We are thrilled to welcome James Foley — our featured author-illustrator for May. You might remember our review ofThe Last Viking, which was the first book that James ever illustrated (written by Norman Jorgensen). Since then, James has also written and illustrated a picture book called In the Lion. Check out a cool book trailer for In the Lion:
Today we are talking to James about what it’s like to be an author and an illustrator.
Can you tell us something about where you live?
There are lots of picture books and comics in the bookshelves, and there are paintings hanging on most of the walls. I have some artwork made by Western Australian illustrators like Samantha Hughes, Karen Blair, Briony Stewart, Campbell Whyte and my favourite, Shaun Tan. And I have some original drawings by Batman comic artist Tim Sale!
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
I’m not sure. Sometimes it starts with a character that appears in my sketchbook. Then I try to come up with a story that they might feature in. Sometimes I start with a topic, like robots. Ideas come more easily when I am feeling relaxed — when I go for a walk, or when I am sitting quietly with a cup of tea. That makes me sound like a grandma …
Was it easy to get your first illustration contract?
I first sent my artwork off to publishers in 2000, when I was 17 years old. I had just finished high school. I didn’t get a contract until 10 years later, in early 2010. I spent the 10 years practising my drawing mostly, and doing a bit of writing in there too. I met Norman Jorgensen in 2009 and we started working on The Last Viking together — from that point things started to move a lot more quickly and I got two illustration contracts in two years. Once you have your first book published, it’s easier to get another one. But sometimes getting that first contract takes a long time.
Does the story influence your choice of materials for the artwork?
I’ve only published two books so far and I’ve used the same materials for both — pencil outlines and digital colour. I think the setting of the story is a big influence on the materials and textures I use … in The Last Viking I used stone, leather and parchment for borders and backgrounds. I used a lot of crumbly wall textures for In The Lion, because the walls of the lion enclosure took up most of the backgrounds. I’m doing a book about robots at the moment, so it will feature lots of metal and rust textures in it, but I’ll probably still draw things in pencil and put the colours in digitally.
When you write and illustrate your own books, which comes first — the artwork or the story text?
Good question. The story usually springs from an image that’s in my sketchbook or that’s in my head. Then I might do a bit of sketching of the main characters — not too much, just enough to give me a hint of what they might be like. Then I have to stop drawing and write. The story needs to come first! I’ve learned this the hard way … I’ve been working on a story since April last year, and I didn’t start with the words — I started with rough drawings for every page. The drawings might have looked cool and exciting, but the story was too complicated and wasn’t making enough sense. I had to forget about the drawings I’d done and go back to square one, figuring out who my characters were and what the story was. It’s changed the story completely, but I think it’s much better now.
When you are illustrating a book written by someone else, do you like to discuss the story and illustrations with them?
Yes, definitely. This doesn’t usually happen, but I’ve been lucky. Norman and I were able to work closely on The Last Viking and bounce ideas off each other before we submitted our first draft to Fremantle Press. We’re doing the same thing with the sequel. We’ve caught up three or four times over the last 9 months to talk about our ideas and make a few rough sketches of scenes. We’ve just put a dummy book together that has very scratchy drawings, rough text and the basic layout. Norm sat next to me in my studio and we pieced it together. It works because we have the same sense of humour and the same vision for the story. This wouldn’t work for all authors and illustrators, some of them would probably tear each other’s hair out.
What do you like to do when you are not writing or illustrating?
I like to watch movies, play video games, read books. I like cooking. I like walking the dog. I have a kayak that I like to paddle, which I haven’t done in ages …
Is your writing and/or illustrating influenced by another writer and/or illustrator in particular?
I’m not sure. I have some favourites and I suppose they influence me, whether it’s obvious to me or not — Shaun Tan, Graeme Base, Jan Ormerod, Maurice Sendak. I started writing a story the other day, set it aside, then came back to it and realised it the words were in a Maurice Sendak kind of style (just not as well written, obviously).
Did you have a favourite author or illustrator when you were growing up?
Graeme Base was my favourite. I loved The Eleventh Hour and Animalia, I would read those over and over and pore over the details in the pictures.
Are you working on something at the moment?
Yes, I’m working on a few projects this year — another book I’m writing and illustrating called Brobot; a sequel to The Last Viking that doesn’t have a title yet; and some black-and-white chapter book illustrations for some stories written by Jon Doust and Ken Spillman.
Do you have any advice for young writers and/or artists?
Do it lots, and do it because you love doing it. Don’t listen to anyone who says that it’s not good enough yet. Just keep doing it and loving it. Have fun with it. You’ll get better and better the more you do it and the longer you do it for. Read, read, read — read novels, read comics, read books about history and myths, read the newspaper. And look, look, look — go to art galleries, go to museums, watch movies. Write and draw about the things that interest you. Love doing it.
I write and illustrate children’s books. I’ve recently released my second picture book, In The Lion, through Walker Books. It’s a little like The Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly but darkly funny and set in a zoo. My first book, The Last Viking, came out last year. it was written by Picture-Book-of-the-Year winner Norman Jorgensen.
