Author Interviews, Book Resources

Emily Arnold McCully Interview Transcript

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

The author and illustrator was interviewed by Scholastic students.

It seems very hard to tell a story in pictures only. How did you learn how to do this? Is there a trick to it?
Interestingly, the first wordless book that I created was not intended to be wordless. I simply worked out the story with pictures and a very brief text, and the editor said the text was unnecessary. I think I'm always, whenever I create pictures for a picture book, telling the story in visual terms. This is what I've tended to do all my life. It's been influenced by movies and by comic strips, and it seems to be my instinct to think of stories in visual terms.

Did you write and draw as a child?
Yes, I did. I started writing stories and even making little books very soon after I started to read. I also followed comic strips a lot. I lived outside of New York City, and I loved following the story strips in the newspaper. I would make up my own, too. So nearly all the stories I made up I also illustrated. I was using pictures as a way of telling stories right from the very beginning.

Were there any books from your childhood that inspired you?
I guess I don't really think a lot about them now. Some of the books that I loved are reappearing, like Freddy the Detective was one of my favorites. I admired illustrators like N. C. Wyeth. I also loved Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh - classics that are still around. One author once said there are no great books that are only for children. These are books that I still enjoy. In that sense, they're inspirations. I try to create things that will be interesting to many kinds of people.

When did you realize you wanted to be a children's book illustrator?
I've always loved to draw and to write. My mother encouraged me in both pursuits. She wanted me to be sure that I would earn a living when I grew up. And the idea of being an illustrator was in my head because it would be easier to earn a living at that than being a painter. I never really thought about being a painter. But I did want to be a writer. And I was drawn into children's books by an editor who saw a poster I had done hanging in the New York subways. He called me up and asked me to illustrate a story for him. I had really prepared for being an illustrator by making up stories and illustrating them throughout my childhood, but somehow it hadn't occurred to me to do it.

Did you attend an art school to learn illustration techniques?
No. I went to college at Brown University. I did that because there was a program that allowed people to take courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. I took one course there in my freshman year and I decided I didn't want to continue because I was so interested in all of the other courses I was taking. At that point I never thought that I would become an illustrator.

How old were you when you illustrated your first book for children?
The first book that I illustrated after that poster was called Sea Beach Express. I was in my early twenties - I think I was about twenty-five.

How many books have you illustrated for other writers?
I really have lost count. It's probably a couple of hundred, but most of them are out of print.

How old were you when you wrote your first book?
Let's see . . . forty-three. I had tried to write some children's books, but they were no good. The first book I wrote was the wordless book Picnic, and that was in 1984. So it came almost 20 years after the first book I illustrated by someone else. In the meantime, I wrote some adult fiction. Working out a story just with pictures was liberating. After that, it was easier to write the words.

Has writing and illustrating books become easier for you than it was when you first started out?
In some ways, yes. I don't get nearly as nervous as I used to when I started books, because I have experience. But I do try to make each book harder than the last one was, because I want my work to keep improving. So there are many ways in which it's not easier than it was at first.

How do you get started on a picture book?
Well, for example, when I did Picnic, I mapped out the story the way I always do, making my very first sketches in a little pretend book that I make, called a dummy. A thumbnail. I make a number of boxes, a box for each page. I always know the book is going to be 32 or 40 pages, so I make that number of boxes. Then I sketch out what's going to happen on each page. For Picnic, I started out with words, and an editor pointed out to me that the pictures didn't need words. The story could be told through pictures alone.

What is your favorite part of the writing/illustrating process?
Hmm . . . I think it is after I have figured out in my mind what the thread of the story is and I start with my dummy.

Do you illustrate your books before you write the words, or vice versa?
I nearly always write the words first. Although, with Mirette on the High Wire I remember making a dummy and writing the words and sketching the pictures at pretty much the same time. Most editors like to see a finished manuscript before they see the pictures. The wordless books, of course, were all just pictures. I did dummies with the pictures sketched out for those.

