Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with Max Eaton

I'm happy to be the last stop on Max Eaton's blog tour. Other stops of the tour include: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast (12/1/08); The Well-Read Child (12/3/08), A Patchwork of Books (12/5/08), and Mommy Mandy (12/8/08). You can visit him on the web at any time. Also be sure to stop by his blog.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your journey towards becoming a published author and illustrator?

My journey towards becoming a children’s book guy arose out of boredom and poverty (like everything else on earth). I had just graduated from college and moved out to Dillon, Colorado where I had a job working as a ski instructor for the winter. Unfortunately for me and my streamlined wallet it was only August, and as we all know the skiing isn’t quite as good in the summer months. At the same time I was also trying to start a small business and decided that I could use a little supplemental income at a steady rate with minimal time and effort (this one is for those of you with a keen sense of irony). I decided that I should just publish a children’s book. Quick, easy, and when you’re published once you’re published for life, right? Wrong. Either way, I got together a little story about a kid named Max and his pig friend. From there I got lucky every step of the way with a great agent and a great editor who definitely held my hand throughout the process. I think writing and illustrating initially seem like very solitary, independent jobs, but it isn’t until you’re right in the middle of everything that you realize how valuable your work with the people around you really becomes. It always blows my mind to stop and really look at a wall full of books and think that every single one of those books has a story behind it (harr harr) and a whole group of people who worked hard to make that bound copy possible. This is about the most nostalgic I’ve ever been in an interview. That’s it I’m cut off!

What inspired you to create the Max and Pinky series?

Aside from the wealth and fame that comes with a career in children’s literature, it was just something that seemed interesting to me at the time. It was nothing I had ever thought of doing. Even as a little kid I don’t think it occurred to me that authors were anything other than some sort of brand. Eric Carle? I wonder if he’s associated with Levi Strauss? Either way, when I was waiting for that ski season in Colorado to start it kind of clicked in my head and I started thinking, “You know somebody has to be an actor, or a CEO or a writer. Those are just people like anyone else. So if I want to write children’s books, even if I’ve never even thought about it once in my life, then what’s stopping me?” Although, it isn’t easy to take a chance on your work. Anytime you’re creating something and putting it out there you feel vulnerable and maybe a little embarrassed and dumb, but I stopped caring what someone two-thousand miles away in New York might have thought about my stories. If I sent it out and they liked it, then they liked it. If they didn’t, well I’m sure I’ve embarrassed myself worse than that (I’ll spare you any examples). So I sent Max and Pinky off to see what would happen.

Do you have a favorite character? A favorite scene?

My favorite characters are all of the secondary animals who populate Max and Pinky’s little world. I like that their day to day lives are always intersecting with whatever Max and Pinky are up to. They’re just trying to live a calm, peaceful existence, but are always suffering the indignities of Max and Pinky’s adventures.

It seems as though most people think of animals as fairly childish and cutesy, but we always forget that most are fully grown, mature adults. Even as a child I pictured them as having grown-up voices and being, for the most part, serious creatures that get no respect. I grew up around a lot of horses and nothing is better than the expression on a big old retired polo pony’s face as he stands stubbornly still while some eight year old kicks like crazy to get him walking. He’ll always be looking straight ahead brooding. It’s hard not to wonder what he’d really like to do, but some animals are so steady that it blows your mind. So I guess now that I think about it I like Chuck, the horse, best. He’s living on a farm run by a bald five-year-old and an upright walking pig. It’s Animal Farm meets Lord of the Flies.

As far as my favorite scene goes, I took a lot of satisfaction in the “Barn Alarm” blueprint in THE MYSTERY. When I was little I loved drawing maps of the woods and plans for forts or rafts. We did a lot of exploring and building. And the use of strings and pulleys in Max and Pinky’s plan came from when I used to rig up ways to turn out the light and close the door from bed. My parents were spackling professionals.

Can you tell us anything about your current work in progress? Do you have any upcoming releases?

I’m working on a few new picture books right now as well as a couple of graphic novels for 7 to 9 year-olds, which I’m really excited about. The graphic novels make my previous children’s illustrations seem like lazy doodles in terms of time consumption, but it’s also a lot of fun to be able to write more detailed plots and work with multiple running jokes. Especially sophisticated jokes involving pancakes. The pinnacle of breakfast humor.

What do you love about writing? What do you find the easiest? What do you find the hardest?

My favorite part about writing picture books is coming up with dialogue for the characters. For every single bubble of text I have three or four different jokes or reactions that I’d like to use. The easy and fun part is coming up with them, but the hard part is picking one that works best with the story and that kids will find the funniest. Coming up with ideas is easy, getting rid of ideas you like for the overall good of the story is agonizingly painful. But I’m sure it’s good for me. There’s got to be some character being built there, right?

What do you love about drawing?

I love that it sets the story in stone. When you’re reading the text you can imagine the story in a million ways, but when you finally get to illustration people see exactly what you want them to see in the story. They see the world that you see. I also love that the artwork can add so many levels to the story in such a simple and immediate way. Just looking at a single page you can see that Max is happy, Pinky is angry, the horse is worried about his stall, the groundhogs are up to something mischievous, and the text only has to read “Something weird was going on.” It allows you to do a lot of story telling in a deceptively simple and short format. I don’t consciously work at it, but I hope that Max and Pinky work for a wide range of reading abilities and ages, because you’ve got a very simple text, slightly more difficult dialogue, slapstick humor and more subtle humor. I think a good book is one that any age group can pick up and find at least some small amount of satisfaction.

