Judith Rossell: Why some illustrators become writers

Find out why some illustrators become writers with award-winning author Judith Rossell! This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of ACCESS.

When I was a kid, I loved to draw. I liked writing stories as well, but drawing was more magical, and it was also much cooler, in a nerdy kind of way. Writing was really schoolwork. Nobody wanted to be caught doing schoolwork in their free time. I sometimes wrote little stories in secret, but in school I’d write the kind of thing I thought the teacher wanted, and it would come back with corrections and marks and comments. Drawing was different. It was always just for fun. Drawings never got handed in and corrected. Drawings could be funny, clever, subversive, scratched into the margins of maths books, or passed secretly around the classroom.

When I visit schools now, I ask the kids, ‘Who likes to draw?’ and, in the younger classes, almost all the hands shoot up into the air. Little kids like drawing. I tell them that when I was their age, I loved to draw too, and I used to draw in class when I was supposed to be doing other things, like maths or geography. Then I ask, ‘Who here’s ever been in trouble for drawing in class?’ and there are always a few hands up. Their friends know which are the drawing kids, and proudly point them out. I’m sure our next generation of artists is among them.

Most adults draw about as well as a 10-year-old, because that’s the age most people stop drawing. This is a shame, because drawing is a useful, practical skill. It helps with problem solving, creative thinking, communication and presenting information. We should be encouraging kids to draw, all the way through school, and looking for ways to integrate drawing into different subjects. Of course, it’s also a skill we could teach. Sadly, we choose to treat it as a kind of special talent that some fortunate people are born with. Adults often say, ‘I wish I could draw. But I can hardly draw a stick figure. You are so lucky.’ This is as ridiculous as saying to a pianist, ‘I wish I could play the piano. But the one time I tried, I bashed away at the keys and only a jumble of notes came out. You are so lucky to be able to play a tune.’ We all know that playing the piano takes hours of practice, and drawing does too.

Malcolm Gladwell devised the famous theory that achieving expertise in a particular skill is, to a large extent, a matter of practising in the correct way for around 10,000 hours. That’s a lot of practice. No wonder our future artists need to draw during maths and geography. I kept drawing all through school, then through a science degree at university, and then while I was working in a laboratory, so it’s not a big surprise that, after various other jobs, I eventually became an illustrator. Of course, it’s a great job for someone who likes to draw. It still seems a bit miraculous
that I get paid for something that I would probably do for fun. Illustrating children’s books is the career I would have chosen for myself when I was a kid, if I’d known it was a possibility. So I feel very lucky.

As an illustrator, every time I get offered a new manuscript to work on, it seems full of possibilities. What is the best way to illustrate this particular story? What medium should I use? What colours? In children’s books, it’s the illustrator who decides what the book will look like, the appearance of the characters and their world. The illustrator adds subplots and unwritten characters and hundreds of extra details. Often it’s the illustrations that attract the reader to the story. However, the illustrator never gets to decide what the story is about. If the story is about a shark who drives a fire engine, the illustrator is going to have to draw a shark driving a fire engine. The illustrator is always reacting to the text, imagining and creating the pictures that go along with the words. The words always come first.

So what happens when the illustrator has drawn enough sharks driving fire engines, or wheelie bins (for some reason, I’ve had to draw a whole lot of wheelie bins in my career), or classrooms (I’ve also drawn a lot of classrooms), or chickens or rabbits, and wants to draw something else? That’s often the point when illustrators first become writers. Sometimes, an illustrator draws a character or a scene that doesn’t fit into a book they’re working on, and wonders, ‘What happens next?’ That question is the start of a story. The brilliant Cornelia Funke (author of the Inkspell series) was an illustrator who began writing because she was disappointed with some of the stories she was offered, and she wanted to draw fantastic creatures and magical worlds. For me, I felt my way slowly into writing at first, not wanting to try anything too ambitious, as I knew for sure that I wasn’t really a ‘writer’. Not a proper one. I was definitely an illustrator who did a little bit of writing on the side. I wrote puzzle and maze books, which have very little text. I did a course with the fabulous Hazel Edwards, and wrote a couple of junior novels and picture books.

