Friday, October 1, 2010

The amazing world of Graeme Base

The illustrator who creates picture books that say more than a thousand words 
There are not many Australians my age (or younger) who have not read Animalia.  While it may be just another alphabet picture book, it is one that lives long in your memory as having the most fantastic, imaginative and wonderfully intricate illustrations. It was first published in 1986 and received instant international acclaim with sales of more than three million copies worldwide.
The author and illustrator is one of Australia’s best-known and leading creators of picture books: Graeme Base.
After studying graphic design in his early years, Graeme spent a rather brief and unhappy period working in a string of design studios before eventually being sacked for incompetence. He spent his last pay check preparing his folio to showcase to book publishers with the hope of getting some illustrating work. The first publisher he met with was impressed, and it wasn’t long before his first book My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch was coming off the press in 1983.
Now 27 years on, Graeme’s books with their humorous stories and amazing illustrations have captivated many generations. I was lucky to have a chat to Graeme recently, about his extraordinary career, and his latest work, due to hit book shops this month:

S: Firstly, tell me about your latest book, The Legend of the Golden Snail?
G: It’s a fantasy sea faring adventure, I’ve always loved the sea, when I was a kid and I first came out from England by boat, so that was sort of in my blood. The story is about a young boy who goes off in search of this fable golden snail, he heard about this legend from a story his mother reads to him every night, and he decides he is going to go out and find it. It’s a snail with sails, so it’s a snailing ship... it was banished to the ends of the earth by a grand enchanter. Young Wilbur decides to realise his dreams and become the grand enchanter. At the very end of the journey he realises that the snail is a slave in chains, so he decides to set it free. 
The underlying message of the book is something I’ve thought about for a long time. In my life I’ve have realised a lot of dreams... and there’s two ways of doing it, one is to clamber over other people to get to the top, and the other is for them to raise you up to the top. It’s great to have dreams, and it’s nice to realise them, but be nice to people along the way because they will help you.
S: What was the catalyst for the young Graeme that steered you on this amazingly insightful and intricate artistic journey?
G: It was coming out to Australia, when I was in England I was one of the lads, my parents still have the last report card from when I was seven in England, and it’s rather amusing. It says: “Graeme is a born leader of the other children, but unfortunately it’s usually in the wrong direction.” Then things changed, and I was in a tough Australian state school with a funny accent and any kid in that position, pretty quickly works out what they are good at and then starts doing more of it. At that point, I guess was good at art or colouring-in and I concentrated on it. And pretty soon, I was the kid in the class who was good at art. By the time I was 11, I was saying to anyone who wanted to know “when grow up I want to be an artist”, and no one said I couldn’t. My parents were encouraging. It never occurred to me I couldn’t do it. When I finished school in the afternoons I didn’t rush home to watch the latest TV show, but to continue on a piece of work I was doing at home.
S: Are you parents artistic?
G: They appreciate art and music. Dad was a civil engineer, and my mother was a housewife, but sort of director of operations... she was the one with the vision, and he was the realiser of their plans. Mum had artistic and musical talents but she didn’t really have the chance to blossom. That’s just how it was in those days.
S: Because you started at such a young age, you had many years to practice!
G: Yes, I suppose you could say that. Practice is the key to it really. I say there are three P’s: passion, perspiration and perseverance. You have to have the passion, you have to have the perspiration to do hard work, cause it’s not all just jolly good fun, and you’ve got to persevere among all else. That’s my theory of how to succeed.
S: Where does inspiration from your books come from?
G: Travel is a very good way. I did a book called The Sign of the Seahorse, and it was absolutely inspired by my first experience of scuba diving. Sometimes it’s other, random things. I was travelling in France and in this hotel there was this lamp, and the base of the lamp was in a snail shape, and the actual cover of the lightbulb looked like a sail and I put the two together, and instantly thought of it as a snailing ship. I did a little drawing of it, but that was back in 2005, and it was only a couple of years ago that I first started producing the book, The Legend of the Golden Snail
S: How long does it take you to write and illustrate a book?
G: Generally two years. I’m hopeful that I will get faster and I’m changing the technique too. Two years is really a long time. The text I can write in a matter of days, although it really helps to have the extra time while I’m working on the artwork to revisit the text and keep on honing it. Editing gets harder and harder the less words you have to work with. It is a harsh discipline but one that is very challenging and very rewarding. When I first did Animalia, it was such an expression of joy and creativity, and I’ve never looked back from that moment.
S: What’s your main medium and techniques?
G: I was taught the traditional way with water colours and pens and pencils on paper. In recent times I’ve become more and more interested in digital work. I love computers, I didn’t grow up with them, so I’m playing catch-up. I’m having a ball messing about with them. I still do the original drawings by hand, but can use the computer to enhance the work. As an artist it challenges me and takes me further. I’ve been doing books for 25 years and I guess every artist is looking for a new challenge and a new way of expressing themselves. 
S: Do you take your illustrations from real life?
G: I am interested in what animals really look like. But then I take my characters and do my own interpretation of them. I’m not a wildlife artist. But what I do is make three dimensional clay models of my characters and so I have a reference and can look at them from all angles. It’s a fun part of the job actually. 
S: So you do a fair bit of research then before you start?
G: If you don’t plan well, the wheels will fall off the track. With the very strict discipline of a picture book, when I’m writing I can’t say I decide another 10 pages, I know exactly how many pages it has to be very early on, and it’s not a question of going over, it’s a very strict discipline, so you need to plan very carefully. It’s rare for me to draw something once and that’s it. I’m not that kind of artist, I do need to do rough work, to plan and draw each element and get it right and put it altogether.
