03 July 2014
A conversation with Adam Rex on MOONDAY - Giveaway!
Some author/illustrators gush so much creativity into the kidlitosphere it's almost hard to keep up with them. Last summer I was lucky enough to meet one of them: Adam Rex. Not only is he one of the most talented illustrators out there, he's also a fabulous writer. In fact, his novel, THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, is being made into an animated movie! Yet he still creates marvelous picture books like MOONDAY. Adam dropped to talk about it...
Q. Adam, How did the idea for MOONDAY come to you?
A. I’m ashamed to admit it was a dream. Ashamed because I think this is the fanciful way a lot of non-writers think writers get ideas, and it belies the real work that goes into a good manuscript.
But about fifteen years ago I had a dream that the moon was in my backyard, and I climbed up on it to explore. And for the next ten years or so I tried to write a picture book that felt the way the dream had felt. The first draft bears no resemblance to what I ended up with.
Q. I know what you mean! I’ve dreamed stories I thought I couldn’t use, because somebody else came up with the idea in my dream. I’ve had to remind myself, Hey, that was YOUR brain! But it does feel like cheating a little… until you start writing it down and making it really work. Has any story ever come easily for you?
A. Yeah, and though I wonder if other picture book authors hate me for admitting this, I’ve written certain manuscripts in a day. Sure, they go through a little editing later, but all in all they don’t change much. So my personal range for writing a picture book is between one day and ten years.
Q. Ha! Well, you truly are prolific. You seem to just "get it" - that thing that makes a story work or not. What do you attribute that to? How did you acquire your storytelling chops?
A. Oh, gosh–well, I don’t feel comfortable agreeing that I get anything. I should stress that those good days, when I sort of manage to write a whole picture book, generally start with a flash of inspiration that I don’t know how to propagate on command. And those flashes of inspiration are preceded by weeks or months of nothing, during which I wonder if I will ever have a good idea again.
But if I do have any kind of natural sense of how to make stories work, it can only be because of a lot of reading and watching television. Reading and watching critically, which is something I had to learn to do better but which I think I’d always done naturally just a little bit.
This is a weird example, but it’s the first that comes to mind: while watching a cartoon recently I mentioned to my wife how much it used to bother me as a kid when I’d notice that the scenery was all lush and painterly except for, say, one rock in the foreground. That rock would be drawn and rendered in the same flat manner as the animated characters, and this was and is a dead giveaway that one of those characters is about to kick the rock or pick it up or something similar. I understood, as a kid, that it was harder to animate something painterly and lush, but I still wished all the rocks could look one way and all the characters another.
All this sticks in my mind because my wife then said, oh, I see what you mean–I never noticed that before. So it got me thinking that, even at a young age, I was always sort of deconstructing stories and noticing how they work. Not a lot, but maybe more than most? I don’t know.
Q. That makes perfect sense, and also proves what a visual person you are. Which leads me to my next question. I began this career as an illustrator, didn't you too? How have you reconciled these two Muses, the writer and the illustrator. Does one beg for more attention?
A. I did begin as an illustrator–I was supporting myself for several years painting pictures for fantasy role-playing and card games before I got my break in kids’ books. And my first two picture books were written by Amy Timberlake and Jill Esbaum.
I can’t think of two muses more easily reconciled than writing and illustrating, though. It’s not like I’m trying to freestyle rap and design sports pavilions. I’m very lucky to do both, because it’s meant that I haven’t had to wait for someone else to approach me with the right manuscript. I do find it interesting that so many people assume one begs for more attention than the other, though, and I find it even more interesting that those people are right–most of the time I’m drawing and painting I wish I was writing. It’s been like that for a few years now, though I expect it’ll flip the other way at some point.
Q. Amy is a friend and I adore THE DIRTY COWBOY! Were you miffed when it got banned? A. I don’t know if "miffed" is the right word. Making books for kids is my life’s work, so it hurts quite a lot when any person thinks of one one of my books as bad for kids. That said, what I really worry about are the quiet challenges–someone tells a librarian or school administrator that a book is bad, and that gatekeeper either agrees or just acquiesces to make his life easier. An entire community is deprived of a book because of the feelings of a single person, and they never learn what’s happened in their name.
