Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Colleen Sydor and Nicolas Debon

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Ten Questions with Colleen Sydor and Nicolas Debon

Colleen Sydor is not only a writer, but also works as a florist. In the last ten years she has won the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award three times. Nicolas Debon was born and educated in France. He has illustrated several books for European and North American publishers and has twice been nominated for a Governor General’s Literacy Award. Open Book talks to the author and illustrator about their new book, Timmerman Was Here (Tundra Books).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Timmerman Was Here.

Colleen Sydor:

Timmerman Was Here sprouted from a tulip bulb. Almost literally. Can you imagine any other gift you could bury on a chilly fall day, submit to a frigid prairie winter and still expect to one day shout “surprise!” in all its supple, unassuming beauty? Even better, what if the burying of said bulb was a random act of kindness — one requiring no thanks or recognition? A tulip of double beauty! Bingo! Story time. Without conscious direction, this story insisted on an “olden times” patina. In retrospect I think I had Jack Schaefer’s Shane buried in the back of my mind somewhere (like a tulip bulb) — someone with the bearing and dignity of, say, a Clint Eastwood character. That’s why I’m so happy with Nicolas Debon’s illustrations. He was able to convey an older time period while still maintaining a freshness that’s entirely endearing. Take a look at the dog named Harriet. Superb!

Nicolas Debon:

The young narrator lives in a small, quiet town. One day, a stranger comes in, looking for work. People are suspicious about him: where does he come from, what secret does he hide? Until, one day in spring, the whole town gets the revelation of Timmerman’s secret. This is a beautiful tale about our relationship to strangers: sometimes, we are afraid of someone simply because of his/her difference.

OBT:

Describe the collaboration process between author and illustrator.

CS:

It’s been my experience that zero collaboration goes on between author and illustrator (for this author, anyway). Once you hand that manuscript over, your baby becomes someone else’s foster child. However (yay!) this was not the case with Timmerman. The publisher, on behalf of Nicolas Debon (yep, never the artists shall speak), asked if I would consider ending the story slightly sooner than I had originally planned. I thought that was brilliant since this allowed the story to end with the three words which make up its title: Timmerman Was Here. So thanks, Nicolas! You rock.

ND:

First, Colleen wrote the manuscript of the story, which she submitted to our publisher. In general, as is the case for Timmerman, I have little interaction with the author and discuss my choice of illustrations directly with the editor. Except in the case of very specific or technical details, where the author’s input is essential, this allows more freedom for the illustrator. As an illustrator, I will tend to write my own story, using colours instead of words.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

CS:

My first published book was with Annick Press called Ooo-cha! illustrated by Ruth Ohi.

ND:

In 1999, I made the illustrations of my first picture book: The Moon Festival, published by a small Toronto-based publisher: Umbrella Press.

OBT:

What's the best advice you ever received as a writer/artist?

CS:

My very best advice came from Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” And I have a three inch folder of rejection letters to prove it. And if I thumb through those rejections, I can see an increase in actual handwritten messages from editors (mana!) with words of encouragement and direction. Never underestimate the value of one of those margin scribbles. They all spell the same thing: You are worth my valuable time and the ink in my pen, which, roughly translated means: “There’s hope! Never give up!”

ND:

Early in my career, I was told that my pictures “told stories”. As long as a piece of artwork “tells stories”, I think it’s on the right track.

OBT:

Which books made a great impression on you when you were a child?

CS:

Titles that jump out are: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, The incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford (Ms. Burnford was responsible for redirecting my earliest career aspiration — that of becoming a fire truck — into dreams of one day being a veterinarian!), and, when I was slightly older, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

ND:

Like many European kids of the last two or three generations, I have been influenced by comic strips, in particular Tintin.

OBT:

Describe your ideal work environment.

CS:

I’m a lucky cluck. My ideal work environment is the exact one I have. My office is in a corner of my large sunny bedroom which I recently painted five luscious colors. My computer is right beside the patio doors and I need only glance to my left to ask advice from the trees. The cats often join me, until they insist on walking in front of the screen or nudging my fingers from the keyboard with wet noses, and then they get the boot.

ND:

Illustrating picture books requires a little bit of space. I use two tables: one for writing/sketching and one for painting. Other than this... it usually takes me several days to “immerse” into a project: I have trouble working when too many things are in my mind.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

CS:

I would recommend The Diviners by Margaret Lawrence, If You’re Not From The Prairie, a children’s picture book written by David Bouchard and illustrated by Henry Ripplinger and, instead of a book, a CD by Leonard Cohen for their beautiful stories.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

CS:

Hmmm... dare I say? Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Wonderful!!

ND:

A small book the French painter Paul Gauguin wrote while living in Tahiti, entitled Noa Noa. This is a testimony of his experience of freedom, far from the civilized world. It’s written in a basic but powerful language: a little gem!

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers and illustrators who are trying to get published?

CS:

Well... an old jowly friend of mine once said: “Never give up!” I’d pass that gem on for sure. Also, in all communications, shine like who you are — that is, if you wish to stand out from thousands of other boring, submissions-correct submitters. This involves humility as well as spunk and verve.

ND:

For illustrators, just keep drawing what you like drawing the most; your style will improve on its own. It’s normal to receive lots of rejections at first... and even later in your career. Perseverance is the key word.

OBT:

What is your next project?

CS:

Here’s a clue: It will involve words, sentences and paragraphs. I’m sure my timely muse will inform me how to arrange them soon.

ND:

I have just released a comic strip (in French) about one of the first bicycle Tour de France; this was a great experience, and my French publisher invited me to work on another comic strip....



Colleen Sydor was born in Winnipeg and currently makes the city her home. A graduate of the University of Manitoba she is not only a writer, she also works as a florist. In the last ten years she has won the McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award three times.
Nicolas Debon was born and educated in France. He published his first picture book in 1999. Since then, he has illustrated several books for European and North American publishers and has twice been nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award. His graphic novel The Strongest Man in the World won the 2007 Boston Globe Horn Book Award for children’s nonfiction.

For more information about Timmerman Was Here please visit the Tundra Books website at www.tundrabooks.com.

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

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