Interview With Author/Illustrator Rowboat Watkins!
It started with a cake…
I recently read a fantastic post on the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog (what post isn’t fantastic on that blog?). It started with a drawing of a cake with a very realistic looking face. How a cake could have such a realistic looking face intrigued me, so I read on. It turns out the creator of the cake is an author/illustrator named Rowboat (awesome name, right?) Watkins and that he has written and illustrated a picture book called Rude Cakes--which has just been released from Chronicle Books. Between, the picture of the cake, the name of the author/illustrator and the book itself (who wouldn’t want to read about rude cakes?), I knew instantly that I needed to interview him.
So, without further ado, please give a warm welcome to Rowboat Watkins!
Hello Rowboat! I just have to say that I love your name!
Thanks. It's my wife's doing. She's been calling me Rowboat for eons.
Lucky. My husband usually only calls me Carissa…and sometimes Hey You, but I guess he could call me worse things ;)
Q: How did you come to be a children’s book writer and illustrator?
A: Beats me. I've always liked drawing and making up stories. And I've always LOVED picture books. And making things out of bits of nothing. And I've never had a clue what I wanted to be. Have kind of fudged my way through my whole entire life. Word of advice…don't fudge your way through your whole entire life. Then somehow, sometimes, you fall into the center of the event horizon you've been mindlessly orbiting around forever. And then that's that. Because there's no escape. I have no idea what I'm talking about. I am going to blame it on being in the middle of a black hole.
I know what you’re talking about. I fell in about six years ago :)
Q: How long have you been writing/illustrating for children?
A: I don't know if I write or draw for children. I mostly write and draw for me. I barely have any idea what's going on in my own head most of the time, so I can't really imagine what's going on inside someone else's. Much as I wish I could. And have tried. Fruitlessly. Whenever I make something with someone else's thoughts in mind, it inevitably sucks. Royally. So I try not to do it.
That’s really for the best. If you were trying to write for somebody else, we wouldn’t have this hilarious book!
Q: Who were some of your favorite children’s authors/illustrators growing up and how do you feel they have impacted your work?
A: Dr. Seuss. William Steig. Arnold Lobel. Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown. Richard Scarry. Quentin Blake. The usual suspects. I'm sure I've tried to copy (or wished I were) all of them at some point. But as terrible as I am at imagining someone else's thoughts, I'm even worse at trying to draw or write like someone else. Loving other people's work is such fraught territory. It has taken me so long to realize it's all about patience and percolation. About letting the bits I love seep in. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. But the alternative is just stiff regurgitation and regret.
I am neither a fan of stiff regurgitation nor regret.
Q: Is Rude Cakes your first picture book?
A: That's a hard question, Carissa, because I have been writing picture books since 1st or 2nd grade. One was even bound in nubby red-blue-and-green-striped cloth over board, and had a sewn spine. Do these count? Is that me the same me who is writing books now? If so, then no…this is not my first picture book. It is merely the latest in a long line of stories I've been telling and drawing since elementary school. Or before.
I know what you mean. I officially wrote and illustrated my first picture book in the 6th grade. I’m a late bloomer…
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the book?
A: Weirdly enough, Rude Cakes is about a rude cake. And also giant cyclopses. And about learning how to not be a donut hole. It's also maybe a manners book that makes fun of manners books. And a story about self-reinvention. And how it is never too late to become a better version of yourself. Good grief, that last line was such an earnest snore my keyboard died while I was typing it. Literally. Everything after the "e" in "better" is courtesy of new batteries.
Rude cakes, cute marshmallows and polite cyclopses…what’s not to love?
Q: What is your process as an author/illustrator?
A: I don't know if I have a process yet. Most everything seems to start with doodling in my sketchbook. Because it's not actually starting anything at all. It's just a book full of doodles. And shopping lists and to-do lists. Or words I like. Or hypothetical titles that sound funny. It's bits of nothing. And then kind of like a fisherman (although I have no idea what a fisherman thinks) I watch the surface of the water and look for signs of anything that keeps reappearing. Like giant looming hands. Or mean cakes. Or sad marshmallows. Because maybe these are the building blocks of something bigger I haven't yet imagined?
It's less scary to build something out of components I already kind of know. Otherwise it feels like I'm telling myself to build Chartres or the Hoover Dam. Which kind of gives me the bends. And if I don't know anything else at all I know this much for sure: it is never a good idea to start anything with the bends. I could bore you to keyboard death with earnest facts about pencils and pens and tracing paper and thumbnails and dummies and digital watercolors, but the truth is the only part of my process that's interesting to me are the parts before I've remembered in a panic that I have no #*@&-ing clue how to build a gothic arch or a hydroelectric turbine, but that I've suddenly realized a small rude cake looks an awful lot like a jaunty little hat.
I have definitely have gotten a sense for your process and you’re right, the pencils and pens and tracing paper are the boring bits you can skip over because it doesn’t start with a pencil or pen or whatever, it starts inside your noggin…which seems to be a pretty interesting place :)
Q: What was the process of working with your Editor/Art Director like?
A: At first it was hard to let go of what I'd submitted because I had worked so hard to get it where it was before I felt comfortable sending it in the first place. The book had totally settled in my mind into already being immutably what it was supposed to be, and it was tricky to put it back in motion and not feel like I was being asked to needlessly turn perfectly serviceable gothic arches into romanesque ones just because. Learning how to trust the better judgment of others is not a trait that runs strong in my family. But in spite of this, I learned to trust Victoria (my brilliant editor) and Sara (my equally brilliant art director) and there is no doubt the book is so much better for all their input and oversight and rigor. They were very demanding. Always nice. But demanding. And I am oh so grateful in retrospect for every revision they asked for. Which is, of course, way easier to say now than it was then.
Keeping an open mind is definitely important to the process.
Q: What was it like to see the finished project? Anything you would change?
A: Honestly…? Terrifying. Because there was no going back. And no. I wouldn't change anything. Not because there aren't things I wish I could have done better or differently. But because fixing one thing inevitably leads to futzing with something else. And that way madness lies.
Q: Are you currently working on any new picture books we should keep an eye out for?
A: I'm working on another book with Chronicle about an elephant who doesn't want to wear pants. And then another about a mermaid who wishes she had a mustache.
LOL! Sounds fantastic! I can’t wait!
My daughter and I laughed and laughed and then she said in a tiny giddy voice that cake wasn’t being very nice and laughed some more. And I have to tell you also that my husband laughed and laughed as well, which is quite the complement since he is the hardest person in the whole entire universe to impress. I speak from experience :)
Thank you so much for sharing, Rowboat! We absolutely LOVE the book and can’t wait to see what’s next!
To read more about Rowboat, visit his website at http://rowboatwatkins.com/.
You can buy Rude Cakes at
Or at your local bookstore! Support local businesses!!
As always, thanks for reading!
As always, thanks for reading!