Caroline Magerl – A Journey of the Heart
An interview at Boomerang Books Blog
By Romi Sharp
I am so honoured to have had the opportunity to learn more about the talented illustrator and author, Caroline Magerl, and to be able to share her rich and fascinating past, and present, with our readers. We also focus on her latest book, ‘Hasel and Rose’, also known as ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’; a story of hope, adventure, connection, magic, depth, and of love – these all intricately weaved into an exquisite story with powerful images that perfectly sums up some of Caroline’s most significant earlier years.
You’ve had such an interesting and rich history in terms of your upbringing and how you ventured into the illustrative and writing world. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from your beginnings to now?
As a young child, my family were migrants to Australia. My parents had come from the broken world of post war Germany. They arrived with an overbearing sense of grief, on many different levels. These impressions became a permanent presence that was not openly discussed. The old world had come along with us, baggage, as it were.
Our new home was in the dry fringes of suburban Sydney and it was fair to say we were not keyed into the new culture. My aunt tried to raise geraniums on the shady side of the house, despite the redback spiders. My father planted a pine tree dead centre in the front yard; as homage to our homeland. My parents began building a 45 foot steel yacht in the back yard which did little to aid our integration into the neighborhood; the escape pod…we were strangers and this was to be our new home. It was ironic to come to a new country just to find a way to float at a distance from its shores.
Occasionally packages would arrive in brown boxes, sent by my grandmother from behind the Iron Curtain. Oddly these packages (the tired brown box in the story of Rose) contained marvelous East German picture books, the pages of which showed a very different side of Germany. They were enchanting and saturated with an atmosphere and colour that I loved at first sight. It was incongruous to me that something so beautiful could originate from a land my imagination held as bleak. Importantly, they provided a different view of the culture we had come from. Here was a direct example of the impact books can have. At some level, I was asking questions.
Books eventually provided a vehicle for me to understand my past and explore my future. Around the age of seven, I began reading the works of Australian authors. I had lived in the country long enough to recognize their great love of the landscape in the words, the engagement with indigenous stories, the personality of the bush. When Patricia Wrightson wrote of small creatures up in the eucalypts stirring and rustling the leaves as if it were the wind, throwing down sticks on unsuspecting heads, I knew in my bones this was all true. Or that there would be a trickster in froglike shape who watches children from limpid green ponds, speaking with them when it chose to, or tricking them as the mood took. It was no odder than the actual wildlife and wilderness of Australia. What I was reading really clicked with my experience of places like Kuring-Gai Chase. Australian authors invited me into the place I lived, enriched my experience and led me further into relating to my new home and the people around me. Nothing could have prepared us for Australia, but these books were a path to relating to this place.
Looking back, I now understand that these works taught me how effectively and elegantly picture books communicate a world of ideas and emotions. This was something that could be made, built with paper and paint and was tremendously appealing. I remember observing this in practice when I saw the faith my daughter had in the structural qualities of sticky tape. Sticky tape and sheer will, could do all. My youth was spent living aboard my family yacht sailing up and down the east coast. This lifestyle afforded little space for possessions but books were my constant companions. There were literally weeks of nothing more than the three of us aboard. No TV, sometimes very few people or none at all as we travelled. The East coast was a lonelier place then. Reading gave me somewhere else to be.
I spoke about the two impressions of where my family had come from. The grey and grief stricken realities of my parent’s world were real, it was something I felt. I was also impelled to re-imagine my world and picture books showed me this could be done. Art and storytelling teach us to know that there are other ways to see things and if that is so, it encourages us to see for ourselves. That sustains like nothing I know.
What learning experiences and/or feedback have really helped you to practice and improve your craft?
I had wanted to illustrate picture books from those early days. Initially my interest lay in being a picture book illustrator and I must admit that I was not immediately successful in this endeavour. Even though, I had worked as a cartoonist and feature’s illustrator for magazines, newspapers, educational publishers, and had even started to sell my art through galleries, none of this seemed to sway the picture book publishers.
All this occurred at a very different time when emails and internet were new, personal approach was still best. I was a long distance from the centers of publishing so I began sending sample art in lightly fragranced envelopes to every publisher in Australia and waited, and waited, wondering why I was not immediately embraced into the fold. Thinking I was suited to the job was not nearly enough.
