Author-illustrator Nick Bruel is serious about breakfast. When I ask him what pretend-breakfast-of choice we’ll pretend-have over pretend-coffee this morning, his answer is detailed (right after my own breakfast-lovin’ heart):
Choice? Well, the finest breakfast dish I ever had was an oatmeal crème brulee from a hotel somewhere in Miami. It was dessert; it was breakfast; it was oatmeal; it was sugary; it was delicious, and I’ve never had anything like it since. But my typical breakfast of choice is some nice, fresh, untoasted sourdough bread and a quality olive oil for dipping. I especially like a mushroom-roasted garlic oil that comes from a shop in Tarrytown, NY, called Pure Mountain Olive Oil.
Years ago when I traveled in China, my favorite breakfast dish was what Westerners here call congee, which is a hot rice porridge accompanied by at least half a dozen small dishes filled with assorted items, like egg or pickle or vegetables. You scoop out some of the hot rice mush into your bowl and add whatever you feel like from the smaller dishes. If you do it right, it can be delightful.
I have a lot to say about breakfast. I like breakfast.
Nick’s Bad Kitty, one of children’s literature’s most refreshingly naughty characters, appeared ten years ago—“Bruel’s little black star is perhaps the hammiest, most expressive feline ever captured in watercolors,” wrote Kirkus at the character’s debut—and it’s safe to say things haven’t been the same for Bruel since. Bad Kitty’s adventures began with a picture book, which then turned into a bestselling chapter book series.
But Nick started out with picture books and returns to them, in part, this year with the release this month of A Wonderful Year (our purple friend above comes from this story), already the recipient of a handful of positive reviews, some starred.
Nick talks about that new book, and much more below, and I thank him for visiting. As you’ll read, we may have a few shots with our coffee. (What? I’m up for just about anything.)
Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
Nick: Both. So there.
Jules: Can you list your books-to-date? (If there are too many books to list here, please list your five most recent illustrated titles or the ones that are most prominent in your mind, for whatever reason.)
Bob and Otto, written by my father, Robert O. Bruel.
The upcoming A Wonderful Year –- possibly my best book.
Jules: What is your usual medium?
Nick: Pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, and stress.
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?
[Pictured left: The first-ever painting of Bad Kitty.]
Nick: The different challenges between making books for these particular age ranges have less to do with the illustrations and more with the writing. When writing picture books, I have to pace my story to fit into those exact 32 or 40 page measurements. When writing the chapter books, I can just go hog wild and keep writing the story until I think it’s done.
As for the art — interestingly, the picture books and the chapter books both take me an equal amount of time to illustrate. The picture books are much shorter but are painted in color. The Bad Kitty chapter books may all be illustrated monochromatically, but some of those beasts are as much as 160 pages long, almost all of them fully illustrated.
Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Nick (pictured right in first grade): Until recently, we lived in bucolic Tarrytown, NY. Now we live in equally bucolic Briarcliff Manor, NY. And if that name sounds at all familiar, then, yes, the name of the insane asylum where all the mayhem takes place in the second season of American Horror Story is “Briarcliff Manor.”
Jules: Can you tell me about your road to publication?
Nick: I worked at a children’s bookstore in NYC called Books Of Wonder for over seven years. The store’s still there. During my evenings, I spent all my time creating and selling cartoons to various magazines and trade journals. About halfway through my tenure at BOW, I began to combine my interests and create my own kid book manuscripts. A regular customer named Jennie Dunham was curious about my work and eventually became my agent. A former store manager named Schuyler Hooke recommended me to a friend of his, who happened to be the great Neal Porter, who had just started the then fledgling Roaring Brook. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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.
Nick: Because my books target a pretty wide age range, I get to talk to lots of different age groups. For the most part, I like to conduct an exercise on how to come up with story ideas, which I cater to each grade level. For 5th graders, I like to conduct what I call a “cartooning symposium” that’s really an exercise on overcoming writer’s block. When the rare opportunity arises for me to speak to middle schoolers, I like to give a talk on criticism and censorship.
Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Nick: I will have five brand new titles that I’ve both written and illustrated coming out in 2015. Crazy, right? In January, the newest Bad Kitty chapter books comes out, which will be Bad Kitty: Puppy’s Big Day, the first chapter book to feature Puppy.
In May will be some new Bad Kitty stuff. First, a picture/chapter/activity book titled Bad Kitty Makes Comics, my instruction manual on how kids can make their own comics with Bad Kitty and Strange Kitty as their guides.
At the same time will come the first Bad Kitty early readers, Bad Kitty Does Not Like Dogs and Bad Kitty Does Not Like Candy. These two books may represent the opening salvo of what may become the next Bad Kitty series.
Lastly, on the same day as the release of Puppy’s Big Day will come my first non-Bad Kitty book in many years, A Wonderful Year. [Some spreads are pictured below.] This concept behind this book came to me when I woke up one morning contemplating what I might have done if I was asked to do my own Nutshell Library. The book will be four short stories in one picture book, each story set in one of the seasons of the year. Each story will be independent of each other, but none of them could really exist without the other three. When kids ask me what my favorite book may be, I always tell them that I don’t have a favorite. And I don’t. But having said that, A Wonderful Year may indeed be my best book.
Okay, we’ve got more coffee, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Nick 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?
Nick: My process is pretty similar for all of my books, but I’ll describe it specific to how I make the chapter books.
First I take a shower. Seriously. Some of my best ideas come to me while hot water is pouring onto my head. The shower is just a great place for me to focus my thoughts.
Once inspiration has hit me and I’ve dried off, I like to put all of my early thoughts on paper. These really will be random thoughts, and they may not even take a linear shape in the form of a story.
to be released in January 2016
(Click to enlarge)
Once I do have a story in mind, I will go to the computer and type out a detailed outline. The typical Bad Kitty chapter book outline is around 5-6 pages, single spaced. I like to describe outlines as being like maps for the story itself. Every now and then, you like to get into a car knowing exactly where you’re going and how to get there — point A to point B to point C … and so on. But every now and then you get sidetracked or lost or just feel like going off-road for a bit. That’s okay. Most maps delineate multiple routes.
Next, I go back to pen and paper. I have to. Because my books are so heavily illustrated and because I firmly believe that illustrations tell a story just as much as words do, I start writing and sketching at the same time. This 160-page mess of hand-drawn and hand-written pages doesn’t even represent the manuscript because …
(Click to enlarge)
Next I take all of those loose sketches and make clean, penciled illustrations on hot pressed Arches watercolor pages. I use the hot pressed stuff after Jerry Pinkney suggested it to me, because the smooth texture works will with pen and ink. (This will not be the first big name I drop. Everyone can drink their first shot now.)
Once everything has been penciled, I scan all of the pages individually. Once scanned, I create a computer design file where I combine all of my words and pictures for submission, because THIS file will be the manuscript, the book dummy.
It all sounds like a complex process, but I have it so streamlined now that it all goes pretty smoothly.
(Click to enlarge)
Once my editor has give me the green light to finish the artwork, I outline all of my penciled pages with good ol’ fashioned crow quill pen (a Gilliott 1290, to be specific) and ink. After the ink’s dried, I paint everything except for Kitty in watercolor paints. Kitty, I paint with gouache. That’s because gouache is solid and opaque. I could never get that deep, even [the] black in Kitty, by painting her with watercolors. Also, painting her with a different medium helps her to stand out from her background.
2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Nick: If you’ve ever seen the last scene of Blair Witch Project, then you’ve seen my studio office. I gave up a long time ago trying to be tidy with my workspace. It’s just a filthy mess of papers and loose paint tubes and pens and cat hair. All I need is one can of spilled motor oil, and I think I could apply to the government to label my office as a superfund site.
3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Nick: One guy that few people remember, but everyone should, is Jack Kent. He was one of the rare breed of children’s book creators who also had his own syndicated comic strip in the newspapers for years.
