Interview with Eliza Wheeler about MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS and DOLL BONES
Eliza Wheeler and I met at the SCBWI Summer Conference in 2010, when both of us were chosen for the Illustration Mentorship Program. We both hit it off right away; I love Eliza’s positive life outlook, enthusiasm and wry wit. Since then, we’ve become good friends and I fervently wish we lived closer together so could hang out more often. Geography really sucks sometimes.
The photo to the right was taken by Eliza’s filmmaker/photographer husband, Adam Wheeler (who is just as cool as his lovely wife).
It’s been so exciting to watch Eliza’s career take off since that SCBWI conference. Not only did she win the Overall Portfolio Showcase the year after, but her first picture book, MISS MAPLE’S SEEDS (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin), hit the New York Times Bestseller list!! Eliza has a lot of other projects already on the go, of course, but was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for Inkygirl readers.
What was your work process for MISS MAPLE SEEDS?
When I started working on the finals for MISS MAPLE, I had printed out light sketches onto the final drawing paper with my Epson printer (a step I’ve replaced by traditionally transferring the sketch via a light box), and I stretched and taped my paper onto 16 plywood boards. That way, I could work on all of them at the same time and build up slow washes, moving onto the next as I let layers dry. Creating finals for picture books calls for long hours, and I’ve found audio books to be really helpful while I work. I believe during this book I listened to The Hunger Games, and started the Harry Potter series.
Photo by Adam Wheeler
What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writer/illustrators?
1) Be patient while you build up your body of work. Just focus on your craft, and leave the business side of storytelling for later; for when your work is REALLY good.
2) Create the kind of work that your kid self would have loved. Be your own audience, and always ask yourself “If someone else made this, would I read it? Would I put it up on my wall?”. It seems obvious, but more often than not when I ask myself this question, I’m surprised to think “no”.
3) Read, read, read. Whenever I’m stuck with my storytelling I read. I get new ideas or answers to existing stories when I read. And don’t just read in your genre. A friend lent me Aimee Bender’s adult novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and I was distracted through the entire thing because every single time I sat down to read that book, a particular story I was working on would come to me in waves. I don’t know why that was, but certain books will do that, and I’ve learned that it’s a really great thing.
Photo: Rachel Jackson
Photo: Rachel Jackson.How was your book launch party?
It was INCREDIBLE. I had so much help from my good friends on the day of the event, and it was also my first public speech. I was so nervous, but then really enjoyed telling the story of this special book. There was a large crowd, and it meant the world to see all these friends from different areas of my life come together. There were people there I hadn’t seen in years! Also, my books sold out! They had something like 54 copies. We were blown away. I knew that I wanted to make it special for my debut book, but it was even better than I could have imagined.
Congrats on MISS MAPLE’S SEEDSmaking it onto the New York Times Bestseller list! What was your reaction when you found out?
It was of complete and utter disbelief! I saw it mentioned on twitter late in the evening, and thought it was a mix-up. Then Nancy Paulsen emailed me the list, and I was in shock. I told my husband, but it sounded more like a question, “My book got on the New York Times bestseller list?” We just kept saying, “what?! what?!” back and forth. And then I think we laughed a lot and continued saying “what?!”.
Your fabulous illustrations appear in the just-released DOLL BONES by Holly Black. How did that process go?
Doll Bones was extremely fun to work on – illustrations for middle grade go a lot faster than picture-books, it’s sort of less excruciating in the sense that we don’t need to convey too much information with the illustrations. They add fun, mood, and flavor – there’s an ease there that I love. I worked entirely with Simon and Schuster’s art director, Sonia Chaghatzbanian, but Holly was sweet to send me a couple Tweets through the process to let me know she was loving the illustrations, which were thrilling messages to get.
What are you working on now?
As for new projects, I’m right in the thick of illustrations for a picture book by Mara Rockliff called The Grudge Keeper. It’s a super fun story; one of those manuscripts I couldn’t turn down because I wished I had written it. I’m also working on a new picture book idea with my editor Nancy Paulsen at Penguin, but can’t say much about that yet. I also will be working on a brilliant middle grade novel by Kate Milford called Left Handed Fate, and I’m equally excited and nervous for that project, just because I want to do Kate’s story justice with the illustrations.
Where to find out more about Eliza and her work:
Eliza’s website: http://wheelerstudio.com/
On Twitter: @WheelerStudio
Eliza Swanson-Wheeler on Facebook
Aspiring writers/illus: Create the kind of work your kid self would have loved. @WheelerStudio http://bit.ly/YVJMuu (Tweet this)
Be patient while you build up your body of work. Focus on craft first, biz later. @WheelerStudio http://bit.ly/YVJMuu (Tweet this)
Also see For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.