There's been a few things a-brewing over the last few months here at Wee Red Writer - including an interview with the phenomenal new writer and illustrator, Emily Mackenzie, no less! I'm thrilled to introduce her to you - if you haven't yet read her wonderful debut picture book Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar - then get your hands on it, quick! It was recently shortlisted for the Independent Book Week (IBW) Award 2015 and it's no surprise considering Ralfy's rapid rise to fame amongst little readers! I asked Emily to share with us the process of creating her masterpiece.
Hi Emily! Thanks so much for joining me here on the Wee Red Writer blog. Congratulations on your IBW 2015 Award nomination - how does it feel to have your first picture book nominated?
Really fantastic! I was so excited when I found out. It's brilliant to know that Ralfy has the support of so many independent booksellers and to be part of a shortlist of titles including John Burningham, whose books I loved as a child, feels great.
I can only imagine how rewarding it must feel to be among your heroes! How did you get involved with the IBW campaign?
I had a really fun week! First of all I took part in the first ever Bruntsfield Bookjam organised by The Edinburgh Bookshop and read Ralfy as part of the never-ending story time session at The Eric Liddell Centre which was great. I then went down to Northumberland and created a window full of criminal bunnies for a Ralfy themed window display at Forum Books in Corbridge, which is near where I'm from, followed by a reading. I loved it!
Sounds like fun! How did you come up with the idea for the book?
It all began with some rabbit bookmarks I screen-printed for a craft fair! The rabbits were all printed in bright colours and were wearing 'I love books' t-shirts. I wanted to write a book about loving books and I remembered how I looked forward to Saturday trips to the library when I was little, so Ralfy's character began to develop from there really.
It’s lovely that you drew inspiration from your own childhood. How do you go about creating the book as both the writer and illustrator?
If I have an idea for a character in mind I start in my sketchbooks – that's if I haven't got attached to an animal I've previously created for a greeting card or screen printed plush for a craft fair which I want to bring into a book. I rarely start with the text before having an idea of what I want my character to look like, but that being said, I do have a list of funny book titles and story lines I'm saving for a rainy day! Then, once I've talked with my publisher about what the character is going to be like and roughly what the structure of the story will be, I work with my editor on the text, before moving onto the roughs which I then send down to my editor and designer and wait for feedback. After that I move onto inking the final artwork, sometimes I do two or three of each illustration and then pick the best. Then I post all the artwork to my publisher and it then gets scanned and all pieced together with the text by the designer. If the text seems too long we cut it back to let the illustrations breathe. It's quite a long process but so much fun!
It sounds it! What medium do you prefer to work in? Do you like to try different things?
I love to do a bit of screen printing but I haven't yet got that into my book work, as I also really enjoy working in my loose inky style with coloured pencil, which I've been doing more of recently. I'm just starting to play around with gouache and collage and am enjoying experimenting with new things that might spark ideas for future projects.
Do you have a favourite spread from Ralfy?
I think it has to be the criminal bunny line-up spread but I also really love the library scene. I sneaked some of my family and friend's names onto the book titles hidden at the back of the library so it's been fun to watch my nephews and nieces spot their names on the book shelves!
I love that little hidden detail in the pictures! What are the three tools you absolutely can’t live without?
1. Blue-black Parker ink - I love to use it with nibs and brushes in my sketchbooks. It's a fantastic rich colour and really nice to draw with.
2. I love Caran D'ache Neocolor II Crayons which come in lots of delicious shades and can be used just as they are or with water to make a paint.
3. Faber Castell Polychromos pencils - they're really nice for drawing with quickly! I like my line work to be quite fast as I find I get more energy into my characters that way. They come in a huge range of gorgeous colours and work really well with my inks, hopefully one day I'll get to have a full set!
What's your favourite picture book by someone else?
I love Otto The Bear by Ivan Ganstschev and The Winter Bear by Ruth Craft and Erik Blegvad. I really liked the rich autumnal watercolours of bears, forests and fruit trees in Otto the Bear and the winter landscapes with the little lost teddy bear stuck in a tree in The Winter Bear. I also loved Dogger by Shirley Hughes. Basically, I had a soft spot for books about bears and cuddly toys!
I don’t think you’re alone there! Can we see what you’re working on at the moment?
I'm working on my third picture book for Bloomsbury at the moment but I'm afraid I can't tell you anything about it yet as it is top secret. Instead, here's a completely unrelated drawing of a little bear with some balloons!
Exciting! We’ll watch that space. So many writers and artists draw inspiration from their surroundings - where’s your favourite place?
It has to be Slaley Forest in Northumberland. It's a pine forest right next to the house I grew up in. I spent so much time as a kid playing in it, taking my Sylvanian Families to set up home on little mossy tree stumps, and going for walks with my folks to look for deer and red squirrels that now whenever I go home to Northumberland I have to go for a stretch in the woods as soon as I can. The fresh piney smell is very relaxing!
Sounds idyllic. What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Accepting criticism of something that I've created out of my head can be difficult. I get quite attached to my characters and quite protective as if they're real sometimes, but have to remember that not everyone feels the same way about them as I do but that's OK! I'm getting used to it now and know that constructive criticism can be really helpful and help spark even better ideas.
And what’s the best part?
I get to sit around drinking tea all day losing myself in a world where rabbits like to read and cats like to knit. And playing with paint and pencils, what's not to love?! Another really good part is that I'm able to set my own hours. If I'm not having a very productive day I can just take myself away from my desk for an hour or two and meet a friend for coffee, go for a walk at the Botanics or roam around the shops which helps to clear my head. I often get my ideas for prints and stories when I'm walking about so I have to quickly find something I can scribble them down on, I try to always have a notepad with me but a bus ticket or a receipt will do if not!
Sounds like a dream, Emily!
A big thanks to Emily for chatting to me! You can find out more about Emily’s work on her website and follow her on Twitter. Was there anything in particular you found useful in this blog post? Feel free to leave a comment below!