Friday, February 13, 2009

Artist to artist: An interview with author/illustrator Greg Foley

Wait a minute, don't leave! Your eyes haven't deceived you; you're at the right place. Devas T. Rants and Raves is not always about me, sometimes it's about people I admire. Today it's about author/illustrator/producer/designer Greg Foley, a man of many hats.

Greg is the author and illustrator of the award-winning Thank You Bear books — Thank You Bear, Good Luck Bear, Don't Worry Bear. The stories are told with very few words, and the illustrations are refreshingly simple. With expressive but simple lines, flat colors and soft shading, Greg has captured something special, a series of books that have charmed young and old alike.

Thank You Bear has received starred reviews from School Library Journal, and in 2008 it won the Charlotte Zolotow Award, given annually for outstanding writing in a picture book.

His most recent book, Willoughby and the Lion, publishes with HarperCollins this month! And it looks to be a winner, too.

Raised in Austin, Texas, Greg now lives and works in New York.

So without more fuss, here's my chat with Greg:

Don: With the books Thank You Bear, Don't Worry Bear and Good Luck Bear, where did the character come from?

Greg: Originally, Thank You Bear was inspired by an office meeting at one
of the magazines I work on. Someone was showing photos for an
editorial, and everyone at the table had a different reaction–ranging
from indifferent to comically cynical. It occurred to me that the
adage 'everyone's a critic' could make a good story. When I was first
thinking about the story, the main character was a boy carrying around
a paper bag and asking people to look inside. Then when I sat to write
the first draft, animals just jumped into the character spots. What
clinched it for me, was that the bear's best friend was a little mouse.

Don: Your books are fun yet simple stories that any child can relate to. What is your secret for telling a great story?
Greg: When telling stories, we all have to stick to what we know. But
we're all human, and for me the best stuff is in emotions–doubt
becomes relief, fear becomes friendship, frustration leads to joy. The
details are only a frame around the internal dialogue, which all kinds
of people can relate to equally.

Don: What inspired Willoughby & the Lion?

Greg: One time, when I was visiting my sister in Bermuda, I got some
change from a store and noticed that their penny had a little furry
pig on it. It struck me that even coins are telling a story in as
little as one picture. It took a while for the rest of the story to
fall into place, but I knew it should be based on a boy finding a coin.

Don: What is more of a challenge for you, writing or illustrating?

Greg: For me they both come with a great deal of effort! I'm not the most
natural at anything, but if I can see it in my head and feel it in my
heart, then it deserves to be brought into reality. Both patience and
tenacity are the keys.

Don: In a SLJ interview, you mentioned that cartoonist Charles Scultz was a
huge inspiration for you. What was it about his cartoon series that
spoke to you, and how did it affect you as a writer/illustrator?

Greg: As a kid, the Peanuts strips just tickled me. I'd stay up late
reading the paperback collections of them. But much later, when I
started looking more closely at story-telling, Charles Schultz's work
ethic just struck me. It seemed that he loved his work and that it
offered him a peaceful place to exist for the most of his life.

Don: You're a man of many hats — Creative Director with
Visionaire, V and VMAN magazines, instructor at Parsons School of
, and you were nominated for a Grammy for an album cover you
designed for the Pet Shop Boys. What drew you to children's

Greg: Most of the creative work I've done–branding, packaging, design–
helps shape some kind of a visual story, but rarely does it actually
tell a direct story about a character and their concerns. Back in
1991, when we started Visionaire I was already interested in character
design. But it took a few years to realize that those characters
needed real emotions to drive them. So I started from square one, with
a children's writing workshop. It was in that first workshop that
Thank You Bear was conceived.

Don: Are there any other hats that I've overlooked?

Greg: I've directed a few music videos–mostly to learn how it's done.
There's a graphic novel I'm developing with one of my best friends,
and some musical tracks to go with it. The music is something
different–my collaborator is a super talented beat-maker from Jamaica
Queens. Eventually, it would be great to direct the whole thing as a
show or a film.

Don: What medium do you use in your art?

Greg: Most things start as pen or pencil doodles, but eventually
everything ends up in the computer. Lately I've been using more
collage of found material and manipulating it digitally. Ironically,
the challenge of working this way is that you save lots of versions,
which forces you to edit yourself more.

Don: As a creative person, what inspires you?
Greg: To learn new things and make things better.

Don: When you're not creating, what are you doing?

Greg: Visiting with friends, soaking up nature and stuff that other folks
have created.

Don: Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the

Greg: My mom, dad, sister and family. Of my very close friends, there are
many who give honest advice and a few who lend their professional
opinion–which has helped me face up to my limits and find ways to grow
beyond them.

Don: What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of
children’s books, or young artists in general?

Greg: Ask more questions and find answers to those questions. Collaborate
often and look for the magic in your mistakes.
Don: Thanks for the interview, Greg, and considering our little mixup — shhhh! — I appreciate the time you took to answer my questions.


Indigene said...

What an interesting interview, I will have to check out his children's books! Well done!

tanita s. davis said...

What a jump -- from the Pet Shop Boys to kidlit! Thanks for a great interview.

rindawriter said...

What a darling little bear! Thanks for sharing