A Conversation With Gillian McClure

'Selkie' written and illustrated by Gillian McClure, published by Plaister Press
          This is the first in an occasional series of conversations with friends - many of whom will be writers, but not all.
           My first guest is the award-winning writer and illustrator, Gillian McClure, who I met when we gave a talk together at the Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Conference in September this year.

Susan Price
           Sue Price: I used to draw a great deal as a child and teenager, and was considered talented - but with me, writing took over, and I drew less and less. Obviously, with you, the two skills went more hand-in-hand. Can you even imagine a life without drawing?

Gillian McClure
Gillian McClureWriting nearly took over for me about ten years ago, when my agent wanted me to write little stories with black and white illustrations for the 7 plus age group because they were easier than picture books to get published.
          But I was half hearted. I loved colour and so I made a conscious decision not to move away from picture books however hard the going was. Now when I’m with writers I don’t feel wholly a writer and when I’m with illustrators I don’t feel wholly an illustrator. I only feel whole when putting text and image together in a picture book.

          Sue: So obviously, no, you can’t imagine not drawing and painting! I sometimes get really fed up with writing – it can be a slog at times – and I tell myself that if I had a change of earning a living some other way, I’d never write another word.
          I'm not sure it's true. I think, after about three weeks, at the longest, I’d start to get that looming, anxious, twitchy feeling – and I would have to write again. Ever experienced anything like that?

          Gillian: Oh yes, I crave a normal 9-5 job with weekends off, a salary and a pension – a normal life like everyone else. But like you an anxiety drives me on and I have to keep on entering that long dark tunnel with a chink of light at the end – the finished book.
         Sue: Could you tell us more about the process of making a picture-book?

          Gillian:   I start with an image or just a feeling in my head, then I attach a sentence or two to it – like an accompanying tune and then I grow this into the first draft of a story. I do this first draft on post-its – to keep the word count down and because I can stick them in a blank 32 page dummy book and move them about at the page turns.  This all helps get the rhythm  and pace of the story to work.
          Writing a picture book text is a bit like writing a poem because of the tight framework. The best texts are like a long single sentence flowing from page to page.
          The second draft occurs when I add the images; words can be cut back if the pictures are telling the same bit of the story. This is the stage I really enjoy, integrating word and image and getting the sentences to follow the movement of the pictures, as in this early rough from The Little White Sprite

- which ends up like this in the finished book.

           If I’m illustrating someone else’s story, it’s a bit like coming in on the process at the second draft stage but being unable to play around with the words. I can add something to them though  – a visual sup plot. Once I added a small dog to Mary Arrigan’s Mario’s Angels when there was no dog mentioned  in the text. Neither Mary nor the editor objected to the story having a gate crasher.

          Sue Price: I love the gate-crashing dog! And I loved your account of making a picture book. It confirmed what I've often suspected: that it's like writing a poem.
          Yet I think people often look down on picture books as 'just for children', which is shocking on so many levels.
          First, it's the disregard for the artistry in them, both in words and pictures - and then, I think of my cousin, who teaches languages and reading, and says that learning to read is like an iceberg: 90% is unseen.
          He says that a child who comes from a home where they've been involved in conversations, been told stories, and have been read stories, is years ahead of a child who hasn't had these experiences when it comes to learning to read. Because, he says, socialisation and social convention plays a huge part both in learning to read and being motivated to read. Take all that together, and there's hardly an art form worth more respect than a beautiful, engaging picture book.

          Gillian:What an interesting simile – learning to read being like an iceberg.  I do feel it’s a huge responsibility writing for children. And there needs to be consideration for the poor Mum and Dad who are made to read the same book night after night (in the families where there are bedtime stories). A picture book text has to sound good when read aloud, even when it's in graphic format like Zoe's Boat (below) making it a bit like a poem.

          SUE: A last question, then. What's your favourite of the picture books you've done? The one that comes closest to your ideal of text and pictures working together to make a beautiful whole?

          GILLIAN: I think I would say the new one, We’re Going to Build a Dam, to be published in March 2013.
          Here I’ve gone further than before to make the typeface part of the illustration as well as the text. For example, on a page where the dam breaks and there’s the word ‘CRACK!’ the typographical designer, Lisa Kirkham, actually makes the letters split apart.
          And where the text says ‘...a small stream rippling round a boulder’ the type does that movement in the illustration.

