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18 April 2017

Rowboat Watkins' PETE WITH NO PANTS

I can honestly say that PETE WITH NO PANTS is one of my favorite picture books in years! And I'm thrilled to have its creator, Rowboat Watkins, on today to talk about it...
e: The images and text in Pete With No Pants seem to heavily rely on each other - how did you approach creating this story as both the writer and the illustrator?
Rowboat:
Pete started off as a doodle in a sketchbook. Of an elephant sitting in a tree with a dubious squirrel. Which became multiple dubious squirrels in a subsequent drawing. That the squirrels looked worried made vague sense. But why was the elephant in a tree?

Then for some reason, which undoubtedly says something wrong about me, I realized the elephant wasn't wearing any pants. The squirrels weren't wearing pants either, but for whatever reason their not wearing them didn't worry me. So then I wondered why would an elephant be sitting naked in a tree. It seemed like a reasonable question at the time. Anyway, that's how the book started. With a couple doodles and a random worry. The words came from there. And then the words led to different pictures as I drew thumbnails. And then those pictures changed the words. And so on. Because the words and pictures in a picture book shouldn't wear the same pants if they plan to walk anywhere. I don't dispute the fact that the pictures and words need to walk together in some way, but in doing so they shouldn't wear the same clothes at the same time. Because shared pants don't really move. At least in my limited experience they don't. Does that make sense?

e: What is your illustrative medium?
Rowboat:
Just reading "illustrative medium" made me feel panicky because it sounds too official. I'm not official enough to have anything that official sounding. Am sure this is not what you meant when you asked the question, but I am pretty good at making anything feel needlessly difficult. Which grows old. I am trying not to grow old with myself by trying to remember to have fun with my work. At least sometimes. Sometimes the workiness of work is unavoidable. But with the goal of having fun in mind, I try to keep the following things lying around my desk: cups of pencils; cans of pens; graphite sticks; crappy watercolors and brushes; construction paper; nubby brown paper; tracing paper; sculpey; acorns; marshmallows; poodle fur; washi tape; rubber stamps; a scanner; and an iMac.
So that whenever my brain pants feel stuck I can get my tiny creative legs moving again by…making a small gorilla out of sculpey…or drawing on a marshmallow…or making a miniature book out of construction paper…for no good reason. Until whatever else I'm "really" working on doesn't feel like a wedgie.
e: You did a Sendak Fellowship in 2010. WOW. What were some of your key takeaways from that? (Please do go on, and on, and on - we won’t tire of hearing about this one!)
Rowboat :
When I went to the fellowship I was stuck in what felt like a terminal creative wedgie. The multi-year-maybe-lapsing-into-forever kind. Aside from being terrified of meeting Maurice, I was also afraid of meeting the other fellows. I had no idea why I was there or what I was supposed to do with a month of no excuses, in a room of my own, living next door to a childhood hero, and sharing a house with three talented author/illustrators. Who were each working on books under contract. Feeling hopelessly lost and stuck in the dummies and manuscripts I'd brought with me, I started drawing on the walls of my room. And covering it with construction paper, on which I drew whatever. Large gorilla hands. Masked bandits. Giant legs. Oak trees. Acorns. And when the month was over, and after most of my room was covered in this or that, I took it all down and painted the walls white. And went back home to my family. I no longer remember what I felt at the time, other than that I was grateful to have made some new friends, and that I was inspired (but even more daunted) by how committed and passionate the other fellows were about making their books. I wish I could say I immediately figured out what do next, but the truth is there were still a couple years of what felt like hapless flailing, where most moments of working on any idea felt like some herculean task that went nowhere (a condition that still rears its ugly head, but much less often). Somewhere along the way though I remembered something Maurice had told me on a walk we took by the woods near his house, which was, "You need to become a better spy."
"You need to become a better spy."
     - Maurice Sendak
At the time I thought it was intended as advice on how to cleverly write something subversive that might potentially sneak its way past the sanitizing censors of the marketplace, but in retrospect I think he was maybe telling me to be smarter about getting out of my own way. Which, in retrospect, is probably what that month of drawing on the walls of my room was about. About getting my brain legs moving. And not worrying about where I was going so much as just not remaining stuck in a pair of pants that weren't going anywhere. Which is why my computer is always surrounded by construction paper, and pencils, and sculpey, and marshmallows.

