Interview: Calef Brown

May 14, 2008

Interview: Calef Brown

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by Nate Williams

Calef Brown has been working as an illustrator since 1992. His clients include Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Calef’s work has been used for advertising, book and CD covers, murals, and packaging. He has also written and illustrated four critically acclaimed children’s books beginning with Polkabats and Octopus Slacks in 1998. This was followed by Dutch Sneakers and Fleakeepers, Tippintown: A Guided Tour, and most recently Flamingos on the Roof–a 64 page collection of poems and paintings. Calef lives and works in Pasadena and Los Angeles, California, and is currently an instructor at Art Center College of Design.

Tell us about your first book? How did it come about? What was your inspiration and how did you go about getting it published?

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Cover– Polkabats and Octopus Slacks

I decided to try to create a children’s book in 1994.

Although I loved freelance work and being busy, I was feeling a little burnt out from the pace and the deadlines after doing a lot of jobs, mostly editorial assignments, full time for 3 years. I wanted to illustrate something of my own that would have a longer shelf life than the magazine pieces that I was doing, so I decided to slow down, get away from everything and see what I could come up with.

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Debt Burden for Bloomberg Magazine

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How Now Cover for Martha Stewart Kids

In the winter of 1995 I took a two-month trip to India with some sketchbooks and art supplies. I spent about a year there traveling around the country when I was twenty-one, which was a lot of fun, very inspiring, and influenced my work a lot, especially my sense of color. I decided to go back to some of my favorite places in the south, including Madras, Pondicherry, Madurai, and Mahabalipuram, and just meander around, see some sights, relax, write and draw. At first I tried coming up with more traditional stories written in prose, but I found myself more attracted to short pieces in the spirit of the nonsense verse I loved as kid–Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Peter Newell and others.

Being far away from my usual life and routines, by myself with no responsibilities made it a lot easier to concentrate on the project, and I had a good time working on it.

I returned home with a rough book dummy featuring twenty-five poems and accompanying black and white drawings.

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Dummy sketch for Bob from Flamingos on the Roof

Having no idea how to go about getting it published, I made fifteen copies of the dummy, added some samples of my color commissioned work and mailed it out to publishers. I sent some to specific editors if I could find names, and some I just addressed to the children’s dept.

I later found out that this is pretty much the wrong way to go about it, but after a dozen rejections (including some dummies returned unopened) I got an offer from Houghton Mifflin, and they published Polkabats and Octopus Slacks in 1998. I’ve done three other books with them since, and am working on a fifth one now.

You have written and illustrated several books. Is there a common theme or approach throughout your books.. or do you try something new with each one?

All of my books so far are collections of illustrated poems in a variety of lengths and meters, with the exception of Tippintown, which is one long poem with a common rhyme scheme for every two page spread.

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Cover– Tippintown

My approach so far has been pretty consistent­– to keep creating and building on the visual world where the stories take place.I try to bring humor, a vivid sense of character and imagination, and in terms of the writing, a well resolved idea and structure for each poem. The poems are written with the intention of being read aloud. I want them to be musical – some rhythmic, percussive and lively, others quiet and atmospheric. I’ve written some manuscripts in prose, and continue working on new approaches, but am not ready to try to get them published yet. The poetry seems to come more naturally to me.

Who is your audience? Are you surprised?

My audience seems to be a diverse group. I’ve gotten emails from parents who say that their kids as young as age two enjoy the illustrations and having the poems read to them, and many teachers have used the books to teach poetry to children from age five up to ages eleven and twelve. Lots of illustrators and designers seem to like the books, which is flattering, and then there are folks my parent’s age that tell me they love sharing the books with their grandchildren.

I guess I’m surprised and pleased with the response to the books from people of all ages.

Where do you get your ideas .. I know it’s hard to say .. but do think of most of your ideas while doing a specific activity? What is your approach for tapping into your creativity? Or getting out of creative road block?