Picture 1: The death of Sherlock Holmes, by Sidney Paget

I found it very different to be creating a story rather than illustrating someone else’s story. It’s not that it’s hard to think up something; the difficulty is deciding what to choose out of all the possibilities. I remember this feeling in school. What to write about? Often teachers would say, ‘Write what you know,’ but I don’t find this very useful. Instead, I’d suggest, ‘Write what you love.’ If kids love vampires, they should be writing stories about vampires. And if they love football, they should be writing stories about football. Or aliens. Or boy bands. Or seaweeds of the South Pacific, if that’s where their heart is. They should be writing about the thing they

My passion is for Victoriana. I am attracted to the melodrama of Wilkie Collins and Rudyard Kipling, stories of orphans and ghosts and missing diamonds and dark deeds. I love the early Sherlock Holmes stories. The edition I have includes the original illustrations by Sidney Paget (Picture 1). The pictures are very dark, some only vague, shadowy shapes, with perhaps a white outstretched hand gleaming in the gaslight. I loved the atmosphere these illustrations gave the stories. I imagined Mr Holmes and Dr Watson solving crime in the smoggy streets of London, barely able to see where they were going, while evil things lurked all around in the gloom. (Later, I was very disappointed to discover that this effect was actually caused by the book’s cheap printing, and the original artwork was quite clear and detailed. It was a bit disillusioning.)

Picture 2: Girl hiding behind an urn

I decided to set my story in the year 1885. It would have been an extraordinary time to live. We sometimes imagine the Victorians as stuffy, hidebound and conservative, but it was a supremely ambitious, confident time in history. We have a lot to thank the Victorians for. They built the cities we live in, our schools and hospitals and prisons, our sewers and train lines. The Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Brooklyn Bridge were all completed in the 1880s. Every decade brings new words into the language, and the 1880s gave us: hello, leotard, dude, lipstick, milkshake, hamburger, skyscraper, gadget, astronaut, hoodlum, pasteurise, hotdog and sadist. These words sound confident, exciting and modern.

We often talk as if we are the only generation to experience change. As if the latest iPhone or a confusing new form of social media is too much to keep up with. But if we were living in the 1880s, we would have seen so many bewildering changes during our lifetime. We could have experienced the very first electric light, recorded music, radio, moving pictures and telephones. Think how surprising and revolutionary it would have been to speak to someone on the telephone for the very first time.

Picture 3: Stella in the conservatory

Suddenly, the world would have seemed much smaller. We could have seen the first bicycles, roller skates, electric trains and the very first cars. When Queen Victoria came to the throne, the quickest a person could travel was on a fast horse. By the end of her reign, the Wright brothers were conducting their first experiments with flight. We could have tasted the first chewing gum, milk chocolate, canned baked beans, margarine and breakfast cereal. We would have witnessed the end of slavery in the USA, the beginning of universal primary education for children, and the first women attending university. (Australia’s first female graduate was Bella Guerin, Melbourne University, 1883.) We could have experienced the first anaesthetics, and benefited from the first antiseptic surgical methods and new vaccines for widespread deadly diseases. All these changes and upheavals must have seemed extraordinary.

I find this time in history fascinating, and I had a sense of the kind of melodramatic, gothic story I wanted to write. But how to start? Much of the writing advice I found was about how to plan the story in advance, with a plot summary, chapter by chapter, and handy tables for each of the characters, listing their strengths and weaknesses and motivation and appearance, and so on. This is good advice (and it’s the advice I give my writing students too), and I wish it worked for me, because I can see it would save a lot of time. But I have no planning abilities of this kind, and trying to approach my story like this just meant I was unable to start writing it at all.

