A couple of months ago something cool happened at the bookstore where I work. The store has a shelf set up where staff can put their favorite titles. After reading (and loving) Forsythia & Me by Vincent X. Kirsch, I knew it had to be my next pick. I set the book up and didn’t think much more about it.
Imagine my surprise when that simple choice led to meeting the author in person. Here’s what happened: While Forsythia & Me was my staff pick, Vincent X. Kirsch actually came into the bookstore and saw the display. He then found me in the store (I’m so glad I was working that day!) to say hello and thank me. After I got over being a bit awestruck, I remembered to ask Mr. Kirsch if he would have time to answer some questions here on the blog. Happily, he did and I have those answers to share today!
Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?
Vincent X. Kirsch (VXK): I started creating picture books when I was a little boy. Even though, I was a very precocious little artist, I loved stories and complicated plots. I would write them down. I would think of my characters and their adventures while walking to school, shoveling the driveway, doing math homework or mowing the lawn. Stories were as important to me as pictures. Often my school reports were highly illustrated, which did not thrill the nuns at Sacred Heart School very much.
My older sister was a very good reader, writer and English student. She told me over and over that she was “the writer in the family” and I could be “the artist”. So I had to keep my book projects and dreams to myself.
One summer, I took a picture book class with Uri Shulevitz while still in high school. That short course introduced me to the amount of work that goes into creating stories and picture books that are worth reading.
I did not forget my passion for picture books when I got to college but I was inclined to study something more practical like advertising and editorial design. I spent most of my early career in New York City doing things like Broadway and other theatrical posters, Cable Network TV graphics, book jacket covers, editorial illustrations for newspapers and magazines. But I always managed to daydream books. I never forgot my characters.
I became a very good reader in my twenties [from having to read novel manuscripts to create cover designs] so I dove into all of those books that I had ignored as a child. Dickens held a particular fascination.
Then in the early 1990s the characters began arriving in my notebooks. Often I would doodle a whimsical character, then a name would get attached to the likeness, then not long after a narrative waltzed on the scene.
I had notebooks dedicated to their stories and complicated adventures. I applied the skills that I had learned years ago to writing a book with introduction, action, denoument and resolution. I created lovely little book dummies.
Some characters had very complicated adventures. These were put in a separate notebook for the day when someone would trust me to write a longer book format.
Then I started a very long period of “drop-offs” where I would leave my portfolio with editors and art directors at major publishing houses. This was a very long, bewildering and frustrating time. When I went to pick the books up, I was always greeted by the art director or editor, who wanted to meet me and tell me how much they loved my work and wanted me to drop off again and again. Over and over. Editor after editor. Year after year. Literary agent after literary agent.
I never gave up. I continued to gather characters, stories and create book dummies.
Then suddenly my luck changed when I was considering giving up the idea of ever getting to do a book. My final color illustration in The New York Times Book Review for a book about two Italian brothers had just appeared in print. Weeks later, the phone did not ring but an email appeared from Jill Davis at BloomsburyUSA Children’s Books asking if I was interested in doing picture books.
When I arrived for a meeting for a few weeks later, I came armed with characters, plot outlines, dummy books and a sketchbook. Jill was overwhelmed. She carefully reviewed the work. Dazzled, she did not know where to begin.
While leafing through one of my sketchbooks she happened on a very teeny tiny doodle of a neat little French girl and a zany variation of her nearby. Under the sketches, were scribbled the names “Natalie” and “Naughtily”.
Jill asked if they had a story. I told a little fib and said that they did. Jill loved the two girls and I was to go home, type up their story and bring it in the next week.
That is what I did and weeks later I had a contract [paying next to nothing] to create my first book.
MP: You have written picture books about some dynamic sibling duos (Natalie and Naughtily in a book by the same name and Rudy and Ridley in Two Little Boys From Toolittle Toys). How did you come up with the idea for Forsythia & Me—a picture book about an equally dynamic pair of friends? Who came first: Forsythia or Chester?
VXK: Well, my beloved editor (and muse) Jill Davis, moved from BloomsburyUSA to Farrar Straus Giroux. I was on holiday at Cape Cod when she wrote to tell me the good news. Since our first collaboration was so much fun, she wanted me to work on something with her at her new publisher. That morning, I had jotted down in my notebook: “Forsythia/amazing little girl who loves to garden”. So I replied to Jill that we ought to get to work on my book idea called “Forsythia & Me/about an amazing little girl who loves to garden”. Jill answered right away: “Oh yes!”
