Emma Quay – Interview with CKT

Emma Quay

What five words best describe you?

Absolutely obsessed with picture books.

How did you get started illustrating?

I left college with an Honours degree in Graphic Design and a portfolio full of etchings, mono prints and illustrations to Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, Inuit poetry and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. I wonder why I wasn’t immediately snapped up by an international publishing house for a four-book deal!

That college work did the rounds, but it was only after I took some time out to create a more child-friendly portfolio that I began to receive commissions. I went to my local library and borrowed the kinds of children’s books I dreamed of illustrating — picture books, feisty folk tales and funny stories — and illustrated several spreads from each. It took months, but I eventually I filled the sleeves of my folio with work I knew would never be published, in the hope it that might be the kind of work I might eventually be offered.

In the end I only showed that portfolio to one publisher — Mark Macleod, who at that time had his own imprint at Random House Australia — but sometimes one is enough.

Do you prefer to work with notes from the author when illustrating a book or do you like to work with your own ideas for the illustrations?

Sometimes a few words are necessary, accompanying a beautifully spare picture book text or one in which the words are intended to deliberately contradict the illustrations. But I hope it’s okay to admit that if I were to see margins full of notes from an author it would put me right off. Sorry!

I’ve discovered over the years that my work is so much better if I’m allowed to let the ideas flow unfettered, and then receive editorial and authorial comment once the initial concepts are down on paper. Feedback is very welcome then, at storyboard stage — I do want each book to be as good as we can make it, together.

Mem Fox’s manuscript for Baby Bedtime had no author notes at all, not even page numbers (not even her name), but it was quite evident she’d had in mind the structure of a 32-page picture book (well of course she did — she’s Mem!), and the number of openings it has. When I was working on early pencil sketches of the parent and baby in the book, I drew them as both human characters and as elephant characters. Laura Harris at Penguin Books showed Mem both sets of sketches, and we all agreed to take the elephant path.

I think we all want an illustrator to bring something new to the party, not just deliver exactly what the author expected.

I surprised Andrew Daddo when I decided to paint an orang-utan parent and child for Good Night, Me, but he assures me it was a nice surprise! In the book, the baby says, ‘good night’ to each part of his body in turn as he/she falls asleep — head, hands, chest, legs, feet, eyes, etc. Towards the end of the text there is the line, ‘Good night, you. I know you’re still there. I can feel you, even though most of me is asleep.’ I initially interpreted this as the baby talking to his/her heart, and acknowledging its gentle beating. I wondered how on earth I was going to illustrate that. However when Andrew and I chatted, he was able to tell me the parent was coming back into the room for a good-night kiss, which immediately conjured up a lovely image in my mind. So an open dialogue between author and illustrator can be very valuable during many stages of the illustrative process.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch the eye of a publisher?

Do good work.

I know it sounds obvious, but these days I feel it’s less easy to make time to do that, because we feel we should be networking, displaying our work in progress and building connections online.

Early on, I feel the time spent making good work is far more valuable. To begin with you need to reach one person with your good work, not hundreds with your not-quite-there-yet work. I guess it’s another application for the wise old ‘Show, don’t tell’ mantra.

You need discipline, patience, resilience… and time. Time is the key — making it, allowing yourself it, giving it to the discipline of interpreting, drawing and developing.

So I’d say, do the best work you can… then do some more, and keep doing it till it gets better and better and the first thing you did doesn’t look so good any more. I’d say, once your work is being looked at by commissioning editors, don’t stop while you wait for an answer. Keep making new work. Experiment. Don’t be precious. Be brave.

Read and look at everything everyone else has written and illustrated. Analyse what it is you love about the work you admire… then stop, put everyone else’s work away and be yourself. Putting yourself out there is scary; I would never set foot on a rollercoaster, but I take a big breath and send my heart and soul out there with every book. I tell myself not to be scared — it’s not dangerous… the only thing I’m risking is embarrassment.

What comes first in your creative process: illustrating or writing?

There are pencilled words and pictures jumbled up together on the pages of my sketch books, as ideas for both seem to come at the same time and I have to work swiftly to get them all down. It’s such a rush, in both senses of the word, the ideas stage. It’s the best stage – I can feel the endorphins flowing. The book can be anything, it’s going to be everything. There are endless possibilities…

Later, I might take some of the ideas and pop them into titled folders — manilla and computer ones. I’ll come back to read over them whenever I feel like it. There’s no pressure as no one but me knows they exist yet, which is liberating in a creative sense. I might add or change a few lines here and there or sketch new ideas for the characters. This can go on for years before a manuscript is ready to show to my agent, Selwa Anthony, or an idea might moulder away for ever in there… and that is definitely what should be allowed to happen to some of them!

Selwa usually presents a full picture book text with some colour character illustrations to the publisher.

You can peek behind the scenes at my work in progress on the ILLUSTRATING PICTURE BOOKS page of my website, www.emmaquay.com, and find author and illustrator notes on the TEACHERS page.

Is there any part of the creative process you don’t like?

I love those early stages of a project, when the ideas are coming thick and fast and the book could be anything…

Further down the line when I’ve waded deep into the artworks stage, the book can’t be anything —It has to be what it already is! I know exactly what it’s going to look like. I’m wondering if it should look like that, but I’m halfway into the illustrations and I need to commit to the rest. I think all picture book illustrators must go through these stages.

I can only describe it as feeling like there’s a little gremlin sitting on my shoulder — I sometimes imagine it as looking a bit like Henry Fuseli’s crouching incubus in his painting “The Nightmare” — with its mouth to my ear, hissing, ‘Oh no, that’s not right at all,’ and a moment later, ‘Perhaps it’s okay — yes, that’s good.’ Then, again, ‘It’s terrible, Emma!’

It was a relief to read a quote from one of the most respected illustrators in the world, Maurice Sendak, talking about his inner voice during the process of illustrating a book: ‘A little part of me whispers it’s no good.’ So, it seems, I’m not alone!

What’s the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during a read aloud session?

Quite often, I get: “Are you J.K. Rowling?”.

What’s next from Emma Quay?

I’m really enjoying letting loose with colour and every medium I can lay my hands on for my new picture book for babies, which will be published by ABC Books. My most recent picture book, “Scarlett, Starlet” is fresh out in paperback this month, and there are a couple of early childhood picture book texts I’m thinking might be finished enough to fly their computer folders and be read by someone other than me!

Emma’s website: emmaquay.com

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