BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Alex Latimer lives in Cape Town where he writes, illustrates and makes beautiful picture books. The Space Race, his first novel, has just been published by Umuzi (R180), and he recently illustrated a new edition of Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling.
Describe your workspace.
I work from home in an extra-long converted garage with views of mountains and neighbours and foliage. Currently my studio space is furnished with things that don’t fit in my house. I realized recently that things need to change and I’m in the process of making a new desk and getting nice chairs and plants – and getting rid of the Uncomfortable Red Couch.
What are you working on at the moment?
Two awesome new picture books – one for Random House UK, the other for Penguin US. A new novel. Building bookshelves and making tables for my studio.
What’s your most productive time of day?
Between 8am and lunchtime. Those four hours are basically double value hours – and if I can manage to get those in, the afternoon can be for emailing and staring out of the window.
You’ve created picture books, and now have just released a novel. How was the process of producing the latter different?
Writing is a strange process – getting 75 000 decent words down takes ages, but when you’re actually writing them, time passes really fast. It’s a time-defying task – loads of tiny fractions that add up to make a year. So I suppose the difference is that picture books happen in real time while novels happen outside of time.
What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?
I go and work in a coffee shop, or take a drive. It’s usually just as I sit down, or just as I’m driving down my road that inspiration hits and I have to decide whether to head home or not. But if the spark is missing, it’s sometimes better just to go to the beach and not feel guilty about it.
Who and what has influenced your work?
My dad wrote and illustrated a picture book in 1982 called The Expedition to the Rainbow’s Heart – and so for me, making picture books was just something people did. That really gave me a lot of confidence. Also, my brother Patrick was an illustrator before I was – and seeing his success showed me that turning my hobbies into work was possible. Then it was Oliver Jeffers’s picture books that really made me want to make my own. On the writing side there are several authors who have influenced my understanding of how to write, but the main three are Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago and Cormac McCarthy.
You have a very distinctive illustrative style. How did this develop?
My style developed as a sort of default. I’d written my first picture book and struggled to find someone to illustrate it, so I began practicing drawing in order to do the book myself. My style developed in that year of practice and it’s basically a combination of what came out of my pencil and a conscious effort to stylize characters in order to be able to draw them multiple times without making them look like shape-shifting demons.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Don’t leave work unfinished. Even if you think it’s rubbish, finish it.”
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
The times when work is thin on the ground and I have to find the motivation to use that time constructively. I try to turn all down-time into something useful – that’s how my first picture book came about, as well as my novel. But it can go both ways – either very productive or very disheartening.
What was the most challenging thing you’ve worked on?
The Western Nostril cartoon strip – simply because of the relentless deadlines over three years.
What’s the key ingredient to a successful children’s book?
A great story. Great images will not make up for a terrible story, but a great story can carry mediocre illustrations. It’s also key to ensure that as an author you’re talking to kids as well as to their parents. I often include humour that only adults will get, but not at the expense of a story that children will enjoy.
What are you afraid of?
Kloofing at night through spider webs.
What’s your greatest achievement?
Work-wise I suppose it’s the fact that I’ve been able to sustain a career as a writer and illustrator. There’ve been big moments though – signing my first picture book deal with Random House UK and then also getting a novel published.
Your favourite ritual?
Sitting and thinking outside on my deck in a chair in the sun.
How do you relax?
Sport — but it has to engage the brain, otherwise I just continue to think about work. So a competitive game of squash or tennis, or some hair-raising downhill single-track on a mountain bike. Those help to switch me off from work mode.