It was many years before I got my first break. An editor, who I had met years earlier, paired my watercolour style with a text by Libby Hathorn to re illustrate and publish in Australia. As I floated down the corridor with my first brief in hand, another editor stuck his head round the door and beckoned me into his office. So after years of frustration, I landed my first two jobs in one day.
The first book won me the Crichton award for best new picture book illustrator. Immediately after this I told myself that I was done with scented envelopes. I got on the phone to a highly respected Melbourne publishing house and boldly asked to speak with the art editor. I announced myself as Caroline Magerl, the artist who had just won the Crichton Award, and waited in expectation of a sharp intake of breath. Listening intently, I overheard the secretary announce me as ‘a Mrs Crichton on the line’, to the editor. I was getting used to how things were going to go. I now realize those years of working as an illustrator in other fields helped me to hone my work. There is no substitute for practice. Determination is also important. For most, success it is a long time coming and you have to just keep going.
Most of your books have been published as a joint collaboration between you, as the illustrator, and a fellow author. How does this process compare with that of a project you have written and illustrated alone, such as ‘Hasel and Rose’? Is one way more challenging than the other?
The working life of an illustrator differs from that of a writer. Unlike authors, I was not tied to any particular publishing house, and my useful life extended only as far as the timeframe of each particular illustration job. I could float from one publisher to another, and back again. Even though I provided what I considered to be a vital part of a book, its pictures, the prime mover was the author. All the wrangling was already done by the time I received a text to illustrate.
Again and again, I noted the marked difference between the operating styles of the producers of imagery, who tended to be quiet, poor self promoters living in hollowed out trees, as opposed to the far more vocal and able negotiators, the authors, not to mention the publishers themselves. That was how I perceived it as I contemplated never owning a hollowed out log of my own.
A number of years ago, I happened to be on a small yacht on a charming waterway near Sydney. On board was an author, a publisher and myself. The wind was blowing directly against us, from the direction of an island that we were heading for. I was at the helm, tacking toward the island as the wind was directly against us. Bear in mind, I had lived on yachts for 25 years had some ten thousand plus sea miles behind me. After some general banter about how illustrators are at the very tail end in the production of picture books, the publisher turned to me, irritated at my lack of direct progress toward the target, then pointed firmly at the island and announced, “That way!” Irritating as this day sail was for me, with its abundant metaphors….what I took from this was that ‘the me’ who paints was not a great negotiator or business person. I could do worse than learn from the others on the boat that day.
How did the story of ‘Hasel and Rose’ unfold? What was your process in bringing this book to life?
My creative method as an illustrator is to lie down. My best work is done that way. The text literally lives under my pillow for weeks with sketches completed at all hours. If I have to leave the hollowed log, the text goes with me. In a sense, my life is grafted onto and channeled into the story at hand. A good example of this was when I was illustrating a book titled Castles for the aforementioned author and publisher. I had decided to feature a sandcastle on the cover and had gone to the beach to build one, and then draw the result. As I beavered away, I had drawn the compassionate attention of an elder gentleman who offered to help me build my sandcastle. I scowled at his intrusion, did he not recognize a professional going about her business? He did not … and went away confirmed in his view that there are some very odd people about. This is perhaps why some creative people may seem a little unplugged from the here and now. It is down to your energy being diverted into Narnia, or wherever. Bear with us, we’ll be back with you shortly.
‘Hasel and Rose’ had rumbled along beside me for ten years, beginning with two sentences I had written in a journal. I wrote these quite spontaneously, and after reading them back to myself, I realized I had stumbled onto something that mattered deeply to me. I was stuck. Initially I approached an editor of a major publisher, and presented a journal in which the story was drawn in images, a storyboard if you like. The editor showed great interest at the first meeting and offered a contract on the spot. Before I had left that office she had begun to suggest changes, and sadly I must admit that I wasn’t confident enough of my writing to defend my work, it was too personal … I was at a fork in the road. If I accepted the offer of help, the contract and the book would have come out much sooner. Obviously, I did not follow that path and it cost me ten years. However what I learnt over those ten years was not so much how to write, but how I write and‘Hasel and Rose’ is the end result.
As an illustrator my starting point was to draw, however all the pictures in the world could not bring me the right words. Trust I drew a boxful of pictures. It was excruciating as my brain noticed my frustration and immediately fell back to my default, ‘Oh, you have a problem, draw a picture’. Doing something else, anything else, can be the only way forward at a time like this. I joined a Ju-Jitsu dojo. You won’t believe how much throwing grown men over your shoulders can provide creative solutions. When I was ready, I was grateful that my editor at Penguin, Michelle Madden paid out a lot of rope as I painfully inched toward something like a narrative. Her patience was invaluable.
