I AM intrigued to unearth the influences, and discover further insights of Belgian born Carll Cneut’s children’s work. He is an author and illustrator who has sold over 200,000 children’s books worldwide. I am at The Children’s Book Show, Queen Elizabeth Building, Southbank in London where Carll is performing his one hour, one man show. I am informed that Carll can spare a little time after the morning show for an interview. However, shortly, after I arrive, I am really worried that this will take place at all, because there is an announcement to say that one of the guest schools would be arriving late.
However, after the hugely successful show, I was thrilled to be informed that the interview would go ahead as planned, despite the delayed start. So, literally within minutes of Carll’s fantastic, energetic show Morag and I are ushered through a maze of long, brown corridors to meet him. Morag Charlwood is writing a report of Carll’s one hour show for Armadillo and I am grateful for her company because I am undertaking my first interview and her reassuring presence is welcome. Secondly, I am not sure if I am going to find my way back to reception through the long maze of corridors, afterwards without her!
We are led to a lofty, lobby area where there are two brown leather sofas opposite each other. This is where Carll and I sit facing each other. On a small table beside Carll is full cup of frothy coffee. Morag is sitting beside me.
As I ask the first question, about who have been the main influences upon his artistic and literary work Carll is aware from my facial expressions that I haven’t heard of the Belgian artists he has mentioned. Silently, he takes my clipboard from me and obligingly prints three names, Van de Woestyne, Ensor and Tytgat, who I later discover were Belgian expressionist painters. Carll adds, “other influences from illustrators come mainly from past great storytellers, in images from Arthur Rackham, Gustave Doré, and Dutchman Anton Piek.’
Carll explains how he became involved in writing and illustrating books, ‘I never meant to become an illustrator; let alone a children's book illustrator. I studied Graphic Design, and then rolled into the publicity world, where I was working on publicity campaigns, mainly focusing on packaging and launching food products.. But, back in 1996, I met the sister of my current Flemish publisher, De Eenhoorn, who also worked in graphic design, and whilst we were discussing a campaign, she came across an old school illustration by me. She suggested I should illustrate for a children's magazine owned by her brother. I wasn't really interested, but the publisher called me and I did the illustration. After a while of illustrating for the magazine, I received my first book offer. It took me four books to realize that a children's book illustrator was what I really wanted to be; from then it all went very fast and in 2000 I became a full time illustrator. Now it is hard for me to imagine that I'd be anything else... I always felt that this job found me.’
In the past you have collaborated with many different authors, such as, Flemish author Geert De Kockere, Malachy Doyle, Carl Norac, and Marilyn Singer, what have you gained from this experience?
The whole process has given me a great insight and taught me a lot about the way I look at books. In the UK, you work with a lot of different people, whereas, in Belgium it is completely different, in that, you just work with one person. Sizes of publishing houses in the UK and Belgium are of course incomparable, as we live in a small language area and although we have a small market, we do have a very broad range of picture books, from the very commercial to the highly artistic books and each genre seems to have found its own public, over here. They are also aimed at a broader ‘age range’ whereas; in the UK picture books seem to be aimed at a slightly younger age. In Flanders we make picture books for children from 0 to about 9 years. But very often a publisher will indicate suitability for a book from 9 years to 109 years!
Each new book is of course, the sum of everything you have learned from working on the previous ones, besides training your skills, whilst making a book. I try to pick up insights or visions from each author or publisher. Of course, I don’t always agree with them, but at the very least, it is giving me something to consider. I have learnt a great deal from working with UK publishers and authors.
Which children’s and adult magazines do you contribute to?
1n the past I have contributed many articles in The New York Times and Belgium children’s magazines when I was still working part time in the publicity world. But these days, I work mainly on illustrating books besides teaching illustration at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent.
Let’s talk about the illustrations and writing you produce. Do you have a special place where you work? How long does it take you to write and to illustrate your books?
As you know, I live in Ghent in Belgium and I have a bow shaped window in my studio which overlooks the canal. Everyday, I see the general public walking, jogging and cycling by in front of me, people I don’t know personally. At various times during the day the same people pass by and I take inspiration from them. Often, I base my characters upon them in my illustrations. It can take between 6-10 months to finish my books, as my technique of painting is very time consuming. I work with acrylic paint and use layers on layers of colour. Sometimes it takes 5-6 layers of colour to get the effect I am after. Often everything gets painted a few times.
