An Interview with Zoey Abbott
Interviewed by John Repplinger
July 19, 2023
Zoey Abbott is a children’s book author and illustrator who lives in Portland, OR. She loves her dog, Carrots, and her family too. She also loves writing books for kids and for herself. For Zoey, making stories is an indulgence, a spiritual practice, and a way to sort out things that make no sense. Zoey is the author of four books, one of which (Pig and Horse and the Something Scary) was recently named a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and is also a Powell's Books Bestseller. Zoey's work is consistently described as "weird" which she takes as a compliment.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to be any fruit or vegetable, what would it be and why?
I like the vegetable, okra, because it is green, soft yet crispy, and also slimy - if you blanch it just right. It’s surprising and fresh and the seeds pop when your teeth crunch down. I love my dad’s mulberry tree. The berries taste the best when they look the worst.
Many authors have people or events in their lives that inspire them to write a book. What inspired you to start writing and illustrating children’s books?
As a default, I’ve always liked playing with bits of stories in my head, noticing things that come together in interesting ways but I never knew what to do with it. And I’ve always loved making little cards and books for family and friends.
When I moved to Japan in my 20’s, I couldn't speak the language very well so I would make drawings for the people who welcomed me into their homes, taught me their language, culture and how to eat a whole fish with chopsticks, for example. A friend liked my cards and introduced me to an amazing Sumi-e painting teacher. She became a dear friend and mentor.
Shortly after I moved back to the States I made a hand-bound book with little stories and episodes for my mom’s birthday. She opened the gift when she was getting her haircut and the stylist later contacted me and asked me to make a book for her sister. It was the first time I saw there was a way to make this kind of art into a “job”. I spent a number of years making simple illustrated books on commission for clients based on interviews and reference material they provided. I got to help propose to two women this way - a ring hidden in a cut out in the back of a book once. How fun is that?
Years later I took a children’s book illustration night class with Victoria Jameison at PNCA. I loved her class so much I think I ended up taking it 3 times. She is the one who demystified the publishing industry and shared her own path for making work. There are a lot of us illustrators in Portland who owe our careers in some way to Victoria.
Can you explain what the writing process is like for you? Do your illustrations influence your storylines?
I think we all collect things from daily life, what we read, see, who we meet, landscapes, interactions, dreams, memories etc. If we are lucky, some of these things combine in interesting ways and we are inspired to make something new from it.
Some of my book ideas start with words and others with pictures. When I’m working on an idea. I like to toggle back and forth between the two. Switching can help me get unstuck. Working on multiple stories at a time is also good for keeping things fluid and flowing.
My first two publishing jobs were for illustration. When you receive a manuscript you can’t just illustrate what is said in the text. This would be redundant and boring - nobody would read that book. You’ve got to find the spaces between the text and find a secondary visual narrative.
With a good manuscript there will be all this airyness - all kinds of space for you to do your work. Things won’t be said explicitly or fully resolved in the text. The illustrator has to solve these puzzles in a fun and unexpected way. I think the same thing goes when you are illustrating your own book. The illustrator-self gets to take the story and make it her own. Hopefully the writer-self is amused and surprised.
What is most challenging for writing and illustrating children’s books?
At the beginning, I would say learning the craft was the most challenging. I had to put in the time and teach myself how to draw better - to be able to make my ideas make sense visually and be consistent. Then I had to study the format, rules and particular qualities of a picture book, learn about pacing, page turns and stakes. You have to read a lot. A picture book is an object in space, held in a person’s hands with pages that turn. Learning how to exploit and not squander all these amazing physical qualities of a book in a story is challenging and exciting.
Also, making picture books is collaborative.
Finding trusted people to share your work with (at the right time) and learning how to critique well with others is very important. It requires time, energy, mutual trust and vulnerability to seek and find critique partners - to learn how to give good feedback and how to receive it as part of one’s process. When you find your people, the work is so much better - more fun and done with more ease.
For a long time I would feel too shy or embarrassed to share my work and would often ‘pass’ when it was my time to share work in our group. Learning how to share has been key for me. The moment you send a draft into the world you see it differently even if someone else doesn’t open the email. Other eyes and ears on the work keeps it moving and flowing and growing. The same goes for finding an agent and editors who resonate with your stories. When I’m at an impasse, my agent somehow gives me just exactly the notes I need. And the editors are the same. One person’s name might end up on the spine of the book - but really there could be a dozen, at least. Finding the right collaborators is the thing.
What art mediums do you use?
For Pig and Horse and the Something Scary I used pencil, colored pencil, gouache and then some sumi-e ink for the manifestation of Pig’s fears. I have tended to use some combination of these materials in most of my books.
My most recent book, Banana, however, is a combination of pencil line art and color printing. I made textures and patterns in various mediums, scanned them in and risograph printed them at OUTLET PDX. I combined these with the line drawings using photoshop.
You mention having children and a dog (Carrots) on your website bio. How do you balance writing and illustrating with other aspects of your life?
When my kids were young it was harder to make time to work, but they were also infinitely inspiring which was a real gift. Now my kids are teenagers so parenting is a little less intensely hands-on. I think being a parent of humans and dogs (or any kind of pets) can be great inspiration for books.
Location is an important element of a story, and you have a variety of scenes throughout your books such as where the wolves live in Over the Moon, Clementine’s house, and the banana store. How do you select your locations and scenes?
For I Do Not Like Yolanda, I heavily relied on memories of my neighborhood growing up (and also some reference photos provided by my dad) of our local post office and businesses like Happy Donut, Shufat’s Market and neighborhoods. I tend to use real places in memory as a starting point for locations - not for any reason except that they are readily available.
Do you base any of your characters on people you know?
I might not set out to do this intentionally but I definitely end up seeing friends and family in my characters. In retrospect, Horse is definitely my best friend, Veneta, who has a big, beautiful mane of hair, a huge smile and is full of insight and loving support. I am Pig, nervous and worried and pink.
It seems like my dad ends up in a lot of my books– if you see a bearded man—that might be him. Prickly Aunt Mildred was inspired directly by my Grandmother, Joan, who wore a black pant-suit with palm trees almost every day. Mildred’s one line in the book is something my grandmother actually said to me over dinner. She was never boring, that’s for sure.
Your stories touch on certain themes. Pig and Horse and the Something Scary, for example, touches on facing fears and anxiety. Why did you choose to write a children’s book on these topics? How do you select themes for your books?
Honestly, I don’t really think about themes while I’m writing and I might not even know what the book is ‘about’ until the book is done and someone(s) tells me.
To me a story is a conversation and exploration and a discovery. The reader gives a book its meaning, if it has any.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
Reading a children’s picture book is often a shared experience between an adult/reader and a child/pre-reader. I hope kids enjoy reading the book (on their own or with someone), laugh a little, and find some part of it that maybe resonates. Maybe they use the story as a jumping off point for their own stories. I’ve seen that before. A kid will say as an example, “Well, I think you should have made the banana do this!” Then they go off and draw their idea and make it their own.
I like to go to school visits and see what kids are writing and drawing. I think kids are better at this job than we are—they are the ones who are swimming in the subconscious. They have unfettered fun and delight and don’t hold back. That’s where the good stuff lives.
Do you have any new books or projects that you’re working on that you’d like to mention?
I am currently working on the final art for A Kite Story to publish with Kids Can Press in 2025. This Year a Witch! will also publish in 2025 with Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/ Atheneum, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.