S: You must be stoked that there is a book published purely about your artwork (The Art of Graeme Base)?
G: That was nice. Julie Watts, who wrote that, was my editor and publisher at Penguin. When she retired it coincided with the publishing director saying what about we do a book about you, rather than by you. So we rang Julie and said, "I know you’ve just retired, well forget it". So we persuaded her to do this freelance, and in terms of writing something, she hadn’t before... she’s a consumate editor, so writing the work was a new challenge for her.
S: Some of your books have an environmental message in them, does this stem from in your own life and is quite important to you? 
G: It should be important to anyone. There’s this line that goes around “Save the Planet”, and that strikes me as farcical. When you look at it from a geological perspective, the planet is just fine, it going to get over us no problem at all. It’s Save Yourself that all of this is about. If my books have elements in them which are to do with sustainability and oncology, it’s because I love nature, and also because I love people, I love life, and the combination of the people and the earth together. Every book that I do I need and want it to have some kind of message, which you can take home, apart from the entertainment value. And for parents too. I prefer the word picture book, because it’s not age specific. And there are a lot of adults who love picture books, and I also know that a lot of adults read picture books with their children. I was grateful to the books that offered me something as a child. 
S: Children these days seem so programmed into gadgets and computers and television, so what do you think is key to encouraging children to read more books?
G: Have it hanging around. If books were laying around on tables, on beds and book shelves, they’ll get used. I’ve done it with my kids with music too. We’ve got guitars lying around, we’ve got three drum kits, God help us. We’ve got the piano, and the saxophone open for use. As a result, kids gain confidence. Also because I was always playing music and reading books, and so was my wife, the kids thought it was a natural part of life. So be a good role model and make sure there’s plenty for them to pick up casually, and realise what a great way to fuel your imagination that particular beast called a book, still is. Despite the wonders of screens, but books still have a fantastic power and kids only to discover that once and they’ll be hooked.
We’ve recently just released Animalia for the iPad and iPhone. It instantly went to number 1 in the book section, and it’s now sitting at number 10 in the book section in America. So I think maybe the time has come with this crossover of books and streams, it’s really coming of age. It has done a cross-generation leap and the parents are introducing their kids to the books because they knew it when they were kids.
S: Now you have three kids... have they ever helped you in your creative process, either with inspiration, or ideas?
G: No, they only hinder you! I don’t write my books for my kids, I write them for me, and I’ve been writing books long before I had kids. It’s very rare for me to say: “What do you think?” I don’t like doing market research. We were making an animated TV series based on Animalia, and we had an American co-production partner and they were adament we had to test ideas and characters with kids, and we had to go to this place where they fed the kids pizza and red lemonade and then asked them questions, and I hated it! I don’t figure out what do kids need this year, I just do it because I really believe in it and I really recoil from the idea of trying to figure out what people want and feeding them that. When I first did Animalia, it was not because I thought that the world needed another English language alphabet book, and I spent three years of my life doing this, and it just hit a nerve somehow, it was such an expression of joy and creativity. 
S: Do you read a lot of children’s literature? 
G: Not a lot, I did when my kids were younger but they are now teenagers or in their twenties. And I do have a slight retinence of knowing too much about what other people are doing in this industry. I wouldn’t want to know if someone else had done a book about a snail because it might have disrupted me from doing mine. I’m not secretive or precious about it, but like any other artist, you just want to focus on what you want to do and I don’t get terribly involved in what’s happening.
S: I understand The Lord of the Rings was your favourite book as a child, is it still your favourite? 
G: I read it when I was a young teenager, but it was the first one where I went WOW, the scope of the imagination and emotional depth that it took me as a young child, was really profound. I guess it is still my favourite, I’ve read it many, many times.
S: Are there any other authors or illustrators who you admire?
G: Plenty. One of the great illustrators is Australian, although strangely he’s better known overseas, is Robert Ingpen. He’s amazing his technique. A lot of American illustrators I gravitate towards, people like Chris Van Allsberg*, Paul Joyce, Michael Hague**, David Wiesner. These are all people whose work I feel I would like to do work like theirs. I also love the work of Bob Graham, Alison Lester, Jane Tanner, these are Australians closer to home, beautiful work, very different to what I do, but I certainly appreciate it and admire it none the less.
S: Can you give me any information on what your next project will be?
G: Well, no, it’s another picture book, but because it’s so far off, I ought to just keep a lid on it just a little bit. I’ve got about five or six ideas that are just vying for front and centre at the moment and each book takes two years, so that’s a decade of work ahead of me. I’m impatient, I just can’t wait to get this book done, so I can start the next.
S: Are you left or right handed?
G: Right handed. My grandfather was left handed, and one of my sons is left handed so it’s hanging around the family. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m a left handed mouser when I’m working on the computer. Now that was as a result of being told that when I bought my first Mac computer and the sales person told me to use the mouse with my left hand to keep my right hand free for drawing.
S: On my bedside table right now is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... what’s on your bedside table?
G: Atlantic by Simon Winchester. I’m having a very nautical time of it at the moment having just finished the Golden Snail which is a sea faring adventure, and just two nights ago I finished reading Moby Dick which I’d been meaning to read for a long time.

* A number of Allsberg’s books have been turned into films including The Polar Express and Jumanji
** Hague is best known for classics such as The Wind in the Willows, The Velveteen Rabbit and Peter Pan.

To win a copy of Animalia, become a follower of Mumologues, or leave a comment! This giveaway will be open until next Saturday, October 9, when I'll do a random draw and announce the winner! Good luck!


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