Amazon Exclusive: Q&A Between Doreen Cronin and Laura Cornell, the author and illustrator of M.O.M. (Mom Operating Manual)
Doreen: You were a pre-med major! How did that happen? How did that change? Can I assume that you were a secret science geek?
Laura: I always drew. The story goes that the minute I could hold a pencil, that's what I did. I always wanted to illustrate children's books. But I loved math and science and had much encouragement from high school science teachers. "I can illustrate in my spare time," I thought!! I entered college as a biology major, still keeping a foot in the art-– lab classes and drawing classes-– in school from 8am to 10pm sometimes! I knew I had to make a decision. I felt that if I was born with something then I had to pursue that something. I transferred colleges, entering as an illustration major. I debated pursuing biomedical illustration (believe it or not, I could render!) I never wanted to go to art school. I was interested in too many other things. And no, I was not a science geek. I don't remember science geeks, which probably means I was not as scientific as I thought! I think I was just a geek, in general.
Doreen: Your art always feels so free to me-– it's so buoyant and energetic-– it has a life of its own. There is a delicate line-– but it never feels precious or fragile. How do you pull that off? When you are imagining a page, do you think about line first or color?
Laura: This is where art school would probably have been good! I went to a school that had an amazing art department, but feel I never had any real instruction as to "how to." I probably should have majored in Drawing and Painting rather than Illustration. I always feel that the painting part is a struggle. I enjoy the sketch and concept stage. I don't feel that the line is a large part of what I do, yet I know it is. For me, it's setting forth the image, and there's a part of me that would love to get rid of the line all together and just paint. There is something wonderful for me about letting the paint create the shape rather than the line. And color? I am never happy with my color. I look at other's work, and there is such rich and sophisticated color. No matter how hard I try, I always seem to end up with the same palette, the palette that doesn't make me happy!
Doreen: You split time between NY and California. They are such different places. Is one place easier to work than another? Do you find that your work has a different feel to it depending on where you do it
Laura: It's easier for me in NY, simply because I have a set-up here, a drawing table and lamp. In California, I go home to the wonderful house where I grew up. I work on the coffee table or dining room table. I used to do a lot of magazine work-– more along the line of spot illustrations-– and more manageably done from a coffee table. The physicality and time demand of books proved difficult. And when I'm there, it is also time with family. Since my dad died two years ago, I am now my dad when I'm there-– cleaning rain gutters, washing windows... full time work of a different kind.
So far I think the work produced there is no different in outcome or feel-– just trying to meet the deadline in a more distracted way. In New York when I stretch my legs it is to clean up dust balls (ground floor apartments are filthy) or the constant weeding out, beating back of stuff in a small space. When I take a break at the end of the day, I'll hop on my bike for a ride in Central Park. In California I can stretch my legs in the garden, weeding and planting. The end of the day there is a bike ride up to the mountains. My breaks in California are definitely better. However, working alone, the constant street bustle of NYC, life right outside your window and around the corner can be pleasant company. The older I get, I think the garden life is becoming more and more attractive.
Doreen: How much input do the author and editor usually have on the finished art? How closely do you usually work with the art director?
Laura: The author for me has huge input, solely for the fact that he or she has created what I call 'the big idea,' the big picture, the story. What a tremendous jumping-off point for the illustrator. I do struggle more with some books, where the text may be not as narrative, and as an illustrator you find yourself really 'writing' a story, a narrative in pictures. The freedom in that is much harder for me but also such a gift. I'm assuming the idea of author input could be taken as intrusive or overbearing. I have never found this. Sometimes an author has voiced or notated an idea for a visual. It is appreciated and considered by both illustrator and editor. It may be a great idea and absorbed or it may not. It is all about working with the editor to create a good book. On M.O.M. I worked closely with the designer and editor in that I was shown updates and progress regularly. What I turned in influenced the design and vice-versa. I think it was a tricky book to design with all the headings and sub-headings. I'd have gotten very confused without the deciphering of Caitlyn (Dlouhy), the editor and Ann (Bobco), the designer. I think this is a book where the designer deserves the credit that the illustrator receives. This book was exceptionally fun for me. Mostly, I work closely with my editor. I think Jamie (Lee Curtis) would agree, her wonderful words and my illustrations become a successful book because of our editor. Editors, I think, are the unsung heroes.
Doreen: Does your daughter ever talk to you about wanting to be an artist? Are there any other artists in your family?
