I had the pleasure of meeting Denise Fleming last summer at the WOW writing conference in Helen, GA. I found her to be fun, creative, and full of talent. I was thrilled to get to interview her. I don't know too many children's authors who write the text and provide the art. She's a double threat!
When did you start your writing/illustrating journey for children?
Before I started writing my own books and discovered paper-making, I illustrated mass market books for Random House, which was a great experience. It also made me realize that I wanted to write and illustrate picture books. I took no work for two years and worked on my own book ideas, and discovered pulp painting. I had been experimenting with different techniques, but none of them clicked. Then I took a paper-making class at the local high school and fell in love with pulp painting, which became my signature style. We lived quite frugally those two years so I could take time to explore. My husband is also an artist and very supportive.
What's your art background?
I attended Kendal College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I started as an advertising student, then transferred to illustration. I wanted to illustrate for magazines. That was the heydey of great magazine illustrators. A friend introduced me to picture books. She gave me a copy of Rain Makes Applesauce,
which is still a favorite. I worked a great deal in pen and colored inks at that time.
After art school I constantly took classes. Etching, litho, wire work, drawing with the sewing machine, art dolls,wire work, clay, recycled tin and the list goes on. My husband and I took on freelance work, working in wood and creating restaurant interiors. Craft and hand work was much in vogue at that time.
How did your first book come about?
I went to New York with my pulp paintings and manuscripts. Laura Godwin at Henry Holt was the first person I saw. She was very interested and bought the two book ideas I had with me. In The Tall, Tall Grass came out in 1991.
Do you doodle first and then come up with a plot/story, or do you start with story/text?
It can work either way. Often I will have an idea, such as what goes on underground, sketch a few things, jot down some text, then go back and forth between words and art. The book I am working on now, I wrote the text first over ten years ago, put it way, then recently took it out again, rewrote, and now I am designing the book.
Which of your books took the longest or was hardest to complete?
Where Once There Was A Wood was a book that gave me the most worry. I wanted to get my point across, but did not want to appear judgmental. Took me forever, but I am very happy with it.
What do you do when the art or the text doesn't seem to be working?
Put it way for a bit, sometimes years. When it is not working and you begin to obsess, you no longer can clearly see what is off. I have drawers full of manuscripts and sketches that aren't right. Sometime you can pull those book ideas out and they shout at you what is not working. Other times---nothing comes to you.
Do you do school visits, and if so, how do you structure them? Do you ever hear from children?
I do a few school visits here and there. I used to do a great many, but dang it, those kids are too sharing, especially with germs. Strep throat three times in one year was when I stopped doing visits. Though I love seeing the children. I do more library visits where the kids visit the library. I loved field trips as a kid and going to the library makes it more special and for some children, it is their first visit to the public library. And yes, I get wonderful drawings and letters. I like the drawings best!
Is there an average time it takes you to complete a project, or does it depend?
Oh, goodness. I am so slow. It varies from book to book. It takes the time it takes. Whoops. There goes another deadline. I am sure my publishers find me quite aggravating.
Tell us a little bit about your paper-making technique.
It is a very labor-intensive process that involves hauling buckets of water, mixing and dying cotton fiber pulp. Then you pour the pulp through hand-cut stencils to form the bold, textured illustrations that are featured in my books. I have used this technique for the last 25 years.
What are the pros and cons of being an author/illustrator? Do you feel you're stronger in one area than another?
I think there are only pros. I do not have to wait for a manuscript from someone else. The subjects of my books are things that truly interest me. I have actually turned down some manuscripts from well known authors.
What is one thing we might not know about you?
When I was a young girl, I used to spend hours in my father's workshop cutting, gluing, carving and building things. And today, I spend many hours in my own workshop studio cutting, gluing, and creating my own picture books.
What do we have to look forward to from you in the future?
Books, books, and more books. Maggie and Michael Get Dressed (Holt) was just released. On November 5th, Little Ducks (Beach Lane) will be available.
Denise is an award-winning author/illustrator of many well known children's books, including In The Tall, Tall Grass, Barnyard Banter, Mama Cat Has Three Kittens, and In The Small, Small Pond, which received a Caldecott Honor. Denise lives in the Midwest and the settings of her books reflect the nature of the area. For more info, visit her online at denisefleming.com.