Bookroo Interview With Rob Biddulph
Hooray for a new year! And hooray for a new month! Because you know what that means - another Bookroo box is on its way!
This month’s Bookroo picture book boxes feature two really wonderful books. One of the books featured is GRRRRR!. It’s a clever tale about champion growler Fred and what happens when a new challenger comes to town. We won’t spoil the surprise, but we can tell you that the story is from champion author and illustrator Rob Biddulph, and today we’re excited to bring you an interview with Rob.
Rob is an award-winning and bestselling author and illustrator. He has authored or illustrated over ten books. His awards include the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the BSC Festival of Literature Picture Book Award, as well as being shortlisted for The People’s Book Award. He lives in London with his wife and three daughters, writes and illustrates full time, and cheers for Arsenal (for the soccer/football fans in the audience).
Bookroo: Where did you get the idea for GRRRRR!?
Rob: The problem with ideas is you never know when you’re going to get one. Also they often disappear as quickly as they arrive. So I have a google doc permanently open on my phone and am sure to make a quick note whenever and wherever inspiration strikes. This is what happened with GRRRRR!: I was in the car listening to an easy listening radio station called Magic FM and a song by a band called Everything But The Girl came on. For some reason I thought “Ooh, ‘Everything But The GRRRRR’ would make a good title for a picture book” so I made a note. A few days later I had a longer think about who could be missing this GRRRRR and, for some reason, I decided that a story about a prize-winning bear who lost his growl the day before a loud-growling competition might have potential. I then knuckled down to some sketchbook work and managed to extrapolate a fuller story arc from that original kernel, weaving in a subtle message about friendship and the fact that winning isn’t everything along the way. And so GRRRRR! was born.
Bookroo: What do you do to brainstorm ideas for new stories?
Rob: As I mentioned above I have a huge list of story ideas in a google doc that I constantly update. They are usually only a sentence or so but it’s a great place to start. Then when it comes to the time that I meet up with my editors (Rachel and Alice at HarperCollins) to discuss future books I can go through my list and select five or six ideas that I think have the most potential. I’ll then spend a day or so fleshing them out a bit before meeting with them and pitching them. Between us we’ll decide on two or three to progress further. It’s a very fluid system. I usually know what my next three books are going to be. In terms of fine-tuning story arcs, my wife (who is a journalist and writer herself) is a brilliant sounding board. Often I’ll be totally stuck on a plot point and she’ll just spot the answer immediately, whereas I don’t think I’d have ever got there.
Bookroo: What is your process from story idea to finished manuscript?
Rob: Ok. Here goes: 1 One sentence idea in a google doc on my phone 2 Flesh idea out to a paragraph and pitch to Harper Collins 3 Take on board initial feedback from my editors 4 Start sketching characters 5 Draw one or two of the initial set pieces that I have in my head (to get a feel for the characters and the story). Usually this is a fairly finished drawing 6 Work out the finished story arc 7 Draw very rough thumbnails of the entire book to get a feel for the rhythm of the story 8 Start writing. This can take aaaaaaages. I write in rhyme so often I can spend a week writing solidly and end up with just one couplet that’s usable. I’m very strict with my text – no imperfect rhymes for me. And the meter has to be absolutely perfect. There is nothing worse than a rhyming picture book that doesn’t read aloud very easily. This is the part of the process I find the hardest, but also the most rewarding (once I’ve cracked it, obviously) 9 Draw a fairly detailed version of the entire book – in grayscale, not full colour. Invaluable for design, layout etc. I’ll often tweak little bits of the story/rhyme at this point 10 Send to my editors and take on board their comments 11 Final artwork. The nicest part of the process in many ways. This can take anything from a month to eight weeks to complete 12 Send artwork to HarperCollins 13 A couple of rounds of proofing and tweaking 14 A blad is made and taken to Bologna/Frankfurt 15 Book published
Bookroo: How do you go about creating illustrations?
Rob: Most of the design process is done the old-fashioned way in a sketchbook. Then I’ll take it into Photoshop. I draw with digital brushes on a Wacom Cintiq and am quite fastidious about my Photoshop documents. There are LOTS of layers. It means that everything is infinitely tweakable which is great if you’re as indecisive as I am. The brushes I use behave very similarly to regular paint brushes, except you can press ‘undo’ if you don’t like something. You can blend colour, add texture etc just like you can with real paint. It’s a lovely way to work.
Bookroo: Do you have a favorite between authoring and illustrating?
Rob: One of the best parts of my job is that I get to use two different parts of my brain, one for writing and one for illustrating. I couldn’t choose a favourite – I like each for different reasons. Having said that, as I mentioned earlier the writing doesn’t come as easily as the drawing, so often that part is the most rewarding.
