We LOVE Stephen Michael King’s books! He has such a unique style of illustrating which my monkeys and I first fell in love with his work in The Magnificent Tree. He also worked with the divine Liliana Stafford on Amelia Ellicotts Garden, seriously one of the best kids books!
I found his words so inspirational, honest and I felt quite emotional reading it actually. I also got a few tips on how to encourage a creative mind. Enjoy!
How do you find inspiration for your books?
My mum was a teacher and my dad only discovered the joy of reading in his early twenties. We had lots of books in our house; my dad and mum read to me, but more than anything my parents would say “there’s no such thing as bored” or “you’re bored – that’s great, you’ll soon find something to do.” Creative play and living in our imagination was promoted. My brother and I used to build cubbies and if there were scissors, pens or glue around I was using them to make/create anything that I could think of. My mum always told me to write my ideas down as soon as they come to me and I did. I still do. I’m 52 years old now and making books is just the same as building cubbies . . . I just play.
You write and illustrate your books – do you get more joy out of one over the other
No, it’s all much the same. I can write on a plane, on a bus, in the sun or in the shade . . . in bed at 3am or in an armchair at noon. There are comfort advantages to writing. Sketching, drawing and playing with ideas is much the same. The real work is in the illustrating/painting of the pictures. I have to be in my studio, at my desk. There are cold, cold weeks of painting and inking through winter where I’d love to stay by the fire in the warm house, but I put on a beanie and fingerless gloves and walk down to my studio.
How long does it take to create a book?
illustrating a picture book is a standard three to four months. Junior novels take about a month to six weeks part-time. I work on those in between or on top of the picture books I’m creating. Occasionally, if it’s extra cold or I’m a little bit weak, they are done in the arm chair by the fire, in the house, at night.
Is there any advice you can offer someone looking to get a book idea published?
I loved to draw and write and I simply stumbled along naively believing things would fall into place and they did. If they didn’t I would have been happy putting my hat out and drawing on the pavement. It’s not as necessary to succeed as it is to create. Blind faith is great. Stay childlike, believe anything is possible and take the step to show someone your work. It won’t happen if you’re not showing and sharing it.
Does where you live inspire your books?
Daydreaming is my main tool. Napping during the day helps a lot. Most of my stories are day dreams turned into words that grow into books. My family inspires me; I see a lot of them within my stories. You’ll also find my dogs. The characters in my books are me, my family or the person I’d love to be. I’d love to be Jack from “Milli, Jack and The Dancing Cat”, but I’m not. I’m more like Snail or Turtle. I’m not a real Snail or Turtle but I am quiet and I like the idea of hiding away on my island (a bit like having my own shell), but I’m also colourful and there are creative moments consistently bursting out of me. I thought Henry and Amy were two original characters running around in the landscape but when my family and friends read it they all said “ha ha that’s a story about Trish (my wife) and you”. Leaf is the closest to me of any of my characters. I wanted to be Robin Hood as a kid so I always wore green. I had hearing loss from year three at school until I received hearing aids in year eight so there’s a giant slab of my school life that was quiet. I could always hear the big fun or scary sounds. Leaf is a silent book with a kid wearing green who trusts his intuition, nurtures it and discovers that it leads to a place that fits him perfectly, Living where I do inspires me to go to the beach and take long walks in the bush. The less I work the more successful I feel.
What kind of space do you work in?
I live on a hill, on an island in a mud brick house. If you walk down the hill, through the north facing orchard and through a wire farm gate you’ll walk down a path to an old pole frame, mud brick workshop. My wife, a friend and I converted half of it into my studio. It’s been a big space to make beautiful mess in for years, but I’m outgrowing it. There are future plans to take over the rest of the workshop and introduce morning sun into the space so that it’s warmer in winter. Last year it had goannas living in the ceiling and I had to tease them out then block up the holes they’d snuck into. Occasionally you see an echidna or a wallaby. There are different birds: wrens, honeyeaters, parrots . . . and frogs . . . also the odd carpet or green tree snake to keep me company.