How long does it take you to illustrate and write a book?
That varies. It depends a lot on how hard it is to figure out the story, how much research is involved, if it's based on real events. Usually a complete book will take from eight to twelve months - but that doesn't mean I'm working on it the whole time. I usually have three or four books in different stages of completion at any one time.

What's the process when you start a book? Do you have anyone to help you?
Generally, what happens is that I do the dummy - the little pretend book - and I try to figure out how the story should be told. I start sketching the characters and the setting. That takes a few weeks. Then I send that to an editor for approval, and that takes a few weeks. And then I do the painting and complete the text, and that takes between two or three months. It usually takes longer when I'm writing the story as well, but it depends on how elaborate the story is. I try to get the text in good shape before I submit it. But sometimes I submit an idea, and get some feedback right away from the editor. Sometimes I show work to friends. It's always a good idea to get feedback, because I get too close to the story. And telling stories is about communicating with other people. So other people have to understand - the story has to be clear. All books go through several drafts - the pictures as well as the words. I have a HUGE amount of waste paper from all the drafts!

How do you choose a title? Do you start with one or write the book first?
I have a working title, which I don't think of as a title at all. It's just what I'm calling the book as I go along. The final title is usually chosen by a sort of committee - me and the editor and sometimes someone else at the publishing house. An example of that is Mirette on the High Wire, which would not have occurred to me because I would have thought it gave the story away.

My favorite book of yours is Mirette on the High Wire. What is your favorite of those that you have written?
The one I like the most right now is Beautiful Warrior. It's a very complicated book, and it involves lots of different elements. It was more complex than the other books I've done, and it was a real challenge to put it together. I was very interested in all the themes in the book - courage, spirituality, another culture, and of course, strong women. Usually my favorite is the one that I have just finished because it's closest to me and I still feel strongly about all the work that I've put into it.

What character that you've created are you most fond of?
I guess Mirette. I would have to say Mirette - I know her the best. I'm working on a third book about her, and I've thought about her a lot. She has risen to a lot of occasions, and so I'm proud of her!

How did you choose the name Mirette?
It's a kind of made-up name. I wanted to call her Mereille, which is a French word meaning "gooseberry." But it's too hard a name for American readers. No one would know how to pronounce it. So I made up the name Mirette, because it sounds like Mereille. I thought Mirette would be easy to pronounce phonetically. But when the book was published in France, they changed her name to Juliette. Apparently Mirette means something slightly off-color in French! But I thought I was making it up - I didn't know.

How did you get the original idea for Mirette on the High Wire?
I had just been to Paris for the first time in several years, and that's one of the reasons it's set there. I was excited about Paris all over again. I wanted to write about Paris, and I wanted to write about a brave girl. When I was a child there were almost no books that interested me that were about girls. I imagine that things have changed now, but people tell me there are not enough stories of adventure and perseverance and daring about girls. And the things I like to write about the most are characters who have goals, who want to really achieve something, and realize that it takes hard work as well as courage.

Did you have any female role models when you were a child?
Some. For example, when I was a child, Eleanor Roosevelt was prominent, and I admired her. And I admired women writers like Charlotte and Emily Bronte. But when I was a child, the role models were mostly male, and that's all there was to it. I think things have changed a lot since then. I don't know whether people realize that it's changed a lot based on women working hard to see that things have changed.

Were you anything like Mirette when you were growing up?
Yes. I loved doing daredevil things when I was a child, which is the most obvious similarity. I lived in a household where my sister and I did a lot of chores, and we were very aware of what it took to keep things going. And my mother had spent student years in Paris, and she liked to talk about that a lot. She told us French stories and so on, so I grew up with a great feeling for Paris.

Did you ever walk a high wire as a child?
No. I certainly did a lot of climbing and balancing and standing on high places, but I did not do high-wire walking. I would love to try it, but the opportunity has never presented itself.

