Jackie Morris is an internationally known artist and author with many titles to her name. Her latest, I AM CAT has just been shorlisted for the Bishop Stortford Picture Book Award. Her previous title, The Cat and the Fiddle, is also longlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal. We caught up with the permanently busy author/illustrator for an insight on how she works and creates her wonderful books and paintings. Here’s what she said.
PB Hello, Jackie. Thank you for agreeing to talk to pirottablog. What inspired you to write and illustrate I Am Cat?
JM I love to dream, am fascinated by dreams, by what happens when we are sleeping. And watching my cats and my dogs deep and lost in sleep I wondered what it might be in their paw twitching dream, they might be dreaming about. There is also the courage of being brave enough to follow your dreams. We all need that.
PB Is the main cat in the book based on a real one, perhaps one of your own cats?
JMI have lived my life with nine cats so far and they are all in the book on the
copyright page. Recently my life was filled with gingercats, but sadly Pixie and Maurice, who are both in I am Cat are no longer with me. Elmo still is though, ginger and proud.
PB You never reveal the cat-narrator’s name in the book. Does she have one?
JM I used Pixie, Elmo and Maurice for the pictures of gingers. People used to say to me that they didn’t know how I could tell them apart and yet they are so very different, in look and in nature. Pixie was a gentle creature, Mauice was the one in a lifetime love of my life and Elmo, well, naughty Elmo. He seems to have grown up since the other two died and is about to have a shock as I am waiting to pick up two Snow Bengal kittens. He will no longer be the baby of the family.
PB Your love for animals comes across in your books. Do you live close to nature?
JM No, I live in a house! But my best ever question I was ever asked by a child during a school visit was ‘why do you choose to live in a place where there are no houses.” He seemed a little taken aback when I said it was because I didn’t like people very much. So I elaborated my answer. Individually we are ok. As a species we are pretty hateful. We do not give other life on earth the respect I believe it deserves. Neither do we give this to each other. But I do like space around me. I can see the sea from my studio window. ( Once when asked what my religious views were I replied that I could see a cathedral from my studio) .
At night it is dark where I live. No street lights. I can stand in my rather wildly overgrown garden where snakes dwell in summertime, and look up into a sky textured thick with stars. Sometimes it seems that they pin up the night with their brightness.
In my kitchen there are often newts and lizards. A toad lives in my porch. I would never kiss him, for that would be a waste of a good toad ( princesses being rather useless things, while toads are beautiful) This year a swallow flew into my studio, and out again. I have badgers and foxes in the garden sometimes, and buzzards and chough and raven fly over.
PB Have you always loved animals?
JM Yes. They seem much more honest than people. Animals and birds. I love the undersea creatures too. Especially whales.
PB When you write and illustrate a book, what comes first, the pictures or the text?
JM Depends. With Icebear it was one picture, of a child surrounded by polar bears, like the centre of a flower. I then had to work out how to get the child there, how to get him out. With the new one I am working on it is the text, so simple, but the pictures are a tangle of mischief. And writing and illustrating works so well for me as i can write with the pictures and the words and get paid twice as much. Which is nice.
PB Your texts are always very lyrical. How long does it take you to write a picture book?
JM Sometimes about 14 years or so. Sometimes I carry them with me for months and months, writing down snippets and snappets and sometimes, as with Little Dragon Small, it lived inside me trying to find a way to be, starting from an egg that hatches on a blue sky day and then when I finished the last brush stroke on the last picture in The Cat and the Fiddle I walked up to the top of the hill with the words wriggling out like a dragon from an egg until CRACK, about 3/4 of an hour. Elmo helped.
I write using a pen, a fountain pen, in moleskine books. Then I come home and sometimes type text on a type writer, before putting into a computer. Each different way of writing uses different muscles for thinking.
PB And how long does it take you to do the illustrations?
JM About a year because I have a butterfly mind. This is how it works.
1. I have a brilliant idea. But oh no, I have a deadline, and have to get something finished. so
2. I carry the new idea around for a while, playing with it, tasting it, taking it out for walks until
3. I find that I have to get it out onto paper and i can’t work on what I am doing and anyway I am three quarters of the way through a book and have realised that I can’t paint and no way is it as good an idea as i thought and this new idea is sosososos much better, and anyway, why am I bothering because i can’t paint anyway! Argh. Madness.
4. then it’s out, and I can leave it to rise, like good bread for a while while I get on with finishing what I should be doing.
PB What painting medium do you use?
JM I paint with watercolour, Winsor and Newton Artists Quality Watercolour on Arches paper, and now I also use gouache. And I paint with sable brushes now. Winsor and Newton series 7, and one other very special brush that is about 50 years old, but that’s another story.
PB What happens to the pictures once the book is printed? Do you keep them at home?
JM It is very very difficult to make a living in publishing. And I am a single mum. Over the years I have built up a reputation as an artist and am very lucky that many people who buy my books also like my paintings. So, I sell originals and prints of works from the books. I sell through an online gallery, and also find that my books sell very well in galleries, excellent well, so use them to promote book sales.
PB Many of the cats featured in I Am Cat are members of endangered species? How do you feel about that?
JM It grieves me that when my children have children of their own tigers in the wild may be only a memory, because of humans. For this reason I am trying to use my work to raise awareness of the damage done by humans. I work with The Snow Leopard Trust. And also 21st Century Tiger in the UK. I still want to do a whale book, but when I think of how empty the seas are and how they struggle to find each other in the empty oceans I can find only sadness. I know a whale story will come to me. Stories do. They come unbidden sometimes, but it is very important to give them the space and the silence in which to enter the mind and be heard. Perhaps that is the real reason I live in a place where there are no houses. That should have been my answer to that question. A raven told me the story of the Icebear. So maybe I do live close to nature. And ravens, as we all know, are very eloquent birds.
PB What are you doing to promote I Am Cat?
JM To promote I am Cat I have been blogging. At the moment there is a competition to win a small fragment of a painting. All you have to do is put a review on Amazon for the book, and a winner will be chosen in early December. Next year I plan to visit small independent bookshops to do signings and events and also I have an exhibition in Torquay, maybe one in Foyles in London. And I am getting kitten, which will lift my heart and my cat’s blog. And I have 3 books out next year:
East of the Sun and West of the Moon: a retelling of an old old tale of the White Bear King.
Little Evie in the Darkwoods illustrated by Catherine Hyde
Song of the Golden Hare.
And my latest passion is wood engraving, and I hope to be illustrating a book by Robin Hobb, with wood engravings to make a thing of beauty.
Well, Jackie, thank you for that insight into how a picture book is given birth, and how an artists works. We look forward to the little ones in our families getting their copies of I AM CAT this Christmas, and to your forthcoming books. We wish you the best of luck.
Visit Jackie’s online gallery, The House of Golden Dreams.
Jackie also has a wonderful blog called We Are Three Ginger Cats Tales.
Befriend Jackie on facebook.
Drop in on The Snow Leopard’s Trust‘s website
Book Review: I Am Cat, by Jackie Morris
The Cat And The Fiddle, a Treasury of Nursery Rhymes – by Jackie Morris