Transcript from an interview with Timothy Basil Ering

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Timothy Basil Ering. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Becoming a children's book illustrator

How did I get into doing books for children? Well, I have always loved sketching, drawing, painting. You know, through elementary school, middle school, high school I would you know draw and sketch and do little things for contests or whatever, you know. When it came time to go to college or do something after 12th grade — we're done with high school, this is great. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do at that time, I was actually looking to all kinds of different stuff.

Even like becoming like a park ranger or something. You know, go out to Colorado because I love the outdoors so much or some kind of, you know, in Hawaii, because I love surfing and the beaches and everything. But I went to junior college, very local on Cape Cod for one semester and I did take some drawing classes. I also had all the general education stuff, I was going home with all these books. I'm like, you know, I'm just not ready for this yet, I'm loving the drawing class is kind of all I really wanted to do.

And I don't want to go some big college yet because I'm not sure yet. And so I joined the United States Navy, I just had ants in my pants. I just wanted to get out and have an adventure. And it was unbelievable. When I finished the Navy after being on aircraft carriers sailing around the world, stationed in San Diego, California. Then I knew for sure that I wanted to go to college and I wanted to study art. And I couldn't wait.

So, I went to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and during that time learning everything, composition, figurative drawing, you name it everything. I also took some children's book illustration classes because I have always admired children's books and the art that's in them. And I said I think maybe I can do this. Just a fun, you know, avenue for me to investigate.

After graduating from art center I still wasn't positive that's what I wanted to do because there was a big editorial kind of push, be an editorial illustrator. And I did that a little bit. It was so fast and furious, I was just like I don't have a big flashy style to get kind of get a project done in one night or two nights. And it's just short lived, you get this piece done, you send it in, bam it comes out the newspaper or magazine, that issue is done. See you later.

I said, books are so alive for so long, you know they're precious, cool things. You can take your time to develop them and, and create this world that's inside these covers you know. And that's when I knew I wanted to do books. I took a trip to New York and met some publishers, and that's a whole another story how I did that. It was just a fun adventure, but I also had ideas for my own books and, and I met Karen Lotts.

She was at Dutton Books and she moved over to Candle Lit years ago and I followed her over there, and history from there. We did some work on so many fun projects.

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Adventures in New York City

I knew I wanted to go to New York City, because growing up on Cape Cod, I'd never really been to New York. So New York, you know, it's a huge giant place, filmmakers, writers, illustrators, you know actors. I need to go there. So I moved back to Cape Cod and my parents rented cottages. That was very common, as 5 of us kids grew up. I started working with my dad just to get a toe hold after I moved back from school and everything. And I was living in Provincet Town, that's where we had some of the cottages.

And I knew that I couldn't do that for long because I needed to get to New York. So I was always sketching, drawing, getting a portfolio with all kinds of stuff together. I didn't have the 12 or 15 pieces that all look the same. I had this big huge box I bought in a thrift store filled with like sculptures and like figure drawings, and sketches and paintings and all kinds of stuff.

So I would go to like book stores Barnes and Noble, Borders, independent book stores. And I would just look at book and pour over them. And I would see who… any book I kind of got excited about I would see who published it. So I got this big fat New York phone book and I just started calling, and finding out these numbers. Usually it was just a general number for the front desk or something. And they would tell, "well drop off policy, you can leave your portfolio Monday through Wednesday 9 to 5" or whatever. And I was like I don't want to just drop something off, I can't.

It's just I need to show this and talk. So I would come up with this thing where I would tell them I'm a lighthouse keeper on Cape Cod, I went to Art Center, I'm painting all the time, and I have some really cool stuff I want to show you, I just have to show you this stuff. And I was in that week, it was like acting. I kind of had the phone setup and everything there. My little notepad, I'd take a deep breath and pick up the phone and call, put on the show kind of thing.

And they just, the ladies I talked to or whatever they would just be so happy to hear you know the excitement and they said the exuberance that you showed and was kind of, you know contagious. So let's have you over here, we'll make an appointment. So, within that week I probably 6 or 7 appointments to see art directors and go up and show my book. And I remember going to Grand Central Station and first leaving the Cape was a funny thing, getting on this little bus.

And here's a couple of people locals from Province Town, and they're heading out of town. And they never head out of town, you know, so I just hop out with my little box and I'm sitting there. There's always little nicknames like this guy Squeaky, and this guy over, you know. They're all fisherman and everything. You know, "Squeaky, why are you leaving town?" and he's just like, "I'm going to my brother's birthday, I'm leaving Cape Cod." He's all dressed up and his hair combed and stuff.