At one point I tried writing in German, my native language, in an effort to find my voice. I noticed I expressed myself differently in German, and that told me to keep digging, it was there … somewhere. I had many pictures and many fragments of poetic text, the story was written twice. It was there but it took the form of a collage. I had a story in pictures, a wish thing endlessly travelling toward Rose. At the same time, I had also written a little tale on the side, about a lost toy which was quirky and had some humour, and better still a structure. Michelle put one and one together; here were the parallel stories. I almost heard the cry of ‘This Way!’ It made perfect sense. The experience of writing the story and the story itself became one and the same, and the stalemate was over.
May I also add that Michelle did this over her Christmas break. I often hear of people in the publishing business going above and beyond, so I would especially like to thank Michelle and Lisa Riley (Publisher) for their help and guidance with Hasel and Rose.
With reference back to ‘Hasel and Rose’, this beautiful story of displacement and friendship emerged out of great significance to your own past experiences. Can you tell us how this book is meaningful to you and what you hope readers will gain from it?
As I was writing this story, I remembered how as a child I drew much strength when holding a particular toy. It had somehow been nominated to provide protection and courage. This is something I have seen many other children do and is heart-warming to watch, but also deeply intriguing. It occurred to me that there is something significant to be learnt from these fleeting relationships.
During the years of writing Rose and the Wish Thing, I happened to see a boy tenderly carry a kitten in the hood of his jacket. We were on a Melbourne tram and he kept his composure by gently stroking the whiskered face at his shoulder, all the while under slander from other boys sitting nearby. This incident was instrumental in shaping a part of the story, that of Rose carrying the Wish Thing in her hood.
Finding the Wish Thing was just the start for Rose, her courage was there all along, but now it was engaged. The world outside her door is after all the object and desirable end to the tale of finding the Wish Thing. It is the friendship that happens once a Rose finds her place in the world, which is the less obvious but true focus of this story.
‘Hasel and Rose’ is soon to be released in the U.S. with the title ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’. Congratulations! How did this publication come about? How much input did you have in this international release? Besides the titles do the books differ at all?
The good people at Penguin Australia took ‘Hasel and Rose’ to the Bologna Book fair before it was released. While there a publisher at Double Day (Random House) noticed it and bought the North American rights. It was somewhat surreal to have an overseas contract signed before the book was printed. They requested a small number of changes such as the title. Double Day felt that changing Hasel into ‘the wish thing’ clarified the intention and had the added purpose of being less gender specific.
Over the years I have come to appreciate that published works are a collaboration of editors, publishers, marketing, art editors, designers and the list goes on. Most have years of experience and genuinely want to add to the success of the book. As the creator I will always fight for the intregity of my work but equally I would be foolish not to acknowledge professional direction when offered. All of this is an art more than science or perhaps it is better described as an awkward dance.
I will be travelling to America when the book is released in March to present at places such as the Mazza Museum, Eric Carle Museum and a selected number of bookshops. I must also mention Dr Belle Alderman of the National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature. Belle was kind enough to introduce my work to the Eric Carle Museum staff recently during her vacation in America. Once again, I find myself personally indebted and very grateful to know there are people such as Belle, in the Australian Children’s book industry freely giving so much of their time, effort and expertise.
Your illustrations are so gorgeously fluid and energetic, soulful and emotive. Do you have a favourite image from ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’? What was your creative thought process while illustrating the book? How does the watercolour medium reflect the story’s underlying themes?
I don’t have a favourite image as such. Each has a specific reason for existing. For example, if I start at the beginning;
Rose was a new face in a new street; her feet are not on the ground, she is in a space that is not hers. You are looking up at her in a large building… in a sense she is hanging onto the window sill, a floating feeling between a window in and a window out. There she hangs onto something, but it is not what she needs. To give the impression of loneliness, of being somewhere that was not home, I had a strong intuition to create a vignette as a floating image; a window into the story. It’s fleeting and you aren’t meant to dwell, its intention is to lead you in.
Watercolour was the obvious choice of medium. It was the first medium I saw in books as a child. I was fascinated by the simultaneous impression of overall harmony, and yet it was plain to see that that the image was built up in films and layers of colour. It had the ability to be evocative and loose, but also describe things in minute details. I didn’t know how it was done, only that it could be done and that there was great skill in doing so. I became obsessed with it and eventually taught myself.