Laura: Though my daughter was always 'concocting' when she was little (in ways that made me believe an architect or structural engineer were in the making), there was absolutely no interest in what she saw as an artist-– me, an illustrator, under constant deadline pressure, racing to FedEx at 9 pm, dinners at 10 pm... there was nothing desirable as it affected her daily life! In looking at high schools, she did put together a portfolio for consideration to a specialized music and art high school. Out of all the kids in her middle school whose parents were in art fields, only one was interested in pursuing. My daughter was a drama major!
Artists in the family? I have been told that on my mother's side was a very gifted young woman. She would have been my mother's aunt had she lived-– I believe it was polio. More tangibly, I have two cousins, sisters, also on my mother's side, who are amazing artists. I would always try to copy them. Neither pursued.
And probably closest of all, my dad used to do little drawings for us. Just a handful in all. I was always bowled over. He was amazing! I don't think my mother even knew or saw. Had he not grown up in the depression, had his family been mindful of the artistic in this way, I think he would have been encouraged. To him, he was just doodling. My mother is artistic in other ways, creating environments, making things-– her clothes, our clothes. My parents were always my biggest supporters. Big work ethic, big encouragement, big humility.
Laura: Let me ask you a few questions now. You graduated from college in 1988 and then law school in 1998. Was that 10 years all school?
Doreen: I had a great job when I graduated from Penn State in 1988-– I went to work for Macmillan Book Clubs. I was an editorial assistant, but in addition to Xeroxing and filing, it was also part of my job to read classic children's books for the Children's Choice and Early Start book clubs. I had a wonderful boss, Vita Jimenez, who taught me a lot about what makes a good children's book-– and she gave me unlimited access to her library of hundreds of children's books. I then began working on curriculum-based programs there, for Pre K-Grade 4. When I left many years later, I was a Senior Editor ready to make a change. Off to law school I went...
Laura: Are the lawyer you and the writer you two different people?
Doreen: Ha! I think they may overlap! My favorite part of practicing law was the research and the writing. Now that I think about it, my favorite part of anything is the research and the writing-- whether it's a new book, a complaint letter about my faulty refrigerator, or how to roast a perfect turkey for Thanksgiving (still researching).
Laura: I love your humor. And I am in awe when someone has one wonderful idea, let alone one after another. Yet I am secretly (well, not secret anymore) glad that you go through gazillions of revisions! (As I do.) And how in the heck did the insect diaries begin?
Doreen: As a very bad book. Or rather, a very poor execution of an idea. I was trying to write a story about brother annoying his sister (autobiographical?). She calls him a pest-– like a buzzing insect. He researches the insect (I can't remember what I used first!) and then says something like "Oh yeah? I'm happy to be _____ because ________ help the _____." At one point, she calls him a worm and then he retreats to his room and writes how he is feeling as a worm. After countless revisions of the story, the only page that worked-– and the only page I kept-– is the boy, as a worm, writing in his diary. And then I have the "epiphany" to do a worm's journal. The "epiphany" took 3 months and 30 versions of a completely different book, so I'm not sure the word actually applies!
Laura: Do you feel the pressure of the deadline as an illustrator does? When the illustrator comes on board, the manuscript has a publication date. Are your manuscripts put on a list only after most of the kinks have been ironed out?
Doreen: Here is where the lawyer me and the writer me have different lives. As an attorney, the deadline was everything. My experience as a writer has been that the clock doesn't start ticking until the writing is done. The pressure is really on the illustrator.
Laura: You were very generous with me, allowing me to interject my words as a part of the illustrations. Were the word and thought bubbles in your insect diaries the words of the illustrator Harry Bliss?
Doreen: Those thought bubbles are all Harry! I have worked with so many talented people-– Betsy Lewin, Harry Bliss, Scott Menchin, Kevin Cornell, and you, of course-- I think its best to do my part and then step back. The author and illustrator don't each contribute a "half" of the book to make the whole, finished product. It's always been the case that the more the illustrator adds, the better the book gets.
Laura: You have a way with animals! Is M.O.M. the only people book you have done? I am grateful to have been a part of this fun project.
Doreen: M.O.M. is, in fact, the first and only "people" book I have done. I have thought about that an awful lot and it has so much to do with how much we change when we have kids. No matter what we were like before, we are those things x 100 or x 1000. We have strengths we didn't realize, reserves we were unaware of, and emotions that can be overwhelming. I have had my best, worst, weakest and strongest moments as a mother. I also realize that the funniest moments of my life have also come courtesy of my two beautiful-– and unpredictable-– daughters.