Q&A With Adam Rex

Hey Adam! Thanks for stopping by. Tell us a little bit about the books you’ve recently had published!

So I have two picture books that came out over the summer—one that I wrote but didn’t illustrate and another I illustrated but didn’t write. The former is School’s First Day of School, illustrated by Christian Robinson, about a brand new school who is nervous about his first day of children. And the latter is How This Book Was Made, written by Mac Barnett, literally about how the book How This Book Was Made was made. About writing drafts and editorial arguments and waiting and waiting and waiting; but also about pirates and tiger arm wrestling and the part a reader has to play to really make a book a book. 

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They are both terrific books- so, one you’re an author, and another, you’re the illustrator. Is this the first time you’ve written a book that you haven’t illustrated yourself? How did that feel? Was there a reason you chose not to illustrate it?

It was more like a confluence of reasons. I’d been wanting to try writing but not illustrating a picture book for a while. Because I wanted to see how the other half lived. Because it might mean I’d get to collaborate with people I’d never work with otherwise. Because I’ll be able to publish more of my stories if I don’t insist on personally taking the four months I need to illustrate them.

But, also, I was interested in someone else illustrating School’s First Day of School specifically because I wasn’t sure how I’d do it. The main character is a building, and I don’t think I’m especially famous for my great buildings. I wasn’t sure how to handle personifying or not personifying the school. And whenever I thought about what I might do, I kept imagining a style that looked an awful lot like Christian Robinson’s. So I felt like I was on a course to either rip him off or see if we could get him to do it instead.

And, tell us a little bit about the process of illustrating How This Book Was Made.  Did you construct 3-D objects for the illustrations? I just read it today, actually, and was very impressed with the illustrations.

I did set up little dioramas to photograph, much like I did for Chloe and the Lion, but this time they were mostly made of cut paper. 

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I drew in dark black Prismacolor pencil on construction paper, cut out the shapes, set them up in little tableaus, and photographed them as best I could. I am not, strictly speaking, a photographer. So you couldn’t be blamed for wondering why I keep doing this kind of thing to myself. Anyway, after getting the pictures into my computer, I tinted them ever so slightly in Photoshop. I didn’t want to overpaint anything, because I wanted to preserve the weird depth and authentic interplay of the subjects that I got from photographing them in actual space.

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I also repainted a globe to serve as a setting for some of the spreads. I basically had to spray paint the whole thing with an off-white, hand-paint all the water back in, and then paint the United States and Malaysia pink, since those are the only two countries mentioned by name in the text.

Ah, fascinating! So what has become your favorite/preferred medium to use as an illustrator?

I’m still very comfortable using oils, because I’ve been painting in oils since I was eleven, but I almost don’t have a favorite medium. I’ve been doing a lot digitally lately, but that’s a trap of convenience: I often don’t ENJOY the process of making art digitally as much as I like making it with traditional media, but the digital art is so much easier and faster that I do it anyway. It’s like I don’t think I have the time to eat a good meal so instead I wolf down a gas station hot dog while standing over the kitchen sink.

That’s unfair, actually—digital art has been getting more and more fun to do as the technology advances. I just got a really cool load of Photoshop brushes from Kyle Webster’s store.

Shifting from art to writing…. Does your creative process differ when you’re writing as opposed to your process with art?

Well, when I get inspired to write something, I suppose what I’m generally doing is sitting down and diving in and hoping, just by chance, that I write something perfect and amazing from beginning to end. This doesn’t happen, but what I’m trying to convey here is that I don’t outline or plot or go through any visualization exercises ahead of time. I just write. I try to write thoughtfully, but I also try not to get too bogged down. Like I said, I’m hoping that I HAPPEN to write something perfect, but I also know I can go back and rewrite.

If I were approaching illustration in the same way, then that would be like trying to paint a printable image on a single surface from beginning to end, conception to polish. Like priming a big piece of watercolor paper and diving right in with oil paint and seeing if I could just make an illustration without thinking about it ahead of time. I could try this, but I never have. 

