Author and Illustrator Interview: Maggie Hutchings and Cheryl Orsini

Author and Illustrator Interview: Maggie Hutchings and Cheryl Orsini

Today I’m happy to welcome Maggie Hutchings and Cheryl Orsini to my blog. They wrote the gorgeous picture book Unicorn!, published by Affirm Press, that is heartwarming and hopeful and a sweet look at childhood friendships. Maggie and Cheryl will also soon release a companion title, Mermaid!, that sounds wonderful, too.

Let’s find out more about how Unicorn! came to be, as Maggie and Cheryl provide some insights into the book, the process of writing and illustrating it, and more juicy details…

Unicorn cover.jpg

Welcome, Maggie and Cheryl! Can you tell us a bit about your book, Unicorn!, and the themes/issues it explores?

Cheryl (C): When Luka gets sick her best friend promises to make her wish come true, but it’s not easy to find a unicorn. This is a story of true friendship, hope and a good deal of magic. 

Maggie (M): It’s a story about kindness, resilience and friendship. It’s also about the power of imagination in childhood and the bonds that grow with going through tough times together. Cheryl has added so much with her illustrations and completely understood the feeling I wanted Unicorn! to have.

Maggie, what was the inspiration behind writing this particular story?

I work with kids and families. The themes of kindness, selflessness, generosity of spirit and resilience are always present in my life.

How do you hope readers will connect with the book, and/or what do you want them to take away from it?

M: I think what strikes me now is that the protagonist works hard to get the gift that Luka needs. Sometimes we are so self-focused, we give what we want to give rather than what someone needs. I hope kids and grown-ups take away a sense of wonder … and develop a habit of checking under their beds in the morning just in case …

Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book?

M: Themes of working together and developing a sense of giving without expecting something back are great fodder for activities. Unicorn! also offers a chance to explore the magical creatures in our imaginations. A good activity might be to work with another child and draw or describe the creature they would like with them in tough times.

Did you both believe in unicorns as children? Or other magical creatures? 

M: I had an imaginary friend called Richard who was very real to me. I can still remember what he looked like. I can’t remember ever thinking about unicorns but horses were central to my childhood and to me they were magical companions. I certainly lived a great deal in my imagination and would have happily imagined all sorts of magical fabulous creatures in my games.

C: Absolutely, I still do! The ability to believe in magic and the mystery of unknown worlds is thrilling. It’s about submitting to your own imagination and having the strength to drown out the nay-sayers.

This book revolves around a beautiful friendship. What does friendship mean to you? 

M: I am so blessed with wonderful friends so friendship means a lot to me. I have been through illness and had friends who would have searched high and low for a unicorn if I had asked them to. I still have my university friends who are scattered all over the world. We meet every two years and I just returned from one of those trips feeling full to the brim with love.

C: I’m a big fan of friends, I collect them and keep them. I have a fascinating bunch of quite varied people I’m proud to call my friends. The common thread is a never-ending conversation, we pick up where we left off, even though sometimes it can be quite some time between cups of tea.    

Maggie, biggest challenges in writing this story, or in getting it published? 

Some stories take months whizzing around in my head but then often I find I can write them in a couple of hours. Unicorn! brewed for a while but turned out exactly as you read it. We didn’t edit one word. Affirm Press were the first to see the story and came back to my agent within a few weeks. It felt like a perfect little storm. The right book at the right time in the right publisher’s inbox!

Cheryl, any particular challenges in illustrating this story? And can you tell us a little bit about your process?

Honestly, I’m a little slow to get started. I’m a very talented list-maker, and I love a timeline. There’s a fair bit of time spent mapping it out before I really, seriously start drawing. Often I need to see the deadline looming before I really get cracking!

Unicorn! had it’s challenging moments – how to make that world ‘light up’ on the first spread stumped me for a bit. There were a lot of fireworks in the initial roughs for this spread. As I work through a book I tone it down and simplify.

Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share, with regards to working with the publisher and/or each other?  

M: I am very blessed working with Clair Hume and Davina Bell at Affirm. It’s been a dream run. I would say that it’s easy to forget how long it might take for books to move from the creative phase to the bookshops.

I really enjoyed seeing the artwork for the first time. I felt my heart might actually burst as Cheryl had made my words spring to life on the page.

C: Maggie and I have never met although I’m sure we’ll meet soon. I feel a great sense of responsibility to do the best job I can for each text I’m given. Particularly as this was Maggie’s first picture book, I really hoped she would like what I was drawing for her story.

