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Originally published at Through the Tollbooth. Please leave any comments there.

This winter Vermont College of Fine Arts is lucky to have Marla Frazee joining us as a Writer of Distinction. She’s an author and illustrator of spirited and structurally exacting picture books, and her work includes The Boss Baby, A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, and the Clementine series for which she did the illustrations. Marla brought to the college her thoughts and experiences in an informal talk where she demonstrated the elaborate and often miraculous way an author and illustrator can work together, dog bites and all. I interviewed her about the commonalities and collaborations between writers and illustrators during the gaps we both had between lectures, workshops and lunch (+ breakfast, dinner, snacks, wine pit …)

Firstly, I asked how she was enjoying her spell at VCFA:

Marla had heard about the college for so many years and loved being here during this frenetic residency. Living within a whole lot of writers was, of course, a little unfamiliar, but she delighted in hearing writers talk about their stuff: their work, their craft and their world.

In what ways does illustration lend itself to collaboration?

Marla believes an illustrator’s job is primarily to interpret and serve the writer’s text. But it can also go further. Marla is a lover of music, and has had some interdisciplinary collaboration with her illustrative work. For example, she collaborated on a presentation with a singer-songwriter friend on her Woody Guthrie book New Baby Train, reading the book aloud whilst songs were played beforehand.

What’s her process when illustrating and writing her own projects?

Ideas generally come to her as a “need”: she doesn’t sit around forcing them to pop out. Usually, an idea comes to her as a visual cue: sometimes as a character (as with Boot and Shoe, and The Boss Baby); as a concept (Walk On); or as a visual experience (Roller Coaster). A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever drew its life from an experience of sorts: it was a “thank you” note to good friends. However they begin, her stories evolve in much the same way: a lengthy process of outlining, storyboarding, revising and editing.

When a picture book is being devised, how does the illustrator/writer partnership generally work?

After the illustrator receives the writer’s text, it is initially worked on fairly separately from the writer’s involvement. The illustrator breaks the text down visually, interpreting it with illustrations that speak both with, and alongside, the text. Various formats and page spreads are tried, and all of this is brought back to the editor. At this stage, the editor will sometimes share the illustrator’s thinking and progress with the writer, and occasionally the writer is often inspired to make changes based on how the illustrations are interacting with the words. Here, the collaboration primarily plays out as being between the writer’s words and the emerging book’s pictures.

What are the commonalities between illustrators and writers?

Marla suggested the revision and editorial process is often very similar. However she is also aware of differences between the two. For one thing, the writer’s work is often pre-contract, whilst an illustrator’s work is post-contract. Marla therefore sees illustrative work as, partly, a type of “product” – involving decisions with regards front cover design, font, layout, size, and format. These aspects have a commercial component inherent in the illustrator’s work: they implicate the book’s marketing possibilities, and where the book may be placed on the bookstore’s shelf.

VCFA thanks Marla for her wondrous work, generous presentations and readings. She definitely added to the tapestry of talent present at this winter’s residency.

Tim Martin is a third semester student in VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program. He is based in Los Angeles and his background also combines illustrated and written projects. His website is: www.timothyjohnmartin.com