e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Rowboat:
For me the most magical quality in an illustration is generosity. Which I think has something to do with the appearance of thoughtful effortlessness (or effortless thoughtfulness?) on the part of the maker. But I'm undoubtedly wrong because I don't really have any idea how magic works. I'm forever jealous of any virtuoso illustrator who can draw a thousand Vikings ransacking Times Square by motorcycle at midnight during a hail storm, but Arnold Lobel and James Marshall create magic--even without Vikings or neon or hailstones. So does Victoria Chess. And Nicole Rubel. And Petra Mathers. And those tiny pix Maurice made for all those books he illustrated for Ruth Krauss. I don't know if there is a unifying principal to all of this magic. But I feel like it has something to do with an illustration allowing me (the viewer) to feel like I am participating in the completion of whatever is being shared. And that the illustrator isn't just wowing me with how skilled he or she is. But this is only what my answer is today. I'm sure the 5- or 6 -or 7-year-old me saw much more magic in virtuosity than the much older me is currently able to see.

e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Rowboat:
Well, you already know about the doodle in the tree. But what you maybe didn't know is that Pete's name was briefly Barnaby. Until I realized it was Nicholas. Only to learn sometime later that Nicholas' real name was Pete. And that the working title I'd had (Nicholas Is a Squirrel), was actually Pete Without Pants. Which Chronicle later changed to Pete with No Pants. These are the kinds of things that happen when your brain legs keep moving. It took me a long time to figure out what Pete's story was about. For the first however many months it centered on the bird in the book. And Pete's wanting to find a common language with a friend. Any friend. But as I kept rewriting and reworking the dummy (with my incredible editor) I realized the book was really about Pete and his mom. About his needing to know that, whoever or whatever he discovered he might be, his mom would be open to seeing him for himself. And about her needing to let go of vigilantly making Pete put his pants back on. Because sometimes pants get in the way of walking where you're trying to go.

e: What was your path to publication, and did the Fellowship feed into that?
Rowboat:
It felt long and arduous, and took way more persistence than I'd ever imagined. Am pretty sure if I hadn't gotten to know Maurice and the other fellows, and hadn't had that month to draw in and on my room, I would have given up before I finally wrote Rude Cakes, which was the first book of mine that Chronicle published, and which was the first project of all the many manuscripts and dummies I'd sent my agent over the years that she was finally able to sell. All the stories folks tell about persistence in the face of rejection are so abundantly ever present and everywhere because they are so boringly true. Writing a picture book is hard. And rejection and failure have a wearisome way of wearing you down.
     When you asked about what makes an illustration magical, it reminded me of a question I always ask myself: What makes one picture-book idea publishable, and another not? I don't think anyone knows. All you can do is make something you truly care about. Boring bromide.
When you asked about what makes an illustration magical, it reminded me of a question I always ask myself: What makes one picture-book idea publishable, and another not?
And hope you find ONE person who believes in it. Equally boring bromide, but no less true. In my case, it was finding an agent who believed in my work enough to keep reading what I sent her year after year. And her eventually finding an editor who saw in my work what she saw. And having one very dear, very wise, super generous friend, Antoinette, who I met at the fellowship, who never stopped waving her pompoms whenever I felt lost, and who kindly loaned me her brain whenever mine got stuck. Because making a picture book is an inherently more collaborative process than all that sitting at your desk by yourself might lead you to believe.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Rowboat:
Being able to tell myself I have to play more if I want to do my job well.
e: What are you working on next?
Rowboat:
I just turned in the final art for a book called Big Bunny, which will come out next spring. Am currently working on a book about marshmallows, called Most Marshmallows. In which I get to draw on marshmallows, and make tiny books and buses and backpacks and tvs out of construction paper. Because I am a better spy, Maurice.

e: I can't wait to see it! Thanks so much for sharing, Rowboat!

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