Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Informational Interview with illustrator Mike Wohnoutka

One of the reasons I'm such a sucker for children's books because the illustrations can be so magical! I recently came across The Twelve Days of Christmas in Minnesota in the local writer's section at Barnes and Noble and its spirited illustrations caused me to write down the name of the illustrator, Mike Wohnoutka. I thought I'd try and interview him so I Googled him and contacted him with the email he had listed on his website. We met up for an informational interview on November 23rd at a Caribou Coffee in Minneapolis. Mike is so awesome and so willing to lend advice. It's obvious that Mike's amazing self motivation has led to his deserved success.

Here's some information on Mike's background:
"Ever since Mike can remember he knew he wanted to be an artist. His dad, who was an engineer at the Hiway Department, would bring home reams of paper that had hiway plans on one side and were blank on the other. Mike would be so excited to have all that paper to draw on and would fill each sheet with race cars, snowmobiles, baseball players, super heroes, everything he was interested in. In high school his art teacher, Mr. Chase, encouraged Mike to pursue art as a career. This, along with a scholarship, led him to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Since graduating with a B.F.A. in Illustration, Mike has worked with various clients including Random House, Dutton Children's Books, Clarion Books, Holiday House, Cricket Magazine Group, General Mills, 3M, Medtronics, Mpls-St. Paul Magazine, Peaceable Kingdom Press, Scholastic School Productions, and City Pages."

Mike was expected to be an engineer like his father and interned at his father's company for 2 summers. I think it's pretty impressive that he was able to escape influence and go for his dreams! Mike told me that when he won his scholarship to SCAD, he intended to study graphic design being that it was the most lucrative option. However, as a student Mike attended a presentation by illustrator David Shannon which motivated him to become a children's book illustrator.

When Mike graduated from SCAD with the highest honors he was very optimistic about his future as an illustrator. He moved home to Minnesota after graduating, and when the rejection letters kept coming he realized that pursuing a career in illustration would be more difficult than he originally thought.

Mike then moved to Minneapolis and got a job at a commercial sculpture studio. This ended up being an important job for Mike because he was surrounded by artists with similar dreams to his; it was here that Mike met his best friend who also aspired to become a children's book illustrator. At this time, Mike was still sending out illustrations and was receiving rejections, however he did land the cover of a Delaware-based magazine.

Mike slowed down on submitting his illustrations for a while because he was burnt out on receiving rejections. However, after 2 years Mike went back to his rejection letters and realized that they were all very supportive and encouraging, but he hadn't really let himself see that.

Mike worked at the sculpture studio for 5 years until Random House saw that magazine cover and contacted him. This, along with the reading of the rejection letters strengthened Mike's confidence, which pushed him to get involved with local illustrators and travel to New York City to meet with editors at other major publishing houses. On his trip to NYC, a Clarion editor liked a drawing of a cowboy that he had on his business card, and had him send a full-sized painting of it. Four to six months later the editor contacted him because a writer had seen the painting and had written a story to accompany it. This became Mike's first book, Cowboy Sam and Those Confounded Secrets. After that, his career took off and he's never had any breaks in work and he's now illustrated 12 published books!

The life of an illustrator:
     -A typical day for Mike is dependent on where he is in the project. He typically does his art work in the mornings and the business stuff in the afternoon.

     -Mike says that the most rewarding part of the job is interacting and connecting with readers. He also loves the process of working on his art; it's a constant learning process and he is constantly striving to improve.-Mike says that the most difficult part of his career is dealing with editors, because it can be frustrating to be constantly altering his work.

     -I asked Mike if he thinks his job is affected by eBooks and digital downloading. He said that for him, there are not many changing trends in the industry. If anything, there is more encouragement for young children to read books and interact with books.

     -Some of Mike's goals are to keep growing, keep doing what he's doing.

Mike thinks that the qualities that make someone successful are passion and self motivation-driven by the love of your art. Mike's been able to keep up with his passion by taking risks. Mike's advice is to be persistent. It can be so easy to be discouraged. Mike felt like he lost time when he was putting away rejection letters instead of taking them as positive feedback; he wasn't being persistent. One of the most valuable things that Mike shared with me is that the paintings that he's done for himself are the ones that end up being most popular with everyone.

We talked about The Artist's Way and Mike also recommended another book to me, Creating a Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd--it's on my Christmas list!

Thank you so much Mike!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Informational Interview with writer Catherine Thimmesh

I could maybe see myself as a children's book author in the future so I knew that I wanted to interview one for this project. I looked through a database of local authors that the St. Paul Library has on their website, and when I went to Catherine Thimmesh's website I knew that I had to meet her; she's a trapeze-swinging woman who writes books about how awesome women and girls are. That's my kind of lady! On November 19th I met with Catherine at Starbucks in Highland Park where she shared her story with me.

