I can’t tell you how stoked I am about this, my first Author interview. James(prefering Jim), now lives in Hawaii after spending time in Afghanistan as a Peace Corps. Waiting for the interview by email was like being a kid again waiting for the postman to arrive with that special parcel of Christmas goodies. Although I was originally nervous about approaching Jim, right from the outset he was amusing, interesting, encouraging and genuinely interested in the direction of my writing. He had always dreamed of being a writer but it wasn’t till in his 40’s before those dreams became a reality. He now writes and illustrates his own books. Prior to this he had spent many years as a University Teacher and a maker of handmade books. Read on as he shares some wonderful insights of his writing, thoughts and tips.
Diane: I would like to start at the beginning, how you came to be a writer, its always fasinating to hear, and I believe a lovely lady, Harriett, who sadly passed away earlier this year, had a lot of influence in your start.
Jim: You are right. Harriett Oberhaus did have a lot of influence on my becoming a writer. Over the years, she and I talked a great deal about what role she played. We both agreed that what she did was to give me permission to become what I had always wanted to be. This might sound odd, but sometimes, when you have a dream, you need someone to simply say, “Okay, now it is time to let that dream out. It is time to fly.” People who encourage others are like custodians. They hold a ring of keys and say, “Would you like me to open that door for you?” Escaping, flying, opening—all metaphors to describe what Harriett and others like her do.
Diane: Can you tell me how you go about editing your work. How long would it take from first draft to publisher’s hands for one of your books?
Jim: Some books are incredibly easy to write. They write themselves. I sit down and when I get up the book is finished. This happened with Calabash Cat, Island-below-the-Star and Don’t Touch My Hat!. Other books take a lot more work–sometimes up to five years. Such was the case with Beowulf, Seeker of Knowledge, and Cheelin. Usually, I don’t send a manuscript to my editor until I am satisfied. I don’t like editors fooling too much with my stuff—to put it bluntly. So, there is usually very little revision to the manuscript. This, however, was not the case with Beowulf, which went through numerous revisions. In the end the editor was not satisfied and I took the book away from her and had it published by Houghton Mifflin in Boston. Of course, we are only talking about the words. There are also the illustrations to consider. These may take anywhere from two weeks to several years to accomplish. My next book, about Gutenberg called From the Good Mountain, has been difficult to illustrate. I only finished the illustrations yesterday!
Diane: Being an illustrator of your books, when you start your book or draft is it picture first then words, or words then pictures?
Jim: I haven’t ever started with the pictures. I think I am a word guy first. As I write, the pictures come into my head, millions of them. The hard part is to decide which ones to show in the book, and, to decide what medium I want to use. As you can see by looking at my books, I have used a variety of media—from watercolor to collage to casein paint. I’d like to write a book of just pictures. That is a very difficult thing to do and my hat is off to those who can successfully do this.
Diane: I see someone else asked this of you, but can you give me a brief outline of your typical day?
Jim: I don’t think I have a typical day. That is what I like about what I do. I do get up early. It is warm in Honolulu; so it is best to get a lot done before the afternoon heat descends on the room where I work. I’d also like to say that I write something everyday, but I don’t. I’d also like to reveal that I paint something every day, but I don’t.
Diane: With Calabash Cat, you received interesting feedback especially from children. Can you share that with me here?
Jim: Most of the feedback has been in the form of pictures. I received some in the mail the other day from a school I visited while on the East Coast last month. Some kids drew their own animals and covered them with designs. But one child did something unusual. She drew a whale. Instead of putting a design inside the whale as the other children did, she drew a scene of Hawai‘i. I thought that was brilliant.
One comment I do remember was the first one I got. I had just finished the manuscript and some of the pictures. I decided to read it to a first grade class. When I finished, the room was silent. I thought that the book was a flop. Then after a moment, a kid raised his hand, “Mr. Rumford, I get it. The world is round!” Wow, that took deductive reasoning, and I felt that there was hope for my book.
