Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lisa Brown

h1 July 15th, 2014 by jules

It’s a sort of miracle that this breakfast interview is even happening, since both author-illustrator Lisa Brown and I are not morning people. Oh wait, right. It’s a cyber-breakfast, but still … If it were a real, face-to-face breakfast, you can bet that we’d be having our chat over an afternoon snack, despite the name of this blog.

Another thing we share in common? A deep and abiding love for coffee (which certainly helps make our mornings easier), so I’m glad she was willing to come have pretend coffee with me today so that we could see lots and lots of her art. In fact, she says her usual breakfast is “a cup of coffee, then some toast and peanut butter, maybe some fruit smoothie if there is any left over from my husband and son, who will have been awake and functioning WAY before I shuffle into the kitchen in my pajamas, exhausted with the effort of having to wake up and shuffle into the kitchen. Then more coffee.” I can get behind these multiple rounds of coffee.

This year, Lisa saw the release of two illustrated titles, Lemony Snicket’s 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (McSweeney’s McMullens, February 2014) and Cathleen Daly’s Emily’s Blue Period, which just received a starred Horn Book review.

I love to follow Lisa’s work, and it was good to have a chance here to ask her what she’s up to next. There is a freshness and warmth to her watercolors that can be terrifically child-friendly, but there’s also an edge to many of her books (especially for older readers) and paintings. (She’s doing a sketch a day this year, as you’ll read below, which you can follow here.) As Martha Parravano writes in that Horn Book review, her work can be elegant. Yet she also embraces the enigmatic, as with 29 Myths. And embracing the enigmatic is always good. (Embracing the Enigmatic. Band name. I call it!)

I thank Lisa for visiting this morning and sharing as much art as she does.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Lisa: I like to say “Illustrator/Author/Cartoonist.”

Above: Lisa’s New Year resolution was to post a sketch for every day of 2014.

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

Lisa: As writer and illustrator:



As illustrator:

As co-author and illustrator:

Lisa: “To promote Picture the Dead, Adele Griffin and I would dress as Victorians.”

Jules: What is your usual medium?

Lisa: I jump between brush and India ink with watercolor and a purely digital style that I do with Adobe Illustrator. Lately, I’ve also been combining the watercolor stuff with some digital collage: I scan in my original watercolor and ink drawing, then layer it over different found or created textures that I’ve scanned into the computer.

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?

Lisa: I find that there isn’t really a difference to my approach in terms of the age range of my audience. It has more to do with the subject matter; each one is different and so requires a different angle, whether it be different medium, structure or style. A humorous book about the Pope will look different than a board book will look different than a cozy bedtime book will look different than an illustrated ghost story for young adults.

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Lisa: San Francisco most of the time. Cape Cod some of the time.


Color test for Emily’s Blue Period




Early sketches and tests


“Jack is hiding behind a big couch. He won’t comeout. ‘This is my FORTRESS! No one can come back here!’ ‘Come on, Jack,’ says Dad. But Jack won’t budge.”
(Click to enlarge)



Above: Some final art from Emily’s Blue Period (without text)


[The below images are an illustration from Emily’s Blue Period —the last image just below, that is—with reference images: the paintings on the wall, plus reference for the character’s stuffed animal, based on a toy horse belonging to Picasso’s son Claude.]


(Click to enlarge)

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

Lisa: Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to write and illustrate picture books. But then I went to college, got a degree in English and History, and sort of lost momentum on my art. I started working for a magazine doing admin, editing, and production, and then went back to school for graphic design. In the meantime, my husband, whom I met in college, was busy becoming Lemony Snicket. So when I was ready and had paid off some student loans, I borrowed his agent and his editor and pitched (and sold) my first book.

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


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


Lisa Brown -- photo is © Ashley Thompson Photography

Lisa at a school visit, explaining where the picture book gutter is


Lisa: I used to do a specific presentation tailored to each of my books: How to Be, for instance, was a slide show starring my father-in-law pretending to be different animals, to ridiculous effect.


Lisa: “[This is] from a school visit slide show. My lovely late father-in-law,
acting ridiculous for me.”


