We were pretty chuffed when the very talented, and busy, Tom Percival made some time on his schedule to chat to us this week. Tom is one of our favourite picture book authors and the brains behind books like Herman’s Holiday, A Home for Mr Tipps and the iconic covers of the Skulduggery Pleasant series – yup kind of a big deal! Here’s what he had to say about his creative process.
1. Welcome to Gobblefunked Tom! First of all, can you tell us a bit about your background; did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator?
Hello! And thank you for the warm welcome, it’s really nice to be here.
To answer your question, ‘no’ I didn’t know I always wanted to be an illustrator, but mainly because I didn’t realise that it was a thing you could be! So even though I spent ALL OF MY TIME as a child drawing pictures, making up stories, or making sculptures out of random building materials that we had lying around (my parents were renovating a house), I still didn’t really equate that with something that I could do for a job.
I think that I kind of assumed that adult life would be more or less like school where I went along and gamely enough did the various lessons, but couldn’t wait to get home to do more drawing.
2. Who were some of your favourite authors as a child or is there any one author/illustrator that has influenced your work?
There was certainly one illustrator who’s influenced me more than anyone or anything else, and that was Arthur Rackham. I won a copy of Rip Van Winkle when I was about five. It was illustrated by him and the magic and excitement in those pictures REALLY stuck with me. Even now, I sometimes find myself wishing that I could actually ‘be’ in some of those pictures.
3. Tell us about the creative process behind your work. Do you work 9-5 hours or what are some of your habits when you’re working on a book?
I have ideas all the time, in the bath in bed, at the gym, out running, in the middle of a conversation with someone – I’m probably quite annoying company as I’m always noting ideas down on my phone when I’m meant to be listening. But that’s just the initial burst of inspiration. The fact is that to turn that initial bright flash of an idea into a workable book (or illustration) takes a good amount of time and effort, and I find that I do try to keep fairly regular hours.
I also have two young children so that’s’ another reason to try to get as much work done as possible while they’re at school. Firstly, it’s quiet then and I can concentrate, and secondly, I like to be able to hang out with them as much as possible.
My worst working practice is working too late when I’m busy and the kids have gone to bed (often well past midnight) and then I feel shabby the next day. You can’t cheat time!
4. We were big fans of A Home for Mr Tipps and some of your earlier work but we have to say Herman and Henry are our absolute favourites! Where did the inspiration for the two friends come from? Are they based on anyone?
The main idea is based on a time when I was at primary school and my best friend moved away to a different school.
We had been at a VERY small rural school (there were 13 children in the whole school when I left!) and he moved to go to a REALLY smart school with all sorts of amazing equipment and facilities where they did things like trampolining and rowing. I pictured him having this amazing time with all his new friends while I was stuck in the rain on our sloping football pitch wearing mismatched kit and second-hand boots. But the characters themselves just evolved as the story developed.
5. Many people will instantly recognise your work from Derek Landy’ Skulduggery Pleasant series, can you tell me how you got involved with that and how you worked with the author/publishers to create the iconic covers?
That was a ‘right place/right time’ kind of scenario. I was working as a graphic designer at Harper Collins and building my illustration portfolio. I knew that they had this book that everyone internally was really excited about but that they were having trouble getting the cover right. I thought it sounded really cool and asked if I could read the manuscript and have a go at something.
I said that if they didn’t like it then we’d just leave it at that, but if they DID like it then they could present it to the author. Luckily enough they DID like it, and then so did Derek, and then so did thousands of kids – so that all worked out pretty nicely!
The actual ‘process’ evolved as the series wore on. At the start it was all a lot more relaxed as there was less of a weight of expectation behind the books, I’d just do a few sketches and then Derek and the publishers would choose which one they liked the best and we’d take it from there. By around book four when it was becoming a really big deal there was A LOT more scrutiny and there were lots of people involved in the discussions about what should go on the covers.
6. Your illustration work on Skulduggery is quite different to your own work in books like Herman’s Letter and Bubble Trouble. Did you make a conscious decision to produce something completely different to what you were known for with Skullduggery or what was your thinking behind this?
Basically, I like to do LOTS of different things. Some of these things I’m lucky enough to earn a living from (like writing, illustrating, animation, video editing, music production) and some I just do for fun like my own personal music, songwriting, etchings and linocuts etc.
So because I like to do all of these different things, it would seem strange to me to focus on one style of illustration. I find that I pick a style to work in that best suits the project that I’m working on.
I appreciate that this makes it a bit harder to pin down what exactly it is that I do, but to me it seems obvious – I just make things! I try to make each project that I work on the very best that it can be and choose the most appropriate medium and style to fit the idea. To me, the idea or ‘story’ always comes first.
7. What’s your favourite thing about being a published author/illustrator?
Earning a living doing something that I love. And feeling as though you have a chance to share your ideas with people and hopefully go some way to encourage people to think in a positive, inclusive, thoughtful and respectful way. It’s actually quite a responsibility – at least I feel like it is!
It’s not without it’s pitfalls though, you can have a crisis of confidence at any point and I’m not sure that the fear that you won’t get another commission EVER goes away – but all in all, I love it.
“To me, the idea or ‘story’ always comes first.”
8. What’s next for you? Are you working on something at the moment that you can tell us about?
Lots! I’ve got a series of four illustrated chapter readers launching in February 2016 called Little Legends. I’ve got a new picture book coming out later in 2016 called By the Light of the Moon and I’m working on my next picture book called Perfecty Norman.
I’ve also got a picture book coming out that I’m not illustrating but have written the text for which I’m excited about – it’ll be fun to work with an illustrator and see what ideas they bring to the story!
I’ve also been illustrating covers and internals for a whole load of other people including one that I’m hoping might be as big as Skulduggery Pleasant – but sadly I can’t mention that for contractual reasons. I’m also writing a young adult novel that I’m hoping to be able to dedicate some time to this Christmas.
So yeah, I’ve got enough going on at the moment!