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Ask an Illustrator: Caroline Magerl

Caroline Magerl in conversation with Mia Macrossan
Caroline Magerl was born in Germany but now lives in Buderim, Queensland. She is an illustrator who has worked for years  drawing for educational publishers, newspapers and magazines.
She came to the notice of the Australian children’s book world in 2001 when she won the CBCA Crichton Award which aims to recognise and encourage new talent in the field of Australian children’s book illustration with her work on Grandma’s Shoes, written by Libby Hathorn.
The first book that she wrote and illustrated herself is Hasel and Rose, published in 2014. The theme of the book centers on a child’s experience of migration and finding courage to make a place for herself in a new world. That it took ten years to get 241 words down on a page has become a standing joke in her family.
Her most recent picture book is Maya and Cat which is based on a real meeting with an itinerant tabby and the place where she spent a few
weeks in his company. For the full story go to Caroline’s website. Her next children’s picture book Nop is expected in November. At a recent visit to Caroline’s studio in Buderim she was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work.
You have had a long career in illustrating. What prompted you to start writing a picture book?
I’ll answer this by telling a story … of course!
As a child, I became convinced that much was being hidden from me.  Around the age of five, I had formed a conspiracy theory around the colour registration marks that I espied on printed bus tickets, newspapers and packaging. Once I had begun to look for these little marks, I began to see them everywhere, hidden under flaps and in margins. This was the secret code of the adult world, and I had found it. It did me no good though; the adults never cracked.
Fortunately books were more helpful in cracking the code. In the picture books my grandmother sent to me from East Germany, I found a language rich in feeling for its subject matter; the little figures so tenderly and humourously going about their joys and woes in a storybook world. A small hedgehog has saved her friend Kikeriki from a wolf. The house at her back is lit and warm as she stands watching the moon rise and then creeps down, as an indigo night, to the horizon. The wolf is still out there…he is not dead but he has lost his tail … as good as dead! I didn’t realize I had this off by heart, but it has welded me to the language of pictures
Although I wrote stories and was interested in storytelling, these early storybook images spoke to me directly and influence me still. That the images were not telling the same story as the text, the subtle subversive capacity to point to other meanings excited me. To say something without words! The idea still makes my heart pound. That it is possible to make a relationship with the world through your own hands, to express on paper your own experience, to come into being and not utter a syllable.
When I was about eight years old and going to Strathfield Primary school, English was my favourite subject. I remember on one particular day, we were set a creative writing task. To this I imagined an image of four children who were on an adventure and had just come to the edge of a wood. That place, its mood, and those four travellers so engrossed me … it was as if I had stumbled onto something. But I had no idea what was coming next. As I sat there chewing my pencil, moodling as to what might occur, my elbow slipped off the table. The pencil went up my nose and a substantial nosebleed followed. I never finished that story and those four are still out there in the woods, waiting for that trilogy I was going to write. Maybe they run a craft beer outfit now… I really should visit them.
In fact, I stopped writing altogether at sixteen, after leaving home to work in a hotel kitchen. I was deeply interested in art and illustration and for a very long time I painted and illustrated, but lacked any confidence to attempt writing.
My desire to write stories did eventually emerge again, happily coinciding with the arrival of our daughter, Jen. I had made her a toy, and somehow, that little cloth rabbit began to work in my imagination. I drew the rabbit and wrote ‘Hasel was made with tiny stitches, and inside her was a red glass heart.’ That was the beginning of my first picture book, Hasel and Rose.
I even approached a major publisher with little more than a first draft and a loose story board of images. To my surprise, I was offered a contract on first sight … but I turned it down. In truth, I found the editing process too confronting and didn’t feel confident that I had any control.
Eventually, it took me ten years to write the 270 odd words in Hasel and Rose. It was a long and frustrating learning curve for many reasons; looming large among these was the fact that I was very used to thinking in visual terms. It did however give me time to think about why this was all taking so long. In the end I came to understand that I want to find how ‘I’ write and to do so this as well I can.
