Erica’s Elephant – The Inside Story with Sylvia Bishop and Ashley King.

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Published by Scholastic £8.99 (Hardback).

Text by Sylvia Bishop, and illustrations by Ashley King

Hello! I’m really excited and thrilled to launch a new venture here at hellopipski HQ: each month I’m aiming to bring an author or illustrator interview to inspire those of us who are still waiting to be published!

So, it is a great honour to have both Sylvia Bishop and Ashley King as my first guests.

I’ve just finished reading Erica’s Elephant, and I loved it from start to finish: the story is told in such a bubbly and upbeat voice! The characters are totally endearing (well, apart from Oliver and Amy Avis, but you’ll have to read it to find out more!) and the themes in it just make your heart sing, or as the Elephant would say TRONK!

So, with massive author admiration (ok, envy), I asked Sylvia about her book and her writing:

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Sylvia, what’s Erica’s Elephant about?

On the morning of her tenth birthday, Erica Perkins finds an elephant on her doorstep. He has been sent by her Uncle Jeff, who is her only relative, and who has been away for the last three years looking for a bird called the Lesser Pip-Footed Woob. The story follows the growing friendship between Erica and the Elephant, and the schemes of the Nefarious Adults who want to take him away.

What kind of character is Erica Perkins?

Erica Perkins is a very practical girl. I say that a lot in the book, but actually, I think this is more humorous than true. For example: she finds an elephant on her doorstep, so she googles what kind of food elephants need to eat. I guess it is practical – but it’s also mad, because really, she’s got much bigger problems to deal with. Her approach to enormous problems is always to see them as simple logistical puzzles.

She’s also lonely, and naturally kind, I think. I say ‘I think’, because I make a point of trying not to ‘know’ anything about my characters that I haven’t written on the page. It helps me to see clearly. And Erica is quite sparsely written – her internal world is described on a need-to-know basis.

Sometimes people ask if Erica is me. She is definitely not me. I am obviously the Elephant.

What was the initial spark that started Erica’s Elephant in your mind? 

I was at my sister’s wedding, and we were all staying in a beautiful and slightly mad house the night before. I got a text from my housemate Dylan, thanking me for somethingorother, and promising me ‘an elephant festooned with tea’ as a reward. The image really tickled me. Initially, I wrote a scene in which the Elephant arrived with tea; the tea got lost, but the Elephant stuck around.

What appealed to you most about having an elephant in your story?

A humble Elephant is a very funny thing. Somebody big and confused who is trying to be polite and small offers you so much humour: character comedy, slapstick, understatement…  He really just wrote himself. I have sorely missed him in everything I’ve written since!

How has your writer’s journey been so far? 

When I wrote Erica’s Elephant, I was meant to be writing a thesis on the politics of the global cotton market. Which I did – painfully – teeth-pullingly – eventually. But this meant that all the angst and self-doubt that you are meant to experience when you write a book were firmly directed at the thesis. Erica and her Elephant were my escape. I think that was really helpful: I just wrote the next bit when I was ready to, normally on the back of some notes about the World Trade Organisation, and I didn’t shed any tears over it.

I was tremendously lucky that this was then taken up by Bryony Woods, my agent, who was superb. She sold the book terrifyingly fast. Seriously, people, she is incredible.

We sold a two-book contract, and the second book has been a different story. I had lots of very reasonable, sensible doubts about whether I could really write, or whether I was actually just an illiterate imagination-vacuum who had accidentally coughed up an Elephant one day and was now doomed to be inert forevermore. My excellent housemates and family had to listen to a lot of woe and give me a lot of tea. (I’m glad to say that the manuscript is now successfully written!)

How much editing did you have to do after finding your agent?

Bryony offered some really helpful edits. We didn’t have a huge amount to do, though. It was quite painless.

What is your cabaret act? How does your experience of performing help you with your writing?

I am one half of the Peablossom Cabaret (he other half is the same Dylan who sent me the elephantandtea text). We play a turn-of-the-century cabaret duo. We chat to the audience during the show, and then improvise lyrics about them on the spot.

I’ve been improvising comedy for 6 years, with a lot of different groups; my really formative training was with the Oxford Imps. While I now mostly do songs, the majority of improv is ‘scene work’, i.e. improvising sketches and plays. That’s really relevant to writing, and I definitely write like an improviser. If I hadn’t taken up improv, I don’t think I’d have written a book at all.

There are so many ways that the two relate…

One key thing that improv taught me is how to create funny and engaging characters and situations with minimal information.

As an improviser, you don’t have the luxury of lengthy exposition. You just find a character’s ‘game’, that is, the thing that they repeatedly do. This can be something general like “tries to be better than everyone else”, or really specific like “keeps trying to open the tin of beans no matter what else is going on”. If you keep finding new ways to ‘play the game’, then the resulting characters can actually feel very fleshed out. When you’re writing short books, I think this is enormously useful training.

What books did you enjoy reading as a child?

There are three children’s authors I always come back to.

