Kurt Cyrus on Illustration and Writing
Interview by Logan Kaufman, Adventures Underground
Kurt Cyrus was born in 1954 and spent his first thirty years doing odd jobs, from picking fruit, to building solar heating panels, to driving forklifts, to mixing concrete for burial vaults. After working in health care for many years, he first received a job in illustration with the accepted publication of Tangle Town, a children's book he both illustrated and wrote.
He has since illustrated twelve picture books, with two more coming in the not-too-distant future. In addition to books for young readers, Kurt Cyrus has done interior illustrations for M.T. Anderson's Thrilling Tales series, and cover art for various titles, including Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg.
Mr. Cyrus lives in Cottage Grove, Oregon with his partner Linnea and a pet dog.
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 books.
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 professionally.
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 time?
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 he bought.
Logan: Was he looking at your story ideas too, or just the art? What drew him to that rough draft?
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 him in.
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 a book.
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 new work?
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 editors.
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 with?
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 a project?
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 lot better.
Logan: What was the original story going to be?
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.
Interview Conducted by E-Mail, April of 2006
Copyright © 2006 Adventures Underground