          The book, We’re Going to Build a Dam, will be published by Plaister Press, which Gillian McClure started.

The Little White Sprite by Gillian McClure

Zoe's Boat by Gillian McClure.    


Clowns and Green Men

         Did nothing this week, except the usual noodling around with blogs, emails and so on. Well, did write the beginning of a new story that I promised my agent.
          I thought I'd put up the clown mask I've been playing around with. I partly painted it with white acrylic, but as I don't have much paint and no brush (I used my fingers) things haven't gone very far. The lips are coloured with a felt-tipped pen, but I'm not happy with them. Acrylic would be better, but I was so overwhelmed with the choice of paints that I ended up not buying any. The clown is based on portraits of Grimaldi - I wanted to avoid the Ronald MacDonald look - and his hair should be blue. There should be bright red triangles painted on his cheeks too. I don't know if I'll bother to finish him.
          I started playing around with the Green Man too. My 'studio is one corner of my kitchen table, and while I'm waiting for the kettle to boil, I seize bits of paper and card and work on it for ten minutes at a time.  It started like this - 

A cheap plastic mask of tragedy, which I coated with vaseline. After lots of paste and torn paper, it turned into this - 

This detail of the top left hand corner shows the cardboard holly leaves, and a crumpled paper sycamore leaf,

It's all made out of old newspapers, cardboard boxes, unwanted junk mail. At the moment I'm trying to make a small bird's nest by layering paper around a small (greased) measuring cup. As I want to keep the whole thing light, I'll have to find something I can model acorns and hazel-nuts around. I am looking at household objects and bits of rubbish with a speculative eye.

          From Green Men to Blue Cats...

Manx Giants

          Last Sunday, I went over to the Isle of Man, on a working holiday, coming back in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Alan Hess
          It was great fun. I stayed with my cousin, Alan Hess, the kindest, most patient and considerate of hosts. I'm doing some work for Alan, and the trip was about that, but when we weren't working, Alan gave us a tour of the island, which he knows very well, having lived there for twenty years, before he moved to Switzerland. He's proud to say that he's progressed from being 'a Come-Over' to a 'When-I' (somebody who's succeeded in becoming accepted in the Manx community, but who constantly says, 'When I lived in England... when I...)
The Giant and me
          We visited the Manx Giant, Arthur Caley, and Alan introduced me to 'the Crocodile Dundee of the Isle of Man', John 'Dog' Callister, who, Alan said, 'knows everything about Man.' He's an expert on its wild-life and knows much of its history and traditions. John gave me a traditional 'bumbee cage', together with an instruction sheet on how to make one.
          It's an old Manx belief, it seems, that bumbees, or bumble-bees, were bad fairies, who'd been turned into bees as a punishment. Children would weave these cages from six rushes, but leave the top open. When they spotted a bee in a flower, they would put the open end of the cage over the flower, and so catch the bee, trapping it inside by completing the cage. Shaking the cage would make the bee hum.
The Bumbee Cage
          When the children had gone to bed, their parents would undo the cage, let the bee go, and replace it with a pebble before weaving the cage closed again. Next morning, they would tell the child that the bad fairy had learned its lesson, so its powers had been restored, and it had escaped. I can only imagine quite a few parents and children were stung.
John Dog with more handiwork
          John's bumbee cage is a lovely thing, and it had three little orangey periwinkle shells inside to make the noise. I might try to make a cage for bad fairies out of drinking straws, following the printed instructions John also gave me. (I don't know where I would find any reeds.)
          John also told me that periwinkle shells make excellent whistles, if you tuck them down between your knuckles and blow into them. Must try it next time I have a periwinkle shell. (I'm not undoing my bumbee cage.)
          Alan and I tried to make a film of me telling a story for an event which is taking place in schools all over Switzerland in November: a story-telling evening. Some children will be camping out and listening stories round the camp-fire. Alan and his wife, Ulrike (who is the founder and head of their school) decided to play me as their trump-card - a real, live, English writer and story-teller, telling a story in English, via Skype.
          Our meeting was partly to talk over stories and decide on one, and partly to try and record the story on web-cam, as a back-up in case something goes wrong. We staged the scene in Alan's old cottage, using strategically placed reading lamps and candles to give an impression of story-telling by candle-light, and we made three attempts. Every time, the voice was out of synch with the visuals. I was losing concentration, and not giving my best, so we gave up. Alan may be able to tweak the film, but I shall see if I can make my own film. (But am also very happy to tell the story by live link.)
          We also talked about SFL, or Systemic Functional Linguistics, which Alan is extremely keen on, and I can see why. (My cousin is a very talented man. He started as - and remains - an excellent musician. He also worked for many years in IT, though he modestly insists that he is no longer up-to-date with the wonderful world of computers. He speaks fluent German - so fluent that northern Germans think he comes from south Germany, and southern Germans think he comes from the north. He now teaches special needs children in Switzerland, a job he absolutely, radiantly loves. Recently he's been spreading the word about SFL, attending conferences, and setting up his Moodle site.
          SFL, or Functional Grammar, deserves a blog of its own, but it can be briefly described as a way of teaching languages and reading in much the same way as a small child naturally learns to speak its own language. Suffice to say that Alan had me speaking my own German sentences in a few minutes - and I have always considered myself to have the linguistic talent of a brick.
          Er was dunkel und kalt, und eine alte Frau sass neben ihren fuer.
          Not perfect, but then, a child's first attempts at speaking never are. It's the constant, repeated corrections of the parent that teach a child its language's grammar - which it learns with incredible speed - and not the reciting of irregular verbs, and learning the plu-perfect.
         As Alan says, "Plenty of people say to their children, 'We say, "It is," not "It are," but no one ever tells their two-year old, "There'll be no misuse of the subjunctive in this house!"'

