A Peek at the Creative Space of Mary Newell DePalma

Mary Newell DePalma is the author and/or illustrator of over a dozen picture books. A little bit about some of my favorites:

A Grand Old Tree is the story of the life cycle of a tree and how the influence and importance of that tree does not stop once it dies. Here’s a taste: “The grand old tree flowered, bore fruit, and sowed seeds. She had many children. They changed the landscape for miles around, perhaps even farther than the old tree knew.”

Roads (written by Marc Harshman) Her illustrations depict a family’s drive to visit grandparents and all the sights and sounds along the way. For me, this story brings me back to driving up to Sacramento as a child to visit my grandpa and summer road trips down to San Diego to visit family there.

The Nutcracker Doll, about a girl who auditions and earns a role in a production of The Nutcracker, might be my favorite of the DePalma books I’ve read. I grew up dancing so that’s part of the reason why I’m partial to the story, but I also like that the protagonist receives a very small role in the production and is happy to be a part of it just the same. The emphasis of the story is really on the experience of being in a performance rather than the character’s struggles. (Fun fact, this story was inspired by Mary Newell DePalma’s daughter who performed in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker as a child.)

Her latest book The Perfect Gift was published by Arthur A. Levine Books earlier this year. It’s the story of Little Lorikeet who finds a beautiful strawberry she plans to take to her grandmother. But on her way “hip, hop, plop!” she drops the strawberry into the river where it sinks way down deep. A chipmunk, goose, and frog stop by to help her retrieve the strawberry, more trouble ensues, and they all end up working together to create a surprising and satisfying resolution to Little Lorikeet’s problems.

For more information about Mary Newell DePalma, visit her website. If you are a teacher or a parent looking for supplementary activities while reading her books, there are multiple curriculum guides available there too with excellent ideas and suggestions.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is the front room of my apartment. It has really lovely light.

Describe a typical workday.

My workdays have evolved over the years!

When my children were small, I worked after they went to sleep, from 9pm to 1am. During the years that they were in school, I worked an average of 4 days a week, 9am to 3pm. I took an hour for lunch and a walk through the Arboretum near my house.

When I became an “empty nester” I was very excited, because I had looked forward to uninterrupted workdays for so many years. But I discovered that working at home was way too lonely!

Now I work 9-5 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which is fabulous. Then at 8pm I sit at my drawing table and write and/or draw for 2-3 hours. I also write and draw on at least one weekend day, usually noon to 5. I really love to write and draw, so it doesn’t usually feel like work.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

I like to try different media—pen and ink, tissue paper collage, acrylic paint . . . recently I’ve been using watercolor. I’m a little itchy to try some different media so I’ve been experimenting with collage and fabric. I use Dreamweaver and Photoshop for my website, and I’m looking forward to learning to draw digitally.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I love my drawing table. It has a light table built in, and it is a wonderful tool. My husband got it from the company he worked for when they didn’t need it anymore.

The armoire that holds my art supplies is very beautiful. It belonged to my grandmother, and I remember that it was in her bedroom when I was a little girl.

The art in my studio was made by my friends and that inspires me.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

I don’t think I have any daily rituals, but I do have to clean the studio before I begin new projects so I can think clearly.

What do you listen to while you work?

Repetition gets me into a working “zone”, so I listen to things over and over. Peter Gabriel, Mack Martin, and the Dixie Travelers, and soundtracks from The Last Waltz and O Brother Where Art Thou are some of my favorites. I used to listen to NPR when I was working during the day. When I write I prefer silence so I can hear myself think!

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I never eat or drink in my studio; it might make a mess and ruin some artwork.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Being involved in the work, in the worlds that I’m creating, keeps me focused. I like to finish what I start, so that helps too.

What aspect of writing and/or illustrating do you find the most challenging and why?

Making the first sketches is tough. That is where reality meets your fantasy. It is easy to dream up scenarios, and more difficult to sketch them in real life! When I get really stuck, I take a nap to work it out subconsciously.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

Ooooh, I think what I do is a very solitary kind of work, so I’m not sure I could share my workspace!!! I have always been very careful to have my own space—in my first apartment, in our house, and now, in this apartment. It is very important to have a space dedicated to work. Maybe I could share the space with one of my children, because they spent a lot of time in my studios along the way . . .

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

I had always worked toward being an illustrator, but writing was something I tried at the suggestion of various editors who saw my illustration samples and thought I should try to write a story. So I gave it a shot. I didn’t realize that writers start with a draft, which doesn’t have to be good, and then they fix it. That insight came from Jane Yolen, and it is definitely the best basic writing advice ever.

After my first book was published, I wondered if it was just a fluke. I mentioned this to Arthur Levine, who is now my editor. He just shook his head and said, as if it were very obvious, “you did it once, you can do it again!” So when I feel under-confident, I think of that.

2 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Mary Newell DePalma”

  1. @seemasugandh

    I loved this interview and the thoughtful answers! Thank you! xoxo