Logan Kaufman: There are a lot of paths
an artist can take. What made you decide to go
into children's illustration?
Kurt Cyrus: It's the storytelling. I love
doing a sequence of pictures tied to a narrative.
Magazine illustrations also tell stories, but
they're usually designed to grab the reader's
attention, have an immediate impact, and then
be forgotten with the turn of a page. Books are
less disposable. I like the idea that a kid might
take the time to enter into this little world
I'm creating, wander around in it, and return
again some other day. That's how I used to read
Also, the subject matter is all over the place,
which keeps it fresh. From bugs to wooly mammoths
to skeletons to Jasper Dash's amazing inventions,
it's an endless parade of fun stuff.
Logan: Was that always where you were
headed, or did you try your hand at other art forms
along the way?
Kurt Cyrus: Children's books didn't even
occur to me until a friend at illustration school
started going on and on about it. He was Lane
Smith, and kids' books were his great passion.
At first I was a little puzzled, but over time
I started catching the bug. I dropped out of art
school but Lane finished, went to New York, and
lived his dream. That eventually lit a fire under
me. I never did try other kinds of art or illustration
Logan: This is the Lane Smith who illustrated
The Stinky Cheese Man, I presume?
Kurt Cyrus: That's him. We had quite a
mix of students at Art Center. My first year there
I roomed with Paul Chadwick, who went on to create
the Concrete comics among other things, and Tom
Kinkade, aka the Painter of Light (TM). We shared
a two bedroom apartment. I slept on the living
room floor with the fleas and roaches.
Logan: Quite the resumé for that school.
Was there a lot of pressure to make a splash,
or did everyone's careers evolve around the same
Kurt Cyrus: We were very competitive from
the start, at least in the illustration program.
When a student was called "hot", the reference
was not to sexiness but to drawing ability. Also,
"making it" referred to a post-Art Center career.
Everyone wanted to paint the cover of Time
Magazine. For some reason, that was the holy
grail. One of my classmates, Matt Mahurin, actually
accomplished that in short order.
Logan: What had originally been your intentions
for your illustration?
Kurt Cyrus: I was pretty vague about that.
All I knew was that nothing else was working out
for me. I had previously dropped out of forestry
school, and had dabbled briefly in other things.
Since drawing was my only real strength, I thought
I'd take a stab at it.
Logan: Were you doing watercolors then,
or just drawing?
Kurt Cyrus: Drawing, and oil painting.
But really, my paintings are just colored drawings.
I'm more a draftsman than a painter.
Logan: Your watercolors are excellently
done, though. Did you have any formal training
in them at all?
Kurt Cyrus: Some classes involved watercolor,
but a lot of it for me was on-the-job trial and
error. It wasn't until my eighth book or so that
I figured out how to do a decent wash.
Logan: Did you start using them as a speed
issue? It isn't the easiest medium...
Kurt Cyrus: Partly speed. But also because
watercolors scan well. When I paint with oils
I like to use glazes, which sometimes don't scan
well because of surface gloss.
Logan: You said you never did other illustration
work outside of illustrating for children - how
soon after college did you get work in the field?
Kurt Cyrus: Nine years! I became a respiratory
therapist instead. But now and then I'd send a
story to Lane, and he'd show it to an editor.
Eventually, in 1989, I got a contract with Harper
& Row to write and illustrate a book called Hotel
Deep. Just as I was finishing up the pictures
my editor left Harper, or got fired, and the book
got axed. It wasn't until '94 that I quit my hospital
job, took a trip to New York, and got a contract
with Farrar, Straus & Giroux for what became my
first book, Tangle Town.
Logan: Did you actually go to the publisher
directly in New York?
Kurt Cyrus: Yes. I made appointments with
a bunch of publishers beforehand. They'll often
see illustrators in person for a portfolio viewing,
whereas they see no benefit to seeing a writer
in person. In fact, most of my appointments were
with art directors. But once their interest had
been sparked by my illustration samples, they
usually would introduce me to an editor. So a
writer/illustrator has a distinct advantage in
getting through the door. And you can't beat that
face-to-face contact. The editor at FSG kept asking
"What else ya got? What else ya got?" I was down
to the dregs, a rough draft that I hadn't planned
to show anyone but had tucked into my briefcase
just to work on in my spare time. That's what
Logan: Was he looking at your story ideas
too, or just the art? What drew him to that rough
Kurt Cyrus: He seemed already sold on
my artwork, and was hoping I had a viable story
to go with it. I think it was the humor that drew
Logan: That meeting was in 1994, and Tangle
Town was published in 1997. Does it typically
take that long to turn around a children's book?
Kurt Cyrus: No. I was a novice, the editor
was a slug, and the story needed drastic revisions.
Usually it takes a few months to illustrate a
picture book, and then a year or so for all the
designing, printing, binding, etc. before it's
Logan: Do you typically go through a lot of revisions, or does your writing stick more now that you've had some experience?
Kurt Cyrus: Now it's more on the order of tweaks. But part
of the reason for that is that editors are increasingly
looking for "clean" manuscripts requiring few
major revisions. For whatever reason, they seem
less willing to work with a writer on developing
an idea. So, by default, the manuscripts I do
manage to sell require very little revising.
Logan: After that initial publication,
was it fairly easy to have your work accepted,
or do you still have to sell yourself for each
Kurt Cyrus: It certainly became easier,
but some salesmanship is still required. The picture
book business has been in a slump for a few years.
I missed out on the boom years of the 80's, unfortunately.
The smart people are writing for older kids now.
Logan: You have had art published for
young adults, both interiors and covers. How did
you get into that?
