An Interview with David Lucas

posted in: David Lucas | 13

Although I love writing every post I put up on Playing by the book, today’s post has made me more excited than usual! I’m thrilled to be bringing you an interview with one of my favourite British illustrators, David Lucas.

M reading Halibut Jackson

M, J and I first discovered David’s books when he was named one of the UK’s Best New Illustrators by Booktrust in 2008. Halibut Jackson, Whale and The Robot and the Bluebird immediately rocketed to the top of our favourite books’ pile. David’s sparkling, intricate illustrations teamed with thoughtful, magical stories make wonderful books (I’ve reviewed several), and I’ve given copies and recommendations to anyone and everyone (as participants in the Perfect Picture Books by Post and International Postcard Swap for Families will know :-)).

So now to the interview…

Playing by the book: David, could you please tell us a little of your story – how did you become an author and illustrator? Did you make books when you were a child? What were turning points for you in your career?

David Lucas: I was very shy as a teenager and spent most of my time drawing and inventing imaginary worlds. I loved mythology and fairytales, and I tried writing stories, and actually sent a long fairytale / fantasy story to a publisher when I was 21, but it wasn’t very good. In fact it was probably very bad. But by 21 I’d already turned my back on the person I was as a teenager. I didn’t want to be a misfit any more. I wanted to be fashionable and cool and to like what everyone else liked.

The trouble was that I lost any sense of who I really was, deep down, and my work suffered.

It wasn’t until my thirties that I rediscovered my love of fairytales again, and began writing stories. I see all my picture books as fairytales. Halibut Jackson was my first book, and it is a sort of ‘finding myself’ story – a character who has lived life in a series of colourful disguises finally (accidentally) discovers who he is. I’ve been making books regularly since then. I’m particularly excited by the one I’ve just finished, called the Skeleton Pirate, which Walker will publish next year – its all about fighting and love and death and not giving up…dramatic stuff.

Unused front cover image for Skeleton Pirate. Reproduced with Permission. Click for larger image. Copyright David Lucas.

Playing by the book: Could you share a few of your favourite illustrated editions of fairy tales?

David Lucas: When I was a child I loved the little Ladybird hardbacks of fairytales – I’ve still got a few. There’s something deeply strange about the world the illustrators created. I also had a very magical pop-up book of Hansel and Gretel when I was very young. The witch’s cottage looked so delicious and the whole book was ruined because me and my brothers loved it so much – we sort of loved it to death.

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Vojtěch Kubašta

Playing by the book: Your work has been mentioned in the same breath as the work of Saul Steinberg and Paul Klee. Which book illustrators do you find inspiring? Is inspiration something you (can) look for or foster, is it rather something you stumble upon?

David Lucas: People have been illustrating stories for thousands of years and illustrating books for centuries, so I’m interested in storytelling drawing down the ages, and in all different cultures – I like the schematic figures on early Greek vases, and primitive rock art, and Indian art, and medieval art and folk art from around the world. I love naive art and outsider art too, art made by people who aren’t encumbered with a whole lot of unwieldy, useless knowledge about how things ‘should’ look, and so end up making everything into a beautiful pattern. But the thing is that the pattern-making instinct is about much more than making something beautiful – it is Magic, a solemn ritual of repeated lines and shapes that are an incantation or a prayer or a magic spell.

Inspiration is certainly something you can foster, but you need to be honest about what you really like. I shouldn’t say ‘like’ I should say ‘love’. What people are attracted to is so fundamental to who they are. I grew up in quite an austere home – we just didn’t have much stuff – but I remember there were one or two little decorative objects around the house that entranced me. I love decorative things – but only if the pattern has a strong, clear rhythm, only if it looks like the pattern means something. And I knew that when I was seven, even if I couldn’t articulate it.

I actually have a horror of meaningless pattern – the kind you get on a lot of modern architecture. Pattern is a language, it’s meant to say important things.

David's studio
David's studio

Playing by the book: Given your comments on pattern I can’t help asking you about fabric design. I sew and love fabric, and when I recently made a quilt of fabrics with patterns designed by children’s illustrators I thought a lot about who would be my dream team of illustrators to design fabric and your name was top of the list – perhaps (although I hadn’t articulated it myself this way) because of your approach to patterns. Forgive me for being so indulgent, but have you have thought about designing fabric?

David Lucas: I did try doing some textiles – but I didn’t do it for very long. I have got some nice textiles at home – a couple of big ikats from Indonesia that are full of mad figures, and a nice print my mother made when she was young. She was a teacher and it was the only print she ever made – it’s of lots of medieval owls – I really like it.

Playing by the book: That sounds beautiful. Backtracking a little, you mentioned “Magic”, and I’ve read a quote of yours stating “my aim in all my work is to communicate my belief that the world is a magical place.” – can you share one or two magical things that have happened to you?

David Lucas: Well, I think of life itself as magical. I’m not a materialist, and I believe that there is purpose and meaning in the world at a fundamental level. Everything is alive. And thinking. And dreaming.

