The Suitcase was published by Nosy Crow Books. It's a picture book about people who are forcibly displaced around the world. What gave you the idea to write about this as a picture book?
My previous books were more light-hearted and were about animal characters that seemed to confuse reality and fantasy. I was trying to retain that element in the next story and, seen as the first two were about food and then companionship, I was looking at the theme of home or shelter - another very basic, universal need. I'd also been thinking of a story idea about a wall that divided two populations and the misconceptions about what was on the other side. This was roughly around the time of the US presidential election campaign and the Brexit referendum in which the politics of division and denial of others were (and still are) gaining a lot of ground.
But the wall idea was a bit stuck and I was doodling and drew a little animal figure with a ruck-sack at the bottom of the wall, looking confused and lost. I started to think about this character and wondered where it was from, where it was going and what might be in its bag. The wall was put to one side and the animal became the centre of a new story that thankfully came together quite quickly.
If you could only put five objects in the suitcase, what would you choose and why?
Strangely, though I've asked this question a lot visiting schools and libraries, I've never yet been asked it. Well, a phone, a torch, a pencil, and some paper, a cuddly toy, a fridge, a million pounds. These were some of the suggestions I was given by school children - all pretty useful items, especially the cash. It's probably impossible to answer without having the urgent, instinctive thinking that must come when living through such a situation in real life. If I discount practical objects, I'm sure I'd take a family photograph just like in the book. But which one? Oh heck...
How do you start the process of writing and illustrating a book?
Usually, it starts with a spontaneous premise or idea that feels interesting. I have quite a lot of those but ultimately most aren't strong enough to carry a good story. So a lot of work is in trying to develop them all as far as they'll go by asking hundreds of 'what if...?' questions, and then recognising when something is worth pushing onwards or should be abandoned. Most fall by the wayside and those left standing I keep niggling away at until they feel like they might work. Sometimes (like for The Suitcase) a doodle or sketch helps things develop but often it's just a lot of thinking time without even putting pencil to paper that much. The hardest thing to do is to develop a natural story that feels credible, rather than just some characters and an interesting premise, followed by a series of occurrences that don't have any fundamental meaning.
It rarely feels like creative work, it more often feels like you're trying to repair something that looked interesting at first but you took the back off and messed about with the workings and all the springs and sprockets flew out. Then you have to put it all back together in a way that no one notices you'd tinkered with it and also that you'd had to throw a load of redundant nuts and bolts in the bin.
Another picture book you've produced was I'm Going To Eat This Ant which is very humorous. Where did the humour come from and how is this important to the story?
That was my first published book and in effect, I set myself a brief before writing it: I wanted a funny story with two characters that were obviously in some sort of conflict from the outset - like a cat/mouse situation that needed no backstory or explanation but something less often seen - eg. an ant and an anteater. I then wanted it to be short and quite repetitive in structure with a punchline or surprise at the end. Then I just thought it through. I think a lot of the humour came from the cartoon brutality in the story. The ant is imagined to be squished, smoked, sliced, sizzled and sautéed but seems to take it all fairly stoically, without reacting or even seeming to notice. Of course, none of it is actually happening in reality - just in the mind of a deluded anteater but one publisher did reject it on the grounds that it was too cruel. They mustn't have seen Tom & Jerry or Roadrunner.
What do you think makes a really good picture book?
The stories that really work for me are those that are so well put together and uncontrived that they feel like they weren't written at all but unfurl themselves like a rolled-up rug that's been given a little shove.
Even some really successful, enjoyable picture books can have a little moment where you feel the author having to slightly bend or push things in a certain way for it to work out how they needed.
I like books that divide the storytelling between the words and the pictures so that sometimes the text leads the way and the pictures play catch-up and then vice-versa.
What golden rules do you follow when writing and illustrating a picture book?
I really don't have any - I could probably do with some though. I just feel very happy when I think I might have a good story that works, often before anything is even written or drawn.
Could you tell us a bit about any of your upcoming projects?
I have three more books to come with Nosy Crow and I feel really lucky that they've shown me such commitment. I also have two books to come elsewhere, details of which are mostly under wraps for now. The first of the three Nosy Crow books is finished and is called Out Of Nowhere. It looks quite different to 'The Suitcase' and it was nice to have a visual change of direction.
It was due out this May but the Coronavirus crisis has put it on hold for now. Most distribution channels are barely operating and all the independent bookshops (many of whom really supported 'The Suitcase') are of course closed for the moment. I can't wait to see them all re-open their doors again and I really hope they make it through the current crisis and can flourish afterwards.
Do you have a Portfolio? If so, what is your favourite piece of work?
Before starting my first book a few years ago I tried - unsuccessfully - to find freelance work as an editorial illustrator and I did a lot of personal projects based on newspaper or magazine articles to build an online portfolio. At the time we lived in a small apartment so, out of necessity, all my work was digital. It looks a lot different from the books I've made since then. Some of them I still like but I wouldn't go back to that style now.
Which illustrators have inspired you over the years?
I was a relative late-comer to this world and only got inspired when I started buying books for my children, and realising how varied and graphically interesting and beautiful and odd they could be. Some of these were Tyranosaurus Drip by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts, Cockatoos by Quentin Blake, the 'hat' books by Jon Klassen, The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers, The Gruffalo and Stick Man by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Say Hello To Zorro by Carter Goodrich. Since then I've been inspired by Carson Ellis, Sydney Smith, Shaun Tan, Benji Davies, Yuval Zommer, Amandine Piu, Pascal Blanchet amongst many others - a long list of amazing illustrators and writers. It's such a massive world and I'm still discovering 'new' things that are in fact very old and well-known.
What tips would you give any aspiring writers and/or illustrators?
I don't know if I'm qualified or experienced enough to give advice but I've learned some things that were useful to me. I spent a lot of time early on worrying about finding my own illustration style. I made two different-looking versions of the Ant book one after the other, neither of which felt right, before I realised I should stop over-thinking my 'style' and just try to be a bit more intuitive and natural. So I picked up a nib-pen and ink and watercolour and went ahead more instinctively. This third version took about three weeks (ie. very quick) and that was the one that was submitted and finally accepted by a publisher. Then I worked on it with an editor and a book-designer to refine it but, in essence, it didn't change much for publication.
I've also learnt that persistence is useful, both in hammering away at an interesting idea until it either hits a brick wall or it starts to work. Also persistence in how your work fares once you submit it to agents or publishers. Rejections are hard to take when they happen but you can only learn from them and move on. My first submitted book (before 'Ant') was taken on by an agent and then steadily rejected by all the editors it was sent to. But they were often quite constructive rejections that showed there might be some potential and it encouraged me to eventually pick myself up, learn from it and have another go. Also, on more than one occasion I can honestly say that, with hindsight, a rejection led to something better happening that wouldn't otherwise have happened. It never feels that way at the time though!