What made you first become interested in high wire-walking?
I guess it was when I first learned about Blondin. Mark Twain saw him perform and mentioned him in Innocents Abroad. Then I read more about him. The idea of doing a biography of a high-wire walker appealed to me because I thought the pictures could be very dramatic. High-wire walking has always appealed to people. There was even a period in the Middle Ages where it was banned by the Pope because there was too much pride involved in walking way over the heads of everyone else, I guess. It's a wonderful metaphor for striving and mastering and risking, which are themes that matter a great deal to me. The only theme that it can't embrace is making mistakes.

What kind of research did you do for Mirette on the High Wire, if any?
Actually, quite a bit. I read several things about high-wire walking. The most useful was a book by Phillipe Petit. He is the greatest contemporary high-wire walker, and the book is both a description of high-wire walking and a history of it. I also did a lot of looking at paintings done in Paris in the 1890s and photographs of Paris.

Did high-wire walkers really cook eggs in the middle of the wire over Niagra Falls?
One did. It's too much to expect that everyone did. The high-wire walker Blondin did. Blondin lived in the middle of the nineteenth century, so he actually did walk wires, and I modeled all of Bellini's feats on those that Blondin had executed years before.

Did you imagine yourself as Mirette when she stood on that high wire?
Yes, I tried to. It's obviously something I can't fully comprehend, but I did try to imagine how she felt - thrilled rather than frightened. That's the hard part. As I live in New York City, I frequently find myself in high buildings, so all I have to do is look out the window to imagine being high up. It's frightening even to look out the window, but to imagine the thrill of being that high up - that takes a real imagination.

Are you someone, like Mirette, who practices and practices until you get things right?
Yes. I certainly try to. In my case, of course, I have something called deadlines. When I convince a publisher to publish a book based on an idea of mine, it means that the book will be scheduled before I finish it, so I have to finish it by a certain date. Sometimes that means that I will do the best I can. I usually think that if I had a lot more time I guess I could make this better. My main concern is not trying to make a book look perfect, but for the story to be exciting and clear and for the pictures to have as much life and energy as possible. Those qualities don't usually come from laboring over something over and over and over.

Do you have children, and if so, are any of them like Mirette?
I have two sons, and neither of them is particularly like Mirette. I never thought about it before! There's a little Mirette in most people, I think. But I really drew on myself as opposed to my sons for the character, I think.

Are you writing a sequel to Starring Mirette and Bellini? When will it be available?
Oh, yes. I have written it and I'm about to do the pictures. I'll turn them in July 1, which means I think that it will be out in fall of 2000. It takes at least a year from the time I turn in my finished art to the time the book is available.

What happens to Mirette next?
Mirette and Bellini have been invited to America, and the story opens on their ship. It's the turn of the century, and there are a lot of immigrants on the ship. A little boy named Yacob comes up to watch Mirette practice on the top deck - there are no children in first class, where Mirette and Bellini are. When they get to Ellis Island, the person who was supposed to meet Yacob doesn't show up! So Mirette and Bellini take him along, as Bellini's assistant. And when they get to Niagara Falls, an adventure ensues because there's an impostor pretending to be the greatest high-wire walker in the world. And Yacob proves to be very helpful.

Do you ever get to travel for your work? Or do you travel otherwise? Where do you go ?
I don't get to travel for my work particularly. I do travel otherwise. I went to China in January with a group of college students. I plan to spend some time in Italy next year. When I was a graduate student I lived in Europe for a year and I have been back, especially to Paris, my favorite place, a few times. Also, I once visited my son, who was studying in Japan. I've done some traveling in the United States - I went to Utah where the Outlaw Thanksgiving was celebrated. That's an example of a trip that was really just a holiday but a story idea cameout of it.

Where do you do most of your research?
Most of my research takes place in libraries, although I went to Niagara Falls a couple of weeks ago because that's where Mirette goes next, and I wanted to see the falls myself. Sometimes I'll go to a museum. And sometimes I'll go out on the street and make a sketch of something I'll need to depict. But a lot of the research is in libraries. I do travel for research, but not as much as I would like to! For most of it I stay at home.

