Sophie Blackall, IF YOU COME TO EARTH

Sophie Blackall, IF YOU COME TO EARTH

Zibby Owens: Why don’t we talk about your beautiful new book which is just amazing with your characteristic beautiful illustrations and all the rest, these positive world messages and everything. Tell me a little about, what made you write this book? Why now?

Sophie Blackall: I happen to have it right here.

Zibby: Amazing.

Sophie: I know. I prepared. It’s called If You Come to Earth. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with UNICEF and Save the Children and had traveled with them to various countries over the years, to Bhutan and Rwanda and Congo and India. Meeting children in all of these countries was something I think about every day. It was just an incredible privilege. On some level, it was frustrating because I couldn’t talk to them for the most part. Often, they would have very little English. I ranted some French, and that’s about it. Shamefully, I couldn’t communicate with them. I would leave these tiny village schools on the top of a mountain where there had been maybe five or ten kids. We’d spent the day together. We’d giggle and draw pictures because that is the way that I communicate with anyone if I can’t talk to them. I would leave thinking, there’s so many things I want to ask you. I want to ask you about your lives. I want to ask you what you dream about, what makes you laugh. I could do as much as I could do with the drawing, but I vowed to make a book that would be for all kids in the world about all of us and the planet we share and the things that are familiar to us so that kids might see something they recognize in a book, and also the things that we don’t know about each other and the things that are surprising and unfamiliar. That was the goal. I had no idea it would take so long. Essentially, it is a book about everything in the world. Every time you put something in, you’re leaving something out. It was helpful to find a narrator so I could blame the child. Well, it’s this child’s view of the world. Everybody has their own view. The omissions are theirs and not mine. It did take seven years. It did take a village, as most books do, but especially this one.

Zibby: Which part of the village was most helpful to you?

Sophie: Somebody asked me recently, what was the best part about making this book? I said without hesitation it was the village. People are extraordinarily helpful when you ask them questions. I’d always been a little bit shy. I would kind of avoid talking to a stranger. With this book, I talked to so many strangers because I wanted to know the people I was putting in the book. Almost everybody in the book is somebody I met or saw with my own eyes or chatted to on the subway or in Central Park or on a ferry in Bhutan, a little tiny putt putt boat, or just along the way. All of these people have cameos in this book. To me, it was putting real people in there. Even if they look like a clichéd representation of somebody, that person was real. I saw them. I spoke to them. Those people’s stories are intertwined on every page of this book. To me, when I open it, it’s this rich tapestry of humanity. With every interaction, I felt more grateful that I’m alive and part of that. For all our differences, and especially now, almost everybody has a smile and a story to tell you if you’re open. That was a big blessing for me.

Zibby: It’s true. Now that you have sort of united everybody through this book, I feel that the world is so fractured right now. I feel like this is the most divisive time I’ve certainly lived through, not that I’m so ancient. In recent history, I feel like it just keeps getting worse. You’ve been this little soldier going around the world collecting little — more like a mail lady or something. You’re getting missives from everybody and mixing it all. With that unique point of view, what can we do? How can we highlight the fact that we’re all just human and we’re all going through the same stuff, love and loss and what we put in our mouths for breakfast and all the same stuff? How do we make that message rise to the fore?

Sophie: There are two ways that became clear to me with this book, for me at least. It’s a macro and micro kind of thing. The one is to talk to people. I think when you actually hear somebody else’s story — again, the cliché is of walking in someone else’s shoes, which you can’t ever really do. To hear somebody else’s story makes them real to you. I always think that with curiosity comes a certain empathy if you’re curious enough to ask another person instead of to make assumptions. How are you feeling? What do you feel about that? I can imagine what your response might be, but I don’t know, and so I should ask you. If you’re willing to tell me, then that is a gift. Then I will learn something. That goes for people who have very different political views to me. They have signs in their backyard that I vehemently disagree with. Yet they all come and help me fix a flat tire. In Congo, I met some of the most wonderful, generous, warm people who felt that being gay was a terrible sin. Two of our four kids are gay.

