Author-Illustrator Interview with Iriini Kalliomäki

Iriini is an illustrator from Finland who has spent last 15 years in the UK. She has a bachelor’s degree in illustration from University of Arts London and a master’s degree in children’s book illustration from Cambridge School of Art. Her motto has always been “if in doubt draw a bunny” well, apart from in elementary school when she believed she was a penguin, and only drew them for a whole year. Iriini has always half lived in the world of imagination; inventing characters, worlds, and stories. She loves adventures and finds them where ever she is. In her stories, you don’t have to be strong or muscular to be the hero, or big and scary to be cast as the villain. Today we had a chat with Iriini about her new graphic novel The Invasion of Bunnybots, the Chinese edition was published by Yeehoo Press, and her journey as an author-illustrator.

1. Can you give us a short introduction to The Invasion of Bunnybots?

Small and insignificant moon in far far away galaxy gets invaded by mysterious Bunnybots. The only inhabitants of the moon are young girl called Mir and space dog Biip. They start to investigate the invasion and end up on quite an adventure.

2. What inspires you to create this book? How is the creative process?

I have always loved bunnies and I have always drawn. In fact I have a motto ‘’if in doubt draw a bunny’’. When I doodle it’s likely to be a bunny of some sort. Often all sorts of things morph into bunnies as I just keep on drawing bunny ears on things.  I also love sci-fi adventures. So the original idea for the Bunnybots came from some doodles of space ships that took a bunny form. Bunnies are mostly seen as cute so making them the villains of the story fascinated me. This is a book I first did on the second year of my masters degree in children’s book illustration. I decided that it was my chance to finally do exactly what I wanna do without thinking if anyone wants to buy it. So naturally I wanted to be the next George Lukas and do my own epic space adventure. The original version was just the first chapter in the story and I never believed I would get a chance to complete it. But turns out that it pays to do exactly what you wanna do. A year later I took my much more finished 2 books to Bologna Children’s Book Fair but included some pages from the Bunnybots in my portfolio. And here we are. I got to create my space adventure!

3. How do you start a book project? When do you know it is ready and finished?

This is my first published book. I had a degree in illustration but it just didn’t totally feel like the right thing so finally in 2016 I started on a well known masters degree in children’s book illustration at Cambridge School of Art. During those intense 3 years I made 3 stories/books one of which was the initial version of the Bunnybots. The pace was fast and deadlines came quick so I just had to make things happen. When I got my publishing deal it was first of all agreed that Bunnybots would be a much longer story and then I had much much more time to complete it as well. In a way maybe too much time! Without deadlines you never think something is properly ready!!! But in a nutshell I approach a project in a fairly chronological organised way. First is the fun creative part where you come up with ideas and then it’s quite simply just lots of hard work. Especially with a book with so many drawings. Important stage is making a dummy book, the kind of visual plan for the book. My dummy book is quite detailed so that making the final artwork won’t be too difficult anymore.

4. What is your work schedule like when you’re creating a book?

I would love to say I’m super disciplined and get things done effectively but the truth is I do have to force myself a lot. I have to come up with artificial rules and timetables to make things happen. This was the longest project I’ve done all by myself and I could now tell you how not to do things. Before the pandemic took hold of our lives I used a shared work space which was a good motivator and allowed me to separate work and free time better. Like most of us last year I did struggle to stay motivated when at home all the time. Finally I had to write a timetable for myself that listed my work hours and all breaks and most importantly when it was time to stop for the day. Mind you when the deadline is near all this goes out of the window again.

5. What comes first, the story or artworks?

I think by drawing so in a way art comes first. When creating a story you do also have to put work into really thinking it trough. But I also think very visually so for me making a comic feels kinda natural. In a way I ‘’write’’ a story by drawing it.

6. How do you develop your plot and characters?

I’m all about characters. Drawing new characters is my favourite thing. It’s what I do when I doodle. So I do have a lot of character ideas all the time but then you do have to stick to some and start developing them. Bunnybots were the starting point of this whole story so then I had to come up with a world for them to exist in. It was obvious pretty soon that they were going to invade somewhere which I then had to create. That’s how my main character Mir came to be. But I do have so many character ideas that I like to squeeze in all sorts of extras in the story as well. I love silly details and believe they help creating the world and the story. Tricky bit is to round up the story and not loose the fun of the start of the project.

7. How do you describe your art style? And how did you find your art style?

Maybe comic like and humorous. It took me stupidly many years to realise the simple truth to not try to do a ‘’style’’ but just do what you love. I have always drawn and as a teenager/ young adult thought that I had to turn it into a career in a specific way. I thought I had to do something more design based to be professional. In a way I lost my passion a bit by trying to do it the way that I thought was required. The truth is I love inventing humorous characters and telling stories. It feels silly to have taken so many years to come back to it but I’m happy that I’m finally publishing my first comic book!

8. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer/illustrator?

I have always drawn and I have always invented characters and different scenarios. I was supposed to be that art school kid but I never felt artistic the way I thought artistic people were supposed to be. Fine art was totally too conceptual for me so I thought that the only other option was to be like a graphic designer. But in my teens I also thought I wanted to do fashion. I applied to art schools and failed. In my confusion I tried all sorts of other career options from make up artist to wilderness guide. I moved to United Kingdom and finally got into art school to do illustration. I was now finally much closer to what felt right. But lots of the illustration work was very design like again whilst I was drawn to making stories. In 2016 I applied for a masters degree in children’s book illustration at the Cambridge School of Art and got accepted straight a way. Now finally I felt at home. I got to invent and draw stories. I also realised that I gravitate towards comic books. In a way I had always done this it just took me over 30 years to see that making comics could be the way I draw as an artist professionally. I’m bit slow that way. So the short answer is that I kind of always knew but only found out couple of years ago.

9. What brings you to picture book/graphic novel?

I think I answered this already quite well above. But to widen on the subject I have always loved to read comics. When I was a kid I sat at the library and basically ravished through all Asterix books and then Tin Tins etc. As a teenager my first crush was Corto Maltese who is a comic book hero. I never really had similar crushes with actors or musicians. I have also always loved picture books and never felt that they were for young kids only. The things that excited me as a child still excite me today and I’m nearly 40 years old! I’m always surprised when people say they don’t remember how it felt as a child or when grown ups find it hard to guess what kids would like. I’m like can’t you remember?!?!?!

I do this to myself. I do things that excite me.

10. What do you like most about being a writer and/or an artist?

Being an inventor of ANYTHING I want. It’s like playing. But lots of the work does feel like work and can be quite draining too. Sometimes you loose the fun and play but then it comes back again which is always amazing.

11. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

I’m a popular culture junkie. I get influenced by sci-fi and super hero films etc. But I do consume all kinds of culture. I’m someone who gets bored easily which makes me curious of everything. This is my strength and my weakness. I also adventure all the time. I think you can adventure where ever you are. Adventures can be small or epic. I always want to know what’s behind the next corner. Adventuring is a state of mind for me so it’s only natural to invent adventures as well.

12. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Dolores was the first comic book I made which surprised me. The brief was just to tell a story with images and she just happened. It was then when I realised that there is a comic book artist in me. With Bunnybots I surprised myself for actually enjoying to draw the pictures with lots of detail. I wanted to include those as they are the kind of images I most loved as a child but feared I wouldn’t have patience to draw them. I thought I was most natural at drawing characters and everything else would be a struggle. But it was magical and exactly like when as a child I used to draw big detailed maps or cross sections of houses. Somewhere along the way I had forgotten that I loved to draw them! How crazy is that.

13. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?

An architect or a doctor! My good friend’s dad was an architect and we used to draw on the other side of his big old architectural drawings. I drew massive plans for amazing playgrounds with long slides and swimming pools. I then learned that architects mainly don’t design slides. I was also super fascinated by the human body and what happens inside of us. This was mainly because of an animated TV show where the main characters were red blood cells who travelled through human body. Thing is that what I was actually into was the characters and the exciting world they had created in that TV show rather than becoming a doctor. I also wanted to be a penguin. I did always draw and imagine stuff. The lines between reality and the world of imagination were pretty blurred for me. When I was 8, I spent a whole year pretending to be a penguin with my best friend. We drew hundreds and hundreds of detailed penguin pictures reimagining everything around us as things in the Arctic.

14. Are you open to illustrating other authors’ books? If so, what kind of stories are you most interested in?

I do love creating the story and inventing everything even though it’s a lot of work and responsibility. It would actually feel quite liberating to just immerse myself as the visual designer of someone else’s words. The best would be if there would be a chance to add my own details. If there would be that kind of freedom to carry on imagining. Stories that interest me most are ones with a bit of humor.

15. Do you have any suggestions to help fellow artist become a better writer-illustrator? If so, what are they?

Oh, dear. Every time I have heard tips from other artists I have been a bit confused as they might not feel right for me. I’ve even felt like a failure when I’ve struggled to follow a ‘’tip’’.  It’s good to listen to other people in your field of course, but there are no ultimate truths. I mean I have heard truths such as ‘’you gotta have a story first’’ which is absolutely the opposite way round to how I work. Does it mean my work is wrong? No. I think and invent by drawing but it doesn’t mean everyone else should. So my tip would be some sort of dreadful cliché ‘’be true to yourself’’. Or better it doesn’t matter if it takes you a lifetime to find your way. Not everyone needs to be a child genius. Most of us are not.

Thank you so much, Iriini Kalliomäki for the interview!

You can visit Iriini at https://www.iriini.com/ and find her on Instagram and Facebook.

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