This picture as with the rest of the story has a consistent palette which helped to maintain an underlying harmony. A very pale yellow was applied beneath all the images, which provided a sense of warmth throughout. The yellow is a very clear colour which manages to glow through the many layers which were laid over. I had great delight in floating the opaque bricks in mid air against the wall, where they sit almost magically against the building. The blue sky and red bricks are reminiscent of my early impressions of Sydney, where as a child; I was a new face in a new street. Leaving Europe where the sky covered as a blanket over the world, my new town appeared with a sense of blue immensity. For me, red and blue are emotionally charged colours.
Part of the visual narrative in this picture is the distant streetscape. This created a neighborhood atmosphere which is a major part of the story; there was something to be gained out there, something for Rose to gain, a promise of something. It wasn’t just Rose in a window; it was also an overlay of meaning and an unspoken agenda. Pictures have a very powerful role in telling the unspoken aspects of a story. Its language is in the colour, tonal value, perspective, proportions, expression, and in this case an understated yet obvious element, ‘a new street’.
Loose line work creates a spontaneous joy. There is a sense of exploration as the strokes create new vegetation, random birds, etc. They spring forward in the most charming way, but do come with the enormous risk of irreversibility. Line work reads beautifully and you can feel the energy of the person who drew it.
Equally but differently; Through a glass.
Some of the images in the story were defined as much from my frustration at not being able to pin the story down as the narrative itself.
In this image with views through Rose’s cardboard telescope, there is a series of tantalizing views before Rose sees the wish thing arriving in a box. This was engendered by a memory of watching the Sydney harbor pass by in a dizzying smudge, through the porthole of the yacht that was my childhood home. Nothing was still as the vessel swung on its mooring, things endlessly slipped by. These memories underpinned much of the illustration and in this case even the design.
Getting around your own habitual thinking is one of the hardest things in trying to create something new. I now use cardboard telescopes as a matter of course.
Are there any artists or other people in your life that have been your greatest influences in becoming the successful author / illustrator you are today?
In 2013 I was giving a presentation of my fine art at Debut Contemporary in Notting Hill, London. I took time out to visit some of the wonderful establishments around London.
One in particular was Chris Beetles gallery, a highly prestigious private gallery featuring illustrators past and present; Sir Quentin Blake, Arthur Rackham to name just a couple, so it was a definite must see for me. When I arrived the gallery’s large and somewhat impressive door was shut. I contemplated knocking and at that moment it swung open for a lady with an appointment (unlike me) breezed in. I sort of rode her slipstream through the entry.
It really is a jaw dropping place with so many extraordinary framed illustrations. To see some of the original works that I have loved since childhood, neatly stacked on the floor and crowding the walls was just unforgettable. I didn’t have time to take it all in, when in a slightly dazed moment Chris Beetles himself pleasantly materialized before me. After a short and somewhat nervous conversation, I found myself showing him some diary drawings from my yet to be published book, Hasel and Rose. To my great delight, he suggested that I send the gallery a copy of the published work.
In time, it came to pass that the originals of Hasel and Rose featured in the gallery’s 2014 ‘The Illustrators’ exhibition and I had the good fortune to attend the opening night.
It was magical to walk down the alleys of St James in the evening gloom and then turn the corner to see my illustrations brightly lit through the gallery window. A sort of Harry Potter comes true moment. It was a wonderful night where I met some fabulous artists and well known figures such as author Lord Jeffery Archer. I still consider this to be the most outlandish and wonderful good fortune to find my work in this exceptional gallery.
What projects are you currently working on? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
I am happy to say that I have signed with an agent, Ronnie Herman who is now touting my latest texts to American publishers. The hope and aim is to have a book with simultaneous release in Australia and America, but as you can image that is easier said than done.
I have my fingers and toes crossed at the moment.
All the best with what sounds to be an exciting year ahead!
Thank you so much, Caroline for this wonderful opportunity to get to know more about you and your fascinating work!
It was my pleasure and many thanks for reading.
Romi Sharp is a primary teacher, children’s writer, picture book reviewer, blogger, mother of two young girls… and a child at heart! So being surrounded by a world of kids’ books feels perfectly natural. She enjoys networking with professionals, sharing ideas and learning about current trends in education and the literary industry. Romi is passionate about sparking children’s creativity and global awareness through a range of learning experiences