There are so many things like that that I think we just see things so differently, and yet there’s this warmth and generosity to you. I think maybe if you met my kids you might think differently. Maybe if I listened to your stories, I might be able to see more clearly what it’s like to be a farmer and how difficult that has been. That’s the micro. Then I think the macro is whenever there’s something global — a pandemic is one of those things, but also a comet or an eclipse — when we, instead of looking down at our feet or inside our own heads, we actually look out and up and realize that we are this one tiny planet in a vast, vast universe. I think about the Pale Blue Dot and Carl Sagan, I’m a big Carl Sagan fan, and him saying in that picture that was taken from Voyager 1 four billion miles from Earth, this spec, that’s us. That’s here. That’s everyone we know, everyone we love, everyone we’ve never met suspended on a moat of dust in the sunbeam. That’s all we are. If we can’t learn to live together on this planet, there’s no hope for us. Just try with the daily conversations, I think.

Zibby: Wow. You should be a Mother Teresa-type world icon, I feel like. I mean it. We need voices like yours to drown out the other voices, honestly. This just so speaks to my beliefs in my heart and what I think is important too. You say it in such a beautiful way and literally illustrate it. It’s amazing. Have you always been this, holistic’s the wrong word, but globally minded and a uniting type of force? Has this been in your DNA forever? Is it something that’s grown out of you in adulthood?

Sophie: I don’t know. I’ve always been really conflict-averse. I was one of those kids, oh, no, let’s not fight, have it your way. I really think having had the opportunity to work with UNICEF and Save the Children opened the world to me in a way that I’ll be forever grateful for. To walk into a village in the jungle in Congo where children had never seen anyone they didn’t know before, it was extraordinary. To spend this day with them and then to walk away and think, I will remember this for the rest of my life, I don’t know what you all think, but I think about those kids all the time and wonder what they’re up to. I hope they’re well and surviving.

Zibby: Had you always been an illustrator? Did you love to draw from a young age? Tell me about the progression of that part of your life.

Sophie: I did. I was very fortunate that my mother was a single mother, but she really worked hard to make sure we always had art supplies. Even in my case, I would go — I lived in a country town in Australia. After school, I was allowed to walk home because that was the seventies and that’s what you did. I would walk home past the butcher shop and stop in and ask them for some of the big sheets of paper that they’d roll sausages up in. They knew me. They were very kind. They’d roll up paper and give me a couple slices of baloney into the bargain. It was a fantastic deal for me. I always, always drew. My brother and I lived most of our lives up trees with books. We had a rope strung between the trees, and a basket. We would send books back and forth to each other. He was older. Really, I just wanted to read anything he was reading, The Hardy Boys and all those kinds of adventure stories and Winnie the Pooh. We were very lucky to grow up with books. So many kids don’t. It’s this privilege that I completely took for granted as a kid. My father is a publisher in Australia. Not only did we have books in every room of the house, but he was making books as well. I got to see that, which was thrilling to turn a story and then put it into paper and ink and bind it into this beautiful physical object. I can’t imagine not having books around me. We just downsized as empty nesters from a four-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn into a cozy one bedroom which we thought was just this delightful corner building filled with light, but it is the noisiest corner in Brooklyn, so you can probably hear. Soon you’ll hear a fire engine and a garbage truck.

Zibby: I’m in Manhattan. Usually, there are sirens back and forth here too. I get it. No worries. Then how did you get your start illustrating professionally?

Sophie: It was what I always wanted to do. I was one of those kids who were, yep, that’s what I’m going to do. I think it was Winnie the Pooh. I would look at E.H. Shepard’s drawings and trace them onto this butcher paper and break it down. How did he make those lines? How did he put so much character into those tiny sketches? Then I just set about doggedly getting to do that. I remember being sent my first manuscript and just getting goosebumps. It was a book called Ruby’s Wish written by Shirin Yim Bridges. It’s the true story of her grandmother who grew up in China. She was one of the first girls to go university. It fed into all of my feminist, “girls can do anything” principles. It was this wonderful story. I had just spent time in China, and so everything kind of came together. It was just thrilling. Most days, it’s almost too lovely to consider that this thing that I do is work. I actually get to do this and call it work. Traveling and books and drawing and books and children, all my favorite things, and they’re all combined. I’m very lucky.

Zibby: I have four kids as well. My older daughter was so excited that I was talking to you because she’s read all the Ivy and Beans. We have walls of Ivy and Bean. I’m just waiting for my next kids to get interested. Of course, we’ve read so many of your beautiful picture books and all the rest.

Sophie: That’s lovely.

Zibby: It’s really rewarding to be able to hear from you. Are you remarried now? Not to keep prying into .

