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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Isabelle Marinov

When Isabelle was nine years old, her parents gave her a red typewriter for her birthday. She began typing away, crafting stories in German and in Luxembourgish, her native language.

Growing up, “writer” seemed like a non-existent job description. Isabelle studied law in France and in the US and got a "proper" job. But she secretly continued to write in the evenings and on weekends. After her first son was born, she returned to her lifelong passion––writing, and for the first time, she thought about it as a job. Isabelle speaks four languages fluently but for a reason that defies her understanding, English is her preferred language for prose. Isabelle write across genres…picture books, middle grade novels, screenplays. Her second picture book, Leo and the Octopus, releases January 7, 2021 (available in the US on February 5th.)

Her debut picture book, The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble, (Enchanted Lion), releases January 19, 2021 in the US.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I have been writing for as long as I can think. When I was nine years old, I started a magazine with a friend that we would sell to friends and family. Later, I wrote stories for myself. Once I started my law studies, I stopped writing all-together… and I became very miserable. In my early 30s, I took my first online class in screenwriting, at Gotham’s Writers Workshop. And I haven’t stopped writing, ever since.

Every genre has its own challenges but I love writing picture books. It’s a common misconception that they are easy to write. Everyone can write 600 words, right? But the real challenge is to tell a compelling story in 600 words, while leaving space for the illustrations…and for the reader’s imagination.

I also love the collaborative aspect of the picture book. I still remember the moment I saw Deborah Marcero’s illustrations for The Boy Whose Head was Filled with Stars for the first time. Seeing how she expanded my story with her drawings was pure magic. A goose bump moment. The same happened to me a year later, with Leo and the Octopus. For that book, I was lucky to work with Chris Nixon, an amazing multidisciplinary artist from Australia.

I mostly write in my home office, whenever I am alone. I need absolute silence and total privacy to write (coffeeshops don’t work for me). I cannot listen to music while I am writing, not even instrumental. Forget multitasking; my brain can only do one thing at a time.

I'm glad you found that workshop class. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I am addicted to sports. I love to lift heavy weights. Like, really heavy. It gives me tremendous energy. And I love Karate and Tennis.

Interesting! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

The first story I recall was my Dad’s made up bedtime tale about chocolate figurines that had escaped from a box and got into all sorts of trouble (including melting). As a kid, I was a huge fan of the Enid Blyton books, translated into German (my first reading language was German, followed by French. I only learned English as a teenager, in high school). Malory Towers, The Famous Five,…I devoured those series.

I also loved reading comics as a kid. The Adventures of Tintin by Hergé remains one of my favorite series. Today, I still love comics and graphic novels - my favorite authors are Joann Sfar (Le Chat du Rabbin) and Riad Sattouf (L’Arabe Du Futur).

That's so cool to be able to read in three languages. What was your inspiration for The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble?

I stumbled upon Edwin’s biography by chance when I was researching a story, and I became instantly fascinated by him - both by his desire to pursue his dreams of becoming an astronomer, despite the many obstacles he was facing, and by his discoveries that completely changed our view of the universe.

Before Edwin, it was thought that our galaxy, the Milky Way, was the entire universe. And then Edwin came along and showed us that the Milky Way is just a speck of dust in this unbelievably vast universe…It’s such a shift in perspective.

It's kind of amazing that a picture book biography hadn't been written yet. Is there something you want your readers to know about The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars?

This is a book for kids…but also for grown-ups.

When I realized that none of my friends knew anything about Edwin Hubble’s life and his discoveries - everyone thought he was involved in the construction of the Hubble telescope, which is not true; the telescope is only named after him - I knew I had to write this book.

It is definitely for grown-ups, too. I knew very little about him as well. What was the toughest part of researching The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars? When did you involve your astrophysics scientific advisor, Dr. Roberto Trotta?

Edwin Hubble, Mariner of the Nebulae, by the late Gale E. Christianson is an excellent biography. It was my main source and it has guided me in shaping Edwin’s story for a young audience.

Roberto was on board from the very beginning. We would run the text and the illustrations by him, every time there was the slightest change. He was very detail oriented and precise, a true scientist! I loved working with him.

I loved your refrain - "How many stars are in the sky? How did the universe begin? Where did it come from? " How long did it take for you to come up with it? Do you know if the decision to integrate it into the illustrations was Deborah Marcero's idea or the art director/editor's?

Maria, that is a good question...I wrote the first draft of the MS back in 2015 and I remember that I had a refrain at the time, it just came to me spontaneously, I don't remember the details. What I do remember however was that the refrain was slightly different and that Roberto, our scientific advisor, suggested changes (to be scientifically accurate).

Text © Isabelle Marinov, 2020. Image © Deborah Marcero, 2020.

As for the decision to integrate it into the illustrations - I don't know. I have not been involved in these discussions (but I like the result ;-) )

Such a great way to highlight the vastness of the universe and Edwin's wonder. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

The people who follow their dreams and never give up, no matter how many obstacles they encounter. Like Edwin.

Was it easier, or harder, to write Leo and the Octopus than The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars? Do you prefer writing nonfiction or fiction?

I like writing both. In non-fiction, you don’t have as much artistic freedom as in fiction, but then again freedom is not always a good thing. If you have too many possibilities, you can easily lose yourself in a story.

Having said that, for Leo and the Octopus, there were also non-fiction elements - we had both an octopus consultant and an autism expert on board.

I think that both fiction and non-fiction need to have a clean three act structure. There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. The structure must be there, without the reader noticing it.

The cover and a combination of an octopus and autism is intriguing. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have written a middle grade novel that my agent, Silvia Molteni (from Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, London) is currently submitting to publishers. I am also working on another middle grade novel and I have a new picture book biography project with Enchanted Lion.

We'll have to keep our eyes open for these books. Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?

There is no such thing as an overnight success in publishing. It’s years of hard work, sweat and rejections. Many rejections. I knew that it would not be easy but I had no idea it was this hard. It can be very hard on the ego sometimes.

But even if I had known, it wouldn’t have changed anything. It’s impossible for me not to write. I need to tell stories to make sense of the world.

So, how are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?

Whenever I feel foggy or unfocused, I go for a walk, or take long hot showers. Sometimes, being active helps as well - like lifting weights, playing tennis, going for a run, or spending time in the dojo. I also find that the combination of Japanese green tea and meditation are very good for generating new ideas.

Such great ideas! What is your favorite animal? Why?

I know it is a bit of a cliché but I love cats, for their independence and their intelligence. I love the soft touch of their paws, and the way their head is shaped so that I can plant a kiss right between their ears. And because there is nothing better than the sound of a purring cat in your lap.

I have to agree with you! They are such great companions. Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me Isabelle. It was a pleasure getting to know you.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF Sneak Peek at The Boy Whose Head Was Filled with Stars: A Life of Edwin Hubble.

To find out more about Isabelle Marinov, or get in touch with her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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