A Peek at the Creative Space of Lisa Jahn-Clough

 

 

 

 

Lisa Jahn-Clough has published over a dozen picture books and three young adult novels. Her work has won awards from Child Magazine, Parent’s Choice, Bank Street, Raising Readers, and Entertainment Weekly. Her latest young adult novel, Nothing But Blue, will be published in May 2013. Here is a summary from the publisher:
 
 

All dead. No one survived. All dead. This morbid chant haunts seventeen-year-old Blue as she trudges through the countryside with just the clothes on her back, heading to her childhood home on the ocean. Something absolutely awful has happened, she knows it, but she doesn’t know what. She can’t even remember her name, so she calls herself Blue. This gripping survival story–peppered with flashbacks to bittersweet times with her boyfriend Jake–strips life down to its bare bones. Blue learns, with the help of a seemingly magical stray dog and kind people along the road, that the important thing is to live.

And the book trailer for Nothing But Blue:

Lisa also teaches writing and is currently Assistant Professor at Rowan University. She earned her BA from Hampshire College and an MFA from Emerson College. She speaks to hundreds of elementary, middle, and high school students and teachers as a visiting author.
If you’ll be in the area, you can join her for three upcoming events to celebrate her latest novel. One at the Hudson Children’s Book Festival on May 4th in Hudson, NY; a reading and launch event with fellow YA author Evan Roskos on May 9 at 7pm at the Rowan University Barnes and Noble in Glassboro, NJ; and another book launch event at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine, on June 6 at 7pm.

 

 


Describe your workspace.

 
For the past few years I’ve been splitting my time between two places. During the academic year I am in southern New Jersey where I teach creative writing at Rowan University. In the summers and for the long winter break I am in my home in Portland, Maine. My husband, Ed Briant also writes, illustrates, and teaches which enables us to do this. I do some creative work during the teaching semesters, but the bulk of it is done in my workspace in Maine. So I will focus on that one.
 
 
 
 
 
 
It’s a funky, bright yellow bungalow tucked in the middle of the small, artsy, coastal city of Portland. I bought it in 1999 with money I’d earned from book advances. Friends have commented that it looks like the kind of house my picture book characters live in, and they may be right. The house was built as “temporary” housing in 1864 after a large fire destroyed much of the city. It has odd angles, sloping floors, quirky additions, and big buildings have risen all around it. But there it stands—my little house. There is even a tiny postage-stamp yard for a few flowers and peeing dogs. (Too bad the two the don’t mix better—it’s a constant struggle.) It is not a fancy house, it is not a shipshape house. The floors slope, there are no right angles, the walls buckle, but it is a solid and cozy house. Neither my husband nor I are perfectly tidy, right-angled people, so it suits us.
 
I lived there by myself for six years, then met my husband and he moved in. People in the neighborhood have coined it the “Elf House,” because instead of being two-story, it is actually one and a half story. A 6’ person is very uncomfortable on the upstairs floor (the rooms are 6’7). With the two of us, two dogs, plus a lot of art and books, it is very full.
 
My actual workroom is off the kitchen—one of the quirky additions, probably added around the turn of the century. My husband’s studio is upstairs, so we generally don’t hear one another. My room is an office on one side and a studio on the other, but it really all merges together. Pretty much the whole house is an art-writing space. If I’m restless in my study I write in the living room, or at the kitchen table, or on the stoop. I can pretty much write anywhere. In fact I often have to leave the house for a café or library. Whereas, art needs to be done at my art table. 
 

 

 
  
 
Describe a typical workday:
During the semester I have to squeeze my writing in around classes, committees, etc., and there are some months that are so crazy-busy I know I won’t produce anything. My classes are generally in the afternoon and evening, so this is how a day might go:
6:00 AM—Younger dog whines for food. Husband or I stumble up and give him what he wants, then back to sleep.
7:00—Coffee, read news, respond to emails, take care of school and book-related “business.”
9:00-10ish—walk dogs and husband in wildlife refuge.
11-1 ish—if all caught up on school prep, I manage to get an hour or two of writing time, but usually I’m reading student stories for class.
1:00 PM–shower, try to look presentable, and make a mad dash to school.
In Maine it goes more like this:
 
6:00 AM—younger dog whines for food. Husband or I stumble up and give him what he wants. Instead of back to sleep, if it’s summer and beautiful I start in right away with coffee.
7:00-9ish—walk dogs and husband on gorgeous Maine shore, about 3 miles away.
 
