Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Ruth Paul

h1 June 4th, 2013 by jules

“Ruth Paul lives in an off-grid straw bale house in the middle of a paddock under a wind farm just outside Wellington, New Zealand,” says this site for Walker Books in Australia. And it’s to that straw bale house that I’m heading today (at least cyber’ly) to have breakfast with Ruth.

Ruth saw her U.S. picture book debut (Candlewick) this year with Hedgehog’s Magic Tricks, originally released last year by Walker Books. It’s a “story and artwork as delicate as milkweed floss,” wrote Kirkus Reviews.

I’ve corresponded with Ruth for a couple years now and was pleased to see her books released here in the States. Ruth even visited back in 2010, so be sure to visit that post if you want to see more of her art.

This morning we’re having, says Ruth, “knobbly poached free-range eggs (what’s left of them) with crispy free-range bacon (what’s left of it) on burnt toast, prepared and delivered by my kids. My husband has to make the good, strong coffee to go with it. We’ll plump up the pillows, let the sunshine in, and you can join me in your pyjamas for breakfast in bed.” I’m most excited about the good, strong coffee. Let’s get to it, and I thank Ruth for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Ruth: It used to be illustrator. Now it’s definitely author/illustrator. Which works well if I get bored doing one or the other.

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


(All published in New Zealand/Australia, originally –- other imprints and countries, subsequently.)

Ruth: “A book about my dog. (Doesn’t every picture book person have one of these?)”

This is my first year in the U.S. with Hedgehog’s Magic Tricks [from] Candlewick (I am in love with my Kirkus review and am going to frame it, even though they thought my Red Panda was a dirty old Raccoon –- I can live with that) and Stomp!, coming out in English and Spanish in Scholastic’s book clubs.

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Ruth: I’ll try anything once. My books to date have been in varying bundles of acrylics, chalk, pencil, watercolour, and Photoshop. I’m keen to do a new book in oils now.

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?

Ruth: I’ve illustrated the occasional chapter book, but mostly I try to concentrate on doing my own picture books now. I feel I have greater overall creative control when I can knit the words and pictures together as I go. Also, illustrating your own work means you get to keep the creative angst in-house.

“Hedgehog does magic tricks. His first helper is Mouse.
Hedgehog is going to make Mouse disappear.”

(Click to enlarge spread)

“But it turns out that Duckling is not quite brave enough.”
— Illustrations from
Hedgehog’s Magic Tricks
(First U.S. edition: Candlewick, April 2013)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Ruth: I live on a small farm just outside of Wellington, New Zealand. You’ll all most likely know Wellington as the town where Peter Jackson has his film studios. And, yes, heaps of people I know, myself included, have had a gig on The Hobbit at some point or other.

Spread from Red Panda’s Toffee Apples
(Walker Books, 2013 — will be
Red Panda’s Candy Apples in the U.S., 2014)
(Click to enlarge)

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

Ruth: Student/waitress/actress/postie/receptionist/student/sign-writer/illustrator/dogsbody/writer/illustrator. Something like that. I studied English, history, law, design, and illustration over the years; became a commercial illustrator; illustrated a couple of books by other writers; then started writing my own.

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

Ruth: Website:; Facebook page: Ruth Paul Picture Books.

“I have had books translated into other languages, but I am most excited about this book, as it is my first translated into Maori.”
(Click to enlarge)

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

Ruth: I love school visits. I try to wear nice shoes. I have learned that you should NEVER let children ask you questions. Otherwise, they ask things like “Do you sweat?”, “Do you have a job?”, “Did you write The Hobbit?” and “T-Rexes only have two fingers” (after you’ve shown an almost-finished book in which they have three).

Here is my favorite letter from a recent school visit. You have to read it right to the end to fully appreciate it.

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

Ruth: I get very enthusiastic about everything students do. I see all the potential. But you can’t mark on potential, and I don’t like being mean, so I’d be a terrible teacher.