Sophie: We were actually going to get married this summer, but we decided we couldn’t have a wedding if we couldn’t hug our friends and family. We’re going to try and do it again next year. We are building a retreat for children’s book writers and illustrators.

Zibby: Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that. What’s it called again? Wait, I wrote it down. Milkwood Farm?

Sophie: It’s called Milkwood, yes, from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. This is this great big project that we’re doing. We thought we would get married there at the same time. With COVID, everything has slowed down a little bit. It will happen. In the meantime, we’re building this thing that I’m thinking of more and more as a kind of ark for people to come and to be together and to eat and drink and walk and talk and draw and write and think in lovely wildflower meadows in the Catskills. I think it’s going to be, I hope, some kind of sanctuary where we can stop and be quiet and then be noisy and be all the things in the same place that we haven’t been able to do. To gather together I think is something that people are yearning for. I know I am.

Zibby: How do I sign up? Where’s the form? Save me a bed or whatever. How is it going to work, seriously?

Sophie: We’ll probably sleep ten to twelve people, so they’ll be quite intimate things. There’ll be a lot of different ways that it will work. There’ll be long weekends for peers to get together. That’s something that we don’t get to do much in the industry. We meet for conferences. We gather in grim hotel bars and begin conversations that we can never finish. I share a studio in Brooklyn with three other picture book makers, which is an everyday joy where’s there’s family. We have this in-built community. We’ve been together for years. We work together. We’re invested in each other’s books. We throw our ideas around and are inspired by the way each other works. Most people don’t have that, I’ve realized. Most writers and illustrators work in relative isolation. To be able to share this kind of thing, you could come for a long weekend and get a little taste of this and be fed really well and with a wonderful bar. All those things are very important for being creative, I’ve found. Cocktails are very good. Then there will be longer week-long workshops for people who are thinking about getting into publishing or writing books for children or illustrating. Then hopefully there will be industry gathering, so agents and editors and librarians and educators and then things for community groups for school visits and all those sorts of things. It’s a hugely far-ranging, ambitious, organic project. We’ll start slowly and see what happens.

Zibby: I love that. I have a two-book deal with Penguin Random House for children’s books myself.

Sophie: Congratulations.

Zibby: I wrote one of them. Lord knows when it’s coming out. Then I still have to write the second one. That doesn’t make me a peer, but maybe I can sneak in on one of your long weekends.

Sophie: Absolutely.

Zibby: If you need any help with that project or support or anything, let me know because that sounds so amazing.

Sophie: Thank you. Careful what you .

Zibby: I’m serious. I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it. You’re basically doing Yaddo for children’s books, right?

Sophie: Yep, that’s the idea.

Zibby: I love that. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors or aspiring children’s book writers or illustrators or really anybody? I could just sit and listen to your advice, whatever you have to say.

Sophie: You’re way too kind. I was talking to some people who have been wanting to get published for a long time. I think there’s often this sense of there’s this track and you have to stay on it. If you don’t meet these goals by a certain time, then you’re failing at that. I just don’t think it should be like that at all. I think that — I was talking — I cannot stay on a single linear train of thought.

Zibby: That’s okay. Take them all.

Sophie: I had a brain scan recently for these rotten migraines. I got a picture of the inside of my brain. It was so thrilling to see all of these wiggly lines because that’s exactly how my thoughts work. I love maps. There’s a map called a meander map. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these. It’s the map of the course that a river takes over centuries. You can look at a meander map of the Mississippi, and it looks like the inside of a person’s brain. I love that idea of the way that thoughts move and intertwine. I think that, in our daily lives, is how we get our ideas and how we should be inspired and how we should work. For me anyway, I work on twelve different things at once. While I’m working, there are different compartments of my brain that are dedicated to different things. The book that I’m close to finishing is right up front. That’s almost just busywork at this point. Then the one that’s waiting in the wings is a little bit behind. That’s where I’m doing heavy research and going down dead ends and rabbit holes.

Then way at the back are all the books that are just bouncing around in this great cacophony of jumbled ideas and ricocheting. That’s the most fun place back there because anything can happen. The advice would be just to encourage everybody to keep their ears and eyes open and to walk around thinking not, this is this one track I’m on, but I could go this way or I could go this way. There’s something to be gained from all of these detours even if it’s not readily evident. Down the track you will think, oh, my goodness, that note that I wrote four years ago has just suddenly crystalized into an idea, or the thing I bought at a flea market because I didn’t quite know why but I couldn’t walk past it that I stuck in a drawer suddenly has opened some key to something that was locked. I’m all about the scrapbooks of the brain and any excuse, really, to go to flea markets. I think that’s really what I’m advocating, which is something we’re not doing right now but hopefully will again.