A. A. Milne: as far as I’m concerned, the Winnie-the-Pooh stories are comedic perfection.

Frances Hodgson-Burnett: although such overtly didactic books aren’t as popular now, I love that intense warmth and earnestness about Living Well. Makes me very weepy.

And Dianna Wynne Jones. I think her books have a richness to the world-building and plot that is really rare in books of that length. They’re like YA books drawn in miniature. As a child, they blew my mind.

What’s next for you, writing-wise?

I’ve got one more book forthcoming with Scholastic, of-which-I-must-say-no-more. And for my current project I’ve gone back to an old discarded idea and started fixing it up, which is really enjoyable. I imagine that for quite a while I’ll be staying under 20k words, and experimenting with what can be done in that short space. That’s definitely what I find most exciting right now.

Many thanks to Sylvia for answering my questions! Find Sylvia on Twitter @sylviabishop. On her website she describes herself as a “Writer of Wotnots and Thingums”!

Erica’s Elephant is aimed at readers aged 7-9, and like all the best books for that age group it has amazing pictures! So I asked the illustrator, Ashley King, to share his experiences with us too.

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Ashley, what was it like when you heard you’d been picked to illustrate Erica’s Elephant? 

Wow, just wow! I think the penny dropped when I told myself (and my two cats Dusty and Bo who at the time looked just as shocked as I was) that I had this incredible opportunity to illustrate my first children’s book!

The moment I was sent the manuscript by one of Scholastic’s designers Sean Williams, I instantly fell in love with what I was reading. Sylvia Bishops artistry to write so naturally was just refreshing to read, so much so I read the entire book in one sitting and couldn’t wait to get started on the drawing.

Initially I was asked to submit a few ideas along with sketches of Erica and her Elephant, which in time became the characters they are now in the book. This whole process has been a huge career experience that I have learnt a great deal from!

What was your process once you’d started on the project?

Sometimes I might start with a few sketches for a character or a situation, and then create several ideas from this. I’m a very visual minded person and like many other illustrators spend hours doodling and scribbling down ideas, some of which might spark from drinking a coffee and pondering about life and others through conversations (with the cats!) Usually though I tend to work quite quickly and have a strong idea already on the end result. So once the rough drafts are completed, reviewed with feedback by the team at Scholastic and Sylvia herself, I have my pencils at the ready for the final drawing stages, which is where the fun really begins. So I guess this process is down to the individual and how they work best.

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How do you feel about the end product?

Honestly, receiving the proof copy and the final book in the post was just amazing and better than I could have ever imagined. I’m a very humble guy at heart and really appreciate the small things in life, so now being a published illustrator for the first time is a real personal achievement and hope to continue doing so!

Where do you work, and what’s your work routine?

I’m lucky to have a small studio space at home where most of my drawing takes place. I have a large desk near a window to work with as much natural light as possible. I tend to work better in the evenings fuelled with coffee and cake!

As a freelance illustrator it can be difficult sometimes drawing by yourself all day long but when you get the chance to work on such wonderful projects like this it makes it all worth while.

Carrying a sketchbook and my favourite mechanical pencil is essential to doodle and note take with, especially if something catches my eye or if I over hear a conversation my ears probably shouldn’t have heard but hey-ho! I almost forgot to mention Dusty and Bo have a fascination with these tiny thin rubbers I use. They are secretly hoarding them which I can never find but that’s a different story. I also work as a children’s bookseller at Waterstones, which is such a great environment to work in, amazing for inspiration, networking and talking book language of course!

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Can you tell us about your journey into illustrating books?

This is a good question, I’ve always admired art and have loved drawing right from an early age. I can remember my old head teacher at first school introducing me to seeing my first ever painting by L.S. Lowry, street scene with mill, classic match stick men drawings and must have loved it so much at the time for me to remember it clearly now. My mum, dad and grandparents were also a huge inspiration of mine when growing up as a child, and had always encouraged me to draw and paint for as long as I remember. I graduated from Coventry University knowing I wanted to illustrate children’s books but hadn’t a clue on where to start, who to gain advice from, whether to join an agency or go it alone. The Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook is a great place to start, (The bible for publishing I refer it too!) And like most new graduates it’s over coming the challenge of finding your feet for the first time. Patience is a virtue.

Any advice for aspiring illustrators?

Draw as much as you can and develop a signature style. It’s a very competitive industry so it’s healthy to think commercially with your work. Eat and drink well, catching enough sleep and rest is hugely important when deadlines are tight. Create social media accounts or a blog, Instagram and Twitter are huge platforms to showcase your work and build a name for yourself #picturesmeanbusiness. You might even find me on there @ashillustrates. Good luck!  Ashley, Dusty and Bo x

You can visit Ashley’s website here, and find him on Twitter @Ashillustrates.

Many thanks again to Ashley and Sylvia, and I’d like to wish them the best of luck with their next adventures. Read a review of Erica’s Elephant here.

Happy Reading!

Pippa @hellopipski

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