Kurt Cyrus: I had a friendly editor at
Harcourt who was looking out for me. When I was
in the middle of a dry spell he offered me some
covers, and then later gave me a chance to do
interior black and whites for Whales on Stilts
and its upcoming sequels. So far I haven't needed
an agent, thanks to the niceness of a couple of
Logan: Have you had any thoughts of fully
illustrating a classic title or do you prefer
doing original material?
Kurt Cyrus: The closest I came to that
was when I rewrote the lyrics to an old song,
"I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago." It
was going to be my second book, but just as my
editor was warming up to the idea, big shot Stephen
Kellogg came out with a version of his own. What
are the odds? I naturally thought his book was
entirely inferior, but it killed my chances anyway.
Logan: You've also illustrated a number
of books by other authors. Is that a little easier
than doing the whole process yourself, or is it
harder to interpret an idea you didn't come up
Kurt Cyrus: The thing is, writers and
editors always try to set the text in stone before
showing it to the illustrator. But no matter how
polished and perfect the words are, problems always
arise when you try to set them to pictures. Most
writers I've worked with have been agreeable to
making changes if the case is strong. But there's
that gray area where I have to decide whether
I'm asking for a change because it's needed, or
because I simply would have written it differently
if I were the author. In that sense, it's easier
to illustrate my own writing. I'm free to rewrite
the text as the pictures progress.
Logan: Are you made aware of the general
storyline before you have to accept or decline
Kurt Cyrus: I get to read the manuscript.
Logan: Do they try to tailor what gets
submitted to you, or do you turn down many stories?
Kurt Cyrus: I've turned down half a dozen
or so. But if I'm hungry enough, I'll illustrate
just about anything. Editors do try hard to match
the right illustrator to each project. Sometimes
I just don't like a story well enough to spend
five or six months with it. Other times I can't
visualize how I would approach it, so I let some
other illustrator tackle it. Unless I'm hungry.
Logan: Do you read reviews of your work?
Kurt Cyrus: Compulsively! When I have
a new book out I check Amazon.com and Barnes&Noble.com
about twice a day for new reviews. Then I Google
myself. I'm pretty insecure.
Logan: One review criticized Slow Train
to Oxmox for not showing Oxmox, and for your
odd sense of gravity...
Kurt Cyrus: New York Times Book Review,
November 15, 1998. It still galls me. It's usually
not helpful to criticize the critics, so I'll
just point out that Time Magazine named that same
book one of the best of the year.
As annoying as the bad review was, I admit that
Slow Train to Oxmox does require some suspension
of disbelief. But most kids know how to pretend,
even if some grownups have forgotten. There's
a scene in which the locomotive is viewed from
below and is recognizable as an oversized toy,
complete with "Made in America" stamped on the
bottom. In this book we are basically playing
with a toy train full of live people. I just didn't
spell that out for the nitpicky adults.
Logan: Do you get feedback from other
children's book authors or artists as well?
Kurt Cyrus: Not much. We're too polite
to criticize each others' work.
Logan: Assuming you do readings at schools
or libraries, what do kids think of your work?
No questions about train routing?
Kurt Cyrus: You learn from experience
which books make good read-alouds for groups and
which ones don't. Questions don't bother me, even
critical ones. Yawns bother me. Nosepicking used
to, but not so much anymore.
Logan: Hotel Deep has received
very good reviews for the art and poems, have
you been working on it slowly since the 80's?
Kurt Cyrus: Yes, I never gave up on Hotel
Deep. But it's a very different book now than
the one HarperCollins cancelled. My friendly editor
at Harcourt suggested that maybe it should be
a book of poems, and that broke a years-long logjam.
Now I'm thankful to HarperCollins for not publishing
the original version, because this new one's a
Logan: What was the original story going
Kurt Cyrus: It was a goofy little hybrid,
part bedtime story, part counting book, written
in a "Yo ho ho" sea shanty-type rhyme.
Logan: Did you have to re-illustrate a
lot of it as time went by, either because it didn't
match the story or your style changed?
Kurt Cyrus: When the story was scrapped
all the illustrations went straight to the clutter
closet, because you really can't retrofit old
pictures into a new book. But that was OK, because
I got to keep the advance, so I was compensated
for my effort. But the artwork really wasn't that
great. It was good experience.
Logan: What stayed around other than the
title and the ocean setting?
Kurt Cyrus: The rococo look of the hotel
itself. Nothing else I can think of.
Logan: Mammoths on the Move was
just released this month, a book you illustrated
in scratchboard. Do you try to change your medium
to keep things interesting, or do you experiment
to find which medium fits the piece?
Kurt Cyrus: Variety does keep things interesting,
but mainly I try to give each subject the medium
that serves it best. Just about every painting
I've seen of wooly mammoths has depicted them
as brown impressionistic blurs in the snow, so
the sharp focus and strong lines of scratchboard
really served to set this book apart. But oils
seemed right for the undersea stuff. Lately editors
have begun trying to nudge me toward or away from
certain choices. One of them strongly urged me
to do my next book in scratchboard because my
scratchboard books have sold fairly well for them.
Another editor just doesn't like scratchboard,
and has made that clear to me. But so far it has
been my call.
Logan: Going to try anything else, or
are you sticking with those three for now?
Kurt Cyrus: Sometimes I think I ought
to get one of those computer graphics programs
and learn to use it. But I'm too much a perfectionist
already, and I think I'd lose all perspective
if I could rework things endlessly on a computer.
For now, the oils and watercolors and scratchboard
are keeping me happy.