Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Interview with Steve Jenkins: Author of The Beetle Book

I reached out to Steve for an interview because my youngest son, Sam, is obsessed with BONES. We read this book almost nightly, and he must lay himself down next to the human body bones to measure himself against them. (And now my older son measures himself too. I guess boys must measure things??)

I also love bugs. I love to draw bugs, and read about bugs. So when I saw his new book The Beetle Book, I had to ask him for an interview.

I'm so thankful he agreed! 

Below are the questions I asked him:

   1.   You moved a lot because of your father's military career. How did this mold your books/artwork?

I did move a lot, but I was too young to remember any of it when Dad was in the army. We moved a lot later on because his teaching and research (he was a physicist) led him to several different universities. 

I can think of two ways that our moving around might have affected my work (it’s an interesting question ...). 

We lived in very different biomes. In rural Virginia, my backyard was crawling with turtles, lizards, spiders, and insects. I had my own little zoo. We also lived in Colorado, where I began to collect rocks, and in Kansas, where I got interested in fossils. So geography -- and geology --  helped inform my early interest in nature.

Moving frequently also meant that there were times when, being a shy child, I hadn’t yet made friends, and I filled the time with books. At one point, in the 9th grade, I was reading four or five adult novels a week. I’m sure all that reading has been important (critical?) to me as an author.

   2.   What's the funniest statement or question your children have had about your work?

When my youngest son was 4 or 5, he was looking at some illustrations I was doing for a book on the rain forest. He told me that when he grew up , he wanted to travel to the Amazon with me to look for animals. Then, struck by a sudden thought, he asked “or will you already be dead?” He was quite serious, but I couldn’t help but see it as black humor.

3.   Why write? 
Why create art?

It’s the thing I want to do when I get up in the morning. It’s often difficult, but it makes me happy. And I do need a job. 

   4.   What time do you get up and what do you eat for breakfast?
Usually 6:30 or 7:00. Coffee, juice, and cereal or yogurt or cheese toast. The occasional leftover enchilada. More coffee.

   5.   How did you land your first published book? What was that process like?

I was working as a graphic designer in NYC. I heard through a client that Houghton Mifflin had started a new imprint (Ticknor and Fields, later reabsorbed) and was looking for ideas. 

I’d been thinking about making a children’s picture book (my wife and business partner Robin Page had had a couple of picture books published – it looked like fun). 

I put together a couple of proposals with sample spreads (having access to graphic design tools and techniques meant that I could make sample layouts that were very slick – something that was more difficult in those days). 

Both proposals were accepted. I think a lot of it was being in the right place at the right time.

6.   Give 3 statements of advice for newbie author/illustrators.

Don’t try to figure out what sells. Write/illustrate what you’re actually interested in. This is less a prescription for financial success than one intended to keep your soul intact.

Write/illustrate to satisfy yourself, not an editor or an imaginary audience. This overlaps with the first dictum, but it’s not exactly the same thing.

Rejection, if it comes, often includes some positive criticism. Try to build on that.

7.   What is the most fascinating thing about science? What topic would you stay up until 3:00 AM watching TV to learn about?

The fact that we can actually understand so much about the way the world works. Things such as the composition of a distant star or what’s happening at a molecular level when I cook an egg. 

People have been trying to explain simple but profound phenomena for thousands of years: why are there seasons? Why does a stone fall to earth when I drop it? Science has made many of these things understandable. 

If someone could explain the nature of consciousness to me on a TV program, I’d stay up indefinitely to watch.

   8.   How do science and art go together?

At a philosophical level, they are both trying to ascribe meaning and (perhaps) purpose to our existence.

   9.   My two sons love your book, BONES. How did that idea come about?
I can’t take credit for that idea -- It was suggested to me by Andrea Pinckney, an editor at Scholastic.

   10.  Where do you go to get a great cup of Joe/Tea in your town?
Boulder has a ridiculous number of coffee shops. My favorite is the Trident, a used bookstore/coffee spot.

11.   Your father co-authored a book with you. How was that working relationship? Were there any arguments? Or was it smooth sailing?

Completely smooth sailing. That’s really a reflection of the relationship I had with my father.

    12.   Who is your biggest cheerleader?
My mother, of course. But she’d be a cheerleader if I were a check-out clerk in a big box store. My wife is my biggest informed cheerleader, with my editor a close second.

13.   What's the oddest/funniest thing you've gotten in the mail from a fan?

I get wonderful collage illustrations from children. Some of them are quite odd, but always endearing. There are too many quirky ones to pick out a single example.

14.   What medium do you like to work with and why?
Cut-paper collage. I’m not a great draughtsman, and collage leverages my experience as a graphic designer. Plus, I love paper. 

    15.   Who has influenced your career? Any teachers in your past? People in your present?

Don Ensign, one of my design instructors in college, who went on to be an employer and friend, was my first and most important mentor.

Ivan Chermayeff, a designer and artist for whom I worked when I was in my twenties was also a big influence.

I took illustration classes with Jim McMullan, whose lessons about work and artistic integrity have stayed with me.

Robin (my wife) is a constant source of ideas, suggestions, and gentle criticism.

16.   How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?

Uh… buy my books? Bring me up in their conversations as frequently as possible? Send $? Sorry, don’t mean to be flip. Just a hard question to wrap my head around.

    17.   If you could go back in time, what would you change about your work…why or why not?

I’d spend more time on some of my earlier work – sometimes I let it out the door before it was really ready.

18.   Which book gave you the most difficulty, and why? Which one was the easiest?

The hardest was a book I just finished (The Animal Book), a 200+ page book about many aspects of the animal world. Partly because of its length, partly because it took lot of time and effort to come up with an organizational scheme that made sense. 

I don’t feel as if any of them was really easy.

19.   What one word best describes you?

20.   What's it like working with an editor? Is she involved from the start, all the way through the process?
I’ve worked with the same editor -- Margaret Raymo at Houghton Mifflin -- for almost 20 years. 

She’s involved from the start. I discuss book ideas with her and often (though not always) rely on her first reaction. 

She does the things that one expects an editor to do, but her real gift is being able to look at/read a proposal and rough layout through the eyes of a young reader and question things that aren’t clear or that raise more questions than they answer.

     21.   How many books do you have published? Are there any favorites?
I’ve written or co-written 31 books (12 with my wife Robin Page, one with my father). 

Favorites: What Do You Do with a Tail Like This?, Actual Size, Move, Life on Earth

Too early to know whether the most recent books, including a couple in production, will be favorites.

    22.   Any big news?

Not really. But that feels kind of like good -- if not big -- news.


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