Friday, 21 June 2013

Interview with the super-talented Emma Chichester Clark

I am very pleased to welcome Emma Chichester Clark to the blog and hear about the fascinating journey behind her pictures and stories. 

Emma, how did you meet your lovely dog, Plum, and what inspired you to start chronicling her antics?

I met Plum when my sister told me she was getting a puppy. Luckily there was another one going spare and so I grabbed it! It was on its way to Battersea Dog’s Home – can you imagine? That was Plum – eight weeks old. 

The diary began a few months before I put it online. I’d done a visual diary before about my own life –drawing one or two events for each day and it was fun to do but using Plum’s voice is more fun because she is very frank and uninhibited.

Have you always had pets - would you tell us about some of them?

I have always had pets. There were always dogs when we were children, as well as bantams, mice, rabbits and various insects and a very old pony that hated being ridden. When I was older I had cats, the last two – Posy and Gizmo were sworn enemies – Posy was a tricky tortoiseshell and Gizmo was white with a black blob and a black tail and almost nothing is nicer than going to sleep with one cat curled up in the small of your back and the other against your tummy – both purring. 

Tell us about your journey into the world in the world of children's books.

I had a bit of a struggle to get into children’s books. After many visits to publishers with ideas and dummies for books, I sort of gave up. At least I gave up on children’s books and went to the Royal College of Art where I spent three years on the Illustration course. It was brilliant and by the end I was working in a completely different way, using oil pastels mixed with olive oil, making pictures that were more like paintings. I worked for a few years doing adult book covers and magazine illustration until one day the phone rang and an editor at Bodley Head asked me to come and show her my portfolio. She was looking for an illustrator for a book of stories for children. My portfolio was full of dark gloomy pictures – completely unsuitable – but this editor – Rona Selby, who is now at Andersen Press – said ‘Why don’t you go away for 3 weeks and see if you can come up with a more suitable style?’ It was unbelievably exciting and I rushed off and bought watercolours and pencils. I knew it was what I wanted and I knew that the way I had been working was not really me – I knew I wanted to find a way to work that came more naturally and felt as natural as my own handwriting - and that’s what happened, and the book happened, and there’ve been lots more since then. So I was very, very lucky.

What do you look for in a really good picture book?

That is a difficult question. I think my favourite books have one thing in common and that is honesty. If I feel I’m being manipulated by the text or that the illustrator is drawing in someone else’s style or they’re too sentimental or too fashionable – too much technique, I’m not very interested. I love books that come from the heart – and they do stand out – like Beegu by Alexis Deacon, or Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley and Neal Layton – there are loads more – those are just the first two I thought of!

Whose artwork and writing do you enjoy?

I love Charles Addams – I used to pore over a book of his cartoons as a child – Homebodies. I adore William Steig – Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was one of my favourite books, and of course I love anything Quentin Blake does- The Dancing Frog, How Tom beat Captain Najork, The Green Ship – and all the recent paintings he has done for hospitals, which you can see in his book Beyond The Page. I love Ludwig Bemelmans- the Madeline books – that seemingly simple line and wash.

There are so many brilliant illustrators now. I think Lauren Child and Sara Fanelli are both wonderful and have had an extraordinary influence on the way children’s books look today. 

Where do you write and draw?

At the moment I draw in the smallest darkest room in our house but I’m about to move into a new studio in the garden. It’s not quite finished, so I’m waiting and waiting, desperate to move…

How do you gather inspiration for your stories?

I don’t know! I went on holiday in April to India and suddenly wrote three stories. That never happens. I think it’s because I’m always rushing towards a deadline or trying to think up something for Plumdog Blog, and suddenly, on holiday I had nothing to do. So clearly, I need more holidays. 

Are we allowed a sneak peek at any any drawings in the pipeline?

Here are some pictures from Pinocchio. It has been rewritten, by Michael Morpurgo and I’ve just finished illustrating it. 

I’m working on roughs for a new picture book about a bear called George and a little girl called Clementine – they look like this… 

What is your most favourite snack?

Ooooh… well, it was Twirls, but I’ve had to ban them as they were beginning to take over my life. Also croissants. So now it’s anything dreary and unfattening and healthy. Dry boring Ryvita? 

What are a few of your favourite places in the world?

I love Suffolk and I love Greece – especially an island called Hydra. I love where I live because of the Thames where I walk with Plum, and also Richmond Park. London is greatly improved when you have a dog. I never used to go to parks or walk anywhere except to the shops. 

How did you come up with the characters of Melrose and Croc?

Melrose and Croc began with Melrose who was named after the hotel I was staying in, in New York. While I was there I saw a small ancient Egyptian ceramic crocodile in an auction house and he had such character and charm, I had to introduce him to 


Of your characters, who has been your favourite to draw?

Plum is easily my favourite to draw because I LOVE her! So it gives me pleasure each time. But I did love Melrose and Croc too. Perhaps they’d be next favourite. I enjoyed Pinocchio very much – he has collaged clothes and each time I stuck them on it seemed to give the drawing a lift.

It’s always fun to revisit characters – the challenge is whether you can make them look the same each time. Sometimes they just refuse to cooperate – that Lily in Blue Kangaroo- I think I know what she looks like but then I go back to the book and she’s completely different! 

How do you organise your day and stay motivated?

My motivation comes partly from deadlines and partly from guilt and partly from wanting always to be making something. I panic about TIME. I always seem to have lists and lists of things I have to do or want to do and I’m mentally ticking them off all day while watching the clock. Before I start work I take Plum to the park where we meet all our friends – or sometimes we march along the river, so I usually start work at 10. Then I will work solidly till about 3.30 – a bit after the play finishes on Radio 4 – and take Plum for another walk… and then I’ll work a bit more. If I have a deadline, I’ll work into the evening.

I don’t understand how people manage to relax and not work all the time – I mean how do people get everything done?? After work, there’s emails and phone calls and then there’s blogging and tweeting and what about eating and seeing friends and doing NOTHING? How do YOU do it? I’d love to know! 

Follow Plum's adventures at:

and see a list of Emma's brilliant books here:


  1. Very good interview, rather jealous! you actually got to talk to her! :)

  2. I love Emma's illustrations, especially her buildings and interiors, and I love her blog. A great interview, Susie.

  3. I was already a fan of ECC's work and it's great to learn about her process. Thanks for the interesting questions. I'm keeping an eye out for Clementine!

  4. I enjoyed reading this because I adore reading about Plum's adventures. I follow the blog and the twitter feed because I don't want to miss anything. Emma and Plum always put a smile on my face and lift my spirit.

  5. It’s great to see good information being shared and also to see fresh, creative
    ideas that have never been done before.

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