Liz and I recently got to spend a few hours at the shared studio space of children’s book author/illustrators Sophie Blackall, Brian Floca, Edward Hemingway (“Eddie”), John Bemelmans Marciano (“Johnny”), and Sergio Ruzzier. These guys have been sharing a studio for over two years—with the exception of Eddie who moved in a few months ago—and we can tell that they all genuinely enjoy sharing the space together. I’ve already hit them up for future individual interviews so hopefully you’ll be reading more about them here over the next year. [Ed Note: one of the original studio members mentioned below, John Rocco, has since moved to Los Angeles.]
P&O: How did you guys start working together in this space?
Sergio: It was supposed to be a brunch. It’s true. I was trying to invite Sophie, Johnny, John Rocco, and Brian to brunch—Eddie was not born yet— and we couldn’t agree on a date. We first met at the “Drawn In Brooklyn” show at the Brooklyn Library that Johnny curated and he put us all together.
Brian: We all sort of knew each other before, but putting the show together was really a great thing because we all really got to know each other.
Sergio: So then in the email thread, even though we couldn’t find a date for the brunch, somebody said they were looking for a studio space.
Brian: I think it was Sophie…
Sophie: I used to work at home and I was being evicted. We did unspeakable things to our apartment and the landlord was very upset and threw us out. Mostly it was my boyfriend, who was staging a play in the basement for a year. Slight breach of contract. So I was looking for a place. Johnny, I think I emailed you first.
Johnny: Right and then Rocco actually found the space, right?
Brian: Yeah, he just hopped on Craig’s List. He’s a doer.
Sophie: And we all came to look at the space thinking maybe three of us might take it and then everyone was in.
Sergio: I was not planning to move, I never shared a space. I never shared anything, even a piece of bread.
Sophie: He just hates being left out so he just tagged along.
P&O: How did you find Eddie?
Eddie: I went to grad school with Brian and I knew Johnny’s wife. I have a studio in my apartment and my apartment lost power after Hurricane Sandy. It still doesn’t have the boiler working. So these guys took pity on me.
P&O: Do you guys get each other’s opinions on things formally or informally? Like sketches or dummies? Is that something that you guys seek out?
Brian: It’s not always happening but I think when one of us feels stuck.
Sophie: We’ve looked at maybe 16 different endings for Brian’s book [Locomotive].
Maybe 17 over the course of a long time and then we’re all absolutely emphatic, this is it, this is absolutely it! Great, fantastic! And then a week later: “Sooo…. if anyone has three minutes to look at an alternate ending for my book…”
Johnny: When I was doing the text for the new Madeline I would toss outlines and ask opinions.
P&O: Is it usually more text-related than, say, this drawing isn’t working?
Sophie: I know John Rocco used to show us prints that to me looked almost the same.
Johnny: John [Rocco] was the big asker of opinion and giver of opinion.
Brian: In a good way!
Johnny: Yeah, in a good way. In a positive way, absolutely positive way. No, absolutely!
Sophie: I’ll run past ideas about stories I am working on at lunchtime.
Brian: With the train book that I was working on it was very much picture book kind of stuff, like how does the feeling of the book change if we moved a picture to this page and moved this beat here and broke the text up here. It was a very narrow set of things that I was trying to move around to find the right way to go out of the book, but you sort of needed other people’s good picture book eye, or I needed it, to help me see how that was working.
Sophie: I think we, apart from Eddie, probably all modeled at one point or another for Brian’s Victorian train passengers doing various things and we all ended up looking like Brian.
P&O: So what are the positives and negatives about sharing a space? A lot of you were working on your own before.
Sergio: I have never worked so well – honestly this is not a joke. I was always on my own and I always thought that I could never share a space but I did it by instinct when I decided to join these people and I never regretted it. I never looked back. It works really well mostly because I don’t waste as much time on the Internet if they’re around because I feel like they’re going to think I’m a jerk.
P&O: There’s that social pressure, right? “Everyone else is working so I should.”
Sergio: It’s a nice pressure. Yeah, very good. That’s my experience.
Brian: And as we get to know each other, what the hell, let’s watch that YouTube clip.
Sergio: Sure. Again, I don’t feel like, oh my God, but it’s a positive energy, can I say that?
Johnny: Oh yeah, it’s a positive energy!
Sophie: You will be quoted as saying that.
Johnny: The only drawback that I see is just not being able to just nap at any time.
Brian: I have napped! [To Eddie,] Before you moved in I napped on the table!
Eddie: So I’ve taken away your nap time? Sorry.
Brian: I do keep meaning to get a cot.
Johnny: I once was napping there and somebody came in. It was during the summer and I just had to quickly get up and pretend that I was working.
P&O: Johnny, you and Sophie are collaborating on an upcoming book right? Can you tell me more about it?
Johnny: It’s a middle-grade book and I had written it probably in ’97 or ’98 before I had had anything published. I planned to do it as a picture book. It was about a boy who dies nine times and it somehow wasn’t really fitting into the picture book format… I thought it was a good idea and I kept returning to it and two or three years ago I just decided A) that it wasn’t a picture book, and that B) I wasn’t really the right person to do the illustrations for it and that was also kind of a block.