Ruth: “…a detail from the third book on its way next year…”

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

Ruth: My last few books have had very concise, whittled-down text. So, now—as a knee-jerk reaction—I am writing something long and convoluted and poetic and completely not what a publisher will be likely to want.

In the meantime, I have two contracts lined up for completely new books. (Yay! I get to experiment!)

In brief, I am happy to be employed.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, we’ve got our coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Ruth 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?

Ruth: My eureka moment is when an idea coalesces in my head. I can get very excitable around this time.

First, I have to write the story completely. Then I start sketching out my ideas in thumbnail size and realize how much work there is ahead of me, at which point I feel like I’m standing at the foot of Mount Everest in beach shorts and flippers. Next, I begin the bigger drawings — fun and thick and loose, with a 5B or 6B pencil, usually. These drawings get refined while I make the composition and detail work. Sometimes, if I’m not careful, I lose the magic during this process.

Ruth: “Here are my thumbnails for Stomp! and one of my initial drawings,
which are so loose, compared to the finished art.”

(Click each to enlarge)

I transfer to whatever medium I’m working in or on and start the colouring. I love colour, so this part is fun, fun, fun. My first one or two pieces start to come together and I feel like I’m getting somewhere, and I get a little bit excitable again. Then I look up again and realize I’m not even at Base Camp yet. So, from there on in I just keep my head down and work, work, work ‘til all the illustrations are done.

Many moons later, just when I think I’m broaching the summit, I lift my head up above the ledge and see another whole cliff-face. This is the revision — corrections, touch-ups, sometimes whole new illustrations where one or two aren’t working.

I finally make it to the top, plant my flag, and look back.

That’s when I wonder if my idea was actually any good in the first place.

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

Ruth: I think last time we talked I had a dead sheep in the shower? It’s the room off the garage; it has an old fireplace now, so I don’t freeze to death. It has mice and spiders. I can make it VERY messy when I’m working. My dog chews up firewood and paper on the floor and makes it even messier. This is a photo of it tidy.

[Ed. Note: YES! We had a conversation, involving “boy lamb’s bollocks,” about how someone once confused your job as “illustrator” with “elastrators.” I bet all the money I own it’s the first time someone’s confused artwork for children’s books with a bloodless method of castration for livestock.]

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

Ruth: We weren’t a hugely booky house, but my Dad often told me stories. At some point my parents gave me Hilda Boswell’s Treasury of Children’s Stories. It included “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, “The Snow-Image” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and excerpts from Heidi, David Copperfield, The Arabian Nights, etc. I loved the stories. I LOVED the pictures. I would lie in my bed and look at them and imagine myself inside them.

Here are two that I truly loved (don’t ask me why) –- one from The Arabian Nights and one of David Copperfield after a bath in Miss Betsey’s home. I totally wanted my own silvery ocean, or a bed and a windowsill like David’s.

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.)

Ruth: Does it have to be illustrators? Or even author/illustrators? Movie stars, deep-sea divers, people who work for NASA maybe? We illustrators spend far too much time alone with our pencils to be the best drinking buddies. (Okay, so all my illustrator friends, you KNOW I’m only joking.)

If it has to be illustrators, then I’d rule out all the ones that are bonkers, all the ones that are too earnest, all the ones who are only good talking to their pets and studio-ornaments, and all the ones who are nervous with their peers’ successes. That leaves me with … hmmm … lets see … well, not me, actually. In which case, these three people (who’s work I greatly admire) could go to the pub without me: Emma Chichester Clark, Brian Wildsmith, and Ayano Imai.

Ruth: “This is a companion book for Stomp!…”
(Click to enlarge)

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?

Ruth: When I write, I listen to nothing. When I illustrate, sometimes I listen to Radio New Zealand, our national public broadcast radio station. I have, in fact, developed a long-time crush on one of the radio presenter’s voices. This is what happens when you spend too much time alone.

My current favourite songs are “The Gin-Soaked Boy” by The Divine Comedy, “Zorbing” by Stornoway, “Caravan of Love” by The Housemartins, and “Willow” by Joan Armatrading.

