Mauri Mendes is an author and illustrator currently studying for a Master’s degree in Children’s Books Illustration at the Cambridge School of Arts. He is the author and illustrator of DAVE AND EARL GO FOR A WALK, the simplified Chinese edition was published by Yeehoo Press. Today, I’m welcoming Mauri Mendes to speak about his inspiration for books and his journey as an author-illustrator.
1. Can you give us a short introduction to DAVE AND EARL GO FOR A WALK?
Dave and Earl go for a walk tells the story of two little chicks who live in a chicken coop together with lots of other little chicken. They have always lived there, so they don’t know anything about the outside world, till they accidentally find a hole on the wall and discover that there’s a whole world outside to be discovered, which entices their curiosity and makes them wonder where everything comes from. When they find an egg, they start to wonder about their own origin, attempting to solve the dilemma of which came first, the chicken or the egg.
2. What inspires you to create DAVE AND EARL GO FOR A WALK? How is the creative process?
Before there was any story idea, I was playing with yellow watercolour, making puddles and connected circles. I made lots of those little puddles of paint together, gave them little feet and little beaks, then imagined what those little creatures packed together would say to each other, made little dialogues. The creative process was like that in the beginning, just having fun with watercolour. I believe that before hard work, comes play. You need to really like something, feel the passion and enthusiasm. Once you love a project, overcoming difficulties is just part of the process… I guess the really difficult things regarding this project, as well all other projects between 2019 and 2020, were not in the projects themselves but in the time and mental space to work on it, considering what was going on in the outside world. A lot happened in 2019- 2020! For me specially I was living in Cambridge U.K., a beautiful town to live but as a European citizen, the news of Brexit made it less attractive for me to keep living there. Then we had some fantastic news: I was going to be a father! With our baby underway, we decided to move to Amsterdam, The Netherlands. That’s when the global pandemic started, right after we moved. I remember the first furniture I arranged for the new house was a table and the first thing I did on it was to keep working on Dave and Earl.
3. How do you describe your art style? And how did you find your art style?
I like my stories to be different, to be engaging, to me it’s important that I put a lot more attention to how the story is told than on the specific style. The idea is the most important thing, the story comes first, the style I choose to express the story can differ per project. In Dave and Earl I think I experimented to find a suitable medium, such as combining transparent watercolour and opaque gouache or a combination of gouache and digital illustration, with pencil strokes. For another project, I might find that another approach of material might be more suitable, such as combining watercolour painting on a digital painting background, or screen print, or pastels… This different choice of material in itself will make the projects look different from each other. So I suppose what you could call style in my case is not necessarily in the look of the final art, but in the approach I take to storytelling – a storytelling style. I like to use the book itself as an object and actions made by the reader as part of the experience of reading. For instance, in Dave and Earl the main characters leave the chicken coop though a hole, but I never show the hole, what you see is the edges of the book. It’s also made in a way that the more the little chicken discover, the more the viewers discover, so the colour palette is introduced bit by bit. First we see the chicken in a sort of void, then just the green of the grass, then plants and water and the red of the fox… the colours appear on the book as they discover new things. In my other book Margareth and Igor, at a certain point of the story the reader is prompted to turn the page upside down. In my third project, to be released with Yeehoo Press next year, the characters travel through the gutter and the spine of the book… I think this approach to the art of storytelling is what makes my “style” if we are to speak about a style, more than a recognisable way of making the figures would be.
4. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer/illustrator?
I think I always wrote as a kid, always made up stories with drawings. But I didn’t think at the time that I would be a writer/illustrator as a profession, I just loved to do it. It’s a good question. I don’t know! Maybe I still didn’t realize that I want to be a writer, it’s just something I do, it feels normal. I still just love to do it.
5. As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a teacher! I have always loved knowledge, I loved to teach stuff to other kids, loved reading and drawing… I actually taught Math and Physics to other kids when I was a teenager, it was one of my first jobs. As an adult, I got a teaching degree as well, after the Art School. I am not working as a teacher at the moment but I do miss it, maybe I’ll go back to teaching Art part-time at some point, while making books.
6. How many books have you created? Which is your favorite?
Dave and Earl is my debut book as an author/illustrator. With Yeehoo Press I have three books, I would like to say I love all characters equally, they are like little babies to me. I am really looking forward to seeing my third book in print! I guess you could say that it is my favorite. It’s a very special book to me, maybe because of the metafiction approach, or maybe because it was such hard work, maybe it’s because I was working on it at the same time as the birth of my daughter, I don’t know.
