If you haven’t seen Molly Idle’s newest wordless picture book—Flora and the Flamingo (Chronicle, February 2013), pictured above—and you are a true blue picture book fan, you should take a look, especially if you like to see an illustrator show you how line and movement can tell a story. (The book also includes flaps—see here for a demonstration—which really seem to serve a purpose and aren’t just there for kicks and grins.) If you don’t believe me, check out these review excerpts: Kirkus, for one, praises Idle’s “[c]ourageous use of white space” and the “flowing, musical quality of the illustrations” (“one can almost hear the 3/4 beat of a waltz in the background,” the review adds); Publishers Weekly calls it “seamless and dynamic visual storytelling”; and in her detailed review Betsy Bird called it no less than a “perfect amalgamation of wordless storytelling,” noting its “likable (or at least understandable) characters, and an artistic sensibility that will make you forget its unique formatting and remind you only of the classic picture book days of yore.”
This isn’t Molly’s first book, by any means, so she’s here today, ’cause I asked her for breakfast, to talk about her work thus far and work to come. As for breakfast? Well, I love it. Most people say, “sure, let’s have some cyber-coffee and, er, eggs. Yeah! Eggs!” But Molly gives this a lot of thought:
Well, any breakfast for me has to start with coffee. I’ve got my little workhorse of an espresso machine in the kitchen, and—even though I’m a morning person—the first thing I do is shuffle out of bed and push the button! After an espresso, I’m game for eating just about anything, but I really love to bake. Hate cooking. Love baking. Cooking: Feels like something you have to do. People gotta eat. But baking: I mean, you never have to bake fresh blueberry muffins, but you can if you want to, right? So, let’s have coffee and a blueberry muffin, hot from the oven. Or maybe two. Alright. Three.
Indeed, her homemade blueberry muffins are pictured below, as well as her coffee maker. (I often feel like my coffee mugs, which hold the sweet, brown lifeblood, are smiling at me, telling me in my delusional way that everything really will be okay, but Molly’s truly is attempting to cheer us, bless it.)
Let’s get to the interview, and I thank Molly for visiting and sharing art. (Note: Nearly all of the books in this Q&A are linked to Changing Hands bookstore, which is the bookstore local to Molly.)
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
Molly (pictured left): Both! I love the freedom that working on my own books provides, the emergence of the story and characters from that first idea to finished book. There’s an immense feeling of accomplishment that accompanies putting an entire picture book puzzle together.
On the other hand, having the opportunity to illustrate someone else’s story is like being given an incredible gift. Suddenly, someone plops a whole world in your lap and you get to explore it. How cool is that?!
(Click to enlarge)
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?
Molly: A baker’s dozen of them. But my favorites are always the one I’ve just finished, or the ones I’m working on, or the ones I have’t started yet. At the time I’m writing this, the ones I’ve just finished are: Flora and the Flamingo (Chronicle Books, March 2013), Tea Rex (Viking, April 2013), and Zombelina (written by Kristyn Crow, Bloomsbury/Walker Books, Fall 2013).
[Ed. Note: To learn more about Molly’s previous titles, visit this page of her site.]
Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?
Molly: I work with Prismacolor pencils. Only pencils. I don’t paint. There is something wonderful about painters; they embrace the often quixotic qualities of their medium, and there’s something very beautiful and very Zen about that. But that is so not me. I’m the kind of person who color codes my pencils, who straightens the papers on my desk at the end of each day (and then straightens the paperclips on the papers). I am type A to the extreme when it comes to my work. And so paint and I … well, we don’t blend too well (ba-dum bum-bum).
But pencils?! Now you’re talking! I love pencils. The feel of them in my hand. The precise line-work they can produce. The smell of the pencil shavings. Heck, I even love the little “scritching” sound they make as they move across the paper!
Jules: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as both early readers and picture books) can you briefly discuss the differences in illustrating for one age group to another?
Molly: I’m strictly a picture book person at this point, though lately I’ve been itching to try my hand at chapter books. I love black and white pencil work!
But, as to working on different types of stories, my early career was spent working in animation. And, really, animation is simply another form of visual storytelling. The work flow is very different, being part of a large crew of artists working on a film vs. working alone in my studio. But so many of the basic premises are the same.
In fact, when I approach the creation of a new book, I think about it in the same way I would when staging a film. Each illustration is a scene or shot to me. Whether it’s on film or in a book, it’s about finding the right image that captures your imagination — and a moment of time.
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Molly: I’m in sunny Tempe, Arizona! We really only have two seasons here: Summer (a.k.a. “WHY do we live here?!”) and Winter (a.k.a. balmy and 70 degrees, also a.k.a. “Ah yes, THIS is why we live here!”)
The Little Black Dress of Cats
(Click to enlarge)
Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Molly: I was working as an artist for DreamWorks Animation, and I loved it. Working in animation was all I had ever wanted to do. Drawing all day. It doesn’t get better than that!
