Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Kevin Sylvester

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Kevin Sylvester's desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Author and illustrator Kevin Sylvester is the creator behind the popular Neil Flambé series for young readers. The brand new instalment featuring the adventures of the young chef is Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse (Simon & Schuster Canada).

You can enter to win the first three books in the series, including Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse, by sending your name and address to contests@openbooktoronto.com by noon on Friday, May 11, 2012, with the subject line "Neil Flambé" and the answer to the following question: What is the title of the first Neil Flambé book?

Read on to hear how Kevin's work space impacts his process, and the many personal connections behind his work surfaces, art pieces and books.

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My attic studio is like my brain… messy and cluttered. (I hope it’s also fun and creative.) I spend a good twelve hours a day in here so it has taken on a patina of “kevin-ness”.

Some of the clutter is project specific. The fourth Neil Flambé caper is based in Japan, so while I was writing there was a map of the islands tacked on the wall over my computer. There were also postcards and woodcut prints. My screensaver was Hokusai’s The Great Wave. Stacks of guide books and Japanese cookbooks were stacked next to my keyboard.

The mess isn’t limited to the present. Inspiration, for me, often comes from connecting seemingly unrelated bits of images or ideas… bits of overheard conversation, a news story, a pattern of wood grain that appears to become a face the longer I stare at it.

So I make sure that when something strikes me, either visually or conceptually, I slap it up close at hand. Then my subconscious starts to piece it all together as I busy myself with what needs to be done by yesterday.

You can find clues for what inspires me all over the place. The ceiling is basically a collage of things I love. Tin-Tin is there, tacked into the drywall right next to a Maurice Sendak print. Medieval illuminated manuscripts sit next to pictures my daughters have drawn for me over the years. There are pennants for the Buffalo Sabres next to a map of Paris and an old publicity shot from a Woody Allen movie.

The bookcases are (over) packed too, with dozens of art collections, everything from Norman Rockwell to F.H. Varley. I’m a great lover of graphic novels and bandes dessines. My personal hero is Manu Larcenet and his series Le Combat ordinaire is among my favorite in any genre. When I need inspiration I just break into any of these and I’m immediately kick started to get to work again.

The furnishings are deeply personal. I write at one desk, which sits right next to the skylights we installed a few years back. The desk is a 200-year-old mahogany card table. The table sat for years in my parent’s living room in their 250-year-old farmhouse. If I could have bought the house and all the furniture inside I would have.

I couldn’t and this table is my daily link to that place and my family life there.

My drawing table tells a slightly different story, also about family. I was coming home from work at three in the morning, when I noticed someone throwing out an old oak teacher’s desk.

Every time I sit down to draw, I remember my wife’s shocked look as I woke her up to help me move the hulking mass before the garbage men showed up to haul it away. It’s missing a drawer and has bits of the veneer chipping away, but it’s part of my family story now, so it’s not going anywhere. I did add a table-top drafting board this year, which is really the top of an old Coleman cooler… also a family “heirloom”, come to think of it, that carried lots of hotdogs and cheese on various camping trips across North America.

As I’m writing this, it’s occurring to me that what all this is about is my desire for “richness”. It’s an elusive term… but I think I mean that I want more than the first look, or the obvious experience from life.

My desk isn’t a desk, it’s a link to my family, to my memories, to the conversations and shrimp cocktails we shared together.

My ceiling isn’t covered with just sports memorabilia or family photos. They mash up against each other, creating connections that don’t obviously exist at first glance.

Why is a young Evelyn Waugh peeking out at me from a postcard I put up next to a placemat I grabbed from the Café de Flore? I don’t necessarily know, yet. But as my eye goes from one to the other I know that both reading Waugh and sipping coffee in Paris bring me joy, both inspire my art and maybe both will finally meet somewhere on the page.

I’ll see what my subconscious makes of it all.

— Kevin Sylvester

Kevin Sylvesteris an award-winning writer, illustrator, and broadcaster. His books include the Neil Flambé series, Gold Medal for Weird and Sports Hall of Weird. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about Neil Flambé and the Crusader's Curse please visit the Simon & Schuster Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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