Mar 6, 2012

Interview with Kyo Maclear, author of Virginia Wolf

If you've been reading my blog  lately you know that I am going through a little Kyo Maclear phase! There was her first picture book, Spork, which started the fascination, then her novel, The Letter Opener. This week I finally got my hands on her new picture book, Virginia Wolf, and even it exceeded my high expectations. I was thrilled to be able to conduct an interview with Kyo Maclear, and to share it with you. Grab a cup of tea and read on!

Perogies & Gyoza: This is your second children's book, and second collaboration with
Isabelle Arsenault, after 2010's award-winning Spork.  How did the second project come about?

Kyo Maclear: When I was in highschool a boyfriend gave me a copy of The Waves and I instantly fell in love (with Virginia Woolf… the boyfriend and I were ill-suited.) I have continued to adore and admire Virginia ever since. A few years ago I came across a childhood photo of her playing cricket with her sister Vanessa Bell and it started me thinking about their relationship. Shortly after, I started working on this story. When it was finished I sent it to my wonderful editor, Tara Walker, who shared it with Isabelle. To my delight, Isabelle signed on immediately. 
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell Stephens

PG: My image of a children's book is that an author writes a book, submits it to the publisher, and then the publisher chooses an illustrator who then develops the second part of the story. However for both of your books with Isabelle Arsenault, I get the feeling that it is more collaborative than that. Can you speak to the process of working with your illustrator?

KM: I consider Isabelle a dream collaborator and artistic soulmate but the funny thing is we’ve never met in person. With both Spork and Virginia Wolf, my editor served as the primary go-between. I think I forwarded a few pictorial notes but the rest was up to Isabelle. At some point in the early stages, she sent us a “Mood Board”——a large page filled with character sketches, Bloomsbury period photos, Liberty fabric patterns and palette swatches. It was so beautiful, the first thing I did was frame it and put it on my bedroom wall. On one page, Isabelle had managed to convey the entire emotion and aesthetic of the book. It is incredibly magical to work with an illustrator with such sensitivity and metaphoric intuition. I’ve been so lucky.
Virginia Wolf Moodboard, copyright Isabelle Arsenault

PG: Was there any difference in the way you approached Virginia Wolf, since it is loosely based on real people, compared to a book like Spork which is all from your ideas?

KM: Yes, “loosely based” is the key word here. Of course, there was more preparatory research with Virginia than there was for Spork. For example, I re-read Woolf’s memoir essays (in particular, On Being Ill and Moments of Being.) But then I set what I read aside. I quickly decided that any references to Virginia Woolf’s real life would need to be as light-handed as possible so as not take away from the story: an imagined episode in which one sister tries to help lift the other out of the doldrums. In the end, there are a few true-life details that may satisfy older readers and Woolf-afficionados but they are extraneous to the plot (and will sail over most children’s heads.) If I set myself any goal of fidelity when it came to my source material, it was to be true to Virginia’s love of language.

PG: Virginia Woolf is perhaps most famous for her struggle with mental illness, as well as being an author. You have tackled that in Virginia Wolf, but that's not a very common theme for picture books aimed at children. Did you specifically want to tackle the issue of mental illness or did it come about organically by showing the relationship between
Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf?

KM: I saw the relationship between Vanessa and Virginia as a chance to take both a literal and metaphoric look at depression. As a parent and a former child I know that kids have intense moods and can suffer from lingering sadness. Having said that, I admit I was a bit nervous when I first submitted the story because I knew I was treading on sensitive ground. What amazed me was that no one balked (not the publisher, editor or the illustrator). No one felt the idea was too gloomy for children. (Had I stumbled upon a melancholic pocket of the publishing world?) I have been really heartened by the response so far.* I think people recognize the love and playfulness in the sister relationship and this—along with Isabelle’s exquisite illustrations—helps temper any adult fears of encountering a “difficult subject.”

* I especially liked JuliaDanielson’s Kirkus column.
Black & White Test for Virginia Wolf, copyright Isabelle Arsenault

PG: You have made a trailer for each of your children's books so far. Is this
a necessary part of marketing a children's book today, or just a fun extra?

KM: I love doing trailers. As you may know, writing can be somewhat lonesome. At the risk of becoming socially-inept, I always jump at the opportunity to collaborate, especially with my musician husband. As for the role trailers play in marketing, I think everything helps. (These days, books need a biodiverse ecology to thrive. That means all forms of social media + devoted booksellers + word of mouth, etc.)

PG: What is the difference between writing a children's book and an adult book?

KM: Good question. I think I’d have to say the main difference is economy of language. Believe me, writing shorter is not always easier! I’ve learned so much about distillation through my work for children. The other difference is the place of illustration. In my mind, the best books allow the pictures to do some of the talking. Books where the images are simply parroting the text tend to bore me.

I've become so enamored of visually-driven books that I've found illustration seeping into my adult fiction. My new novel, Stray Love, which will be published this March, features a boy named Marcel who grows up to be an illustrator. The novel includes two gorgeous drawings by Canadian artist Heather Frise.*

*( Kyo Maclear's  new novel is published as Stray Love in Canada and appears in Australia/New Zealand as A Thousand Tiny Truths.)

PG: What books did you love as a kid, and are there any kids books you love as an adult?

KM: I loved The Peanuts, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, anything by Richard Scarry (I loved his encyclopedic detail), Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant (and any story where children know more than big people.) As an adult, I’m a big fan of The Treehorn Trilogy by Florence Heide Parry, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders and Lane Smith, The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer, and for sheer rhythmic readability Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka.

PG: Are you multilingual? If so, do you have any tips for parents like me raising multilingual kids on how not to stuff it up?

KM: I speak Japanese like a four year old——i.e. I can ask for toys and cookies fairly fluently. Japanese was actually my first language but growing up in an English-speaking country and a bicultural home, it quickly fell by the wayside. (The wayside is also cluttered with my highschool French and undergraduate Spanish.) In retrospect, I wish I grew up with two languages moving through my brain on a regular basis. That kind of code-switching seems healthy and miraculous to me.
Bloomsberry from Virginia Wolf, copyright Isabelle Arsenault

PG: What's next? Any more collaborations with Isabelle Arsenault in the future?

KM: There may be another collaboration in the future. In the meantime, I am working with Matte Stephens on my next picture book, which will be out next Spring 2013. I’m very excited about this. The story has a 60s vibe and Matte is very retro and smartly stylish in his palette and approach.

Virginia Wolf is in stores now, and Stray Love, Kyo Maclear's new novel, will be released on March 20. 

My interview with illustrator Isabelle Arsenault can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my goodness, what a charming and lovely discovery! I posted to my blog. The idea of "if the wolfish mood is yours" is powerful, because many of our moods and thought aren't really ours! Oh so charming, I watched the trailer many, many times. RICH! thank you so much!


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