Today it’s my pleasure to interview both Carmela and Steve D’Amico, author and illustrator of the Ella the Elephant series, Ella the Elegant Elephant, Ella Takes the Cake, Ella Sets the Stage, and Ella Sets Sail. I’ve just reviewed these adorable books and suggest that you read the reviews prior to this interview so you’re clued in. And this interview is so much fun because it’s like a two for one! You get both Carmela and Steve!
Maw Books: Welcome! Would you both take a moment to introduce yourselves and share a bit about you.
Carmela D’Amico: I’ve been writing since I could read. I love reading, hearing, telling and writing stories. I feel so very fortunate that I get to do what I love!
Steve D’Amico: I was the school “artist” at my elementary school, drawing dinosaurs, hot rods and superheroes for the other kids. I became the cartoonist for my high school newspaper and then went on to study design and art in college. I was a window display artist at Macy’s for almost 10 years, where I met and married Carmela. She was a writer and I was an illustrator, and we were both very interested in children’s literature…so a book was bound to arrive sooner or later.
Maw Books: My husband is also an artist. You seriously are giving me ideas that I’ve never thought of before! Most authors do not collaborate with the illustrator for their picture books. But you have the advantage of being married to each other! What is it like to work together on the Ella series? What are the advantages and the disadvantages?
Carmela D’Amico: The advantages are vast. When I write a picture book, I write in such a way that half or more of the story will be told via the illustrations. I’m a very visual/conceptual thinker so this comes pretty naturally to me. I have shown picture book manuscripts that are text alone to friends and editors alike. Even though I include a description of what will be happening visually on every page, it’s hard for others to see what’s going on in my head. (Imagine that!) Often when an editor or friend sees the illustrations later on, they’ll say things like, “Oh, I never realized THAT was what was going on.”
Steve and I know each other so well and we’re so symbiotic when working together, he can practically pluck images out of my mind and render them onto the page.
Steve D’Amico: Working as a team we’re able to make adjustments and revisions on-the-fly, before editorial input. Once we’ve cross-checked each others’ work and we feel things are solid, then we forward our work to the publisher. It’s a very synergistic way of working.
Maw Books: Who came up with the idea of Ella in the first place? Carmela or Steve? Did it seem a natural idea to tackle the project together or did you have misgivings in the beginning?
Carmela D’Amico: I came up with the idea of Ella. It definitely seemed natural to tackle the project together. We’d considered working on a children’s book together for some time.
Steve D’Amico: My contribution to the series was mostly visual, although we did brainstorm certain plot points together. The great thing about working together is that when one of us gets stuck, the other one is there to help out. I did all of the character and environment design work, but Carmela was definitely my art director.
We did have a few misgivings early on, not because we didn’t believe in Ella The Elegant Elephant as a story, but because quite honestly it’s not easy developing a creative working relationship within a marriage. That first book was a bit of a trial by fire, but once we figured out our roles and created a development system things came much easier.
Maw Books: Ella is a wonderful character; small, timid and shy but very eager and smart. How do you flesh out Ella’s character so she became alive for you?
Carmela D’Amico: By the time I started to write about Ella, she was already fully alive in my mind. I more or less watched her evolve as I wrote. I wish I could say something that would be more helpful to other writers. One thing I did do in the books that came after the first, was to always make sure that Ella was behaving in character. There were many times, while writing a rough draft, that Ella would say or do something that I’d later change because it didn’t seem true to her.
Steve D’Amico: I tried to reinforce through the pictures the type of personality Carmela gave Ella. Her features are extremely simple but also very expressive. She’s also fairly small compared to the other elephants, which kind of gives the impression to me of an underdog or someone who has to try a little harder.
Maw Books: What are your goals for the Ella series? What do you want children to come away with after reading one of your books?
Carmela D’Amico: We’re actually taking a little hiatus from Ella at the moment. We did four Ella books in four years. While that was exciting and kept us busy, I’m really enjoying branching out and working on other things at the moment. However, I do intend to return to Ella in a couple of years or so. Ella has been optioned for a TV series and if that comes to fruition I may do another book sooner. My Ella-goal du jour is to see her in a TV series. I think she’s a good role model for young children.
When a child comes away from an Ella book I want them to feel as though their their kindest and most generous instincts have been affirmed, as Ella is an extremely kind and generous little elephant.