When it comes to writing and illustrating your own work, can you describe the process – which comes first the story or the illustrations?
In my case, it’s always the story first but of course, I have written just one book myself – The Amazing Love Story of Mr.Morf – Published by Macmillan. These days I get so many good projects sent to me from authors and publishing houses that I just can’t find the time to start writing again. So it is always the story first, choosing the right story to illustrate is the difficult thing, but of course, I have built in a number of parameters, which help me to decide whether to accept or to turn down a project.
This year you have been you have been shortlisted for the prestigious Hans Christian Award. Can you talk about the effect it has had upon your career?
The award nomination came totally out of the blue during my short career. It was a small disappointment that I didn’t win, but if I had won I would have been paralysed with fear. It has had a huge impact upon my sales in Asia, and it has given me confidence in my work. It also seems to have made an opening for me in some former ‘Russian’ countries as some of my latest books have been sold to Armenia and Georgia, which is a new region for me to be published.
If you were to have dinner with five famous people, living or dead, who would they be, what would be on the menu and what would be the topics of conversation?
Present at this dinner would be Arthur Rackham, Jules Verne, Madonna and my two very best friends. It would be a Flemish/Belgian inspired menu.
The starter would be ‘Garnaalkroket’ – shrimp dish with fried parsley, followed by mussels in wine with fries and for dessert some sorbet. The meal would be accompanied by good wines.
With Arthur Rackham we would discuss Shakespeare and illustrating.
With Jules Verne we would discuss how he came to write ‘Around the World in 80 Days’.
We would discuss with Madonna how she manages to stay on top after all these years and we would talk to her about self- marketing.
I’d bring along my two best friends, so that we can talk for years after, about having met Rackham, Verne and Madonna.
What children’s projects are you currently working on? Do you have any children’s projects lined up for the future?
I am very busy currently touring the UK with The Children’s Book Show. It’s a great opportunity to meet children here and provide art workshops, too. I have just finished a picture book, ‘Ten Little Piglets by Lindsay Lee Johnson for an American publisher, Clarion Books and at present I am working with Italian writer, Anna Castagnoli who was one of my students during an illustration course I was running in Italy. Since then Anna has proved herself to be a great illustrator and a great writer. The story is about a princess called Valentina who collects birds. I am also working on a series of stories about a rabbit and a beaver, who by accident become neighbours and great friends.
Do you have any book tours planned in the near future? Are there any places or countries you would like to take your one man show to?
I will be going to Norway and Italy to do readings and workshops in the near future. But to be honest, I had never done ' a show' in a theatre before I came to the UK last week, as I tend to be a rather shy person, it is something I shunned away from in the past. Some people found this rather hard to believe but my very first show ever, ever, ever was only the day before in Oxford, and the second was in London, which was based on improvising and, off course, the experience was drawn from doing hundreds/thousands of readings/workshops in several countries in the past. It was a huge personal victory for me, stepping out and taking the stage in Oxford, someone literally had to push me on to the stage. It all just felt great and amazing, giving and feeling the energy and receiving all this enthusiasm from the public. Now I just want to continue doing these shows, for whoever needs me!
How do you envisage your career developing?
I have been so lucky, and am so grateful about how everything has gone so far - especially as I never expected myself to become an illustrator in the first place- and all the good things that have come to me, that even if I had to stop making books/illustrating right now, I'd still remain a happy man. But in the mean time, I will continue to work hard and hope everything keeps going as well as it does! And I hope to remain a children's book illustrator as long as possible.
For children wishing to following your career path as an international artist and writer what advice would you give them?
Always believe in yourself, work hard, enjoy it and most important of all, always try to be a nice person!
As the interview is drawing to a close, we were reminded that there was not much time left. Without hesitation Carll ignored the interruption and continued completing his answers. At the end of the interview I noticed that the cup of coffee was still almost full. Morag took the opportunity to ask Carll if he would sign a book for her three year old twin grandsons. This he did with a smile, and the autograph was accompanied by a cute illustration.
Despite the terrible weather Thursday 23rd September was brightened by a day of firsts. It isn’t every day that you get to meet a world class author and illustrator who has had such a powerful and positive effect on such a young audience. Despite the many demands on his time, Carll is sensitive to other people’s needs, and is skilled at delivering additional requests with great charm and politeness. He is a master of provocation and reading human reactions. He is a gem on every level.
On the way back to reception Morag and I still managed to get lost!
by Marion Griffiths