinner party. My house. Bring wine.

“We pitch our tent among the trees and set off along the hiking trail.”
(Click each image to enlarge)

“We walk between some huge rocks …”
(Click each image to enlarge)

“On the way down the mountain, we pass behind a tumbling waterfall …”
(Click each image to enlarge)

Early images and spreads from Into the Outdoors (Knopf, 2011)

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?

Susan: While I’m creating a book or sketching roughs for an illustration job, I work in silence. It’s too distracting to listen to anything.

After the sketch stage and while I’m working on the finished art, I listen to internet radio, my iTunes playlists, and NPR podcasts. My favorite internet music site is Six Degrees Traveler. The playlist changes every week, and I love the eclectic selections presented by the host Bob Duskis.

“…and climb up to the very top of the mountain.
But the eagle is higher still, soaring over our heads.”

(Click to enlarge)

Spread (sans text) from Into the Outdoors

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

Susan: I enjoy baking birthday cakes from scratch for family and friends.

Sketch from Into the Outdoors

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

Susan: What was your favorite childhood meal?

Tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich made by my mom.

(Click to enlarge)

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Susan: “Tchotchke.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Susan: The f-word. If my mom heard my siblings or me say it, she would wash our mouths out with soap. I can still remember the taste of Lava Brand pumice soap. Bleh.

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

Susan: A line of poetry, a thoughtful quote, a new skein of yarn, vintage things, a trailhead, late afternoon walks with my dog, indie bookstores.

Jules: What turns you off?

Susan: Rude people and decaf coffee.

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

Susan: “Daymn!”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Susan: Crickets in the evening.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Susan: A cell phone ringing during a movie.

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

Susan: Archeologist.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Susan: An accountant — I’m terrible with numbers.

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

Susan: “We have no cell service, but we do have fresh-pressed coffee. And grilled cheese sandwiches, mom-style.”

* * * * * * *

DAY BY DAY. Copyright © 2012 by Susan Gal. Published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, New York, NY.

INTO THE OUTDOORS. Copyright © 2011 by Susan Gal. Published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, New York, NY.

PLEASE TAKE ME FOR A WALK. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Gal. Published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, New York, NY. Illustrations posted with permission of Susan Gal. (Re-printed here from this earlier 7-Imp post.)

Spreads from NIGHT LIGHTS are copyright © 2009 by Susan Gal and posted with permission of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, New York, NY. (Re-printed here from this earlier 7-Imp post.)

All other artwork and images used with permission of Susan Gal.

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

* * * * * * *

15 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Susan Gal”

  1. WONDERFUL! Thank you, Jules. Susan, we must meet when I return to SF. I love your work and your childhood faves are mine too.
    So glad to meet you here.

  2. Susan’s work is gorgeous, brilliant, child friendly , wondrous , jaw dropping! Love it, and love this interview! Here’s to many more books from this luminous artist.

  3. I am so proud to be your representative and love your distinct look and wonderful textures. ….I am impressed by your gumption for barreling ahead into the children’s book field when it is so difficult for most people to break into. And I am impressed by the quick reception and loyalty you received from Knopf. Here’s to many more successful books for you to enjoy creating.

  4. Susan, your work is such an appealing blend of traditional and digital. I look your sense of color, pattern, composition, but I love your thinking best of all. I can really see how animation was helpful–your characters are playful/lively.

    By the way you can get grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup at the Andy Warhol Museum cafe. I think all us Bay Area people need a lunch gathering featuring those favorites from our childhoods.

  5. oops, meant to say I LOVE, not I look.

  6. Lovely and fun to meet Susan and gaze longingly at this wonderful showcase of her work. My favorite things: tea illustration, elephant book, favorite childhood meal, birthday cakes from scratch, Please Take Me for a Walk cover. 🙂

  7. Wow! Susan’s really given a clear insight into the world of author/illustrator. I’m feeling hopeful now!! Smiles, Anna

  8. Psst…love the texture of each illustration.

  9. oh I love those pigs. Pigs Galore! Glorious Pigs. Great interview.

  10. Thanks for looking at her artwork with me, everyone.

    Both Susan and Christy Hale are making me want grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for dinner.

  11. So much great stuff here. Day by Day looks amazing! The light, color and texture in some of those spreads remind me of my favorite Bonnard and Vuillard paintings. So inspired. And those pigs really rock their lingerie.

  12. I can’t think of anyone saying the Provensens as illustrators they’d like to meet, but they are awesome, aren’t they? They were one of my favorite-favorites when I was small.

    That fox in the tire swing illustration is My Favorite. I want that one on my wall, but I do enjoy all of Gal’s art, maybe especially the book she made when she was in second grade. I love that she shared that.

  13. Late coming to this party but I am sure glad that I did. I own Susan’s Night Lights but I can see more titles making their way into my collection. I love the pure joy in her illustrations. Thank you both, Juels and Susan for this interview.

  14. […] Just click here. […]

  15. […] Remember when author/illustrator Susan Gal visited last year? I’m happy to see she has a new […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.