So I rewrote it and then I showed it to Viking and I mentioned three names for illustrators and Sophie was one of them and the editor said…
Sophie: …he was looking for someone sadistic and deeply troubled and thought of me! So that was nice!
Brian: Who were the other two?
Johnny: Oh, I could never say!
P&O: What’s it like working together in the same space on the book? Normally the writer is not a part of the illustration process, let alone in the same room.
Sophie: I was more nervous than anything else because I was already late with it and I was working on other things and when Johnny would come by I would sometimes put his drawing over the top of my other work so he thought I was actually working on it. It felt a little bit like having the teacher in the room but I have to say he was fantastic! He was incredibly patient and respectful.
Johnny: By the way, she was just feeling guilty. I actually in the meantime was happy for her to be late because her being late meant I wouldn’t have to do the copy edits and I was late on two other books.
Sophie: Well then I wrote an absolutely brilliant fantastic manuscript for Brian to illustrate because I thought of it as a picture book idea but it involved cars and I can’t draw cars to save my life but, I thought, I sit next to somebody who draws the best cars in the world…
Brian: She kept telling me to write the story and this is how the story should go and she practically had it broken down page by page and then finally I said, you should write the stuff.
Sophie: He said you write it and I’ll do it so I went and wrote it and Brian was kind about it and we sent it off to an editor who said this is great, I like it a lot. The slight problem is that this book already exists.
Brian: And he had published it by the way. It wasn’t just that it had existed.
Sophie: Which is the only thing to save me from accusations of just complete plagiarism. I probably wouldn’t be quite so dimwitted as to send the manuscript to the actual publisher who had published a book like it already.
Brian: It was uncanny because it was such a great manuscript and it would have been so much fun. The editor really liked it, and it works very differently in a lot of ways from this book that they published in ’95 but if you just sort of break down the plot points it’s almost beat for beat.
Sophie: Yeah and Brian, you would make it look different, but it’s just too close for comfort.
P&O: Those of you working on non-fiction: do you go on research field trips and come back with stacks of things or are you online a lot?
Brian: For me it usually starts with books. Then there’s a lot of online stuff. I did drive the Trans Continental route for Locomotive and so I visited four or five museums on the way, took a lot of pictures, interviewed guys who are curators at these museums, bought some scale models.
Sophie: Brian’s doing a book about an elephant seal at the moment and he let slip that he had spoken to a zoologist…
Brian: Well, I just emailed him…
Sophie: And had watched hours of footage of the…
Brian: Not hours!
Sophie: And yesterday he was drawing a map of the pacific and there was a tiny speck on there which was Balls Pyramid off the coast of Australia and Lord Howe Island. We all ended up looking at pictures.
Johnny: Now we all know the indigenous insect of the island, a horrifying bug.
Brian: A freely roaming population of stick lobsters called tree lobsters.
Eddie: Tree lobsters.
Johnny: Tree lobsters.
Brian: These giant bugs like this big! [Holds his hands about twelve inches apart.]
P&O: Are you serious?
Brian: These bugs were originally on Lord Howe’s Island and at some point a ship got washed up there and the crew went ashore and all of these rats got off the ship and they ate all of the stick insects. So it was believed that was the end of the stick insects and then years later, 80s, 90s, somebody finds a fresh stick insect carcass on Balls Pyramid which is just this pyramid…
Sophie: It’s a rock…
Eddie: You have to see it to believe it, the island doesn’t look real. It’s just amazing looking.
Brian: The bugs come out at night so they had to go back to scale this steep thing at night. They caught a couple of bugs after thinking about if this was the moral proper thing to do or not, took them back, and now they’ve got a breeding program going on.
P&O: And that’s not what your book is about?
Eddie: In fact the island will just be a little dot on the map.
Brian: A pixel.
Brian: I drew it with real feeling.
Brian: I don’t know if that shows dedication or distractibility! A little bit of both.
Sophie: I think you never know. A book about tree lobsters…
Sophie Blackall recently illustrated The Mighty Lalouche, by Matthew Olshan. It comes out in May 2013. She also has two books coming out in Fall 2013: the last Ivy & Bean book, written by Annie Barrows, and The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield, written by studio mate John Bemelmans Marciano.
John Bemelmans Marciano recently finished the writing a middle grade novel, The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield (illustrated by Sophie Blackall), Madeline and the Old House in Paris, and Whatever Happened to the Metric System (a non-fiction book for adults). They are all coming out in Fall 2013.
Brian Floca’s Locomotive a non-fiction picture book about, you guessed it, locomotives and the Transcontinental Railroad, comes out in Fall 2013. Elizabeth, Queen of the Sea, by Lynne Cox, comes out in Spring 2014.
Eddie Hemingway illustrated Tiny Pie, by Mark Bailey and Michael Oatman (and with a pie recipe by Alice Waters). It comes out in May 2013. Bad Apple’s Perfect Day, his sequel to Bad Apple, is coming out in August 2014.
Sergio Ruzzier has two books coming out in March 2013: Bear & Bee and Have You Seen My New Blue Socks? by Eve Bunting. Bear & Bee: Too Busy, comes out in March 2014. Check out Ruthie’s interview with Sergio here.