Author Interview with Steven Barr
Get to know Steve…
Steve Barr is the ruggedly handsome, multi-talented Renaissance man who has written and illustrated 11 titles in the “1-2-3 Draw” series from Peel Productions. Impact Books recently released his new creations, “Draw Crazy Creatures” and “Draw Awesome Animals”.
His unbelievably witty, funny and entertaining cartoons have appeared in a multitude of publications, including a huge number of the “Complete Idiot’s Guides” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul”. He also has a thriving shop on Zazzle, where he sells t-shirts, mugs and other merchandise he’s created.
He frequently visits schools and libraries throughout the year, where his talks are always greeted with thunderous applause and rousing standing ovations.
In spite of all of this, he remains extremely humble and never likes to brag about his accomplishments. (Oh boy – We’re REALLY starting to regret asking him to write his own bio now, aren’t we?) For more info, visit his website and Facebook.
Would you mind sharing an embarrassing moment?
No problem. Any time anyone wants to do something embarrassing around me, I’d be more than happy to share that moment with them!
What world-changing event would you like to take credit for?
Well, I’d love to take credit for winning the American Revolutionary War. But I can’t. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t even alive when it happened.
Where is the worst place to be stuck waiting?
I hate to be stuck anywhere, whether I’m waiting for it or not.
If you were to start a new trend and be famous for it, what would it be?
Living in my pajamas. I’d wear them everywhere, all day and all night. But I guess I should probably buy a pair first and see what they’re like. I hear they’re fabulous, but I don’t actually own any. I’d hate to start a trend that even I don’t appreciate.
What great idea did you come up with, but never followed through on?
I’m pretty sure I was the first person to come up with the inspiration to build a computer that would fit on the top of a desk. But once I designed it, I realized we were going to need a really, really big desk. So I abandoned the idea. My only regret is mentioning it to Bill Gates at a party once. And the rest, as they say, is history!
What is the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
It was a personal hygiene film I saw in high school. I’ve never looked at foot fungus the same way since.
What odd habit or quirk do you have?
I love to eat breakfast for dinner. Late night pancakes draped with real Vermont syrup are awesome. Absolutely awesome. But then, I’ve always been a radical rule breaker, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone. However, I would absolutely NEVER eat dinner for breakfast. That would be just plain crazy.
If there was a national holiday in your honor, what would that day be like?
We would all take naps. Long, wondrous naps. Everybody. Wherever you are. At work, at home or out playing somewhere. Everyone would just stop whatever they were doing at two in the afternoon and sleep for at least 3 hours. It would probably be the most popular holiday ever.
Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
Right where I live. The mountains of Western North Carolina. Whenever I go outside, I feel like I’m walking through a living postcard.
How do you feel about small talk? Love or hate?
I absolutely LOVE small talk. I am constantly striking up conversations with complete strangers. But I have a confession to make. I am listening intently for ideas. Odd word combinations intrigue me. I get some of my best cartoon ideas from something someone else says. A phrase or sentence will just strike me as funny, and my brain will begin turning it into a comic.
My mother has written proof of my fascination with conversation. Every marking period throughout my elementary school years, I would come home with a report card that said, “Steven speaks to the other children too much.” So, even as a child…I loved small talk so much I had it documented by the authorities!
What celebrity—past or present—would you trust the least with a spare key to your house?
Charlie Sheen. I don’t think I need to elaborate.
What is the oldest thing you own? Where did you get it?
My first thought was to say my 1999 Toyota Tacoma, which has over 300,000 miles on it. But in reality, I have some extremely old things. In my spare time, I’m a rockhound. I collect minerals and gems. The experts say that they formed millions of years ago, but I don’t know that for sure, since I wasn’t there at the time.
What do you consider your worst feature?
Sometimes my knees creak. Which made it really difficult for me to finish my Ninja training. It’s not easy to sneak up on somebody in the dark when your knees sound like crickets on steroids.
Would you ever consider living with a tribe deep in the Amazon? Why or why not?