Maw Books: She’d be such a cute TV character! I hope that works out. I’m sure you have a lot of different stories planned for Ella. What makes you choose the stories that you did write about instead of any of the other ones that you could have?
Carmela D’Amico: I tend to choose whatever story moves forward with greatest ease when I apply pen to paper.
Maw Books: What are some of those rejected story ideas from your brainstorming and are there some stories that you are dying to share?
Carmela D’Amico: There’s one called The Perfect Present about Ella agonizing over what to get her mother for her birthday. And an Ella Christmas book that I’ve been tinkering with.
Steve D’Amico: There was another adventure planned where Ella and her friends play on an abandoned boat that had washed up on shore, only to have the tide come in and leave them stranded at sea. In the story Ella’s quick thinking saves the day, but Carmela and I got a little stuck with some of the story elements on that one, so we shelved it and went on to a different story. Who knows, maybe we’ll revisit it some day…
Maw Books: They all sound wonderful! Personally, I’d love a Christmas book. A birthday book would be a hard book to pass up as well. What led you to choose an island as the setting for the Ella series?
Carmela D’Amico: I saw the whole of the Elephant Islands in a daydream. I do a lot of my work subconsciously and will often sit back and close my eyes and just “see” what comes. This is how I dreamed up the islands. I thought, why not give this elephant a magical made-up world?
Steve: D’Amico: I loved Carmela’s idea of undiscovered islands…they could look like anything! I wanted to add a fantastical element to the geography, so after much sketching and deliberation I settled on cliff-like islands that were a cross between a flooded Grand Canyon and the islands of Halong Bay in China. The bridges that connect the islands were originally supposed to allow the elephants to travel between the islands during high tide. At low tide, they were all part of a single large island. That part of the environment was never described in the books, but it’s still part of the backdrop of the story in my mind.
Maw Books: I love the idea of low and high tide. Interesting to know what you’ve left out but feel as though it exists. If you’re roles were switched – Carmela was the illustrator and Steve was the author what would change about your books?
Carmela Di’Amico: I honestly am such a fan of Steve’s work, I don’t think I’d change anything stylistically.
Steve D’Amico: Ditto.
Maw Books: That just made my heart melt a little bit. Carmela, when you wrote your first book at the age of five, what was it about and do you still have it?
Carmela D’Amico: Sadly, I do not still have it. It was called “What I See” and it was about what I saw on my way to and from school each day. My mom and I would cut through an orange grove to and from school, and the book was mainly about how the oranges smelled and looked and tasted.
Maw Books: And what do you love about writing so much? Especially writing for children?
Carmela D’Amico: It’s a challenge for me to fit my thoughts into words because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a visual thinker. I tend to feel that words limit how we perceive our experiences more than they illuminate or augment them. This being said, words are the most effective tool we have to share our experiences with others. We primarily do this through stories. I guess you could say that, above all, I love the challenge of writing, of trying to share experiences, through words, with other human beings.
I am constantly surprised by how challenging is to write for children! When writing for children you must simplify without dumbing down. Children are wise and they know right off if they’re being talked down to. Boiling a story down to its essence is essential to writing for children and it’s also what I love most of all about the process.
Maw Books: What were you like as a young reader? Who are some of your favorite authors and a few books that you think nobody should miss?
Carmela D’ Amico: I went through phases with reading. Sometimes I would read constantly for months, other times not as much and I often would read the books I loved over and over again.
“Mandy” by Julie Andrews really captured me when I was child, as did “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I loved stories about young children who had a private little world all their own because I sensed the similarity between them and me. I didn’t have a little abandoned house in the woods or a neglected garden, but I kept to myself very much as I child. My mind was my “private world”.
I loved “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White. Wilbur possessed such naive sweetness and Charlotte such a worldly astuteness about things. I loved how their friendship evolved through the conversations they had. The way E.B. White wove the seasons in and out of the story and his poetic details about nature were a mesmerizing backdrop.
I loved everything Dr. Seuss from preschool age on. By the time I was in college I was able to recite “The Lorax” by heart from beginning to end, and “The Sneetches,” too.
Maw Books: Steve, you’ve drawn your whole life. Would you share with us what you were like growing up, why you enjoy working as an artist and what you do when you’re not collaborating with Carmela?
