Here is an interview with Michael Rex written by Mellisa Eisen Azarian that I received for Sprouts.
Melissa Eisen Azarian is a freelance writer and co-chair of her PTO’s Visiting Authors Committee. Her first children’s book, The Amistad Mutiny: From the Court Case to the Movie, was released by Enslow Publishers in 2009. Azarian14L@aol.com
Michael Rex is the author/illustrator of Goodnight Goon, which reached #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List. He has written and illustrated over twenty books. He grew up in Chatham, New Jersey and is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts. Recently, he moved to Leonia, New Jersey, where he is busy working on Fangbone! Third Grade Barbarian! In January, Putnam released the first two books in this new graphic novel series for elementary readers.
Here is the Interview:
Your mom is the Administrative Director at a library. How much did her working at a library influence your career choice?
I was there often as a kid and she brought home lots of books for me. However, I remember more art books than novels. Collections of cartoons, “How To” books and books on movie making.
She could buy books at a good discount, so she bought me “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way” when it first came out. I was never a big superhero guy, but I did learn many basic drawing techniques from that book.
What other factors influenced your decision to become an author/illustrator for children?
After graduating from SVA, I was interested in cartooning, and I was working as a video editor and I was always drawing. My work was getting silly, and kind of cute. It dawned on me that children’s illustration might work for me. I began to spend time at libraries in Manhattan and in bookstores. What grabbed me was that there was no one style that was popular. Every book looked different. Each book had its own feel. It seemed to be a genre, or format, that let an artist use their visual style to support, and add to a story.
What were your biggest obstacles, either academically or professionally?
Biggest hurdle academically? That’s easy. I hated school. Hated it every day from fifth grade to eleventh. In twelfth grade I went to Morris County Vo-Tech half a day to study commercial art. I loved it.
I hated school because I was very unorganized and that translated into being a “bad student” and being a bad student meant you were dumb. I was terrible at math and kept doing the same math classes over and over until I was a Junior and I still hadn’t passed algebra.
Professionally, I think the biggest hurdle is getting that first book. After that, I think the biggest hurdle is to convince editors and art directors that you can do more than one thing.
Can you describe the path of your career leading up to your success with Goodnight Goon?
I worked pretty steadily on picture books from 1995 to 2003. I had done well as a freelancer, but some years were better than others. I think it was 2002 that was kind of a bad year financially, and I began to think about other options. After I got married, I started going to grad school for a degree in Visual Arts Education. My goal was to get a teaching job and still do one book a year.
I had known Tim Travaglini for years and he was now at Putnam. We were having lunch and I mentioned Goodnight Goon to him and he started laughing right away. He signed the book up quickly, and about that time I started teaching art full time at Lehman High School in the Bronx.
I worked on Goon all through my first year. (Some of the pencil sketches were done while waiting to be picked for jury duty!) When it came out, I was starting my third year of teaching, and it hit the best seller list pretty fast. I was shocked. Here I had given this up as my day job, and now I was finally “successful.”
When you reach #1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List, does someone official notify you or do you find out the same way as the rest of us shlubs, by seeing it in the newspaper?
I found out while in a grad school class. Tim texted me ”#1.” For about a half hour I participated in class, but my head was spinning. I just figured that’s not what he’d meant. Finally, during a break I called him and he let me know. It was quite a moment.
Sir Anthony Hopkins once said that after he won the Oscar, he thought, “Oh good, now I can make really bad movies.” After making #1, did you feel any similar sense of relief, or was it the reverse? Did you feel more pressure?
Actually, I figured I should just go on doing what I’m doing. Having a best seller really means that you connected with an audience, and if there was a science to it, we could all do it.
What it did do, was give me confidence to pitch ideas that were a little less traditional. I realized that I’d been self-editing myself for years, making sure my stuff had as wide appeal as possible. And I think I might have made my work a little bland.
Right now I’m doing stuff that is totally “me,” warts and all….which brings me to a big point. We are all told to write what we know. That’s great advice. But we should also write who we are. Goon is a equal parts snarky and sincere, and I think that’s how my wife might describe me.
Be yourself. If you find it funny, write it. If you get good enough, your writing will communicate what you find funny about something, and others will see it that way too.
Tell us about your new series and what inspired it.
For a very long time I’d wanted to do something a little older, and action oriented. I had some different ideas…one was Third Grade Hercules…one was Third Grade Zombie…but none of them clicked. Out of frustration one night I made a list of every genre type that I’d like to draw. Mummies, Vampires, Robots…and connected them to the “Third Grade” title…barbarian appeared on the list and that was it. I immediately started laughing, and the situations and jokes just started to roll.
The idea was to have this barbarian kid stuck in the modern world, and he has to go to school.
When I pitched it to Tim, he got it right away, and he suggested the comic book approach.
Have you switched from picture books to graphic novels now, or are you going to keep doing both?
I’m going to work on some books aimed at older readers for a while. One reason being that I’ve had more than one school tell me they have to bring in an author who will appeal to kids up to, say, fifth grade.
The other reason is now that my boys are a little older (in 2nd grade and K), I’m being inspired by the situations they get into. So it just seems like a natural progression. Also, marketwise picture books are having a tough time, and readers and librarians are looking for more books for young children who read well.
I do love picture books, and would like to do some more, but it really comes down to time.
Do you still teach full-time?
When I pitched Fangbone they came back with a three-book deal. I either had to pass on it, or leave teaching. Oddly, of all people, my wife was the first to suggest going back to freelancing full-time.
How did it go when you visited 3,000 kids in Vegas in one week?
Vegas was great! I went to five schools in five days. I did big assemblies, and five presentations a day. I even did a middle school that went over really well. At night, I sat around in my hotel and wrote. Really.
On an episode of Celebrity Apprentice that aired last March, you illustrated a picture book created by the women’s team. How did this opportunity come about?
I’ve known Margery Cuyler for years, and she was approached to be on the show and act as a judge. They asked her for artists who worked on computers and who were fast. She suggested me and Vincent Nguyen.
When the celebrities were brainstorming picture book ideas, did any of them do or say anything that would make a roomful of SCBWI members cringe?
Yeah. It was tough not to step and in and point them in the right direction. But I wasn’t allowed to. I had to do what they told me. I could say, “Well, if we do that, this will happen” if they were really going off on odd/unworkable ideas. But that was it. But I really did draw and color a 24 page book in under 10 hours, and they were actually all very nice to me.
And yes, they were making all the first time author mistakes. At one point, they had this neat little idea that would have made a good little book and was very simple…but they thought it wasn’t a “story” so they chucked it. I really wanted to chime in and say…that’s a decent idea.
All in all, it was a fun experience, and gives me something to talk about at parties.
Thanks, Melissa, for the interesting interview!