Kayce Swigelson is the author and illustrator of The Grand Adventures of Petit Louis, a children's book that follows a mustachioed cat around Paris as he searches for a present for his owner and adds his signature look to the city's landmarks with a flourish of his paintbrush. The book educates as it entertains by introducing readers to French culture and vocabulary as the story unfolds.
By day, Kayce teaches French and art at a private boys' school in St. Louis. She also happens to be my good friend and former college suitemate, so I am doubly thrilled to bring you this interview with her about her debut book. And check back later this week to win an autographed copy of The Grand Adventures of Petit Louis!
Booklicious: What was your inspiration for this story?
Kayce: I've had the idea for a mustache-painting little French character since 2003, but he didn't become the tower of grace known as "Petit Louis" until 2007 when I put together the first (and very poor) draft of the book. I did an overhaul in 2009.
Many forms of inspiration aligned unexpectedly, but I think it's essentially compassion for human imperfection and the mystery (and humor!) of the creative process. The simplest thing can be an inspiration. For me, it was spending time drawing mustaches on models in J. C. Penney catalogs when I was little ... I've just always loved the unexpected and the whimsical. Once the story developed, I knew that I did not want it to be just a chain of events but a relatable journey for the imperfect human being with learning at the heart of it. Petit Louis is a fine example of the unabashed vanity and pride that we all have traces of. He's a seeker like we all are, but it's a bumpy road. However, it all comes back to that mustache, which he manages to turn into his form of love.
B: When did you start thinking about writing a children's book?
K: Books were and are one of the loves of my life. Children's literature had such an effect on me and sent me into a tailspin of love for color and poetry and escape (and they still do!). I can't remember a time when I didn't just love holding and reading books, yet I wanted to be someone who produced them as well. It's an irritating tendency of mine ... I can't just watch, I have to try and do and be a part of everything, even if only behind the scenes. That old joie de vivre is inescapable when you know your passions and when you allow yourself to be as creative as you can be.
B: Which came first, the words or the illustrations?
K: I've always wondered this myself! The only way that I can describe it is that both existed concurrently in my mind as sort of a cloud or a swirl. It was just a matter of making the time to write and illustrate it (or perhaps to "translate") it into something real, readable, and touchable to match what I saw in my mind's eye ... and that takes a lot of editing and re-doing. I've ironed over the wrinkles of this work so many times I'm surprised I haven't burned it!
B: What surprised you most about the publishing process?
K: I was prepared for how discouraging it was going to be and how much I would have to believe in myself, but I think I was surprised by how much I really did. The flood of rejection and self-doubt and editing and perfectionism really force you to invest in yourself simply because the whole process requires it, even when you're too exhausted to give it another go. I'm used to putting my head down and working through things, but this was over years of inexperience and learning and maintaining the confidence that I had created something of which I could be proud. I think that I needed the time. You really have to want it, and I still marvel at the ethereal disbelief of hearing a "yes." There is so much to learn, and I'm becoming an overall more confident woman and advocate for myself because of it. Publishing is baptism by fire, but a slow roast at that.
B: Has this experience colored the way you view books now?
K: I only love them more, although I still can't walk past a bookshelf and see my own name there without detaching a bit. This really happened? I've joined the ranks? It's not a joke? Sometimes you want something for so long that you can't even believe it when it comes around! It's a great problem to have. I still hold books reverently, smell them and touch them, and collect like a maniac. They are friends, and now I just happen to have one that is a relative. On a practical level, I have learned so much about books, pricing, markets, promotion, and care for and attention to your audience. It takes a lot for someone who is nameless to the world to emerge and be known. I'm not afraid of doing it slowly, because I still believe in what I do and I'm old fashioned like that. I think that lasting things can move slowly.
B: Where did your love for French culture spring from?
K: Yet another mystery! And like many mysteries, it was always thus. It may sound odd to say that it was just waiting to be discovered in me, but I think that it was. I started taking French in high school with very little sway toward French or Spanish, but at the last minute I chose French. From day one learning the verb "être" I was in love. I couldn't get enough. Visiting France with my French and art history teachers sealed the deal. I remember going to a flower shop (actually in a moment of desperation just to get change for the large bill I had) and the flower seller put as much care and artistry and love into the five dollars that I spent there as one would expect for an outrageous sum of money. It was then that I learned that in France it's not about quantity, it really is about quality and experiencing the beauty of life at every level. I can snobbily quote Charles Baudelaire's poem called L'Invitation au voyage about my love for France: " Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, Luxe, calme et volupté." (There all is order and beauty, / Luxury, peace, and pleasure).