How did you do your research for the book about the Irish pirate queen, Grania? Did you visit her castle in Ireland?
Alas, no. I'm still hoping to get there. I began as soon as I learned that she existed by going to the library and finding that there was only one document relating to her life that has survived. Before she was allowed to meet Queen Elizabeth, she had to answer 18 questions about herself, her family, and her activities in Ireland, so those answers that she gave are the facts of her life. I then read some historical accounts of what else was going on between Ireland and England at that time, and then looked for biographies of Grania, which I finally located in an Irish bookstore in New York.

What kind of research did you do for The Bobbin Girl?
There were many accounts written about life in the mill by the mill girls. In fact, they started a magazine of which they were very proud and many of them wrote for the magazine. Lots of historians have researched that period and I read as many accounts as I could find. I then went to the museum at Lowell, which re-creates the mills as they were in the late nineteenth century. Then I went to a museum in Rhode Island, which has older looms and other machines more like the ones that were used in the 1830s. All of these things gave me a sense of what conditions were like, how the girls felt, what things looked like. Also, what they sounded like. At the Lowell museum, you have to wear earplugs because the racket is so terrible. All of that gave me a feeling for what it was like then.

Will there be a sequel to The Bobbin Girl?
I haven't thought of doing a sequel. I sort of doubt it. The novel by Katherine Paterson, Liddie, treats the period ten years later and there are lots of other wonderful books, so I don't think I'll write a sequel. Unfortunately, after the 1830s things didn't get better, it got worse for the workers.

Why did you use a different style of painting/drawing in Grandma's at Bat and The Bobbin Girl?
Grandma's at Bat is a comic story that's completely invented. No one is supposed to be real and I wanted readers to laugh at it. The Bobbin Girl is about real events and real people and a very important moment in American history. I wanted readers to imagine being there, so I tried to make the pictures more realistic and more suggestive of mood and period.

What type of painting do you like best? Water coloring? Oil?
I don't use oil myself. I like to look at oil paintings, but I am most excited by looking at wonderful watercolors because when they're well done they look so effortless.

What media do you use for your artwork?
I work in watercolor, and sometimes I add a little pastel. If I want to emphasize the color or bring out the color more, I'll put in a lot of pastel. I like watercolor the best because I like to work very quickly.

We painted with watercolors after we read your books in class. How did you learn to paint with watercolors?
I am still learning. What I have learned has come from practicing and from making many, many, many, many mistakes, and from studying the paintings of watercolorists I admire. That study tells me that I don't use watercolors in a classic way. I just put down the color as well as I can and I hope that with each book I'm learning something more and making better pictures.

Do you use different paint styles and materials to express different things in your books?
No. Usually I use the same materials. I have only been painting since 1992. Before that I drew all my pictures with a pen and filled in the color. I still feel that I have so much to learn about painting that I keep trying to improve on my technique. It does seem that different books and different subjects look different when I'm finished, but this doesn't really happen because I decide that they're going to look different in advance. It seems to happen simply because I'm imagining the story differently. The book Beautiful Warrior is something of an exception, because for a long time I thought I should do pictures that looked like Chinese brush paintings, so I studied Chinese art for a long time and what I absorbed must have affected the way I did the paintings, even though in the end I decided it was not a good idea to imitate a style of painting that was so different from my own.

Why do you like drawing mice so much?! Do you have any mice yourself?
Yes, I do. But they are not usually posing. I can't remember why I first starting drawing mice. I did at one time make sketches of an antique red pick-up truck. As I was drawing the truck, I imagined a mouse falling off the back of it and that became the beginning of the story Picnic.

Are any of your illustrations in museums or art galleries?
Not in art galleries, but several have been in traveling museum shows. They're not for sale in galleries. For example, one was an exhibition called "Brave Little Girls," which traveled to libraries all over the country.

What season do you most prefer to paint and write about?
Well, part of me favors winter with snow on the ground because the contrast between objects and figures is dramatic. But I don't choose stories based on that. I just enjoy painting whatever season presents itself. If a story is suited to a particular season, then that's what's meant to be. The fun of doing any picture book for me is in trying to meet the challenges that each one presents.