I was like "I'm going to New York" and so, I get to Grand Central Station and I didn't know how to get out of there. I was just like a little kid looking around at the signs and the amount of people and I actually went up to one little booth, and I said "how do you get out of here to the street?" He thought I was kind of kidding, I was wise guy or something. So eventually I get to the street and there's no GPS so I didn't have any of that at that time.

Just had these addresses and figured it out. And I felt so great about going up an elevator knowing that I actually have an appointment with an art director, you know when you go to art school and you're just so excited to get a job when you're like wow I'm going to possibly get something, maybe not, but just the fact I can go have an interview this is awesome.

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Painting loose

I do love the process. That's like a huge part of my art. I love the entire process. I love getting in the studio, somehow getting into the whole mode and mood and trying to forget about everything else that's going on — that's obligations, family, and bills, and everything. And that's tough because you don't want to forget about all that or you have to. You have to set it aside and just focus on the art and really get into that paper or canvas or whatever you're going to start with. And that's the whole start of the process and the mediums.

I used to- in art school- be very uptight. I actually liked it. I liked the pencil drawing classes and everything and having everything nice and sharp and neat. And clearing the little brush and whisk everything away. And just get right on there, sometimes you'll have a paper towel under your hand to make sure you're not getting grease on there. Or it's wet or whatever, little marks.

And I used to love that, but there was something I loved when I saw loose fun aggressive painting and splattering. When I got into painting classes it was tough for me how to learn how to paint, I didn't know a lot about color and painting. I didn't do a lot of that up to my point in life. And once I got into that medium and learned more about what colors were doing and color theory and what to do with that liquidy paint that's in a tube. You got blue, red, and green. How do you put this all together to make something look like something, you know?

So once you understand what's happening with those paints, it just makes it that much more approachable. Not necessarily easy, but welcoming or something. So that got me into the whole chemistry of things, like the mediums. I started to loosen up a lot. And I loved how each medium of the mark making was different. That charcoal pencil, the graphite pencil that I was so neat with all the time, I was looking, I could scrape into there and sand them and sand the graphite, you know onto the paper and burnish it in.

And again, the paint slap color in and wipe it around. All that kind of stuff. So I really started getting loose by the end of school, and that's how I wanted to paint. It was just more fun and much more freeing and much more real. It was just real to me. It's art making. It's emotional.

So that whole process became just the way I paint. And starting with sketches I like to just burnish in some kind of texture or cover that white surface with some kind of color or tone or something and then rub into it. And start to pull out images that, you know, I have something in my head, I'll just kind of almost sculpt them. Like, if I'm painting waves or something I just like to push that paint around and move it like I would feel them and see them if I was in the water myself. And so those marks will be in that first layer, and, and the trick is to keep that looseness. there somehow, because at the beginning it will not make sense to everybody but you can kind of feel and see it.

So you're going to have to later on make it understandable for everybody to read what you're thinking but somehow leave that looseness, because that's what I really love.

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Sharing the silliness of Seuss

Well, when I select a book to read to my children… I've got to admit, I let them kind of select the books. I get so many books from Candlewick, all different sizes and kinds. I mean I definitely lean towards colorful rich illustrations. I love a good story. I want the kids to learn, get something out of it. Like with my own books, what I try to do, the couple I have written so far, patience or you know teamwork or anything like that. And some of the books I love most for my kids, what I loved when I was kid was Dr. Seuss books.

I just, I just love them. He always has something he's talking about, whether it hits your right when you're reading it about like diversity or anything. Or, if it hits you months later or years later, like oh my god that book was about diversity. Or something or some cool topic or… So, I still love Dr. Seuss so much and I think he's so creative and inventive, and such a one-of-a-kind writer and illustrator. We have one of my first books I have ever read, I remember clearly living in this house next to Rock Harbor out on Cape Cod and I read for the first time fully all the way through Green Eggs and Ham.

And I just felt so proud of myself that I finally did it, and we still have that book, you know so, of my two boys, Finn is old enough to actually hear this, understand it and everything. We actually have little Sawyer there, he's only 8 months. He just hangs out and listensm too. If I Ran The Circus was another one. One of my great friends, dear friend over in Cleveland he's a bookseller. He signed this book to me, that was actually signed by Dr. Seuss. I cherished it with its beat up and worn edge, but the "Circus McGerkus" -- it's just so fun to read at night, rhymes and all that kind of stuff.

