Zack Rock and I haunt some of the same circles on the internet. I have a tshirt with his work on it thanks to Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves (how cool is that header?), and I have long admired his work thanks to some tea time at Seven Impossible Things here and here. And once upon a time in 2012, Zack wrote a hilarious joke for a Hallowtweet contest run by Adam Rex and Steven Malk.
I remember that well, cause in fun-facts-here-at-Design-of-the-Picture-Book both Julie Falatko and I were runners-up in that contest, and the real prize was getting her friendship. Start of an era, for sure. (Although Zack did get an original piece of Adam Rex art, and we’d both admit to coveting that a little. See below!)
So. I’ve had my eye out for this book for years. Years! And I was so happy that Zack spent some time chatting with me about this smorgasbord of stuff and story. He also said he “answered the living daylights” out of these questions, so I sure hope you enjoy the living daylights out of them like I did.
One thing I know that’s true of kids is that they love a billion teensy and scrutinize-able details in books. Your book starts out with such cool stuff on the endpapers, that I almost (only almost) don’t want to keep going! Do you have any kind of catalog for these curiosities, or did you just create anything and everything that felt right? Is there a backstory for each of these elements?!
I drew whatever felt right, “right” being subject to how exhausted my imagination was at the time. And though I’d like to leave the history of the curios up to the readers’ interpretation, I carry a backstory for each in my mind—some more convoluted than others.
For instance, in the museum there’s an antique, penny arcade cabinet inspired by the Musée Mécanique, which houses scores of these old contraptions in San Francisco. So to honor them, I fitted my museum’s machine with a tiny, top-hatted automaton of one of SF’s most curious citizens: Norton I, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of America (a real guy). So plenty of thought went into that curio.
(I love the way this whole book starts. I feel like I’m in really good hands.)
Thanks! I like to consider myself the Allstate of illustrators.
What’s your studio like? Do you have trinkets and tschotskes or a cool window view?
Believe it or not, I’m allergic to collecting stuff, so my studio is bare as a monk’s cell. My mother, however, has a fondness/compulsion for antiquing in bulk; almost none of her massive collection of furniture and doodads got past the door of my childhood home without having first seen several generations of use. It lent the crowded house an air of the same well-worn nostalgia that permeates the pages of my book.
Surely you’ve hidden some easter eggs in these pages. Any hints? Any behind-the-scenes stories?
Now I regret not hiding an actual Easter Egg in the museum. Honestly, nearly everything in the book is an Easter Egg, since there’s a secret story encased in each curio. But instead of cracking those open, I’ll share a behind-the-scenes tour of the book’s present day setting.
I created the book while living in Seattle, and Pacific Northwest references are littered throughout it. The license plate on the VW Bug in the first scene reads “FRMTTRL,” an allusion to the massive concrete Fremont Troll lurking beneath the Seattle’s Aurora Bridge. The museum exterior is based on the old town hall in Bellingham, WA, and the fictional island it crashed on is named for Washington State’s notorious children’s writer, Sherman Alexie. A Washington State ferry, the Olympic Mountains, a totem pole from Pike Place Market, and a handful of other Puget Sound souvenirs also make an appearance in the book.
This book has a real undercurrent of ignored things being a treasure with a story. Are you a treasure hunter or a treasure-leaver-for-somebody-else? (I think that’s what making books is, so you are that one for sure. I guess what I’m asking is why do you think HHH was such a collector of stories, and do you see any parallels in your own life of creative curating?)
Ooo, books as treasures to be discovered, I like that! Makes me sound like a pirate.
Homer is an underdog; nobody would look at him and assume his adventures extend beyond an expedition to the local sushi restaurant. He identifies himself with the object’s he curates, so he surrounds himself with the lost and neglected, and by exhibiting their rich history to the world he literally shares his own biography.
What came first to you in this story: words or pictures? Can you talk to being a picture book creator who deals with both parts? (And in case anyone’s wondering, my favorite line is this one: My luggage may be dusty. But my hat still fits.)
Ha, that’s the one line written entirely by my editor Aaron! He suggested it while editing the book, and I thought it was great too, so we kept it in.
Being an author/illustrator isn’t terribly different than being solely a writer, the main distinction is that you have a visual language to express the story as well. So I can employ the duel butterfly nets of text and images to capture the picture book ideas that flutter into view, jotting notes alongside small thumbnail sketches as I try to pin down plot/character/theme details. It becomes a balancing act of seeing which of the two, words or images, best conveys what needs to be communicated. What’s your creative process like? Any weird routines? What’s your medium of choice?
My only real habit—creative or otherwise—are the nightly walks I take after work, allowing my legs and mind to wander. In fact, I got the original idea for Homer Henry Hudson during one of these constitutionals.
And for picture books I work almost exclusively in watercolor, though for other projects I work in pen and ink, digitally, or with accidental food stains.
Who are your literary and artistic heroes?
They’re all in the book! Along with Shaun Tan, Maurice Sendak and Lisbeth Zwerger—who I painted into a restaurant scene—there’s references to Søren Kierkegaard, Jorges Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Renee Magritte, Herman Melville, JD Salinger, George Orwell, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Schulz, and of course, Homer. Even my favorite comedian, Paul F Tompkins, whose podcasts kept me company during the long hours of illustrating the book, has a cameo as a pipe-smoking painting.
Do you have a favorite piece of artwork hanging in your house? Or a favorite tune that feels like art?
A few years ago, Adam Rex held a contest to see who could fit the best Halloween haiku into the constraints of a tweet. To my surprise he picked mine, and to my utter flabbergastination he went on to illustrate it and sent me the original art! It’s incredible. I framed it above my art desk as a reminder that, with hard work and dedication to my craft, I may one day hope to be the poor man’s Adam Rex.
Why books for kids?
One of the most valuable skills to possess is the ability to approach the world and its inhabitants with wonder, curiosity and interest. What’s great about kids is that they do this naturally and without being self-conscious. My hope is that Homer Henry Hudson’s Curio Museum and future books will be something readers carry with them as they grow older and are tempted to lose that wonder, reminders there’s so much more to the world, the things in it, and yourself to discover if you approach life with an open heart.
Another book for Creative Editions about the power of stories, this time from the perspective of an acrobatic pig.
How can we buy your book?
What did I miss?
There are humanoid pears hanging in the first illustration of the museum interior, bottom of the page. Look past the table leg and Grecian urn. See that? It’s a butt!I’m pretty sure that’s the first butt mention on this blog. Have any treasure-hunters? Or fans of hidden picture art? Since we all love talking dogs, this book is a great choice for all readers everywhere.