My Book Group were delighted when they were told that they were going to interview Chris Naylor- Ballerteros, author of the picture books we had been enjoying. They started by chatting together about all the things they would like to know and then together, selected the ten questions they would like him to answer. These were sent off and to our delight, Chris's replies soon followed! So here are our questions and the answers!
1) What is your schedule for the day when you are writing and what is your favourite place to write?
My schedule is all over the place depending on what I'm working on and what needs doing most - work/housework, nipping to the supermarket, feeding the cat, making dinner, this and that. I'm not self-organised enough to keep proper office hours but I try to start as soon as the kids are off to school. If I'm really into something, evenings can be productive. Late afternoons are the Dead Zone for me. I often think about stories when I'm laid in bed and can't sleep, or when I go for a walk on my own. Then I sit in my little office/studio to sketch or tap things out on the computer.
2) What inspired you to be an author/ illustrator?
I've always enjoyed drawing but only seriously got into the idea of writing/making a picture-book when I'd started buying lots of them for our kids - and realised I really liked them and loved how the good ones worked and tried to understand why the not-so-good ones didn't. I just decided to have a go and my first book, though never published, came out looking OK so I did another and that time had better luck with publishers.
3) Where did you get the idea for the stick insect from?
Well, in some ways it was trickier than the previous book (I'm Going To Eat This Ant) because a second book ought to to retain some of the themes and styles of it's predecessor so this time there was a kind of template to stick to. I'd had lots of random ideas for stories that were completely different to Ant and couldn't really serve as a follow-up.
I wanted to stay with the theme of a deluded, fantasist animal that's going to get things all wrong. As 'Ant' is about food and eating I decided to think of other really basic instinctive animal needs that anyone can relate to - the next could be about love and companionship, or shelter and dwellings perhaps. I thought a 'love-is-blind' tale would be funny, and allow for lots of silliness in the 'fantasy' pages. I made a list of animals that camouflage or mimic because that could create a mistaken identity situation. Stick insects seemed the best fit for humour. I ended-up coming up with about four or five different endings before we boiled it down to the simplest and most effective story. Often the hard part is avoiding contrivance, even in a simple story everything has to happen without it appearing in any way engineered in getting from the start to the end.
4) What is your secret for drawing so well and why do you like to use white backgrounds?
That's very kind, thanks! I often tend towards being too draughtsmanly and realistic when I draw. I sometimes struggled to 'let go' and get messy. So no secret really. Due to the attempt to draw quickly and keep things lively and a bit random there are many of the pages in a book that have twenty or thirty discarded attempts that didn't look quite right.
I've always liked drawing, since being a kid, though I don't actually do enough of it. A New Year Resolution is definitely to fill more sketchbooks.
The white backgrounds were a decision to keep things very simple and minimal on the page. I really like things like Jon Klassen's 'Hat' books and Carson Ellis's 'Du Iz Tak?'. I suppose I tend towards the 'less-is-more' way of seeing things. You can't beat a nicely placed mark in a great big swathe of empty space.
5) When did you start writing?
I started writing picture books about six or seven years ago but I've written odds and ends casually for a long time, usually just to put thoughts and ideas and experiences on paper.
6) Do you plan to write more picture books/ only picture books or will you tackle other genre?
I'm currently working on a Christmas book for Bloomsbury and have other picture-book ideas in mind. Most are in need of a bit of work but I feel a couple (one in particular) are raring to go. And one of the things currently occupying my sleepless brain of a night is a non-picture-book story for older children - a real departure for me and a lot to learn. I keep jotting down ideas for plot, characters and dialogue and it's very slowly taking shape. I loved Hitch-Hikers' Guide when I was about thirteen and I think that influence is coming out.
7) How long does it take to write a book?
Sometimes the process is very long. A promising idea might come about in half an hour - but only after many weeks of umm-ing and ahh-ing. Then the transformation to the finished article that everyone is happy with can take over a year. A publication date often seems very very far away and then suddenly... here it is and the book's coming out!
8) Why do you choose animals, not humans, for your characters?
I'd really like to do a picture book with humans but I think the age-group that will be reading (or read to) respond so warmly and openly to animals. And you can't so easily have humans do, or want to do, what your animals can. A story of a big strong person wanting to eat a tiny creature would feel a bit off, but an anteater wanting to do the same is OK.
9) Do you have any unusual pets?
Not really, sorry. We have a cat and two tortoises. One of them disappeared for a year and then turned up having being bitten by a dog. He was a bit like a sieve but we got him fixed up and covered in resin and he's doing fine. We did find a stick-insect outside the house last year. It'd also been through the wars, missing an antennae and a leg or two. Seemed happy enough though.
10) What will your next book be about and when is it coming out?
Well, the festive book is planned to be out for Christmas 2019 and in the meantime, I'm looking to get another idea off the ground and out there. It's another tale (probably the last) of an animal who is a dreamer, confusing reality and fantasy, but it's got a bit more emotional weight. It's about where home and friendship or community is and how and where you might find it again.
Thank you so much to Chris for answering our questions!
I'm Going to Eat this Ant Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
Bloomsbury ISBN: 978-1408869901
I Love You, Stick Insect Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
Bloomsbury ISBN: 9781408882955