The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Liam Walsh

This week, I have a very special treat for you. The author/illustrator and cartoonist Liam Francis Walsh has stopped by. He is “an award-winning cartoonist, author, and illustrator, originally from northern Wisconsin. He grew up on a dairy farm with lots of siblings and books and a pet crow." Now he lives in the Italian part of Switzerland.

His cartoons appear in The New Yorker magazine pretty frequently, and he’s the author/illustrator of Fish (Roaring Brook Press 2016) and an upcoming graphic novel. His second picture book, Make A Wish, Henry Bear, released April 30th.

Welcome Liam, thank you for taking a moment to chat with us.

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?)

LIAM: For a long time I worked in the living room of our New York apartment, moving my things off the table when it was time for dinner, and before that I worked in my bedroom in various apartment shares, but now I have a room of my own. It has a desk for my laptop, a ridiculously fancy drawing table (a gift from an architect friend, since everything’s done on a computer now), a few shelves of books, a window that looks out on our flower garden, and a couch for napping. We live in Switzerland, just steps from the border of Italy. There are walking trails all around us and they’ve become absolutely critical to my work, since I do a lot of my thinking while walking (and since I walk every day in an effort to not let myself become a studio-dwelling, pasty-faced hunchback.) (Ha! *big smile*)

I started taking the idea of a career doing something creative seriously when I was about 26 and began submitting my cartoons to The New Yorker. I submitted on and off for five years before I had one published. In that time I learned a great deal; my cartoon ideas got much better and so did my drawing abilities and my creative discipline. Trying to come up with ten passable ideas per week and then having to actually draw them up -- every possible sort of thing from UFOs to orchestras to talking goldfish -- turned out to be a great education.

I love to work on picture books because you can really go to town on the artwork and forget about rules of perspective or physics and just make beautiful images. Also, because there are so few pages you can really labor over each of them. I’ve always loved picture books and never stopped reading them. At the same time, there are some stories I want to tell that need more space than is available in a thirty-something-page picture book, such as the graphic novel I’m working on right now (it hasn’t been announced, so I won’t go into too many details).

What an idyllic place to live and work. I loved Switzerland when I visited it and could easily see myself living there. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I suspect a lot of people who know me only through my cartoons for TNY or my children’s books have no idea how far from the gentle, casually elegant world of New York publishing I spent my younger days. When I was 19, in 1999, I spent the summer hitchhiking and traveled from Wisconsin to the West Coast, and up and down the coast. I worked on sailboats in the Bahamas and the Caribbean. I taught sailing and windsurfing and whitewater kayaking. I lived in NYC for one year when I was 24 and took the money I saved and traveled for a year in Asia. I was the head guide at a whitewater rafting company in Colorado for several years. I vividly remember when all that changed: I was in Sweden, living out of a backpack, and I realized I didn’t want to be in Sweden, I wanted to be in New York and I wanted to have a drawing table. This might not seem like the most pertinent answer, as far as the topic of this interview goes, but I feel that traveling, meeting people, having adventures, seeing West Indian and Chinese and Lao art (etc), living in New York, leaving New York to work on an alpaca farm, and so forth, really helped me develop my point-of-view and my art and become a well-rounded person.

Wow, you've had such great experiences and adventures to draw from. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Obviously there are so, so many, but I’ll name a few. I loved really well illustrated books, so anything by Richard Scarry, for sure. I loved Bill Peet and James Stevenson. More specifically I really liked a book we had called Alexander and the Magic Mouse, a very peculiar book with magnificent illustrations by Philippe Fix. I also liked Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney, and the Frog and Toad books. The Where’s Waldo books, too, for their rich detail and rereadability.

From a young age I was very drawn to anything sequential, from the newspaper comic strips to the one book of Mickey Mouse comics and two Tintins they had at our public library (kids today are lucky, with their “graphic novels sections”!) and certain comic-booky elements often find their way into my work. Oh, and I must mention Victor Ambrus, who is absolutely unique and brilliant, especially his wonderful book Mishka.

Very interesting. Two books I am totally unfamiliar with. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

It’s a tempting premise, but I’m afraid my younger self would be obstinately determined to ignore me and do things his own way! But maybe I’m overthinking the question.

My younger self (and a lot of kids who didn’t grow up in New York, I suspect) had no clue how books got made and nary an inkling that there might be a place in the industry for him. It just seemed insanely remote. This is all pre-internet, mind you. Now a world of information is at everyone’s fingertips and all the creators they admire are public figures, just a tweet away (and they love to hear from fans of their books!)

Still, if I was traveling back to the 80s or early 90s, I’d love to let my younger self know that there are jobs in the world of children’s books, and there are steps you can take to get there. Another thing I’d like to tell my younger self, because it took me a looong time to figure it out on my own, is this: the biggest difference between amateurs and professionals is professionals finish things. If you’re stuck or frustrated or it’s taking a long time, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It’s supposed to be hard – it’s work, after all. Take a break, go for a walk, but keep coming back to it and FINISH it. Finished is way better than perfect.

We "knew" so much when we were younger! What was the inspiration for Make a Wish, Henry Bear? (following images graciously shared by Liam Walsh)

It actually came out of a different story; one I wrote in my early twenties. That was a sort of “meta”-type story in which the author of the book in the reader’s hands was behind in finishing and was struggling frantically to stay ahead of the reader.

