Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kate Samworth

h1 December 1st, 2015 by jules

Author-illustrator Kate Samworth is joining me for a cyber-breakfast today with a big cup of black coffee and, she said, “since it’s a special occasion, an almond croissant.”

Kate’s debut picture book, Aviary Wonders Inc.: Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, was released last Spring by Clarion and went on to win the 2014 Kirkus Prize in the category of Young Readers’ Literature.

I wrote here at 7-Imp last year about this book (clearly, I was in my Sherlock phase), and here’s an excerpt:

“Now, this is one of the most bizarre picture books I’ve seen in a while, which at the very least brings to my mind this guy exclaiming things like ‘DON’T BE BORING.’ This book definitely has that goin’ for it.

This one is slightly macabre in spots, though I’ve sat here for entirely too long at my keyboard, thinking that ‘macabre’ isn’t precisely the word I want. How about this: The Publishers Weekly review (one starred review of several) calls it ‘unsettling and unforgettable.’ Booklist describes it as ‘original, somewhat disturbing, and wholeheartedly bizarre (but in a good way!).’ Yes, all those things, and I like it. … This is surely one of the most offbeat picture books I’ve seen in recent years.”

The book, a pretend futuristic catalog that sells bird parts so that you can build your own bird (“Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031”), shows off Kate’s immense talent with oils. Today, she’s here to share some art from the book, as well some early sketches, and she’s also going to talk a bit about what’s next for her. I thank her for visiting.

* * * * * * *

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Kate: Illustrator/author.



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

Kate: Aviary Wonders Inc. is my first book. It was published in 2014 by Clarion.



Jules: What is your usual medium?

Kate: My preferred medium is oil paint, but it’s probably the least practical for illustration, since it dries so slowly.


Art from Aviary Wonders Inc.
(See more art at this earlier 7-Imp post)
(Click last image to enlarge)


Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Kate: I live in Takoma Park, Maryland, on the outskirts of D.C. I left the area in 1992, lived in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and rural Virginia, and moved back “home” last year to be near family and friends.


(Click each to enlarge)


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

Kate: I’ve always been interested in telling stories with my art and have painted “narratives” for years. Once I began taking print-making classes, I tried turning some of my images into complete stories. I intended to make the Aviary Wonders catalog as a series of lithographs bound by hand. I was taking an illustration course with David Wiesner and brought some of the drawings to class. He loved the concept and introduced me to an editor, Marcia Leonard, who showed it to the agents. I was thrilled and surprised that Clarion bought it. I know it’s a weird book, which is why I thought I’d have to just make a few of them by hand.


Aviary Wonders Inc. sketches
(Click first four to enlarge)


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

Kate: — and a link to my experiment in stop-motion animation, just for kicks:



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

Kate: I love doing school visits, especially for kids too young to be sure if Aviary Wonders Inc. is a real company or not. I introduce myself as an employee of the company and give them a sales pitch. I describe all of the work that goes into making each part, and tell them a little bit about the other artisans. I describe the old Victorian house in upstate New York where we all live and work and tell them about our extravagant dinner parties and the performances and recitals that we have afterwards. I’d written several versions of the story before settling on the catalog concept, so the school visits give me an opportunity to share all the details that were omitted from the book. My favorite part is the Q&A afterwards. It’s so much fun to see them puzzling out whether or not the birds can be made and to hear them debate what qualities are desirable in a bird.


Story ideas
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: If you teach illustration, by chance, tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator.

Kate: I’ve been teaching drawing and painting from observation for years and have just started offering illustration camps and workshops. I’ve gathered and invented dozens of writing and drawing exercises to help the students generate ideas for their own stories. I usually do the exercises with them and once in a while end up with an idea that I want to pursue. We also examine a lot of picture books in class. Looking closely at how others have created a narrative arc is always helpful.


Story ideas
(Click each to enlarge)


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

Kate: Ha! I have been working on multiple versions of the same story for the last few years. It’s not working as a picture book at the moment. I’ve started writing it as a novel. I worked on Aviary Wonders on and off for about five years, never imagining that it would be published. I’m trying to return to the original creative spirit that led to that book — to focus on telling a story without being haunted by the voices of the publishing industry. An author friend recently told me that her first book just happened naturally and that she felt she had to learn how to write all over again to finish the second. That’s how I feel at the moment.


