• Rilla Alexander

    Rilla Alexander



    FEBRUARY 2015

    HER IDEA, published this month by Flying Eye Books, explores a question that many authors and illustrators - as well as young creatives - have to confront. Rather than the frequently-asked 'where do your ideas come from?', the question is what do they do with the ideas they have?

    Writing a story, making a picture book or any other creative output requires commitment and dedication and that is what this picture book explores. Rilla does this in a wonderfully playful, colourful and imaginative way and this picture book, about a girl who has lots of ideas and doesn't always know what to do with them, is bound to encourage a lot of discussion and - hopefully - many creative projects in its wake!

    Her Idea can be read as a companion book to The Best Book in the World, also published by Flying Eye Books.

    We asked Rilla the following quesions about Her Idea, writing and creativity:

    Q: Your background is in graphic design, what took you into writing and illustrating picture books?

    A: When I was very tiny my mother would put my drawings into her typewriter and I would tell her the story, and she would bind the drawings into books - complete with a cover, an author's bio and back cover blurb.

    It became a tradition for us to make our grandparents a special book each year - and on Christmas Day they would unwrap our books and we'd all get very excited as they read and reviewed them. When I was two my books were about daddy burning the porridge and by the time I was 16 they were about popping pimples.

    It was the desire to make my books as 'real' as possible that was one of the things that led me to decide I wanted to study graphic design (when I was eight).

    Q: Would you describe Her Idea as a companion book to The Best Book in the World?

    A: Both are books about books - Her Idea is about making them, and The Best Book in the World about reading them. I can't read a book without wanting to make one so it really is a circle of creativity.

    I've really been enjoying doing workshops with kids with The Best Book in the World - because we talk about what makes them enjoy books and then they make their own. When they're finished each cover gets a big gold number 1 sticker!

    Q: Who or what inspired the main character in the books, Sozi?

    A: My grandmother gave me a doll called Suzy when I was about two. I immediately called her Sozi and constantly corrected everybody because they called her the wrong thing or pronounced it incorrectly. (It rhymes with Ozzy.) With a name like Rilla, we had a lot in common and we became inseparable.

    When I started thinking up stories as a 'grown up', Sozi reappeared as my alter-ego and she made it easier for me to write directly from my own experiences. She doesn't look anything like the original doll but I couldn't imagine her being called anything else. It wasn't until I had a Sozi exhibition in Paris that I discovered that 'sosie' means look-alike or doppelganger in French.

    She is red because that's my favourite colour. My mother colour-coded me red and my sisters, yellow and blue - and I am nothing if not consistent. Sozi wears a mask because she is the super hero version of myself - going boldly into adventures of making, reading and doing!

    Q: How do each of these books draw on your own experiences as a reader / creator? Were you always reading as a child, and perhaps procrastinating as a child and into adulthood?

    A: I haven't changed one little bit my whole life and I can't help but write directly from my life. I wrote a diary when I was little and it is full of the same mix of ideas, excitement, nonsense, fear of failure and anxiousness as now.

    Even though I have been coming up with ideas forever, I have also left a trail of unfinished things behind me. One that sticks with me is a story about a giraffe I started when I was seven that I wanted to be so good that I just couldn't get it done. I drew the pictures lightly in lead pencil, but that half finished book stayed pinned to my noticeboard until I left for university.

    I've always been very don't take giving up lightly.

    Q: What kind of books did you enjoy at a child?

    A: At a recent workshop one of the girls said that the thing she likes about my books is that the books are in the books and that Sozi is living in the book. And that is exactly the kind of meta idea that I've always loved and can ponder ad infinitum. 'The monster at the end of this book' was (and still is) an absolute favourite.

    Certain illustrations captured my imagination - such as all the dogs in the bed in 'Go Dog Go' and the pet who needed his blue hair brushed and combed in in 'One Fish Two Fish' (I traced that one so much that 'the pet' nearly fell out of the book).

    But what I loved most of all was simply the experience of reading with my mother. When we read 'The Magic Faraway Tree' every word that I came to that I didn't recognise, we would write on a list, and the next night we'd try again... it helped me learn really quickly. The satisfaction that I got from knowing I had read every word of that book was amazing!

    Q: Is Her Idea for adults as well as at children?

    A: Her Idea is for everybody! The workshops I do with children are nearly exactly the same as the ones I do with grown ups. Most everyone needs to be encouraged and assured that their ideas are good and the most important thing to do is to keep going and finish them. They may not turn out exactly the same as you hoped, but the only way you'll get better is to finish them. And then do the next one!

    Q: How do you keep and hold your ideas - and how easy is it to lose a good idea, or the enthusiasm for an idea?

