Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Interview with a Pro - Viviane Schwarz

Here is a very inventive and talented person who creates very special picture books. Viviane Schwarz is the lovely lady behind some super duper stories and pictures, and she has very sweetly let me ask her some questions to share with you all.

When and how did the writing and drawing all start?
My earliest memories of drawing and writing are of scrawling on the back of reams of used printer paper that my dad brought home from work. I was trying to write before I knew how to, thinking that if I just kept at it I would produce something readable.
I was always drawing, mapping, inventing, building... it was all one thing. I drew maps of mars, plans for a lido with huge animal-shaped diving towers and slides, I investigated pop-up books and recreated the mechanisms, dictated stories to my parents and performed them with puppets... I wanted to create the things I saw in my head, and make up more, I never cared what medium they were in.

Here are a couple of diary cartoons about it.

Tell us a bit about your two very latest books, The Sleepwalkers and Welcome to your Awesome Robot.

Welcome to your Awesome Robot is a project I have been meaning to do for a while. It was very fortunate that Flying Eye Books was just looking for unusual ideas because I could not have sold it to a traditional UK picture book publisher. It’s a comic, and an activity book, and a manifesto for encouraging and supporting creativity in a family, with mutual respect. It’s also a story about building an awesome robot, but the other stuff is more important.

The Sleepwalkers is my first graphic novel, and I am so proud of it - it was a lot of work.
When I was a child, I had dreadful nightmares all the time. I really suffered - I didn’t sleep at all for nights in a row, and when I did the dreams were absolutely terrifying. I often fell asleep in school. My mother tried to help me, she said “When you have a bad dream, try calling me in your dream, I will come and kill the monsters.” So I did... I learned to realise that I was dreaming, and to call for help, and often it worked. My mother turned up in my dream (not that I’d seen that movie yet then, but it was just like angry Sigorney Weaver in “Aliens”) and she helped me defeat the nightmares. It was the beginning of me learning to take charge of my dreams - sometimes I just woke myself up, other times I paused and rewound the dream and tried to fix it. It really shaped the way I am thinking and dealing with things as an adult - I know that there are many things to be scared of, and that it is important to deal with them, not add to them. Being brave doesn’t mean that you don’t fear anything, but that you do the right things even if you are afraid. And everyone needs help sometimes, that doesn’t mean they are weak. My books are all to some extent about that.

The Sleepwalkers is the book that is most particularly influenced by my childhood nightmares. I am hoping that it will be read by children who have nightmares as well, and that they feel taken seriously. I am trying to tell them the same that my mother told me: you are not alone, even if there is only you in the dark, there are people who care about you, and there are stronger things than those nightmares in your head.

The book is mainly an episodic story about a team of nightmare-fighting heroes, but it also comes with some little things you can do in the real, waking world: make a tasty milkshake, make a toy monkey that will be a friend. Little rituals like that can be really powerful, and remind children that they have some agency in the world, even if it is very scary at times.

Are you able to tell us what you are currently working on?

Sure! I am working on a dummy for a new book that Alexis Deacon wrote, it’s very funny and quite philosophical, like the other two. I’m also designing characters for a couple of other projects, and planning more craft books.

What are the hardest challenges about writing stories and creating illustrations?

Managing my brain space. It’s hard to switch between projects, and sometimes I get really tired out.
That’s why I live in London - there is always something to go and see, and people to meet for coffee and a chat about all the things one could invent.

Whose stories and illustrations do you admire the most?

Tove Jansson’s.

Do you visit many schools and libraries to meet your readers? What does this involve?

I don’t generally do school visits at the moment. (explanation here). I do occasionally run a workshop, do a panel talk or even visit a school, and I really love doing it, but if I did any more I’d burn out. I’m just not made for that kind of thing, I’m a very specialised creature.

Where do you write and draw?

I have an old-fashioned studio space in central London that I share with some very nice people, which is where I do all my drawing and painting. I do my digital work at home. When I really have to concentrate, I go to a cafĂ©. I like hearing many people talk all at once, and I can completely ignore what they say, it’s just noise. I also like people bringing me tea, it makes me feel important and serious.
Sometimes I visit Alexis to work on things, and we watch movies, I scribble tiny stuff on the sofa and he draws huge things on his amazing standing desk.

