The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Jonathan D. Voss
Have I got a treat for you! Today, I have the exciting opportunity to be one of the first to bring you an interview with the debut author/illustrator Jonathan D. Voss.
Jonathan's debut as an illustrator was with Sally M. Walker’s, Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh, in 2015. And on June 12th, Jonathan's author/illustrator debut releases - Brave Enough for Two.
"It’s a big responsibility to tell a story well. I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m loving the journey. Maybe one day, when I grow up, I’ll be good at it. But, no matter where I end up, as I go, I hope that joy and pleasure are found in the words I write and the pictures I make." ~ Jonathan Voss
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
Jonathan: I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. I also recall writing quite a bit starting around the age of 11. Art through my teenage and young adult years was a mix of portrait work and graphic design. Writing, however, was not as consistent. It was mostly random poems, ad copy, and the occasional video script. The next step on my book journey didn’t actually happen till sometime in 2010—a house, a dog, and two kids later.
I remember I was having dinner at Carrabba’s with my wife when I suddenly got very brave and shared with her for the first time that I wanted to write and illustrate picture books. Of course, I had been tossing the idea around in my own mind for a while, but it was the first she was hearing about it. Fortunately for me she’s the very supportive type. So, I was on my way.
For two years, I worked to hone my writing skills and build a portfolio that I felt would be strong enough to query with. I read all the blogs, all the articles, and all the interviews. I gleaned everything I could to sharpen my storytelling skills. When I finally felt like I was ready, I began the process of querying agents. I wasn’t as confident in my writing as I was in my art, but I knew I wanted to do both. I didn’t want to JUST illustrate books. I also wanted to write them. To that end, I all but completely excluded artist agents from my search and focused primarily on literary agents. I was very methodical. I narrowed my list to about 40 then began to query. I had a couple close calls, but nothing stuck until about three weeks in when I received an email from Catherine Drayton. She had been at the very top of my list, so I didn’t have to think too hard when she offered representation. That was in 2012. Then in 2013, after some months without any takers for my own manuscript, Catherine got the call for me to do Winnie.
Here’s what I knew at the time: 1) I was super anxious to get my foot in the door and would probably have taken just about any project; and 2) you never turn down anything having to do with Winnie-the-Pooh. I immediately agreed to do the job, and the rest is history.
Now I have two books under my belt, two more projects under contract with Holt/Macmillan, and an illustration project for one of Maria Gianferrari’s upcoming titles (Whooo-Ku). It’s been a long road, but I am so grateful to be where I am. And I will never adequately be able to express my gratitude and thanks to all and for all the people who helped me get here.
As for where I like to write and illustrate, I have a secret. When you go do your work at McDonald’s, you can buy a large drink for one dollar and get free refills the rest of the day. It’s pretty awesome. Of course, I don’t do my final illustrations there, but I will work on just about everything else. For final illustrations, I have a gorgeous, turn-of-the-century drafting table. It features an ornate cast iron base with gears and a wheel for raising and lowering the top and a super cool swing arm for holding a palette. It’s pretty inspiring by itself.
Lastly, I think I like to write books that blur the line between reality and fantasy. With Brave Enough for Two, I never bothered to say whether Hoot is real or not. Did he come to life by magic? Is he only a part of Olive’s imagination? Did they really fly in the basket? I don’t say because I want a person to reach their own conclusion. If a child wants Hoot to be real, then he is. If a mom or dad wants Hoot to be part of Olive’s imagination, then maybe he’s that. The reader or listener decides. At the end of the day, the story is about relationship—about close, unconditional friendship. I don’t want to make it about something it’s not. I just want to tell a good story. If I can do that, then maybe I’ve done alright.
Thank you for your openness about your journey and the insight into Hoot. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
I like Christmas music—A LOT. I actually listen to it year-round. It’s my happy place. I have so many good memories from Christmases past. I guess it brings all that goodness to the surface. It’s usually playing in the background somewhere when I’m working on art or doing some other non-word-related activity. Unfortunately, I can’t write and listen to it. I know all the words. So even when it’s just the music, I find it difficult to focus on what I’m trying to write.
