In The Explorers: The Door in the Alley (Random House, April 25, 2017), author and actor Adrienne Kress and illustrator Matthew Rockefeller open doors to a world where the unexpected is de rigueur. The zany middle-grade series debut features an unadventurous boy and a bored orphan girl who find adventure, mystery and even danger when they accidentally wind up involved in the topsy-turvy secret Explorers Society, which is missing some of its most famous members.
Back in this world, Toronto native Kress and Rockefeller, a New Yorker by way of Tucson--who did not meet face to face while collaborating on The Explorers--explore each other's creative processes and snack preferences.
Adrienne: So, I honestly have no idea how an illustrator does it. Where do you even start? You're handed The Explorers, the publisher says, "We need a cover and interior illustrations... Go!" What's the first thing you do?
Matt: The very first thing for me is always a lot of reading and note-taking. I'll jot down notes about certain chapters or passages that had particularly striking imagery or potential for visual interest. Occasionally, and especially in the case of The Explorers, I get so swept up in the story that I forget to keep track of which sections stood out. The narrative will linger for a few days, and I can sort of spool through it in my mind like a movie, picking out the bits that I want to bring to life with the illustrations.
My job seems easier than yours--the writer's--since I have something to base my drawings on.You start with nothing and make something out of it. How do you begin to write a story?
Adrienne: I always end up writing about things I find neat. Usually there's a picture, a place, a concept, and once my brain has grabbed hold of it, I try to find a way I can make it work within a piece of fiction. For The Explorers, the big inspiration was the Explorers Society building itself. I loved the idea of a place where people who have had all these adventures go and mingle and unwind, where every nook and cranny is filled with the weird and interesting. I also love the look of those old buildings with dark wood, red walls and bookshelves with books everywhere, a dusty mysterious feel. So from there I had to actually come up with a story that let me "play" in that setting.
Tell me more into your vision for the art in The Explorers... what kind of tone were you going for?
Matt: I really responded to the playfulness of the text, but also to its ability to explore various moods and feelings. I wanted to create a look that was lively and colorful, but not so cartoonish that I wouldn't be able to convey the dark realities of many of the situations the characters find themselves in.
I especially wanted the cover to communicate the book's strong sense of movement and mayhem. I tried to imagine the drawings coming to life. My work has been greatly inspired by the world of animation and comics from around the world. When designing the characters and settings, I always tried to keep an animator's mindset for action, readability and expression. Maybe someday there will be an animated version of the cover! That would be so cool.
I must ask: How did you think up the quirky, tongue-in-cheek tone of the book in the first place?
Adrienne: It's a voice I've used in my previous middle-grade work. When I wrote my first book, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, I had to decide what kind of voice to use. Up until that point I was quite the chameleon, imitating other authors' voices just for fun. Instead, I wanted to write as if I was telling this story to someone. And that's where it all came from, the digressions, the speaking directly to the reader, etc. This approach gives me the flexibility to keep things light and entertaining if the story calls for light and entertaining. But it lets me turn on a dime and create a darker mood when it's called for. I can also use the personal, friendly tone to "cushion the blow" if I think the events may be getting a little too grim for my readers.
I'd like to focus specifically on your cover for a minute. It's so colorful and really captures the tone we've been talking about. What was your process in coming up with such a unique cover design?
Matt: The globe idea for the cover came from my designer, Katrina Damkoehler, and the team at Random House. I really loved the idea and thought it had a ton of potential, especially since it could evolve and yet be recognizable with each book in the series. I tried to pick a few key elements I enjoyed and then began fleshing out the details. This was my first chance at visualizing some of the characters and locales, so it was fun to play around and see the different directions things could go before settling into the final art.
Initially the cover was blue, and more of a real world that the characters were interacting with. The suggestion for the globe came and it led to the palette shift and made the art "click" together with the logo. Sometimes as an artist, you put a ton of energy into creating something, but you are limited by your own thought processes. An outsider's viewpoint can be just the thing to nudge a piece from good to great! I love this collaborative aspect of book illustration. There's a back and forth among all the people involved that leads to something truly memorable.
What work in The Explorers do you look at fondly or proudly? What did you learn about yourself and your process from writing The Explorers?
Adrienne: I'm really proud of both Sebastian and Evie. I started writing them with only a basic idea of who they were and I got to know them through the writing process. I really think they developed into interesting and unique three-dimensional characters.
I also really enjoy coming up with absurd moments. It can be quite tricky to find just the right tone and something silly that is unexpected but at the same time makes perfect sense. Being absurd is not just about doing the strangest thing you can think of; it's about doing the strangest thing you can think of that you ought to have thought of before thinking it.
As for what I've learned... well, I will always love digressions and I will fight hard to keep them in the story. My editor and I came to a compromise by turning them into footnotes in this book, and I think it was a great idea. I've also learned a lot through research for the book about different and exciting places around the world.
Matt: The characters definitely do a lot of traveling and exploring in the story.... Are you a traveler/explorer yourself? If you could go anywhere in the world where would it be?
Adrienne: I do love to travel, but don't do it nearly as much as I'd like to. So for sure I'm living vicariously through my characters. The second book takes us even farther afield than the first and to places I've always wanted to visit, like South Korea and Australia. But there are also things in the books that are based on places I've been or things I've done. The university in the first book is based on the University of Toronto, where I did my undergrad, and in book two there's a sequence where people have to crawl through caves. That's based on an experience I had this past summer doing something very similar along the Niagara Escarpment. As for where in the world I want to go, I want to go everywhere! But New Zealand is at the top of my list right now.
Now for the important question: What's your go-to snack/beverage when working?
Matt: I love to sip a warm beverage while I work. As for a favorite snack, I love those peanut butter-filled pretzels from Trader Joe's. Oh, and cookies--I love cookies! You?
Adrienne: Oh man, those pretzels sound amazing. I don't think we have those in Canada. I'm a fan of cheese myself. And I am also a warm beverage drinker.
And... now I'm hungry. I think it's snack time. Thank you so much for answering my questions--though I still have a ton more! Hearing the behind-the-scenes from you is a treat!
Matt: And thank you too! It's been such a pleasure getting to know you and your writing a bit better! I still have so many questions about The Explorers and other things, so perhaps we'll have to have another conversation around the time of the second book....
Adrienne: I like that! It's a plan!