The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How did you come up with the Miss Spider character?
I came up with Miss Spider as a device for a counting book. The character developed from there. I wanted to do something with bugs because my daughter loved bugs.
Are you planning more adventures for Miss Spider in the near future?
I am working on Little Miss Spider book right now, which is about the day she hatches out of an egg and goes searching for her mother. I don't usually plan more than one book in advance. I'm sure there will be other things she'll do, but I usually do them one at a time. But I do have a lot of other books planned in advance - books about other characters.
Do you have a favorite character from your books?
Let's see. Miss Spider is in almost all of my books, but right now I like Nova, too. I have a lot of fun with Spiderus - he's the bad guy. In the Little Miss Spider book, he'll make an appearance as a spoiled, nasty little boy.
How did you get the idea for Nova's Ark? What made you interested in writing and illustrating such a futuristic-looking book?
When I was a child, my interest - other than bugs - was robots. Initially, I thought of Nova as a route to making more robot toys. I love robot toys. And I collect tin robot toys. So I thought if I made a book about robots, I could make more, new robot tin toys.
The main reason for the computer illustrations was that painting takes a very long time. We were hoping that using computer-generated graphics with a team would make it go quicker. But it didn't! We had a whole team of people working - it probably ended up taking 20 times as long as it would've if I had been the only one making the illustrations. The other reason is that we were hoping to do a movie - doing the computer graphics for the book would teach us about the process for making the movie and what it would take to do computer animation.
We read that you used to make toys. What kinds of toys did you make, and are you working on any now?
I designed mechanical banks and boxes and built them myself for about ten years, between 1978 and 1988. After that, I made painted hardwood pull toys for small children. I did that for another three years before I started making children's books. I'm working on concepts for Nova toys right now, which will be plastic figures and construction sets.
How do you get the ideas for your stories?
Well, right now I'm working on a story about a fairy and a caterpillar. I got that idea from a picture on an old toy box of a fairy and a caterpillar, and I tried to imagine what sort of story was behind that picture. With Nova, the story initially came from wanting more toys, and then I borrowed heavily from the Bible. Ideas pop up everywhere.
What media do you use to create your illustrations? Do you ever do your artwork on a computer?
All of the Miss Spider books are oil paint on paper. Sometimes I personally work on the computer to do black and white sketches, and I do a lot of manipulating of the sketches on the computer. But still the Spider books are basically done by hand. In Nova's Ark, the work that I did was oil paint on paper with pencil sketches. Then I went to Iowa and supervised a group of artists who were pushing buttons on machines, and told them what I was looking for.
What is the actual size of the illustrations that go into your books?
They're just a little larger than you see in the books. Most of the Miss Spider books are 11 by 14 inches.
What do you do first, draw the illustrations or write the story?
Usually I write a rough draft of the story, and work on the story until I'm basically satisfied with it, before I start working on the pictures. Then I go through the editorial process, where the people at Callaway and Scholastic have ideas about what might work better. I adapt from those suggestions. It's sometimes hard to decide what part of the action of the text I should show. Sometimes it's obvious, and then I sketch that out first. But sometimes when you're doing the picture, you realize that what you've drawn doesn't need to be told in the text. And sometimes when I'm drawing, I realize that that part of the text isn't very interesting, so I change it to something else. When you're doing a picture book, the pictures are just as important as the text - you need the pictures and the text to work together.
Is there anything you have a hard time drawing?
There are some things that are more difficult to paint than others. The bugs are easy, but some of the background things, like broken leaves, are harder. Right now I'm drawing pine needles, and they're a dreadful chore. Sometimes different kinds of lighting can be hard - backlighting in particular. Soon I'm planning to do books with people in them, and I expect them to be more demanding than little cartoony bugs are.
Do you think of yourself more as a writer or as an artist?
You know, in my case, I don't find the distinction. They come together when you're making a children's book. I came to the art sooner than the writing - I'd drawn for years, but Miss Spider's Tea Party was the first time I'd ever really written. I don't think of myself as more one than the other. Making the pictures is part of the writing.
Did anyone influence you to write or draw as a child?
My brother, Daniel, who also does children's books, was three years older than me, and he was always doing art. I picked up a lot from him. We still share information and influence each other to some extent.
If you weren't a writer and illustrator, what would you want to do as a career?
It would be fun to be a composer of some sort of music... I don't think classical - either a composer or a space pilot.
What kinds of books did you like to read as a child?
I was not a big reader as a child. I watched lots and lots of television. My favorite picture book was How the Mole Got His Car. I'm not sure it influenced the Miss Spider car book - that was influenced by my own buying of a car. Even though I didn't read much as a child, I read with my daughter all of the time. We read all of the Animorphs books. I read to Violet an hour a day, at least. So even though I didn't read a lot as a child, I read a lot now - still children's books. Right now, Violet and I are reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling, for the second time.
