Today in my New Zealand series, I’m delighted to be publishing an interview with the wonderful illustrator Sarah Davis. Sarah began illustrating picture books in 2008, and is now, as she puts it, ‘ruined for any other career.’ She has an honours degree in literature, and her love of language and narrative underpins her illustration work – as a self-taught artist, she is constantly experimenting with new ways to tell stories visually. She has illustrated more than 37 books with major publishers and been shortlisted for about the same number of awards in Australia and New Zealand. Sarah is an ambassador for Room to Read, and the Illustrator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Australia East/NZ) Sarah is represented by the Gallt Zacker Agency in the USA and Frances Plumpton Literary Agency in New Zealand.
Sarah, you’ve said you are now spoiled for any other career other than illustration! Can you tell us about how that career started? What first drew you to illustration? And who were your main artistic influences?
I think I’ve always been heading towards illustration, actually, but I got temporarily derailed by Life. I actually majored in English literature and creative writing at uni, and haven’t had much art training, and had my son when I was only 20, so went into teaching English at secondary school because it was something i felt passionate about and the hours were also good to fit around being a sole parent. I’d always drawn for fun and wanted to do more with it, but couldn’t really find the time. I started dabbling in art a bit more seriously when I was about 26, but had our two lovely daughters in 2001 and 2003, and was still working part time, so it was hard to fit it in! When we moved to Sydney in 2004, I took time off work and that’s when illustration started to take off for me. I decided I’d go with the “fake it till you make it!’ philosophy, and set up a profile on some online freelancing sites, and got a bunch of jobs that way which taught me how it all worked and helped me start to build a portfolio. Then I decided to have a go at picture book illustration. I applied to the Stylefile with some truly horrible art samples, and they very sensibly and very kindly rejected me. Their rejection was accompanied by an A4 page of incredibly constructive criticism, and I took all their advice on board and built a much better portfolio, which i took to a critique at a SCBWI conference, and it all took off from there, thanks in a large part to my fairy godmother Susanne Gervay, who was incredibly kind and supportive and enthusiastically made connections and opportunities appear for me.
What draws me to illustration is the opportunity it provides for narrative – I’m a sucker for story. My artistic influences are pretty varied, I think – I spend a lot of time online gazing at the awe-inspiring work of superior beings. I don’t think I really have a style, and seem to shift my approach based on the demands of the text, which I suppose is why the people whose work I admire also cover a broad spectrum of styles and periods.
You’ve become one of NZ’s busiest illustrators, with many books published, and lots more on the go. How do you manage your time with all the different projects?
Very badly! I call my system “surfing the tidal wave” – that feeling where you’re performing a very tricky balancing act, only just staying afloat, and there’s a weight of thundering chaos surging at your heels waiting to crash down on you. So far I haven’t totally wiped out and I’m still juuuust ahead of the wave. I’ve illustrated 37 trade picture and chapter books since 2008, as well as taking on commercial projects, books for educational publishers such as Cengage, and speaking at between 20-40 schools a year. Balancing that and family time has been very hectic – we’ve got three kids and 6 months ago we acquired a lovely extra teenager. There were quite a few occasions over the last few years when I had a deadline looming and I didn’t sleep at all for days in a row. I wouldn’t recommend it! I’m much better at achieving work/life balance now. I’m being very selective about what I take on, and trying to be much more disciplined with planning ahead. My son actually introduced me to bullet journalling this year, which is actually a wonderful way to be mindful and deliberate about how you spend your days. (http://bulletjournal.com/)
What ‘sells’ you into agreeing to illustrating a text? What sorts of things do you look for? And do you have contact with authors at any stage during the process of creating the illustrations?
The text has to come to life in my head and make me feel something – it has to make me laugh or cry. I like texts that feel unusual and a little unhinged, or that feel as though they haven’t been done before. Vivid, evocative language and appealing characters. To be honest, a lot of the books I’ve done have been sequels – so I’ve initially signed on for one book, and then ended up locked in to doing 3 or 4, which is a brilliant problem to have, but also a little frustrating. I feel like it’s forced me to mark time a bit and cover old ground, when I really want to be moving on and trying something new. But I think I’m just coming to the end of that now!
I usually don’t have a lot of contact with the authors through the process – the publisher usually liases with them, shows them the roughs, processes any feedback for me. It’s a bit odd, because that’s how it works even with authors I know quite well! Me and Juliette MacIver are a bit naughty though and we often have quite long consultations in which the publishers aren’t included, usually involving bottles of wine and ukeleles. (actually, we should include the publishers – they’re all great people and good fun and can probably also drink wine and play the ukelele.)
You’ve illustrated both picture books and chapter books. What do you prefer doing? And how does the process differ between the two styles of books?
I much prefer picture books – there’s a lot more leeway for the illustrator to tell a story. Illustrating for chapter books is quite prescribed and proscribed – you basically get told what to draw and given a space in which to draw it on each page. It feels a lot more like you’re just decorating the text. When you’re illustrating a picture book text you really have a huge interpretive role, and you have to bring the characters to life, draw out and enhance the themes of the text, work out how the action of the plot will play out visually. It’s much more challenging and fun. You can also subvert the text, add unexpected twists and turns and layers – then it becomes a wonderful sort of alchemy where the contributions of two creators meet and mix and create a new level of meaning.
You are published both in New Zealand and Australia, and your books have won awards in both countries. Do you see any differences between the two countries in terms of reception of books, and reader responses?
I’m not sure, really! To be honest, I try not to think too much about how my books are being received, because it scares me! Best to keep my head down and just get on with it. Obviously, awards are always lovely – my favourite kind of award to get are the Children’s Choice awards. Kids are very wise and also really tough judges. As far as differences between the 2 countries go… um…. The Marmaduke Duck series became a really big hit in New Zealand and is a bit of a household name over there, but never really took off here. The quirky kiwi sense of humour might have something to do with that. I mean, it’s an entire 4 book series about a duck who makes jam! Doesn’t get much weirder than that…
Does being a New Zealander impact on or influence your work? If so, in what way?
Well, I think it must, in the way that everyone’s childhood influences their work! I moved from England to Aotearoa when I was 6, and grew up mainly in Christchurch. The land had a huge effect on me. The mountains and bush and sea of Aotearoa have an really powerful presence – this brooding sense that the land is living, and aware of you.
I think for a little country it really punches above its weight creatively, and as a kid I remember there being a lot of emphasis in school on art and creative writing. I read voraciously, and a lot of my favourite authors were NZ writers. Gavin Bishop actually came to visit my school when I was about 9 or 10, and I remember he was working on Mrs McGinty’s Bizarre Plant, and showed us all his rough sketches – I was transfixed! (I actually wrote a blog post about it: http://sarah-davis.org/blog/2015/7/20/l0ef49s6lr8u1vcxogmnuqer1ommrd)
I should also mention my fabulous NZ publishers: Gecko Press and Scholastic NZ. Both extraordinary powerhouses of creativity and absolutely delightful to work with, and tireless in promoting their books and trying to get them out into the wider world, which is a necessity for NZ publishers since the local market is so small. An extra shout out must go to Julia Marshall at Gecko, who has built the company from the ground up and really does produce the most extraordinarily beautiful books.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to Be Brave Pink Piglet, published by Hachette, and a super-secret (and exciting!) project for Penguin, which is due in January. I also have a couple of educational titles on the go so that I can pay the bills. I’m working on a couple of series of paintings, too, and hoping to have an exhibition next year. But what I’m most excited about is that I’ve finally finished writing a picture book of my own, and am also going to be illustrating another that my son wrote. They’re both with a publisher now, going to acquisitions soon I hope!