B: Tell us about a favorite French memory.
K: Oh, I have many, and very funny ones at that. I lived with a French family in a wonderful three-story row house from the 1880s just around the corner from my university. The time I spent with them was cloaked in magic ... they were so loving and giving and whimsical. At the time, I was on a low-carb diet (impossible in France, just impossible). I was there with my roommate and we at dinner with the family every night at a round table. In France, bread is everything and I had to find creative ways every night to politely refuse it without offending them. At one point I remember giving a football-worthy pass of my bread across the table to my roommate and her stuffing it into her mouth before they noticed. You gotta do what you gotta do.
B: How did you manage to juggle writing this book with your day job?
K:The book was mostly in the publishing slush pile by the time I started working full time. The first draft was done when I was a senior in college and I embarrassingly sent that version to a number of publishers with dismal results. I abandoned the project save for a romanticized, escapist dream when I was studying French literature in graduate school.
It wasn't until I was working as an adjunct French lecturer at a university in St. Louis after getting my master's that I spent much of my spare time and then habitual late nights creating again. Life was very dense and focused during my studies (again, perfectionist), so I reveled in the freedom and lightness that art and writing gave me in that transitional period. It was a pleasure. The entire process slowed down when I started teaching full time, which is why it is even more miraculous that Petit Louis came to be during that period when I least expected it. As a teacher, I'll brainstorm and write down ideas in a Moleskine during the year and really attack writing and illustration in the summer.
B: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers or illustrators?
K: I can only really relate what others have taught me and what I've discovered from countless interviews with other authors, as I am in no way an expert. I can, however, liken it to another hobby of mine: antiquing and thrifting (on the cheap). Why do collectors and lovers of the past keep going to thrift stores, antique malls, and estate sales? Because you just never know when that item you've been searching for (or didn't even know you wanted) will show up. It's a hunt, it's the pursuit, and it's exciting and wonderful even when you're not finding "it." This is how I feel about writing and art; you must enjoy the journey and love it not only for the hope of finding "it" but also for the process of discovery along the way. It may eventually pay off in the way that you are expecting but the great part is how much payoff there is along the way in doing and discovering what you love. Keep at it no matter what. The time will pass anyway, you might as well spend it productively.
B: Tell us about a great book you've read recently.
K: Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, a book that he loved and cared for and researched for 12 years. We see a different side of Twain, a gorgeous look at medieval France, and, ever-Twain, he disarms us. This time, however, he does it through beauty and tragedy. It's a rare moment when an artist (and a humorist) steps out of his normal milieu and surprises us with a work of art that can leave us speechless. It was breathtaking.
B: Tell us about a terrible book you've read recently.
K: I can't book-bash at the moment, but I do admit to finally overcoming my "must-finish-every-book-I-start" complex. Now I throw it across the room and move on.
B: What are some of your own favorite children's books? What do you love about them?
K: Oh, I can't even begin and this is in no way a comprehensive list! The classics are the classics, like The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and the Tomie dePaola books. I love Tuesday by David Wiesner, Wild, Wilder, and Wildest by Fr. Ralph Wright, Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, a little-known one called Our Cat Flossie by Ruth Brown, the illustrated version of Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Susan Jeffers), a beautiful take on the Cinderella story called The Rough Face Girl by Rafe Martin, and any beautifully illustrated version of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is a dream of mine to illustrate this story in particular.
For older readers, the Anne series (the best) by L. M. Montgomery, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (it's amazing to re-read these books and feel even more for them as an adult!), and of course The Chronicles of Narnia. I love that children's literature maximizes on the joy of being alive and does it so freely. Never are we so free to be joyful and uninhibited then as children and imagination is rampant ... anything is possible and what a privilege to access that in something that is so lasting as a book! I also love the depth of pathos that can be addressed in children's work, too, as children feel things so deeply and so differently than adults do. The entire human story can be accessed through literature for children, and I think it's even purer and more real that way. We can analyze it, chart it, graph it, write 50 pages theses on it (and boy have I ever), but in the end we are all humans and it's truth in its simplest form that we come back to. That in and of itself is joyful.
You can purchase The Grand Adventures of Petit Louis here and learn more about Kayce and Louis here.