Stats? Name, location?
Abraham Schroeder, Petaluma, California
Do you have a day job?
I have been a full time stay-at-home dad for about a year and a half, although I occasionally find some time to do freelance graphic design, product design, and editing on the side.
How did you hear about Ripple Grove Press? What was the submission process like for you?
At the start of 2012, Piotr Parda and I had been working on The Gentleman Bat in our spare time for six or seven years, and we were making slow, roundabout progress. Over the years I showed drafts to a few publishers but never had any takers. Several other short stories were in various stages of completion, from simple outlines or a few lines of text to nearly finished manuscripts with illustrations blocked out, and I was itching to start moving these projects out of the sketchbooks. I began putting all of the manuscripts in proper order to submit to publishers, and I planned to try my hand at publishing them myself if none got picked up. I focussed most on The Gentleman Bat because it was the furthest along with text and illustrations, and I whittled down the pages of drafts and piles of illustrations to get a full and cohesive semi-final draft. (For more about the evolution of the illustrations, see www.TheGentlemanBat.com/illustration.html.)
Right in the middle of that whole process, I heard about the newly formed Ripple Grove Press. Years before, I had worked with one of the founders at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and we had stayed in touch by email and Facebook, so I was fortunate to hear the call for submissions as soon as it was made. I'd spent months prepping for just such an opportunity, and I think it took about three days to get a full submission packet together with maybe six books for consideration. Some, like The Gentleman Bat, I had labored over for years, and some, like Too Many Tables, were newer ideas in rough form. Given the hundreds of submissions RGP was flooded with in those first months, I had no idea how mine would be received or what my chances might be. It was a huge surprise when they called back to say they were ready to move forward with two books, and it has been such an amazing experience to work with them as we transformed the drafts into finished form!
What’s your work style? Early morning, late at night? All at once, bits at a time?
I tend to start building stories in my head, and it's usually a process of weeks or months, sometimes even years, of bouncing ideas around before I write down a first draft. I might jot down a snippet or do a quick sketch so I don't forget, and then it can sit and stew in the back of my head until it needs to get out. Often I'll make drawings as I go, roughing out visual ideas to help sort out the text. When I write, I usually do one pass, then duplicate the document or section and do another pass, so I can add and subtract freely without discarding anything. It can be tedious looking back through all of the cloned drafts, but I'm glad to have a record of my thought process and all of the changes. For most of the past two years, since having a child and operating under a severe sleep deficit, I've been in the habit of running stories and rhymes through my head during his unpredictable waking spells. Some of the best inspiration and solutions to sticking points in stories have come in the middle of the night during long stretches when I'm half awake soothing a crying baby or when things calm down and I'm trying to go back to sleep.
Who are some of your creative idols?
There are artists who just churn out material, rarely hesitating (or appearing not to), just getting their ideas out and trying again if something doesn't go right. I hesitate often, and so I often admire people who just jump right in. As long as I've known Piotr Parda I've always admired the constant flow of ideas pouring out of him, and that's one of the reasons I showed my early drafts of The Gentleman Bat to him. The ideas got pulled into his creative vortex and look what he came up with!
To single out one writer, and avoid an endless list of favorite visual artists, movie directors, animators, and authors, a good example would be someone like Neil Gaiman who demonstrates a breadth of range, and just keeps on writing. I recently got a huge inspirational surge from watching the documentary film Jodorowsky's Dune. The art is amazing, the people are fascinating, and it is an epic true story of creativity, ambition, and, perhaps, the reimagination of what failure and success mean.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I consider myself primarily a visual artist, and my working process has always begun with collecting. I collect objects, interesting or quirky or well-crafted artistic or functional items, things that might be useful someday, pieces and bits and scraps that I might reassemble or reuse, potential art projects. I also collect ideas, stories, fun facts, personality sketches, mythologies, bits of knowledge of scientific processes, art history, biology, zoology, and anatomy. And books. Lots of books.
I like sharing the things I find with other people, the odd stories, the weird or fun or useful ideas, histories, or whatnot, and coming up with new interpretations of old ideas. Artwork and writing are extensions of the collecting, rearranging, and sharing, and I consider works successful when the diverse parts and pieces fall together in pleasing or interesting ways – easily or with massive effort – and when I can finally hone in on some idea or another that's been swimming around for a while.
In the case of The Gentleman Bat, as you can read about on the website, the idea grew out of an old Japanese woodblock print that caught my eye. I set aside an image of it to revisit later. I didn't think the little rhymes that started popping up would ever go anywhere, but once they started growing, I paid attention and really started laboring over the text. Piotr was graciously willing to work with a lot of my visual ideas, and draw and redraw important elements I wanted to include, jokes and tributes, and he had tons of his own to add, so we worked together to fill the illustrations with lots and lots of details, rich with meaning and history.
What are the biggest wins/challenges writing for children?
The not-so-secret secret is that I start by writing for myself. Rather than coming from a place of, “I think a child would like to read about...” I find something entertaining or inspiring that starts taking shape in words and pictures, and I really want to hear and see it in finished form so I can share it with other people.
Having an open mind that is ready to be filled and delighted by new ideas, or that sometimes enjoys silly, simple pleasures, is often labeled as childlike, but my best adult friends have always been ones who have not lost that fresh outlook on the world. I strive for that in myself, and I hope that comes across in my stories.
Thinking about repackaging or applying the stories for younger audiences, I remember that with picture books, it's usually first an audience of children and their adult caregivers (who will often have to read and re-read stories aloud, ad nauseam), and then for children beginning to read on their own, discovering the world through this multi-dimensional medium. Kids are sharp. They absorb everything and notice when something doesn't fit or sounds strange, and they know when they're being talked down to. So I never want to dumb down ideas or language – clarify and make more accessible to younger audiences, yes, but not cut away substance or meaning. While preparing my first two books for print, I did a lot of reading and fretting and questioning about race and gender politics in children's books, and even as I was conscious of a need to be conscious in my output, here I was with my first book being a heteronormative story of Victorian romance with a damsel in distress and a gentleman who saves the day. On top of that, I had the lady bat wearing a pink dress until the final production stages. At the same time, I trusted that it was at its core, a simple and lovely story, and I hope that it leans more to the side of entertaining and inspiring than oppressively problematic in its implications.
It is really amazing and beautiful to watch children (and adults) respond to my stories, to light up, or start thinking, or ask questions, or get inspired from some little detail we hid inside the book. That's super cool. Even when they say, “I don't like that.”
What are you working on right now?
I have a pile of writing and illustration projects I'm working on at any given time. As I mentioned, my process is often stretched over a very long timeline. Some stories are many years old and some are brand new. A few are similar to the first two books, but there are some really different projects that look more like sci-fi, fantasy and horror, maybe for older audiences.
I'm also sorting out potential next steps for the bats. There are some new and old ideas coming together, and I hope to be able to share them in some form soon. And I would love to keep working with both Piotr Parda and Micah Monkey for future collaborations.
What’s your favorite picture book, besides your own, of course?!
I like a lot of books for a lot of reasons, and my library is always growing and overflowing. I often read and buy pictures books for myself, not only for the children in my life. Having a toddler now, I am reading new pictures books all the time, and finding some real gems. I've also been really surprised that some that I loved growing up have lost their appeal or are downright disturbing.
A few old favorites that jump to mind are Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Mouse Tales(Arnold Lobel), The Frog Band books, and Eloise.
Check out Abraham's website to see more of his work.