The Short Story
Michael Emberley has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 1979. He grew up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, just north of Boston, has lived in Oakland CA, and in San Diego, Calif, but now he lives just south of Dublin, Ireland, between the Irish Sea, and the Wicklow mountains. He has no art degree, no writing degree, no kids, no house and no pets but he does have a lot of pencils and a pretty decent stereo. He also has a sister and father (Rebecca and Ed) who make children’s books, and a wife, (Marie-Louise), who also writes and illustrates children’s books, and talks with a funny accent. His hobbies include bicycle racing, bike riding, cycling, mountain biking, avoiding driving, and talking in a funny accent. He bought his first television set at age of forty so he could watch a bike race and his first car a few years later because there was no subway in California. He does drive still and cycle in Ireland almost as much as he did in America, just on the wrong side of the road….
The Long Story:
I was born in Boston and grew up in a three hundred year old Colonial house on a river in Ipswich MA. It is a mostly suburban area, but with woods and vast salt marshes that lead to the beaches and the ocean beyond. We were close enough that even as a child I could row a small boat to the sea from our house. My father, illustrator Ed Emberley, was in love with boats of all kinds, but especially sail boats. As a family we sailed most summers around the area from Maine to Nantucket. And though I was to adopt the habit of drawing pictures for books from my father, I never developed the same passion for the sea. It was the bicycle, and racing the winding roads of New England that grabbed me with a similar intensity. And to this day, I spend at least as much time riding as drawing, probably more.
This pattern of not being consumed with illustrating and writing as my only interest I am sure I picked up from my father’s example. I pursue it with passion…but I also pursue other things with passion as well. I am curious above all, curious about everything. Curious about how and why things are as they are. How people behave, what drives them. What makes a light bulb work? Why do we eat with a fork and when did we start? Silly things. In School I was told I asked too many questions. I think a scientist would have been a good choice for another career. Speaking of school, I was never a good student, a classic underachiever. I have only a little formal art instruction at the college level, a few months here and there. The Rhode Island School of Design being the best known of the lot. I think I was there for three months.
So I became an author/Illustrator for two reasons: It was around the house-my Mother, Father, and sister and I were always dabbling in arts and crafts, including helping my father with work. Then I woke up one day as a late teenager and realized I needed to get a job. My second revelation was that I was not qualified for much and with my work ethic at school, had little to get me into a university. I could draw a little, so I tried illustrating. My prospects were limited. I had little choice.
So this is how it started. Not with a higher calling, or the pursuit of a lifelong dream. I needed a profession, I needed money. I even had my first book published before I got into Art School, but I did not tell anyone because it seemed kind of pretentious.
Now even though this sounds a little crass or unromantic, this is the reason many great artists and writers have been motivated to produce. After doing three books, two of which were drawing books almost identical to my fathers more famous work, I stopped illustrating and took a job creating computer graphics for an oil industry educational publisher. I had to bluff my way into the job since I had only spent about an hour on a computer in my life. But I was a fast learner.
Then I took a year to travel to Australia and New Zealand, and to decide what to do for the rest of my life. With prospects still limited, I chose children’s books but this time I really chose it, and decided to teach myself to write (with the help of some understanding friends who read and commented on early drafts). This took about another year of living very close to the poverty line as I wrote and illustrated five dummy books to take to publishers.
Ruby was the first of this second batch of books, followed by The Present and Welcome Back Sun. I then met author Robie Harris at an autographing event and embarked on a series of nonfiction books on growing up and sexuality. A stretch you might think, but I am curious about everything remember, and Robie sold me on her vision and on her. We are good friends as well as partners, and the long hours we spend trying to make a complicated topic into readable, useful books have been incredibly rewarding.
I do what pleases me, even when it means doing far more work than I could ever be compensated for. I like to do things the best way I know how. I like to be challenged. And then hope for the best. I can’t think too much about the best business or marketing decisions. If I am happy and interested, I do my best work. If I get bored with what I am doing, it shows.
I began illustrating because I needed money, but now I truly appreciate what I do. I can keep myself from being bored by doing a variety of book projects and using different techniques. This is more difficult than mastering one style but it is the only way for me.
I can also pretty much make my own schedule, which makes it easier to train and race the bicycle (my other nonpaying job) and it allows time to stare into space. Something I have learned is important for me. If I don’t have a good deal of “nothing time”, my creativity and motivation dries up. All of this limits how much work I can produce, but I have accepted the tradeoff of money (and possible fame!), for a slower, more varied quality of life. I simply could not work at my desk all day every day like some artists or writers do.
I still think I’m getting away with something, and one day I’ll be told I have to get a real job. It frightens me. But being an author and illustrator allows me to learn and discover about people and the world. I weave my curiosity in to each paragraph and drawing.
And going through my mind the whole time is; “is this good enough?” and “No, but the next one is going to be really good!”