I imagine many people would find that difficult. I know I would. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
Yikes! This is a tough one. Sadly, I wasn’t much of a reader growing up. And I don’t recall having too many picture books read to me. Though, one that does stand out is Horton Hatches the Egg. We always quoted the line, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent!” Beyond that I think I tried muscling down a couple chapter books, but nothing ever stuck. It wasn’t until I became a dad that I was suddenly reintroduced to the world of books—and more specifically, picture books. In 2004, the theatrical version of The Polar Express came out. My wife is a teacher, so she had a copy of the book in her classroom. When I read it, I was instantly smitten. It’s so sad that I was that late to the game, but that’s how it happened. From that point on, Chris Van Allsburg had a special place in my heart. I was completely taken by the surreal elements he introduced in so many of his stories. And I always loved the way he hooked you at the end—that Aha! moment.
The Polar Express is one of my favorites and it's cool that it inspired you. And we all benefit that it was "better late, than never." If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?
I didn’t have to think too hard about this one… Be humble. Be thankful. Pride and arrogance are such massive stumbling blocks. Unfortunately, I had to learn that the hard way. One of my favorite quotes is by C. S. Lewis. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” I also wish I had had a better handle on being thankful and grateful. I am not who I am and I have not accomplished the things I have on my own. There were people who came before me and people who have come along side me who have had significant impact on my outcome. And even when circumstances are not what I would like them to be, having a thankful and grateful heart is a great way to maintain peace.
Humility and gratefulness, something we can all strive to increase in our lives. Thank you for this quote. How different an experience is your debut as the author/illustrator of Brave Enough for Two from your debut as the illustrator of Sally M. Walker’s Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh? Do you prefer being the illustrator or the author/illustrator of a book? Why?
It is different… In a number of ways, I think. Most notably is probably the emotional factor. When I did Winnie, I was just happy to be in the game. It had taken so long to get there, I was simply thrilled to be a part. Once Winnie was done, though, I recall looking back at the project wishing I had done some things differently—a face here, a pose there, etc. I remember saying a prayer: God, if you give me just one more chance, I’ll leave it all on the field—no regrets. Then I got the contract for Hoot & Olive. I can honestly say that I poured everything I had into this book.
But to your question, I think the emotional attachment is the biggest difference for me. With Winnie, I only felt the responsibility to do a great job and make the author, the editor, and the art director happy. With Brave Enough for Two, there was a much stronger emotional attachment. It was like having a child in a way. I felt—and still feel—the weight of whether or not the book succeeds. It’s like I’m holding this little ember. On the one hand, that ember could start a fire. On the other hand, that same ember could just as easily fizzle out into nothingness. I feel that pressure so intensely sometimes. I also feel the weight of the people who have supported me—family, friends, my editor, my agent, the publisher. I don’t want to let them down.
So, in short, when I illustrate someone else’s story, I’m being invited to help launch their vision and make it a reality. In its own way, this is incredibly humbling and a huge responsibility. I take it very seriously. When I write and illustrate my own books, I feel the weight of the whole project. I guess that’s a good way to put it. When I only illustrate, the responsibility is shared with the author. When I write and illustrate, I feel all the weight.
Though that’s not entirely correct either. It would be unfair of me to not acknowledge the countless amazing people who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make both Winnie and Brave Enough for Two a reality and successful. They are awesome, passionate, kind people who WANT these books to succeed too. I think some authors and illustrators have this amazing ability to maintain balance and perspective once they’ve sent their book out into the great, wide world. For me, balance and peace only come after a hard-fought battle. I am most definitely still a work in progress.
As for my preference? I think I enjoy and appreciate both equally. I like the feeling of accomplishment when I write and illustrate the whole book. But I very much appreciate the challenge, fun, and reprieve that comes from illustrating another author’s book.
It's great that you enjoy both, because it gives us lots to look forward to from you in the future. What is the hardest thing for you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books?
What was the hardest part of creating Brave Enough for Two? Here’s a tidbit for you. I have ADD. What this means for me much of the time is that I have difficulty starting projects. I spin my wheels a lot. I struggle to get traction. Whether I’m starting at the very beginning of a new project, starting a round of revisions, or starting a new phase in the art-making process, often the hardest part is simply beginning. Once I’m going it’s usually fine. In fact, once I start I often begin to hyper-focus. Then it can become difficult for me to quit. It’s always a struggle to find balance.
With Brave Enough for Two, an additional challenge was character consistency in the art. It was a struggle for me to get the characters looking right (the same) from one spread to the next. To make matters worse, I had locked myself into doing a lot of varied perspectives. But I always love a challenge. And I think I’m a better creator now for having pushed through.
