I’m thrilled that today, Matthew Clark Smith and Matt Tavares, collaborators for Lighter Than Air, are here to chat with me about the book and reveal the cover. My questions are in bold, and their answers follow. Enjoy!
Tell us a little bit about Lighter than Air.
MT: Lighter Than Air is the story of Sophie Blanchard, the world’s first
woman pilot. She grew up in France in the early days of manned flight,
and she knew from the time she was very young that she was meant to fly-
even though all the famous aeronauts were men. Her story is fascinating,
and I really loved working on this book.
MCS: I’ll just add that the book also serves (I hope!) as a glimpse into
a really fascinating time — a time when the idea of human flight seemed
all but magical to most people, and the hot air balloon became this
mesmerizing symbol of the conquering of limits and borders through
imagination. For a few years the world went crazy with “balloonomania,”
and for a woman like SB to achieve what she did in that context really
got people’s attention and shook up a lot of crusty old notions.
What was it like to work with each other?
MT: It was great! Except that we never actually met, and still haven’t.
That’s how it usually goes when one person is the author and someone
else is the illustrator. All communication goes through the editor and
art director, and we usually never meet. So I didn’t work directly with
Matthew Clark Smith, but I did work with his words, and that was a
pleasure. Illustrating a story written by someone else is usually harder
for me than illustrating one of my own stories. It takes me a while to
get my head around how the illustrations should look, and I go through a
bunch of not-so-good sketches before I start making some good ones. But
I felt a connection to this story right from the start, and had a much
clearer vision for it than I normally do. I think that’s because the
story is so well-written, and has so much emotion packed into it. I
really cared about Sophie right from the beginning.
MCS: Sending your picture book text off to be illustrated is always a
leap of faith; when you’re a perfectionist and a very visual thinker
like me, it can be downright nerve-racking. So it’s a relief and a
pleasure to work with someone like Matt, who not only does his homework
in terms of historical accuracy, but also has a real gift for
intuitively grasping the tone of a piece and translating that into
image. I could tell the book was in good hands as soon as he passed on
his first sketches along with a few requests for detail and
clarification. When you know your illustrator is just as committed to
your story as you are, then you feel like you’re parenting a child
together instead of sending your kid off to be babysat. (Which may be a
slightly awkward metaphor given that Matt and I haven’t even met…)
Have you always been into writing/illustrating?
MT: Yes. My parents say that even when I was two years old, I was
drawing all the time. It’s just something that’s always been a part of
me. I’ve always loved writing stories too. I wrote and illustrated my
first picture book as my senior project in college, and haven’t stopped
MCS: Absolutely. I’ve always been eager to absorb and imitate different
styles and genres, so from the time I learned to read (very early), I
was constantly regurgitating second-rate knockoffs of whatever books
were on my shelf. I didn’t think of it as practice at the time, but it
turned out to be just that. Luckily, my parents were avid readers who
made sure I had access to every kind of literature under the sun. Also
luckily, they were wise enough to know when to stay out of my way.
I drifted away from writing for a while and wore a few other hats, but
when a children’s story popped into my head again several years ago (not
coincidentally around the time I was starting to have kids of my own), I
knew almost instantly that that was where my imagination had been
longing to go.
What’s the most exciting part of your job?
MT: There are so many… delivering the final art to the publisher is
always is exciting, seeing the finished book for the first time, meeting
some of my favorite authors and illustrators… but one exciting thing I
can think of that’s more specific to this book is the magic that happens
when an author and illustrator collaborate on a picture book. Of course,
I love illustrating my own stories. But when I collaborate with someone
else, I end up making a book I never would have thought to make on my
own. Before reading Matthew’s manuscript, I had never even heard of
Sophie Blanchard. But then I read this story, and loved it, and before
long I was spending the better part of a year learning everything I
could about her and working on these illustrations. That’s definitely an
exciting part of being an illustrator- you never know what story might
come along next.
MCS: That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! (When you have
young kids, parenting starts to seem like a metaphor for everything.)
I’m a major geek when it comes to doing historical research, to the
point where it’s sometimes hard to cut myself off from it and start the
actual writing. But there’s a subtler, more hard-won excitement to be
had in just solving language-puzzles as a writer — in that moment where
the just-right word appears in your mind’s eye and that whole unruly
sentence crystallizes around it. Then in another sense, there’s nothing
like the excitement of seeing the final art for the first time, and
realizing that your words have morphed into a living, breathing,
What inspires your creativity?
