Welcome to the very first blog and the very first Simply 7 interview of 2019. I’m as proud and excited about today’s interview as if I wrote or illustrated the book myself. Why?
Because I had a unique insight into this book, watching its birth from the very first draft to the final product. AND I know what a journey that has been. You see, today’s book was written by my husband so I got to see behind the scenes in a way most unpublished (as of yet) writers don’t get. It’s been a joy to watch every part of this process.
YET as a result of this, it was incredibly difficult to interview my husband with questions I might already know the answers to. I had to think long and hard about the questions I would ask him to give you all insight into this book (as well as NOT read the answers until they were posted for fear of editing them). And today, as an added bonus, you will get to see the illustrator’s insight too. Both author and illustrator make their debut together in this, their first picture book project.
Matthew Lasley grew up in the interior of Alaska, where his family mined for gold both in Alaska, and in the Klondike. It’s one of the many reasons why this was very much his story to tell. He currently lives in Anchorage and also teaches Elementary school. And yes, he loves to pan for gold in the summer time. You can find out more about him at his website (where he is having a current giveaway right now!) or follow him on Twitter.
“Pedro’s Pan” is creative nonfiction. It tells a story about the Gold Rush told from the gold pan’s point of view. It’s not only cute and clever, but it’s already received great reviews. And yes, it’s based on a real historical figure that you get to read about in the back matter.
Today, I get to welcome Matthew to my blog for the first time. Welcome Matthew!
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Matthew: I have always loved telling stories. I love to see the light in kid’s eyes when you read to them. I love hearing them laugh. A few years ago, I met a wonderful woman who would become my wife, and she introduced me to writing picture books. A secret: I thought it was going to be easy. While getting a story down was easy, the revising process of trimming down a handful of words into a story that others want to read, was not so easy.
Me: I understand that this story, while an incredibly fun fictional take on gold mining in the past, is actually based on a real historical figure. What made you choose fiction over nonfiction to tell this story?
Matthew: I originally wrote this story as a loose biography. Growing up in rural Alaska in a family that mined for gold, my dad would tell us about the prospectors that traversed the land. Felix Pedro, who this story is about, has a monument near Fairbanks, Alaska that we travelled by every time we went to “town”.
I submitted my original story to an editor at an SCBWI conference and she liked my writing, but, in not so many words, I was a newbie. And I was.
Over the next few months, I read books on writing, attending critique groups, watched webinars, and listened to my wife who knew far more about writing than I did. The best piece of advice that I got was to set my story aside and let it rest.
And I did.
When my local SCBWI chapter held a spring retreat, I had the opportunity to have a story reviewed by a local published author. So, I dug out a few stories and looked them over.
Strangely, as I tried to break down my story, I realized it was not about the prospector, but his gold pan. I was going to use the innocence of a gold pan to tell the story of Felix Pedro.
While I may write a biography on Felix Pedro one day, the story here was about the process of gold panning. While something most people will never engage in, responsible mining is an important part of the advancement of our modern society.
Me: The text of this story is riveting. The writing is crisp and clear, yet entertaining and at times poetic. What made you choose the gold pan’s point of view? It’s not very common in picture books to find an inanimate object telling the story. Was that the format from the very first draft of this manuscript?
Matthew: Thank you. It took a lot of critiquing and revision with the help of many people far more talented than I am.
The gold pan was always a character, but it wasn’t until after giving the story a rest that his voice came out. The original biography of Felix Pedro became the back matter and the story became more about prospecting or gold panning.
Pan became a great character for that since he could be childlike and could give a viewpoint that children could connect and learn along with. The heart of the story was a natural byproduct of the struggle of the search.
A funny note, I had written and submitted my story for a critique at a writing retreat which was a couple of months away. Shortly after sending it in, I watched a webinar in which an agent discussed picture books. Besides rhyming picture books, one of her biggest peeves was inanimate objects telling stories. She was not against characters that were inanimate objects, but writers sometimes try to get around the rule of a childlike character by making them inanimate objects.
Pan maintains the voice of a child and is easily relatable.
Me: The illustrations in this book are wonderful. As the story is based on a real person in history, did you talk with the illustrator about his work at all? Any demands from the get go? Any alterations?
Matthew: First and foremost, Jacob Souva did a fantastic job illustrating this story. I was truly lucky to get him and am proud to share this debut book with him.
When I submitted my story to Graphic Arts Books, I included in my query that this story was based on a real person. When it came to the contract, I made it clear what my wants were. I included very few illustrator notes because I wanted to make sure that the illustrator would have their chance to tell their story.
Being a smaller press that was looking for a regional presence, they too wanted to honor the story behind the story and took care to share Jacob’s vision. While I did not work directly with him, I was able to provide my editor with suggestions and comments on the illustrations. She processed them and gave the ones she thought pertinent to Jacob.
I have been told that my collaboration was not normal, but I tried to make sure I stuck to my story and stayed out of Jacob’s way. Where I had concerns or questions, I voiced them, but I trusted my editor and illustrator to do their job. It was not always easy, but I am thankful that I was allowed any voice in that process.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Matthew: Only one? If I can only tell one, I would have to say the speed of the process. My journey has been miraculous. I have heard over and over the length of time it takes to break into writing. 2-5 years to write and revise a manuscript that gets you an agent, 1-2 more years to get a contract, 2-3 years before it is finally published. It is a long, long process.
While I have been writing for a while, I wrote my VERY first picture book in the summer of 2016. I wrote the first draft of this story in the late summer of 2016. May of 2017 I received positive feedback and contact information from a mentor before I got a contract in October of 2017. I began the editing process in December of 2017 and my book comes out on February 19, 2019.
