Ten writers for children. All with something to say.

1/19/10

Collaboration, how does (or should) it work?









In my earliest collaborations with authors, not only was I illustrator, but also designer, typesetter (letterpress type, where each metal letter is handset), printer, binder, and publisher (The Hale Press). My first project was a friend’s lengthy translation/retelling of Beowulf in couplets. I printed the illustrations as lithographs. I bound each of the 75 copies in cloth over boards, and we sold them to our friends. That was 1984. Then I moved to NYC to study illustration at Pratt. I continued making books with poets, and was even invited to collaborate with William Stafford on How to Hold Your Hands When It Rains for Confluence Press. I enjoyed working with poets. I was connected to their words. I knew the feel of each and every letter.

After Pratt I began work in commercial publishing as art assistant in the children’s book department at E.P. Dutton. I continued at different publishers until eventually I became an art director—a position that involves pairing newly acquired manuscripts with illustrators. The occasional slush dummy arrived with author/illustrator teamed up, but most often there was a weak link in these collaborations and a rejection letter was dispatched.

When I was offered my first picture book illustration assignment, I was already an art director for Four Winds Press. I knew that it was not typical for authors and artists to communicate during the illustration process. One author-friend thought that co-creators were kept apart to avoid discussion of discrepancies in advance payments. No! This is done to allow space for the illustrator to find their own visual narrative without a back-seat driver issuing directions. Here I would like to say loud and clear that I applaud this practice.

Many stories I’ve illustrated are set in other countries. My book advances never have been generous enough to budget travel. In several instances I asked the editor to allow me access to the author’s resources. This has always been fruitful for my research. When there is some kind of accuracy issue involved, I believe that an author should have an opportunity to review sketches and final art, however not directly, but through the editor.

Now I am an author. When I submitted early drafts of The East-West House, there was talk about having someone Asian illustrate my story. Ha! Now the shoe was on the other foot. I wanted my vision of my story illustrated. Of course I did create art, art directed and designed the book too. I sure don’t sound like much of a collaborator. The writing process certainly involved lots of guidance from my writers groups and my editor.

Currently, besides developing my own stories, I’m sketching stories by author-friends to pitch. We have advantages over unknown teams in slush piles because we have published work. The truth is I love, and have always loved collaboration, but I desperately need privacy to find my way. I believe many authors would like more input into the visual presentation of their words. Let’s get some dialogue going about collaboration (or lack of) between authors and illustrators. What is your experience?

13 comments:

Stephanie said...

Christy, it was so weird when I saw the first art for Elizabeti's Doll. Because of my time in Tanzania, I had all these real-world pictures in my head, which your art was nothing like, of course. At first, it seemed odd. But then I fell in love with Elizabeti and the very real Tanzania you created, so for the next two books, it was your Elizabeti and Tanzania that I pictured as I wrote the story. I love what our collaboration turned out to be:)

Edie said...

Christy,
I love this opportunity to discuss collaboration or non-collaboration between author and illustrator! I have written only one picture book text and have not even sent it out; however, I do have specific ideas of how I'd like it to be illustrated. My involvement with this One Potato...Ten blog has opened my eyes to the illustrator's process, though, and I am now much more willing to hand over a manuscript to the talent and interpretation by an artist.

When I teach picture book writing workshops, I'm amazed at how many aspiring PB authors are unaware of the typical 32 page concept and how many think they must find their own illustrators (as amateur as some may be) before submitting their work. I'm also amazed at how many aspiring writers don't read widely within their genre.

I'm very much looking forward to your presentation on "Smarter Dummies!"

Lauren said...