Vampire Boy’s Good Night had pictures of my husband dressed up as a very low-rent vampire and stalking me in my studio and reacting to a light box.


(Click each to enlarge)

Nowadays, I do a presentation that talks about how I make a book, in general, with slides, cartoons, and the showing of sketch dummies. I always end my talks with a collaborative drawing for and with the students, which grew out of my work leading bookmaking field trips at 826 Valencia.

Lisa: “[This is] a cartoon I made based on a workshop I’ve run at 826 Valencia tutoring center for kids — about how to write ghost stories.”
(Click to enlarge)

Jules: Tell me how teaching illustration influences your work as an illustrator, if at all.

Lisa: I’ve just started to teach picture book writing and illustration at the California College of the Arts, and I absolutely love it. I find that the act of trying to explain what makes a picture book or an illustration successful helps me to figure out how to go about making a successful book myself. I also use the class as a bully pulpit to extol the importance of picture books as perfect little pieces of mass-produced art.

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

Lisa: Mummy Cat, written by Marcus Ewert and illustrated by me, is all handed in and coming out in the summer of 2015.


(Click to enlarge)


The Airport, written and illustrated by me, is in process and coming out. [Below are sketches, color tests, etc.]


(Click to enlarge)


I dunno. I work unbearably slowly on things I care a lot about. Don’t tell my editor.

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, I’ve got more coffee, and we are sufficiently awake. It’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Lisa 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?

Lisa: When I’m writing the book myself, I start with an almost finished manuscript. I recognize that words will change once I get to drawing, but I need a text with a beginning, middle, and end upon which to build. Then I sketch out a tiny thumbnail storyboard of all the pages. It helps me if I can see the entire structure of a book all at once, number of pages and proportions and everything. I redraw my thumbnails bigger and bigger until they are almost full-size, and then I construct a dummy book. I need to see the book as a physical book, with turnable pages and set type, so I can grasp how everything is working. I was trained as a graphic designer, so I lay out everything in a layout program as if I am designing the final book. It often ends up very close to looking like the final book.

I’m also addicted to reference. I have stacks of books and folders of JPGs, sourced both on the internet and via my camera, for every book I do.

When it’s time to do the final art, I play around and test techniques and pull my hair out and cry and complain to anyone who will listen and then figure it out.

[Pictured below are some thumbnails and dummies, etc. from a presentation Lisa gives about how she makes a book. Click each to enlarge.]

(Click each image above to enlarge)

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

Lisa: I work in a little studio apartment in the basement of a house where my best friend from high school (and senior prom date, pictured above) lives with his husband. It’s filled with books and pictures cut out from magazines and printed out from the computer and stuck all over the walls and with lots of tubes of paint and bottles of ink and stained brushes and a sink full of dirty coffee cups.

(Click each studio pic to enlarge)

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


Lisa: “My brother and I watching Sesame Street, 1976.
I was terrified and obsessed with The Count.”

Lisa: Oh I was, and am, SUCH a bookworm. My favorite books as a little kid were The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright, Georgie by Robert Bright, A Woggle of Witches by Adrienne Adams, and Sarah’s Room by Doris Orgel, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

My chapter book obsessions: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, the Emily of New Moon books by L.M. Montgomery, The Girl With the Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, the Westmark books by Lloyd Alexander, and the Wizard of Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. And I finally, after many an extensive internet search, found a book that I absolutely adored but had been unable to hunt down before, Elizabeth Elizabeth by Eileen Dunlop, published in 1977.

In high school, I became smitten with the work of Edward Gorey, with whom I have never fallen out of love.


Lisa: “A friend of mine won one of Edward Gorey’s fur coats at an auction,
and she let me try it on.”

Now I am immersed in reading a bunch of classic novels that I’ve never gotten around to exploring — for a book that I’m doing with more of my three-panel book reviews.




(Click each to enlarge)

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.)

Lisa: Tomi Ungerer. Quentin Blake. Isabelle Arsenault.