That is unheard of. It had nothing to do with my talent as much as it did that I had people who championed me. From my wife who guided me and taught me, to my critique groups, to a mentor who was willing to put her reputation on the line for me, and then a marketing director at a publishing company that took up the cause.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Matthew: There is so much, but I guess I would break it down to the following:
- Love what you are doing.
- Read a lot. Read your “competition.” Be familiar with what works in books and trends in the industry. Understand the flow of books.
- Critique and revise, then do it again and again.
- Go to conferences. Join writing groups (SCBWI is a good one). Watch webinars. Attend retreats. Read.
- When you think you have done all you can with a story, put it away. Leave it alone for a few months. Do other things. Then come back and go back to #3.
- Never forget that this is not a journey done alone. Find your champions. And remember to be a champion for someone else.
Me: What is your favorite moment or memory that happened in the process of birthing this book (a favorite research tidbit or moment; a favorite experience or encounter, etc.)?
Matthew: My favorite part of this journey is having been able to share it with my wife. Because of her, I decided to write a picture book. She has encouraged me this whole journey. When I got my feedback at the retreat, she was the first to read my critique in its entirety and got excited for the opportunity it provided. She has made designs (pins and helped with bookmarks) and plans for my book. We took a trip last summer to Fairbanks to gather resources and information in preparation for my book launch this summer.
My wife has been my champion, and that means more to me on this journey than even the book does.
Aww! I honestly didn’t know he was going to say all those things you guys. But should I be surprised when this same guy lets me “find” a dedication to me in his book without saying a word about it?
But wait! There’s more!
Jacob Souva is a digital illustrator. He earned his BFA in Illustration from Syracuse University and lives in upstate New York.
While “Pedro’s Pan” is his picture book debut as an illustrator, it is not his last. He has several more books in the works that you will hear more about in just a bit. You can learn more about him at his website.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting?
Jacob: Like most kids, I started drawing at a very young age. My Mom is a textile artist and my Dad studied graphic design in college, so they were very encouraging. My Mom likes to say she knew I’d be an artist because I’d add elbows and knees to my stick figures.
I also spent a lot of time at the library and had free reign to check as many books out as possible. I gravitated to Sendak, Emberely, and Bill Peet books among many others. Later, it was comic books of course. I loved art class in high school and knew whatever I did next would involve being creative. I received my BFA in Illustration from Syracuse University.
The journey after that involved working with kids at a camp, youth pastoring at a small Methodist church, and working as a freelance graphic designer.
I started to dream about children’s books again about five years ago. I had some close calls with book projects that fell through and another that is still in publishing limbo, before my agent contacted me about Pedro’s Pan.
Me: Can you talk a little bit about your process and how you create digitally?
Jacob: I can! I use my iPad to sketch a lot, but do most of my work on my Wacom Cintiq in Photoshop. Usually, things go from sketch to a more refined sketch to a layered “painting” or collage. I love texture and big bold shapes, so the finishing stage is the most fun (and sometimes the most frustrating).
For Pedro’s Pan I did more color tests than I normally do. I really wanted to nail the spreads where a beautiful landscape was the primary focus. I also tried to nudge the reader with visual cues. When things get dark for Pedro and Pan and they are down in the dumps I wanted to have a literal dark cloud over them. In the corner of that page you’ll see a gold light in the sky to show the hope that is just around the corner (or page)!
Me: How wonderful that one of your first picture book projects would be with Matthew Lasley and you both would debut together! So what is it that draws you to picture books?
Jacob: It is fantastic. It was a touch daunting when I found out it was his debut and that he is from Alaska! The story is so much fun. Matthew really captures the adventure and perseverance of it all.
I think what draws me to picture books is the sense that you’re able to transport a child to a new and interesting experience that they can revisit over and over again. They also provide a unique challenge. Picture books need the words and pictures to compliment each other in ways that are intuitive and honoring for young minds. There’s a simplicity in a great picture book that is really deceptively hard to nail down.
Reading Pedro’s Pan to my six year old and seeing him smile was the highlight of my year!
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?
Jacob: I think it was just trusting my gut with some of the layout decisions. The first page is an introduction to both Pedro and Pan and I wanted to put the focus on them by having them span the gutter. This is usually a no-no, but the publisher had faith in that decision, which was encouraging.
Me: What is one of your favorite illustrations from the book?
Jacob: I’m very partial to the spread where Pedro finds “Fool’s Gold” while the other prospectors are showing off their spoils. This was another page where I submitted the sketch and thought maybe they’d find it was too bold or that it would be confusing. Halfway through, I knew it was the right decision. I love the juxtaposition of it all. It sets the stage for the rest of the book.
Me: Any advice for other picture book illustrators?
Jacob: Yes. Don’t focus on the end result (a finished book or saying you’ve been published). Make “becoming a better storyteller” your North Star. It can be a hard road with lots of twists and turns. Self doubt can be debilitating to the creative process. Don’t be so hard on yourself! Just get better, bit by bit.
Me: Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on or that we will be seeing in the near future?
Jacob: I’m working on two more books through Graphic Arts, both humorous searches for a place to go to the potty. (My son told his teacher that I draw books about poop. I’m not sure how she took it.) I have another book about a boy with big overwhelming emotions that is really beautiful and another funny one about butterflies. I’m also nurturing a few stories of my own along that I’m pretty excited about.
It’s an amazing journey and one that I’m truly thankful to partake in.
It’s a journey I’ve been excited to watch progress for both of you. Thank you Matt and Jacob for visiting my blog! Dear readers, this is not only a sneak peek (the book doesn’t come out until the middle of February), but there is a wonderful giveaway too. One lucky reader will receive an Uncorrected Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of the book by simply filling out the Rafflecopter here. Good luck!