Bookroo: How did it feel when you made the jump from your previous job as an art director to full time author and illustrator?
Rob: It was a bit scary. I’d worked in magazines and newspapers for nearly twenty years and really enjoyed it, but in my heart I knew that this was what I really wanted to do. Yes, leaving a secure job for something a bit less certain was nerve-wracking but ultimately I thought “nothing ventured, nothing gained” so I just took the plunge (with the support of my wife, of course). People kept telling me how hard it was to make a living writing children’s books full-time but that hasn’t been my experience at all. I’m incredibly lucky in that I get offered lots of lovely jobs. You never know how long things in life will last but so far so good. I have lots of exciting projects in the pipeline and I feel very fortunate to be doing this for a living.
Bookroo: Do you ever test out story ideas on your daughters or wife?
Rob: Yes. Every single time. My daughters are all slightly older now but they’re still great at giving feedback. They’re very, erm, honest! As I mentioned before my wife is essential to the process. She’s always happy to nip out for a coffee and a little brainstorming session. She’s great!
Bookroo: What have been some of the highlights of your work as author and illustrator?
Rob: Winning the Waterstones Prize for my first book ‘Blown Away’ was amazing. I think it was only the second picture book ever to win and as such was a great start to my career. As a direct result of that I have the support of lots of people in the industry and have been given some great exposure. I also love touring, visiting festivals and meeting my audience. There’s no better feeling than meeting a child who tells you all about what your characters mean to them.
Bookroo: What does a typical day look like for you?
Rob: I get up early, take my daughter to school and then head to my studio at the end of the garden. If I’m drawing I listen to music and podcasts as I work whereas if I’m writing it has to be totally silent. In fact, often I will head out to write. One of my favourite spots is the British Library - my first three books were written there. I used to pop over in my lunch hour as it’s right next door to the Guardian (where I was working at the time). After a busy morning of draweing or writing I’ll nip inside for a spot of lunch with my wife (if she’s working at home), before heading back out to the studio for the afternoon. Sometimes I’ll nip into central London to meet up with my editors, agent or publicists, and sometimes I might have a school visit or festival to get to. I like to pick the kids up from school whenever I can, or go for a walk with my wife. It’s a very nice working life I must say.
Bookroo: Do you have a time of day when you feel most creative or productive?
Rob: First thing in the morning is always a good time for me. That and from about 4-7pm. I tend to get a bit distracted by twitter or football gossip in the middle of the day.
Bookroo: What is your favorite food?
Rob: Ooh, good question. I’d probably say… a nice steak. I’m also a big fan of Japanese cuisine, the full English breakfast and, of course, chocolate. I am the least-fussy eater ever tbh, so anything goes really. Except grapefruit. You can keep grapefruit.
Bookroo: It sounds like your wife and daughters do not share your enthusiasm for soccer/football - what family activities do you enjoy?
Rob: Hahaha. Yes, you’re certainly right about that! My daughters are very keen dancers (ballet, tap etc) so we spend a lot of time watching them perform in shows and festivals all over the country. We also like going to the theatre/cinema, swimming, taking long, windy walks down in St Ives (we visit every year), playing with LEGO and eating pizza. I think we are going to get a puppy later this year so I imagine that he or she will soon be taking up a lot of our time.
Bookroo: Do you have any upcoming books you can tell us about?
Rob: Well, I’m currently working on a series of books called ‘Dinosaur Juniors’ about a gang of very young dinosaurs experiencing lots of those first-time moments in life. They’re a lot of fun to write and draw. The first book is out in the UK in April and two more will follow over the next year. In the US I think ‘Odd Dog Out’ is published soon. It’s about a sausage dog who doesn’t fit in with all the other sausage dogs and has to find her own way in the world. It’s proved very popular over here. The actor Tom Hardy read it out on BBC TV (which was very exciting) and people seemed to love it. Although I suspect it might actually have been Tom that they loved. You also have ‘Sunk!’, a sequel to Blown Away to look forward to and ‘Kevin’ which has lots of VERY exciting things happening around it (can’t tell you any more at this stage I’m afraid, but honestly it’s super cool). I’ve also recently re-illustrated the Flat Stanley series which was SUCH fun to do. A real honour in fact. So there’s plenty happening…
We really appreciate the opportunity to learn more about Rob and his work as an author and illustrator. You can learn more about him and see more of his work on his website. And please let us know what you enjoyed from the interview in the comments below!
(All images in this interview courtesy of Rob Biddulph.)