7. How do you start a book project? When do you know it is ready and finished?
I might start with a theme and elaborate a story around that theme, for example empathy or friendship. Or I might start experimenting with some doodles or paint, as it was the case of Dave and Earl. When I first started creating it, I didn’t think of Origin as a theme, I was just having fun with paint. Sometimes I have an idea while jogging, or cooking, or having a shower… this idea is later developed into a simple sentence or two, then a story outline, then a storyboard… I don’t know when it’s finished to be honest. I think I would probably change a little bit here and there in any project after revisiting it. Not because there’s something wrong or incomplete, but because I really like to work on them. Unless it’s printed already, then it’s too late haha.
8. What is your work schedule like when you’re creating a book?
Now that I have a little baby to care for, my work schedule follows her schedule. Since both me and my wife work from home, and because of the pandemic we are not receiving visitors or bringing the baby to a nursery, it’s a pretty busy schedule and every free hour counts. I usually set a schedule for myself using a pomodoro technique and a visual clock to time it. So I work fully concentrated for let’s say 45 minutes, with my phone and everything else switched off. Then I take a 5 – 10 minutes break, then 45 minutes again… this goes for a couple of hours between meal breaks. Sometimes taking distance from the work, going for a long walk helps come back with fresh ideas. I guess it depends on the activity. Painting is something I can do while listening to a podcast or to music, but for writing I need silence and concentration.
9. Which comes first, the story or the illustration?
Usually it’s the idea to do something with a theme, then a story and later the characters. Occasionally, the character or the idea is born out of a mistake on the page, a moment of playing with a certain material, something light and playful.
10. How do you develop your plot and characters?
It’s an interesting question. I think first I like to get to know the characters, what they do, what they want, what they feel. This goes together with establishing the world in which the character lives: where they go, where they don’t even go but it’s there, what else is there, and when is it there, when do the characters cross some part of this world and when they cross paths with other characters… what the rules are for this world such as weather, plants, laws of physics, etc. Once I think about the universe and the rules of that universe, with characters in it, there are infinite stories and plot lines I could choose to follow, to not follow, to let them cross each other, to let them have a logical connection in time and space. So for each book that I make, there are lots of other possible stories and characters connected to it which could be developed further into another book.
11. What do you like most about being a writer and/or an artist?
I think I like the freedom to express and communicate more than anything. I like to think of ways to tell a story in multiple layers, I think the teacher in me always wants to make the readers think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
12. Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
Each project requires a lot of reading, so typically I go to the library and get loads of books on the subject I am writing about, but also videos and online versions of scientific magazines. I am very picky with sources.
13. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
Writing stories and discussing them with editors. Normally I would just write a piece and submit it and it gets approved or not, but working on picture books, I never thought I would enjoy so much to have intellectual discussions with editors about the stories, I really enjoyed that and had the privilege to work with some remarkably brilliant people. It’s very nice, specially in the text and roughs stage.
14. Are you open to illustrating other authors’ books? If so, what kind of stories are you most interested in?
Yes, I think it would be a nice experience. I do think my stronger suit is storytelling, but I think it would be nice to illustrate the stories of other people. I like all things related to Arts, Science, Languages…
15. Could you share some suggestions with fellow authors and illustrators?
Yes! Do what you love, find the thing you love first. Otherwise, what’s the point? To find the thing you love, typically first you find the things you don’t love… you don’t know that beforehand, so you need to experiment a lot. Make mistakes. Don’t worry about them, try again. Once you find that thing you love, create a special time in your life for it, a routine. Something simple, like a little doodle or a little text about it every day at a fixed time. Create a habit. Habits are very important. The good ones, of course. Once you create the habit, just showing up to do the work is already a great thing. Make the thing you love because you love it, but find a purpose for it. You don’t want to make art and then keep it in a drawer and never show it to anyone. Find the purpose of your stories. Who would benefit from it? Show it to them. If they are the right people, they will love it. If not, keep searching for the right people. Next, keep looking into the future with an optimistic view, have hope that it’s going to be okay, and let that hope guide your actions.
Thank you Mauri for the wonderful interview!
Find Mauri online at http://www.maurimendes.nl/