Internal problems aside, publishers were not altogether interested in me the writer, when me the illustrator was at hand and useful. I can hardly blame them for that. However, when I had at last achieved a text worth publishing and had a contract in my hand,  there was another blindside. Penguin and Random House announced their merger and all was in doubt again.
I recall the intensity of my anguish over the thought that this book may never see the light of day; I literally broke out in a rash. So, sitting in front of a doctor on account of my rash and symptoms of general anxiety, I tried to explain that my book about a hare sailing in a cardboard box was in danger of sinking without trace. I explained this to the doctor, who maintained his composure, to his credit. I now know there is no cure for what ails writers and illustrators and …  I no longer speak to doctors about anything important.
I struggle to write…that is why I do it. Writing forces me to make choices and to make conscious what matters to me. It is an act of courage that I am glad writers make and I want to contribute my part. A good book is one in which something honest and valuable has been said about being human
Can you describe the process? What came first words, pictures, all in together?
As a rule, a character presents in my mind, and I will draw a string of images.
In Hasel and Rose, it began with a wet cloth rabbit hanging by one ear from the clothesline.
Maya and Cat is based on a real meeting with an itinerant tabby, and the place where we spent a few weeks in each other’s company, which found expression in my picture book.
When this cat first appeared, neat footed on the end of the wharf, I was living on a yacht moored in a tributary of Moreton Bay. The waterway was narrow with trawlers and pleasure boats, tied two and three abreast on short piers. The creek was pungent with the sickly sweet smells of mangroves and the fishy odour of trawler nets drying in the sun.  Maybe the latter was what brought the stray cat to the marina. Either way, I found myself eye to eye with a tabby, sitting, regarding me from the end of my pier.  He made a charming small mewl. Not all cats have pleasant voices in my experience, but this one asked his question so politely that I hauled my cast net out of its locker, and set it into the creek. Poddy mullet were plentiful there and soon the line hummed a little, an indication of a good handful of fish. The cat watched with interest as a silvery grey fish was placed on the wharf… it was gone in a blink, this cat seemed very hungry.
So I lay another fish on the wharf, and another, and marveled at his appetite. When all the fish were gone, the cat strolled elegantly out of the marina gates, his belly swaying slightly.
Unsurprisingly, the cat was back the next day and the next day, and the next. However he no longer waited with neat feet on the grey wooden pier boards but boarded our yacht which was heralded by a solid thump, all four paws at once on the deck. His handsomely marked face would soon appear in the hatchway where he asked a polite question, and so I threw my net into the creek. Cats and fishermen often have a cosy relationship in storybooks and it seems a natural friendship, but it was not so here when my erstwhile pet was noticed among the trawlermen of the marina. In fact, their consensus being this tabby would soon be made useful as bait in a crab pot, which I knew was not necessarily a joke.
However I heard a joke going around at the time which may have saved my cat from an untimely visit to Davy Jones locker. Something about a Yorkshireman who, on coming home drunk every night, tripped over his “Cooking Fat”. I will let you work that out for yourself. Anyway, I named the tabby Cooking Fat which was sufficiently amusing to the fishermen to buy my cat some time.
I knew I would have to find the dear fellow a home and I was steeling myself for a hard search to find that home when I ran into some early luck. I had been working as a waitress aboard a large party boat which cruised the Brisbane River; all floating office parties, canapés and chardonnay.   Karl who owned and captained this boat was what you might call a bit of a character. However, he lived in a very fine local house with his wife and two young children, and this fact got me thinking. So next time Karl drove into the marina in his slightly clapped out Rolls Royce full of paint tins and prawn nets…I sidled over. I waxed lyrical about the many good points of Cooking Fat; his attractive moggy stripes, the rusty underfur which make him look like he was glowing pink when backlit, his intelligent questions in a pleasant low voice. Once I had Karl’s attention, I convinced him that a fine house, a captains’ house no less, needed a cat like Cooking Fat. To my great delight, he agreed.
