Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Interview with Lisa Horstman

illustration by Lisa Horstman

Lisa Horstman is an old friend I recently became reacquainted with through the internet. We both worked at Whittle Communications, a publishing company in Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1994 Lisa won the Dr. Seuss Picture Book Award for writing and illustrating
Fast Friends. She won $25,000! I was very jealous. I remember watching Connie Chung interview her on TV. I've been wanting to ask her lots of questions for some time, so here goes:

You both write and illustrate children's books. Do you enjoy one part more than the other?

No. I love to do both, and both are equally a struggle. Some people assume that because we do books for children, it's a day in the park and not hard work. This irritates me. There are days when I want to tear my hair out because nothing seems to come together, and other days when everything flows easily. The hardest part is working through those tough patches when all I want to do is take a nap or bother a cat.

When do your best ideas come to you?

At night, or in a state of semi-wakefulness. See? Napping isn't a bad thing.

Do you have to be in a certain frame of mind to work–or do you have work habits that you stick to whether you "feel like it" or not?

It depends upon if I'm working on deadline or not. The busier I get, the more I stick to a work schedule. Otherwise, if it's in the early stages of a project and I have the luxury of time, I try to wait until the muse takes over. Sometimes you just can't force it.

Do you share your work with anybody along the line–a trusted friend or family member?

Dave, my partner, sees everything first. One of my sisters, Pat, sees stuff early as well. My agent, Andrea, is also in the mix.

What projects that you've worked on have been closest to your heart?

Currently, I'm working on a book I'm writing and illustrating called "Squawking Matilda" that I'm having great fun with. I love working on the art for this book because it combines all of the creative skills I've learned in the last 20 years--puppetry, digital painting, sewing, sculpting, photography, and drawing. It feels right. Also, a couple of years ago I contributed cartoons to a book titled "The Smokies Yukky Book" that I had a great time doing because the publisher really cut me loose with the silly text that goes with the cartoons. It's not often you get to draw baby turkey vultures discussing the latest technique in projectile vomiting (their defense mechanism), or a queen bee saying to one of her worker bees: "Peel me a grape, big boy." I still can't believe I got away with some of the stuff in there.

What are you excited about now?

Getting a new president, although my expectations are limited.

I'm attempting to write some children's books. Do you have any advice for me?

Start by writing what you know as a way to share your life experiences. This doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't include new things you've learned, but that the core of the story itself should be based on things or feelings you've experienced in life. Really work hard to make sure your "voice" (or personality) comes through in your writing. Keep the words simple and clear, and remember you can cut words out of the text but include them in the art--not the physical words themselves, but the ideas behind them.

Does it ever strike you as funny that we do work for kids, yet we don't have kids of our own?

Not as funny as other people seem to find it. Yet I don't recall hearing about authors of murder mysteries actually killing someone to make their books more authentic, either.

Some of us just remember what it's like to be a kid a little better than others. I feel bad for people who don't remember what it's like being a kid at all. Also, giving birth or raising a child does not automatically make someone a children's book author. However, I truly admire women who can both create children's books and raise a family at the same time, or really any woman who can hold down a full-time job and raise a family. I know I couldn't do both.

I prefer to repeat the words Ted Geisel himself used to say: "You make 'em, I'll entertain 'em." To which I add: "Then I'll break out the candy dish, send them into a sugary frenzy, and deliver them home for you to deal with." I'm not an Evil Auntie for nothing!

Have you ever had to work during some sort of crisis in your life? If so, how did it affect your work?

Not yet--knock on wood. I'd imagine my work would be affected, though, if I could work at all. It would either be not work at all or use work as an escape from the crisis. I hear there are people who do their best work while going through a crisis, but for me I have a feeling I'd have no energy to work.

There are so many glimpses of my life in my work, at least according to one of my sisters. One of her favorite things to do is look at my artwork to see if she recognizes anyone from real life in the characters. In my first book there's a cow eating popcorn in front of a t.v., and she swears the cow looks like my mom. My dear mother looks neither bovine nor eats popcorn in front of the t.v., so I guess I inadvertently captured one of her facial expressions.

When you volunteered to help with the Learning About Diabetes website, you said, "Well, heck! I've been a Type 1 diabetic since I was diagnosed at age 13 in 1977. I'll help!" Is diabetes something that has had a huge effect on your life?

I suppose so, even though I tried to ignore it for many years. It wouldn't let me.

Has having diabetes had an effect on your work, other than jumping to volunteer to help others with diabetes?

Oh, believe me, I'm not that generous when it comes to volunteering to help others with diabetes. That makes me sound like a rotten SOB (or would that be DOB?), but it's one of those diseases where you have to decide to accept that you have it and learn how to live with it or suffer the consequences. You must do this before you accept help from anybody. Lots of people can try to persuade you to take care of yourself, but it won't happen unless you decide to break the denial.

I decided the best way I can help diabetic kids is by using my talents to tell my own story, showing them that I get through it and they can, too. I hope to someday write a book, maybe in graphic novel format if I dare attempt it, about being 13 and getting diabetes. That particular age is a tough audience for diabetes educators to reach. I remember being really pissed off all the time and ignoring my health because I just wanted to be like everybody else, not to mention puberty was slamming me on the head. You feel so out of control, and denying you have this disease is a way to feel in control, oddly enough. So you lie about your blood sugars and you eat whatever you want. I'm amazed I made it through high school without going into a diabetic coma at some point.

