Now I know there are some classic teams that work like that, but it’s neither the norm nor is it necessary.
Most of my illustrators I’ve never met. We don’t discuss the project on the phone, or by email. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the only time I have any direct contact with them is once the whole thing is done, dusted and published. I make a point at that stage of thanking them, generally by email (and in order to agree PLR shares.)
It’s not that I’m a curmudgeon, particularly. It’s not that I don’t care, passionately, how the book turns out. It’s just that we probably live hundreds, if not thousands of miles apart, and there’s no actual need for us to meet. And that publishers generally seem to like to keep us apart, so that neither one nor the other has an undue influence on the outcome. They don’t want me to say to the illustrator that it’s got to look like THIS (which is actually not my business), or to tell them if I’m not 100% happy with their artwork (which again, although of course I’m desperately hoping I’ll love it, is not my job).
(And, by the way, the publishers also don’t want the illustrator to say to me, ‘Please could you change the wording to make your zebra green, Malachy, because I spilt a pot of paint on him, and I don’t want to have to draw the whole caboodle again.’ Sort of thing.)
I learnt this when one of my very first picture books was being illustrated. The publisher sent me the early roughs. 'We hope you like them as much as we do.' I spent hours and heart's blood compiling a list of comments / reservations / suggestions. Some weeks later I got sent the next stage of illustration. Not a whiff of my suggestions had been incorporated. I asked why. ‘Oh, the illustrator’s far too sensitive to hear that sort of thing.’ Hmm.
But the thing was, they were right and I was wrong, really. Because even though the book ended up a long long way from how I’d envisaged it, somehow it worked. Because what I hadn’t realised until then is that the art of illustration is NOT about translating the words into pictures. It’s about going beyond and beneath and around the words, and the characters within them, to make that story richer, deeper, funnier and massively more enthralling. That’s what a good illustrator does. That’s what a good art editor is working towards. And that’s why, these days, I leave them to it.
Because since that early book I’ve realised my job is to provide the best story I possibly can, with some (minimal) illustration guidelines if I consider they’re absolutely necessary for editors to make sense of what’s happening. And then, unless I REALLY REALLY REALLY can’t help myself, my job is to stay shtum. It’s like selling your novel to a film company. Respond to what they do with it if you’re asked, but basically stand back... cross your fingers... breathe deeply. And write another one. An even better one, if such a thing is possible.
And if the book comes back and there's a dog on the cover, like in my Owen and the Mountain, even though there’s no dog mentioned in the story, then hold fire...
And if the dog appears on nearly every page, and becomes the emotional pivot of the story, though yours truly the blessed author never even mentioned a dog... then hold fire. Because maybe it works. Because it this case, it does work. It works beautifully.
Because I’m not a visual artist. Yes, I sort of see pictures as I write. Yes, I try to bear in mind that it's good to have a different setting or activity on every spread, to allow for variety of illustration. But the pictures I see as I write are not the ones I’ll see, or even want to see, when I’m presented with the finished book. Often the finished illustrations delight me, sometimes they astound me. (Like Joel Stewart’s wonderfully sensitive and surprising portrayal of my seemingly mis-matched characters in When a Zeeder Met a Xyder. Like Jane Ray putting an Eastern European Marc Chagall-ish feel on my, as I thought distinctly Irish story, The Bold Boy).
My newest one, Too Noisy! is out very soon from Walker Books / Candlewick. (At the time of publication I’ll be away from all the chaos and kerfuffle, walking the Via de la Plata - all 1000 kilometres of it hopefully, from Seville to Santiago de Compostela - which is why I’m telling you about the book now, if you don't mind).Something truly rare and special. It is SO SO visual, SO SO beautiful, and it ends up SO SO central to not just the look but the plot, that I feel like not only has Ed illustrated my story, but he’s sort of co-written it too.
Who needs to get together round a table and drink lapsang souchong? What you need is an author on top form, an illustrator who’s inspired, and a genius editor and art editor who put their heart and their hoes into it. And then, through hard work and alchemy, abracadabra, you've got yourself a near-perfect picture book. And, in this case, it’s got my name on it. TOO NOISY!