Before I knew it, the deal was struck… provided I boxed Cooking Fat up somehow, in readiness for his journey across the suburbs to Karl’s place.
Now Cooking Fat was an affectionate animal, but definitely not one for confinement, a fact I learned the hard way when I wormed him. So the question of how he would be contained caused me some angst. Oddly however, the threat of becoming crab bait … the very thing that made me give this stray cat his unfortunate name, provided a solution. Cooking Fat would go in a crab pot and I knew just how to make that happen.
On the appointed day, at the hour my boss Karl was due to arrive, I threw my net into the creek. Soon the line thrummed and up came several oily wriggling mullet. Cooking Fat waited and asked the occasional question as he watched. He noted with interest how I put the fish inside the wire and mesh crab pot. Cooking fat approached the pot with his whiskers forward and poured himself into its little opening and was soon crouched to gather his fish.
Then, I snicked the latch shut.
It made my stomach roil to look at cooking fat through the mesh of that crab pot with his face mildly perturbed. Fortunately, my boss was a punctual man or perhaps he had two eager children waiting at home, either way the Rolls Royce pulled up and the boot was popped open. Away went Cooking Fat.
I never saw Cooking Fat again but I heard he was well settled in at the grand old house in Sandgate which made me very happy. Besides he did leave me a few gifts … fish heads mostly and a lasting affection for strays.
That affection was my inspiration and is at the heart of Maya and Cat.
The difficulty came once I had decided there was a kernel there. So I pitched an early idea to my agent Ronnie Herman who is a very pragmatic New Yorker, “You want to write a story about a  cat? The cat is in a crab pot? How is that appropriate for children?” and so on and on. Anyway, the process of writing yielded the story of Maya and Cat, and I learned not to tell Ronnie any more stories in the raw.
What have you enjoyed most in the creation of Maya and Cat? What has given you the most satisfaction and pleasure in the whole process of creating, publishing and promoting?
Maya and Cat has been a great experience from the start, in that I enjoyed the people I worked with, especially Donna Rawlins and Linsay Knight.
Donna was my art director, and she was a hoot, as well as being immensely knowledgeable. Her two outstanding contributions were the upside down cats in the end papers and her insight that, “too many books are undercooked”. Linsay is head of children’s publishing at Walker Books Aust, and was also a pleasure to work with. I felt very lucky to deal with them both.
I was quite proud to know that the text of Maya and Cat went through editing with scarcely a word changed. As someone who struggled to see herself as a writer, this was a source of great satisfaction. As will being shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary awards also be a moment I will not forget, for much the same reason. I had an acknowledgement of my ability to write, and this was a huge sense of achievement for me, to be among such a wonderful list of authors.
It was also with a certain surreal joy that in November last year at Chris Beetles’ annual  Illustrators Exhibition,  I met some of illustrators I have admired for a very long time such as, Michael Foreman, Helen Oxenbury, and the late John Burningham.  It was such a delight to be among such warm, generous and gifted people.
The exhibition featured a staggering array of art ……and I am very proud to say that illustrations from Maya and Cat were there among it all. They even adorned the show’s catalogue cover….. my loitering and gloating was kept to a minimum.
All that aside, I loved illustrating the story, and congratulate myself on finding the perfect story for gratuitous cats.
Books were among the most comforting and homely things I recall from my childhood travels, and it is ironic that writing and painting have been such an adventure in my adult life. I am very much looking forward to what is around the corner.
Thank you for talking to StoryLinks
For more information, see
Hasel and Rose Penguin eBooks  2014 Picture book 32 pages ISBN 9781743480656
Maya and Cat Walker Books 2018 Picture book 32 pages $26.99  ISBN: 9781921977282
1942 Amsterdam Ave NY (212) 862-3680

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