Huge welcome to Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, author and illustrator of the brilliantly funny picture book, I'm Going To Eat This Ant. In his My Book Corner interview Chris shares some writing tips, including how his current book came to be...
Tell us about you in 25 words or less.
I live in France with my wife and two children but grew up in Bradford in the north of England. Like an employment-seeking Mr. Man I’ve had all sorts of different jobs and then suddenly I discover I’m actually a children’s picturebook writer and illustrator. Happily, that suits me down to the ground! This is more than twenty five words isn’t it? Sorry.
What makes you happy?
Often just run-of-the-mill day-to-day things going ok, getting the kids off to school on time with no aches, pains of sniffles (from them or me), and them coming home happy again. Walking in damp weather. Listening to music very very loudly. A treehouse I built. Slicing vegetables. Being confronted with a tricky but definitely solvable problem (see: treehouse). Steaming up my glasses when I drink tea. Finding just the right tool for the job.
Where is your favourite place to write & illustrate?
I work in my little office/studio which is at one end of our house. I have two desks - a messy paint-and-ink desk and a digital computery desk, books, bits and bobs on shelves and walls and a very useful sink (it was supposed to be a kitchen area before we lived here). It’s got a view of our garden. On the wall above my computer is a photomontage I made of a beach on the Island of Gigha in Scotland, where we went on a study trip in 1999 whilst attending the fantastic Bradford College of Art. It’s a bit of a mess (my office, not Gigha). It doesn’t have a door so I’m trying to dissuade interlopers by piling up more and more piles of paper near the entrance.
What's on your TBR pile at the moment?
I’m finally reading Ways Of Seeing by John Berger. I’ve got Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan and a Kate Bush biography standing by. I’ve started reading lots of proper, actual grown-up books from them olden days, making an effort to read more widely. Frankenstein, Jude The Obscure, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, War Of The Worlds, Dorian Gray. It’s been a very enjoyable endeavour.
What’s the strangest question you’ve ever been asked?
Hmmm... When I was teaching English a middle-aged Frenchwoman who was a dog-groomer asked me if English dogs spoke French. I can’t remember my answer.
What's your worst habit?
Worrying and procrastina... ooh, er... now then, let’s have a look in the fridge. Oh, hello there kettle. Tea! So, where were we...? Oh heck...
Your favourite word(s)?
“Wrapped up or to eat now?” - means the rare event of me being in an English chippy and fish and chips (and possibly mushy peas) are imminent.
Did the illustration or the narrative come first for your cheeky anteater and ant in I’m Going To Eat This Ant?
Definitely narrative. Some ideas come out of the little ‘lightbulb’ moment where you go ‘oh that’s a funny thing, I could maybe make something of that’ and some are a bit more built-by-design. I’m Going To Eat This Ant was the latter. I’d set myself a simple brief of what kind of story I wanted, the number of characters and their relationship and the story’s length, structure and end. Then I just had to sit and think (or lie sleeplessly) and find details, the right pair of characters and chain of events from start to finish that fit the bill.
What are your top tips for budding picture book writers?
I think one important thing is just dreary old sticking-to-it perseverance, both in doing the work and then how it fairs in the outside world. And one of the hardest things I found was being really inspired visually by the beautiful picture books that me and the kids absolutely loved and then trying to do something that wasn’t like any of them. I struggled and struggled for a while to find a style that I felt honest about and that I liked, so... I decided to stop struggling and overthinking and I did the whole book again from scratch without trying to impose any kind of stylistic influence upon it (easier said than done), not really knowing how successful it would be. The general look of the published book is more or less what I put on paper after I attempted to stop worrying about ‘style’. In the end it came out ok. Which was lucky, it could have been rubbish.
What was your route to the publication of I’m Going To Eat This Ant?
Way before 'Ant' existed I made my very first book back in 2012.Originally I’d decided to do it just for me and our children but I liked how it turned out so I got a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and sent it to whoever might have a look at it. I pretty quickly found an agent (Woohoo!) but one-by-one all the publishers she sent it to turned it down (Booo...). It was frustrating and disheartening, especially since I had a very boring and unpleasant 9-to-5 job at the time and had spent over a year making this book. However, even though it wasn’t what they were looking for, many of the publishers had liked it and this was quite encouraging. So I tried self-publishing but found that it’s tough and potentially expensive to sell beyond your friends and family circle. During the next couple of years, having had a house-move, job-change and life-in-general happening, and I’d dusted myself down, had a good think about what didn’t work and what did and what I should do next, I’d started, stopped, restarted (maybe twice over), then eventually finished ‘Ant’ and the contact I’d made a few years before with my erstwhile agent came in useful. I got in touch with her out of the blue, she really liked the book and sent it out for me and this time the responses from publishers were quick and mostly very positive. That was an incredible and actually quite fraught few weeks, the sudden transformation of this odd little thing I’d been doing for ages in my own little bubble suddenly being discussed in Big Meetings in Big Publishers’ Offices in Big London and Beyond. Bloomsbury then offered a deal for two books (Woohoo!) and we started work on editing and tweaking Ant with my editor and designer. They were both fantastic and brought huge amounts of knowledge, skill and flair to the work I’d done. It was a really interesting and rewarding experience.
Can you give us a glimpse / hint at your current WIP? (I can bribe you with cake & biscuits!)
My next book is just finished and it’ll be out early in 2018. It’s a kind of companion piece to Ant but with different characters and a lot less culinary brutality. In fact, romance is in the air... Then there’s the possibility of a more poetic/less slapstick festive story that’s something of a departure from the first two books but this is currently To Be Confirmed...
Did we forget anything? Have you got your phone? Did you pick up your hat?
Just for fun
Tea or coffee? Coffee first then tea.
Paper books or e-books? Paper books.
Cake or chocolate? Pie.
Write or type? Type. But I like the act of writing. I like writing shopping lists or even cheques, I do like a nicely written address on a big brown envelope. I worked as an elevator draughtsman for a while (before computers were used - yes, I’m that old) and I loved writing the dimensions and nomenclature with the Rotring ink pens. Last year I made myself re-learn to do a proper joined-up letter r (the ones that look a bit like an ‘n’ shape, with a little loop at the top left).
Poetry or prose? Prose, I suppose.
Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin? At school we had Romans, Saxons and Vikings. I was in Saxons and we were a fairly unremarkable house who, being made up of a random collection of fairly unremarkable pupils who neither excelled nor failed miserably at most activities, generally ended up finishing in second position between Romans and Vikings, who fought tooth and nail for the glory and rewards of first position or crashed and burned and suffered the ignominy and disgrace of last place... Yes, I’m trying disguise the fact that I haven’t read Harry Potter.
Hot or cold? Cold. But not too cold. Parky.