Zibby: What are some of the twelve projects you might be working on right now? What’s coming next? What can we expect?

Sophie: This was such a gargantuan thing, seven years, and really illustrating the world and thinking about — I involved so many people in it. I’m going to show you a page now. There’s a page in here of colors, how to paint all the colors in the world. It’s this page. I asked the internet for color names. I had all of these paint tubes. I thought it would fun to give them names. I love going into paint stores and looking at the paint chip names. My partner, Ed, and I play a game where we pocket a bunch of the paint swatches and then we fold the names back and we have to make the other person guess which names go with which colors. It’s good on car trips when you’re coming back from the hardware store. The internet gave me, there were about 1,500 submissions. They were just so wonderful. One of them was “Don’t get me started, Jen” for the color pink, which is brilliant, and “Vacuum bag dirt.” They’re so good. Right now, I’m writing to all the people two years later to thank them for their color names. This was another one, the page that’s about birds. I asked people their favorite birds around the world. They all came in, and I formed a giant bird with all of them. This is front and center.

One of the other books I’m working on is a book for grown-ups. It’s called Proust’s Bedroom. This painting you might be able to see behind me, it’s a little bit of a story. The book, Proust’s Bedroom, is going to be about my favorite writers’ houses which I am visiting around the world. It’s been suspended for a minute. It’s part memoir and part biography of these writers and little bits of travel going to all these places. It’s Herman Melville and Dylan Thomas and Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter and a bunch of writers. When I was eighteen, I was in Paris thinking I had discovered it, as all eighteen-year-olds do, I found myself at the Musée Carnavalet, the history of Paris museum. I’d been up all night. It was just so wonderful to wander Paris at dawn and then to arrive at this museum. I found Proust’s bedroom. I had never read a word of Proust, but I thought it was just impossibly romantic. I took a snapshot which, when I got home to Australia much later, printed and put on my wall. All through college and when I moved to the States, I brought this photograph with me. It’s always been on my studio wall. Then one day, I thought I’d make a painting of this bedroom because there was something monastic about this bedroom. I loved the cell-like room and then the decadent gold dragon scales sort of quilt. I made the painting.

Then a couple of years later we were in Paris around New Year’s Eve with my partner Ed and our four kids. We found ourselves outside the museum. I said, “Kids, let’s go and see Proust’s bedroom.” We went in there. My son ran ahead. We turned the corner. There it was. Except it wasn’t Proust’s bedroom. It was somebody else’s bedroom. My eighteen-year-old self had seen the label on the wall and taken a photograph, but the label actually referred to the next bedroom which I didn’t like the look of at all. It was quite dour. There was a lot of ugly furniture in it. I thought, that can’t possibly be Proust’s bedroom. It must be this one. I’ve been living under this painting and dining out on it for years. In fact, someone at the French consulate said, “I hear you did a painting of Proust’s bedroom. Can we use it for the anniversary of Swann’s Way?” Thankfully, I was out of the country. Otherwise, it would’ve been my everlasting humility and shame. They would’ve had to gently say, um, this is actually Paul ’s bedroom and not Proust’s bedroom at all. That is the introduction to this book. I thought after that the least I could do would be to read Swann’s Way. I’ve read Swann’s Way now. I’m slowly working my through Remembrance of Things Past. It’s an interesting sleepy read with beautiful — have you ever read Proust?

Zibby: I did. I read Swann’s Way in college.

Sophie: I think I have to read it about six times before it’s maybe all in there. There are bits that made me laugh out loud. Then there were bits that I just read the same page five times and couldn’t retain it at all.

Zibby: I should probably go back. That’s a wonderful story. I love the yellow bedspread. Congratulations on your book release and getting it out, this book about the world out into the world. It’s really exciting and I’m sure makes you feel so accomplished to have that sort of closure on such a giant project that’s gone on for so long. Enjoy the success that follows. Let’s stay in touch. You know, I’m not far away. I already started following the Milkwood Farm Instagram account. I’m very interested. I will be tracking the progress.

Sophie: Thank you. It’s been lovely to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Sophie: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Sophie Blackall, IF YOU COME TO EARTH