Later that week I sent a sketch of Forsythia [in a straw sun bonnet with sunflower, yellow hair, large gardening gloves and a perfectly immaculate dress] which sealed the deal. A contract followed and the work on the book began at once.
Chester was originally her little brother who did little more that gush and worship his big sister. But with a few twists of the story, he became both narrator and amazing himself.
MP: What was your favorite part of Forsythia & Me to illustrate or write? Which part was the hardest?
VXK: Favorite part of the project: Making the endless lists of all of the things that Forsythia could do. It was such fun.
Favorite to illustrate: The pages that she amazed Chester. It was fun to work in a very gray palate with dashes of color. There are some many details, patterns and pastiches.
Hardest to illustrate: Pages of yellow with dashes of blue.
MP: Natalie and Naughtily and Two Little Boys From Toolittle Toys both have some hidden things to find on each page (including a list of Natalie’s favorite things and toys from the Toolittle catalog). Is there anything similar in Forsythia & Me?
- The little blue bird of happiness, that appears on almost every spread.
- The titles on the trophies were fun to create!
- Notice that the zoo animals at Forsythia’s tea party all appear as stuffed animals on her bed.
- See if you can find Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in the drawings? I was reading The Lord Of The Rings at the time I was working on the book.
- I choreographed a pirate dance.
- Forsythia was based upon my childhood BFF named Lisa Bell. Can you find her name?
MP: You write and illustrate all of your books. Can you tell us about what your creative process for a picture book looks like? Do you start with the text or the artwork?
VXK: My procedure has been pretty consistent:
- I start with a character and character sketches.
- I give the character a name.
- I begin to daydream and doodle the character in various activities or situations.
- I jot the character in to my notebooks.
- An editor sees the sketch, falls in love with it and wants to create a book.
- I get a contract [thanks to my agent Edward Necarsulmer’s efforts].
- I sign the contract and celebrate for a week or so!
- The work begins. On my laptop computer, I write a story that will fit onto forty pages.
- I draw a tiny storyboard to show how the book will fit to reassure everyone that I know what I am doing.
- The editor and I tweak and twist the story that I came up with. I do not recognize it any longer. It is actually fun, like a roller coaster ride without knowing how you will get off but at some point the ride must end.
- Changes and more changes. I create actual size dummy books. Over and over since I need to see an actual book if I have to create an actual book. For each title, the process has been a pure delight!
- Finally we arrive at the final text. I tweak a bit more.
- Next, we arrive at the final dummy book. There are more celebrations. I love to review the metamorphosis of the story by seeing where it started and where it ended up, what remained and what favorite bits got tossed.
- I refine the drawings with my handy-dandy light box and various reference materials until I am ready to go to final art.
- At this moment let me pause to create a visual image that I assume is daunting for every illustrator: A pile of forty blank white pages, crop marks drawn, pages numbered, piled up very neatly… waiting to be illustrated! In a matter of weeks, these pages will be covered with forty illustrations. It is an incredible feat of wizardry!
- I take a very deep breath. I start with the easiest page and draw the image.
- Then the other pages, one at a time. Drawings first, then the waves of colors, then the fine tuning, then the double checking for continuity.
- When the art is done. I neatly cover each illustration with tracing paper and make notes to the designer.
- Then, the next nerve-wracking event of bringing the art to the publisher. Will they love it? Will they hate it? Will they be pleased? Will they be disappointed?
- They love it! I fly out of the offices in a dazed state of shock, feet not touching the ground. Then wander around in blur for a few days or if I am lucky: a vacation by the sea to stare at waves for a week or so!
MP: You pack a lot into your illustrations with colorful characters as well as intricately detailed backgrounds for them to inhabit on each page. How do you decide where to start with each illustration? What medium do you prefer to work with?
VXK: Details. Yes. I love details. I love to add little things to keep the process of final art from becoming overwhelming. For example, on a book I just finished title FREDDIE & GINGERSNAP about a little dragon and a little dinosaur. Well, I started to doodle little insect-like dinosaurs and dragons in the scenery. They sort of took over. Wherever I looked I saw an odd creature. They became more ornate and started observing the main characters.