What kinds of topics appeal to you most in your writing and illustrating?
All kinds of subjects appeal to me. A lot of times it depends on what I'm thinking of at the time. Most ideas do have some origins in everyday life. I do try to view the world through the prism of storytelling. That is, in daydreams I imagine people as characters and what makes them do the things they do. A lot of the things I've done recently are historical, and many of them involve women and girls. They have to involve a good story. And since I'm an illustrator, I like to pick settings and characters that will be fun to draw and paint.

A lot of my ideas come from reading history, which I love to do. Occasionally some tiny fact or character will present itself and I'll decide I want to create a story around it. In the end, most imagining that I do means remembering. Remembering things that I have felt and experienced - sometimes a long time ago.

Are any of your books based on events from your own life?
Not on events so much as on emotions. I already said something about Mirette as an example. Although I didn't know that I was drawing on my own feelings. When I finished that book, one of my friends said to me, "Oh, this is about you." I didn't think about that as I was writing it. I recently did a book called Popcorn Palace, based on the town that I spent time in as a child. The events and the story go back to the nineteenth century. The wordless books, Picnic and so forth, are about emotions I remember having as a child. I've done a lot of acting in plays, and I once did a series of books about a family of bears that owns a theater. And I was always able to use my own experiences there.

What book that you've done did you most enjoy writing and/or illustrating?
I had a wonderful time illustrating Picnic. There was a tremendous freedom in doing those little mice, and in illustrating the landscapes. It was the first book I did all by myself - before then I had illustrated other people's books. So there was an element of having to please other people prior to that, and with that book it was just me. And that was very liberating.

What do you think you do especially well as a writer? As an illustrator?
Writing and illustrating are very closely bound together. But when I'm finished with the writing, then I get to do the painting - which is much more physical. It allows me to have variety in what I do. So it's a relief to begin painting after I've wrestled with the story. Although the hard part is when the expression on someone's face didn't turn out right, and I have to do the painting over again! That can be frustrating.

What particular aspect of drawing and writing do you think you're best at?
As an illustrator, I am completely self-taught. I did not go to art school. So what I can do is what I've taught myself - drawing people. That's my favorite part. I like to concentrate on what people are feeling, and their expressions. And I like the pictures to be lively, to convey a sense of liveliness. So since I'm untrained, I like to think that the liveliness of the characters and the action is what I do best. I'm more concerned about the action of the story than I am with making beautiful pictures. I think of the book as a movie that's happening in my head. As a writer, I guess my strength is my sense of story, and of getting inside characters. I don't know. I feel like the picture and the story are bound together, and it's hard for me to separate them.

Why did you decide to write for children? Are you happy writing and illustrating for children?
Well, I don't write for adults anymore, so I guess I'm happy with what I'm doing! When I set out to do a book, I don't really say, "Now I'm going to do something for children." I say, "I'm interested in doing a book about a particular topic, and I'm going to tell it in 32 or 40 pages, and it's going to use words and pictures." And of course it has to interest me, and it has to keep working all the way to the end.

Is writing for adults different from writing for children? Is one easier than the other?
No, not really. When I write a picture book I am not setting out to write something for children or for any particular group. Everything that I write is basically for myself. I have to stay interested in it long enough to finish it. The story has to be told in 32 pages using words and pictures, so that's the challenge. The story has to be conceived in those terms and I have to be interested in it. Once I finish, I certainly hope children will be interested in it, but my goal is to tell a story well, not to tell a story I think children will like.

What children's books by other authors do you enjoy?
I don't read too many children's books. I read adult books and history and biographies. I'm not terribly aware of other people's children's books. But there are people that I admire and like, like James Marshall.

Have you ever started a book and not finished it?
Oh, yes, many times.

Do you ever get writer's block? What do you do when this happens?
I do. It's not exactly writer's block. Once I start something I may run into problems and not be able to express things exactly the way I want to. The real block comes when I think I don't have any ideas in my head. That's usually because of stress that doesn't allow me to see the ideas that are always there. When that happens, I go to museums, I listen to music . . . I try to fill myself up.

