A Conversation with Gillian McClure

         I first met award-winning writer and illustrator, Gillian McClure when we gave a talk together at the Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Conference in September 2012.


         Sue Price: I used to draw a great deal as a child and teenager, and was considered talented -- but with me, writing took over, and I drew less and less. Obviously, with you, the two skills went more hand-in-hand. Can you even imagine a life without drawing?

Gillian McClureWriting nearly took over for me about ten years ago, when my agent wanted me to write little stories with black and white illustrations for the 7 plus age group because they were easier than picture books to get published.

           But I was half hearted. I loved colour and so I made a conscious decision not to move away from picture books however hard the going was. Now when I’m with writers I don’t feel wholly a writer and when I’m with illustrators I don’t feel wholly an illustrator. I only feel whole when putting text and image together in a picture book.


          Sue: So obviously, no, you can’t imagine not drawing and painting! I sometimes get really fed up with writing – it can be a slog at times – and I tell myself that if I had a chance of earning a living some other way, I’d never write another word.
          I'm not sure it's true. I think, after about three weeks, at the longest, I’d start to get that looming, anxious, twitchy feeling – and I would have to write again. Ever experienced anything like that?


          Gillian: Oh yes, I crave a normal 9-5 job with weekends off, a salary and a pension – a normal life like everyone else. But like you an anxiety drives me on and I have to keep on entering that long dark tunnel with a chink of light at the end – the finished book.


         Sue: Could you tell us more about the process of making a picture-book?


          Gillian:   I start with an image or just a feeling in my head, then I attach a sentence or two to it – like an accompanying tune and then I grow this into the first draft of a story. I do this first draft on post-its – to keep the word count down and because I can stick them in a blank 32 page dummy book and move them about at the page turns.  This all helps get the rhythm  and pace of the story to work.
          Writing a picture book text is a bit like writing a poem because of the tight framework. The best texts are like a long single sentence flowing from page to page.

          The second draft occurs when I add the images; words can be cut back if the pictures are telling the same bit of the story. This is the stage I really enjoy, integrating word and image and getting the sentences to follow the movement of the pictures, as in this early rough from The Little White Sprite -

- which ends up like this in the finished book.


           If I’m illustrating someone else’s story, it’s a bit like coming in on the process at the second draft stage but being unable to play around with the words. I can add something to them though  – a visual sup plot. Once I added a small dog to Mary Arrigan’s Mario’s Angels when there was no dog mentioned  in the text. Neither Mary nor the editor objected to the story having a gate crasher.


        Sue Price: I love the gate-crashing dog! And I loved your account of making a picture book. It confirmed what I've often suspected: that it's like writing a poem.

          Yet I think people often look down on picture books as 'just for children', which is shocking on so many levels.
          First, it's the disregard for the artistry in them, both in words and pictures - and then, I think of my cousin, who teaches languages and reading, and says that learning to read is like an iceberg: 90% is unseen.
          He says that a child who comes from a home where they've been involved in conversations, been told stories, and have been read stories, is years ahead of a child who hasn't had these experiences when it comes to learning to read. Because, he says, socialisation and social convention plays a huge part both in learning to read and being motivated to read. Take all that together, and there's hardly an art form worth more respect than a beautiful, engaging picture book.


          Gillian: What an interesting simile – learning to read being like an iceberg.  I do feel it’s a huge responsibility writing for children. And there needs to be consideration for the poor Mum and Dad who are made to read the same book night after night (in the families where there are bedtime stories). A picture book text has to sound good when read aloud, even when it's in graphic format like Zoe's Boat (below) making it a bit like a poem.


        SUE: A last question, then. What's your favourite of the picture books you've done? The one that comes closest to your ideal of text and pictures working together to make a beautiful whole?

          GILLIAN: I think I would say the new one, We’re Going to Build a Dam, to be published in March 2013.
          Here I’ve gone further than before to make the typeface part of the illustration as well as the text. For example, on a page where the dam breaks and there’s the word ‘CRACK!’ the typographical designer, Lisa Kirkham, actually makes the letters split apart.
          And where the text says ‘...a small stream rippling round a boulder’ the type does that movement in the illustration.
          The book, We’re Going to Build a Dam, will be published by Plaister Press, which Gillian McClure started.