Most illustrators will tell you they’ve been drawing for as long as they can remember. I started my career in primary school, drawing cartoons for the school newspaper. The paper only lasted one issue, probably because my class faked a fire in the school hall using a smoke machine to get our front page story. In year 7, I won third prize in a state-wide ‘Make Your Own Storybook’ Competition. I later worked on a regular comic strip for my high school paper; political cartoons for a Curtin University paper; and a full-page comic for Notre Dame University’s Quasimodo magazine.
But my professional career really began in 2003, when I drew my first covers for Western Australia’s weekly Quokka newspaper. By the time I finished in 2010 I’d drawn nearly 300 full-colour cartoons.
I like working in pen and ink, pencil, charcoal and watercolour. I also use digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop, Corel Painter and a Wacom graphics tablet.
My assessment/mentoring will contain feedback on your illustration, suggestions for drawing activities, advice on books to look at and artists to look up, and general tips for illustrating books. The winner will need to email me a scan of their artwork for appraisal. I will email back my feedback and tips.
I will also provide a signed copy of my latest book In the Lion.
I remember being encouraged at a young age to follow this dream, so hopefully I can do the same here.
We can hardly wait to announce the winners on Friday. While you’re waiting, you can check out the book trailer for In the Lion. It’s really cool.
IMPORTANT:You must have an adult with you to visit the Open Day. (And keep in mind that the other artists and creators are not all children’s book illustrators. Some of their material may not be G-rated.)
In every issue of Alphabet Soup magazine we interview an author or illustrator. The trouble is, we can only fit some of their answers in the magazine. So we print the full interviews on the blog—we wouldn’t want you to miss out!
In issue 13 we talked to Norman Jorgensen, author of many books includingThe Last Viking, and In Flanders Fields.
Where do you live?
I live just out of Perth city in an old Federation house built in 1906. It is a bit too cosy; in fact, it is far too small for all the books I have collected over the years. If I buy any more books my wife and I will have to go and live out in the garden shed along with the rakes, spades, half empty paint cans and redback spiders.
What do you love about being a writer?
I love the way stories develop from just the flimsiest shred of a single thought or sentence into full-blown worlds full of exotic places and interesting out-of-control people.
I also love the ego stroking that comes with the job. People seem to think writers are special, especially children’s book creators, and treat us accordingly. I know for a fact, however, that most kids’ book writers are just adults with arrested development issues, and have never really grown up properly. That is certainly true in my case.
A real bonus being a writer is that I get to travel to all sorts of great places for literature festivals and writers’ talks, and get to meet kids who like reading.
What was your favourite book as a child?
There was a load. One I remember and was very keen on was as series by Anthony Buckeridge, called Jennings and Darbyshire, about boys in an English boarding school that was an awful lot like Hogwarts. Unlike Hogwarts, though, Linbury Court Preparatory School was a ripping and topping place with midnight feasts, easily fooled school masters, japes and pranks, and, fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, no wizards. The books were also a great deal funnier than Harry and Co. They kept me in stitches of laughter for days at a time and I loved them.
My other great favourite was Biggles by Captain WE Johns, a series of nearly a hundred books about an ace World War I fighter pilot who never seems to get any older and also flies planes in WWII and into the jet age, and has hair-raising adventures together with his chums, Ginger, Smyth and Algy. They are probably horribly dated by now, but at the time they sure kept me wide awake at night.
Was it easy to get your first book published?
My first book came out years ago. It was a graphic novel illustrated by Allan Langoulant and was called Ashe of the Outback. At the timeI had no real idea of what I was doing and used to flood Allan with hundreds of ideas, often on coasters or scraps of paper. He was very patient with me and managed to pull them into a sequence that made sense and that he could illustrate. Luckily for me, he was such a clever artist and well-known that that a publisher soon contracted it.
My fourth book In Flanders Fields proved to be a much harder task. A picture book about the war in the trenches for small children? Are you joking? A number of publishers couldn’t see past the idea that picture books don’t always have to be about talking rabbits or cute teddy bears, or for little kids, and instantly rejected it. Luckily, the crew at Fremantle Press weren’t so traditionally bound.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Like all writers I read a great deal. I like comedies and funny writers, historical novels, spy thrillers and well constructed sentences but, above all, I like a good story that drags you along with it.
I also love travelling, especially with my gee-wiz top-of-the-range camera and taking photographs, especially to Europe. I love the old castles, cathedrals, villages, country pubs, museums, battle grounds and all the stuff that makes history so exciting.
Watching old movies give me a thrill, especially black and white dramas, westerns and silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy (go and look them up on You Tube. They are hilarious, even 80 years later. )
I like woodworking and have made several pieces of furniture using old recycled Jarrah. I love the smell of wood shavings and the sense of achievement when you do something as well as you can.
What made you become a writer?
Truthfully? I saw an old film when I about fifteen called Beloved Infidel, starring Gregory Peck, about the famous writer F Scott Fitzgerald. He was a romantic, tortured writer and as a teenager I could see myself being just like that. These days I’m not particularly tortured and, sadly, neither do I look like Gregory Peck or F Scott Fitzgerald.
Where do you get your ideas/inspiration?