I have had some deeply mysterious things happen to me that confirm my belief – but I don’t need evidence – it’s just a feeling. A powerful feeling.

I am interested in science, but science has no understanding of any of the really big things of life – love and consciousness and spirituality and poetry.

I find it very easy to believe in spirits – whenever I’m in a lonely old house at night I believe in ghosts, and if I’m in the depths of a forest, on my own, I believe in fairies.

And really that’s where all the old folk-beliefs come from, that conviction that when you’re free from the immediate distractions of life, you can feel that the world around you is alive with a mysterious energy: the presence of God.

Some of David's bookshelves

Playing by the book:I certainly think the best picture books have a magic about them. I’m also a great believer that the best picture books are often miniature pieces of theatre, performance pieces. You’re on record as saying of your illustrations “‘I tend to see the spaces and the pictures as a stage set, where everything is a camp pantomime. But I’m presenting it as though I see it entirely seriously. Theatre can be so magical where you have a prop, say, baldly presented and yet it becomes alive.” These words made me wonder if you had ever designed a stage set, or if this is something that you would be interested in doing (and if so, what play or story adaptation would you like to design the set for?)

David Lucas: I would love to do a theatre design – I hope someone asks me one day. I wouldn’t mind what play it was, as long as it wasn’t something dreary or realistic.

Playing by the book: So have you seen any productions recently that you really enjoyed? (for the set design or any other aspect)

Poster for 1997 National Theatre production of Peter Pan
David Lucas:I remember a really good production of Peter Pan at the National Theatre – it must have been over ten years ago, and as Neverland came into view my little nephew gasped and said in a great big voice: “It’s like paradise!”

What fascinates me is that the more stylized or idealized and ‘artificial’ something is then the more magical it is. I think it’s because it points to the beyond, because it’s so clearly symbolic and yet still just real enough to believe in. It’s that hovering ambiguity between the real and the symbolic that fires your imagination.

Fairly recently I went through a phase of going to The Globe. The stage set there is quite grand, with gilded columns and a decorative gallery, but has no direct relation to the events of the play. To me it stimulates the imagination because it gives the whole thing a mood of artifice, and that, to me, creates romance and fantasy.

But the last thing I saw there was Titus Andronicus. In the play Lavinia comes on stage after her tongue has been cut out. In the production I saw it was done in a horribly literal, heavy-handed way – with lots of fake blood. I walked out. Later I saw a picture of a different production of the same play and there was a much more imaginative treatment of the incident where two red ribbons trail from the mute girl’s mouth – it’s then much more in keeping with the whole stylized mood of Shakespeare. After all, it’s not exactly realistic to have characters speaking in ornate blank verse.

People say how ‘truthful’ Shakespeare is, but I like the rich fantasy of it.

Another view of David's studio

Playing by the book: What do you think about ebooks? Are any of your books available as ebooks or apps? Can electronic books fire one’s imagination in the same way as a paper book?

David Lucas: There has been some interest in making one of my books into an iPad app, but nothing definite yet. I’ve got nothing against computers – I use one every day – but it’s nonsense to think that books and paper will ever become redundant.

When the book was invented, towards the end of the Roman Empire, it was a technical advance on the scroll. The internet and ebooks have taken us back to the scroll.

The thing is with books is that you can flick through them and get a feeling of them as whole, in a very intuitive way. I like that. I like things I can get hold of. I’m sure ebooks are useful for all kinds of literature, but I like paper. It feels better. I think apps can add a lot to picture books, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. More isn’t always better. People got excited about interactive narratives in the nineties, but that misunderstands the whole point of a story – that as a reader you surrender control to someone who (should) know exactly what they’re doing, and where they’re leading you. Every element in a good story should be perfectly weighted. Adding a lot of visual fireworks can just break the spell.

Throughout most of history, people who were every bit as clever as us believed that all inanimate objects had souls. I am quite happy to believe books have souls – it is why they have such power as objects. An app or ebook may have a soul, but digital files are not tangible things. There is a mystery to tangible things – after all, we are tangible things. The physical presence of another person is a powerful thing, and I think books have a similar mysterious presence.

Horta, the silicon based life form from "The Devil in the Dark" episode of Star Trek: The Original Series

There was an episode of Star Trek I remember when they encountered a silicon-based life-form. Computers are silicon-based life-forms. Books are carbon-based life-forms, like you and me. I feel closer to books.

Playing by the book: The physical presence of another person can indeed be a powerful thing – and being with other people as part of a group, sharing an experience, is part of why I think festivals are so popular. You’ll be taking part in the Just So Festival in August. Can you please tell us a little bit about what you’ll be doing?

David Lucas: I’ll be encouraging children and parents to create a picture book of their own, inventing a character and crafting a story, so they can make a book, which, who knows, they may even be able to send to a publisher.

