|Stamps! How cool is that?|
I was recently contacted by a relative of the late, great Margaret Mahy, asking if I had any of the artwork for the books I had illustrated of hers that they might buy. 'The Great White man-Eating Shark' and 'The Three Legged Cat' for instance. As those books were from a good while ago, I knew I had some serious rummaging in the attic to do. So I did.
It was a nostalgic rummage at that. It always feels such a shame that most picture book artwork ends up in illustrator's attics. Some might make it onto a wall or two, but there are only so many walls in the average house and anyway, there are plenty of other things I would rather have on my wall ;-)
I came across a lot of artwork from books I had illustrated over the years. I had forgotten how much I have actually done, picture books, board books, pop-up books etc. There it all was, swaddled in bubble wrap, under a thin layer of dust. There was loads of it, not to mention the artwork for the 100 odd greetings cards I did in the eighties for Snap Graphics (defunct now I think) Hey, my stuff was popular once!
The path of my career has been one of being busy and successful, then being equally successful but doing rather less, in a more focussed way. In that mode I have been working for the same publisher almost exclusively for the last ten years. The character I invented (Baby Owl) and the concept I came up with ( I'm Not Cute! I'm Not Scared! etc you get the idea ) has had a good life but is now run it's course commercially, apart from board book reprints and such perhaps. So now I find myself no longer busy, and having time and inclination to stick my head out of my cave, having a look round at the Picture Book World in it's current incarnation, and sadly, not liking what I see very much.
For a start, getting a new idea in front of an editor is almost impossible. I'm not talking about for me per se, as I can jump the queue to some extent by citing my track record, (in theory anyway) but for any hopeful writer or illustrator.
A lot of publishers and agents don't even bother with standard rejection letters, they just don't reply to unsuccessful submissions, as if this is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to treat people.
Don't, one the one hand, ask for submissions and then react as if everyone is wasting your precious time with their crappy submissions. OK, it takes time and is tedious to send a standard rejection email? (2 minutes??) But it is an acknowledgement of somebody's effort and as such the right thing to do. imho and all that. rant rant rant. . .
The other thing I realised as I surveyed the Picture Book world from my aforementioned cave was that after a great many years of thinking up, working out, roughing out and submitting ideas, is that there is an underlying process of attrition going on. A slow wearing away of your inner strength and confidence. Success is great, you get paid to do what you love, you get feedback and affirmation and all that stuff. But there is a constant pressure there, your next idea has to be good enough to get published, or if not that idea, the next one etc etc. Somewhere, deep down it wears you away slowly. Obviously, rejection doesn't help. After a few rejections you start to lose your confidence in your ability to tell what is or isn't a good picture book idea, and if it means that you are going to be financially challenged if you don't get something accepted soonish it all gets unhelpfully stressful. Low level anxiety is not the best head space in which to be effortlessly creative that's for sure.
The other other thing I realised was that my style is very much out of fashion. I have, over the years smugly told myself that because my style has never been in fashion as such, it can't go out of fashion. Wrong. . .
This is all my current perception, and I realise it may be a distorted view based on partial evidence, but nevertheless I believe there is some truth in it. There is, as I mentioned in a blog post a few months ago, an obsession in current picture books with 1950's style design orientated artwork. Retro style done by artists whose parents were probably not even born then. There is some lovely work out there, but I mourn the lack of emotional connection in the work. At worst it is a pale pastiche of an empty clichéd style I'm afraid. A sort of fake nostalgia. It is very much about composition and very stylised representations of people and animals etc. Nothing approaching an individual character. As my work is all about individual character, facial expressions and emotional connection with that character, I don't fit in at all with the zeitgeist.
That's ok, I wish all illustrators all the luck in the world, I just have to accept my time is not now, thats all.
I thought the unthinkable the other week. I thought "What would it feel like not to put myself through this any more?" This was a sacreligious concept, and one that stopped my in my tracks for a while. Writing and illustrating has been my life for the best part of 35 years, I can't just 'not do it any more'!
But the overriding feeling I got was one of huge relief. I had to listen to that.
But if I stopped writing and illustrating, how would I live? Well, I get royalties, I get the max PLR every year (hah!). I am mortgage free and the kids have left home. I even have a pension that I hadn't really thought about for years, I could spark that up, after all I am imminently 59 years old, (!) I can chug along at a low but acceptable level. I have other interests, I always have had, and I can earn a small amount from those. It's not a wildly unfeasible proposition.
And besides, if I take the pressure off myself, I am free to mess around with picture book ideas from a position of wanting to rather than feeling I need to. It may be a creatively liberating experience, who knows?
Anyway, whatever I decide to do, I send best wishes to you all and the best of luck,