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Interview: Matt Phelan

October 17th, 2009 (12:10 pm)

Current Mood: thirsty
Current Song: Soldier's Daughter by Tonic

I was recently put in touch with author and illustrator Matt Phelan. As luck would have it, I had just worked with one of his co-workers, the fabulous Jacqui Robbins - Shortly after designing her site and admiring his illustrations for their collaborative efforts, I got a copy of his newest solo work, a beautiful graphic novel for kids entitled The Storm in the Barn, shows one family's struggle during The Dust Bowl. If you're looking for a page-turning graphic novel that is both educational and kid-friendly, look no further! If you are a Newbery follower, you'll recognize Matt's art from award-winning book The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron.

Special thanks to Laura for arranging this interview.

Your newest work, The Storm in the Barn, is based on historical events. Why did you select The Dust Bowl to be the topic of your first graphic novel?

I've been fascinated with the Dust Bowl ever since I was a kid looking at my dad's WPA photography books. After reading a history of the era, I began to think about using the setting for a story of my own. Many years later, I absently doodled a man with a face like a rainstorm and the story began to click into place. I say "click" but by that I mean I still needed to kick it around for a few years.

You've worked on picture books, chapter books, now graphic novels - projects with different looks for different audiences. I love how appropriate your palettes are - the starkness of Storm, the brightness of Two of a Kind, the beautiful greens and browns and yellows in The New Girl...and Me. (Note: Both Two of a Kind and The New Girl are picture books with story by Jacqui Robbins; art by Matt Phelan.) How do you select a color palette and implements?

I try to let the story lead me to the choice of palette and medium. For The Storm in the Barn, I used color as another dramatic tool, a visual hint to the reader. The dusty browns are slowly drained of their color as the story progresses, becoming much more grey and bleak leading up to the climax. And by keeping it primarily in browns and blues, when I did use red it had extra punch.

How old were you when the drawing bug bit you? Did the writing bug and the drawing bug bite simultaneously, or did the desire to write come later?

I was always drawing. In grade school, I was the kid who could draw Snoopy really well. By the time I was eight or nine, I was coming up with stories to illustrate. It seemed like a natural progression. I wanted to draw Robin Hood and Spider-Man, but I also wanted to draw my own characters from an early age.

What was the first picture book you ever illustrated professionally?

The first book I was hired to illustrate was The New Girl...and Me. But while I was in the early sketch stages on that book, my art director decided that I'd be a good fit for The Seven Wonder of Sassafras Springs by Betty Birney. That had an earlier pub date than The New Girl (and a rapidly approaching deadline), so I shifted over to Sassafras and then went back to The New Girl. I learned a great deal on both of those books. It was a good trial by fire.

How did you come to work with Jacqui Robbins?

An art director at Simon & Schuster reviewed my portfolio at an SCBWI event, liked it, and brought it to the attention of Richard Jackson, who was Jacqui's editor. Everyone was happy with The New Girl so I was offered Two of a Kind as well. She has a talent for getting at very complex situations in a very straightforward manner. Those two books were definitely challenging. There's a lot going on with those characters.

What do you like best about working collaboratively?

For an illustrator, the collaboration is mostly with the art director and/or editor. You usually don't have any direct contact with the author (until after the book is finished). One exception was with The Higher Power of Lucky. Susan Patron based the town on a real place and she sent my a package filled with reference photos which was fantastic. I emailed her a few times with questions in order to make sure I got the details right.

What do you like best about working solo?

You get to be the authority on what something should look like. It's one fewer person that needs to approve your work. Of course, you still collaborate with an art director and editor and take suggestions, but ultimately you're the one who has to provide the answers.

The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, a children's book for which you provided the cover are as well as black and white interior illustrations, won the Newbery. What did you do when you heard the news?

It was an odd moment. A fun, happy moment, but certainly not what I was expecting on that Monday. Champagne was purchased and merrily consumed.

At that time, was Patron's follow-up, Lucky Breaks, already in the works? If so, were you already drawing art for it?

I believe Susan was already writing it, but I didn't know that at the time. I didn't work on Lucky Breaks until 2008 (shortly after finishing the drawings for Storm in the Barn).

Will there be additional books in the Lucky line?

This fall I'll be illustrating the third book in her Lucky trilogy.

Would you like to talk about any works in progress? I know some people (myself included!) are secretive or superstitious when it comes to WIPs, so it's completely understandable if you'd rather stay mum.

I have some ideas on the back burner which probably need a bit more cooking before I can speak coherently about them, but I do have a second graphic novel that is written and in the early sketch phase. It's called Around the World and is based on three true stories of solo travelers who circled the globe at the end of the nineteenth century. It's a departure from Storm in the Barn in both form and tone and so far I'm having a blast with it. Around the World will be published by Candlewick in 2011 if all goes well.

What are your ten favorite books? Feel free to list ten novels, or mix-and-match different formats, if you wish to include graphic novels and books for kids.

The Once and Future King, Carter Beats the Devil, To Kill a Mockingbird, Dracula, Ferdinand, The Gardener, The World of Pooh, and since P.G. Wodehouse is my favorite author and any of his books will do in a pinch, I'll randomly select a few for the last three spots: The Mating Season, The Luck of the Bodkins, and Uncle Fred in the Springtime. You can't go wrong with Wodehouse.

I want to let you know that I really enjoyed The Storm in the Barn. The panels in which the characters smile - something about how you draw their faces in that moment is truly delightful. :) I also loved little Dorothy. As the band Tonic sings in their song Soldier's Daughter, "Hey, little girl - Keep dancing." I'm a dancer/singer/actress, and I love nothing more than performing, and hoping, and believing there's a better future ahead.

Thank you so much. I always think a smile has to really count. It's an effort to smile, especially in a story like Storm. So when a character smiles I want them to really feel it, either as an honest reaction or as a reassurance or, in Mabel's case, the pure joy of little kids. I don't take smiles lightly. And I am also a strong believer in hope for better times ahead, especially in stories. I like happy endings.

Visit Matt Phelan's website.

Read my review of The Storm in the Barn.