    A: At the beginning of a project it's so much fun to get swept away with the excitement of the potential of the idea. 'I'm going to make this thing and it will be so much fun and everyone will love it'.

    What often happens though is that as you really start to work on the idea, you discover that your drawings of horses for a book about horses might not be as good as you think they should be. Or your story starts out great but you have no idea what happens next. Or you bought all the material to make a toy but it turns out you actually need to learn how to sew first.

    It doesn't matter how old you are - and whether this a project you expected to work on for 5 minutes or 5 months - it just doesn't feel good to know it's not going to happen easily. And that is what makes you lose enthusiasm and stop.

    It IS very hard to to keep going but if you break it down into lots of little steps it is much easier to get to the end. Don't get preoccupied by how bad you think your horses look, instead focus on the story and what is happening on each page.

    Have fun thinking about what could happen next in your story. What if a monster came and ate them all up? Write down lots of 'what ifs', even if you think they're stupid!

    Spend some time doing some practice stitches on practice fabric and you'll be ready to start the real toy then.

    Don't expect everything to happen right away!

    And also - importantly - save your ideas in an idea book so they are safe and you can do them one by one!

    Q: Was creating Her Idea as hard as it looks in the book?

    A: Let's just say that at the moment I wrote 'But even after she finished the start. And worked till half past the middle. She still didn't know what'd be at THE END. And if she'd have to begin again', it was the absolute truth! The pages about loving ideas and coming up with ideas flowed easily but the moment I wrote or drew about procrastinating I suddenly found a reason to stop.

    Q: How did you choose the colour palate for these books and how did you create the illustrations?

    A: I have always seen life with a very simplified palette - maybe it was growing up in the 70's with lots of big, bright simple patterns - or wearing red all the time?

    I work with a brush and black ink on rough paper. So in 'Her Idea' there are 4 layers of paper for each illustration - one each for red, blue, green and yellow.

    Q: Do you have a favourite spread in each book, and if so why those ones?

    A: In 'Best Book' I always say 'Oh look she's walking over a mountain' when we reach the crocodile spread and the kids scream 'NOOOOO, it's a crocodile!!!'

    In 'Her Idea', the page with trillions of ideas on it 'If she only had time they would be such fun' is not my favourite spread in and of itself but I just love how kids are obsessed with it: 'WHOOAAHHHHH, look at all those ideas!!!'. They just want to stay there and count the ideas. Since I painted each and everyone of those ideas that makes me very happy!

    Q: Where do you do your picture book work? How does your working day go?

    A: I work quite big - so I have a big desk, a big lightbox, a big scanner and a big printer. And all my big things are up here in my studio - which looks out over lots of Doug Firs in Portland, Oregon. My Jack Russell terrier, Mr Tom, is curled up on my lap and often I won't move from my desk for hours because he is warm and asleep.

    Q: Are you working in other areas as well?

    A: Being a designer and an illustrator means I am lucky enough to work on a great mix of things. Over the years I have designed a hotel room in Copenhagen (which I turned into a room full of hibernating animals where you sleep in a tent), the children's products for the Prado Museum in Madrid and the identity and characters for an amazing kid's Science Lab in Dusseldorf.

    I also teach classes and conduct workshops - this year I'll be doing rapid creative workshops at the Pictoplasma conference in Berlin in April, as well an 8 day master class in character design at their Academy later in the year.

    Q: What's your worst writing habit?

    A: What I SHOULD be working on right now is my next book. But even though I'm NOT staring out the window or looking at a blank page and I am, in fact, being very productive on many other projects - I am not getting any further on the book. Carving out the time to concentrate on one thing at a time is very hard!

    Q: What is your favourite escape from work?

    A: Most of the time I don't really know what is work and what is play... it's all part of making stuff!

    For this past Christmas I made a book with my mother and niece for our friends and family. My mother grew up on an island and collected her memories as stories. I drew quick sketches for my nine year old niece Jemima and then she drew them using my Wacom Cintiq tablet in a fearless and inspiring way. I sat beside her and cheered her on and kept the momentum going and saved the file before she went too far.

    But when I DO stop 'working'... I love reading a book and falling asleep mid-sentence into a dream I remember when I wake up.

    Q: Are you as well travelled as you sound? If you could choose wherever you wanted to live, where would it be?

    A: My husband and I are both Australian (and he is also a designer/illustrator/artist) and we work in our own studio which is located wherever life takes us. We lived in London for a year and Berlin for nearly ten years, and moved to Portland, Oregon a year ago now.

    In between we have had lots of wonderful adventures and spent time doing projects in places like Zurich, Tokyo and Mexico City. I don't know where the next place we will call home will be. Sometimes I think it might even be Australia! I miss my family.