At the Desk: Bill Slavin

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Bill Slavin's desk

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer (and often an illustrator) has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, creators tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Author and illustrator Bill Slavin has worked on more than 50 (you read that right!) books for young readers. His newest project is Big City Otto (Kids Can Press), which follows the adventures of Otto the elephant while he searches for his childhood friend, Georgia the chimpanzee.

As part of our month-long celebration of graphic literature, Bill shares with us about his work space, creative process and the beauty in the mess.

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Funny thing, my writing about workspace and how it inspires me. If you take a look at the photo of my workspace, you can see it doesn't abound in aesthetic qualities. Quite the opposite, really — messy, somewhat functional, cluttered. Some circus reference is taped to the table for the current page in my graphic novel Big Top Otto that I'm sketching, but most of what goes on paper I carry around in my head.

There's a piece of scrap paper that I clean my pen nib on or use as a guard against smudging the graphite as I work across my page. A bulletin board that has the detritus of the last two decades still pinned on it — an image I did years ago for the Vancouver Island Children's Book Festival, a list of books and their deadlines. A treasured portrait some kid did of me years ago that makes me laugh every time I look at it because he nailed me with the funny, somewhat calloused eye of a born cartoonist. My brag wall hung with various awards my books have received over the years, because I don't know where else to put them. The only truly aesthetic bit is my view out the window, a bucolic view of woods, a pond — and even that is obstructed by more clutter. I can't claim to stare out the window much anyway. Never, really.

My partner's studio is the opposite. Bright, well-heeled, organized. Her beautiful, colourful paintings hang on the walls. An impressionist calendar is attached next to her desk. Paint tubes in organized boxes, paint brushes neatly stacked in jars by size and marshalled in a row.

Me, I move from pencil to pen to brush in a mad scrabble through chaos, pricking my thumb on a pointy protractor or a hidden quill pen amongst my tumble of art supplies that cover my side table. Ink is slopped out and around the bottle and splattered across the pine floor, a floor chewed up by restless to-ing and fro'-ing of my wheeled kneeling chair as I brandish the tools of my trade. Once every couple of years I scrub the patina of graphite off my old wooden drawing table, a cutdown hand-me-down relic salvaged by a friend from the OCA decades ago.

So why do I operate in such chaos? I think the simple answer lies in my creative process, that in the rush to create, to get stuff down on paper, I don't have the time or patience to create an aesthetic surrounding. It would be a waste of time, anyway, window dressing for others, as it is all happening in my head — the visioning, the creation of imaginary spaces, even the music. I tonelessly whistle the same tune over and over again in a monotonous dirge of expelled wind that leaves my lips parched and dry at the end of a working day while symphonies play in my head. Because the music is there, part of the meditative, otherworld timeless spaceless-ness that I think most visual artists create in, regardless of their physical surroundings. I used to listen to CBC, but talk radio invades the same part of my head, the cognitive part I use when I'm drawing and inking (not so much painting) so I have fallen out of the habit. Mostly I create in silence.

But on a larger scale, my home does inspire me. Now that spring is here, I start my day on the back porch with a cup of tea and a book. The rural nature at the edge of a small southern Ontario village that surrounds our house is a constant inspiration. Phoebes are nesting in the eaves. Daily walks through the village with my partner recharge my batteries. The unhurried, neighbourly nature of small town life is a good fit for me these days and helps create the mental workspace in which I create. And all of that, a melodious life, friends, loved ones and surroundings come back with me to my not-so-aesthetic drawing table and nurture and support me throughout my day as I put my imaginary world on paper.

— Bill Slavin

Bill Slavin is an award-winning children's book illustrator with over 50 books to his credit. His works include Stanley’s Party and The Bear on the Bed. He lives in Millbrook, Ontario.

For more information about Big City Otto please visit the Kids Can Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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