The Laxey Wheel

And Blott in 'Box'

As He Would Draw It

 '...He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it.'
The mask former

          Starting with a quote from 'Hamlet', eh? Sure to knock 'em dead.
          I was very struck by those lines when I first read 'Hamlet' as a teenager.
          I spent a lot of time drawing then, often from life. I knew that, although you might think you were closely observing something, you never really looked at anything until you tried to draw it. The relationships of one part to another, the density of a shadow, the texture, the angles, the precise delination of a curve...
         The curves of the Oseberg or Gokstad ships will break your heart. I know: I've tried to draw them.
The Oseberg Ship
          Was Shakespeare an artist, then, as well as a playwright?
          But what really brings on these thoughts is my Green Man project. I wrote here some months ago that I'd woken up one morning - without ever having any such thought before in my life as far as I can remember - thinking: 'You should make a Green Man mask out of papier-mache.' And then my brother posted that he'd had much the same thought at about the same time.
          Those sort of things tend to stick in your head.
           I've been busy, and haven't actually ripped up one bit of paper for the Green Man, but I have been thinking about him a lot. A lot. And one happy side-effect of this has been an increase in the intensity of my observation. When I go out for a walk now, it's not just a bit of exercise in the fresh air - it's research.
          I'm perusing things as I would make them.
          I'm noticing the different veinings and textures of leaves. Some have plump, pillowy leaves with grooves between the veins. Others are flatter and smoother, but grained. There are pinked edges and smooth edges. Hazel leaves are almost circular, not 'leaf-shaped' at all.
          I'm noticing the different ways they spring from their twig or stem; how they grow in rosettes or spirals.
          I'm studying, with great interest, the dead stalks and seed-heads standing in the hedgerows. I've always enjoyed the brilliant red berries, but now I'm seeing how many different shapes of them there are.
         I imagine botanists and gardeners enjoy this pleasure in just looking all the time. Perhaps people fascinated by other things do too - people who're enthralled, say, by the study of beetles and other small cattle. But it's a pleasure I'd mislaid somewhat since, all those years ago, I used to stare at things, pencil in hand, hard enough to bore a hole in them.
          Whether or not I can reproduce any of these leaves and things remains to be seen - but even if I can't, I'll still have enjoyed this renewed pleasure in just looking. Dying leaves, lemon yellow with splotches and spots of green. Bramble leaves of a deep, glowing maroon red, that you'd think could never be natural, but is.
          In the meantime, I'm approaching the Green Man with due caution, by having a trial run at something else, just to see what I can learn. I'm using a cheap plastic mask (top) as a form. Can you tell what it is yet?

          The big news of the week, as far as I'm concerned, is that my agent says that she's enjoying Sterkarm 3, and will be in touch soon, with notes.
          She also says she found it confusing, in parts. It's not just me, then. I'm hoping she'll figure it out, and explain it to me.

          And Blott's back! So's Ashteroth...