King of the Sky is about a young boy starting a new life in this country, and a friendship he begins. Was there an event that inspired you to write this story?
ND: The book started life as a non-fiction book about pigeons for Mark Hearld, but morphed into a story about home and what that means, embodied in pigeons and the people who race them. With the bigger story to be told, Laura stepped in to tell it.
The setting is taken from my own family history - South Wales and mining communities there (I still have my grandfather’s mining lamp) and my own memories of seeing pigeons go off to race at the station on Saturdays. My father kept pigeons - though not racers - and periodically we’d have a population explosion, which daddy would try to solve by taking the birds somewhere and releasing them. They always beat him home.
This book and your other collaboration, The Promise both deal with serious issues not usually tackled in a picture book. How do you strike a balance without simplifying the subject matter, or being too serious?
ND: I feel very strongly that there is no issue which cannot be presented in a picture book. Children are enormously emotionally aware and sophisticated, even if they don't have the ability to articulate their feelings. To a certain extent I feel it is my job as a writer TO articulate the feelings and experiences that children - well people in general really - don't have the ability to express. Both The Promise and King of the Sky work well with the very young and adults. That is the power and wonder of a picture book - they can tell universal truths to universal audiences.
I love the illustrations for both The Promise and King of the Sky (see one of the double page spreads below), how long does it take to draw the book? And how does the collaboration process work?
ND: Basically I get out of the way knowing that Laura will do something wonderful.
LC: It takes much longer than it should! Nicola's writing invites you in and is immediately evocative - you have no trouble picturing a scene or a character. And yet the text can also be quite intimidating; how to illustrate language that is already so visually rich. There is a danger that you deaden the book by over-explaining something to the reader.
I tend to procrastinate for a bit - skirting round the subject. And then, after some failed attempts, you paint one page and you're in! And by 'in' I mean that you start to inhabit the world for which you're illustrating. There's a wonderful part of the process where you're drawing and painting instinctively. There's no thinking, 'Would a child like this?' because you're drawing intuitively as a child would. Then the changes and last details seem to take twice as long as the entire book. I'm sure there are lots more efficient illustrators than myself - it tends to take one and a half to two years.
Nicola is extremely respectful and hands off. She has all the passion and enthusiasm you could ever want, but she tends to let me get on with it!
There have been stage shows of both of your projects, is it exciting to explore your ideas in another media? Are there any other media, such as film you would like to see your work in?
ND: No stage show of The Promise (well not one that I know of although not for want of trying. Hoping that it will happen eventually one day!).
With both stories I knew even before they were illustrated that they could have a life in theatre. I adore theatre, though I have come to it very late, and loved the process of translating my work for the stage and for actors. It’s taught me a lot about picture books as well as about the theatre, and increased my appetite for both. Working with music and song for King of the Sky was a very interesting parallel to working with illustration.
Another piece of mine The Day War Came which appeared in the Guardian (search for it and 3000 chairs and it’ll come up) is being made into theatre this year by students from Hereford College of Art…come see it at Hay!
Both The Promise and King of the Sky would make wonderful animations but I have no experience or contacts but if I could wave a wand…
LC: I agree!
Do you feel that picture books are sometimes considered for small children, and not intended for older children, or in fact adults to read?
ND: In the UK writing for children is still bit of a ghetto. There is a perception that picture books particularly are not important, not valued (a picture book winning the Costa imagine that?). I think that may be changing a little - I hope so. I know that when adults do read picture books - the good ones- they start to understand their incredible power. A good picture book can carry as much in it as a great novel. Certainly the two Laura and I have created together tell stories that speak across ages and across cultures.
LC: I couldn't agree more. When I was a student I could be very snobby towards picture books. It wasn't till I was given my first one to illustrate that I realised how incredibly difficult they are! The no wasting of words, the pace, energy and love that needs to go into them... They are such an important form of storytelling, as well as a great advert for the power of editing.
Now that I have a baby, I am again reminded of how picture books are a pleasure to read - they are our first look at words and pictures as children and, whether we know it or not, they stay with us. So they are exceptionally important, for adults, just as much as children.
With recent world events, how important do you think it is we teach young children about the world we live in? Or should we be offering an escape from the realities of life?
ND: BOTH. Variety is the key with all art. Art offers us a medium for understanding and explaining our existence to ourselves and to others and also a route to escape and to think differently. But I think I will always be more interested in creating things that explain, that explore that offer a new and more helpfully of seeing reality and the problems and challenges that face us.
LC: Again, I agree. I personally feel that things should be rooted in the real and then transport you to the fantastical. Children need to know about what goes on around them, but they also need to play.
Your book is about many things: as well as the meaning of home, it also looks at old age and friendship. What message are you hoping readers will take from it?
ND: That change is possible; that a situation that you think is immutably awful can shift and become something else. But really it’s not up to me: once a story is in the world it has its own life. I write open ends in my stories, I don't tell readers everything, quite deliberately, so that they can make the story their own. Lovely as it may be on the page it is lovelier still living in a reader’s heart.
King of the Sky is endorsed by Amnesty International. Do you know what the process was that enabled that to happen? What does the endorsement mean to you and for the book?
ND: I don’t know how it happened… ask my editor Caroline Royds and she’ll tell you! But it’s huge for me, a huge endorsement of what I do and the values I hold, in the face of a publishing industry that often ignores and devalues the work of the writers and artists now which it depends. And for the book and the story it tells it's wonderful… I hope it will reach and speak to adults and children because Amnesty has given it the stamp of approval. That story of diaspora is not a new one, and will never be too old to be told again and again in human history.