[Pictured below are sketches and finals from Lemony Snicket’s 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy, including how Lisa applies digital texture and collage, as well as different versions of the same page.]


(Click to enlarge)


(Color test)


Final art: “‘What can you tell me about it that I don’t already know?’
Your lies bounce off its windows like spinning discarded tops.”


Reference image


(Click sketch to enlarge)


Final art: “People get sick all the time,
but nobody gets better because of the Swinster Pharmacy.”


(Click to enlarge)


“…We followed one of them home one night and he lived in a house right across from another pharmacy. The employee, not the coat.”


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?

Lisa: The Free Pop Electronic Concept is the album that is playing on my stereo right now. It’s kinda go-go jazz, I dunno. It sounds like a disco in a 1960s’ comedy. My husband put it on. He listens to music — all kinds, non-stop. I listen to it too, because I live with him.

When he’s out of town, I have been known to sit in silence for days on end — to his total amazement. When I’m drawing, I listen to NPR all day long. When I’m writing, it’s something without words, like Haydn or Bach, that I put on and then don’t hear a note.

That last album just ended and now, apparently, we are listening to the soundtrack to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958. Very orientalist.

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

Lisa: That I’ve seen every single episode of Golden Girls. More than once.

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

Lisa: Q: Would you like another cup of coffee?

A: I thought you’d never ask.

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Lisa: “Ennui.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Lisa: “Panties.”

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

Lisa: My husband.

Jules: What turns you off?

Lisa: Fonts masquerading as hand-lettering.

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

Lisa: “Fuck-ing A.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Lisa: Waves crashing on the beach.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Lisa: Kids whining in the supermarket.

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

Lisa: Librarian.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Lisa: Receptionist who has to be at work early in the morning. I hate talking on the phone. I hate waking up in the morning.

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

Lisa: “Come on in, and feel free to sleep as late as you like … for eternity.”

* * * * * * *

All artwork and images are used with permission of Lisa Brown.

The opening head shot of Lisa Brown and the studio pics are copyright © Kristen Sard.

The school visit photo of Lisa is copyright © Ashley Thompson Photography.

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

9 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Lisa Brown”

  1. A wealth of delicious images and stories! Love the images of that vampire hanging out at the studio…. and I can’t wait to add Mummy Cat to my bookshelf!

  2. So. Much. To. Love. My fave part is the photo of Lisa Brown and her brother… I, too, was petrified of the Count, and yet Could. Not. Stay. Away.

    I especially like that her watercolor sketches are so varied – the diversity of them — tattoos! hairy arms! pipes! Mummy cats!! — and I think every single one of her projects look like so much fun. Can’t wait for that airport thing, and the three-panel book reviews remind me of Kate Beaton.

  3. Love it so much. Really good hearing about the process. I much appreciate the art references. Smart books.

    Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to checking out Lisa’s books.

  4. SO love her work, and now I have a crush on her, too!

  5. Yes, Lisa Brown! I need Mummy Cat NOW – but I’ll settle for adding it to the Forthcoming Books list at my blog. 🙂 Three cheers for your 3-panel book reviews, the workspace pictures, The Golden Girls, and other assorted delightful comments and anecdotes.

  6. Thank you. It’s nice to get to know Lisa Brown and her work. I’m a big fan now!

  7. I have just finished reading Emily’s Blue Period again…and then again! I had not seen a lot of Lisa’s art and am so appreciative of the work you do to bring these amazing people to our attention as PEOPLE…to admire, and to know better! Thank you for all you do to make my reading life even more interesting than it is already is, Jules!

  8. […] week, I wrote here about Marcus Ewert’s Mummy Cat (Clarion, July 2015), illustrated by Lisa Brown; Anita Lobel’s Playful Pigs from A to Z (Knopf, July 2015); and Kate Beaton’s The […]

  9. […] Marcus Ewert Illustrator: Lisa Brown (interview at 7 Imp’) Publisher: Clarion Books, 2015 Book Type: Fiction Ages: 4-8 Themes: Ancient Egypt, […]

Leave a Comment

Should you have trouble posting, please contact Thanks.