Diane: You mentioned about hoping to extend the age of your readers with picture books … what is the age range for the books you have done?
Jim: I’d say that the age ranges from 1 to 100. I am not kidding. I think that small kids can get something out of the pictures in my book. Sure, sometimes what I write is challenging. Books are supposed to be challenging. And I believe that books are supposed to be open-ended. That means that books are like traveling: it is not the destination that counts but the journey. Books need to encourage readers to think and want to know more. And I hope that my readers would return to my book all throughout their lives. There are so many levels in my books: something for everyone.
Diane: As aspiring writers new to the world of writing, we can become daunted by technology the written word can be found in…. what are your thoughts on e-books and ipads and are any of yours an e-book?
Jim: I am afraid that the world of publishing is changing. Either we decide that books don’t have to be made of paper and ink or we become hopelessly imprisoned to the past. Gutenberg’s revolution is over. There is a new one taking shape. The computer and the internet will destroy publishing as we knew it. It will change the way books are made. It will bring to the fore authors and illustrators who would never have had a chance otherwise. Will there be junk? Yes. Will there be ugliness? Yes. But hasn’t there always been? Publishers have not been ashamed to put out junk, if it made money. Nothing will change on that score. What will change is the business model of publishing. What that business model will be is anyone’s guess. If I knew, I suppose I’d be a rich man, say, in ten years!
Diane: As I mentioned I am going to Cambodia and Vietnam in a couple of months. Apart from my notebook and pen, what tips or advice would you give me for scouring ideas for childrens stories.
Jim: I think the best thing is to take along your wonder. If you see something amazing and wonderful, jot that down. If you are amazed, your readers will be, too. The next thing you need is your imagination. Perhaps you will see a young girl trailing a water buffalo in a rice field. Maybe she is wearing a pink dress stained with mud. Suddenly, in your mind, you ‘see’ her situation and why she is in the field and wearing that pink dress. A good example of what I am saying is my latest book Rain School. In that book, I imagined how the school I saw years and years ago in Chad came to be: how it was built and how the rains destroyed it. I never saw the children build the school. I did not know the teacher. I only imagined them.
Diane: How do you find your characters? Do they just appear, or are they based always on someone you know? Do you make up their personality as you go or plan it out first?
Jim: I really don’t worry about the characters. In a picture book there isn’t time for character development in words. Okay, there is the book Olivia. But for me, I let the character come out in the illustrations. I put into the drawings the personality I would have put in words, had I had the pages. An example of this is my Silent Music. I remember one editor rejected the manuscript because she wanted more character development. “But you haven’t seen the pictures yet,” I protested. The editor wasn’t convinced I could pull it off. So I had to look elsewhere for a publisher and was lucky enough to find one at Roaring Brook (an imprint of Macmillian).
Diane: Any advice for someone like me hoping to be a published writer oneday?
Jim: Find yourself a mentor. Find yourself someone who believes in you. At the same time, don’t write for everyone. Useless to do that: you will only come up with mush for words. Write for yourself. Write to please yourself. Then imagine the one, just one, reader in this world of 7 billion people who will be pleased, bowled over, inspired by what you wrote.
Diane: Thankyou so much Jim for partaking of the interview…. Can I ask: I am a member of the SCBWI and wondered if you belonged to the same, or were there any organisations that you belong to or have felt helpful to you over the years?
Jim: I do belong to SCBWI. They are very helpful. I wish I had known that they existed fifteen years ago when I sent in my first manuscript.
Thankyou Jim, so much for taking the time to do the interview with me. Visit his striking website http://jamesrumford.com/jamesrumford.com/Welcome.html to learn some of his illustration tips, view his gallery, or view his philosopy on writing. He also has a kids page.
I want to also thank one of my friends in the Children’s Hub, Pat, for the idea, and her gentle nudging towards what I am sure is one of my many firsts.