Christy, thank you for this detailed account of your collaborative history. I will join your applause of the practice of keeping author and illustrator separate. I have led many workshops and classes for budding picture book writers and the fury that can arise from not being able to convey the color of grandmother's bedspread to the illustrator is a challenge I take on with gusto. My first book, MUD, with Mary Lyn Ray was a great example of an editor holding the boundaries. Since I had never illustrated a book before, I assumed I would get the author's phone # and have a long chat before the first sketches were put to paper. I almost felt left out when my editor said that is not how we do it-- you are on your own. She made the mistake of telling me I could send her anything and everything to comment on-- which I did. My poor editor became so confused that she never sent any sketches or anything to Mary Lyn. But as the pictures evolved and the words began to breath with me-- MUD became an original work of art, created from the hearts and minds of two separate souls. If I had to answer to the ideas and thoughts of the author for every book, I would not last in this business very long. On the other hand, there have been instances where contacting the author for their research, (Our Family Tree), was essential to beginning my own.
The photos of the books you created and bound are beautiful! How great that you were asked to illustrate a book of Stafford's poems-- stunning! You have so much background in all of the different levels of publishing, it makes you the perfect collaborator-- you seem to know when to take the lead, and when to ask for help, and when to share the creative flow in equal parts. Great post!

Christy said...

Thanks, Stephanie. You were an amazing resource for me. I still have all the photos from Tanzania you sent.

Edie, I think it's okay for an author to discuss their visual ideas with an editor, but from then on it becomes the editor and art director's responsibility to decide how much is communicated to the illustrator. I wish one editor would have communicated more of an author's ideas to me on one of my earlier titles. I found out something extremely key when I was in the midst of finished art. Had I know earlier it would have entirely changed the way I approached the art and made a much stronger book. I have always felt like I failed the author on that title.

Christy said...

Lauren--wonderful additional insights for all!

Stephanie said...

My Tanzania books were the only ones I was ever asked any visual questions about. I think that's something picture book writers don't get, that you hand them your text and that is it. You don't get asked "What do you have in mind for the...." I was grateful that the Elizabeti books and Babu's Song were so authentic, in part perhaps because of photos I did provide. But, again, other than a few authenticity questions, that was it for my input. Which is how I think it should be. I'm not sure other picture book authors would agree, but I trust the editor to find an illustrator who will bring my words to life.

Lauren said...

Stephanie, it is the trust of the editor and also a bit of trust in the universe that the picture book will become the best book it can be. During the making of SNOW, for the first time I thoroughly felt the presence not only of my input, the editor's, the designer's, the marketing, the publicist's, and even the designer on press in Singapore-- we all had something at stake in making it the best book it could possibly be. A good editor will keep the author abreast of what is happening with the book as it evolves. The photos of Tanzania would be essential to the poignant and personal perspective which both you and Christy brought to that book--Each book has its own story- for me, it is all very exciting, because each new project has new and challenging hurdles to keep it alive.

Stephanie said...

I think we authors have no idea how much work the illustrator puts into a project...

Mark said...

Great post, Christy. Thanks for sharing your insights. Great discussion in the comments section, too. Very informative and educational. Thanks again!

David LaRochelle said...

I've had a wide range of experiences with the author/illustrator collaboration. With my first picture book, I didn't see any artwork until the final proofs were printed. In subsequent books, I've been able to view the artists' sketches, and make comments via my editor. And in my upcoming picture book, although I was not the final illustrator, I sent a fully sketched out dummy to the editor with my manuscript, and had a very strong influence on the illustrations, including the cover and title pages.

Having been on the opposite side, as the illustrator for a book written by someone else, I appreciate being given freedom to use my own creativity to illustrate the text. With the books that I've only been the author, the illustrators have always added a rich dimension that I could have never come up with on my own, and I'm grateful that the editors have allowed them to follow their own vision.

Each book is different, and hopefully a good editor will know how much and when to let an author's opinions shape the pictures.

David LaRochelle said...

PS I've also had the experience of having an illustrator, via our editor, ask for changes to my text to accommodate his artistic interpretation. It was difficult to change a text that I had polished so carefully, but collaboration is also compromise.

Ashley said...

Thank you, Stephanie, for observing how much work goes into illustrating and to David for allowing his manuscript to be edited at the illustrator's request. I have illustrated for others and illustrated my own stories, but have never worn "author only" shoes. If I ever have that chance I hope I'll be as gracious as many of the authors I've worked with.

Diane Adams said...

Great post, Christy. I had no idea about the author-illustrator relationship until my first book sold. It was a shock, but it taught me to let go and trust, and eventually I even got to meet the illustrator when he came to L.A. for a book signing. It was like a first date, except with spouses and children!:)