Or in THE CHANDELIERS, I added a little mouse character to watch the show from every angle, backstage and front. That mouse is a stand in for the reader as he sees just what the reader does.
Where I start with each illustration: I start with the main characters, of course, but at all times think about how the characters express an emotion through action or expression. I fill the page and know to leave space for the text.
Favorite Medium: My latest and favorite technique is harkening back to the original style of my original 3D characters: It is a very bold black outline that is filled in with loose vivid color layers. Darker and richer to the point of resembling stained glass with it’s bold lines and saturated colors.
MP: On your site you mention that you worked at Bergdorf Goodman for a time designing their windows (which are, by the way, ones I look forward to seeing every holiday season), and later their interiors. How did your work there inform your work as an illustrator and author?
VXK: My work at Bergdorf Goodman truly transformed me in almost every way:
- I changed from thinking two-dimensionally to thinking in three-dimensions.
- I learned to build a team and work with others to create exciting results.
- I fell in love with scenic design again [which was one of my minors in college].
- I discovered toy theaters as an art form.
- I immersed myself in the art world, visiting galleries, hiring artists and discovering techniques.
- I learned where to find practically everything in New York City and where to pay the least for it.
- I learned to work quickly and finish what I started.
- I filled my office with hundred, perhaps thousands, of tiny 3D characters that I created from doodles, thus starting the torrent of characters to come.
- The job was like something out of a Hollywood film: grandiose, exciting and a great deal of long hours and hard work.
MP: Do you have any favorite children’s books/picture books that inspired you to become a children’s author?
VXK: My most vivid memory was of seeing a book called LITTLE TOOT about a tug boat in the harbor of New York. I grew up in a very little town in upstate New York. I had no idea that there was such a place. The buildings in the background looked like an enchanted castle.
I was completely smitten with Disney films. I was obsessed [and still am] with PINOCCHIO and PETER PAN.
I am delighted by books about worlds that I could fall into like WINNIE-THE-POOH, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, THE MOOMINBOOKS, THE SECRET GARDEN, and on and on. So much so, that my greatest professional dream is to create a book that will do that for readers to come. This is where, I never bothered to believe my older sister that she was the only writer in the family. I cannot with so many stories inside of me!
MP: You have several forthcoming titles. Can you tell us anything about your next project?
- My tribute to show business was just released in August. It is called THE CHANDELIERS from Farrar Straus Giroux. It shows a theatrical performance by a very talented family of giraffes, complete with Playbill notes and a stage door exit.
- I just handed in final art for FREDDIE & GINGERSNAP with Disney Hyperion. That book was inspired by the dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I conceived of the book as a dance routine that ranges from awkward first steps to fearsome falls to taking flight. At this time, I am working on the second book in that series.
- I illustrated the book NOAH WEBSTER & HIS WORDS written by the ingeniously inventive Jeri Chase Ferris published by Houghton Mifflin. It is due in bookstores this October.
- My first chapter book series is under negotiation at this very moment. All that I can say is that revolves around something that every child in the world loves and cannot get enough of!
- I have just launched a new multi-media studio called WIND-UP TOP HAT STUDIOS that will create toy theaters, television programs, motion pictures, toys, ibooks and apps.
MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?
VXK: Creating books is a tremendous amount of work. Everything takes so much time. But, if you truly want to create books than there is no greater art form.
I think the moment when I got my first actual copy of NATALIE & NAUGHTILY was perhaps one of the most magical moments in my life.
A manila envelope arrived in the mail, one day when I least expected it! Inside was my sample copy. I took it out of the envelope. I had to sit down. I was trembling. I think I stopped breathing. My heart was racing so. I turned the pages. I read the text. I could not believe my eyes. It was the first time that I had actually seen it as a book after the long process of writing and illustrating and waiting.
There it was, a book: a dream come true. Well worth the wait. Well worth the work! I could not wait to start another. It is addictive.
I wish everyone who dreams of creating a book, gets to pull one out of a manila envelope some happy day, take a seat and tremble!
For more information about Vincent and his books you can also visit his website. (Be sure to check out the individual book pages for fun details on the process behind each book as well as some hidden details to look for in each title.)