Photograph portrait of Vivian Schwarz inside an illustrated picture frame. To the right of the picture frame are illustrations of pencils, painbrushes, a pencil sharpener with shavings, paint palettes and an eraser. These are on a purple backgroud.

Interview with Viviane Schwarz

Hear from Viviane Schwarz, author-illustrator of How to be on the Moon, about how she dreams up new ideas and develops characters.

What are your childhood memories of exploring books and illustrations?

I've got very early memories of books. My mother regularly took me to the library to borrow stacks of picture books, and I remember reading them in the corner where I slept. My earliest clear memory is of making a tent of the net curtain by my sleeping place and reading The Happy Lion in it.

Apparently I ate books when I was a baby, before I could talk, and my mother still let me have them –  when I asked her about that she said ‘You always laughed so much when you held a book, and you always read them before you ate them’.

My parents helped me make my own books early. At first I dictated stories to them and then drew pictures underneath their writing. We collected them in a binder, and my father still insists that it was my best work to date (I disagree). I also had a large blank notebook in which I created a graphic novel over the years, starting on a holiday when I could not write yet and carrying on intermittently until I was a teenager. It chronicles the love triangle of a mouse, a hoop that she likes to play with but which keeps rolling away, and a cat who covets the hoop. The mouse only really cares about the hoop whenever the cat finally gets hold of it, and recaptures it every time. There are a lot of settings, creatures and vehicles involved.

Did you enjoy drawing when you were a child?

I found it absolutely necessary to draw. I am not sure that I particularly enjoyed it, but I realised very early that drawing is the way to put your thoughts on paper to communicate them. I often found it hard to communicate with people, and decided to get good at writing and drawing, because it is easy to ignore when thoughts are spoken, but if they are on paper, they persist until acknowledged.

What was your favourite book when you were a child?

I don't really have favourites – I lived within an abundance of books, the ones that my family collected which were lining the walls, the library books, my own. The most important books I remember were my pop-up book collection, and the Wonder Book series of illustrated non-fiction titles. Of those, The Wonder book of Time and The Wonder Book of the Microscope were probably the most important to me.

Which authors and illustrators have influenced your work?

Looking at my drawings, I can see some strong influences, and all of them come with early memories of looking at particular books, also some fine art. I don't know why some of them chime more than others, but as a child I felt a fierce love for some drawings and a physical disgust for others. These days that has translated into a fondness for the one and a disinterest for the other. There are certainly echoes in my work of Tove Jansson, P C Giovanetti (he drew a character called Max the Hamster which I loved) and F K Waechter (a famous German cartoonist). 

I am not sure about particular authors or writing, I have absorbed so many words in several languages that I can't say how it's all landed in my head.

Moomin, Mymble and Little My by Tove Jansson

Double page opening. Full page illustrtaions. Moomin walks on a white path through A forest scene shades of blue. Text is in a box towards the bottom right hand corner.

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Usage terms © Moomin Characters™ (1952), Tove Jansson. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
Held by© Moomin Characters™ (1952), Tove Jansson

How do you develop your characters?

I draw them and draw them again, I ask them questions and imagine their replies. After a while I know them very well, and I might imagine them walking along with me when I am out and about. I can nearly see them, and know whether they'd jump on top of a wall and balance along, or stop and stare at a window, get frightened at a car or run around a tree. I like to chat with them in my mind and imagine their replies, see their expressions, discover what they find boring or sad and what makes them laugh. They are good company.

To begin with, they are just shapes, but they fill in.

How to be on the Moon by Viviane Schwarz: notebook, sketches and printed book

Double page spread. Notes and sketches are scattered across the pages. The handwriting is done in various green and red inks. Some of the sketches are only line sketches while others have been filled in with colour and other details.

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Usage terms Copyright © Viviane Schwarz
From HOW TO BE ON THE MOON by Viviane Schwarz
Reproduced by permission of Walker Books Ltd, London SE11 5 HJ

How do you dream up new ideas?