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

Ruth: Oh, darn it. I have no secrets at all.

Spreads from Stomp! (Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2011)
(Click each to enlarge)

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

Ruth: I know you’re dying to tell me about the illustration course you went to in Amherst last year …

Yes, indeed!

It’s called the Illustration Masterclass, or IMC, and runs for a week every June in the Amherst University campus. I wanted to be a student again, to be in a place where I could be surprised by learning, and I found this course online. It kind of leans towards fantasy art, which is not my thing, but the previous years tutoring line-up included Mo Willems and Peter de Sève. So, I booked in from New Zealand, knowing very little about it — and it was fantastic! I want to recommend it to everyone, but then again I want to come back and maybe there’ll be no room for me if I do. So, I won’t. (It’s terrible. You shouldn’t go).

he place is all manicured lawns and leafy chestnut trees, fat squirrels and chipmunks. You get to work in a studio environment for one whole week and be taught by experts. There was plenty of picture book talent for someone like me to admire, including Adam Rex, Jeff Mack, Jim Gurney, Rebecca Guay, and Scott Fischer. While other students worked on their fantasy masterpieces, I got fixated talking to chipmunks, and all I finally managed to draw was one small dog. But that’s okay. I had more time to listen to lectures and watch others working. And here he is, my dog from IMC 2012, on the back cover of my latest book.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Ruth: “Doggerel.”

Now I have to go and change all my passwords.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Ruth: “Poop.”

Sorry, America.

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

Ruth: The oddest things. I know what it is when my heart leaps out. My love for my children. Great talent. Tiny kindnesses. If you are allowed to show this, here is a picture by Emma Chichester Clark (from The Pied Piper of Hamelin as retold by Michael Morpugo) that totally rings my bells:

Jules: What turns you off?

Ruth: Bad picture books. Cruelty. Tapeworms.

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

Ruth: I can’t write it here. You’d kick me off the blog!

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Ruth: Everyone says this, but it’s true: children’s laughter.

And I’ve always thought that the letter “L” sounds like water.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Ruth: Small-minded people talking.

And the high-pitched squeal that the dentist’s scaler makes in my brain when it hits my top right molar.

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

Ruth: Medicine. Politics.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Ruth: Emergency Services. Which means I’d be hopeless in both of the above.

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

Ruth: “Haere mai! Welcome.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images are used with permission of Ruth Paul.

HEDGEHOG’S MAGIC TRICKS. Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Paul. First U.S. edition 2013. Published by Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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

9 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Ruth Paul”

  1. Love all of this, but especially the wearing of good shoes to school visits (all those children sitting on the floor, of course!) and the crush on the radio announcer’s voice. And as always, the peek at process. Thank you both!

  2. Delightful interview! Ruth’s candor is so funny and helpful at the same time. Thanks to you both.

  3. A slight twinge at the straw bale house burst into fully-fledged envy by the time we got to her workroom. Such lovely illustrations coming from such a beautiful place. And she gives a funny interview, too? :sigh:

  4. I am fortunate enough to have stumbled into a shared studio with Ruth some years ago- it was the best- ‘oh heck why not- she can’t be too loopy decision’ I ever made. She is both a marvellous illustrator and friend- and being talented at friendship is indeed a fine thing 🙂

  5. This was really fun to read. Thank you so much, Jules and Ruth – for your forthrightness! Lovely art work. I look forward to the books.

  6. I have to find Ruth’s books. This was a particularly delightful interview. Ruth’s answers are often surprising and funny, and oh how the letter from the student made me laugh! Good stuff!

  7. Glorious interview – thank you. I have laughed aloud at various points and had to read the snippets to my husband. I love that letter! And I too loved Hilda Boswell’s books as a child and I still have very clear recall of many of her illustrations.

  8. […] Seven Impossible Things interview This entry was posted in Children’s Books by Ruth. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  9. […] read a recent interview with me at the fabulous Seven Impossible Things blog, click here. And for a slightly older interview at the same place, click […]

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