An Interview with Adam Rex
I had so much fun interviewing Joyce Sidman for the CYBILS site that I thought I might like to add interviews to my own blog from time to time. And I was so tickled by Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex that I decided to send him some fan mail and ask if he might be the very first one. And he said yes (squee!).
I sat down with Adam Rex and asked him a bunch of questions, which he was kind enough to answer. Oh, who am I kidding? I sent him the questions and then, much later, he wrote the answers and sent them back. It was very, very nice of him to do, and I think you'll all enjoy my visit with Adam.
I read in an interview that you did with David over at Ironic Sans that you studied with David Christiana, author and illustrator of one of my favorite picture books, The First Snow. Would you care to tell us a bit about your training, formal and otherwise, and whether illustrating for children was your original intent in going to school?
It was. I worked at a bookstore during the waning years of high school, and was really taken with the picture books that were coming out at that time. This was the late eighties and very early nineties, so I was hearing about Lane Smith, William Joyce, Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, and so forth. The market seemed so utterly different from the books I remembered from my childhood. These were very vibrant, painterly, irreverent, etc. So at 16 or 17 I decided picture books might be a way to reconcile my love of making pictures and inventing stories. Studying under David really reinforced this. I'm not sure if I would have kept at it if I wasn't seeing a working author/illustrator at school every day.
For my illustrator friends, can you tell us a bit about the media you work in, and whether it changes from project to project? In Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, for instance, the illustrator's note reads "The illustrations in this book were created with oil and . . . oh gosh, lots of stuff. What? Sure, he used some of that. Yep, that too."
Frankenstein was a rare opportunity to try a lot of things within the same picture book, being a collection of poems as it is. So FMAS contains oils, gouache, ink and scratchboard, colored pencils, and even a page of Sculpey figures that I photographed and assembled in Photoshop. But I primarily paint in oils. My next picture book will be oils over acrylic and opaque ink backgrounds.
Tell us a bit about the clay heads you've made as models for some of your work -- how that came about, and which came first, the sketches or the heads. Also, whether you do other sculpting as well.
Sculpting is something I've been doing a long time to aid in drawing and painting. I use as much reference material to make my illustrations as possible–often that means photographing myself of my wife or a friend in something approximating the correct costume so I can really get a sense of authentic form, light, drapery, and so forth. Or I'll gather as much as I can from books and the web to help me render things I can't photograph myself. But in the case of someone like my version of Frankenstein, even a photo of the biggest, most flat-headed person I know is only going to help so much. That's where the sculpted figures come in. I try to at least sculpt those characters that I know I'll have to depict a number of times in a number of ways. But the characters always start in my sketchbooks – I may draw dozens of versions before I feel I've gotten it right, and only then do I pull out the clay.
Let's talk a bit about Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, one of my very favorite poetry books from 2006. The writing in this book of poems about a variety of "monsters" is funny and fresh. How did the topic of monsters come to you, and why did you decide to write rhymes about them?
In the beginning I think I was just looking for a theme on which to write verse, which I was really just trying out for the first time, that would provide some great illustration opportunities as well. Who wouldn't want to make pictures of monsters? The title popped into my head from nowhere, and that set the tone–monsters with mundane, un-monster-like problems.
The illustration styles seem to me to vary widely (or is it wildly?) in style among the various poems in Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Where the Yeti and the Bigfoot remind me of illustrations from books from the mid-20th century, "The Dentist" calls to mind Charles Schulz (even before I read an interview where I realized that was deliberate!), and the illustrations for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Henderson" appear to be genuine Victorian pen and ink drawings. Are the varying styles an homage to specific artists and illustrators (or styles of illustration) over time, and if so, what attracted you to them? If not, can you talk about how you decided what "look" you were going for with each poem?
Many of the images are deliberate homages to particular illustrators and eras. The Yeti and Bigfoot poems are meant to have a Richard Scarry/Gustaf Tenggren vibe. Jekyll and Henderson is based on old Harper's Weekly magazines from the turn of the century, especially the work of Charles Dana Gibson. I wanted it to have a real "society pages" feel to it. The Charles Schulz thing was practically a mistake–I just started sketching Frankenjunior and he looked like Linus, so I gave him a blanket. After that it became obvious what Son of Dracula needed to look like.
In some cases the styles were strongly dictated by the needs of the subject matter. In others, I just wanted to try something new. In either case I usually latched on to one or two particular illustrators to give myself an anchor for my work.
You've done a lot of illustration work for Wizards of the Coast (for Magic The Gathering), and for other people's work as well. Which is more challenging, illustrating your own text, or someone else's?
I suppose it's more challenging to illustrate someone else's text, because you're really jumping into the deep end of the pool that way. When I write a story myself, I can't help but begin thinking immediately about color, composition, style, and so on. I'm building the illustrations in my head, even if I may not actually put pencil to paper until the manuscript is nearly complete. By the time I actually start working on the illustrations, they already have a pretty solid foundation. I may even have nudged the text in certain directions or pared it down because I knew the illustration could fill in the blanks.