I go on long walks, often with my best friend, and we talk about the world. Sometimes I have an idea then. Sometimes things happen that make me angry or sad and I have to work out how to think about them and what to do, and then ideas for stories also appear. The more life I live, the more ideas come up. I've learned that part of my job is just to be alive and pay attention. That sounds like an easy ride, and sometimes it is, and that's good. Sometimes it isn't, and people tell me I am thinking too much, then I have to say that thinking is my job. If I don't work out how to deal with difficult things, how can I ever have useful things to say? I might still have beautiful and fun things to say but the stories I loved as a child were those that seemed like someone had to work something out first to be able to tell them.

Can you tell us about your paint brushes? 

I love paint brushes. I love ink! If you have ink, everything becomes a drawing tool. Everything you dip in ink and move across the paper has an innate voice. I make my own brushes by collecting small things with good inky voices, like tufts of hair, grass, feathers, fibres or even small shells, and fixing them to sticks and tubes and anything that serves as a handle. 

I also buy brushes sometimes, expensive ones if I want a clear, neat inky voice, and children's brushes if I want to paint something that a child might paint. I remember how frustrating it was to try to paint as well as all the artists whose work I saw in picture books while I only had the kind of brushes they give you in primary school. One day, an art teacher gave me a fine sable brush, and suddenly I could make marks that looked the same as those of skilled artists (I couldn't put them together into a whole picture yet but I recognised them). Tools are a wonderful thing, just as wonderful as musical instruments.

How has autism had an impact on your work and your creativity?

It must have done, as it is what I am every day. I can only guess by comparing myself to other people and noting what I do differently, or what I have in common with other autistic people.
I think that my curiosity about how things work is particularly strong, and my fascination with texture. I feel like I think most clearly with my hands.

I've got a strong sense of how other people express their emotions – I've often heard it said that ‘a smile is in the eyes’, and I don't understand that at all. When I see someone smile, I will notice things like that their ears are moving up slightly, they change their whole body position and breathing, I can see that they are thinking what to say next that expresses how they feel, I see that they turn their feet inwards if they want to curl around their happiness or outwards if they want to let it out it into the world. I don't notice particularly much about their eyes. Smiling people often nearly close their eyes and show their teeth, sometimes it's quite a frightening face and I'm not sure why they want to look like that in photos. I find other expressions just as interesting and beautiful, and I think that's led to me observe them and to be able to draw them easily and with a lot of nuance.

I find the world very curious, and question and notice things all day long. It's very tiring at times. I need to rest up after socialising, and I get overwhelmed in most situations that are set up to be enjoyable for people. For example, if I go to a museum I feel sick if I try to look at everything. I like to just walk through hardly looking, avoiding getting overwhelmed, until I find something I want to think about, then I look at that thing until I feel I have it set in my mind, and leave. Other people sometimes think that means I am not enjoying the exhibition, or that I don't really care. They don't realise that I am taking it all in quickly and that I've absorbed one thing with great concentration, and connected it up in my mind to everything that's already there, and that this thing has become another building block of my own world now.

It's good that I can decide on my own working times, and that I do not need to work with other people every day.

Do you get writer’s block or make mistakes?

All the time! It's impossible to work creatively and never make mistakes. It's like those videos where someone does something amazing and just walks off as if it was nothing – they have to try it hundreds of times until it comes out just right. Although some of the time it's also just really easy to do something that I've spent all my time learning, and I make no mistakes at all, but that's not better, just faster. 

Do you build up relationships with your characters?

I do! Like I said, they often become like real creatures to me. That doesn't mean that I can't change them. They are perfectly fine with being changed around completely, it's fun. When I started out, I got very upset when people edited my work and told me that they did not like my characters in some way, because I could always remember who I based those characters on, usually myself or people I loved, and so that hurt. But over the years, my characters became more independent from the people who inspired them, and it is as if they started to enjoy the challenge – and to be more cute! Be less cute! Be more evil! Be more angry! Don't be a crocodile! They just accept all this and try it out. It's me myself who sometimes says ‘hang on, I think that's not right’ sometimes, but they have endless enthusiasm and patience.

Banner image: © Ella Kasperowicz

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