I know many will sympathize with that problem. The language in Brave Enough for Two has been called “Milnesque.” (For instance, Olive’s comment - “We can never be lost,” she says, “so long as I’m here and you’re there, and here and there aren’t very far apart” – reminds me of something Winnie the Pooh might say to Piglet.) Do you see Olive as the counterpoint to Christopher Robin?
There have been a number of comparisons to Milne’s work. I can’t always tell how people mean it. For me, though, I take it as a compliment. I’m thrilled and honored to be compared to someone like that. Though, I would never put myself in that category. It was never an intentional thing to be “Milnesque.” In fact, it wasn’t something I thought about until someone else pointed it out. My best guess on the whole thing is that it’s a combination of my own personality and the character development of Hoot and Olive.
With Hoot, especially, I envisioned a character who was somewhat naïve, yet had a certain wisdom about him. I wanted Hoot to be coming from a place of child-like innocence with a touch of reckless abandon when he would share his little bits of wisdom. Even so, he approaches life from a place of innocence and a sense of being carefree. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but it doesn’t matter. He shares what he does have, polished or not. I think that combination of elements can sometimes have a Pooh and Piglet quality.
At the same time, I’m a bit of an old soul. My writing voice tends to gravitate toward a more classical feel—the way we used to talk and write before postmodernity. So, I think when you combine these elements you end up with something that can feel “Milnesque.” I think I also wanted to create refrains that had substance, were memorable, and almost had a lyrical quality to them. So much of the book is dialogue. I wanted it to have this very bouncy back-and-forth, call-and-response feel. Hopefully I succeeded on some level.
Additionally, I think I’ve always preferred the timeless feel. Nothing in my work will probably ever come off as particularly modern. If anything, I gravitate toward pushing things back in time. I’m hoping there is a large swath of readers who like this feel as much as I do.
This is one of the things I love most about Hoot. And it's wonderful to learn it's a combination of your "old-soul" and Hoot's personality. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
Hmmm… Great question. I guess I could see that being answered several different ways. In a very generic, general way, I derive a lot of inspiration and motivation from movies. What I mean by that is, I feel inspired to go create something after watching a good movie. I’m especially fond of epics like Lord of the Rings or inspirational movies like Pursuit of Happiness or, in a less serious way, The Man Who Invented Christmas and The Greatest Showman (however inaccurate they may be).
And perhaps closely related to that is the inspiration I feel when watching others create. My wife does pottery. I can’t do it to save my life. But I’m completely inspired to create when she’s creating. I think I have this same feeling, whether someone is painting a portrait or playing the piano. There is almost something palpable about it.
Then in another way, I think I gain much inspiration from my own kids. I really try to stop and watch them. There are moments when I try to push beyond just being in their presence and I really try to look at them. I watch the details—the way they react to the world around them. It’s especially pleasing when they don’t know they’re being watched. They are beautiful. And as children they are inherently creative. That is definitely inspiring. Lastly, I would say my dad. Watching him go through all the things he’s been through and always bouncing back is incredibly inspiring. He’s been knocked down more times than I can count, but he has always gotten back up. After watching him, how could I do anything less?
You seem surrounded both by your family, and your movie inspirations, by resiliency and creativity. What is the best thing an author can do to help an illustrator? The worst?
Honestly, all my working relationships with authors have been great. There’s sort of an unspoken rule, though, that authors aren’t really supposed to interact with the illustrators. Or that’s been my experience anyway. I think editors and art directors are trying to protect the creative process. They want the illustrator to bring their own thing to the table.
That said, I do get illustration notes from the author sometimes. They come through with the manuscript. It’s a note about what the author was visualizing for that moment in the story. And that’s great for me. I always want to consider their vision. And if I end up going a different direction, it’s because I have a good reason. It’s never because I simply think my idea is superior. And often, when I do make a change to the original vision, the author signs off on it anyway. I’ve never experienced arriving at an impasse with an author, editor, or art director. It’s a very collaborative process. Everyone involved is trying to make the best book possible. And ideally, everyone involved is flexible enough to change their own views when needed. I think an illustrator wouldn’t last long if he or she was difficult to work with.
As for the worst thing an author could do? I honestly can’t conceive of a bad situation. Even if an author did reach out to me without the approval of the editor and art director, it wouldn’t bother me one bit. I’m happy to hear their vision. And sometimes, tapping into another’s excitement and passion is helpful. So, I suppose I didn’t answer the question very directly. But at the end of the day, flexible and kind authors are the best authors. We’re all on the same team.
