I am very happy to introduce my March interview: Mary Newell Depalma. She is an illustrator and Author of children’s books. Her illustrations are beautiful and very colorful.
1. Which came first for you writing or illustration?
Illustration definitely came first! I always loved to draw. My dad was a civil engineer, and when I was in high school he set up his old drafting table in the basement for me to use. I spent a lot of time in the basement drawing! I studied Medical Illustration in college, and my first freelance jobs were illustrations for pharmaceutical sales training manuals. I transitioned to editorial illustrations for magazines and newspapers, then textbook illustrations, before I began illustrating picture books.
2.What encouragement helped you along you along your way?
I was lucky to have been encouraged from a very early age. My mother told me that before entering the first grade, children at my school were asked to draw a person--this was some kind of entrance assessment. Sr. Mary Peter, the principal, took my mother aside and told her that my drawing was so well done that I should be encouraged to draw and that my parents should nurture this talent. God Bless Sr. Mary Peter! My mother and father supported my artwork from that day forward. During grade school, they sent me to Saturday art lessons at the Carnegie Museum. Later, I attended pre-college art classes at Carnegie-Mellon University. All of my art teachers were very supportive, even my illustration professor in college, whose praise was rather faint, but I clutched onto it like a life raft. While looking at my senior portfolio, he said ‘you’ve definitely got something here--I don’t know what, exactly, but it is something.’ Always optimistic, I thought, well, I just have to find my niche.
3.Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?
Of course! I was lucky to find many strange and obscure jobs along the way--my first job was at a greeting card company where I answered the phone, organized files, and brainstormed ideas for the cartoonist who illustrated the scented sticker line: a bunch of grapes skateboarding, a bunch of grapes driving a car, a bunch of grapes coquettishly holding a fan...he got to draw them, though, after I listed hundreds of ideas for him to choose from. My next job was writing names on certificates and diplomas in beautiful calligraphic lettering. All day long. Names and dates. In an office that was straight out of Charles Dickens. The glamour of that wore off pretty quickly. Then, I worked as a freelance newspaper and magazine illustrator. This was
great, but not too regular, so at the same time I interpreted for the deaf. (All artists need flexible and steady part time employment!)
Next came the decline of magazines and newspapers, and I had to find a different kind of illustration work. This led me to textbooks, and eventually, to picture books.
It was not my idea to become a writer. This is how it came about--I sent a postcard to children’s book editors, advertising my illustration work. One very prominent editor, Susan Hirschman, picked up the phone and called me. She asked if I had a story to go with the illustration. My answer was exactly the wrong one--’No, I said, I am an illustrator. Don’t you have writers sending you stories? I’d love to illustrate one.’ Susan suggested that I consider writing a picture book. Several other editors contacted me with the same question. I began making book dummies of silly stories as illustration samples and these editors would compliment my illustration and critique my writing. Eventually, after many, many, many failed attempts, I wrote The Strange Egg which was published by Margaret Raymo at Houghton Mifflin. I thought that writing The Strange Egg might have been a fluke, but Arthur Levine at Scholastic gave me the best advice ever. He simply said ‘You did it once, you can do it again!’ Arthur published my second book, A Grand Old Tree. Now I really love the puzzle of fitting together words and pictures in picture books.
Read! Study stories that you love.
The next thing is, just do it. Write something, (anything!), then you can fix it. If you don’t start, you can’t finish.
Share your writing with other writers--form a peer critique group. Early on I joined a group of women illustrators. We learned from each other, shared information, and advertised together. Now I am part of a small peer critique group for my picture books.
Illustration and writing are forms of communication. We all have beautiful ideas, but we may not be communicating them as clearly as we think we are. I know I am communicating well if my peer critique group understands/enjoys my work-in-progress. This kind of editing is both inevitable and essential. Here is a slideshow about editing, which I made for school visits: http://www.marynewelldepalma.com/Editing/Edit.htm
Finally, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a wonderful resource for children’s writers. Join, attend workshops, read their blogs and resources. Good luck!
More about Mary Newell DePalma: www.marynewelldepalma.com