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Dutch Sneakers and Fleakeepers

I go back and forth between writing and drawing in my sketchbooks, following trains of thought wherever they lead.Sometimes a drawing of a character or animal will suggest a story. A quick sketch of a goofy pirate inspired the poem Olf from Dutch Sneakers and Fleakeepers. Sometimes a word will be the catalyst.While scribbling some improvised nonsense in a sketchbook I wrote down the word tattlesnake, and a poem about a snake who spies on kids and tells on them to their parents pretty much wrote itself, to use an awful cliché.

Another source of ideas is rather odd, but has provided lots of material– I may suffer from some dyslexia, because I am constantly misreading things, especially if they are seen at a glance. For example I was in a supermarket walking along the frozen food aisle and in amongst the ice cream I thought I saw a carton labeled Alphabet Sherbet. In the split second before I looked more closely I thought “Alphabet Sherbet? Like Alphabet Soup or Alpha Bits Cereal? Do they make that?” It turned out to be Apricot Sherbet, or Assorted Sherbet or somesuch , but I really wanted to try some Alphabet Sherbet with little frozen letters.

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Alphabet Sherbet from Flamingos on the Roof

It also sounded like a gentler, less psychotic version of

“word salad”… Anyway, the idea stuck with me and became the first poem in Flamingos on the Roof.

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Some sketchbooks

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endpapers sketch– Flamingos on the Roof

My overall approach is to attempt to find inspiration wherever I am. I keep a notebook with me all the time, and try to stay aware and open to ideas.It seems like a good idea to spend time every day writing and drawing without any goals, even if it’s for just a little while.I have a lot of interest in the Surrealist practices of automatic writing and drawing, it’s amazing what your subconscious will produce and the connections that are made .The final poem in Flamingos on the Roof came from a dream I had where I was walking in a garden at night and looked down by my feet to find a live golden sphinx about the size of a kitten looking back at me. The piece is called Tiny Baby Sphinx:

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Tiny Baby Sphinx from Flamingos on the Roof

Tiny Baby Sphinx.
She looks at me and blinks.
I offer bits of catfood,
the kind that really stinks.
I wonder what she thinks about
at nighttime when she slinks about,
inviting other sphinxes out
to gather in the moonlight.

The other major source of inspiration for me is music. I try to think of the poems as songs that are recited, they need a rhythm, a cadence, and require a beginning, middle and an end like a good pop song. I’m definitely inspired by lyrics from people like W.S. Gilbert, Cole Porter, Hank Williams, Louis Jordan, Slim Galliard, Dylan, the Beatles, Ray Davies, Nick Drake, Robyn Hitchcock, Captain Beefheart, Beck….

I have played guitar most of my life, acoustic fingerstyle mostly.

My heroes are Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Jorma Kaukonen. I don’t have the talent or inclination to sing so I play instrumental stuff in open tunings. Since the strings are picked individually, rather than strummed, I find myself unconsciously thinking of the distinct notes as syllables of words, musical passages as sentences. This has helped me find another obtuse way of coming up with ideas for the poems, in this case, for translating musical phrases into written phrases– meters and beats for the poems. This is useful when I’m stuck and I can’t find the timing or rhythm of a particular poem– I’ll try to play around musically with the phrasing, substituting notes for words.

Generally when I feel blocked I try to let go and switch to another mode , reading, taking a walk, maybe working on something with a definite problem to solve like an illustration assignment, or I play Tetris– the only video game I’ve ever been remotely good at.

Which is your favorite poem In your most recent book Flamingos on the Roof? Why?

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Cover- Flamingos on the Roof

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paintings for Flamingos in progress

I have two favorite poems from the book. the first is Weatherbee’s Diner, a favorite because I worked on it over seven or so years, beginning with a goofy idea about a god-like figure who eats weather for dinner. It turned into a sort of nonsensical crossword puzzle that took a long time to finish, and was satisfying to solve.

