Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Blog Book Tour with Ruth McNally Barshaw

This week we are turning our attention to Ruth McNally Barshaw, author and illustrator of the new book Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel. Ruth will bare it all for Dotti Enderle and reveal herself to Elizabeth Dulemba. Get the scoop on Ruth from Kim Norman's Stone Stoop; then Alan Gratz dishes it up at Gratz Industries. Please visit this amazing interview at Barbara Johansen Newman's Cats and Jammers Studio, and last, but certainly not least Greg Fishbone gives us the skinny on Ruth on his blog.

I "met" fabulous writer and illustrator Ruth McNally Barshaw for the first time through an online discussion board. I was drawn to her immediately for her no-nonsense Midwestern sensibility, her big-sisterly support of fellow artists and writers, and her genuine love for children's books. Not long after that she attended the 2005 SCBWI Winter Conference in NY and sketched - prolifically - her entire experience from train ride to hotel room and back. Her sketches gave all of those unable to attend a glimpse of what it was like to be at the conference. But more importantly we all got to know Ruth a lot better and what a treat that has turned out to be for so many. It wasn't long after her return from that conference that Ellie McDoodle; Have Pen, Will Travel came to be.

KL - The exposure from your sketch book gave you a means to see Ellie published - but how did Ellie come to be? How was this doodling girl born?

Ruth -First, Karen, thank you for your very kind words.

In 2003 I wrote an essay, "Summertime Soldier," about family camping during my dad's National Guard camp. At my first SCBWI conference, some writers said it was a great start to a middle grade novel. But I was doing picturebooks, not novels -- novels were a total mystery to me -- so I shelved it. A few years later when other writers suggested I do a kid's book in my sketchy style, I started writing the new book using parts of the old essay.
It seemed natural to make it a person's sketchbook journey.
Ellie is me, at age 11. She went through a few physical makeovers -- she originally had longer, blonde hair, and no freckles. The publisher wanted me to make her look more interesting. It was important to me, though, that she not look pretty. I wanted her to wear geeky glasses. She isn't as insecure as I was, but she has a good dose of angst.

KL - The exposure you got from your now famous sketchbook from the 2005 SCBWI winter conference launched your career to a new level. Obviously you have sketched for years. Can you share what keeping a sketchbook has meant to you?

Ruth - I have a record of my grandson's birth. My grandmother's funeral. My kids' experiences in t-ball, softball, karate, soccer, school plays. Detailed books from Walt Disney World trips. My family's parties on Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick's Day, and family reunion campouts dating back 30 years. My own graduation. My college days, my honeymoon, and life with my kids, from birth to beyond high school graduation -- all because I keep sketchbooks.
Some of the Ellie pages came directly from my sketchbooks, from nature center visits and camp.
For me, keeping a sketchbook has organized my memories. It's helped me on my darkest days and in my happiest times. For a while I worried that my kids would feel deprived, since I don't have many photos, especially of the past 10 years. They said it's ok with them (thank goodness).

KL - You've achieved a new level of success with Ellie McDoodle out on shelves and another book on the way. What part of this has been surprisingly hard?

Ruth - Owning it. Recently I had dinner with a new friend who asked a lot of insightful and unusual questions. I didn't know it, but she's a creativity coach. When she said I deserve this success since I've worked so hard for it, I burst into tears, which surprised and embarrassed me. Obviously I have "issues" with success that need to be worked through.
I used to tell people that someday I would be rich and famous. But then I let life break me down. I made poor choices because I felt unloved and unlovable. For decades I was the kind of person who, at the store, deliberately chose a defective notebook because that was what I felt I deserved. Ten years ago I met some new friends online, opened my soul to them, and started to heal. I've bounced around to a few different groups but always with the same effect: Each time I've healed a little bit more. Eventually I'll be whole. ;)

KL - What part has been surprisingly enjoyable?

Ruth - The revisions process. Although it was grueling -- lots of work, some tight deadlines and difficult personal times -- it was also great fun. I loved knowing that the publisher and agent liked the book as it was, but that I could challenge myself to turn in work that was even better than expected. It became a game, how to improve my least favorite pages so that they might become favorites.
And the other part that's surprisingly enjoyable: Interacting with my editor, agent, and the staff at Bloomsbury. Back when I first sold the book, I didn't think I was going to be allowed to be myself. I thought publishing correspondence was necessarily formal and stiff. My agent says I wear my heart on my sleeve; I like that they don't punish me for it.

KL - Your background is in comics. How is this influencing your work now?

Ruth - I'm always thinking about camera angles, layout, design, contrast, and comic principles like squash and stretch, silhouettes for action, and what's the simplest way to convey a thought. Some pages I redrew many times to get the best view and the best action for the final art.
Ellie is 11 years old, and doesn't have a sophisticated drawing style. Realistically, you can't draw in detail if you're trying to capture what's going on around you, quickly. You can catch nuances but you can't get it all. I try to keep the art simple but aim to capture as much emotion with it as possible. It's a constant challenge.
For other works, where a more sophisticated art style is allowed, I have to push myself a lot harder. My work isn't perfect, but I try to make it the best I can possibly do.

KL - Is there one important thing you have learned that you could share with all the aspiring authors and illustrators out there?

Ruth - Don't get discouraged. Or, if you do get discouraged, like I was at the conference in 2005, keep in mind that if you've been working hard and producing your best work, the turning point could come at any time. Don't give up before you have a chance to enjoy success. If it is your passion, then the path you're on is the right one. Don't let anyone try to lure you off the path that's right for you.


Anonymous said...

Great interview questions Karen, she is an inspiration to those of us "evolving" and gaining strength though life's trials. Love both of your works!

karen lee said...

Yes Anon! I hope you read the rest of the interviews because Ruth is incredibly inspiring. She says in her responses that she wears her heart on her sleeve and I think that is what makes her so endearing.

Tahnsk! Karen

Laura Zarrin said...

Great interview! Insightful questions. I remember when she first put her sketches online. It was amazing! I felt like I was there.

Thank you!
Laura Zarrin

Kim Bookwriter said...

Wonderful interview, Karen. Check my stone stoop blog. You've been tagged!