One of the nicest things about the world of listservs and blogs is this wonderful community that I feel that I am a part of: the world of kids' book lovers, writers and illustrators. Of course, even better than having the feeling of being part of that group in love the same wonderful and crazy stuff, is getting to know them better as individuals, one by one. Because of the web, I have had the lovely pleasure of getting to know author and illustrator Karen Lee.
I got to ask Karen a few questions, and, being the nosy person I am, I asked questions to answers that I wanted! Like this "married to another artist" thing. Sometimes I like that idea, and sometimes I think my husband and I would live in different continents if it were so. I have friends who are also in that "2 artist" situation. It amazes me. So I am as curious as can be to hear about it, and to see how they all manage to make it work.
One thing I realized from this interview: Karen has a great sense of humor and an appreciation for silliness. So maybe that's it. After all, it's not your average person-on-the-street who leaves directional indicators for litter box lovers....
But that is enough from me. Let Karen speak for herself.
Q: My first question is about this 2 artist family thing. Like, whoa! I've been married for 34 years but I don't think my husband and I would have survived us both working in the same field. I want to hear all about this arrangement: ups, downs, and in-betweens. Feel free to let the kids chime in, too!
I met Tim in our junior year of college 25 years ago! That is amazing to me. Illustration is such a huge part of who I am I can’t imagine not being able to share that with someone. But we have also had some professional separation. He is an editorial illustrator, is all digital, immensely versatile, and does work for grown-ups (for now, I have a fiendish plan for him). His brother is an artist too, we keep in close contact with many of our old college friends and illustrators that have come and gone from our immediate lives. I can’t imagine not being surrounded by people that I can share such an important part of my life with.
There really haven’t been any downs. And the ups are getting better as we get older and are a bit more confident and mature. But we each keep something separate that is just for us: for me it is writing, for him it is playing mandolin in a Bluegrass band.
As far as the kids go, our daughter who is ten has quite a talent for writing and is a good artist too, but she’s more devoted to her play time than her inner time. Our eleven year old son is as rebellious as I was. In his case, he is rebelling by wanting to grow up to be an engineer. I love that! I couldn’t have planned it better.
Q: For years I did editorial art, but left it behind for book work. Do you still like doing it? If so, tell me what you find satisfying about magazine/newspaper work as opposed to book work.
I still cherish the work I get in the editorial market. I think it keeps me fresh and gives me a chance to expand stylistically a little more than I typically do in the children’s market. It is work that I can do without any of the insecurity I feel sometimes with children’s work. And sometimes it is a huge relief to have a small project that comes in, goes out, gets printed, I get paid, and I’m done!
Q: Now that you are an author and illustrator with ABC Safari, how do you see yourself dividing your time down the road? More writing? At a scheduled time? And if you could create your fantasy book, incorporating things you love to draw, what would it be?
I would love to do more writing! It has been wonderfully energizing for me to have a new challenge. It is so different from art, and for me there seems to be a real barrier between those two sides of my brain.
I am not in the same place when I write as when I do art. I can slip into the art brain easily, at any time, but for writing I have to pull a switch hard to get that side turned on. And once I do it is difficult to turn it off. I try to allow for larger chunks of time when I am writing because I am so preoccupied and I am afraid I will lose the thread if I abandon it before I’ve come to the end. I find that I have more available brain space for writing when I am simply painting on a project and can turn the art brain on autopilot. Also, what’s been curious for me is that I completely focus on writing the best possible story while writing. Only when it is done and polished do I begin to think about how I want to approach the art , then a whole new level of excitement begins! I think this helps also to move the art forward to best reflect the story rather than conforming the story to the kind of art I do.
What do I love to draw? Oh my, the possibilities are endless! But it wouldn’t be too sweet or cute. I am trying to coax into the open the part of me that responds to other’s works whether it is writing, art, music, or movies. I think if I can better define what resonates within myself I can incorporate that into my own work better and create something that is more unique, more personal and more satisfying not only for me but for my reader/viewer. And what I respond to is a little creepy, a tiny bit morbid, is multi-layered, ironic, funny, and authentic. If Im really shooting for the moon, my viewer will be able to discover a truth in it about themselves and the world around them.
Q: I am always finding myself bored with the medium I work in, and longing for a change on my next book. And then I go back again. You work in watercolor. Has that always been your medium of choice? Do you flirt with other materials at all?
I want to cheat on watercolor. I want to have a mad, torrid affair with oil. I want a superficial, tawdry relationship with acrylic. I want some lurid digital action! I am thinking about filing divorce papers on watercolor, but I keep coming back. I have had the blessing of being pretty booked up for the past few years. The downside is that it gives me very little time to play around with different materials and techniques. But things will slow down and then I’ll have the free time to experiment and the joy of fretting over when the next project will come in.
Q: I read that ABC Safari was inspired by seeing the manatees. Any other real life inspirations coming up?
Other books soon to be released?
I am always inspired by real life! I don’t know where it will go, but I am currently working on the dummy for a rhyming story that was inspired by the discovery of a small family cemetery right smack in the middle of our suburban neighborhood. It’s all fenced in and overgrown and I didn’t notice it until I was walking the dog past there last winter when the trees were bare. I took the kids in there and they were fascinated by who these people were to each other and how old they were when they died. When you stumble onto idea starters like that it is best to just thank whatever powers you believe in that you found it and do something about it, even if it is ten years later.
I am also working on the final art for the next book in the math series I am doing with Sylvan Dell, My Half Day by Doris Fisher and Dani Sneed.. This one is about fractions and it is the craziest one yet. Fun to paint, fun to read. It will be out spring 2008.
Q: On your recent "8 things" meme, I loved number 8:
" Some people think I am funny, but nobody thinks I am as funny as I do. I crack myself up all the time."
This made me laugh!
So tell me what makes you laugh in general and tell me what you do to keep yourself giggling. I'd love to
I am queen of punny, corny jokes, bad singing, awkward dances, and overdone drama. I like to see my kids squirm with embarrassment. I like dumb, overdone gags. If I am slicing some cheddar and the kids ask me for some I will invariably say “oh, would you like me to cut the cheese for you? I’d love to cut the cheese!” It is so not funny but I laugh and laugh. Just dumb silly stuff. Shortly after we got our cat I put magnet letters on the dryer right next to the litter box saying “cat poo? “. Like the cat can read! Like we don't all already know where it is! Like we need to be reminded constantly! It still makes me laugh, just the ridiculousness of it.
Thanks for this wonderful opportunity to get to know myself better. Putting things into words makes them more concrete! Karen
MAKE A NOTE: Karen is on tour this week! Please read her other interviews at the blogs of these fine people (as they go live, I'll update the link):