Do you have a favourite book? One of yours and another author.
The Man Who Loved Boxes, My Dad is a Giraffe and A Bear and a Tree are all books about my Dad. As I said before, Henry and Amy is my wife and I . . . she’s a redhead and you’ll find lots of strong red headed leading ladies in my books. Mutt Dog was a dog that I owned and loved. They are all important! Leaf is my signature book.
Other books by other people: Where the Wild Things Are is still the most beautifully designed book.
I can quote Quentin Blake’s Mr Magnolia word for word and I have an autographed copy of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World.
Did your parents encourage your creativity? Did you do art courses growing up for instance.
Not art courses, just drawing and making stuff from sticky tape, cardboard and glue. I did start a few drawing lessons after school at TAFE, but drawing bottles wasn’t my thing. I can remember thinking very early in life that all I ever needed to learn was to love learning then I’d be able to teach myself anything.
Are your children showing creative talent? Do you teach them to draw?
My children are grown up now: 17 and 20 years of age. Their upbringing was not dissimilar to mine. My wife Trish and I have worked from home for their whole lives. My dad worked from home and did most of his work when my siblings and I were at school. My mum was a teacher so she and dad were always around after school and during holidays. My children grew up running free with creative parents. I can’t remember pragmatically teaching them anything, but they were always welcome to make noise, splash paint or simply hangout and play in my studio – always!
What kind of books do you like to read to your own children? Or what do they like to read?
I read to both my children until they were teenagers. I read everything, lot’s of classics like Peter Pan, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Hobbit. Great moments for my son were: Where’s the Green Sheep (he read it all himself), Midnight, Hover Car Racer and Danny the Champion of the World. For my daughter: My Uncle is a Hunkle, The Terrible Underpants, The Importance of Being Earnest (read with distinct character voices) and The Universal declaration of Human Rights Articles 1-30. The last one sounds odd, but I was trying to pick something that would bore her and me to sleep. Not the case, we both chatted for hours. Often story telling fell into great conversation, late nights and laughter etc etc . . . it’s all about taking the time.
How old were your children when you started to read to them?
I certainly chatted to them in the womb. I can’t remember, but it was early. I wanted reading to them to last forever, but independence was always watching and waiting. Alas! It was one of the nicest parts of parenting – reading stories is much nicer than enticing your children to eat carrots or clean their teeth.
Do you think the hearing loss you suffered as a child was one of your motivators for writing/creating?
Definitely! The world grew quiet with hearing loss and I became more observant of everything around me. I’d always had a creative bent, but hearing loss meant that drawing became my language. I used drawing to communicate to people that there was more to me than met their eye. The school I attended assumed that I had a slow learning disorder and at some stage I went to a psychiatrist to do finger painting and lego building. It’s hard to explain the impact. I wagged school, especially on sports days. I failed every subject in year seven except art. Everyone thought I was a teenager with a black cloud following overhead. I said “what” to anything that anyone asked. I walked away from people because I didn’t realise that they were talking to me . . . it was an odd time. Writing helped me get through, I wrote to understand myself and everything around me. Bad poetry turned into imaginative meanderings and drawings developed into living breathing characters. It was eventually my Nana who insisted I be retested for hearing loss. I received hearing aids in year eight. I still love to take them out and enjoy the silence. In all that beautiful quiet my imaginative voice becomes the loudest sound I hear.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been caught up illustrating for lots of people. It’s all good, fun etc etc but it’s been a few years straight and I haven’t left a lot of time to write for myself. I’m half way through a book that’s been written by Andrew Daddo whilst I’m finishing illustrating the Trouble series that was started by Kim Gamble before he died. There’s another Glenda Millard book that I’m starting in November and I’m illustrating a picture book for Scholastic in the new year. I can’t remember the title off hand but it has dogs. After that I’m taking some time to write . . . and I’m hoping, now that my children have grown up, to write more of my own stories from now and into the future. I’m keen to dust off my old journals and read through the last few years of wobbly ideas.