Here you go, from the horse’s mouth, as they say:
Ashe of the Outback was inspired by Biggles (and The Jolly Postman).
In Flanders Fields isfrom a scene is a movie called All Quiet on the Western Front.
The Call of the Osprey came from all the times I spent with my grandfather in his marvellous old workshop in Northam.
A Fine Mess isfrom a poster I have on my office wall of old comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, and also the adventures my brothers and I had growing up in Kalamunda.
Another Fine Mess 002 has James Bond stamped all over it.
Jack’s Island is a collection of stories about my father’s life growing up on Rottnest Island during the 1940s.
The Last Viking I wrotebecause of my Danish name, and the thought that perhaps one day I should do a Viking story to honour the ancestors. You never know if they are watching. If they are, I hope they like it. It has only just been released.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Yes, ignore all advice!!!Except, practice writing a lot. Just like violin or netball training, the more practice you put in the better you get at it. Oh, and always carry a notebook with you to jot down ideas when they occur. They are such fleeting things and are easily forgotten.
Also don’t take rejection too personally. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
Are you working on a book at the moment? Can you tell us anything about it?
Hmmmm … There are three on the go.
The Goldminer’s Son is a picture book, based on a true Western Australia story, about a miner trapped underground, his son’s steadfast belief he’ll be saved, and the heroic efforts to rescue his dad from a flooded pit.
Brave Art is about a girl who doesn’t fit in at a school, at home or with her friends. All she wants to do, with a single-minded passion, is paint pictures like the Great Masters and become a famous artist herself. Luckily, it has a happy ending as she does achieve her ambition.
Sons of the Desert is, hopefully, an authentic and action-packed, rip-roaring, page-tuning, old-fashioned adventure with horses, villains, stagecoach robberies, explosions and enough realism for you taste the dust and feel the heat as the battles rage.
All through October, Alphabet Soup is celebrating turning three. We have heaps of writers and illustrators stopping by to answer THREE QUICK QUESTIONS and today’s visitor is Norman Jorgensen, author of The Last Viking and In Flanders Fields (and many other books, too!)
1. Where do you like to write?
Down in my back garden, beyond where the pirates, kid-eating dinosaurs, scary monsters and teenage vampires all lurk, I have a studio surrounded by huge trees. The walls are painted bright red and on the wall behind my computer I have prints of old square-riggedsailing ships. I also have a model of a WW I fighter hanging from the ceiling, and piles and piles of books. It’s a bit of a Boy’s Own paradise, I’m afraid. It is not as tidy as a ten-year old’s bedroom, but at least a million times worse.
2. Can you name a book you’d recommend to our readers?
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow–a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” in the high, old tottering voice that seemed to have been tuned and broken at the capstan bars.
It starts like this and just gets better and better. It is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, of course, first published in 1883, and I re-read it every few years, mostly to remind myself why I want to be a writer. All pirate books and movies, including Pirates of the Caribbean, have been inspired by this one book, and it is the perfect read for a dark and stormy story night while huddled up under the covers with a torch.
3. Can you offer a word or phrase that kids could use for inspiration if they have writer’s block?
All through October, Alphabet Soup is celebrating turning three. We have heaps of writers and illustrators stopping by to answer THREE QUICK QUESTIONS and today’s visitor is James Foley, illustrator of picture book The Last Viking (by Norman Jorgensen).
1. Where do you like to draw?
My favourite place to draw is in my room, really early in the morning, while it’s still quiet, before the pets wake up … penguins can be very noisy when they’re hungry, and spider monkeys are incredibly grouchy until they’ve had a cup of tea and some toast.
2. Can you name a book you’d recommend to our readers?
Sam, Grace and the Shipwreck written by new author Michelle Gillespie, illustrated by the incredibly talented Sonia Martinez. It’s coming out this month (October) and looks amazing. It’s the true story of how Sam Isaacs and Grace Bussell saved the crew and passengers of the Georgette when it was wrecked off the South West coast of WA a long time ago.
3. Can you offer a word or phrase that kids could use for inspiration if they have writer’s or illustrator’s block?
The Last Viking by Norman Jorgensen and illustrated James Foley. Published by Fremantle Press, ISBN 971921888106.
(A review copy of this book was sent to us by the publisher.)
– Josh’s pop is always talking about ‘exciting stuff like Vikings, and Spitfires and Redcoats, though not usually when Nan’s around.’ Josh is staying with Nan and Pop for the holidays and that’s when he decides to become a Viking, and change his name to Knut. Although he’s not very brave, when trouble arrives, Josh summons up some Viking courage and discovers just how brave he really is.
If you don’t know anything about Vikings yet, you’ll know heaps about them by the time you finish The Last Viking. The illustrations are fun and cartoon-like and if you’re a super sleuth, you’ll notice that on some of the pages there are messages written in code—rune carvings. At the back of the book (on the endpapers) you’ll find the key to crack the code.
Keep an eye out for the ravens in the book, too. In Norse mythology they are Odin’s messengers, and in The Last Viking, they keep the Viking gods updated on Josh/Knut’s progress.
The Last Viking is an exciting adventure about courage, imagination and dealing with bullies.