I remember his work well from when I was a kid and admire him greatly to this day, even though almost none of his books remain in print. There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon I believe is still in print. But everyone should look in their libraries for Joey and Silly Goose and Socks For Supper to see what smart, simply-executed pictures look like. I would love to see his work re-discovered.
I’m also a great admirer of my good friend Jules Feiffer. (Take another shot.) His multi-faceted career in cartooning and children’s books and theatre and novels is the kind of career I would most like to emulate.
I honestly think that Bark, George is the closest thing we have to a perfect picture book in this generation.
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.)
Nick: This is a bit of a problem for me, because I’ve met a lot of my heroes already — not because of what I do now, but because of what I used to do. Working as a bookseller, like I did, gave me the opportunity to meet tons of great talent. I had several discussions with Shel Silverstein, who was a regular customer. (Take a shot.) I spoke at great length once with Maurice Sendak (shot). Lane Smith lived, literally, next door to the store. I’ve already met pretty much everyone. (You know what to do.) But a few more people do come to mind.
I’m a huge fan of Cynthia Rylant. I think her Mr. Putter and Tabby series is the finest “I Can Read” series out there for kids. I’ve met the illustrator, Arthur Howard, several times and told him as much. I think she really has the knack for writing for children, as evidenced by all of her marvelous books and series. I would love to sit and have lunch with her someday.
I owe a great deal to Lois Ehlert. When I was first writing Bad Kitty, I was stumped as to what to use for “x” in alphabet of vegetables that’s in that book. My last resort was to “borrow” what Ehlert did for her sublime Eating The Alphabet, which was to use “xigua.” I could not have completed that first Bad Kitty book without that filling in that one letter. I’ve often said that if I ever get the opportunity to meet Lois Ehlert, I owe her a nice box of chocolates.
Lastly, I’m going to cheat and invoke a deceased artist: Dick King-Smith. I was given the lovely opportunity to illustrate five of his shorter novels a few years ago. I leaped on this opportunity, because I really wanted to share cover credits with him. And I very much wanted these books to be an opportunity to meet him. But, alas, he died shortly after the final book, Clever Duck, came out. I do regret not having made more of an effort to contact him, if only by mail.
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?
Nick: When I’m writing, I can’t listen to ANYTHING. When writing, I need to be inside something as close to a sensory deprivation tank as I can get. Even the smallest distraction can really throw me off my game.
But when I’m illustrating, anything goes. My recent habit, oddly enough, has been to watch—but, really, listen to—Netflix. I love British mysteries, because they’re paced slowly, and you can listen to them like you would a radio drama and not feel like you’re missing anything. Poirot has been great. My most recent obsession has been Midsomer Murders. Good stuff!
6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Nick: Even people who know me personally don’t necessarily know that I am half Chinese. My father is Belgian (hence, “Bruel”), but my mother was born in Shanghai. I don’t think my Chinese upbringing comes through in my work much. But it’s certainly a part of my personal life.
7. Jules: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Nick: “What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?”
Oh, wait. Never mind.
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Nick: “Roofer,” as in someone who builds and repairs roofs. There is just no elegant way to say that word out loud.
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Did I just get myself into trouble?
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Nick: Solitude. I love my little family. But I also really love being alone.
Jules: What turns you off?
Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Nick: “#@%&*!” I’ve used this word-that’s-not-really-a-word in several of my books. You’d be amazed by how many angry emails, judgmental blog posts, and outraged Amazon reviews I’ve received because of this “word.” They only encourage me to use it again and again. And I have.
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Nick: My daughter’s laughter.
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Nick: My daughter’s complaints.
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Nick: My wife Carina always says I could have been an actor. That might have been fun.
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Nick: I’ve never been a waiter. I honestly don’t think it’s a job I could physically sustain. I feel the same way about cab drivers.
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Nick: “Hi, Nick. Feel like another go around?”
All images are used by permission of Nick Bruel.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, copyright © 2009 Matt Phelan.