Why do you put that little white dog in all of your books? Do you have a dog like that?
The first story that I wrote, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, had a dog in it named Fritz. When I thought about the kind of dog I wanted Fritz to be, I decided he should be a bull terrier. Unfortunately, I didn't know any bull terriers that could be my model for drawing pictures. I found some photographs, but they were not what I needed. What I needed was a real dog. My brother-in-law, David, visited one day, and told me he was thinking of getting a dog, possibly a golden retriever. I told him he should get himself something more interesting. Something really unusual. I showed him photos of bull terriers and he agreed that it was a most unusual and appealing dog.
Not long after that, he acquired a bull terrier puppy, and named him Winston. Winston became the model for Fritz, and because he was my brother-in-law's dog, I thought of Winston as a kind of nephew. Sadly, Winston had an accident that sent him to the big dog kennel in the sky at a young age. I decided to commemorate the contribution he made to my first book by including him (or at least a tiny part of him) in all of my books.
Where do you get your ideas?
The ideas for my books come to me in different ways. For instance, I once was standing in my kitchen one morning, and saw two ants on the counter top. I believed the ants came from my back yard, and began to wonder what a trip from the back yard to my kitchen would be like for an ant. That started me thinking about a story of two ants and their unusual journey into a house. The story became, Two Bad Ants.
On another occasion, I was cleaning up my daughter Sophia's room, when she was about 4 years old, and saw a Peter Pan coloring book on the floor. It was open to a picture of Princess Tiger Lily, who was sinking in a pool of water and had a terrified look on her face, calling out for Peter's help. My daughter had colored Tiger Lily's face in green and purple streaks and it looked to me as if the Princess's terrified look was a reaction to the way Sophia had colored her. This started me thinking about how characters who live in coloring books might feel when the page they are on gets opened up and it is their turn to be colored.
Ideas for stories are all around. But those ideas are just starting points. The kind of story a writer ends up telling, such as a scary story, a funny story, a sad story, or an exciting story, is not the result of the little idea that starts the writer thinking. The kind of story a writer ends up telling is the result of the kind of person that the writer is.
Do you have any children?
I have two daughters, Sophia and Anna. Sophia was born in 1991 and Anna was born in 1995. They sometimes model for me, even if, as in the case of Zathura, the characters they are modeling are boys.
Did your daughter Sophia help you draw the pictures in Bad Day at Riverbend?
Sophia did help with some of the crayon drawing in Bad Day at Riverbend, but there were some pictures that were not messy enough. So when she was done, I had to work on them, too.
Which of the books you have written is your favorite?
Whenever people ask me this, I always answer, "My next one". That's because I always think the next thing I do will be at least a little better then the things I have already done.
What was your favorite book when you were growing up?
The book I remember most clearly from my childhood, and for that reason I believe it must have been my favorite, was Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. I still think it is one of the best picture books ever. People are sometimes surprised that I feel that way because the pictures in the book are quite simple, not like the detailed and fussy pictures that I make, but I admire it exactly because it's simple, and such a wonderful idea.
What does it take to write and illustrate a book?
It takes me between 7 and 9 months to write the story and make the pictures that become a book. The picture making part takes much longer then the writing part. In almost every case, the original pictures I make are much larger then they appear in the finished books.
Which comes first the story or the pictures?
I always write the story, or at least an outline, before I start sketching ideas for pictures. Once I start the final art, the story has been written (and re-written), and changes very little after that.
Why are some of your books in black and white and the others in color?
I did not study painting or drawing when I was in college learning about art. I studied sculpture. I drew pictures of the sculptures I planned to make, and I took a few required drawing classes. When I was 29 years old and wrote my first book, making pictures with a charcoal pencil was all I really knew how to do. I didn't feel bad that my pictures were not in color because I like black and white pictures, as well as black and white photographs and movies.
As time went by, I became more interested in picture making and taught myself to use different material to make color pictures. Materials like dry and oil pastels, craypas, crayons, colored pencils, and paint. Now I decide if a book should be black and white or color as a result of a how I imagine the story while I am thinking about it. When I tell myself a story, I see it in my imagination, like a short movie. Sometimes I see the stories in black and white and sometimes I see the stories in color. I'm not sure why.
As a child, growing up in the Midwest, I used to draw pictures of cars, cartoon characters, and very detailed plans for tornado shelters. The other thing I liked to do as a boy was to make models. Models of cars, airplanes, and boats. I was pretty good at this. I stopped building models around the 7th grade but I think my skill and interest in model making was what led me to studying sculpture in college.
How do you make your pictures look so real?
The kind of stories I write are mostly fantasies. When a story is about strange and incredible events, I think it's important that the pictures convince the reader that the events described actually could happen. That is why I try to make my pictures look real. I do this by using real people as models of the characters in my books and by using the laws of perspective and lighting to make the places shown in the pictures appear as if they really exist.
In The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, there is a picture with the title, "Just Desert." Why is this misspelled?
I, too, was puzzled by this title Burdick had written in the corner of the picture. When I persuaded the Houghton Mifflin Company to reproduce Burdick's drawings in 1984, I suggested the spelling be corrected. However, a copy editor at the company informed me that the correct spelling for "Just Desert" is with one "s." It is a figure of speech meaning, "that which one deserves, appropriate award or punishment") and was just as Burdick had written it.
Burdick evidently intended the play on words, and the title reinforces the idea that the woman in the picture is preparing something more then just an ordinary pumpkin pie. Possibly she has someone in mind to whom she would like to serve it.