For example, take the text, "Joe had an unusual morning. He burned the toast, broke a plate, and then of course there was the circus monkey." You can create an illustration of a smoky kitchen, toaster on fire, shattered plate, and monkey on roller skates, but then suddenly there's a certain amount of redundancy. Maybe the text should just be, "Joe had an unusual morning." Or maybe the text should stay as is but the illustration should be more ambiguous–a cloud of smoke through which you can just make out a monkey's tail, roller skates, some flying plate pieces, Joe's silhouette, etc. Illustrating someone else's manuscript means you don't have that control, though sometimes the best art comes from working around limitations.
Also out last year was your picture book The Tree Ring Circus, in which a number of animals (if one can also call a clown an animal, and I'll assume for now that we'll let it slide) move into a rapidly growing tree. I love the illustrations and the idea of it -- can you tell me how you decided what animals to use in the story, which were your favorites to draw, and why?
Well, rhyming verse has a way of making a lot of decisions for you. You suddenly need another two syllable animal with the stress on the first syllable, for example, or a word that rhymes with tree. Otherwise, some of the animals choices were just intuitive, others came out of a strong desire to paint a polar bear. I think the elephant was my absolute favorite to paint. Not so much eye-straining detail, and I enjoyed trying to capture her skin texture in paint. She makes a cameo in my next picture book, which is set in a zoo.
What's easier for you -- writing the words or making the pictures?
Probably the pictures – I've been doing it longer.
Betsy Bird ove at Fuse #8 named you a Hot Man of Children's Literature in September, 2006. Has your life changed as a result and, if so, how?
Well, the pageant was nice. But before you're crowned you don't realize how many library ribbon-cuttings and the like you'll be asked to attend.
On your website, you and your wife are decked out in pretty awesome cowboy regalia. Is that your every day mode of dress? If not, why not?
No, it was just an Arbor Day thing. The grocery-bag chaps tear too easily.
You did the illustrations for The Dirty Cowboy by Amy Timberlake, which won a bunch of awards including the SCBWI Golden Kite award and a Parents' Choice Gold Award, but has since been banned from at least one school in Texas because the cowboy took his clothes off to bathe. (I told Adam I'd link to the picture on his site that shows the cowboy with a cleverly placed frog in front of his scrotum (yeah, I said it), and so I shall.) Would you care to comment?
I sympathize with parents and librarians, even when I don't agree with their decisions. The question of children's welfare often leads to irrational outcomes. When I needed photo reference of kids for Jill Esbaum's Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin'!, I was confronted with the reality that I have no kids myself, and have few friends in the area who do, either. Deadline concerns forced me to visit playgrounds, where I tried to explain to parents who I was, what I was working on, and why I was asking to photograph their children. It wasn't difficult to prove I actually was a picture book illustrator, and I wasn't asking to take their kids anywhere, dress them in costumes, or anything like that. I was just looking for them to pose in a manner similar to the drawings I had with me, right there at the park. I still received refusals about half the time from some very unsettled mothers. And I couldn't blame them.
It's a particular shame when a librarian or principal makes the same kind of irrational, fear-based decision for an entire community, however, and I think it's proper that these sorts of incidents receive media attention. Only then can the community know what's being done in their name, and decide whether or not they agree.
Can you tell us a bit about your forthcoming book from Harcourt, which is, if I'm not mistaken, a picture book called Pssst! about a day at the zoo?
PSSST! is indeed about a zoo, and one where the gorilla needs a new tire swing. The turkeys want corn, the sloths want bicycle helmets, and the penguins want to repaint their enclosure. And all the animals seem to want a girl named Zooey to get these things for them. They might not be entirely honest about their reasons, either.
You also have an "illustrated novel" called The True Meaning of Smekday coming out (unless Wikipedia is having me on). Will your novel be illustrated as in the U.S. version of Harry Potter, with one small illustration per chapter, or in the nature of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, or somewhere in the middle?
The True Meaning of Smekday is narrated by Gratuity Tucci (her friends call her Tip), who drives herself and her cat cross-country to find the reservation where everyone lives now that the aliens have taken over. On the way she picks up an alien named J.Lo who seems to have an odd desire to avoid the rest of his species.
Smekday will have more illustrations than a Harry Potter, probably less than Hugo Cabret. There are about 15 pages of comics storytelling within its pages, and dozens of photographs and clippings from newspapers and books (all actually drawings). It's over 400 pages, and mostly orange.
a. Cheese or chocolate?
Chocolate AND cheese. With the Ween album Chocolate and Cheese playing in the background, if possible.
b. Coffee or tea?
c. Cats or dogs?
I'm allergic to both.
d. Favorite color?
e. Favorite snack food?
I love them all, don't make me choose.
f. Favorite ice cream?
This bittersweet chocolate gelato you can get in downtown Philadelphia. If that's not too specific.
g. Water or soda?
h. What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now?
And the Glass Handed Kites by Mew, and the new Shins album.
i. What's the last movie you memorized lines from?
Adam will be reading, drawing, and signing books on Friday, March 9th, between 5 and 7 PM at Head House Books in Philadelphia. Those of you who are not from the area should know that Head House is a reference to a market area dating back to Colonial times, and absolutely nothing to do with cannabis.
A HUGE thanks to Adam for the interview!