After about five years there, the studio announced that they were going completely digital and offering CGI training to all of the artists who wanted to stay on. I started in on the training and, after about six months, found that I just didn’t enjoy it. For the first time in my life, I became a clock-watcher, glancing up from my computer screen constantly to see how much time had gone by. But there were other artists who dove into it. Loved it! They were staying at work till midnight, absorbing all they could. That’s when I knew I needed to find something else. Because the only way to be your best at something is to love it.
So, I started thinking about what else I could do for a living that would allow me to draw all day, because drawing was (and is) what I really love to do. Little did I know, when I started pursuing illustration, that I would find would so much more than just another way to earn a living. I would find the artistic love of my life, making books!
My Shadow (Child’s World, 2011)
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?
It is so much fun to work on new projects with these characters! Every time I sit down at my desk with them it’s like getting together with old friends.
Okay, the coffee’s brewed, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Molly 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?
Molly: The initial ideas always seem to come when I least expect it. Never have I ever sat down at my desk and thought, “Right. Let’s think up an idea for a new book!”, and then come up with something brilliant. Usually, I’ll be driving, or cooking, or working on something else entirely, and an idea will pop on just like a lightbulb. And I’ll jot it down, usually with a very rough sketch in my notebook. It can percolate in there a long time, usually a few months, but sometimes years. I’ll keep adding to that initial thought. More scribbled notes, more sketches (see photo of a page in my notebook). And none of it is very legible to anyone but me.
It’s only when I’ve worked out the characters and story in my mind and compiled copious notes that I sit down at my desk to start sorting things out in proper sketches. That’s when I really get to know the book. Because no matter how thoroughly I think I’ve thought things through in my head, there’s nothing like working it out on the page. In the process of drawing, I really figure things out. How a character’s emotion lends itself to a particular gesture, how that gesture leads into the pose or placement of another character, how the placement of that character necessitates a page turn, and how that page turn moves the story forward to a particular point. For all of my notes and planning in my head, it can (and often does) all change when I start to put together that first dummy. I work straight through, page one to the end, then repeat and repeat and repeat….
Tea Rex (Viking, April 2013)
Once I have all of the sketches the way I want them (and the way my editor and art director want them, too), I scan them and print out the scans at 125%. Then I transfer the sketches by hand to a sheet of Bristol on my light table. I know it would be quicker to print my sketches directly onto the Bristol, but I really like doing it by hand. Once the line art is finished, I work each piece from back to front, building up layer upon layer of colored pencils with increasing amounts of pressure.
(Click to enlarge)
(Click to enlarge)
Prismacolors are wax-based, so the friction that is created by the applied pressure softens them juuuust enough to allow me to blend the colors one into another without using solvents or burnishers. Just pencils and paper. Pure and simple.
2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Molly: My studio is awesome — and so are the people I share it with! When we started planning it out, it was going to be a 9’ x 12′ glorified shed. Just a little extra space where everyone could go to work on their projects away from the hustle and bustle of the house. Living in a multi-generational household with my husband, our boys, and my parents, there’s always a lot of hustle and bustle! So, we needed a place for my desk, for my husband’s books, a rehearsal space for my mom’s improv classes, workbenches for my dad…. Well, If you’ve ever read the book or seen the movie, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, then you’ll be able to appreciate how our 9’ x 12′ shed grew to the size of another house in the middle of our back yard.
At any point in time, you can walk in there and find me scribbling away, books being read, ships being built, an improvisational drama class performing, or—if my boys are in there—an epic light saber battle! My corner of the studio is filled with everything I need to work — layout space, a light table, shelving, pencils, rubber chicken, and Stuart, a little stuffed frog my sister made for me when we were little. He’s my “Do Not Disturb” sign. When Stuart is on the desk, my boys know that I’m working, but when Stuart is hanging from my desk lamp (in an act of acrobatic daring-do), it’s play time. Light saber battles and general ruckus may commence.
3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Molly: Seuss for sure. He was read nightly at our house. But I was a huge Daniel Pinkwater fan, too (still am)! The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death — genius!! Then there’s Little Women. I’ve read it so many times I’ve lost count.
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? (Some people cheat and list deceased authors/illustrators. I won’t tell.)
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?
Molly: I love to listen to music while I work on sketches! My current work-time playlist includes: Bing Crosby, Andrew Bird, Devotchka, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones, the Muppets, Ella Fitzgerald. When I’m working on final art for a book, I usually switch to listening to audio books. The Harry Potter series as read by Jim Dale is a perennial favorite of mine.
6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Molly: My family calls me “Attila the Pun.”
7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Molly: Ironically, I’ve always wanted to have an excuse to answer the Pivot Questionnaire. But now I can check that off my list because … here it is!
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Molly: Skill, confidence, perseverance, kindness.
Jules: What turns you off?
Molly: Ignorance and pessimism.
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Molly: The curse symbols in comics (#$!*&).
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Molly: My boys laughing.
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Molly: Screeching tires.
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Molly: “Yep, it keeps going.”
All artwork and images used with permission of Molly Idle.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.