How did it feel to receive the Caldecott award for Mirette on the High Wire?
It was absolutely stupendous. I never dreamed that it would ever happen and so I never even thought about it. It was a total and wonderful surprise. Although as Bellini says to Mirette, you shouldn't be proud of gifts! But it was a wonderful gift to get, and it's made a big difference in my life. And it's a wonderfully encouraging thing to have happen. Many of my books make lists of recommended books, which I'm grateful for. There are so many books published that it's hard to get noticed, so when one of my books is recommended, I'm very pleased.

How has winning the Caldecott Medal changed your life?
The thing that's happened is that I can now say no if I'm asked to illustrate something that doesn't appeal to me that much. I accept about half of the books that are offered to me. And it's enjoyable to me, because when I finish illustrating someone else's writing I can always go back to my own. But it's fun to take someone else's ideas from their mind and bring them to life, to see what I can add to them.

Have you ever had any books get rejected by publishers?
Yes, actually, all the years that I was illustrating books by other people, before Picnic, I wrote books all the time and they were always turned down. But I knew enough not to give up. I once illustrated a book called How to Eat Fried Worms, and I knew that that book had been rejected by 22 publishers. For no good reason, really. And now it's become one of the best-sellers of all time! Part of the courage it takes to be an author - or to do anything worth doing - is to risk rejection and to risk failure. So in a way, you can regard being turned down as practice.

How many rejections did you get before your first book was published? Was it hard to get something published?
It was hard. I don't remember how many rejections, but quite a few. I did have the advantage of knowing some editors because of my years of illustrating, so it wasn't as hard for me as it is for people who have to just send in their manuscripts without any connection to a publisher. But it was hard for me to write something that was good enough to get published. Many people think that because children's books are short, they're easy to write. They're wrong.

What would you want to do as a career if you weren't writing and illustrating?
Be an actor. In college, I acted, and there was a period of about three years when I was a professional actor. It was fun, but I realized I would be better off using my time and talents in books than in plays. But I love performing, and I love the theater, and I go to plays a lot. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I just didn't know I was going to be a children's book writer. I also thought that maybe I would earn my living as an illustrator. And when I was growing up, there was much more illustration in magazines - and much less photography - than there is now. So I thought being an illustrator was a way that I could support being a writer.

What advice would you give to children interested in writing and drawing?
I think that most stories are about life, whether they're about animals or people. So observing life and drawing from life is the best practice. If you spend a lot of time observing, you start to see life in a way that most people don't. As an illustrator, you need to be able to tell stories as well as draw. And so I think reading a lot helps. And reading is also an excellent preparation to experience life and to live life. I'm a great believer in practicing, and then developing discipline. And that's what a great number of my books are about - not necessarily by design, that's just the way they turn out. That's just what life has taught me works.

How do you think technology will affect how artists work in the future? Do you think you will ever use a computer to do your artwork?
That's an interesting question. I don't like most computer-generated art that I have seen. There's something about it that's sort of too easy and not interesting. However, I do know that there are artists I admire very much who are using computers to help them do their sketches and so on. If I were to use computers it would mean I would be choosing how I would paint, which would take some of the spontaneity out of the act of painting. I might use some kind of program that would let me see how things would look from the back, for instance . . . things that I have trouble with. I'm sure that area will continue to grow and more and more people will be trained to use computers and more books will be created that way.

Emily, do you have any final words for the audience?
The word for me is READ. I just can't say enough how important it is to keep learning about the world and learning about other people, and using books as a way of thinking and as a way of informing oneself. Holding a book just cannot be matched by using a computer. I also think these questions have been very stimulating. I've been made to think about things, so I'm grateful for that. I'm delighted that so many wonderful readers have been reading and thinking about my books. Thank you for inviting me to do this. If the future of the world is in the hand of these children, I'm not going to worry about computer-generated art.

  • Subjects:
    Literature, Literature Appreciation, Writing
  • Skills:
    Writing
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