Author Interview – Emma Quay

Hello, Emma, and welcome to Kids’ Book Capers! Tell us a little about you.

I grew up in the English countryside with my sister Lucy, my music teacher mum, psychologist dad and two cats. I have always had an obsession with drawing and telling stories through pictures. At school I would draw for my classmates to entertain them, and by the end of primary school I was charging for my services as an illustrator and calligrapher of covers for projects – not my proudest memory, but my fees were low (a mere pencil sharpener or rubber).

I studied Graphic Design at college in the UK, specialising in illustration and printmaking, before embarking on a career as a freelance illustrator, whilst also exhibiting my monoprints and charcoal drawings. My earliest illustration projects were for educational publications, and often in black and white, but I dreamed of picture books, with sumptuous colour, beautiful binding, freedom to splash out…

I met my Australian husband in India, and when I moved to Sydney I was introduced Mark Macleod who was the children’s publisher at Random House at the time. He offered my first trade picture book. It was a very exciting moment!

Since that first picture book, in 1998, I have illustrated fourteen picture books, a handful of early readers and also written several picture book texts for very young children. I still live in Sydney and have two daughters.

What genre do you generally write and illustrate in?

For me, there’s nothing quite like early childhood picture books; I feel lucky to spend much of my time immersed in that world. I have [also] illustrated chapter books, book jackets and CD covers for audio books, but I always long to return to the colour and open space of the picture book format.

I have been so absorbed in my illustrative work, printmaking and painting has been put on the back burner for a few years. I hope to remedy that.

What do you love about writing and illustrating for children?

I know a picture book can whisk (or sometimes gently scoop) people up and carry them along with it. It can make them laugh, cry, feel, relax. I love to reach children in this way. I am often reminded that a picture book has a life beyond its creators: I hear about children who request Good Night, Me every evening as their final book before falling asleep, and mimic the little orang-utan’s actions; children who think of Bear and Chook as their own friends. This is the most rewarding element of my work – knowing my books are a part of people’s lives, and being shared together by parents and children.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

I remember trying to write stories before I had learned to write. I would sit in my bunk bed, drawing rows of sequential pictures. They showed little girls getting into scrapes, and little boys were always the baddies. They weren’t cartoon strips, but I think ‘graphic novel’ would be too grand a term! I had a need to tell my stories, and I guess I still do.

You write books with an inherent understanding of the very young. What inspires you to write and illustrate so creatively?

That’s a hard one, but I think it might be memory (I can remember vividly what it felt like to be every age I have been so far), and (perhaps more importantly) observation – really looking. I have always noticed little details rather than the big picture. As a result, I think my books are probably about small moments in small people’s lives.

Which comes first – the illustrations or the writing of a book?

It’s difficult to know whether an idea arrives in words or pictures, but I’d say both go down on the page together as sketches and jotted words in a sketch book. A text, characters and illustrations grow from there (or don’t, if the idea isn’t up to scratch).

You can see some of these sketch book scribbles on the ILLUSTRATING PICTURE BOOKS page of my website.

Can you tell us about your illustrating process?

My favourite stage is when the book can be anything – the early stages, when I’m scribbling away and not worrying what anything looks like: just getting the ideas down quickly. These then start to get weeded out and tidied into the tiny thumbnail sketches of a storyboard, followed by larger pencil roughs. The editor and author (if it’s not me), will have a say at these stages, before I embark on the final artworks. I often use the outlines from these roughs for the finished art to try to retain the freshness I seek in my printed work.

Which mediums do you prefer to work in?

I enjoy trying new media or combinations of media with each new project, and each new text will suggest a distinct illustrative approach as I read (or write) it. As a result, my work can sometimes have a quite different look from one book to the next. I like to challenge myself, and avoid becoming too slick in the execution of any one medium. I know I’m not making things easy for myself, but once I’ve tried something and it has worked, I’m looking for a new challenge.

Some media I have enjoyed using are acrylic paints, brush and ink, soft pencils, wax crayons, chalk pastels, charcoal, relief printing and Photoshop. I find similarities between the building up of layers in Photoshop and the separate inked plates or screens of some of my favourite printmaking techniques… but Photoshop is nowhere near as messy.

What inspired your new book Rudie Nudie?

The book was inspired by the children of family friends – boys and girls – who would come for sleepovers and insist on doing a nudie dash after their baths. Even the shy ones couldn’t resist.

Two little children – a girl and a boy – enjoy their bath time. But it’s when they hop out of the bath that the fun really begins, as these two rudie nudies soon escape their towels and dance out of the bathroom. While Dad makes the beds and Mum waits with their pyjamas, the little girl and boy skip and roll and prance around the house, and around the garden … until mummy calls them, and it’s time for bed.