My next door neighbor has type 2 diabetes. We're never sure what a good "treat" is to take him. Any ideas?

Well, type 1 and type 2 diabetes are almost two completely different diseases in a lot of ways. He might control his blood sugars with exercise and diet, and maybe pills, too. Some type 2s take insulin, too. His pancreas may still be making some insulin, so it's kind of hard for me to say what sweets he could have that wouldn't affect him much. Type 1 diabetics can't make any insulin at all, and so they have to control blood sugars with diet, exercise, and insulin. Both types have to think about every morsel of food that goes into their mouths.

Something lots of non-diabetics don't know is that we're more concerned with carbohydrate amounts than we are with sugar in the foods we eat–not that we don't pay any attention to sugar at all. Does he have a sweet tooth? If you want to bake your neighbor something, you could try making a regular dessert recipe using Splenda instead of sugar. You use the same amount of Splenda that you'd use with sugar. I made a pumpkin pie last Thanksgiving with Splenda, and it rocked! Or maybe some fresh berries with homemade whipped cream sweetened with a little Splenda. Stevia, which is a natural sweetener, can be used too, but I think it tastes kind of bitter so I shy away from it. He might be okay with honey--some diabetics can handle it, some can't. It's so hard to say, because we're all so different!

You can also go the other route and bring a non-food treat. Last Halloween we gave out candy, but we also handed out little junky toys from Archie McPhee, which I think were more appreciated than the candy. The little toys were in a big paper bag, and the kids reached into the bag--without looking-for one toy. I suggested to Dave that maybe we should put in a few mousetraps or Chinese finger traps, but he'd have none of it. That boy is no fun.

Is there a movie you've really enjoyed lately? (Old or new.)

One movie I always go back to is Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"–one of my all-time favorite movies. I can watch "The Graduate" over and over again and laugh hysterically every time. I also love pretty much anything by Hayao Miyazaki. "Spirited Away" is amazing, and "My Neighbor Tortoro" is really wonderful. How many movies have a cat bus in them? A CAT BUS! Some day I'm going to sashay over to Japan and see the Ghibli Museum, which is dedicated to Miyazaki's work.

I also love "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken", an old Don Knotts movie full of quotable lines. But it's one of those movies that I think you have to have grown up with, because it would probably just seem dumb to someone viewing it for the first time. Gotta love Don Knotts, though!

Are you still crazy about your Kindle? After owning it for months, does anything surprise you about the way you're using it?

The Kindle rocks! For a couple of months I subscribed to The New York Times, and it was great having the daily edition waiting for me when I woke up every morning. Then I started getting really busy with work and didn't have enough time to read it, so I temporarily cancelled the subscription. Once things return to normal, I'll probably sign back up again. I've gotten a few books through Amazon as well as some public domain books through

At first I felt like I had ten thumbs when I used it, because I kept hitting the Next Page and Previous Page buttons by accident, but now it's okay. The weirdest thing that happened was once, when I was reading, I got to the end of the page and reached up to "turn" the page. That tells you that you can get lost in a story by using a Kindle just as much as using a paper book. I'll never give up paper books, though. My love of the smell of the ink and paper is indecent.

One thing some people don't get is that the Kindle is for reading. Period. It's not a web browser, it doesn't light up, it doesn't play iTunes, it doesn't stand up and cha-cha. It doesn't have to do this stuff–why should it? It's for book lovers. I love that I can haul a bunch of books around within this little gadget.

Most importantly, what's your favorite pair of shoes?

I will be mocked. I don't wear heels much because I can't stand wearing them. I'd rather be comfortable and dowdy. Oh, well. I have a pair of Born mary janes that I love. I used to have a pair of Born fisherman's sandals that I wore all of the time, but I made the mistake of wearing them at the beach and the salt water ate away the soles. %$#Buncharackinfrackin!

These are the Born shoes. They even come in puke green!

What's one of your favorite restaurants in Knoxville and what do you like to order?

There's a good joint called Taste of Thai way out in West Knoxville that's probably a favorite with us right now. They have really good Drunken Noodles. And The Tomato Head in downtown Knoxville is always, always delicious. Anything there is tasty. They know how to use garlic, pal.

Have you read anything good lately?

Right now I'm really enjoying "Armageddon in Retrospect" by Kurt Vonnegut. I want to start reading some David McCullough stuff–I love history and I can't believe I haven't read any of his books yet. Every once in a while I pick up "Democracy Matters" by Cornel West. I read a chapter and put it aside, then pick it up again later and read another chapter. It helps get me through some pretty dark moods. I also finished "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, which was absolutely hilarious.

Is there any THING you want, want, want?

I want a hobbit house to use as a studio. Preferably in England or New Zealand. By God, I'm getting one. This will do nicely, although I wish it had round doors:

Do you think you will start a blog?

Oh, but then I wouldn't be Lisa H, International Woman of Mystery.

What is your favorite curse word?

What, just one?