Matt Tavaris' RED & LULU

You may know Matt Tavaris for his myriad of baseball books. As such, RED & LULU is a marvelous addition to his canon of beloved books. Happily, he dropped by to talk about it...
e: What is your creative process and medium, can you walk us through it?
For the illustrations in Red & Lulu, I used watercolor and gouache on Arches 300 pound hot press paper. It’s mostly watercolor, with gouache here and there for details and highlights. I do all my preliminary sketches digitally, because working on the computer allows me to place the text right where I want it to see how the words and pictures work together, and it also allows me more flexibility as I’m brainstorming and planning each page. For example, if I’m drawing Red flying around the Empire State Building, I need to decide where exactly he is going to be on the page, and how big. To do this on paper, I would need to keep drawing and re-drawing the character. But on the computer, I can move him around, make him bigger, make him smaller, and keep adjusting until it’s just right. But then once I move on to my final art, I work the old fashioned way, with real pencils, paint and paper.
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?
I think that if an illustrator pours his or her heart onto a book, it shows. And hopefully that translates to the reader. A book is always going to mean something different to the reader than it does to its creator, just like any work of art. But it has to mean something to the illustrator. The illustrator has to care about all the little details, so the reader can trust that it’s worth their time to pore over them again and again, hopefully discovering something new each time. There is a note taped to my drawing table that says “Everything matters.” I put it there to remind me to pay attention to every tiny detail in every illustration. Because all of it is important.
e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of Red and Lulu?
One late December day in 2015, I was in New York City doing research for Red & Lulu, walking through Central Park with my family. There is a nature sanctuary near the south end of Central Park, and that’s where I imagined Red and Lulu would live toward the end of the story. As we walked toward the nature sanctuary, I pointed out the spot to my kids, to show them where I was thinking Red and Lulu would live, in this woodsy area where you can see the buildings through the trees. Just then, a bright red cardinal landed on a branch, right in the spot where I was thinking Red and Lulu would make their nest. It was pretty amazing. And it was great for my research, because then I knew that it was perfectly possible that they would live in that spot at that time of year. There were a few strange things like this that happened while I was working on this book. Seems like a cardinal would always show up just at the right time. I like to think they were letting me know I was on the right track.
e: What was your path to publication as an illustrator and for this book?
Red and Lulu is the 19th book I’ve illustrated, and the 9th that I’ve written. So my initial path to publication happened a while ago. I wrote and illustrated a picture book as my senior thesis at Bates College in 1997. From there, I met my agent, Rosemary Stimola, through a serendipitous series of connections. Rosemary shopped my story around a bit, got a few rejections, and then found Candlewick Press, who liked it! I did the whole thing over again, and eventually, it became my first published book, Zachary’s Ball, which came out in 2000.
      Red & Lulu’s path to publication was a long and winding road that started back in 2011. It actually began as a non-fiction picture book about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I submitted a version of that to Candlewick, and they told me they liked it but felt that it needed more heart, and suggested I add characters to help tell the story. First I tried focusing on human characters, but that didn’t quite work. Then I came up with the idea of focusing on animals who live in the tree, which led me to the pair of cardinals. I wrote a version of Red & Lulu that was about 1000 words long. My editor liked it, but asked it I would consider trying to tell the story as a wordless picture book. I loved that idea, so I spent several months working on telling the story with no words. But I felt like that version didn’t quite work either. So we took both versions, added back words where they seemed necessary, and ended up with the final version of the book, which I think has about 450 words. It was a long process that spanned 5 or 6 years, but that allowed me to really live with the story and make it my own. This is my first book where the characters aren’t human, but in a lot of ways I feel like this is my most personal book. This is truly “heart art” for me.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
I love that I get to spend my days being creative, sitting here at my drawing table and painting and drawing and writing stories, doing what I love to do. There are lots of exciting things about being an author and an illustrator, but actually doing the work is my favorite part.
      The most challenging part is the business side of it. I wish I could just make the books and not worry about all that other stuff.

e: Is there something in particular about Red and Lulu you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
One interesting thing I’ve already noticed with this book is that different people really seem to connect with it in different ways. I think the fact that the main characters are birds makes it easier for people to connect the story to something in their own lives, as opposed to a story about a specific person. The birds are blank canvases, to some extent.
      I guess one thing I could point out that people might not notice is the role that the evergreen tree plays in the story. This is a story about dealing with change. Red and Lulu live in a big, beautiful evergreen. Their tree is the center of their world. I feel like this is the perfect symbol to use in this story, because even its name, “evergreen”, implies permanence. But of course, it is a living thing, subject to the unpredictability of time, weather, and nature. And one of Red and Lulu’s favorite things is to listen to people sing about their tree, “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, thy leaves are so unchanging…”. These lyrics are repeated a few times throughout the story, reinforcing the idea that Red and Lulu see their tree as the permanent foundation of their lives, making it all the more unthinkable when suddenly, it is chopped down and taken away.
     Click the image below to see it larger in a new window.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
I just signed up for four new picture books with Candlewick, two as illustrator and two as author-illustrator. One is fiction, and the other three are nonfiction. My dream project right now is to write and illustrate a graphic novel. I’ve got some ideas…
e: We look forward to seeing them all! Thanks, Matt!

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