Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Blogging for a Cure Presents: Brian Lies

I am delighted to feature one of the artists who has so generously contributed to the Robert's Snow project to raise money for Dana Farber cancer research:

Brian Lies

Brian is an enormously talented artist, New York Times bestselling author, world's best blueberry scone maker, and a dear friend of mine. It is my honor to feature him today in conjunction with the Blogging for a Cure project to draw attention to the Robert's Snow online auction. (There are many more artists participating in this event, so please check them out.)

Brian has illustrated many books for children, including Finklehopper Frog by Irene Livingston (Tricycle Press)and the Flatfoot Fox series by Eth Clifford (Houghton Mifflin).

He has both written and illustrated the popular Hamlet books (Moon Mountain), and his most recent, the New York Times bestselling Bats at the Beach (Houghton Mifflin).

And now, let's hear from Brian:

How did you get involved with the Robert's Snow project?

I honestly don't remember. I'm a member of several illustrator listservs, and my guess is that somebody on one of the lists mentioned the Robert's Snow project. It sounded like a great thing to be a part of, and this is my third year of making a snowflake.

How did ten-year-old Brian answer the question: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Like many kids, my dream job shifted shape a lot. When I was growing up, lots of boys wanted to be astronauts (there weren't any American female astronauts at the time). I also wanted to be a fireman, an actor, a chemist (my Dad was a researcher), a paleontologist, and a herpetologist. It wasn't until I was in fifth grade that I even really thought about being an author. An author/illustrator, Harry Devlin, visited our school, and I was amazed that you could actually make a JOB out of writing and drawing--both things I loved to do.

What are some of your earliest memories of creating art?

I think my earliest memory is from preschool, making papier mache-covered balloon animals. I got in trouble because I was more interested in mooshing my hands around in the flour paste than actually finishing my project.

Another time, in first grade, we did line drawings on burlap and then embroidered the lines with blunt needles. My drawing was of a lion and a tree and I was proud of it, until the art teacher picked out some of my stitching and "fixed" it. There was a rule against drawing "lollipop trees," which was sad because that's how little kids see a tree--a stick and a blob on top of it. She hung my lion in the hallway and told me how nice it was, but I couldn't even look at it--it wasn't mine any more.

Tell us a bit about your college experience?

In college, I was studying for a "real" career--in psychology, or something equally worthy. I drew to let off steam, and took an art class for fun, but was irritated by "artier than thou" attitudes of the teacher and some of the students. In protest, I used socks and dried American cheese slices to create an assemblage for one project, and was horrified that during the in-class critique, only one student suggested that I was poking fun at the assignment. I found out that Brown students could cross-register at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), and took a class or two there. But then I started doing drawings for the college newspaper and realized that those illustrations were the best part of my week. A new idea hit me--I could become a political cartoonist! It combined my growing interest in politics, my love of drawing, and my hope to change the world.

During my senior year, I applied to 140 major metropolitan daily newspapers, creating 140 individual portfolios of my editorial cartoons. While my friends were getting acceptance letters from great companies, I collected rejection letters--141 in all (one Ohio paper sent me the duplicate form rejection letters on two consecutive days, as if to hammer the point home). My ideas were good, they said, but my drawing wasn't. I graduated from college with no job, and few prospects.

Your road to children's book publication in six (or ten or a hundred) easy steps?

Then I heard about an art school in Boston--the School of the Museum of Fine Arts--and it sounded like the perfect thing for me. I drew and painted for nearly three years, and during that time, called Jeff Danziger, the Christian Science Monitor's political cartoonist, to ask for advice. Jeff liked my drawings, and took me into the next room to meet Cynthia Hanson, designer of the Op Ed page, who took me on right then as a freelancer, to do editorial illustrations.

A year or so later, lightning struck. I was standing in a store in my neighborhood of Cambridge, MA, when the woman in line ahead of me turned around. She'd overheard me talking with a friend and asked, "Did I hear you say you're an illustrator?" I said yes, and she asked, "Have you ever done any children's illustration?" Again I said yes--I was working on a picture book at the time, and was hoping to send it to Houghton Mifflin, one of the biggest publishers in Boston.

It turned out that she was the art director at Houghton Mifflin, Susan Sherman--the very person to whom I was planning to send my story! We arranged a meeting for a portfolio review, and a month after that, she sent me my first book to illustrate--a black and white chapter book. I've worked with Sue now on a number of books, both at Houghton Mifflin and Charlesbridge Publishing, where she now works.

Any particular inspirations, heroes or mentors?

My first inspiration was Harry Devlin, when he visited my fifth grade library. Several of his books had been favorites when I was younger (THE WONDERFUL TREE HOUSE and THE KNOBBY BOYS TO THE RESCUE), and seeing the man who had actually made those books (with his writer wife, Wende Devlin) was astounding.

But I'm also inspired by the illustration-world mirepoix of NC Wyeth and Maxfield Parrish, for their color work, and Winsor McCay for his no-holds-barred imagination in "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend."

Will you share with us the story behind your most recent published book?

BATS AT THE BEACH came about because my daughter, who was a 2nd grader at the time, saw a frost pattern in a guest-room window which she announced looked "like a bat, with sea foam." That sounded like a book to me--what would bats do at the beach? I liked the idea of inverting the typical day at the beach and seeing what it would look like at night.

