Nicola is the author/illustrator of our February 2018 feature book, What’s Next Door? It is the sequel to Open Very Carefully. A fabulous read-aloud and fun interactive book about the very charming Carter the Crocodile.
MARMALADE BOOKS (MB): You were born in Swaziland, grew up in Singapore and spent time in numerous other cities including Edinburgh before settling in Los Angeles. What took you to these places and which was your favourite? Have you been to Canada?
NICOLA O’BYRNE (NO): My parents were international school teachers before they retired, and we moved around a couple times. I did a gap year in Kenya before I moved to the UK for university, where I met my Dutch/American husband during my first year at Edinburgh College of Art. He had always wanted to live in different places, and it felt normal for me. We moved to Los Angeles together a couple years ago. I do think moving gets harder as you get older, but it's always exciting and interesting, too.
I have been to Canada, several times, and I love it! I had my first ever apple bran muffin at the YMCA in Vancouver. I almost studied at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. I had to accept my place at Edinburgh before I found out I'd been accepted at Emily Carr. In the end, Edinburgh was a good choice for me, but I would move to Vancouver given half a chance. I'm still trying to persuade my husband! I love it there, the ocean, the mountains, and that lovely city tucked between... it's a special place. My sister studied at McGill in Montreal, and we visited her there, but it was a bit cold for me. I went on a camping trip with my family around Victoria, BC, and Whistler, and it's one of my most fondly remembered holidays. I went back to be a facilitator at a month long youth leadership seminar at Pearson United World College, also in Victoria, and I saw the northern lights on the drive over from the airport, just like that! I'll never forget it. Vancouver Island is beautiful. Japan and Canada are probably my two favourite places. This answer became long but I got excited thinking about it.
MB: You started drawing at an early age. Did you start writing at the same time?
NO: I was always writing stories when I was little. Once I wrote a fractured fairy tale, and my ever encouraging teacher laminated the cover, stuck a Dewey Decimal System label on the spine and catalogued it in the school library! I was so proud! The story I wrote then was not totally dissimilar to The Last Book Before Bedtime (Nosy Crow). I stopped writing fiction for a long time through my teenage years, and when I started again in University it was very hard going. It did not come naturally to me at all. I regret not keeping up my creative writing throughout high school; my English teacher encouraged us to do it, but I was always so tired. I still struggle with that aspect of my job, but I also very much enjoy it.
MB: While in Edinburgh, you studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2010 with a BA in Visual Communication. You speak highly of the school. It seems they helped you on your way to a successful career with an amazing (if I'm correct) 9 books in 8 years.
NO: The Illustration Department at ECA is amazing. My teachers were all successful illustrators, and had diverse skill sets, from digital illustration to traditional woodblock printmaking. The Printmaking Department was completely open to us and free to use, and I took it for granted at the time, but thinking about it now, it was an incredible resource. I loved the mix of traditional methods and more modern techniques. There was an emphasis on drawing skills and life drawing, and sketchbook work. We had live briefs and lectures about book keeping. There was also an emphasis on independent study, which was frustrating for some visiting students who were more used to structured classes, but in my opinion, it was vital in my first few years as an illustrator to know how to work by myself without any outside motivation. Jonathan Gibbs, the Head of Department, is a talented printmaker. I always valued my tutorials with him because he'd glance at your work and provide insights into what you were trying to do when you felt like you'd been grasping at smoke. He'd always be right! I cannot recommend that department highly enough. I am still in touch with some of my teachers such as Jill Calder. She has recently had a beautiful book published with Bloomsbury called The Picture Atlas, by Simon Holland.
MB: Another graduate of the Edinburgh College of Art whom you said was a great influence on you, was children's author/illustrator Catherine Rayner (one of my favourites). Catherine was graduating as you were entering the college and you had an opportunity to meet. What was it like to meet her and have you stayed in touch?
NO: I met Catherine Rayner twice, once when she was a graduating student, and once when she came back to ECA to give a lecture. The first time she was kind enough to talk to my Mum and I about her experience as a student at ECA, and I do not think she realised the depth of the impression she left on us. The second time, having gushed about her at length to my Head of Department, Jonathan called out to her, "I THINK SOMEONE HERE WOULD LIKE TO MEET YOU!" at the end of her lecture. I blushed red as a tomato and couldn't think of what to say. She is very lovely. I have emailed her a couple of times with questions, but I'm not in touch with her. It's difficult to chat with people you admire so much.
MB: Was it your interest in baking that inspired The Great Dragon Bake Off? This book hasn't reached Canada yet, but with a recent popular Canadian edition of the Great British Bake Off, I'm hoping it will arrive soon! With a main character/dragon named Flamie Oliver and references to The Great British Bake Off, I'm sure it will be a big hit. Did you get any feedback from Jamie Oliver or the TV show?
NO: I love baking and I wanted to do a book filled with cake, but what inspired The Great Dragon Bake Off was actually the back story of one of the contestants. He was studying to be a lawyer but he really wanted to bake. His story resonated with me, because when I had wanted to be an illustrator several family members, particularly my Grandmother, had told me I was wasting my potential and I'd never amount to anything. After my first book was published, my Grandmother said she'd made a mistake, but that was 7 years later, which is a long time to carry someone's disapproval. I wanted to write a feel good book about being yourself, and about having some sense of self worth. The dragon character was originally named Heston, but one of the team at Bloomsbury suggested Flamie Oliver and I loved that name. I have never heard from Jamie Oliver, and I'm not sure he's read the book. If he has, I hope he likes it!
MB: Our feature book for February, What's Next Door, is a sequel to Open Very Carefully. You illustrated both books and took over writing duties this time around from Nick Bromley. I adore Carter the Crocodile and the interactive aspect of the books. Will there be more in the series?
NO: It's possible there will be more, both Nosy Crow and myself are up for it, but for now we have put it on hold. I have a new book coming out with Nosy Crow this year which is a bit different. The book still deals with some abstract concepts but has a more linear storyline. We're very excited about it and I hope to explore more ideas in this new direction, for now. As tempting as it is to want to continue stories with familiar characters (after all, they're like family!), I think you need a good reason to do it.
My thanks to Nicola O’Byrne for this interview. It was a pleasure getting to know more about this very talented author/illustrator.