You answered it perfectly well. The best thing an author, illustrator, editor, and art director can have is flexibility. What's something you want your readers to know about Brave Enough for Two?
Brave Enough for Two didn’t start out as Brave Enough for Two. Originally, it was simply called Hoot & Olive. It wasn’t until some unexpected and fortuitous things happened late in the game that the name was actually changed. So, in truth, I didn’t start out trying to write a book about bravery. It just so happened that it was one element of a larger story that seemed to resonate with a number of people. I had two characters that I loved, and I wanted to send them on an adventure together. Bravery just happened to be part of the story. I’m super happy with the new title. And I’m pleased that it gives me an opportunity to speak with kids about the idea of being brave—sometimes being brave when we really don’t want to be. I think it’s a great message, and I’m incredibly grateful for how the whole thing turned out.
Thank you for this little insight into the book's creation. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us? Am I correct that there may be more Hoot & Olive stories?
You are correct! There is a second Hoot & Olive planned for release in 2019. I’m very excited about this one. I’m always trying to grow and find ways to push myself harder. I like to think this next book falls in line with that.
The story goes that Hoot has lost something important, and finding it proves to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Together, Hoot and Olive go on an adventure of epic proportions in search of the missing thing… I know that’s a tad vague, but we’ll be letting the entire cat out of the bag soon.
The biggest thing I wanted from this book, in terms of growth, was to make the visuals more exciting, more engaging, and more epic. I’m working hard to push the imagery to a new level. Hopefully I succeed!
Vague or not, it is a sufficient tease for me to be excited to see the sequel. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?
There’s nothing like trial by fire. When you get thrown into the deep end, you either sink or swim. When I got the Winnie job, it was my first book gig. There was much I didn’t know. Though, in hindsight, I can’t say there is much I wish I had known. My biggest challenge came in the way of character consistency. Coming up with perspectives and changing scenes was easy enough. It was drawing the characters consistently from spread to spread that I had the hardest time with. Storytelling with a one-off illustration is one thing. Storytelling using the same characters throughout a set of sequential illustrations is a different beast. While it didn’t come as a surprise to me that I would need to work this way, I guess I can say that I wish I had had more experience doing it.
I think I also wish I had had a better handle on my communication process with the editor and art director. Because it was all new, I really didn’t know what was expected of me. Consequently, I just sort of went for it. I ended up missing some important steps in the process. The result was that I had to redo and/or work back into some of the illustrations. It was completely my fault. I jumped ahead in the process and it ended up hurting me. Even so, the editors and art directors I’ve had the good fortune to work with have all been wonderful and incredibly gracious. They continue to help me hone my process. Now I try to over-communicate. I’m not 100%, but I’m a lot further along than I was.
Trial by fire indeed. I do hear time and again about the graciousness and helpfulness of the Kidlit community. What is your favorite animal? Why? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with?
Oh, gosh! It probably changes depending on the day. I love the idea of having a dog that stays calm in the presence of people and other animals, won’t run away at the first possible moment, and will come when called. I’ve had several dogs. NONE of them have been like this. Still, I hold out hope that one day something will magically click, and I’ll be able to take long, romantic walks on the beach with my dog. Everyone will stop and look and say, man, I wish I had a dog like that… On more creative days I tease my wife by informing her that she will likely come home to a teacup pig, a sphinx cat, or an adorable pair of ducklings. I’m tempted to actually do this one day. As for something more exotic, I’ve had a thing for capuchin monkeys ever since I first watched Swiss Family Robinson as a kid.
That would definitely be the perfect dog. Mine wasn't there either. Thank you, Jonathan so much for stopping by and sharing with us. I enjoyed your candor and wicked humor. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.
Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF Post on Brave Enough for Two!
To find out more about Jonathan D. Voss, or get in touch with him:
If you are in the North Carolina area, be sure to check out:
Quail Ridge Books -
Special Story Time with NC picture book author, Jonathan D. Voss Monday, June 11
Quail Ridge is hosting a storytime celebrating North Carolina author-illustrator Johnathan D. Voss' debut picture book, "Brave Enough for Two". The book is recommended for ages 4 and up.
Quail Ridge Books 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd, Raleigh, NC 27609