I think that's why I was so excited about Dr. Seuss because it was fun to make things up and be silly. And it was like permission or something, like you can do this, you know? He did it. I don't want to ever copy anyone, in fact, I always, I write notes all the time saying you know, no influence. You know don't be influenced by anybody, just like try to be different.

But I try to make it look fresh for myself, you know, it's the same with like writing. If I'm making up silly things I don't want it to sound like Dr. Seuss or anybody like that, but he definitely is, you know, a huge inspiration.

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I haven't put any thought into the whole digital e-book thing, you know, and the invasion, as you know, of this e-books coming. Especially with you know picture books. I could see maybe sitting down, reading something, you know an adult book or something, online. You might be on a train or something and just like reading it on the computer or whatever. And it's like okay. But reading to kids, especially now that I have kids, is so special when you have a book and they are sculptural little wonderful things that are on that book shelf. To go over to the book shelf and select one. And all cuddle up on the bed or on the couch. And open that up with your kids in your arms and everything where they can just…

I mean oh when you're reading and you look at their faces, looking at those pages and when they want to reach out and turn the page, when they know the page turn is coming I mean that is just priceless. So, you know, I guess that with so many computers and games and texting and all this kind of stuff that kids have in front of them. You know, if they grow up with this whole e-book thing, it's just saddens me to think that a book, you know, that's old-school, look at that thing, you know, it's a book. That's just such a shame, I just don't think that will ever happen. I think you know, books are always going to be there and picture books. And it's just going, they're always going to be there for parents to choose which way they want to go.

I can't imagine not grabbing a book and reading to a kid. And having books in the back seat of the car. Their car seats, where they can reach out and grab one, when you look up at the rear view mirror and you just see them poring through a book, it's just such a great feeling. So yeah the smells and the feeling of just a nice new book or an old book.

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Imagining Despereaux

The Tale of Despereaux, that came to me with a phone call from Chris Paul, the art director over at Candlewick Press. And she asked me if I wanted to be part of a little — not necessarily a competition or a contest, they had I don't know how many, illustrators, a handful- a couple, they were going to give a little snippet Kate's new manuscript called The Tale of Despereaux. Of course I knew right before was Because of Winn Dixie and she won the Newbery honor, and it's like, wow, this is probably going to be good -- she is outstanding and a wonderful writer, so I was like I would love to be involved in developing something for this book.

Immediately getting off the phone she had mentioned there is a king in this, a little girl, a mouse with a sword, there's an evil rat. So I immediately got off the phone and started sketching and I sketched just that, this kind of king looking figure. A mouse with a sword, and kind of fencing off this evil rat and stuff like that. When I look back at that, it was actually kind of close on how I illustrated without reading anything yet.

Then, I get in the mail I think it was about a 10 page snippet from the book, from the manuscript. And it was just like every paragraph was so descriptive and so wonderful I was like this is just, oh man, this is going to be a good book.

So I remember staying up, definitely two all nighters, I was just working through the night, trying to figure out what medium would work best. Because they did tell me they were probably going to do it in black and white. And I could have done it in acrylic, charcoal, pencil, but I wanted to try a little bit of each and I was just pushing stuff and they also wanted it to look very classic. The acrylic paint could have worked, anything could have worked, charcoal, acrylic. But there was something about, after, literally the birds start chirping. And I was like going wow, this is the second night in a row I stayed up doing this.

I touched the pencil a little bit, and there was something about it, it was nice and soft you can get some great details. I was at that time point where I was thinking I might have enough. I remember there was a deadline like that Wednesday, maybe there was a day left or something. I handed everything in and I was happy about it because I worked very hard. I said if I don't get this done, then that's that I definitely put my time in. I was walking back from Candlewick Press, and I stopped at Starbucks to get a cup of tea or something. I was just — hairs out to here, eyes are red — I was just so tired.

There was no one in there. I was standing at the counter and that guy was pouring my tea and I was just thinking: you know what, I have one more, it's not really due till tomorrow, and I just slammed my hand right on that table and I said, I have one more night and I'm going to go back and I'm going to draw. And so I got back and I just start drawing and I drew one of the better pencil drawings that I definitely out of the group of drawings, I just handed everything in, and I went back and handed that in and that was it I did the best I can. Eventually I got the call from Chris they said they definitely wanted me to illustrate the book.

That's where it really started and it was my job to go back and just start drawing, start inventing these characters, and I think one of the first drawings I did after that was, was Despereaux, I got him going, and I fell in love with the whole book and everything.

