Above: a snowy spread from Bear and Bee written and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier
Esteemed author and illustrator Sergio Ruzzier magically and unknowingly brought Robin, Liz and I together! We are honored (and tickled pink!) to mark our launch with this interview!
Hometown: Milano, Italy.
favorite children’s books as a child:
When I was very little, Else Minarik’s Little Bear series illustrated by Maurice Sendak were my favorite books, and probably my first, biggest influence.
A few years later, my parents gave me The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily, by Dino Buzzati, which I loved.
…as an adult:
Really too many to mention them all. I recently discovered Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas, a masterpiece. Sendak’s Nutshell Library is a beautiful jewel. I also like Wolf Erlbruch’s Duck, Death, and the Tulip and many books by William Steig, like Amos & Boris and Yellow & Pink. Lobel’s Frog and Toad, which I only got to know as an adult, is a marvel. And James Marshall’s George and Martha books are as good. Maybe my favorite picture book is The Doubtful Guest, by Edward Gorey.
cat or dog:
Four cats live in my apartment, not by my own choice. And right now we have four displaced cats on top (literally) of our four. But I do like all animals.
caffeine of choice: Irish coffee on a rainy day in a pub in Ireland.
I miss Editorial Anonymous very much.
favorite Italian food:
Lampredotto, fegato alla veneziana, polpette, stuffed calamari, tortelli di zucca, gnocchi col ragù, moeche fritte, seppie in umido… I could go on and on.
What made you leave Italy? Had you been to the U.S. before? Did you know you were here to stay?
I was very frustrated with my life in Milan. I wasn’t able to make a living with my drawings, even though I did publish some comic strips and illustrations here and there. I came the first time to New York for a 10-day vacation. A friend, Cristina Taverna of Nuages gallery in Milan, suggested that I show my drawings to Paul Davis. I did, and he was so kind to set up an appointment for me with Chris Curry of The New Yorker. She liked my work, and gave me an assignment, which I did during my vacation here. I couldn’t believe it. So, I came back again a few months later to see if I got more work. I did, and that made me decide to move here for good. I also have to say that my first days in NY the weather was so beautiful, with that crisp, blue sky of October, that I felt in a good place right away.
Difference between illustrating your own stories like Amandina and Room of Wonders vs. illustrating for other authors like Tweak Tweak and I Love You When You Whine?
I like to do both, but they’re two very different processes. A good illustrator is a cheater: you need to betray the text, at least a little, if you want your pictures to be worthwhile. But it’s more difficult to cheat on yourself. So, when you write-and-illustrate a book, you need to find other reasons why that book has a right to exist. Of course it also happens that the main reason you work on a book is the money you earn with it.
Your characters are so unique and unmistakably you—weird in a good way—how do you develop them? What other illustrators inspire you?
For my standards, I am perfectly normal, and so are my characters. I don’t make any conscious effort to make my characters one way or the other: they just come out like that.
Of course the influences are many and ever-changing. But I can mention a random few: Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, Roland Topor, Alfred Kubin, Franco Matticchio …
What is your studio space like? Whom do you share it with?
Until recently, I’ve never shared a studio, and I thought I would never be able to. But last year, almost by chance, I ended up taking a portion of a space in Gowanus, Brooklyn, with four other illustrators. It was one of my best professional decisions: I realize I waste considerably less time than when I was alone, and so I am much more efficient and productive. My peerless studio peers are Sophie Blackall, Brian Floca, and John Bemelmans Marciano. John Rocco was also originally with us, but we kicked him out once he won the Caldecott Honor. Another reason why I like my studio is that whenever it rains a little, I have a leak from the skylight right above my computer desk.
Describe a typical day for you? Do you have a routine?
I don’t have a routine and I would go crazy if I had one.
We remember when you showed us your beautiful dummy for Room of Wonders in class…take us through the first spark of an idea to making your dummy? The internal process of nourishing an idea into story when it’s still yours before it goes to the publisher.
When I was a kid, every time I’d accidentally kick a stone, I would pick it up and keep it in my pocket. It didn’t matter whether it was pretty or dull. That was the original idea behind The Room of Wonders. When Frances Foster invited me to come up with a picture book, I started on that hint and the story developed quite naturally.
Your backgrounds and borders are so rich and otherworldly. Where do those places come from? Have you ever been somewhere so magical?
I’ve always been fascinated by the Tuscan landscape, both in real life and through the interpretation of various medieval and early Renaissance painters. I think that is the main source of inspiration for my landscapes. My love of borders comes from my love of illuminated manuscripts.
What is your procrastination process like?
I’ll answer that later.
What’s going on in the Italian illustration world–how does it differ from the U.S.?
In Italy, as in other European countries, there are fewer taboos in children’s book publishing, compared to the US. But here the market is so much bigger that you never know what it can give. Edward Gorey, Victoria Chess, Lane Smith, and Arthur Geisert are American. I am very curious to see what a publisher like The Enchanted Lion will be able to accomplish. They have already published many beautiful, unusual picture books, so I am very hopeful.
Does language affect how you illustrate? Would you draw something one way if it was in English rather than in Italian or vice versa?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure. I know that when I write in English, a language that I still don’t quite master, my choices are often dictated by my ignorance. That’s very similar to my way of drawing: avoiding things that I don’t quite know how to draw.
You wrote a lovely piece for SCBWI which you also posted here about your time as a Sendak Fellow…is there anything else you’d like to share about that experience? Could you sleep there? Did you all play board games? Was the day structured?
The days in general were not structured, and there was no board game playing. I’m very grateful for both things. We did sleep there. We had our own rooms/studios. We took walks, we chatted, we cooked, we ate, we drank, and we drew a little. It was good.
Is it true that a certain bar in Brooklyn has a drink named after you? Do tell….
It was true. The bar is Barbès, in Park Slope. Unfortunately the original bartender is no longer there, and so my drink is gone. But it’s a nice one, especially in the warm season, and easy to make: it has vodka, grapefruit juice, and Campari.
e per i fan italiani…
…ti stanchi mai di fare interviste in inglese?
No, sono sempre grato e onorato.
Hai qualche ricordo particolare del tuo tragitto creativo in Italia?
E’ un ricordo agrodolce, con alcune gioie e molte frustrazioni. Ma forse non sono stato abbastanza tenace, creandomi così un’ottima ragione per andarmene.
Molte grazie per aver condiviso pensieri e immagini con noi!