Do you have any advice for parents or teachers on how to inspire or encourage children’s imaginative and artistic sides?

I think the most important thing is to let a child’s interests guide them and to support those interests with the time, resources and encouragement that they require. If your child likes drawing, make sure there are always pencils and paper around. If your child likes to write stories give them the time they need to do so. Let them be bored on the weekend. Eight year olds don’t turn to drugs and crime when they have nothing to do, so instead of plopping them in front of a TV or scheduling them to death with activities, let them figure out what they want to do on their own. I know I’m not a parent and have no experience in raising children, but I do know that I grew up in a home with very little television, a piano lesson just once a week and all of the time in the world to do anything I wanted. I think a child’s imaginative and creative side grows and expands with everything they do on their own from exploring woods and making forts to drawing on sidewalks and screwing pulleys into their bedroom wall.

Growing up, whose work did you admire most? Was there a particular author that made you say, “I want to grow up and do that!”?

After third grade or so I was really into Jack Prelutsky. I had a teacher who always had us memorize poetry, mostly a lot of Robert Frost, but we always knew a few Prelutsky poems as well. Actually, I still know “Homework! Oh, Homework!” Classic. Shel Silverstein was also a favorite, but his illustrations made me feel really weird. Illustrations used to really get to me. Where the Wild Things Are is one that scared me to death, which is funny because that was an argument at the time of publication. But for me it wasn’t the monsters or the fact that Max was sent to bed without eating anything. I think children understand those things perfectly. In fact I loved the wild thing with the duck feet. No, the problem was the suit that Max was wearing! Just looking at it made me claustrophobic. Actually, I was in San Francisco over Halloween weekend and saw a little kid in a perfect reproduction of the wolf suit (only he wasn’t chasing his dog with a fork). The costume didn’t seem to bother him, though. I guess I was just a weird little kid.
As far as aspiring to being a children’s author or illustrator, it never even crossed my mind as a child. Or as a teenager, or in college for that matter! But maybe that gave me a fresh perspective on picture books. Even when I wrote my first Max and Pinky adventure I don’t think I had even looked at a children’s book in a decade or more. I rarely even look at them now unless I’m not working on anything at all. Otherwise, I can’t get certain books out of my head and it ends up locking me up completely.

And what are some of your favorites now?

Most of the illustration and art I look at now isn’t contemporary. One of my favorites is Pericle Luigi Giovannetti’s Max books from the fifties. I guess they’re not really meant for children (half the time his groundhog/hamster character, Max, is smoking pipes or sleep walking in the wine cellar), but I spent a lot of time looking through them when I was little. Each two page spread is a little series of Max trying to ride a bike or give himself a hair cut. Very clever humor. They kind of remind me of Sendak’s little sketched sequences. Edward Gorey books are another favorite of mine. I think I’m drawn to illustrations that are nothing like my own.

What do you love about children’s books? What has kept you hooked?

I love that children’s books are such a complete little package. It’s 32 surfaces to play with and decorate and have fun with. You work hard for about a year and when it’s all over you have this perfect little thing you can hold in your hand. I also love that it’s not just one single piece of work like a painting. It’s thousands of flawless reproductions. I’ve always loved intaglio and lithography because of the ability to reproduce and distribute what you’ve created over and over again, and I guess I find that same satisfaction in picture books. It also blows my mind every time a child or a family writes to let me know that they love Max and Pinky and read the books every night as part of their bedtime ritual. Authors and illustrators spend a lot of time by themselves in their own little worlds, and it’s easy to forget who you’re even making these books for. But when you hear that a child is into your books or has a favorite page or saying or character you’re really taken aback. It’s odd, because all of a sudden you feel extremely responsible for what you’re producing. Every time I create a book or a story I’m creating something that I find satisfying. That I enjoy. Something that entertains me. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this at all, because it keeps me from pandering to children or writing down to them (something that can be easy to spot). But it really amazes me when I get feedback from children. I get snapped out of my little world and realize for a moment that these books are for a very different audience than my own. I guess the picture book market isn’t catering to 27 year old males. Although, you might be able to make arguments about levels of maturity.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Have you met any of your ‘favorites’? Who would you most like to have dinner with?

Whenever I do a school visit, kids always ask me what authors I know. What they’re actually asking is whether or not I know Mo Willems, so I always get that collective groan of disappointment when I tell them I don’t know any children’s authors or illustrators at all. I saw Rosemary Wells once at a book festival. I wish I’d introduced myself, because I used to love and still have her books about Max the rabbit. I’ve even still got the stuffed animal version in his candy cane pajamas. By the way, in case you haven’t noticed by this point, most or all of the characters I liked as a child were named Max. It’s the reason I named my little bald character Max. Actually, if anything it’s been a selling point. I can’t tell you how many families with kids named Max, or Maxwell, or even Maxwell Eaton have written me about the books. I just hope our social security numbers aren’t getting confused.

If you had twenty-four hours, a time machine, and a limitless supply of money, what would you want to do?

I fell for this one about a week ago while talking to my dog, and I’d rather not discuss what happened. However, this sketch might sum up the events for you:

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Zoe said...

I nominated you for the I Love You Blog Awards. I love your new background by the way, its really pretty.

Anonymous said...

I am Maxwell's Dad! I have the good fortune of having the name Maxwell, too! Dads of author/illustrators should probably not post comments on their son's blog interviews, but I simply can't help it! I have to say how proud I am of my raftbuilder, fort designer, animal respectful son. I love him very much! Dad
PS. I think Pinky is stopping by for Christmas Eve Dinner. Hope he wears that silly costume again this year!