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Re-imagining Despereaux – in color

The book finally comes out and everything is done, the cover is done, it's just like, wow we have this in our hand and there it is after all this hard work. And the next exciting moment, I remember I got a call from Karen and she said you have to turn on the "Today Show" right now, and I was standing next to the studio I did all this work and there's TV, and there's Ann Curry holding The Tale of Despereaux, announcing the Newbery winner.

And there's this book I just like did all this hard work and all these illustrations and the cover, I was just looking at that mouse right there on TV and I was — like it was surreal, it was unbelievable.

So, cut to the whole world falling in love with this book and it's just published everywhere, complex Chinese, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Japanese, Dutch, just you name it, everywhere. And then we get word it's going to be a movie. So we had a meeting and Candlewick wanted to do something special for a new release of Despereaux and we decided to make a little bit bigger, a slipcase, and go in full color.

Chris Paul says, "Are you sure you want to do all these in color?" And I said, "Yes." And she goes, "Okay let's do it." So I got to revisit all this art and I used oil glazes and just watched these things come into vibrant, just even more life. It was just really fun to do that and very relaxing. Something about it, it was kind of revisiting all that hard work that we went through to get those images and just to be able to enjoy composing that color on there was just a wonderful experience.

So the book looks fantastic. It's bigger, it's got that gorgeous slipcase, the book openers have the full color decorative edge on there and the frame, and then a big gold page opposing that and white crisp pages and big words. It's just beautifully done, gold stamping on the hard cover and everything.

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Weathering the terrible twos

The weather pattern that blew through Finn's house. Well, I got to thank David Elliott for that for writing this wonderful manuscript. It's very short, but it says a lot. And one of the bonuses for me, first of all, I had never met David and he had never met me, so he didn't know I had children or anything he just wrote that story on his own. And it just so happens that I do have son named Finn. And he was right smack in the terrible 2's, or right 2, 3 year old kid. So I had the perfect model.

So I could understand that manuscript and how crazy things can get with a little 2 or 3 year old and how they can just snap out of it. So when he mentioned weather blows through his house, the lightning in his kitchen and the snowstorms and blizzards and everything and the dining rooms and bathrooms and the tidal wave. Well I loved the outdoors, I just always talk about it. I paint it. And it was just so cool to have a chance to get loose with paint and paint weather inside the house, because I love painting weather.

When I'm not painting for books I paint on my own for galleries or to make prints. And that's what I paint. I loved extreme weather. I love being in absolute still hot weather, extremely hot or I love being in freezing cold temperatures with snow going sideways or rain or wind or giant black clouds and ice fishing and everything else. So it was fun you know these tidal waves, I'm just going to feel all that, for the love of it.

It was perfect, it was a great match, to have a great model living with me, Fin, and love the whole weather thing. And understand what Dave was talking about.

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Frog Belly Rat Bone

How did the title "Frog Belly Rat Bone" come up? Well the title is completely, a whole different story, than the actual inspiration for the story. It literally is silliness. I've always said like I used to come up with these like strings of nouns that were just silly and when it rhymed or just sounded good to me. And I would just say these little things, it was just fun to not make sense. And mess around with my buddies. And this was back in early high school, probably all the way through elementary, middle school, the whole thing, I had the greatest buddies all the way through.

And we'd even mark down our favorite fishing spots on the outer beaches of Cape Cod. And I'd be like "Frog belly rat bone 1,2,3." And I didn't even really have a story in my mind yet, it was just this silly thing. And they would always make fun of it. And I said, "One day I'm going to write a story called the story of Frog Belly Rat Bone." Or something, just kidding, but kind of not kidding. So it was later on when I was in Pasadena at the art center I would take my bike out and look for places to sketch and things to sketch, one thing that was so different about growing up in Cape Cod was Los Angeles, that just blew me away, how much cement everywhere and the highways and big huge diesel trucks just going down the highway, all next to you, smoky stains all over all the gears going and the diesel smoke.

It was like holy cow. So it was nice in Pasadena, there was some garden stuff, there was a botanical garden. Descanso Gardens I think it was. And there's a small little children's garden that was made and everything was miniature. And I kind of went in there and started sketching and this woman came in and said "You're not supposed to be in here." And I said, "Oh the gate was open." And I said what is this? There's a scarecrow there and I was actually sketching the scarecrow. And she said, "This is a garden for the children of the inner city of Los Angeles. They come here to learn about planting because they've never planted. They don't anything about seeds or where seeds come from, what seeds do, how to protect the seeds."