I get such a response from people when they hear the title of the book. Everyone seems to instantly recognise the term, Rudie Nudie.

Do you have a particular fondness for one of your book characters?

At the moment, I am particularly fond of the (unnamed) older sister in Shrieking Violet. Although it is her voice we hear throughout the book (she tries to draw our attention (and Mum’s) to her achievements as she leaps and rolls across the left side of each spread), she is invariably upstaged by her noisy little sister, as our eye is invariably drawn to toddler Violet and what she is getting up to on the right hand page.

Perhaps I always go for the underdog (I’m rather fond of Chook, too), but I did make sure I let Violet’s sister get the upper hand towards the end of the book. She suggests the two of them put on a show, but it is obviously a rouse to steal a little more of the limelight for herself. Violet is assigned a non-speaking role, and when the sister flings off her cloak to reveal that indeed she is star of the show (and therefore the book), the cloak falls over Violet’s head. The sister will assure Violet she is a much more convincing tree with a green cloak draped over her head… and perhaps Violet will believe her!

I am an older sister: that might have something to do with my choice. As a mum, too, I feel great sympathy for the exhausted but patient mother in the book.

Describe one of your favourite ‘fan’ moments.

I visited a remote school in north-west New South Wales a few years ago. The school had one class of ten students of various ages from Kindergarten to Year 6.  I was drawing on a white board to show the children how one can use lines to change the expression on a character’s face to show how they feeling. I was using one of the pigs from my picture book, Reggie and Lu (and the same to you!).

The kids watched in seeming awe as I turned the pig from happy, to miserable, to angry with a few flicks of my pen. I asked for a last request for an expression and a small, seven-year-old girl asked for ‘surprised’. I rolled out the wide open eyes and O-shaped mouth of the usual surprised-looking face, and turned around to see the girl looking utterly dissatisfied with my attempt. She assured me that pigs look nothing like that when they are surprised, and she knew because she and her dad surprised pigs all the time. I invited her up the front and she produced a stunning and graphic depiction of a wild pig caught in the glare of the hog lights and about to be shot!

What’s a typical writing and illustrating day?

I work from a studio in my home, and try to work on one book at a time. When I tell people what I do, they often say it must take a lot of discipline to stay on task and not wander off to the fridge or into the Internet. In my experience, the opposite is true. I get so engrossed in what I’m doing, I have to make myself get up and stretch or eat or answer some phone calls, to make sure I don’t end up with a hunched back and a twitchy eye.

If there is typical working day for me, it would be spent alone, and involve a lot of sitting down at a computer or a drawing desk, sometimes with podcasts playing on my iPod but often in silence. (Gosh, my life sounds thrilling!)

I love working on my own, but I also enjoy emerging from my studio for outings to the city to meet my agent, Selwa Anthony, editors and publishers. There are great contrasts in this job – I spend an age creating something, holed up in my studio like a hermit, and then (because of that something), I might be invited to a glitzy event which is so far from my studio it sends my head into a spin. I welcome the contrast, and enjoy both.

What books did you read as a child?

My favourite books were Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids and Raymond Brigg’s Father Christmas. I was also a huge Snoopy fan, and spent hours with my Peanuts books. When I was very young, poor Dad had to read me The Elves and the Shoemaker over and over again. I can see a little bit of that naked scampering in Rudie Nudie.

What else do you like to do, other than write and illustrate books?

I like to do Pilates to iron out the kinks, play the flute, go to the cinema, eat and laugh with friends and family, travel, and visit inspiring art exhibitions.

What advice do you have for those wanting to make a career of writing or illustrating?

I wrote many, many letters when I first started out, enclosing colour copy after colour copy of my college illustrations (thank goodness for jpegs and e-mail now!).

My advice would be to keep going, even if you keep hearing ‘no’. Don’t sit and wait for one reply at a time. Even while you’re waiting for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from one publisher about one project, don’t sit and wonder – start the next project. Keep creating: working, drawing, painting, writing, brainstorming.  Hopefully you’ll be so inspired by the new work and ideas, comments from publishers about the ‘old’ work won’t dent your enthusiasm too much, and you’ll have the strength to keep going. If you don’t keep going, there definitely won’t be a ‘yes’.

Oh, and by the way – I still hear ‘no’.

What five words best sum you up?

Bigger on inside than outside.

What’s next for Emma Quay?

At the moment I am working on the illustrations for another of my own picture book texts, called Not a Cloud in the Sky. It’s about a friendship between a bird and a cloud, and will be published by ABC Books/HarperCollins Australia in 2013.

Learn more abut Emma and her beautiful books at

Published by

Tania McCartney

Tania McCartney is an author of children's books and adult non-fiction. Recent books include Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A journey around Melbourne, and Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline. She's also an editor, publisher and founder of Kids Book Review.