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Weatherbee’s Diner from Flamingos on the Roof

The second favorite is Allicatter Gatorpillar, which is about– big surprise–a half-alligator, half-caterpillar creature who, by and by, becomes an Allibutter Gatorfly. It’s just idiotic, and fun to recite.

How long does it take you to complete a book? What’s the process?

The writing is ongoing. I have sketchbooks with lots of poems in various stages of completion, and drawings to go with them in the same states. I get a group of finished ones together that I think will make a good collection and send them to my editor. She gives me her picks of the best ones, and we usually agree on almost all of them. I begin to put together a dummy and refine the drawings to go with each piece, and either work with a freelance designer like George Mimnaugh , who designed the first three books, or as in the case of Flamingos, I design it myself with the help of my editor, the art director and a designer at Houghton. We decide on a trim size together, and I get feedback on the cover and title page ideas, and font choices.

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Dummy sketch for Sally from Flamingos on the Roof

Once we have a tight dummy together I start on the paintings, which usually take about two to three months, in between other assignments. I try to clear time so I can work on them exclusively for a few weeks straight, especially in the beginning.

Now that you are a well established author and illustrator of Children’s books.. do you still do much freelance illustration work? What’s the difference between these markets?

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Silent Retreat for The New York Times Magazine

I still do freelance jobs all the time. I depend on it, but I also really enjoy the variety of doing illustration for different audiences and markets. There’s a nice balance to doing quick editorial pieces and other freelance work along with the longer process of building a kid’s book. Different mindsets are involved. I also keep painting for myself and have the occasional small gallery show, and I participate in group shows that come up. For a couple years I’ve been doing some drawing-based stuff with ink and pen that’s more about improvisation and line than the shape and color based aspects of my illustration. Last year, with the design help of Keith Shore, I produced a zine called Clunkers, a tract of pithy verse inspired by the sound of dropping names. The poems reference Tupac Shakur, Betty Crocker, Princess Di, Trent Lott and Roger Daltrey, among others. Doggerel, I believe is the word for it. Not for kids, but not really for adults either. More nonsense.

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Not So Sure from Clunkers

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Trent Lott’s Old Confederate Recipe from Clunkers

What is the most satisfying thing about being an author? The process? Seeing people enjoy your creations? Spending endless hours alone ;) ? Etc

It’s very satisfying to me when I receive the first bound copy of a book. I like the realization that it’s finished, it’s a book now, after all that time spent as separate little chunks of nonsense in my brain and scribbles, then sketches, paintings…all the thousands of little decisions made until it’s done. “Wow”, I think, “I just spent half a year making a book about, among other things, applauding slugs, Poseidon’s toupee and wind-borne biscuits….something is really wrong with me.” But even more satisfying than creating something very silly and unnecessary, is the response I’ve gotten from kids, parents, teachers and librarians as well as other artists and writers who like the books and appreciate them. I often get emails from parents who tell me that the books have inspired their kids to read, or write their own poems and stories, or draw. I didn’t set out to do anything worthwhile but it seemed to happen somehow. Oh well.

What is your work environment like? Do you have a pet? What music is playing? What are you drinking?

I have a space in a shared studio building with some friends, but I mostly work at home in a wooden house in Pasadena that I share with my girlfriend, Anissa, two cats, and a small fuzzy dog. I have a room for painting, and a slightly less cluttered office/computer room. I usually do prefer some kind of music on, more likely quieter and instrumental if I’m writing, louder and with lyrics if I’m drawing or painting. I drink green tea most of the day, and can’t wake up without it.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on another book of poems for Houghton that is due out in the spring of next year, and am illustrating a picture book for Atheneum by Jonah Winter…doing some paintings for a group show of small works at Giant Robot in New York. Let’s see…I’m finishing up a four page piece for the next installment of BLAB! due out this fall, editing an audio reading of Flamingos with music, and lastly, I’ve started on another project with Keith Shore, who is designing a book dummy with some of my drawings and quasi-poems in the form of questions, which I’ll pitch to publishers later this year.

Calef’s books a

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