Did watching so much TV inspire you to make toys and be an illustrator?
No. I think what inspired me to make toys was the toys I had as a child - the space toys and the robots. When you have those kinds of toys, you have to spend a lot of time fixing them, because they break a lot. So I had a lot of knowledge about the insides of those toys and how they worked. I've also found that my paintings have been influenced by the kinds of boxes those toys came in.
Who are some of your favorite children's book illustrators and authors (besides yourself)?
My favorite is a woman called Ida Bohtta Morpugo. She was working mostly in the 1940s. I collect her books, and they're about small animals and gnomes. I found a book of hers at a library sale called The Gnome's Almanac. I was so inspired by her verse that it influenced me a lot in writing Miss Spider's Tea Party.
How do you come up with your characters' names?
I usually just wait for inspiration on names. I usually look at things and something comes to mind. I keep a long list of names on my easel - they just pop into my head and I write them down for future use.
What is hard about being a writer?
Deadlines... that's about all I can think of. Everything's good except having to work too fast.
Are there any characters in your books who are like your daughter?
I'm planning to use Violet as the model for the fairy in my fairy book - if she'll sit still. But I don't think there are any that are like her personality-wise. There's another story that I'm working on about a character with two heads that shares some characteristics with my daughter, but my daughter only has one head. She's twelve.
Where is your favorite place to write and draw?
I have a studio - the front of my house has two parlors, a north and south parlor (it's a Victorian house). I write in the south parlor and paint in the north parlor. In the north parlor, I have the easel and stereo and my hamsters and my hedgehog. Right now we have three hamsters and one hedgehog.
Can you talk a little bit more about Nova's Ark?
The next project I'm going to work on after Little Miss Spider will be the second in the Nova series. I think it will concentrate on Nova's friend Elix. I feel like Nova's a book I've been waiting to write for about 35 years.
What do you think makes a story good or not good?
I think for me a story that's good usually makes the reader emotionally involved in the character. The readers want to be emotionally involved with the characters. Stories that don't do that just focus on a clever plot or an interesting concept - they can be beautiful visually or have fun with words, but they don't have much lasting interest.
Do you have a Web site about your books?
I believe there's a Nova's Ark Web site. I think it's http://www.novasark.com/. It has pictures from the book on it. I think it would be fun to have an elaborate Web site, but that's not something we've done yet.
Have you ever thought of writing books for older kids?
Yes, I've worked on books for older kids. It's been difficult to finish them just because of the demand for finishing Miss Spider books.
Can you tell us anything about the movie you'll be working on? Does it involve Nova?
I've had one in the works for about three years, about the two-headed girl, that I would love to get done, but I just haven't had time. We've been in various stages of trying to make Miss Spider into a movie for several years. I'm hoping Miss Spider will become a TV series. I think Nova has a good chance of becoming a movie. Movies cost a huge fortune to make, and we're talking to various companies that could possibly sponsor the development of a movie.
What advice do you have for kids interested in becoming writers and artists?
I spent all of my time - from about thirteen years old and up - painting and working on art. The best advice I could give is to work hard on your craft, and try to be as good as you can.
Did your teachers help you in becoming a writer?
No. I had some teachers who helped me a little bit with painting, but mostly what I learned I learned either from my brother or picked up on my own. Anything I've learned about being a writer I've just learned from reading. I think reading a lot to Violet has helped me figure out the way I want to write for children.
Who inspired you then? Any special authors or illustrators?
I'd suppose Ida, and Chris Van Allsburg - he was the first person doing children's books to make me and a lot of other people realize that children's books could be art. I started out as an artist; then I was a toymaker for many years; and then I got noticed by my publicist for having done box paintings for my toys. I had offers from several publishers based on seeing greeting cards and toy boxes that I did. I went with Nicholas Callaway, and then later we tied in with Scholastic. Nicholas had bought an alligator pull-toy of mine for his baby daughter, and that's how he found me.
What do you do to get inspiration when you feel stumped?
Go to bed, go for a walk, get something to eat... Usually just move to a different part of the project. If I'm having trouble with a painting, I move on to something else. When I come back, I find I can solve it. I'd say writing is more demanding intellectually than my painting is, so I find I get stumped a lot more. I find I can only write for an hour or two a day before I run out of ideas, and then I start working on something else.
Does anyone help you with your books?
Antoinette is my editor at Callaway, and Nicholas is the publisher. They both give me advice. I also get all sorts of comments, criticism, and advice from various people at Scholastic. A lot of people out there have input into the books.
Try to figure out what you're most interested in, and try to make a career of it. It's much better if you can do what you would like to do in life and don't just have to relegate your real passions to hobbies. I think I've been lucky in recent years that I can work on what I want to work on and still get paid for it.