I like encouraging people to draw – especially if they think its something they can’t do. My own drawing is picture-writing – just putting simple shapes together. I think if you can write you can draw. Drawing was invented for storytelling, not for making realistic images. Realism just gets in the way when you’re telling a story – so it’s fun just to play with basic shapes and see how simple visual storytelling can be.

Children’s pictures always tell a story. I love working with children – I think adults can learn a lot from how freely imaginative children are. I certainly do.

Playing by the book: When you write about encouraging people to draw, when you say “Drawing was invented for storytelling, not for making realistic images. Realism just gets in the way when you’re telling a story – so it’s fun just to play with basic shapes and see how simple visual storytelling can be” – can you recommend a few of your favourite illustrators who do achieve what you’re describing here?

David Lucas: There are lots of people – but Pat Hutchins, Melanie Walsh, Lydia Monks, Nick Sharatt, and Lucy Cousins spring to mind. Among non-children’s book people I like Tom Gauld, Charley Harper, Jeff Fisher and Rob Ryan.

To me there’s something really childlike about shapes with crisp outlines. Children don’t draw blurry pictures – that’s a very ‘sophisticated’ adult thing to do.

Drawing something like rain is a funny thing. How do you draw rain?

Hokusai Night Rain

In Japan artists often drew rain as a series of slanting parallel lines, perfectly straight – which is exactly how rain feels. But there are practically no representations of rain in English art – even though it rains all the time. Rain doesn’t feel like a blurry Turner painting.

A child at a school I was in recently drew rain by drawing every single raindrop, and arranging each drop in a perfect, neat pattern across the page. I loved his picture. By making a repeat pattern of every drop he really communicated something essential and poetic about the relentlessness of rain. By making an idealized image he was getting to the heart of things rather than staying on a superficial level of ‘realistic’ appearances.

Playing by the book: Your love of patterns makes me wonder about whether music plays a role in your life. Do you illustrate with music on? If so, what do you like listening to?

David Lucas: I like listening to classical music when I work – usually slightly mournful music. I don’t know why but I feel most creative when I’m feeling a bit sad and reflective. Well, actually I do know why – it is a way of sinking into myself to find something deep down, that I wouldn’t access in ordinary life.

Playing by the book: Thank you David for sharing all of this with me and my readers. You’ve given me plenty of food for thought. I really look forward to reading and sharing your next two books, Christmas at the Toy Museum and, of course, Skeleton Pirate. I also can’t wait to get drawing with you at the Just So Festival. Talking with you here as certainly inspired me!

Endpapers for Lost in the Toy Museum. Reproduced with permission. Click for larger image. Copyright David Lucas

13 Responses

  1. Zoe

    Hi Even in Australia – I hope you can find them! Do report back 🙂

    Thanks Anamaria, David’s answers are so thoughtful and thought provoking I think. He was lovely to interview!
    Zoe recently posted..An Interview with David Lucas

  2. Ruth

    Really interesting blog post. And great to find a children’s author I’ve not come across before (dont’know why!) Will have to dig these up from the library.

  3. Zoe

    Hi Donna, really hope you can find David’s books in Canada. We love them.

    Ruth – I’m a bit shocked you’ve not come across David’s books before, they’re so beautiful and brilliant. Do let me know what *you* think when you’ve had a chance to read some!
    Zoe recently posted..An Interview with David Lucas

  4. Library Mice

    I love, love, love Cake Girl and bought Peanut to a French friend who was after some “unusual British” picture books. Great post :0)

  5. Livila

    I hadn’t come across any of David Lucas’ books before, thank you for this. I shall be seeking him out.

    I just have to say, I had that Hansel and Gretel book when I was wee. I had totally forgotten about it. What a blast from the past! :))

  6. Even in Australia

    Just read The Robot and the Bluebird and it reminded me a bit of the much-loved (and much-hated) Shel Silverstein classic The Giving Tree, where one party (the robot/the tree) gives its all to sustain another (the boy who becomes a man, the bluebird).
    Even in Australia recently posted..Yum!

  7. Zoe

    Ahh. Not sure what to make of that Even in Australia. I only know The Giving Tree by (mostly bad) reputation, and I love The Robot and the Bluebird – still brings tears to my eyes. How did you respond to it? What did you think of Lucas’ illustrative style?

  8. Even in Australia

    Strangely, I”m not in either the “love it” or “hate it” camp of The GIving Tree. I think it’s a lovely story, I can understand the objections to it and that’s about it. I felt similarly about The Robot and the Bluebird – it just wasn’t one of those books where I feel I want to read it over and over. As for the “message” about extreme love/extreme parenting, I felt the same as I do about The Giving Tree – I see the point and the parallels, but I don’t feel the need to read too much into it. I wonder if anyone else has commented on the similarities? A google search is in order!
    Even in Australia recently posted..All Things in Moderation

  9. Hannah

    I love Lucas’ stories and illustrations. I was facinated by his first work, ‘Halibut Jackson’. With the interview, I feel like meeting David Lucas in person. It answered clearly to the questions that I have before. I can’t wait to read his new work!!

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