The Jonathan Allen Interview

Jonathan Allen has his own website (mentioned in the interview) which is well worth visiting. ACHUKA is delighted he could spare the time to be a Special Guest for November.

1. Did you always want to be an  author/illustrator?

No, I hadn't a clue what I wanted to do, except I had a definite feeling that I didn't want to sit in an office and have people I had no respect for order me around. I had no real ideas on how this could be achieved. To be honest I didn't really think about it. After I left Saint Martins I did want to be a proffessional pop musician and songwriter. To that end I played in a band for years. Didn't quite make it. Through that, I got into recording and thence into computers and electronic music but wasn't focused enough to push it. Also I wasn't good enough. I had  fun though. I was doing the odd book through all this, but it wasn't until around 1990 and 'Mucky Moose' that I chose to write and Illustrate for a living. If 'MM' hadn't got a US co-production that might not have happened.

2.The font used for your titles and on your  website is very distinctive. Is it one you designed yourself?

Yes, it has changed slightly over the years but it was something I invented because I was frustrated with the inflexiblity of conventional type. It goes really well with my drawings. It's on my computer now so I can resize and distort and move bits around without having to do it all again if I get it wrong or need to change it.

3. Your books are distinctive in other ways too.  You have a very individual illustrating style and an approach to storytelling  which looks to genres beyond the picture book. Is this something you've  consciously strived for, or is it just a part of being Jonathan  Allen?

It's not something I've strived for but it's not something I've avoided either. I kind of just let it happen. My style is cartoon like which can sometimes lead to it not being taken as seriously as it might be. Speech bubbles used to be frowned upon by librarians, but I think they are OK now. Curiously, it is at the top, more 'sophisticated' end of the market that cartoon like stuff is to be found. Ironic, in that it echeos the percieved bottom end, comics. That said The Beano, which was my favourite, is head and shoulders above it's peers. Or was until they started printing on shiny paper and took away that wonderful half tone stuff, and changed the Dennis the Menace Artist. . . Och, its nae the same  at DC Thompson since the auld man died. . . Comics are a lesson on the simple plot line, often horribly contrived, but at best, ingeniously simple. And on communicating information about a character in a short space of time, both graphically and verbally. Not to mention the importance of bad jokes. . .

4. How do you go about storyboarding or planning  a book like Fowl Play (out in hardback last year and  recently released in paperback)?

The particular problems posed by "Fowl Play" were due to the amount of information I had to put in to make the story function as a detection excersise as well as an entertaining read. But other than that, the main issues that face an illustrator working with a new text once the characters have been visualised to everyone's satsfaction, are visual dynamics and flow. The story has to fit on about twelve spreads, sometimes fourteen, so you have to divide the text up into pieces according to what happens in the story, and what is most illustrateable. When you have done that, you have to work out a way of showing the same characters in ways that are not repetitive, or if repetitive, not boring. It's a filmic process, deciding on close ups and distance shots, this is the creative, intuitive part. Once you've done that you can do a preliminary rough for each spread. "Fowl Play" had the repetitive element of an interview the detective, Hubert Hound, has with each suspect. This was varied by the surroundings and character of each animal being very different. The information was imparted by way of speech bubbles, which was quite fun, as they could give clues as to the animal's temperament while giving the reader vital clues as to the criminal's identity, and at the same time be funny.

5. You do a lot of your illustrative work on the  computer. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in this  way?

Advantages are that you can edit everything right up to the last minute. ( if you know how, and have the right software) It's at its best when roughing out a project. you can resize elements and move them around until it looks right. You can put the right size type onto a page and mess around with where that should go without having to guess how much room it will take up. I use software called Fractal Design Painter to draw and paint with using what is known as a Graphics tablet and stylus. It's a wonderful piece of software but I'll need a faster computer soon!

Disadvantages are many. Children's publishing for the main part is not geared up for recieving and dealing with digital artwork. Educational publishers are better equipped, but that's not the field I work in at present. The problem for an editor is, that with a piece of artwork you can hold in your hand, you know how the colours will print, more or less, you can show it to people and they will know what they are dealing with. An image on a screen can change according to the monitor it is viewed on. If you don't have a computer you can't see it unless you get a print made of it. Then the print quality and colour quality can be very different from the final book, so unless it is a very expensive print called a Cromalin, the colours are not accurate enough. No publisher will pay for a Cromalin of each spread, so it is up to the artist to find an inexpensive way of printing reliable colour proofs. It will get better, but both publishers and I are feeling the strain! That said, I am committed to the medium and am determined to overcome the difficulties involved. The results are good and have sold well. Look out for "Fowl Play" Orion books. " Wolf Academy" and the "Fred Cat " board books " Orchard books, and " Wake up Sleeping Beauty! " Tango books. A pop-up book with noises activated by the pop-ups themselves.

6. The speech bubble writing appears to be done  by hand. Is this the case?

Yes, unfortunately when it's me that had to do it, as in " Fowl Play" sorry its a bit illegible but I did want them to get a freelance comics type lettering artist to do it. There's a Belgian edition of one of my books that uses the same lettering artist as is used in the TinTin books, he would have been great. Oh well. Jemima at Orchard did "Wolf Academy" which was fine.

7. What role does your editor play in the visual  aspect of a book?

Usually an editor would make comments and requests for changes based on the finished roughs, nothing too drastic as with me, publishers know what they're geting, not in an exact sense but they know it will be Jonathan Allen enough. I have no objection to making changes as they are usually reasonable and for the good of the book as a whole.

