I was lucky enough to meet author/illustrator Gina Perry at the 2017 NESCBWI conference this past April and am thrilled to interview her about her process and her debut picture book as an author/illustrator.
One of my favorite things to learn is the story behind the story. Can you tell us how SMALL came to be?
Sometime in 2011 I was in a doctor’s waiting room. I had a little bit of time and a notebook and wrote a very simple version of SMALL. It came from a personal and grown-up place of feeling small. Shortly thereafter, I rewrote it from a child’s perspective. It had far less words, but it had the same flow and balance as the published text. I really felt like I had something special, but had no idea how to turn it into a picture book. After several attempts, I decided to plot out a simple story about a girl in a city. The city setting and going down the slide are the only visual parts that survived from the original dummy.
What would you say was your biggest challenge working on SMALL?
The biggest overall challenge with SMALL was probably the same as many first time authors and illustrators – fortitude. Working on a picture book is like building a house of cards. Each time you build, it inevitably comes crashing down and you must start again. You get better and faster, but you still have to do the work. To stay mentally focused on success and not let rejection or revision stop the entire process takes real strength and persistence (and friends to support you through the whole mad affair). The biggest technical challenge in working on SMALL was figuring out how to illustrate the city in a way that didn’t overwhelm our heroine. My book was acquired with very simple sketches, and I jumped straight from those into final art. It took a few experiments to figure out that I could communicate the setting with little color and detail and keep the heroine at the foreground. This was also a huge relief seeing as I don’t enjoy rendering a lot of architecture. That last spread was certainly a beast to finish. I am proud that I pushed through my anxiety about painting a bird’s-eye view of the city because it was exactly what the story needed. And you always go where the story leads you.
Can you tell us about your journey into writing/illustrating and when you got your agent?
I began working as an illustrator several years after graduating from Syracuse University. I had originally worked in animation and then as an Art Director for a stationery company. I really loved the idea of telling my own stories but never felt the urgency to spend time on writing until after I had my first child. It was the first time since college that I had a long term plan. If I could put my stories first, instead of clients, perhaps I could become an author/illustrator by the time my youngest was in school. There was no guarantee I would succeed but I just felt driven to put everything I had into this one goal. I participated in a few of Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm) challenges, completed 12×12 the first year it ran, and just kept pushing the stories that felt the strongest. I connected to my agent, Teresa Kietlinski of Bookmark Literary, in 2013 through a friend. Teresa had known my illustration work from her years as an art director in publishing. When I signed with Teresa I think I had two completed picture book dummies and a few polished manuscripts. This sounds so efficient and fast, but I joined SCBWI in 2002 and have been pushing the rock up the hill for fifteen years.
When you are working on a project as the author and the illustrator, which comes first in your process, the words or the art?
I am seriously considering buying two literal hats. One to wear while writing, and one to wear while drawing and painting. I try very hard to get the words ship-shape before switching tasks, otherwise I end up falling in love with drawings that don’t suit the story. Of course I will flip-flop once the dummy is pulled together and tweaks need to be made, but I don’t dare start drawing until I love the words on their own. I certainly visualize the characters and action as I work, but I would imagine non-illustrators do the same thing.
What new projects are you working on?
Earlier this summer I finished TOO MUCH! NOT ENOUGH!, coming out from Tundra in 2018. I adore Peanut and Moe and their funny tale of monster friendship and chaos on a rainy day. This was actually the first story and dummy that I worked on, many years before SMALL. I am also working on another as-yet-untitled picture book with Tundra for release in 2019. Plus, I have an early reader manuscript that I just haven’t had a spare moment to sketch up and prepare for submissions.
How can readers connect with you?
Gina is giving away a signed copy of SMALL! Comment on this post by September 15th to enter!