Anything in the works at the moment?

I'm working on another bat book, BAT NIGHT AT THE LIBRARY, which is due to be published in fall, 2008. I'm having a lot of fun with it!

Any particular goals you have yet to accomplish?

There are lots of things I'd like to try, from wordless picture books to novel-length pieces, and anything in between. I like the idea of writing books for a variety of ages, so when kids decide they've outgrown my picture books, for instance, they could switch over to my chapter books. When I was a kid, I hated to realize that I'd finished all of my favorite authors' books there on the shelf. But if I could have learned that there was a whole NEW shelf, in another section of the library, with MORE books by those authors...that would have been great!

Anything you've learned along the way that you can share with newbies?

I think the most important thing is NOT to focus just on getting published, even though that's an aspiring author/illustrator's immediate goal. What's really important is craft--making your writing or drawing as strong as it can be. What's your weakest skill? Description? Dialogue? Drawing hands? Work on those. I think weaknesses are fairly easy to see in writing or drawings, and you're often judged not by what you do brilliantly, but by those weaknesses.

I think getting published is a lot like golf (which I don't play)--if you perfect your swing, the ball should go more or less where you want it to. Likewise, if you learn to tell stories in an original and compelling way, either in words or pictures, and hone your skills so that they're truly professional. . . you're going to get published. It may take a while, but you'll get published.

The other most important thing if you want to write or draw is to DO it, as regularly as you can. My ability to draw waxes and wanes. When I'm in the writing stage of a book and don't draw for several weeks, my drawing becomes terrible. It's only after drawing daily for a week or so that my skills return, and the mental muscles get back into shape. But it's important to build those mental muscles first--and the only way to do it is by spending time practicing.

And now.....drum roll, please:

Brian's Snowflake: Free Fall



Sara said...

After reading this, I'm dying for a graphic novel to be made about his life as a young artist. American cheese and socks! Bumping into an art director in a store! 141 rejections! Man, that is good stuff. And the key moment: when he couldn't look at his lion because "it wasn't mine anymore."

This was a superb interview, Barbara. And his snowflake! That could be me when I realize how far I still have to go in my revisions. ;)

Oh, and Brian: I'll teach you how to play golf if you ever want to know how. It's easy-peasy, once you master everything. Yeah, just like drawing.

LindaBudz said...

I'm with Sara ... each of the points she named were the highlights for me as well. Love getting to "know" these folks ... they are all so NOT "artier than thou"!

PS ... cool flake!

Anonymous said...

That flake is awesome! Great interviews. I'm so glad to hear that there's another Bats book in the works, as I loved Bats at the Beach.

Anonymous said...

Barbara, what a fabulous interview! Thank you.

I love that golf analogy; I love reading about his background and road to becoming published; I LOVE LOVE his illustrations always; and I'm SO HAPPY to read about a new bat book.

That first grade stitching story is heart-breaking. Nice reminder about the power of our words to children.

That is one distinctive snowflake. Love it.

Thanks, Barbara and Brian!

tanita✿davis said...

This flake really stuck out to me when I first saw it -- and now the goes-along-with-the-picture story strikes me equally as well. Very cool! I really liked the detail and the lighting on the bat book -- another one would be really neat. And blueberry scone makers should always be encouraged, in any event.

Great interview!

Charlotte said...

I have been admiring this snowflake for days--I am always very impressed by people who have the guts and vision to take prefab templates/wooden snowflakes and make them into something unique/raccoons.


jama said...

Definitely one of my favorite snowflakes! Thanks for the great interview :!!

Anonymous said...

WHAT a clever snowflake! I enjoyed reading this interview immensely. As someone who was very involved in developing a preschool program (many moons ago), I was very interested to read about Brian's preschool art experience. He put it so eloquently; that was exactly the kind of thing we tried to express to the parents in the program. 25 matching pieces of "art" is NOT what makes a classroom great.

Barbara, on another note. My son arrived home from the library with a copy of "How to Steal a Dog" the other day. He very much enjoyed it!

Helen/Spike and Drusilla OK Citizens said...

Great interview. I can't believe that art teacher changed his work! This snowflake is one of my favorites.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this fantastic interview! This is my first visit to your blog, but you should know that about three hours ago, I handed my school's secretary an order request for books for our Mock Newberry Awards, and HOW TO STEAL A DOG is one of our titles. I'm looking forward to sharing it with my students!

Barbara O'Connor said...

Thank you all for the nice comments about Brian, as well as my books!

Anonymous said...

OK, pretty soon I can't STAND looking at snowflakes anymore. I mean, I'm getting covetous over here. Freefall?!?!! Is that awesome, or what??? And by the way, I love lollipop trees...

Andromeda Jazmon said...

This is one of my favorite flakes. I appreciate his advice to newbies too. It's very encouraging and stimulating!

Anonymous said...

I worked with Brian for several years in the Opinion and Commentary Department at the Christian Science Monitor. Brian was one of the most creative, thoughtful illustrators I came across in my three years as the Editor there. We could have the blandest, most unimaginative opinion piece from a policy wonk, and Brian would come up with a stellar art solution. His work stands out among them best. So glad he's being recognized for his exceptional talent. Cynthia Hanson