 
9:00-noon-ish—enter studio/office. If I have something underway I get right to work, but if trolling for the next project, I putter about, do more emailing “business,” waste time online, make more coffee, annoy dogs, weed garden, walk to favorite bookstore or cafe and try to write there.
Noon-1ish—By this time I have either gotten a lot of work done, a little, or none. Time to meet husband in kitchen for lunch.
2:00-4:00—Back to work. Or nap.
4:00—Bike ride, swim, or another dog walk.
I rarely work after 5 PM, unless I am under deadline, and then all sense of time is out the window.
 
Bear in mind, not every day is typical—there are times when I have company, am traveling, or filling my creative mind with reading, going to galleries, having meaningful conversations, taking long, long walks, or wandering about. These things contribute to my “work” in all sorts of ways. I tend to be more of a spurt writer than one who writes exactly the same time and the same way every day. But during those spurts when I am writing, this is how it generally goes.

 

 
 
 
What media do you use and which is your favorite? (If you do digital art, what software do you use?)
 
I use gouache. I find it more forgiving and versatile than watercolor. 
 
 
I am a die-hard brush-and-paint artist. I love the feel, I love the smell of paint, plus I have lousy computer skills. Seriously, lousy. 
 
 
This is probably why I am not doing much book illustration anymore. My art is old-fashioned and sloppy. It has a certain “charm” but it is not spiffy. I think I will have to clean it up considerably to illustrate again. For now I am doing art for gifts and pleasure. I know that sounds defeatist, but I never trained as an artist—it was something I picked up from my artist mom. 
 

 

 

 
I’ve always thought of myself more as a writer who has art in her life. It was my editor who encouraged me to illustrate my first book, for which I am grateful. That was 1994. 
 
  
 
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
As you can see from the pictures, I have a lot of toys, books, and art in my studio and all around the house. When my husband moved in he brought his own magnificent collection of clay figurines and paper sculptures, including the Elvis head that he made for an illustration assignment that now sits on top of the corner bookshelf in the living room. 
 
 
 
Most of the art is by someone I know or has a personal connection attached to it. I don’t think I can name any one favorite thing. The stuff in the Maine house is more eclectic, a variety of old stuff, stuff we have made, and some newer toys, and it is spread out throughout the house. Luckily we leave the house mostly as is when we go back to NJ so we don’t have to pack it all up. The NJ home has its own clutter, but far less, and it mostly sits all on one shelf. The picture with Felix the cat and the tin robots is from that shelf in NJ, the rest are in Maine. I’ve come to actually appreciate the change in environment, as long as I can be in Maine for a good chunk of the year.
 
 
 
 

One, or rather two specific things that are worth pointing out are my Alicia and Neptune plush dolls from my first picture book Alicia Has a Bad Day. In the mid-90’s, as a fresh MFA graduate and newly published author/illustrator, I started teaching at Emerson College. A group of students commissioned a professional doll-maker to make these as an end of the semester thank-you gift. It was so unexpected and so touching, it brought me to tears. Alicia and Neptune have always been my favorite of all my characters. Needless to say, it was a fantastic class, full of exceptional writers; several of them have gone on to have careers in the field.

 
 
 
 
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
Morning coffee and a dog-walk is a daily ritual.
I like to begin with a clean desk. It doesn’t stay that way for very long, but the process of tidying up helps me focus.
Whether I am writing or making art, I usually have to get up and move around a little. Sometimes I lie down in the middle of the floor and stare at the ceiling. This helps me work out plot problems or frees my mind to move on to the next scene. When I get a glimpse of what I need to do, I rise up and write non-stop until I have completed the next chunk.  
What do you listen to while you work?
While writing I don’t listen to anything, except the snoring of napping dogs. If there is construction or something going on it drives me crazy.
While doing art I listen to interviews on NPR, or put my iPod on shuffle and listen to whatever comes up. 
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
I bring a cup of coffee into my workroom first thing. I take one sip and forget to drink the rest. It gets cold, so I make another cup. I take one sip and forget to drink the rest, so I go make another, and so on until it’s noon and I can’t drink coffee anymore (seriously, coffee after 1 PM keeps me up all night). I probably only drink about a mug and a half total, but in any given work morning I can make five new cups.
Snack wise—if I am truly working I don’t eat anything. If I am pretending to work I might have a big bowl of something crunchy that I can grab in handfuls—popcorn, mini carrots, nuts. I have to be careful it’s nothing greasy or sweet or it will be counter-productive.
  
