May 8, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #69: Nancy Vo

Nancy Vo's The Outlaw is one of those books where I love every single part of it, and the more I study it, the more the little details pop out. I remember very distinctly falling in love with the typeface on the front (she and I talk about that later), but the quietness of the text, coupled with the muted illustrations, practically begs readers to take the book slow and ask questions about the motives of the characters and the moral of the book. Take a look at my conversation with Nancy about her debut and how she designed such a ominously prescient story.

About the book:
In this spare and powerful story set in the Old West, people in a small town live in constant worry of another visit from the Outlaw. Then the Outlaw suddenly and mysteriously disappears. Time passes, and one day a stranger rides into town. He takes it upon himself to fix everything that is in disrepair––the clapboard schoolhouse, the train station platform. He even builds a horse trough. But when someone recognizes him as the Outlaw, the crowd turns on him. It takes the courage of a small boy to change the course of events...

Let's talk Nancy Vo!

LTPB: First of all, a huge congratulations on such a unique picture book debut! 

NV: Thank you, Mel! I’m thrilled too. 

LTPB: The Outlaw is a pretty dense book, so in your own words, what is this book about? Where did the idea for this story come from? 

NV: Dense? Haha, and all this time I thought of the story as sparse. I suppose that is the great thing about books: They are no longer yours once they are out in the world. They belong to the reader and each reader has his/her own take away.

But to answer your question, the book’s main theme is redemption. 

The Outlaw was definitely a confluence of inspirations. It was 2013 and I had just finished reading the darkly funny, Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, watched the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit for the second time, and attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators) conference in Western Washington. Mac Barnett gave an inspiring talk involving Venn diagrams and advised us to recall things we liked as children. In our illustrators’ intensive, Sophie Blackall asked us to draw a shadow, and then pass the shadow drawing to the person next to us to draw what had made the shadow. I was more intrigued by the idea of the shadow as a finished drawing. Our imaginations are pretty good at filling in gaps.

With those percolating influences, I went home and made this illustration: 

The Outlaw began as an illustration without a story. When I finally put words to illustration, it was Eli in Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers who inspired the character of the Outlaw. In The Sisters Brothers, Eli decides to forego a life of violence and crime. But what happens when your notoriety precedes you? 

Setting also played a large role in this story. The Sisters Brothers starts out in Oregon City 1851, so I started my research there. This image of Willamette River, Portland, Oregon helped to anchor the stories beginning and ending: 

Roughed ink: 

Finished spread: 

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about how you created a custom typeface for the title of the book

NV: Early on, I settled on Clarendon for body text because this was a typeface that was prevalent in wanted posters. However, for the title, I asked for something that was the opposite of spot varnish - a spot “grit” if such a thing existed. Groundwood’s Art Director, Michael Solomon, suggested a deboss through letterpress – a fancy way of saying you can feel the imprint of the type on the paper. I found a local print shop, Black Stone Press, and they found old wood letters that were perfect for the job: 

Here is the press with the letters in lock-up: 

LTPB: The endpapers in this book are stunning. How involved were you in the design of this book? How do you use the endpapers as extensions of the central story? 

NV: I felt that Groundwood was very generous with its illustrators, allowing our ideas to be included. However, when something was not working, they were not afraid to say so. For example, the original cover on the dummy was rather minimalist and Michael suggested having a person on the cover. I went away and made two versions with the Outlaw on the cover. His advice was right because I am much happier with the final cover. 

Original cover: 

Final cover: 

As for the endpapers, they were meant to carry through the symmetry of the first and last spreads. You could say the endpapers are like the fade to black version of the spreads that follow and precede them. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? 

NV: I work with mixed media for most of my illustrations. The Outlaw was done in pen, watercolour, and acetone transfers. Watercolour allows for some looseness, and the pen can reign it in or add details that would otherwise be lost in a wash. Acetone transfer is a way for me to transpose findings from my research onto the illustration. In this case, newspaper clippings, fabric patterns, and bottle labels from that time period. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

NV: The Ranger is the second picture book for Groundwood. The roughs have been reviewed, and finished drawings are due by the end of summer (!) Here is a sneak peek at one of the characters: 

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who would you want to illustrate it (dead or alive!), and why? 

NV: Oh, this is a fun question! Can it be a biography instead? I’ve always liked the magical combination of Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Dahl would be responsible for all the dangerous but still funny scenes of being pursued by an enormous crocodile for its dinner, while Blake’s illustration would be exuberantly bright and over the top so that you could sort of forget the danger. That would be awesome.

A million thanks to Nancy for taking time to answers some questions! The Outlaw published last week from Groundwood Books!

Special thanks to Nancy and Groundwood Books for use of these images!

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