Friday, February 19, 2016

Interview with author/illustrator SUSIE LEE JIN

Susie Lee Jin was in my children's book illustration class at SVA some years ago. She went on to earn her MFA there and has worked as a free-lance illustrator doing a broad range of projects for an impressive list of clients. MINE! is her debut book as an author and illustrator. Congratulations!

Susie's story is told with only three different words: "mine" (repeated numerous times!), "ours", and "yours". This is energetic and hilarious storytelling pared down to the essentials! You will fall in love with these two adorable bunnies. 

It is exciting to hear about each artist's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours? 
Sure, I’d love to! Thanks for inviting me to share my story.  It all started with your class— you were my first children's book teacher, and I'm still using what you taught me about story boarding… Thank you, Monica!

How did MINE get started? What were some the stages?
I usually start a project by doodling.  I find a quiet place to sit with a stack of copy paper, pencils, and kneaded eraser, and I just sketch and daydream.  I draw characters and give them quirks, then try to picture how they might act and feel in different social situations.  They are partly imagined as well as loosely based on memories and people I know.  The whole exercise is pure self-entertainment. I know I’m on to a good idea if I’m having a good time.   

For MINE!, I began by sketching two bunny friends playing in the snow, chasing one another with snowballs and making snow bunny-angels.   I remembered sliding down an icy hill on an old coat with my big sister Virginia and exploring our neighborhood together, and these childhood memories jump-started my imagination.  

I drafted the dummy for MINE! half a dozen times before it started to come together. After sharing it with my writing critique partner and at a couple of children’s book events, I reworked it a few more times.  At this point (after about a year and a half!), I felt pretty good about the story.  I put it in a drawer to marinate for a month, intending to look at it with fresh eyes and tweak it just one more time before submitting it to a publisher.   

That fall, I brought MINE! to a portfolio review event at the Children’s Book Illustrator’s Group, where I met with art director Lucy Ruth Cummins of Simon & Schuster.  I was sitting on the edge of my chair as she looked through my book draft.  I recall her turning the pages and chuckling until she reached the end.  Her reaction alone really made my day. Then she offered to pass MINE! on to her editorial team, making no promises.  A wonderful surprise appeared in my email box that following New Year’s in the form of a book contract offer, from my thereafter awesome editor Justin Chanda.  It was an amazing journey to publication from there. Justin and Lucy had some great ideas for revising, and their input helped me make MINE! even better.  I’m so pleased and proud of my first picture book!

What was your favorite part of working on this book?
My favorite part was visualizing the relationships of the rabbits. I know their personalities well.  In particular, I really liked drawing and painting the tiny bunnies high-fiving after they make their getaway with the carrot.  

And the most difficult part? 
Mixing enough gouache paint for forty pages’ worth of picture book art!  MINE! is my biggest illustration project so far—since all the pieces were hand-painted, I wanted to make sure my color palette was consistent throughout the book.  Before starting on the final art, I sat hunched at my desk for a couple of days just squeezing out tubes of paint, mixing and remixing, and storing my paints in little labeled containers.  I was so paranoid I would not be able to exactly remix a rabbit fur color or something, hence all the prepping! And then, of course, actually making the forty pages of book art was quite a painting marathon. 

Where do you live and what is your studio like? What are your art materials? 
I live in Fort Lee, NJ, right across from George Washington Bridge and New York City.  My home studio is upstairs, and I think of it as three parts— one side is my messy artist “kitchen” with sink and faucet, cabinets, and a big closet for all my art supplies; the other side is my office with computer, scanner, printers, and a library of favorite children’s books; and nestled in the middle is my art table facing a tall window with great natural light. Within reach are lots of pencils and pens, pencil sharpener, eraser, loose copy paper, scissors and tape.  These are the materials I use the most.  My walls are dotted with sticky notes of sketches and ideas and art reference photos for various projects. I also have some framed pieces that inspire me— the amazing interior fold-out spread from Valeri Gorbachev’s ONE RAINY DAY; a few postcards  of drawings by Bill Traylor; and several carefree drawings created by my family members. 

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young? 
I was an avid reader.  I loved (and still love) reading and getting lost in stories, in the worlds of other people’s imaginations.  My favorite go-to books as a child were my illustrated GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES, RAGGEDY ANN AND ANDY stories by Johnny Gruelle, and my TREASURY OF PETER RABBIT AND OTHER STORIES by Beatrix Potter. Later I remember being especially enraptured by my beautiful copies of SWAN LAKE by Mark Helprin, illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, and PUSS IN BOOTS illustrated by Fred Marcellino. All of these books enchanted me.  And, yes, when I was not reading or riding my bike or exploring my neighborhood, I was probably making something out of crayons, cut paper, paint, mud, or you name it.  My mother encouraged me by gifting me a variety of art supplies, and I was often experimenting with combining materials.  I was so engrossed at times that everything else disappeared.

How did you decide you wanted to be an author and illustrator of children's books?
In addition to reading a lot as a kid, I also watched a LOT of television.  One of my favorite shows was READING RAINBOW with LeVar Burton.  I enjoyed listening to the stories as the camera panned over the book art, and I still remember how strongly they made me feel.  The shock of the fire and consoling community in A CHAIR FOR MY MOTHER; the desperation caused by drought and valiant Kipat shooting the storm cloud in BRINGING THE RAIN TO KAPITI PLAIN; and the empathy I felt for GREGORY, THE TERRIBLE EATER who like myself was a gastronomically picky child. The narrated books made me want to read and see more books.  One inspiring episode had a catchy song “Making a Book” that showed how to cut, glue, and sew together your own book with cardboard, paper, and yarn.  Another episode explained the four-color process printing of a picture book, and yet another featured a visit to an illustrator’s studio.  I was totally floored.  Later when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, these precious memories came back to me.  I loved creative writing and storytelling.  I loved children’s books.  I loved making art.  I decided to put these passions together and go for it.  

Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs?
I have been in the illustration business for over thirteen years now, and art as a career is unpredictable.  The “ups” are times of plenty— contracts-in-hand and lots of illustrations due, often at the same time!— and the “downs” are times of nothing-in-hand and trying to secure that next project.  Sometimes the whole business feels like a crapshoot!

During these lulls, one big challenge for me is maintaining self-momentum.  I’m constantly chiding myself while cheering myself on, “You can do it, Susie!”  I have one-woman art business meetings to outline a game plan for the day, week, month, and year.  I remind myself that my art can be whimsical, but not my work ethic.  When I’m not working on art for others, I keep myself busy developing my own dummy ideas and marketing plans. Running an art business, I wear a lot of hats and need to stay disciplined and manage my time well.  Good thing I love being my own boss!

Another “up” is getting to know and work with other artists and professionals who also love children’s books.   I’m not at all lonely in my work, because I love what I do; but working in my art space, I often am alone.  A regular challenge is to leave the vacuum of my art studio once in a while and see the world!  I go to book events and expos, schools full of budding readers, libraries and book stores and meet up with my artist-friends for professional advice, critiques of work-in-progress, and moral support.  These people affirm that I am not the only one in the world in the visual storytelling business.  Art is being made on a global scale, by unique people with talents to discover and admire and compete with.  

With all this global competition, rejections are a natural byproduct.  I have been rejected PLENTY. In general, though, the children’s publishing world has been a kind community to me.  I have found children’s art people to be gracious folk, and rejections often were/are accompanied by to encouraging notes and constructive criticism.  Whether via a form letter, handwritten note, or that silent non-reply that is in itself a rejection, rejection to me is proof positive that I am actively striving to find that editor or art director who “gets” me creatively.   I think of it as a search for a kindred spirit (nod to ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, ya’ll!).  You may get a hundred NO’s, but you just need one YES! to get published.

Being an author-illustrator is rewarding work and what I want to do each day.  When I see or hear kids reading my books, my heart feels very full.  I would not want to do anything else.

What are some of your other projects that you are currently working on? 
I’m currently working on picture book illustrations for a story about a little dog who gets adopted, as well as developing a few dummies of my own picture book and board book ideas.
Can you tell us about your experiences with children's books in the years building up to your debut with MINE?  
After your class, I went on to SVA's MFA Illustration program, which further expanded the publishing world for me.  My primary undergraduate studies at Duke University were English and elementary school education, so coming from a non-arts liberal educational background, this was indeed a new world for me to explore. I was able to focus on children's books writing and illustration for a FULL TWO YEARS.  And the people; oh, the amazing people!  The other students in the program were/are inspirational and diversely talented.  I also loved that my teachers had themselves made a lifetime commitment to the arts, and they created an engaging atmosphere to hone our illustration skills.  More importantly, they encouraged us to draw from our personal stories, to find our unique visual-storytelling voices. 

Entering the SVA MFA program was my first big commitment toward my dream of being a professional artist. At that time I decided to knock on as many doors as I could.  Being a student at SVA helped make those doors open.  Some of the highlights were two internships at Penguin's imprints G.P. Putnam's Sons and Phyllis Fogelman Books. I especially grew under the mentorship of amazing Art Director Cecilia Yung and her art/editorial team.  They graciously invited me into their offices to ask as many questions as I had in me, and I had a million-plus questions that they graciously answered!

I also spent a lot of time reading children’s books, at book stores and in Penguin’s resource library.  CAR WASH was a picture book they were working on at the time, and I remember poring over ATLANTIC, which had just come out.  Both titles were illustrated by fabulous children's book author-illustrator G. Brian Karas.  I’m telling you this because during a student's second year, the SVA MFA program facilitates a mentorship with a working visual artist.  I remember nervously emailing G. Brian Karas to inquire if he would consider being that person for me.  When he replied “Yes,” I was beyond excited.  Someone I looked up to was going to be by side for a whole year.  That it could even happen was fantastic.

I am a big believer in continuing education for a lifetime.  When I think about the start of my professional journey, I consider the School of Visual Arts as a launching point for me in many ways.  I consider myself lucky and blessed to have been a part of that magic.  Those opportunities and fellow artists helped me become the artist I am today.

And finally, do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Focus on creating your best work and personal voice— read a lot, write a lot, and draw a lot.  Then get your work out there.

To see more about Susie's artwork visit her website here
For more interviews in my series with my SVA Alums:  Enjoy!


Unknown said...

Enjoyed hearing about the trajectory of an illustrator - from early life, to education, to current work and how one can arrange a studio. I particularly liked the description of the balance between what might be the solitary work one does as an illustrator, to putting it out there for others, and finally, being part of the larger world of illustrators - indeed going from "mine" to "yours" to "ours" - Harris

Unknown said...

Another wonderful interview! Love reading these and Susie's book looks so cute :)

Di said...

Congratz Susie! Great interview post.

Melissa said...

What a great interview! I loved reading about how your book came to be and seeing your (cleaned up!) studio! Congratulations on Mine! It looks great! said...

Hi, Monica! My sister, Dawn, had a great time over there. Good to "meet" you on blogger. Someone has been busy creating fun stuff, and it's helpful to learn about the world of children's books.

Be well.
Robyn Engel