Steve D’Amico: I got a lot of encouragement and support from my parents and relatives when I was very young. I always assumed I’d be an “artist” one day…that’s what they told me!
I was bit of a clown in school and didn’t belong to any particular clique or group, really. I was fortunate to have pretty wide acceptance from most of the kids, who regarded my drawing skills as almost magical. In reality I just practiced a lot…even when I was supposed to be studying, I’d be doodling on a Pee Chee folder or drawing for a friend.
I work at a studio in Seattle called Smashing Ideas where I design games and websites for kids. I’ve done projects for Nick Jr., PBS Kids and The Disney Channel, to name a few. I also do quite a bit of freelance illustration. I just finished a job for Starbucks’ new training manual. I do quite a wide range of stuff, you can check out some of it on my blog at http://stevendamico.blogspot.com.
Maw Books: My husband also grew up as an artist. Like you, I’m very happy his parents didn’t discourage his dream to live as an artist although they were apprehensive. Luckily, he’s an animator and I hope he’ll always be a working artist. Steve, your illustrations have often been compared to H.A. Rey and Jean de Brunhoff. Who are some of your favorite artists/illustrators? What were your main influences in how you approached the illustrations for the Ella series?
Steve D’Amico: I’m always flattered when I’m compared to greats like Rey and Brunhoff, it’s really quite gratifying. The Ella books represent my first foray into charcoal as a medium. Prior to that I usually used pen and ink, because I am such a big fan of comic art. I’ve always been a huge Charles Schulz fan, I became very immersed in the world of Peanuts at a young age. As an adult and an illustrator I’ve gained a new appreciation for Schulz’s draftsmanship…he was a genius as an artist and a storyteller. His character designs were probably an influence on the proportions of the Ella characters to some degree.
H.A. Rey’s rendering style was influential. I used a similar charcoal and wash approach.
I love Dr. Seuss, of course. My siblings and I used to memorize entire pages of his books.
Going a bit further back, I love the pen and ink work of John Tenniel, who did the Alice In Wonderland books. Windsor McKay (Little Nemo In Slumberland), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Jack Kirby (The Fantastic Four, Captain America), Alphonse Mucha, Maxfield Parrish, Maurice Sendak, Ludwig Bemelmans…I could go on and on.
Maw Books: What are your work spaces like and do you have any writing or illustrating rituals?
Steve D’Amico: I need clean open spaces to work in. Too much clutter makes me claustrophobic, work-wise.
I tend to sketch and re-sketch my illustrations several times before committing to charcoal. I think a lot about where to put the “camera” and how the drawing will work in the flow of the book layout. Will it be a spread or a spot? Will it bleed off the page or not? Where should the page breaks go? There are a lot of considerations for each illustration if the series of pictures is going to hang together well and assist the rhythm of the story.
Maw Books: Ella’s favorite dessert is Zanzibar Cake. One of my favorite features on my blog is to ask authors to share a recipe with us, especially if it appears in their book and then I’ll later try to make it. Would you share with us why Zanzibar Cake is her favorite cake and where this recipe came from?
Steve D’Amico: You can download the Zanzibar Cake recipe from the Ella website: http://www.ellatheelephant.com.
The recipe was actually given to us by a lady who made it for one of our bookstore appearances here in Seattle, and it was DELICIOUS. If you try it, you’ll see why it’s Ella’s favorite!
Maw Books: I’m going to encourage everybody to go over to the website to download the recipe! I’m certainly going to try my hand at it and highlight it later here. What do you do outside the world of books and design/illustration?
Steve D’Amico: Haha…not a lot, these days. I’ve been pretty booked, so I’m glad that I love my work. I go running for exercise do odd home improvement projects and we have a fairly active social life. We both love to travel, we’re planning a trip to visit Carmela’s relatives in Italy next year.
Maw Books: And what are you both working on right now?
Carmela D’Amico: We’re currently working together on a picture book called SUKI the Very Loud Bunny.
I’ve been at work on a novel for several years now and hope to have it finished it by 2010.
Maw Books: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the readers of the Maw Books Blog?
Carmela D’Amico: Thank you for having us!
Steve D’Amico: Yes, thanks so much!
Maw Books: My pleasure! Thank you!
Thanks again to Carmela D’Amico and Steve D’Amico for appearing, courtesy of Provato Marketing, for other stops on the tour please check www.provatoevents.com. And visit the Ella the Elephant website.