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Being so deeply invested in the material that nothing else matters. 
 
But mostly, a deadline.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
It’s become a medley of methods, and it’s slightly different for every book. For my most recent novel, Nothing But Blue, I wrote one scene at a time in a moleskin notebook, almost as if I were the character writing in her journal. I force myself to write until I finish a complete scene. Then I’d transcribe that scene into my laptop, making changes as I went. Honestly, my handwriting is so atrocious I can barely read it, so that means I am almost doing a blind-rewrite as well as composing as I type. Then I print out the pages, sit in a comfy chair (or a cafe) read them with a pen in hand and edit all over the margins, adding new material on the back, wherever. I type those changes into the laptop, again rewriting entire sections that I cannot decipher. So there’s not a whole lot of rhyme or reason to it and it’s become a way to trick myself into doing a lot more revising than I think.

 

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
I hate the in-between phase. I have so many ideas bumbling about in my brain, that it drives me crazy settling on the one I can totally commit to for a long period of time. I don’t use outlines. The best way to find my next book is to write and paint, which means I write and paint a lot of crap. I get frustrated, depressed, restless, think I have nothing left to say, almost give-up, drive my husband batty. But at some point in that process, and I never know when or how, the right spark strikes, and it’s a beautiful thing. It begins with a compelling and deeply personal question, usually having to do with love, loneliness, communicating, surviving—a combination of something current in my life that plagues me and something that has been brewing for a long time.
Once I find this essence of what I want to attempt to say, I write more and more and deeper and deeper to see what I am really trying to say. I have a sense of who my character is and what she wants, and I have to know where I want her to end up, but the rest is all a strange and exhilarating journey, and comes out one scene at a time.
After I have a collection of scenes—usually 30-50, I start storyboarding them on my wall to see if I can give the whole thing cause and effect. Then I will begin to make outlines and lists.
  
What aspect of illustrating do you find the most challenging?
Keeping everything clean! I spill paint or make smudges all over my art. See those pictures of my workspace?
 
Also, my ineptitude to make a slick pdf file, without having to ask my husband to do it for me.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
I often share my workspace with one or both of my dogs. I have no problem with either of them taking up couch space. In fact I love it when they come in to say hi, and stay to nap and snore on the couch. I’ve had cats, too, and they are just as pleasing.
Person wise—There was a time when my husband and I needed to share a workroom. It was surprisingly fine (most of the time). We have very different work habits. He is a middle-of-the-night worker. I rarely work after dark. When we were in the room at the same time, it was actually productive. We were quiet and respectful. It kept me from procrastinating as much. However, I don’t think either of us would want this on a long-term basis! I’m way too messy, plus I really need the pacing, the lying-on-the-floor moments, and the occasional emotional outbursts when I am deep in my work, which can be embarrassing.
On a side note, I just read Lois Lowry’s answer to this question, and she said Yo-Yo Ma. Now I am fantasizing about Yo-Yo Ma in my space playing Bach concertos while I work. So if I may, I’d like to copy Ms. Lowry’s answer. Although I doubt his cello would fit in my house!

 

What is the best piece of writing/illustrating advice you’ve heard or received?

The question my editor has always asked me about every one of my drafts is: “What are you trying to say?” All stories must say something in order to mean anything.
Also, stop fretting over inconsequential matters. Enjoy the process!

 

4 Comments

  1. I love this series. Your homes are lovely, and I relate to your routine — the dog walking, the piddling, the deadline keeping you in line.

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thanks to you both. Who wouldn't be inspired living half a year in a quirky yellow house by the sea?!! Wonderful.

  3. Great interview! Good to hear your voice–and so much fun to see your workspace(s).

  4. I love, love, love this blog series.

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