A public banning can be heartbreaking, but it always draws more attention than the book would have ever received otherwise.
Q. So what is your illustration method? I'm most fascinated by your combination of line and rendering. How do you know how far to take your rendering?
A. Regarding my illustration method…mostly I’m oil painting, or painting digitally and trying to make it look like oil painting. I start with a lot of sketching, a lot of messy compositional thumbnails. I refine the sketch in stages and don’t start painting it until after it’s been approved by my editor. I’m not sure if that answers your question–maybe you can get more specific about what you’d like to know. But if anything I think I tend to take my renderings too far. I’d much rather paint like a Whistler or a John Singer Sargent, who could define large areas with a brushstroke. I have no interest in rendering every last hair on my subject’s head–I’d much rather paint a single stroke and let your brain trick you into seeing detail that isn’t there.
Q. The light in MOONDAY is amazing. How did you deal with the specific challenges in this book? (Including all those angles of the boy walking on the moon!)
A. I think the biggest challenges in MOONDAY actually had nothing to do with the moon or the characters. Because I always shoot a lot of photo reference of friends and family when it will be helpful. That’s me as the dad in MOONDAY, and my wife as the mom. A friend’s granddaughter played the little girl.
I’m not the best at drawing architecture, so creating a consistent setting for the moon was difficult–I ended up building a 3D model of the family’s building to help me with that.
Q. How long did it take you to complete the illustrations for MOONDAY?
A. I don’t know–probably about four months? It’s always hard to do a real accounting because I’ll start sketching on a picture book, then maybe break to write something else, then come back to sketching, and submit a dummy to the editor, then work on something else for a few weeks while I wait for feedback, etc. But I usually say that I can manage a picture book and a novel each year. I’d like to slow down from that pace, but baby needs shoes.
This is of special interest to me at the moment because I’ve been trying to advise a friend who wants to self-publish some picture book manuscripts he wrote, and he’s interested in hiring his own illustrator. This has led me to poke around online a bit, and I’ve discovered forums where people in similar positions are balking at the idea of paying an illustrator even a couple thousand dollars for a 32-page book.
These are either terrible people, or (more likely), they’re people who have just never given any real thought to the work that goes into book-making. Because I can’t accept that they genuinely believe an illustrator deserves less than a hundred dollars per page, unless they think that entire page takes mere hours to complete. And I realize that it's possible that they do believe this–all my life people have been asking me to draw them birthday cards or student council campaign posters or whatever, and they often try to mitigate the imposition by telling me how easy it’ll be for me. "It’ll take you, like, five minutes,” they’ve told me, based on nothing.
Anyway: it takes me at least a few months to illustrate a picture book, and maybe as many as six or seven if it’s especially complex. I think I’m considered to be pretty average in that regard–some illustrators are faster, and some can’t do more than one picture book a year.
See Adam's book trailer for MOONDAY:
Click here to see the trailer if the embedded video gives you trouble.
Q. You’ve got some exciting things going on with THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY. Can you share with my readers?
A. You’re right that there’s a lot going on right now relating to my first novel, The True Meaning of Smekday. By the time this posts, your readers may have already seen the first theatrical trailer for the movie adaptation, HOME, that DreamWorks is making. Or the short film, Almost Home (below), that played before a couple of other animated films earlier this year. Anyway, HOME will be in theaters March 2015, and my own sequel to The True Meaning of Smekday will come out in February. That’s called Smek for President!, and I’m very excited for people to read it.
Here's the short film:
Click here if the embedded video gives you trouble.
And here is the official trailer!
CLICK HERE to see the trailer on YouTube.
This has been fun talking back and forth Adam! I wish you much continued success!
Disney has kindly offered to give a free copy of MOONDAY to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US/Canada to win. Enter below.