And I was like wow, we grew up with gardens all the time and our chores were to go out and weed the tomato plants and we're in the garden all the time. We're like, "Oh we got to weed again." So I was amazed that you know they would have kids that didn't know about gardening. And then I was looking at the scarecrow all hand crafted by the kids. And all of a sudden I was like, here's my opportunity to use "Frog Belly Rat Bone". He's just kind of all constructed of all kinds of stuff. The original scarecrow that I was sketching had a straw hat and a pillow case for a head. I was like my "Frog Belly Rat Bone" will be like a scarecrow but it will be more like a monster that the kid is using to protect his treasures.

And maybe he's made out of everything. Frog belly's and rat bone's to make him scary or something. So that's where that all kind of came into play and then it was just so great to feel that, like, I couldn't wait to start sketching more. Like this story is falling into place. It's just, it's exciting when you know for real a story falling into place and it's really going to happen.

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Collaboration between artist and publisher

So, the first book that I ever wrote and illustrated is, The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone. And I can't tell you how happy I am with how this book came out, the final product. I remember, clearly the day, my publisher Karen Watts called me and we were just in her office and she just put this book in my hands, and that's special every time. Every time, a book comes out, that's the most special thing. When you see the proofs but you flip through them in a different way. You slide them around. And you're seeing what is going to be the final product as far as the images and the typeface and the color and all that kind of stuff. But once it's in a book, it's just, that is the most special feeling.

It's just finally finished, all in one, all you know with the pages ready to be turned. And everything so. This, this is just so incredible how they grabbed all these textures because when I finished the cover painting. I painted it on wood and stitched canvas to it. Because I did it, the whole cover, back and front, it was all flat, pinned down, with a bunch of old, paintey, painterly papers all sticking out the sides and everything. And it was all nailed down like a painting.

So all those pages and everything, looked like it was just you know, this journal thing or something. And when I handed it in, we had this meeting, and they said, boy I would just love for other people to see what we're seeing and maybe even feel what we're seeing. So, you know, it can't be drum scanned because you know it was on wood. So they went through proof after proof, different printers, and, and different paper stocks and everything, and came up with this.

And they did an amazing job. I mean this is, you can see and feel the edges of where the wooden edges were and are. And the little stitch marks, and the canvas, you can really feel all that.

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Frog Belly Rat Bone at school and on stage

This book has been so special. It was relelased in 2003, and I have made props from this book, Frog Belly Rat Bone's giant underpants, I bring them to schools when I give talks to the schools and I read this book at the end of the talk. And I can't wait for that part where I pull out this big Frog Belly Rat Bone box. And the kids everytime so far, knock on, knock on wood, that will always bring laughter. And I made the crown. And also since then, there have been a few places that have contacted me that are puppeteers and everything, that they, found the book, and said "Oh we would love to this do this for a different stage plays and puppet shows and everything."

And one of them is the Rogue Artists Ensemble in Los Angeles. They, they're just a group of wonderful artists. They said they were looking for new material and they were in a book store, and came across Frog Belly Rat Bone. And they put together this huge box filled with flowers and butterflies, and a hand written scroll like this long. And they sent it to Candlewick Press.

So they called me in and, and every time they called me in it's always good news over there, I just love it. So they bring me into this room and there's huge box, and they were like, "Go ahead and open it." I was like, "What is this?" No clue. And they said read this first, big manuscript, it was explaining who they were this Rogue Artist's Ensemble. And how they found Frog Belly, looking for new material. They asked so nicely and they were so excited. To see if I would mind if they did a play. And I was like, "Oh I would love it."

So they sent the manuscript and everything, and it, it was just wonderful. They flew me out to see the play at the, at the Los Angeles Times book festival, at UCLA. And to watch my characters dancing around on stage. And hearing, they had songs that came with it and everything, it was just, it was amazing, it was surreal. My hairs were sticking up on my arms.

I was just like, "This is so fun." So this little guy has had so much life, and I just hope it just keeps going and going. It's just, such a great little story.

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Facing your fears

My second book that I wrote and illustrated is called Necks Out For Adventure. And this just another — they're all favorites, when somebody says, "What is your favorite book?" I don't know, they're all favorites, because each one of them has such a different way they happened or adventure on the way through illustrating it or whatever. But this particular one cracks me up because, first I've always been the guy that just preaches stick your neck out for adventure. Get out there. Face your fears. I preach that to myself.

So anyway you know all that's a part of this like you know, I want to encourage kids, adults, anyone to take on something you though

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person ..." —

Carl Sagan