Debi Gliori Q&A

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13 Fun Questions with Debi Gliori

13 Fun Questions with Debi Gliori

1. Favourite colour:

It would have to be blue, but being an illustrator means that I’m very picky about exactly which blue is my favourite. In fact, I can’t decide on just one blue. Or two, or even three. So I’ve chosen my favourite four. I hope you like them too. First of all, I love the blue of a summer sky. To be precise – the summer sky at midday, a bright, clear cerulean blue (picture 1), and the summer sky at dusk, a warm and cosy cobalt blue (picture 2); two blues that I use all of the time in my paintings. Then there’s the underwater blue that rims the shores of the west coast of Scotland –an improbably Mediterranean turquoise blue, a colour that makes me want to kick off my shoes and dive into the water (picture 3). And finally there’s a warm blue; a blue I use to paint shadows in snow; ultramarine blue, a blue with a name that sounds as beautiful as it looks. If you look at this blue carefully, you can see that there’s a hint of deep rose somewhere in its depths; ultramarine, the colour of lapis lazuli, the semi-precious stone from which the original paint was once made.

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Picture 4: This was a birthday card illustration for The Big Issue in Scotland's 19th birthday.
 19 isn't particularly my favourite number, it just was the only drawing I could find of a number.

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Picture 3

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Picture 6

Picture 7

6. Where do you get your ideas?

I find that a lot of my ideas have come from the experience of raising our five children (picture 8). Throughout their childhoods, I’ve been lucky enough to have worked from home, so I’ve dipped in and out of my children’s day-to-day lives, and watched and listened as each of the children discovered each other and the world around them. Added to this wealth of material, I’ve also found a lot of my ideas have evolved through observing the natural world and the responses of animals and plants to seasons, weather and the turning of the year. I also read voraciously: in bed; in the bath; at the kitchen table; I fall asleep with my nose in a book, so I imagine that a great deal of what I take in via the written word is also adding to the pool of ideas.

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Picture 8:
Okay, so there are seven little rabbits in this picture, 
but the characters I dream up become my children too, and some of them are nearly family members.

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8. How long does it take to write a book/illustrate a book?

This is a question I’m asked a lot. How long does it take to write a book? It depends on the book. No Matter What took twenty minutes, but I have to say that has never happened before or since. Alas. Oh, for more books like that . . . The Trouble With Dragons took about two years. The Scariest Thing of All took about eight months. It’s not that I was sitting at my desk, chewing pencils for two years, or eight months or whatever, it’s just that I would start to write and the story would die on the page, so I’d put it away and come back to it the next day, or the next week, and try again until I got it right. I’ve got a lovely story kicking around about a little girl and her grandfather and that one’s been on the go for fourteen years. So. How long is long? Ars longa, vita brevis, as Hippocrates used to say. Allegedly (picture 11).

As for how long it takes to illustrate a book, well, that’s a bit easier. The roughs (the pencil stage) can take anything from ten weeks to six months and the watercolour artwork usually takes about six months. Usually. But sometimes unusual things happen in one’s life, so this estimate of how long it takes me to make a book may be completely out of date by the time you read it. In the future, I may be taking years to illustrate a book. Or perhaps I’ll clone myself, and Me and Myself and I will be rolling out a new book every week. Who can tell?

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9. Which one of your books is your favourite?

No, no, no, no. This is too uncomfortably close to asking which one of my five children is my favourite. I do not have favourites. All of my books are beloved for different reasons. I see their faults, but I love them just the same. Yes, I do love them. Is it a terrible thing to love your own books? After all, how on earth can I possibly hope that anyone else will love them, if I don’t? Picture books for young children come along at a particularly special time in the life of a family. If the picture book works, it can almost become a family member, recalled with great fondness many years after it has been literally read to destruction. So yes, I hope that some of the books I have written and illustrated might become beloved in your home, wherever you are (picture 12). Which of my books is your favourite? There. That’s that question neatly avoided.

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Picture 12

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Picture 11

Picture 13

Picture 9

Picture 10: I haven't mopped the floor for over a decade. This is not an exaggeration.

2. Favourite number:

This is a tricky one. Begin with a smaller number of kilos of me on the scales than last month. And add to that a larger number of fiddle tunes learned than last month. Plus a heeeeuge number of hugs given and received. And subtract far fewer arguments. And finally multiply by a number too big to count of times that I burst out laughing. There. Done. That’s my favourite number.

3. Where were you born?

As my children said when they were small – I was born in a hoss-tipple. In Glasgow. Waaaay too early. Due in May. Came in February. Weighed two and a half pounds. Why on earth was I in such a hurry?

Picture 5

4. Where do you live now?

I live outside Edinburgh. For now. In a house that fits us all well, while we are a large number of people, but as we all grow up and move out, perhaps our house might become a bit loose and saggy, and who knows, we might move. To Somewhere Else (picture 6). Smaller. Bigger. Pointier. Blunter. With turrets. Or a ha-ha (whatever that is). Or even a he-he-helipad. But most emphatically not with a swimming pool. In Scotland? Don’t be ridiculous.

5. When did you decide to be a writer?

I don’t think I ever did decide to be a writer. Writing kind of snuck up on me when I was looking the other way (picture 7). I think I was busy trying to be an illustrator at the time. I’d spent five years at art college learning about illustration and design, then I put all my best drawings and paintings in a huge portfolio and trucked it round a variety of publishers in London with little success. All of the publishers I met told me that there were millions of brilliant illustrators Out There, but hardly any brilliant writers. Now if only I could write . . . So I hauled my huge portfolio of all my best drawings and paintings back to Scotland and had a wee think. And another wee think. And approximately four years later, after several terrible attempts at writing the perfect picture book text, an editor phoned me and said ‘We liked the story you sent us. Would you like to come down and have a chat about how we can turn it into a book?’