Picture 4: Photo of Cliff House, San Francisco

Instead, I started with drawing. I drew a bunch of little pictures that might have been the illustrations for a Victorian story. One picture, of a little girl hiding behind a fern in an enormous urn (Picture 2), gave me the idea for the first scene in my story. A girl in a shadowy Victorian conservatory. What a lovely start. I drew another picture of this girl, lying on the mossy tiles, behind a bank of ferns, reading her book (Picture 3). She might accidentally see something

she shouldn’t have. But what? She could overhear a whispered conversation? Or witness a crime? Murder perhaps? I named the girl Stella, after my grandmother. Sometime in the 1980s, my family stayed a night at the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains. At that time, the huge hotel was mainly empty, the paint was peeling, and distant voices echoed from the ends of long, dark corridors. I loved it. I decided to set my story in a hotel. I looked at pictures and found the amazing Cliff House, near San Francisco (Picture 4). It has a dramatic history. The first Cliff House was built from lumber salvaged from a shipwreck in 1858. The second was built in 1863, was damaged in a dynamite explosion when a schooner ran aground in 1887, and burned down in 1894. The third Cliff House, the one in the picture, was built in 1896, and was an extraordinary, seven-storey gingerbread structure, jutting out over the edge of the cliff.

Picture 5: Hotel Majestic, Withering-by-Sea

Nearby was the famous Sutro Baths, which included six indoor swimming pools, a skating rink, pleasure grounds and a museum of stuffed animals, artwork and ‘historic items’. Sadly, this incredible building burned down again in 1907.

Cliff House seemed like the perfect setting for my story. I moved it to the south coast of England, and pushed it back a little way from the edge of the steep cliff , so it wouldn’t fall off (Picture 5). I named it the Hotel Majestic, and I created the town Withering-by-Sea, based more or less on Eastbourne, a respectable seaside town, with a pier, a bandstand and a long row of hotels and boarding houses along the seafront. Eastbourne during the Victorian era was known as the Empress of the Watering Places and people visited it for the health benefits of sea bathing.

Picture 6: Bath chair ladies at the beach

I gave Stella three dreadful aunts, staying at the Hotel Majestic for their health. I found a fabulous photograph of two respectable Victorian ladies at the seaside (Picture 6). The lady in the Bath chair looks quite jolly, I think, but all the same, I used her as a model for Stella’s nasty Aunt Deliverance (Picture 7). I find Victorian photographs are a wonderful source of ideas. This lovely image of two babies in a perambulator (Picture 8) inspired one of my story’s illustrations. I collect photographs to use when I visit schools (Picture 9), such as this rather dapper ventriloquist and his disturbing dummy, and sometimes I ask the kids to use them for stories, or to create characters.

Picture 7: Aunt Deliverance

From a class of Year Five students in Newcastle came the idea of a Victorian lady who hides eight legs ‘like a spider’ under her huge skirts, and is addicted to bleach. Another Victorian gentleman was human only down to his chest, the rest of him crafted from sticks, and he carried a weapon made from the rib-bone of a child. These brilliant, creepy ideas would not be out of place in the penny-dreadful horror stories that the Victorians loved. Pictures are a great way to start writing and can spark all kinds of ideas.

Picture 8: Twins in pram

There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers. Everyone has to find out what works for them, and stick to it, turning up every day, even when it seems impossible. For me, the most useful things I do are drawing and looking at pictures, and thinking, all the time, what could happen next? It’s certainly not an efficient way to write a story, and it’s also quite stressful, because without knowing where the story is going, there’s always the fear that you will not actually make it to the end. But if you believe in your characters and want to  find out what happens to them, you keep going. The quote I like best about writing is from the American novelist E. L. Doctorow: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far  as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

Picture 9: Creepy ventriloquist dummy

Judith Rossell is the bestselling author–illustrator of the multi-award-winning Withering-by-Sea. Judith has been an illustrator and writer of children’s books for more than 12 years. Before that, she worked as a government scientist (not a mad scientist, a normal kind of scientist) and also for a cotton spinning company (that made threads for T-shirts and denim jeans and mops and teabag strings). She has written 11 books and illustrated more than 80. Her books have been published in the UK and the USA and have been translated into more than 10 languages. Judith lives in Melbourne with a cat the size of a Walrus. Visit Judith’s website: judithrossell.com


2 thoughts on “Judith Rossell: Why some illustrators become writers

  1. Megan Higginson says:

    Hi Judith,

    I devour your books. They are so different. Probably because they are based in the Victorian era. And you do know how to spin a great tale. Ooo. Don’t kids come up with the best ideas. A weapon made from a rib bone of a child. Now there is a story. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.

Leave a Reply