The book he was working on was a slight, silly thing about a little bear cub whose mother tried to feed him doughnuts, in spite of his insistence that he’d rather have broccoli. I pitched that idea for the second book in my contract with Neal Porter, but he was more interested in the little bear than the harried author and encouraged me to develop that idea. © Liam Walsh

He's a wise man. Your website has a great discussion about your first book Fish, where you discuss the various art techniques you experimented with to create the illustrations. How many revisions and/or style changes did Make a Wish, Henry Bear take?

I almost always set off thinking that this time I’ll do everything by hand with paint and glue, and this was no exception, but coloring digitally is so forgiving that I keep going there in the end. I did the drawings in ink on paper with a sable brush, and then did a light inkwash over that. After that, I scanned them into Photoshop and did digital colors and collage.

Oh, those "best laid plans." Do you have a favorite medium to work with? A least favorite or hardest?

There’s nothing so pure as black ink on white paper, and I’m absolutely in love with it. It also happens to be what I’m most comfortable with, which may bias my opinion. I also enjoy watercolor and colored pencils quite a bit. Photoshop initially seemed cold and foreign to me, but increasingly I’m finding it to be a tool like any other, and an incredibly versatile, forgiving one, and finding myself feeling the same joy when using it that I get from a brush and paint.

Which do you find hardest, the writing or the illustrating?

They’re both “hard,” and both incredibly rewarding. I’ve had more practice at illustrating, and it seems to come more naturally to me. There’s also something special about wandering into my studio while I’m brushing my teeth before bed and admiring the drawing I’m working on that writing can’t touch. That said, when a really wonderful idea clicks it’s the best feeling on earth. They’re both hard and I love them both.

Great answer. Did you find any differences in the way you shifted between illustrating and writing between these two picture books?

© Liam Walsh, 2019.

(Liam's favorite spread from Make a Wish, Henry Bear.)

I used more reference for Henry Bear. Most of Fish came out of my head and my background messing about in boats on lakes in Wisconsin, but with Henry Bear I spent a good bit of time wandering around my town in Switzerland looking for scenery ideas.

The Swiss immersion definitely shows, especially in this image. Was your illustration process different for Make a Wish, Henry Bear than for Fish? Did you use the same medium?

I used a bit of collage in Henry Bear, which I accomplished by scanning decorative papers (some of which I brought back with me from India) and cutting them up in Photoshop.

You’ve done a number of cartoons for the New Yorker and the Guardian. How different is your process in creating a picture book from creating these cartoons? Which is harder for you?

They’re not dissimilar. When I was working on my first book, my wonderful agent, Dan Lazar, encouraged me to think of each page or spread of a picture book as a cartoon, in order to make sure something’s happening with every page turn.

That's a fun way to approach it. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer/illustrator.)

I look at the work of Richard Scarry and the Provensens often. My greatest contemporary influences would probably be Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett (whose Extra Yarn was an absolute masterpiece), and Carson Ellis, who seems incapable of making anything unoriginal or not beautiful. I’m also very inspired by Luke Pearson’s Hilda books, and like everyone else my age, if I met Bill Watterson I’d fall to my knees and cry, “I’m not worthy!”

Those are some big shoes to follow. But I'd say your well on your way. What's something you want your readers to know about Make a Wish, Henry Bear?

I gave Mama Bear my own mother’s nightie. My mom and my sisters recognized it right away.

That must have been really special for them. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave elements throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Make a Wish, Henry Bear? Could you share one with us?

If you look closely you’ll spot Waldo, Richard Scarry’s Goldbug, Luke Pearson’s Hilda, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes collection, Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat, and a copy of my first book, Fish.

I found a few. I'll have to go back and look again. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us? Perhaps a hint on your upcoming graphic novel?

My graphic novel is called Red Scare. It’s aimed at a middle school audience (‘cause that’s how publishing works), but I very much took to heart the advice that one makes the book he’d like to read: it will also be a whole lot of fun for adults. It’s set in the early 1950s and the main character is a girl with polio who gets possession of a mysterious object that seems to solve all her problems. Unfortunately for her, the Cold War is getting under way, and there are both American and Soviet agents who want to take the thing away from her. It’s full of chases and adventures and laughs – and maybe a tear or two, as well. I think you’re going to like it. I’m sure having a good time making it.

© Liam Walsh, 2019.

Red Scare sounds very interesting and I will definitely keep an eye out for it. 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?

I guess now that there’s so much pressure on creators to “build an online platform” it might have been nice to know about that ahead of time and get a jump on it. (I’m a late adopter, and a hesitant and skeptical one even then.) At the same time, I’m very conflicted about how the demands of constant social media updates threaten to turn everything into “content”, which seems demeaning to the creator as well as to the art, so in a way I’m glad I haven’t been more active online – at least it’s kept me from ever being tempted to refer to what I spend my days making as “content” (*shudder*). Now I’m trying to find a middle way to have an online presence and be available to fans and aspiring creators (the social media interactions I enjoy), while not being consumed by the need to post and reply when I could be doing actual creative work or spending time with my lovely wife.

What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?

I like giraffes quite a bit, and I feel we could hit it off because I’m also very tall. One time I was outside a cinema in San Jose, Costa Rica with a friend and I locked eyes with another very tall fellow. When my friend saw us give each other a little nod of acknowledgment he asked if we were in some sort of fraternal order of tall people. I’m not, but I might consider joining if they let giraffes in there, too.

Thank you, Liam for stopping by and talking with me. It was truly wonderful to get to know you and your wicked sense of humor.

Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book post on Make a Wish, Henry Bear.

To find out more about Liam Francis Walsh, or get in touch with him: Website: http://liamfranciswalsh.com/index.html Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/liam.f.walsh.7 Twitter: https://twitter.com/liam_f_walsh

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