7. Where do you write?

I can write anywhere, since I don’t require any special equipment. A pen and a notebook (picture 9), and if I’m writing in a noisy place, headphones and music without any words. Or words in a language I can’t understand. However, if I’m at home, I write in my studio, which is a shed in my garden, situated next to the compost heap (oh, the glamour) with an excellent view of the logpile (picture 10). If I opened the blinds, there would be a lovely view of fields and the distant Lammermuir hills, but that would be far too enjoyable and I’d spend my days enjoying the view, instead of sitting, chewing the end of my pen and suffering, like writers are supposed to do. So, I curl up on my sofa (yes, I have a sofa in my studio – I don’t want to suffer too much), stare sightlessly at the compost heap, and try and conjure up whole worlds of invention inside my head. Or – my other favourite place to write is on a train. Any old train, doesn’t matter. Moving, preferably. Don’t ask me why, but there’s something about trains that seems to release my Inner Word-Faucet. Train pulls out of station and – she’s off. Tacketta, tacketta, chunterry, chunterry, pockitty, pockitty, words pouring off the ends of my fingers, spilling on to the page. If only train fares weren’t so ludicrously expensive, I’d book myself on a daily return journey from Edinburgh to London King’s Cross, and then I’d really get some serious writing done.

10. What was your favourite book as a child?

Awwww, come on. One book? One favourite book for the entirety of my childhood? No way. Deepest apologies, but I’m going to pretend I didn’t quite understand that question. Favourite books as a child? Sure. Take a seat. Pour yourself a cup of tea; this might take a while. When I was very small, I loved a picture book called Kingcup Cottage by author-illustrator Racey Helps (what a fab name, Racey . . .) This was the tragic tale of a frog who gave a party to which nobody came. Poor Francesca the frog, sitting all alone, surrounded by slowly dissolving jellies, eating fly-studded biscuits beneath a portrait of herself as a baby tadpole on a furry rug. I can still bring that picture to mind, even now. The illustrations must have lodged themselves so firmly in my memory that when I found a copy of the book thirty years after having it read to me as a toddler, it was like greeting an old and very familiar dear friend. Then there was the exquisitely stylish I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Mary Blair. If you don’t already have this book, I beg you, go, buy it now. It is the picture book form at the peak of perfection – as gorgeous today as it was when it was first published in 1951. But now Mole and Ratty are tugging at my arm and leading me into the wintry Wild Wood of The Wind in The Willows, and The Snow Queen is running her sleigh through the distant trees, and the Black Men of The Little White Horse watch the night train whistling along the track past The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. And later, on the brink of childhood’s end, I found My Family and Other Animals and The Hobbit and realised that books and reading could go on for ever.

11. What’s your favourite children’s book now?

Comet in Moominlandby Tove Jansson. What an amazing book. What an epic journey. Wistful, joyous, funny, witty, wise and utterly satisfying, I read it and loved it as a ten-year-old. Loved it. Especially Tove Jansson’s introduction which began, ‘Dear Child . . .’ I was captivated by this – I genuinely thought she had addressed it to me personally. I was her ‘Dear Child.’ Actually, I still am. Lots and lots and lots of us are. We don’t brag about it. We just know.

12. What’s your favourite adult book?

My favourite adult book? Pause while steam comes out of both ears and assorted places that I’m too polite to enumerate; this is excruciatingly hard, choosing just one book. One book from a lifetime of reading? Excuse me for a moment while I totter off to the freezing east wing of GlioriSchloss, where we keep the adult books. Children’s are in the south wing, Non-fiction in the west wing and Crime in the north wing. We’ve never thrown books out in our family, so consequently we’ve had to keep on increasing the size of our houses with each generation of readers. Now, with my five children all being avid readers, and the cellar being full of travel books and the attic crammed to bursting with music books, the children will probably have to move into a football stadium to accommodate the family library. But for now, we’re crammed into this old Scottish castle, so draughty, so hard to keep warm. Brrrrrrr. Anyway, standing here, surrounded by every book I’ve ever read, the one that stands out as my all-time favourite is The Deptford Trilogy by the late, great Robertson Davies. A wonderful storyteller and a great writer. And this book, for me, is the best of all his brilliant books, but only by a whisker. They’re all marvellous; all real stories, rich, strange and utterly beguiling.

13. What tips do you have for budding writers / illustrators?

Illustrators are fortunate in that they can go to art school and learn some of their craft there, but writers mostly end up having to teach themselves. There are writing courses for writers, but they are quite expensive, and, dare I say it, there is such an awful lot of wiffle written and taught on the subject of ‘How to become a Writer,’ I do not want to add to that towering pile. The internet is full of it. Trawl at your leisure. My advice is very simple and threefold.

Write, write, write, write, write, write, write. It may not be particularly great literature, but neither is the first draft of anything that most writers write. The most difficult part of writing is filling the blank page. So write, write, write, write. Style, honing, tweaking, refining, making it read like literature can all come later. Right now, what you need to do is write. Write (picture 14).

Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read (picture 13). Cram your head full of stories, non-fiction, historical fact, fiction, blogs, politics, current affairs, the printed word in all its vast variety; read, read, read till you are full to bursting with other people’s thoughts, lives and stories.

Get out there and live. This means listen, look, experience, eavesdrop and soak up everything (within reason) that life has to throw at you; open yourself up like a flower, or a bud(ding writer) to the experience of being alive (picture 15). This will give you something to write about. This does not include time spent gazing at a screen/phone/TV/pad/pod – just as a potato chip is not one of your five a day, walking your virtual self around a virtual island is not the same as a real walk in the park.

Picture 15

Picture 14

Picture 1

Picture 2

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