Here's some info on Catherine:
"Catherine Thimmesh is the Sibert Medal-winning author of Team Moon. Her newest book, Lucy Long Ago, explores the scientific sleuthing that surrounded the famous fossil hominid, Lucy—a key clue in the search for human ancestors. Madam President, a New York Times notable book, was recently updated to reflect recent advances for women in politics, including Hillary Clinton's historic run for the presidency. Catherine's previous books, Girls Think of Everything and The Sky's the Limit, have been translated into Korean and Chinese. Girls Think of Everything won the 2001 IRA Children's Book Award, was a Children's Book of the Month Best Nonfiction Book 2000, a Minnesota Book Award finalist, and a Smithsonian Notable Book 2000 (amongst other honors). The Sky's the Limit won the Minnesota Book Award in 2002, was a Smithsonian Notable Book 2002, and an Outstanding Science and Social Studies Trade Book for Children 2002. The author lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota with her husband and two children."

Catherine is a University of Minnesota alum! While in college Catherine didn't really know what her passion was—she was interested in a lot of things, but didn't have a single driving obsession that would drive her towards a specific career. She always liked writing, but it never occurred to her that she could doing writing beyond journalism as a career. She ended taking lots of interesting classes and up majoring in art history with a concentration in film, but didn't know what she wanted to do career-wise.

After graduating she "did the restaurant circuit" until opening an art gallery in Minneapolis when she was 26. The experience of owning an art gallery helped Catherine discover a lot about herself. One thing that Catherine did for the art shows was show filmed interviews with the artists about their work and processes. This involved a lot of research which ended up relating to the research Catherine does now with her writing. She ending up having to close the gallery after 3 years; she loved everything but the sales part.

When she was a gallery owner Catherine had a lot of free time (unless there's a show, only about 3 people will stop in on any day), so she decided to take writing classes at The Loft Literary Center because she enjoyed writing. This was the catalyst for Catherine deciding to become a writer! She took a class on writing for children and discovered that she had a natural ability for it. In a second class that she took, she wrote an article and submitted it to a children's magazine and they bought it! Being able to sell her writing opened up Catherine to the idea of being a children's book writer.

After closing the art gallery, Catherine went about the transition into being a writer pragmatically by giving herself a 2 year time-frame to publish a book. She then got a job in marketing at a local children's book publishing house so she could learn about the industry. After 6 months of working there she built up the nerve to ask what they look for in manuscripts, and after she showed them one of her own she was offered a book deal. It ended up falling through, but luckily during this time she sold a book independently.

Catherine's advice to other writers is that networking is extremely important. Also, invest in conferences. Catherine was once a lead volunteer at a local book conference, which gave her the opportunity to interact with one-on-one with prominent editors. One of these editors took interest in her manuscript, but wanted Catherine to change from fiction into nonfiction. Catherine wasn't sure if kids liked nonfiction, but she didn't want to turn down the opportunity. Catherine said that because she had the personal contact with the editor they were willing to work with her on the idea, instead of just rejecting her. This opportunity turned into her book, Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women.

Catherine has had 4 other children's books published! Right now she is working on a picture book, and recently wrote a screenplay.When Catherine starts on a book, she starts with a complete vision of the book--how big it will be, what it will look like, etc. Catherine does market research before she starts a project to ensure that there aren't already a lot of books written about a topic. She also considers if there is a market for that kind of book.

Catherine says that it is very important to accept (and celebrate!) the small victories and successes. For example, accept positive feedback, even if it does come from a rejection. She also said that writers need to have thick skin to have their work critiqued.

Catherine doesn't have a typical day in her job, which is something that she enjoys. She also accepts that she works slowly; you can't force creativity. A huge benefit of being a writer is flexibility, but there are always the business things that you have to do during the day, like making phone calls within business hours or doing speaking engagements. It's extremely necessary to be disciplined with your writing when you create your own schedule.

For Catherine, the most rewarding part of being a children's book author is spending with the kids during classroom visits to discuss her books. It's nice to know the kids' personal reactions to her books. Catherine's greatest accomplishment came with her book, Lucy Long Ago. A 4 year girl old loved loved the book and one day informed her mother that she now wanted to be an avian paleontologist when she grows up instead of a Disney Princess!! After hearing that Catherine knew she could retire happy!

I asked Catherine about the climate of the book industry and she said that right now the publishing industry is in “melt down mode” as many intellectual property based industries are, due to digital pirating. Also, Wal-mart and other "big-box" stores have changed the industry because they act as gatekeepers. Despite the huge changes taking place in her industry, Catherine doesn't seem concerned. "Just let the publishers worry about it. No one knows where the trends are going." However, as an artist you have to stay business-wise in order to protect yourself.

Catherine's advice for people pursuing their dreams:
-It's all comes down to persistence.
-Learn how to “play the game” of the field that you're in.
-Get feedback from outside eyes and ears, but know when to throwout the feedback if you really believe in what you've created.
-Don't take yourself too seriously.
-Don't try to please everyone.

Thank you Catherine! For sharing your story and for the awesome books that you write