MT: My mortgage.
But seriously… seeing great art always gives me a creative boost.
Sometimes that means a painting in a museum, or sometimes that means
browsing the picture book section at the bookstore, or even going to the
movies. I also take walks, and that helps my writing. Most of my best
ideas don’t come to me when I’m sitting at my desk. They come when I’m
outside walking, letting my mind wander. Lately I’ve been listening to
instrumental music from Pixar movies when I walk. It might sound silly,
but I feel like those songs lend themselves so perfectly to
storytelling, and they really seem to help me when I’m trying to figure
out a story.
MCS: Totally with Matt on this one. There’s nothing like seeing
(reading, watching, etc.) great art to inspire art of your own.
Devouring a really well-written book always leaves me feeling thrilled
and empowered by the new possibilities of words — along with a touch of
that competitive spirit that has me thinking “Why couldn’t I do that?”
And so much of creativity depends on just making the space for the ideas
to come to you. I can read all the books I want, but if I don’t set
aside quiet time for all those new words and concepts to shuffle and
recombine themselves in my brain, then I won’t be able to turn them into
something new. Ideas don’t come out of nowhere — you have to make sure
they have fertile ground — but you can’t force them to grow, either.
What is one thing that readers don’t know about you, that only you could
MT: I hold my pencil wrong, and always have. All four fingers on one
side, and my thumb on the other. Drove my third grade teacher crazy. She
kept giving me those little triangles you slide onto your pencil to help
position your fingers correctly. And I would try it that way, but it
always felt weird, so I’d always switch back to my way. Then she would
tell me that if I kept it up, before long I would have arthritis in my
thumb! So far so good, though. Take THAT, Mrs. Foley! (She was actually
a very good teacher.)
MCS: I do all kinds of things wrong. I forget, I procrastinate, I have
no kind of daily schedule, I stink at drafting and revising, and I
constantly start projects that will never be finished. I’m not proud of
any of that, and I’m getting better (maybe), but I’ve also made a
certain peace with my weaknesses as a writer. There’s no
one-size-fits-all formula for turning yourself into an artist, and one
of the most important things you can do is to get in touch with your own
natural creative process (messy as it may be) and figure out how to give
it what it needs. Before they revoke my MFA, I’ll just add that the
fundamentals are important, too: the more familiar you are with the
basic tools of your craft, the more confident you’ll be in marching to
your own beat.
If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you’d be doing?
MT: I’ve always had this fantasy of being an animator at a big animation
studio, like Pixar. Writing and illustrating books is a very solitary
job much of the time. I’m intrigued by the idea of being part of a big
creative team, working together toward a common goal. That said, I
really do love making books and can’t imagine I’ll ever decide to do
I also love teaching, so maybe I would be a teacher. Lucky for me, I
visit a lot of schools, so I do get to do a bit of teaching, even as an
MCS: Most of the time, I’m not actually writing books: I have a
full-time job making maps as a geographic information scientist, which
is pretty great in itself. But I’m always dreaming about doing other
things. I have a fantasy-life as a musician, another one as a teacher,
and another one as a field biologist, to name a few. And if Matt wants
to go to Pixar and drag me along as part of his team, I’d be all for it.
What can readers expect from you in the future? Any other pairings as an
MT: I’ve got two books coming out in 2017, both with Candlewick. Lighter
Than Air comes out in March, and Red and Lulu comes out in the fall.
It’s a story I wrote and illustrated about a pair of cardinals who
become separated when their favorite tree is chopped down (don’t worry,
it turns out okay). I’m really excited for both of these books.
MCS: I always have a few projects that I’m shopping around, and plenty
more in the back of the drawer. I’m very restless as a writer, so they
tend to be all over the map — more picture books, but also nonfiction
for older readers, along with scraps of a few novels that may or may not
ever see the light. But now I’ll be spending most of 2017 in anxious
suspense over the fate of Matt’s homeless cardinals.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?
MT: Thanks, Dylan! And thanks, Dylan’s readers! It really was a pleasure
to help bring Sophie Blanchard’s story to life, and I hope you all enjoy
Lighter Than Air.