Our chat with Ali…
I’ve always wanted to be an illustrator and author. I drew all the time when I was a child, and made books by sticking pages together with sellotape. When I was around 12 years old my parents bought me an antique typewriter and I pretended to be an author called ‘Lucy Foxwell’. I’ve focused on illustration as an adult and the Harry Stevenson books have evolved from my work as an illustrator.
The Adventures of Harry Stevenson is my first foray into fiction writing, but I’ve illustrated quite a few books so I think of myself as an illustrator rather than an author and my most daunting moment concerns illustration rather than writing. I once took my portfolio of work from my Illustration MA into a publisher’s office, where an art director ripped it to shreds. It was hard at the time but worth it in the long run. The advice they gave me was to take any talent I had, never be satisfied, and polish, and polish, and polish it. I was sure I had something worth working on, and illustration was something that I’d wanted to do all my life, so I kept going (and am still polishing!)
My favourite children’s book was – and always will be – Danny Fox by David Thomson (together with the two other books in the series, which was published by Puffin in the late 1960s). Danny is a charismatic and clever fox who lives in a cave on a Scottish mountain, with his wife Doxie Fox and their three children, Lick, Chew and Swallow (and later, baby Choke). He has to live on his wits to feed his hungry family, who are not always satisfied with Danny’s offer of a story instead of food. His exploits are based on folk tales and include outwitting (then befriending) a poor fisherman, helping the fisherman marry a princess, and escaping from a hungry pack of wolves. I highly recommend these books if you can get hold of them, they are lovely stories and Danny is the most charming of heroes.
I would repeat what was told to me – take what talent you have and polish it and polish it. Seek out advice and listen to it. And don’t give up: it’s so important to have a creative outlet, whether you are published or not. It becomes part of your persona and the way you think about yourself.
I’m not very good at juggling writing and illustrating with the rest of my life, because I let these activities take over and I end up spending most of my spare time at my desk. I’ve recently finished writing and illustrating a picture book (along with writing the second Harry Stevenson book) and I worked every weekend and most evenings for five weeks. At the end of that time I felt terrible: unhealthy, unhappy and burnt out. I think this is a common problem, certainly with illustrators, and it has received attention recently thanks to a campaign by illustrators Orange Beak Studio. If you work at home there is no natural divide between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ so you have to make it yourself. It’s something I am trying to address because working all hours is no way to live. Also stepping away from work actually helps your process because it gives you a fresh eye.