Instead, I plan the image out with messy thumbnail drawings, which I refine over one or two more steps into a clean sketch. I get this sketch approved by the editor and use it in conjunction with photos I’ve gathered and/ or taken myself, plus maybe a maquette I’ve sculpted, plus whatever else I need to make the best final image I can.

In the digital space it’s easier (for me) to actually layer that final rendering right over the top of the clean sketch, which in turn is right on top of the thumbnail, so in this way a digital illustration is maybe the closest my picture-making process comes to my writing process.

Still: I never write as loosely as I thumbnail sketch. If one of my thumbnail sketches were text, it would be an incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness listicle, spelled phonetically.

Have you always been into writing and illustrating?

Well, all kids start out as illustrators. Almost every kid draws, and they draw to tell stories Which is about all illustration is. I just didn’t stop around the age everyone else does.

I liked writing stories, too, but growing up we all decided that writing was my brother’s thing. So I didn’t get into it seriously until late high school or early college.

So you studied writing/illustrating? How did your career launch? What was your first book deal?

I studied illustration, and got a BFA. 

I did take one creative writing class right before I left college, and it’s lucky I did. Because of some mixture of AP credits and clerical error, I’d managed to fulfill every requirement of my major without having taken the correct number of credit hours. So I was basically told, at the last minute, that I needed to take another four credit hours of…something. They didn’t care what, as long as it was outside the college of art. So I took a very strange one-credit class in which we were asked to read only excerpts of books—apparently this class was designed to ease students with learning disabilities or college anxiety into the university life—and I also took an Intro to Fiction Writing course.

I’ve often told people that if they want to learn how to draw and paint, that they’ll improve more during their first semester art class than they will at any other point in their lives, and I feel the same way about this writing class. I went into it thinking I was already pretty good at writing fiction, and I was quickly disabused of a lot of bad habits. I probably didn’t come out of that class knowing exactly where I was and where I needed to go, but I came out with a map and a compass.

Meanwhile, I was already working as a freelance illustrator. Mostly fantasy role-playing game jobs I’d scored after years of showing my work around at Comic-Con. But that kind of portfolio doesn’t get you work in children’s books, so I landed some low-paying assignments from magazines like Cricket and Spider. The work I did for these refreshed my portfolio every six months, and after five or six years of sending samples to New York publishers, I had a fan at FSG. He gave me my first manuscript to illustrate (The Dirty Cowboy), and I was off to the races after that.

What’s coming up for you/ and what are you working on now?

Next year is going to be fun. I’ll have three picture books out—one I wrote but Scott Campbell illustrated, one I illustrated but Drew Daywalt wrote, and a third I did all myself. They are about, respectively, unrequited love between ungulates; the legend of Rock, Paper, and Scissors; and the heartache of having nothing rhyme with you.

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They all sound great! As you continue to make new projects, from where do you draw your inspiration/ideas?

(Adam Rex moves to his front door, opens it, gestures sweepingly at everything outside before turning to indicate everything inside as well)

Aha! What’s one thing about you that readers don’t know, that only you could tell us?

I don’t know—my Social Security number? I’m a pretty open book. My problem is oversharing, if it’s anything. I was just on tour with Christian, who I think is a lot more comfortable with silence, and I’m pretty sure he knows my Social Security number by now. I don’t explicitly remember sharing it, but he saw me get pretty drunk one night in Decatur so who knows.

Ha! Well, Adam, it’s been a pleasure, I just have one last question.. Anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?

I am trying to break your heart. Only instead I keep accidentally making books about funny monsters and sandwiches.

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2 thoughts on “Q&A With Adam Rex

  1. Great interview, Dylan! I LOVED School’s First Day of School :). And I’m a fan of ungulates, so I’ll be looking for that one too.

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