8. Have you ever refused to make requested  editorial changes, and if so on what grounds?

I can't remember doing so, but then I can't remember being asked anything too unreasonable. These things are usually sorted out in the early part of the process. Changes in text I usually comply with, or at least, go half way towards the publisher's position. It's very hard to be objective about one's own writing, so an experienced third party's opinion is valuable. Being an illustrator probably makes me less precious about my writing. Or maybe I'm just a pushover.

9. Do you 'test' your books on trial audiences  before finalising a manuscript?

Oddly, I don't. I think this is because if I like an idea, and the publisher likes an idea, I have enough faith in our collective judgement to believe that children will love the idea, and, from a bookselling point of view, parents will love the idea. Publishers usually try out their ideas on their own or collegues' children. I leave them to it. It's an instinct thing for me. Or is it because I write for myself and have a mental age of six? Hmmm. . .

10. Do responses from children indicate that  they look closely at the pictures?

They like the pictures,  and tell me how funny they find them, and try to copy them, but I don't know if my pictures repay close examination enough for the average child to indulge in it. The facial expressions of the characters is the key to my drawings, and the point of each drawing is pretty immediately apparent. I'm not one of these artists that puts little intricate details in the background to reward the trawlers of this world. I'm too impatient I guess. But maybe I should ask a child. .

11. Do you work on one title at a time? Give us  an outline of your typical working day.

Six thirty. Alasdair (21 months) wakes up, all bouncy and full of beans, probably mexican jumping ones. Shuffle into his room and plonk him on our bed. Semi doze while he runs riot, brutalises the cat, pokes us with books etc. Join in eventually. Seven thirty. Make a cup of tea. Brain engages. Alasdair still going strong. change nappy etc. Eight. We get Isobel ( Three and a half ) up, get both kids ready. wash, dress, teeth, hair. Dress ourselves, Have breakfast. Nine. go up to studio. Download e-mail, spend too long reading and replying. check out a couple of websites while America sleeps. Start work. I work on whatever needs to be done until five o'clock when I come down to relieve the childminder of the children or help Marian with them, depending on which day of the week it is. I might sneak up later to do some messing around with KPT Bryce. ( a wonderful piece of 3D software the virtues of which I won't go into as you don't care and I haven't got time or room to explain . . .) Or I might do some more to my Web site. Please check it out if you are equiped and inclined to do so.

12. What are you working on at the moment, and  when is it scheduled for publication?

I'm tossing a few fiction ideas around my brain waiting for them to gel into something solid enough to take to the next stage, writing. I have an idea for a flap book featuring a Monster Postman, going to contract as I speak/write. A further pop-up book with noises is in the offing, and another collaberation with Margaret Mahy is imminent, these will all be published in spring 99 probably, though whichever I do first might make Autumn 98.

13. What is your most recently published title?

I thought you'd never ask. It's called " Wake up Sleeping Beauty! " ( Tango books Oct 97 )and is a pop-up book with noises. Rather than the noises being triggered by pressing a button on a kind of strip along the bottom of the page they are triggered by the act of pulling the pop-up's tab. This is a much more elegant way of integrating the noise into the story, and was MY IDEA. The technology to make it possible existed, but a special module had to be built. Anyway, it concerns Prince Eggbert's attempts to wake up the Sleeping Beauty, going to ever more surreal and ludicrous lengths to make a loud enough noise ( he tries a gong, an electric guitar. . .). He fails, but there is a cunning twist in the end. . .

14. Realistically, how busy does a picture book  author have to be in order to earn a reasonable living? What are considered good  sales figures for a hardback and paperback picture book?

Very. I think so anyway. Unless something really takes off. ( Spot, Where's Wally/Waldo, etc ) A lot of illustrators of kid's books need to work as teachers or part time lecturers to keep a regular income. Some very successful ones teach anyway. Some might have rich partners or some kind of private income. I don't know,I don't like to ask. I do know that it is generally considered that far too many children's books are published yearly. I have been lucky in that I work with about four publishers and can spread myself accross the spectrum of children's books from board books to pop-ups to fiction for ten year olds. If something sells really well I might do a bit less work on the strength of it, but I tend to like being busy. As for figures, I think a book's profitabllity or otherwise is as much to do with foreign rights sales as it is UK sales, in the picture books market anyway. A US deal can make a big difference. But that said, I expect that if you can sell upwards of four thousand hardback that would be considered good, and upwards of ten thousand paperback, though I might be wildly out. Roald Dahl sells a bit more than that. . .

15. What can you see out of the window in the  room where you work? 

Nothing, its dark now, ha ha ha. No, I can normally see some tangled damson trees, a sycamore, a rather nasty leylandii and the top right part of my garden, including the compost heap. All from first floor level. Sometimes a group of long tailed tits feed on the sycamore tree just outside my window. I glanced up and saw a sparrow hawk dismembering a starling on the damson tree the other month, ( there's lovely! ) and a woodpecker paid a fleeting visit. Through the hedge at the end of the garden I can see Harold, who keeps his chickens in the field there, wandering about, doing chicken related tasks. Through the other window I can see the swing and slide, and through the hedge a small, motley flock of geese, ducks and turkeys that our neighbours keep in the little paddock there. Sounds dead rural doesn't it? There are quite a few houses around, but its just that I can't see them from my window until the leaves drop off the trees.

Jonathan Allen will answer supplemetary questions at the end of the month.
To have your question considered for selection post it to the ACHUKA e-mail address.