Monday, 24 September 2012

Interview #8: Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre
Growing up in Seattle, Sarah McIntyre was obsessed with Egyptian tomb paintings and wanted to be an archaeologist.

"I chose my university because it had a good archaeology programme. But at the first lecture I went to, we spent an hour and a half discussing some fireplace lintel, and I thought, hmm, I'm not sure this is what I want to do for a living. It's not exactly Indiana Jones."

Finding herself at a crossroads, Sarah decided she wanted to travel instead and signed up for a degree in Russian.

It would prove a momentous decision for someone for whom serendipity has played a major part in her life and career path.

Today Sarah is one of the most exciting picture book illustrators, comic strip artists and authors around. She has collaborated with the likes of Giles Andreae and Philip Reeve (more of which later) and is the creator of the brilliant Vern and Lettuce strip cartoon in DFC, now Phoenix, comic.

Sarah's collaboration with Giles Andreae

I was hugely excited when she agreed to speak to me, following my interview with Gillian Rogerson, one of Sarah's collaborators.

So how did throwing down her archaeology trowel in favour of a plane ticket to Russia lead to such an illustrious career?

She spent a year living in Russia as part of her course and stayed for a further year afterwards. It was here that she met her British husband, who was working at the British Embassy.

After her studies she worked on a newspaper as a copy editor, writing headlines and captions. 

Sarah provided the illustrations for
Gillian Rogerson's brilliant
Princess Spaghetti books

But while she loved the newsroom buzz, she was put off by the way the editor would shame people in front of their colleagues, once making someone cry, and when she tried her hand at journalism, one of her first articles divided the expatriate community, filled the editor's inbox with letters of complaint, and a banker sent a courier around to the office with threats of a lawsuit.

"I thought, I don't want to do the sort of job that just makes people angry with me."

She and her husband decided to move to the UK, London to be precise. "I always thought it would be cool to live in London."

Here she and some friends ran an art gallery for six years. Again, Sarah didn't feel she fitted in.

"I didn't find fine artists to be terribly friendly people, and I was always feeling back-footed, not having enough grasp of art theory. And then I just got bored by fashionable people being obsessed with their image, and minimalism, all this fuss over exhibitions where there was almost nothing to look at.

"Children's books was such a welcoming harbour. People who make picture books are genuinely nice people, and I think it's just as complicated making something that's understandable to both children and adult, and far more fun."

Her Vern and Lettuce comic
strips are now a book

She took evening illustration classes with children's book illustrator Elizabeth Harbour. "Her teaching was so, so good, and even after the classes ended, a bunch of us would still meet up to talk about and critique each other's work. I felt THIS is what I should be doing."

Drawing and painting had always been a passion, but she never considered it as a possible career, always believing she would get a 'proper' job.

At an early career low point, she interviewed to become a rigger on the Cutty Sark, although the contract was for 12 years and if she quit before then, she'd have to pay back all the training fee. Perhaps fortunately for children's books, Sarah didn't get the job, but the Cutty Sark hired her instead to work as Ship's Illustrator. 

Her true path was beginning to open up for her. She went back to art college and did a part-time MA over two years studying under Janet Woolley.

"I guess it was round that time I finally figured out what I wanted to do."

 With a few US-published children's picture books under her belt, Sarah took a fateful step when she went with her portfolio to see children's publishing supremo David Fickling, whom she'd heard was looking for comic strips. She was signed on the spot to do a weekly strip cartoon for the David Fickling Comic (now recast as the Phoenix). "They said, while you're here, would you like to illustrate a picture book for us?"

The strip cartoon became Vern and Lettuce about animals living together in a tower block. The picture book was Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andreae.

A peek behind the scenes!
Her dual career in children's picture books and comics was well and truly under way.

She has also illustrated books by Anne Cottinger and the Princess Spaghetti books by the wonderful Gillian Rogerson (see my Bookengine interview with her here).

"Working with Gillian Rogerson on the Princess Spaghetti books has been great fun. She's rather quiet as a person, but then she's bursting with this rollicking sense of humour."

These days Sarah makes comics and picture books in a former police station in Deptford, sharing the studio with three other artists. "It still has the police cells and is haunted," she laughed.

On the day I spoke to her, Sarah was working on illustrations for a really exciting new project - collaborating with Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve.
An early rough for Oliver and the Seawigs,
a collaboration with Philip Reeve

They met at the Edinburgh Festival where they chatted about drawing (Philip studied art before he became a writer and earned a living initially doing illustrations for Terry Deary's Horrible Histories books).

They kept in touch, encouraging each other to post a daily picture on their respective blogs - Philip of Dartmoor where he lives, Sarah of Greenwich Park. They became good friends and, being creative people, naturally were drawn to collaborate with one another.

Sarah has illustrated a four-page story for Philip's website and a short story of his, In the Bleak Midwinter.

But it was when they had an idea for a sea adventure story that they landed a four-book deal with Oxford University Press. Oliver and the Seawigs will come out next autumn. They've allowed themselves room for more play, as each book will be a completely different story with its own set of characters, but collected together as a sort of McIntyre-Reeve library.

I asked Sarah if she harboured ambitions to work in film or television. But she said she was keen to continue creating beautifully crafted books.

"I like to leave the future open. I love printmaking and like to see where it takes me. 
A more worked-up version of the
scene from Oliver and the Seawigs
"I am excited about e-books. They're something different. I think they will be awesome in the future. These are early days. Some of the apps for e-books are not well developed yet. But whatever e-books are, they are different from books.

"Having said that. If you drop a Kindle in the bath... well, that's not a problem with a traditional book!

"I'm not sure how children's picture books will adapt as e-books. Picture books are like a theatre opening up in front of a child. They are a world of wonder that a parent can share with a child."

So what is next for Sarah?

"I've illustrated Superkid by Claire Freedman, author of the Aliens Love Underpants books. It's about a kid who's a superhero. That's done and is being printed.

An inked up illustration from
Oliver and the Seawigs
"I also have other contracts with David Fickling for books I've written myself and ones written by my friend David O'Connell."

Although she professes not to want to get too busy, she may have to get used to having a very full diary as demand for her work intensifies.

* Many thanks to Sarah for chatting to me. Her fabulous website, Jabberworks, is here. Her equally wonderful blog is here. If you are interested in drawing, illustration, comics and good old artistic craftsmanship, scratchy metal nibs and jet-black ink, then both these sites are veritable gold mines. Once you've visited them, you'll be there for hours! Enjoy.

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