November 7, 2017

Let's Talk Illustrators # 48: Natalia O'Hara and Lauren O'Hara

About a year ago, my friend Heather asked me if I's heard of Natalia and Lauren O'Hara, two British sisters who were creating a book called Hortense and the Shadow. I was so excited to follow along on Instagram and see sneak peaks of their book, and I fell in love when I finally received my copy. This interview was both a pleasure to put together and a long time coming, so I hope you enjoy!

About the book:
Hortense is a kind and brave girl, but she is sad — even angry — that her shadow follows her everywhere she goes. She hates her shadow, and thinks her shadow must hate her too. But one cold, dark night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, Hortense discovers that her shadow is the very thing she needs most.

Peek underneath the dust jacket here.

Let's talk Natalia and Lauren O'Hara!

LTPB: You both clearly worked very closely together on this book. How did the story come about? When did you decide this story would be best told as a picture book? How did you work together as a team? How did you work separately as author and illustrator? 

LO: We’d decided we wanted to make a picture book together, so Natalia came up with six or seven story ideas, and then we picked one. It was something we loved, and we thought we’d try it and learn about how a picture book is made, and then do a book that was more commercial and publisher-friendly later. It was a strange story and quite dark and we never thought it could ever be published. So it felt deeply personal, and we really poured ourselves into it.

We work together very closely. We’re constantly on the phone while I’m drawing. I take breaks so I can send Natalia photos of my work, and we talk them through. She reads me snippets of text. We don’t really see ourselves as ‘an author’ and ‘an illustrator,’ even though I never picked up a pen and Natalia never picked up a paintbrush, because the words and pictures flow into each other. Natalia sometimes suggests little visual jokes or ways that the illustrations can take the narrative legwork, and I give her thoughts on the text.

NO: When you say ‘worked together closely’ the only part I don’t really agree with is 'worked.' Making this book together was strange and wonderful, it felt like we were children again and playing a good game together. We got wrapped up in it and took it too seriously, but that’s how it goes with games. 

The story really comes out of our own childhood. We were both quite nervous and self-critical when we were little, and like lots of small girls we wanted to be perfect. I had an idea for a fairytale about a little girl who hates her shadow and tries to get rid of it, and it seemed like a way to explore what it feels like to be unhappy with the darker and wilder part of yourself.

LTPB: Lauren, what tools did you use to create your illustrations? What is your process like? How did you work to weave in your own visual story while staying true to Natalia’s text? 

LO: At the point we started working on Hortense and the Shadow I hadn’t ever worked as an illustrator, and I hadn’t done any illustrating since dropping out of my illustration degree five years earlier, so starting to work on the illustrations meant developing a style from scratch. I started playing with little sketches in ink and line, none of which felt right. Then we shifted to a snowy, Eastern European setting that I suddenly felt like, ‘Oh hey, this is what the book looks like!’ The style fanned out from there. 

I knew I wanted it to look a bit dreamy and icy, and the ink washes on wet paper worked well for that. Then I used acrylic to add detail on top of the inks. I sort of hate acrylic – it’s so gloopy and unwieldy – but it has exactly the right look.

Because Natalia and I work in tandem all the way along the process, the images and text sort of develop alongside each other. Natalia will draw up a framework for what needs to happen on each page in terms of the story, long before any text is written. So at that point we can discuss whether the text or the image is going to be telling the story on each page, or whether they’re working together, or whether they’re saying different things. It’s always nice finding ways of inserting little extra bits into the images that tell the story non-verbally, which both of us come up with.

LTPB: Natalia, where did you draw your inspiration from for the textual framework of the book? How do you pare down your text to allow Lauren room for visual storytelling? 

NO: The idea for Hortense and the Shadow came on a flight from Denver to London. I’d been spending New Year with my best friend and her family in Colorado. Maybe those beautiful, icy, lonely landscapes got into my head. 

The text for Hortense was always sparse. I wanted the book to feel quiet and solitary and a little bit mysterious. Having had lots of words would only have gotten in the way.

LTPB: What are you each working on now?

LO: We’ve just handed in our second picture book, and it’ll be coming out next Autumn. It’s fun and joyous and silly. It’s called The Bandit Queen, and that’s all I can say for now! But we couldn’t be more excited about it.

LTPB: If you could choose anyone, dead or alive, to illustrate your picture book biography, who would it be? 

LO: Ooh, good question. I have ambitions to become a Moomin: move to the forest, plant potatoes, hibernate out the winter and eat strawberry pancakes. So definitely Tove Jansson.

NO: Lauren. Ok that’s the worst answer, but who could illustrate my life better? She’s been with me the whole time, she saw it all.

Thank you so much to Natalia and Lauren for chatting with me! Hortense and the Shadow publishes TODAY from Little, Brown Books for Readers!

Special thanks to Natalia, Lauren, and Little, Brown for use of these images!

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