Eric and Joanna Johnson, authors of Phoebe's Sweater and co-founders of Slate Falls Press, exhibit that trademark fearlessness. They have created something I've not seen before: a children's book with knitting patterns. Eric illustrated the book, and Joanna penned the story and dreamed up the patterns.
The book is absolutely freaking adorable. I tech edited the patterns, and can say with authority that they're adorable, too.
Eric and Joanna were nice enough to let me grill them - see the interview below.
1. Tell us a bit about yourselves.
Eric: Joanna and I have been married for 10 years and have three children together. We have always enjoyed doing creative things together, whether it be baking, or playing music together, or fixing up our house. We have been best friends since we met 13 years ago in our hometown in New Jersey.
2. Tell us a bit about Phoebe!
Joanna: Phoebe is a fictional character loosely patterned after our oldest daughter. My memories of our daughter sparked the ideas for the book Phoebe's Sweater... and as the project grew, Phoebe developed into a rich character of her own. It was a little later on in the process of developing the book that I thought of designing a seamless knit toy for the pattern section of the book... then we had a whole new process of watching Phoebe Mouse become a knitted toy. The idea of having Phoebe be a writer herself and have a travel blog came about while we were developing the story. It is really a fun way to connect with people from all walks of life- everyone has a really fun time with her!
3. What was the inspiration for this undertaking?
Eric: Ever since we first met, we knew Joanna loved books and that I loved to draw. Deep down I think we always knew we would make a book together- it is a dream of ours that we worked on together.
Joanna: Phoebe's Sweater was inspired by our daughter and the time I spent knitting her a jacket while I was pregnant with our second child. When I finished the sweater she was playing in the sprinkler and it was in the midst of summer's heat. I called her over to try it on, and at that moment, something seemed so poignant about everything- her carefree playfulness, my pregnancy, the coming changes in the seasons and in our family... it was a very rich moment and inspired the whole story from there.
4. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
Joanna: We talk about our work a lot, and we spent a lot of time talking about this project before we actually went about it seriously. I came up with the storyline and wrote the story in a draft version, and then Eric developed characters and sketched and started laying out the illustrations. We left everything in draft form for a few months before doing final versions of the story and artwork. During this time I also worked on designing and knitting the patterns from the book. The knitting patterns were a very natural outgrowth of the creative process for me... the ideas just kept coming to me as we were creating the book. Because we published Phoebe's Sweater ourselves, we were allowed complete creative control of the whole process. I think this is one of the best parts about this for us creatively- I was able to pick yarn, colors, be there for photo shoots, select pattern photos, lay out the book, choose the paper and format of the book... that is pretty rare for a writer to be able to have that much input into the final product.
5. Why did you choose to found Slate Falls Press rather than publish via a more traditional route?
Eric: We initially did want to go the traditional route, and sent a book draft and proposal out to a few publishing houses last fall- the reason it didn't work it is that we were rejected! One night we started talking about self-publishing, and the next day Joanna's Yarn Market News came in the mail with an article about self-published knitting book authors, and it occurred to us that we might just be able to do this ourselves. Slate Falls Press grew up right along next to Phoebe's Sweater, Phoebe Mouse, and the knitting patterns and artwork.
6. This book seems like a
great deal of co-creation, with one of you illustrating and the other knitting and writing. How was working together that closely?
Joanna: Well, we did everything pretty much exactly the opposite of the way children's books are typically created. Generally, a publishing house will handle all communication between the author and the illustrator to the point where they would never meet or likely even speak during the book creation process. In our case, we did everything together, and talked a lot about every detail of the story and artwork. It is actually a writer's dream to work this way- to have the illustrator approach you and say, "What kind of pattern should be on the dishes here?" is just so fun for me. And although it isn't typical, I think it does give a very complete and congruous end result when you are able to work together the way we have.
7. Did your children help out?
Eric: Actually, our daughter has a really good eye, and has given me some good ideas for the dresses and clothing of the characters in Phoebe's Sweater. I ask her advice about colors, too.
Joanna: She is also a pretty talented knitter in her own right- so I do ask for ideas when I am looking for input on a design, too!
8. What do your studios
Eric: My studio is next to our house in a little outbuilding that I remodeled a few years ago. Actually, Joanna's dad mailed out some windows that were taken out of the old family farmhouse- we put them in to bring some great natural light into the studio. It's pretty simple, a quiet space where I can work at my drafting table and listen to my music if I want to. I like to be able to stay up late and draw and just think out my ideas.
Joanna: Last fall I turned a room that was the baby's nursery into my studio and office. I have a nice cozy spot to sit and knit, a big shelf full of books, a nice old wooden desk with big drawers where I do the press business, a decently organized yarn stash, and a walk-in closet where I store patterns, fabric, and works-in-progress. And books.
9. Do you two find any
interesting similarities or differences in knitting and illustrating? What about children's book writing?
Eric: They're different methods, but they're all a craft you practice in their own way. I love to play music, too, and there are similarities there. Anything creative is just a great thing to be able to enjoy.
Joanna: Anything creative requires practice and work, revisions, and finally moving toward a place where you say "this is done" and you put it out there for people to see. Creative work just comes in different forms!
10. What's next for you guys?
Joanna: Well, we are working actively on our next book, Eric is drawing character sketches and scenarios, and I am working with Brown Sheep Company again for yarn support on the knitting pattern designs... we feel like this is just the beginning for us and can't wait to see what happens next.