Story ideas: Frida as a seahorse and its detail …
(Click each to enlarge)


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

Kate: My ideas come from traveling, looking at art, reading, memory, and day-dreaming. When I have an idea I want to explore, I’ll draw a few very detailed images of the character/s in different settings. Putting a lot of effort into refining the drawing helps me feel invested in the story. Then I’ll make a tiny dummy—like, 3×4 inches per page—and lay it out on the desk so that it’s easy to replace pages or move them around. I’ll do stick figures and jot down what needs to happen on each page. Most of these tiny dummies don’t advance to the next stage. I’ll put a rubber band around them and stick them in a drawer to look out months later. Time helps me figure out if they’re worth pursuing or not. If I feel like the story has an arc, I’ll turn it into a larger dummy with more complete sketches. Then, if it’s a story I want to show my editor, I’ll do very polished drawings on good paper. This probably isn’t necessary, but I enjoy the process.


(Click to enlarge)


A dummy
(Click to enlarge)


(Click to enlarge)


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

Kate: We’ve just moved, so I don’t have my own studio at the moment. My mother has been kind enough to share hers with me. We work in a converted garage. Working in a small space is, I’d like to think, forcing me to stay more organized.


(Click to enlarge)


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

Kate: My favorites as a kid were Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Richard Scarry. As a teen interested in illustrated books, I was excited about Edward Gorey, Barry Moser, and Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith. And, though they’re not illustrators, I’d have to count the Brothers Quay as an inspiration.


Story ideas
(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.)

Kate: I’d have dinner with Shaun Tan, Blexbolex, and Beatrice Alemagna, followed by a séance with Dr. Seuss, William Steig, and N.C. Wyeth.


Story idea
(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?

Kate: I listen to classical music, while writing or working out the narrative. Once the part that requires the most concentration is done, I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy (current favorites include Mike Birbiglia, Nate Bargatze, Mitch Hedberg), podcasts (I like science, current events, story-telling), and music (a wide range—from Brazilian and African to lots of ’70s British punk—and I also love Neil Young, Queen, Rolling Stones, Fugazi).


Story idea
(Click to enlarge)


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

Kate: That I’m terrified of being on the highway.


Story idea
(Click to enlarge)


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

Kate: Would you like to use my apartment in Barcelona for a year or two?

Yes, please!

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Kate: My dad says “dingleberries” when he’s irritated. That’s a pretty funny way to express annoyance, if you ask me. “Pecadillo” sounds good too, but I’ve never used it.

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Kate: “Chillax” and “ginormous” are tied for last place.

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

Kate: Being on the water, swimming, paddle-boarding, bird-watching, being with friends. And humor in any form.

Jules: What turns you off?

Kate: Plastics.

Jules: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)

Kate: I’m trying to use less “colorful” language, so I’ll choose “dangit.”

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Kate: Birdsong, insect sounds, and marching bands in New Orleans.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Kate: Leaf-blowers. They are the sound and invention of the devil.

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

Kate: If I got to do it all over again, I’d be a professional ballerina until my knees gave out — then I’d play the trombone.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Kate: Toll-booth operator.

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

Kate: “What took you so long?”

All images are used by permission of Kate Samworth.

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

2 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Kate Samworth”

  1. […] or not the birds can be made and to hear them debate what qualities are desirable in a bird,” Kate said in an interview. […]

  2. […] Kate Samworth: Aviary Wonders, Inc. (2014), an illustrated book that imagines a scenario where birds are extinct and a company has the idea of selling beaks, wings, and legs which can be assembled of one wishes. Kate, a visual artist based in Maryland who enjoys extracting fantastic worlds out of the real one, gets her ideas from “traveling, looking at art, reading, and day-dreaming”: she did voluntary work for organic farms, she goes bird-watching, she did a tour of Europe as a bass player in a punk band. Read an interview with the artist and discover some of her works, here. […]

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