Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interview with J.C. Phillipps, author and illustrator of WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED

High-ya! Today I’m super stoked to have debut author/illustrator J.C. Phillipps here to answer some questions about her book, WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED. Wink is a ninja student who wants to prove his awesomeness, but finds that being stealthy is no way to be noticed. Fortunately, Wink finds a place where he can show off his talents, even if it’s not the place he expected.

Wink is your first published book. What was your road to publication like?

I have to say it was a well-paved path --not too bumpy. A few years ago I started by putting together some dummy books and sending them out myself. I waited the standard 6-12 months for rejections, but most of the time got a nice note that said something along the lines of, "This title is not right for us, but please feel free to send us future projects." - which was encouraging. Then I joined SCBWI and went to an illustrator's conference in New York. There, my agent, Scott Treimel, saw my dummy book of Wink and we started working on it together. After a few months of edits, he sent it out. I think about 4 months after that Viking sent me a letter with some notes. When I had incorporated their suggestions into the book - and they were great suggestions - then I got a contract. It took a decent amount of time, but considering how long it can take some people, I really can't complain.

How does it feel to be able to call yourself an author now?

At first, when the book was still six months from coming out, I felt sheepish about it. Like I was lying. I've been an artist for such a long time - I'm comfortable with that title. But author?! Yikes. And it's funny, because I'm not eloquent with words - at all. For me, the best thing about writing is the rewriting.

But I certainly am very proud of this book and I love to say I'm an author/illustrator. What a cool job, you know?


Three or Four years ago, when my son was still very young, my husband, Michael, and I were taking him trick-o-treating for Halloween. We noticed one of our young neighbors dressed as a ninja, hiding across the street. He was clearly visible in his red ninja costume, but we wanted him to feel good about his stealth skills, so we ignored him. The boy got bored of that quickly and then started jumping around with his arms waving in the air. Michael laughed and said, "Look. It's the ninja who wants to be noticed." And I thought that was a great idea for a book.

Are there any similarities between you and your main character?

Well, we're both kind of spazzy - but in a good way. I'm more introverted than he is. And I was the kind of student who would never, ever battle a panda in the zoo. I would have been the gold-star ninja. Or the teacher's-pet ninja. But it's always nice to be noticed.

Which came first, the illustrations or the manuscript? As an author/illustrator does one have more pull over the other?

The text came first on this one. What I usually do is start writing things down, giving shape to the story. I have illustrations in my head, but I don't put them down on paper at this point. When I have a rough draft or even an outline, then I start sketching out page layouts. This is something new that I just started doing but it really helps me pace the story better and not overwrite. I can tell a lot of the story with the illustrations so I try not to be redundant.

I don't know if one has more pull over the other. Illustration is easier for me. I have more confidence in my art skills than my writing. But they both work together like two kids on a teeter-totter, back and forth and back and forth, until I think they are ready to go.

How long did the entire process of writing and illustration take you?

Working on the dummy art and the text probably took about two years. Then, when the book was signed and the text hammered out, I had to re-do all the art from scratch. That took another five months. If you count the waiting time, I think it's safe to say Wink was a big part of my life for three years. (Not that he's out of my life, because he's certainly not. Pesky little guy.)

Did any other artist's work influence your illustrations for Wink?

I steal my profiles from Edward Gorey. He draws foreheads that slope right into noses. I completely ripped that off. Then - well - no one else really. Not to say that I don't have favorite illustrators that I look to for inspiration - like Oliver Jeffers, Lauren Child, and Jon J. Muth. But they didn't really influence what I do with my paper. I just sort of figure that out as I go.

The lovely thing about working with paper is I can cut pieces out and move them around a bit and see how this kid looks with his legs further apart, or closer together. Or I can say, this red shirt it too bright, how would pink look? And I can piece things together and let them inform me rather than figure everything out ahead of time. I'm essentially playing.

What medium did you use for the illustrations and why?

I work with cut paper collage. Sometimes I paint the paper with watercolors to get a certain effect before I cut. I always paint my skin tones and sometimes I'll paint a gradation of dark blue to light for a dramatic sky. Otherwise, I have piles and drawers and boxes of paper all around my studio that I use for my illustrations.

When I first started out, playing with what I wanted "my look" to be, I did straight-up watercolors. They were fine but they didn't sing. What I love about the collage is that no matter what is going on in the paper, (flowers, dots, what have you) there is a solid cut line that defines the shape. I feel that brings a certain boldness and drama to the art. It's not soft, that's for sure. I don't think I'll be asked to illustrate a story about fluffy lambs. But I like stories that have a lot of energy and I think my style suits my taste in that way.

Do you have any other books in the works? Tell us about your work-in-progress.

I have two book projects on my editor's desk that I have yet to hear about. One is a follow-up to Wink. It's the story of what happens after he gets noticed - and maybe a little too noticed. Then I have a story about a boy who makes his gym class more exciting than he originally intended. I won't go into them too much, since my editor could call me up and say they both stink. But I'm hoping she'll like at least one of them.

If you could live in any book, which one would it be and why?

Ooooh. Good question. Hmmmm. Let me think. Where the Wild Things Are would be too scary. I would get fat if I live in The Hungry Caterpillar. I think I'd have to go with Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth, because hanging out with a giant panda, painting and swimming, sounds like a good day to me. Of course, I did take karate in my youth, so attending a ninja school might not be too shabby either. ;)

What are you doing to celebrate publication day?

I don't think I have anything special planned on the actual day. Is that sad? I'm just not a big occasion person. But I am doing a reading at my town library soon after, March 28th, and I'm really looking forward to that. I think a lot of my friends with kids are coming and that will be kinda like my "launch."

Reading your book to a bunch of friends and kids sounds like a great launch to me!

Thanks to J.C. Phillipps for frolicking over to share some background on her book. It sounds like a story readers will get a kick out of!

WINK! THE NINJA WHO WANTED TO BE NOTICED will be released March 19th from Viking Children's. You can read more about J.C. Phillipps at at her blog and website, and at Authors Now!

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