Author Interview: Tohby Riddle

Tohby Riddle - My Book CornerAward winning Australian illustrator and author, Tohby Riddle has created a plethora of picture books and cartoons (Good Weekend), including My Uncle’s Donkey and Unforgotten.

It is with much delight that we welcome Tohby to My Book Corner in this illuminating interview …

Tell us about you in 25 words or less

I’m an artist, writer, part-time flaneur and full-time father of three.

What makes you happy?

For starters: good company, good ideas, walking the streets of a new city, stationery …

Where have you always wanted to visit, but haven’t made it to … yet?

Well, I’d love go to one of those great magician/illusionist shows in Paris in the mid-to-late 1800s, but I was born more than a century too late and don’t know of any reliable way to go back in time.

Where is your favourite place to write and illustrate?

I like drawing and writing ideas in cafes, but I do my work in my little attic studio, where I can only just stand up, but which is very cosy once you’re sitting down, and sometimes in winter, snowflakes settle on the skylight over my desk.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

I’d be kind of wary of tinkering with the world in case it set off some unforeseen chain of events that made things worse …

What’s the best thing about being a published author and illustrator?

The possibilities of the book. And being totally absorbed in my work while I’m creating one.

What’s the strangest question you’ve ever been asked?

One that comes to mind is: Do you need a license to be an author? All I could say was that you didn’t, but that it might be a good idea. (Though you do need to give yourself license sometimes to really go after an idea.)

Who or what inspires you?

Stars, music, light, nature, art, animals, people …

What is your worst habit?

Possibly it’s picking up curious little objects and old things in op shops – there are about seven op shops in my neighbourhood so the temptation is ever-present.

Your favourite word?

The right word! Actually, I love all kinds of words, and that includes made-up ones, place names and people’s names – which can evoke so much character, musicality and atmosphere.

Unforgotten is incredibly deep and powerful. Can you describe the inspiration and process that led to its creation, (in relation to the narrative).

Only in so far as I really understand it at this point. I’ve found that people, including myself, write books for reasons (like an unconscious way of processing a life event or unresolved feeling) that can take time to become apparent. Indeed, though ideas often come to me in quite conscious ways as thoughts, Unforgotten came to me much more as a feeling – a feeling that came with “daydreams” of images of a strange urban world where angelic beings hovered and mingled, invisible to the world’s inhabitants. I was moved by this world and excited and intrigued by the artistic possibilities of it. The hard part was to work out how to shape these feelings and images into a story told in a book. A few years passed. It wasn’t until I saw people crowding around a white cockatoo that had come down from the sky and perched on a bin, that I could see a way into a narrative. What would happen if an angel were sitting on a park bench in a busy place? And why would the angel be there? Within hours I had the first line: “Nobody knows were they come from. But they come.”

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to illustrate … how did you approach it?

Looking back, probably “the parting of the firmament” – when I was in about Year 2 at a Steiner School. We always had to illustrate what we were learning, and I found this illustration in a “main lesson” book I’d kept. This is an event from day two of the creation of the world according to the book of Genesis (we were studying creation stories) where the heavens are parted from the waters. Being about 8 years old, I’d just gone straight ahead and made a picture – kids are great like that – but these days I’d stop and wonder what it really meant and how on earth to picture it!

Just for fun

Tea or c0ffee? Coffee

Paper books or e-books? Depends on the content

Vegemite or Marmite? Neither really

Write or type? Both

Poetry or prose? Both

Beach or bush? These days bush

Hot or cold? Cold. I feel more energetic and can think more clearly.

We couldn’t resist asking Tohby more about the creative process behind Unforgotten ….

The illustrations for Unforgotten, which I think are best described as a combination of photo montage and collage, were assembled in Photoshop largely from scans of my drawings, details from photos I took, and details from archival photos dating back to the 19th century. A set of effects were more or less applied globally to each illustration for mood and meaning but also to make the elements that made up each image (about 150 in one case) cohere into a singular whole. It sometimes felt as if each illustration was an intricately arranged piece of music and my computer the mixing desk.

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