Once the first draft of roughs is done, I cross my fingers and hope I’ve met the mark. The publisher, Davina Bell at Affirm Press, was wonderful to work with. This was my first book for Affirm and I really enjoyed the process.

What influences do you think shape your work?

M: My day job is a huge influence. I’ve worked as a counsellor for twenty years and feel so honoured to have been able to work through tough situations with my clients. My books often have a deep message about kindness and resilience. Also the things my grandkids do and say always keep me on my toes.

C: I love vintage children’s books from the 1950s. The old Golden Books illustrated and written by Richard Scarry and then the beautiful work of Mary Blair are my favourites. I love their use of colour and detail. There’s also a gentle humour that you can’t quite pin down.

Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?

M: I'm busy writing something for older kids at the moment. It’s nice to write something longer and more in-depth. I'm also super excited to say there will be a second book with Cheryl Orsini called Mermaid! coming very soon and one with Felicita Sala after that. I'm really dying to see what these wonderful illustrators come up with.

C: I’ve been working on the illustrations for Mermaid!, another wonderful text by Maggie Hutchings. I don’t want to give too much away – you’ll laugh and you’ll cry and hopefully get an insight into the magical world beneath the sea.

Do you have a favourite children's book (or top three) that you can never get enough of? What about a favourite book character?

M: I am a huge Eeyore fan perhaps because I work with depressed people a lot of the time. I just want to give him a big hug. So many others I have adored over the years but Matilda would have to be my favourite.

C: My top three children’s books are all by author illustrators: The Royal Guest by Tohby Riddle, The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan and Chicken Soup Boots by Maira Kalman. I have loads more but these three I come back to time and again. I love the humour and heart in each of these books. They inspire me to achieve this balance in my work. The exquisite illustrations are so beautifully crafted, attention to detail and simplicity, colour and movement, the skill of creating the perfect double page spread – wonderful!

What's something you wished you had known earlier in your career?

M: Be patient. I am way too gung ho. I want to share everything straight away with everyone! This is why my agent is my best investment as Tara is very good at saying WAIT a while and build slowly on what you have achieved already.

C: I was very hesitant to pick up a paintbrush when I first started illustrating, I didn’t think I would have the same control that you get working in pencil. My extraordinary friend and fellow illustrator, Edwina White, insisted I give it a go and after some stumbling I found my feet.

Best investment you've made during your career?

M: I love working on a laptop but always print out to edit. I did a Picture Book course with AWC online which helped me understand how to structure my texts. I found it really helpful. Best investment was my lovely agent Tara Wynne who has mentored me and been invaluable.

C: For years I would try different paper stocks, experimenting with textures and weights. Then I found Fabriano artistico watercolour paper 640 gsm and I knew we would be friends for a very long time. My art supply store buys it in especially for me – thank you Steve!

Where do you do your work, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?

M: I work at home. I can’t focus if there is anyone here or any kind of distraction. The method is … Make coffee. Wander round the garden. Make more coffee. Distract myself with Instagram. Make more coffee. Curl up on the day bed and write until the sun goes down. I write in my kitchen as I have a view of the Clarence river … and quick access to snacks.

C: I used to share studios, I love the camaraderie of fellow artisans, but I’ve worked from home now for many years. I like the freedom of fitting household tasks around work tasks in an unstructured way. Before I really get cracking with a book text I like to ‘procrasta-clean’ for a few days, it’s a valuable way to avoid pressing deadlines but also to get my house in order before the weeks and months of drawing a book.

What got you into creating books?

M: An absolute love of words. Reading them, writing them, speaking them. I love stories and the twists and turns of human lives. I have heard some incredible human life stories in my working environment but I’m always totally engaged and interested in how the next chapter might go. 

C: I was very fortunate; my first job after finishing Visual Communications at UTS was with a children’s publishing company as a graphic designer. A very well-known illustrator pulled out of a book contract and I put up my hand to offer my services. I’ve been illustrating picture books ever since.

Any tips for other creatives?

M: Keep creating from the heart but learn to take on feedback. You may have many rejections but learn from them. I have one rule for myself. For every rejection write another story and use the emotions as fuel for the creative fire.

C: Be brave and keep throwing your hat into the ring. Try not to look too much at the work of other people, you have your voice so let it sing!

What about a favourite word or quote?

M: Be your best kind self.

C: ‘And the air was full of thoughts and things to say.’ The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy.