March 24, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #137: Clotilde Perrin

It was a total dream come true to talk to author, illustrator, and paper engineering ingenue Clotilde Perrin. The tone of Clotilde's work varies depending on the book she's illustrating, but my favorites tend to be her oversized books full of sinister characters with lots of places to hide their secrets. In today's interview we discussed The House of Madame M, another in a long line of Clotilde's mesmerizing and interactive books now available in English. Enjoy!

About the book:
Are you lost? Come in. You're in luck--there's no one here just now. Shhh . . . Be as quiet as you can, and very, very careful.

In The House of Madame M, we explore a strange house: hallway, living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Each room is full of surprises to make even the bravest shiver. Are we in the house of an ogre? A witch? Something else altogether?

This large-format, lift-the-flaps visit to Madame M's brings the thrill of finding what lurks in the wardrobe, behind the door, tucked under the furniture. Full of humor and detail, it will mesmerize readers of all ages.

Let's talk Clotilde Perrin!

LTPB: Like many of the books in this loosely-knit series (Inside the Villains, The Brave Ones), The House of Madame M has a very sinister look to it. How do you choose which stories to tell? And why do you keep this “sinister” look?

CP: During my childhood, I remember seeing scary images. The representation of monsters by Etienne Delessert in particular. These were images that, paradoxically, I loved to see again and again. I could contemplate them for hours. They grabbed me, as if by looking at them I tamed them. I also remember reading Jan Pienkoski’s Haunted House, playing with its pull tabs and flaps, seeing this scary gorilla moving, hearing the saw creak in the attic… If I am an author and illustrator, it is to make books that I would have liked to see and read when I was a child. And since I like questioning images, those which can be disturbing, it is almost natural to approach the subject of death or tales which are sometimes very cruel. The funeral images (The Dance of Death, vanities, cemeteries) is very rich. When I produced The House of Madame M, I researched it with pleasure. When we speak of death, we also automatically speak of life. In this book, it’s just an interior that you pass through. My hope is that this work is a first step in order to bring death into our world. I am not speaking of mourning, just death. And if we laugh at it, it’s perfect! Edward Gorey’s images have long transported. These cruel atmospheres speak to me, as in the tales for the book Inside the Villains

It seems that humans need to be afraid to build themselves. Horror is an important genre; it turns dark truths into something beautiful so that we can accept it. I always wonder why so many people go on scary rides screaming but come out smiling! They are happy to have gone through their fear, to have been capable to. 

LTPB: How do you map out your books, with all of the flaps and pull-tabs? What does your storyboarding process look like?

CP: When I plan to make a book, I have to feel free to do what I want with it. At the very beginning of the creation of a book, I do not give myself any constraints. This is something that I will work on for 6 to 8 months. Often there is a connection to what I experience. My grandmother died and three months later, I proposed to my editor to work around death. I do not hesitate to search quickly for a particular format or a strong idea. I research a lot; I explore answers to my uncertainties. I write a lot, make small sketches. Then I start to cut, paste, tape, put in the trash, draw, cut again, paste again, and again until there is a result which seems correct to me. Often, I write a lot of notes over and over, and the notes in my notebook feed me. My only goals are to be clear, funny, clever, mischievous, and finally, that the book awakens something I would have liked when I was little. A lot of readers ask me if it is difficult, it is not because we do not dare that it is difficult, you have to put your hands to the dough. And it is what I like best about this job: searching and still searching like an explorer. I often say to myself “But what book can I do well that doesn’t exist yet?” The last constraint comes when I present my model to my editor. We see together what is possible and what is the cost of its manufacturing. There, I have to make choices, give up certain discoveries, but a paper engineer often comes to my aid at that time. 

LTPB: Similarly, why are your books so large? What do you think the oversized format contributes to the experience of reading your books?

CP: In the children’s edition, what is really fantastic is that you can create incredible books that everyone can get a hold of. Before I start a book, I put myself in the shoes of my reader and image myself reading it, watching it. I visualize it in my hands as an object. A book is alive because these pages move, its paper gives it character, it even feels something whether it is brand new or old. I am looking for what emotion, what feelings I would like to experience. So by choosing these large formats, I wanted the reader not to be cramped in handling. The paper shutters must be wide, while having others more intimate (objects in pockets, small windows, like little secrets.) As if I was putting on a show for my readers where they open it and they feel caught up in what is going on inside this object. As if I said to them: “Come with me,” I feel a little bewitching. 

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

CP: A few things I use are paper, glue, scotch tape, scissors, a black pencil for the shadows, a mechanical pencil to make the fine and precise lines, a little ink for the vegetation, and my computer for the colors. I generally keep the same material to make all my books. I don’t want to change because it’s like I found my writing. Now, what I like is to make the writing speak, to give it life. 

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

CP: Right now, I am preparing two projects. The first will be a story of a little boy with a suitcase. He is going to leave his home, travel the world, and end up at his home again. But what is going to be in his suitcase? In this project, I have sought the absurd, the nonsense in the manner of Edward Lear. Something surreal too. There will also be reading through paper flaps… again and always! My second project in the making will be a great book that will feature fifty or more amazing, incredible children. A child upside down, a flying child, a tiny child, an electric child… But it’s still a secret and I still have a lot of work to do. 

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

CP: I wish Edward Gorey would illustrate it. He is a master for me. I feel close to his fine line, his strange atmospheres, his thoroughness, his cruel and sordid world. They are not really for children, but not really adult either. One place I dream of visiting in the US is the Elephant House on Cape Cod where he lived. Maybe soon, who knows!

A million thanks to Clotilde for taking time to answers some questions -- it was such an honor to chat with her! The House of Madame M publishes next week from Gecko Press!

Special thanks to Clotilde and Gecko Press for use of these images!

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