Gus Gordon - Interview (September 2017)
What five words best describe you?
Curious, whimsical, sensitive, positive, gullible.
How did you get started as an illustrator and author?
If I think back to my childhood, I was always bound to tell stories in some fashion. I was enormously fortunate to grow up in a household full of avid readers. You couldn’t turn anywhere without tripping over a book in our house. Our holidays were very quiet affairs, interrupted only by the sounds of pages turning. I thought this was how everyone spent their holidays.
I was a compulsive drawer as a child. I also enjoyed writing stories to accompany my pictures. I really did spend a lot of time living inside my head. Other than English and Art, school didn’t suit me at all. I was a daydreamer with a very short attention span for anything outside the realms of creativity.
Years later, after leaving art college in Sydney, I started my illustrative career drawing cartoons for magazines and newspapers. It wasn’t until I was offered to illustrate my first children’s book (20 years ago!) that I really decided what I wanted to do. In many ways I had forgotten all about children’s books – specifically books with pictures in them, and all of a sudden I was excited about the possibilities. Almost immediately I turned my focus to illustrating children’s books.
After a considerable time illustrating a long list of books for other authors (seventy), I mustered up the courage to show my publisher a story that I had written. I felt frustrated leading up to this point, swimming around in an endless loop, illustrating multiple variations of the same story. Thankfully my book was published and it changed my whole direction. The challenge of trying to tell a seamless story with words and pictures is one I never grow tired of. It’s immensely satisfying.
Do you prefer to work with notes from the author when illustrating a book or do you like to work with your own ideas for the illustrations?
When I’m illustrating for others I prefer a clean slate, without any guidance. Most publishers give the illustrator this freedom. Unless there are specific details about the text that is paramount to the telling of the story, the author needs to have faith that the illustrator is doing everything in their experience to bring something meaningful to the narrative. Otherwise, what’s the point?
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch the eye of a publisher?
The most important thing, of course, is story. Concentrate on writing good story rather than getting bogged down in things that you can’t control or don’t really matter (what sort of manuscripts publishers are taking, genre trends etc). I’m an optimistic and believe that good stories always float to the top (eventually). I would say the most valuable thing you could do is write, write, write. Read, read, read. Nothing beats the basics of working out how your words fit together. Your style or ‘voice’ will naturally develop without you realising you had one. Also, don’t be too analytical. Just write what pleases you the most – it’s your head, they’re your stories.
What comes first in your creative process: illustrating or writing?
My stories always begin with an illustration I have drawn (normally in a sketchbook). Every so often an image will arrive, (that’s how I see it anyway) that asks questions of you - almost begging you to write. Like a stranger who knocks on your door to ask for directions, the image comes with a backstory and it’s up to me to figure out which way to go. It’s a peculiar organic process where I will draw ideas that suit a possible narrative then write passages linking the images together. I flip-flop back and forth, writing on some days and storyboarding on others. It’s the only way I know how to create a picture book.
Is there any part of the creative process you don't like?
No. The whole process is fascinating to me.
What's the funniest thing a child has ever said to you during a read aloud session?
Gosh, that’s hard. The little kids are the funniest. Recently a kindergarten child asked me ‘how long does it take me to draw all the pictures in the book, in all the books?’ Thankfully I don’t have to draw my pictures ‘in the book’, in all the copies of the book, over and over and over again!
What's next from Gus Gordon?
I have a new book coming out in April next year (2018) with Penguin Australia and Neal Porter Books in the US called The Last Peach about two bugs who can’t decide whether they should eat the last peach of the season. Otherwise, I have nearly finished another book that I can’t say much about. I’m always writing, although I don’t always have something worth reading.