How do you create your artwork?

I prefer to start artwork on paper - there is an odd disconnect when I make the artwork digitally from scratch. I have a Cintiq tablet that is like a huge computer screen I can to draw on, on an industrial strength metal arm so I can move it about... but it’s a bit like drawing on glass. Great for colouring in and editing, though.
I sometimes use photography as well. I have a collection of analogue cameras, including a big old Rolleiflex twin lens that belonged to my grandfather which takes amazing pictures. (here are some). I love taking pictures of very boring buildings, using long exposure so all the people moving about become invisible, then drawing in new occupants. Here are some.

You have illustrated some stories by your great friend, author and  illustrator Alexis Deacon ... how did you two meet and how has your work coincided in this happy way?

I met Alexis around the time that I first moved to London, about a decade ag
o. We had published our first books around the same time. I liked his work and was curious to meet him.

He really helped me adjust to the life of a freelance children's book artist in the city. You need quite a thick skin for that job, it can get to you if everyone around you thinks deeply caring about children's books is somehow immature. No one would say that of a primary school teacher, but then they don't tend to live in houses covered with picture books, art materials, toys, colour samples, interesting twigs... I had been living a life where people found it odd (maybe charming, but still odd) that I got "childishly" excited about things like a particularly interesting tree or ice cream or dressing up as a superhero. They also didn't generally share my passion for taking apart and reassembling stories all day long, analysing every book and movie in detail... - It was wonderful to meet someone who didn't think all that was weird at all.

For a while I rented a room in his flat, and we invented endless drawing games and stories. I think of him as family.

Do you prefer illustrating your own stories or those written by others?

I like both. It’s a very different challenge... I love to construct a book from scratch but it’s great to sometimes already have a strong structure to work with. The books that I made for Alexis were especially written for me, about things I love to draw.

How do you get ideas for a picture book?

I have a list of books I want to make which I came up with as a child, and I am still not through them. All my books are the ones that I wanted to exist when I was a child.

What is your favourite outfit you've ever worn?

I love wearing my mother’s old clothes. She is very fabulous, and every so often gives me something really great from the seventies. She also knits me dresses sometimes. There isn’t anything better to wear than a dress knitted by my mother.

What is your favourite place in England?

My desk!

Can you recommend a good independent bookshop?

I lived in Peckham for years, and my neighbourhood bookshop was Review. The dog in “The Sleepwalkers” is based on the lovely dog who used to live there. It’s a wonderful place, just a tiny friendly shop on a street corner. You can buy a book there and go have a coffee nearby. All the coffee around that shop is brilliant.

Do you have any pets, and what are they like?

I don’t at the moment. I used to keep finches, and I wish I could keep a parrot. I love birds. My favourite pet was a very plucky red canary called “Hellboy” who cheered me up no end when I first moved to London and was a very poor artist.

When you worked on There are Cats in this Book, did you have to study real cats much in preparation or did they all come out of your head?

Oh yes. The two bigger cats are based on a friend’s cats. I used to stay at her house when I was going to Cornwall to teach, and I was always impressed by the amazing whiskers of the one and the strange doormat-surfing skills of the other.

They kind of changed, though, and after a while I noticed I had kind of based them on the creative team working on the book, the designer, the editor and myself. Just a bit.

What is the most disgusting thing you have ever tasted?

Eel and cucumber soup. I decided to be polite and eat it no matter what.  It tasted like angry mud and I went to lie down in the basement later so I didn’t have to see anyone and I stared at the ceiling and felt completely awful and like everything would be bad for the rest of my life. It was that kind of soup.

Do you have any advice for artists or writers?

Make something every day.

Thank you Viviane, for such a lovely time hearing about you and your work.

Explore more of Viviane's intriguing creations here:


  1. I'll be thinking about angry mud soup for the rest of the day I suspect. Thanks for posting such a lively interview. I've only just discovered your blog and plan to come back lots. I like your illustrations too.

    1. Hello Mrs Brown, a warm welcome to the blog. Thanks for visiting. I hope you'll enjoy looking around at the other interviews too.

      Yes, angry mud soup is a very strong phrase! Thanks, Susie.