Here’s my Winnipeg Review interview with Linda Bailey:
For the picture book crowd, there are few more beloved dogs than Linda Bailey’s Stanley. Since the publication of Stanley’s Party in 2003 and the subsequent Stanley books, all illustrated by Bill Slavin, Linda has had a massive following. And not just with kids. Adults appreciate the humour of the Stanley books as well.
Linda Bailey has garnered well-deserved critical acclaim and oodles of awards, both in Canada and in the US.
When I heard about Linda’s most recent picture book, I was a little bit taken aback. Toads on Toast? She couldn’t really have written a kids’ book about eating toads, could she? Had wry humour turned to gruesome humour?
Once I read Toads for myself, I was intrigued. Linda kindly agreed to answer these questions:
Toads on Toast is an intriguing departure from your Stanley books. Different illustrator, a completely different kind of story, although still the classic Linda Bailey wry humour. How did this story come about?
Thanks for the “wry humour.” I try to be wry! How did Toads come about? The easy answer is word play. I noticed one day that “toads” and “toast” sounded the same. But in terms of meaning, they were a bizarre combo. As it happens, I like bizarre combos, so I began to ponder how a bunch of toads might find themselves on top of a piece of toast. This led me into folktale turf in which small critters are sometimes gobbled up by larger critters, amid heart-stopping dramatic tension. I came up with characters-at-risk (young toadlets), a villain (Fox) and a heroine (Mama Toad) with enough smarts to outfox a fox. So that’s the surface answer. The deeper answer is that one of my favourite characters in all literature is Mr. Toad in Wind in the Willows. Love that guy! Wanted to do a toads story for him.
The illustrations in Toads on Toast are an essential part of the storytelling and the humour. How much say do you have in the illustrations?
As someone who writes humour, I get more leeway than most picture book authors. A lot of the humour I write has visual “punchlines,” and the text makes no sense without the picture. So I do find myself describing funny actions or scenarios that go with (or contradict) the words. That said, I am nothing and nowhere without a funny illustrator. The illustrator (in this case, the very funny Colin Jack) has to GET the joke, and have his/her own giggle, and make it hilarious in his/her own way. I never imagined, for instance, that Mama Toad would end up looking like Lucille Ball or that one of the toadlets would spend most of the book inside a floating soap bubble.
Does the illustrator get to have any input on your words?
Sometimes. But the words get written long before the illustrator even knows the story exists. I wrote a “SPLAT!” sentence in my text about Mama’s entrance as she leaped into Fox’s kitchen. Colin included the giant word “SPLAT!” in his drawing. It was much better in the art than in the text, so I deleted my sentence. When something is shown well in the art, you can change/cut the text.
Do you like to eat frog’s legs?
I have never actually eaten a frog’s leg. I hear it tastes like chicken.
How long did it take you to write Toads on Toast? How many drafts?
Interesting question. Some books take dozens or hundreds of drafts. Some books come easily. Toads came relatively easy. Maybe ten? Plus tons of picky polishing.
Who is your favourite character?
Mama Toad, for sure. She’s melodramatic and over-the-top, and I love her barely controlled maternal hysteria. (Her best line, in my opinion, is “Take ME instead!”) I also adore the I-Love-Lucy lips and red hair in the art.
Which character is most like you?
This is hard to answer because my theory is that ALL the characters I create are some version of me. I think they all bubble out of some place in my sub-conscious. So I relate to Fox, who is basically just a bored guy, looking to change his diet. I relate to the toadlets who are rebellious and subversive in a way I have always wanted to be. And certainly, I relate to Mama, who will do anything it takes to keep her kids off Fox’s plate.
What is your writing routine?
I tend to write in bursts. I do a lot of traveling and speaking, and at those times, I find it hard to focus on a fictional inner world. When I do get solitude and quiet, I go into that inner world (or worlds) quite intensely and hardly look up.
What aspect of being a writer drives you nuts?
The business side — contracts, schedules, finances, travel arrangements. Did I mention contracts?
What are you working on now?
Lots of things. I have a habit of hanging onto good ideas that aren’t quite ready for prime time. I don’t delete them. I keep them in my computer and go back – again and again. Often I find ways to take them farther. Or I might find a whole new angle. Or tastes in publishing might change. Sometimes it takes me five or ten years to bring a story to “finished.” That’s okay. I now have lots of stories in my files, and I’m working (off and on) on all of them.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
The usual advice, I guess. That it doesn’t matter how much talent you have if you don’t have persistence and stamina. I believe it’s a craft, not an art. You learn by doing. Practice makes perfect. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule (The Outliers) does apply here. A few writers are like shooting stars, right out of the gate. Far more “grow” slowly. They get better and better and then excellent by putting in time, passion, self-education and many, many hours. I’ve seen it so often. Hang in.