Sure. Why not? I always enjoy meeting new people. And I hear the rent is cheap.
If you could be a spokesperson for any product, what would it be?
Nike. Because their slogan is really easy to remember, so I probably wouldn’t mess it up. And I could really use a new pair of shoes.
If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be?
My life probably doesn’t need a soundtrack. It already has a really loud laugh track.
What do you get most enthusiastic about?
Breathing. Every time I wake up and I’m still doing it, I’m thrilled. Each new day is a gift, and if I’m breathing I have the opportunity to make the most of it.
If you went to a psychiatrist, what would he/she say you suffer from?
They’d probably say I suffer from an inability to pay their fees.
What would complete your outfit right now?
Shoes and a shirt would probably do it.
What makes you uncomfortable?
People trying to make me wear shoes and a shirt.
If you were a farmer, what would be your most abundant crop?
If I was a farmer I doubt I’d have any sort of crop, let alone an abundant one. I am horrible about keeping houseplants alive, so I don’t think I could grow anything on a larger scale. If I was ever taken to court for my mistreatment of plants, the judge would probably issue a permanent injunction banning me from ever owning another one again.
When did your writing career take off?
Quite a few years ago, I was in a bookstore glancing through a variety of “how to draw books” that were on the shelves. I began to realize that many of them were simply too complicated for younger readers and absolute beginners, people who just wanted to have fun drawing. It also struck me many of the directions for what is supposed to be a fairly simple form of art seemed to have just too many rules.
I decided that I wanted to do books that would be very easy to follow, and went home to begin working on them. Even before I had enough material together to do a formal submission, I began a worldwide search for a publisher on the Internet.
Over the next few months, whenever I had spare time, I continued my search….with no results. Then, one night, I was wading through an extensive on-line listing of publishers when I suddenly came across the Peel Productions website. They specialized in “How to Draw” books. And their page even said they were looking for books that would teach young children how to create their own cartoons!
I immediately fired off an e-mail to them, and heard back from them very quickly. In an extremely bizarre twist of fate, it turned out that their offices were located in the same rural town as the one I live in! They were right down the road from me! After two days of correspondence, the publisher was sitting at my kitchen table and we signed a deal for the first three books in my “1-2-3 Draw Cartoons” series.
So it just goes to show that miracles can happen. I searched all over the world for a publisher, and found out the people I was looking for were my “neighbors”!
How do you deal with creativity blocks?
Although that rarely happens to me anymore, when I do get a mental block I simply walk away from everything I am working on. I go somewhere else. I do something that I enjoy. I let my mind roam, but I try to force myself not to think about the project I’m in the middle of. The minute I try not to concentrate on the task at hand, the ideas almost always begin flying into my brain. I guess that’s just the rebel in me. If I tell myself not to do something, I end up doing it just to prove I was wrong.
Can you visualize a finished product before you begin a book?
Yes. Since I’m usually doing both the illustrations and the writing, it’s fairly easy for me to visualize what I want the final product to look like. But that doesn’t mean it actually turns out that way. Everything evolves during the process. My ideas change. New inspiration hits. And then my editor gets her hands on it.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in this entire process is to ALWAYS give very intense consideration to any input from my editor. A lot of writers and illustrators react harshly to even the most constructive criticism, but I’ve always seen editors as my partners. They want to make the final product as good as I want to make it. A second pair of eyes is never a bad thing. And two brains are always better than one.
Do you feel that you chose your passion, or did it choose you?
It was a combination of both. I was very young when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I chose to write and draw. But I didn’t really have any other option. It was just who I was, and who I still am to this day.
Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?
I love locking myself away in my studio for hours on end. With my favorite music cranked up, surrounded by art supplies and my computer nearby, I’m ready to work! And, when you’re doing something you truly enjoy, it’s not really work, is it? Working at home, wearing comfortable clothing and pouring another cup of coffee any time I want to is completely conducive to creativity.
There is, however, one other place where I find I get tons of ideas. When I’m out driving, I don’t turn the radio on. With no distractions, my mind is free to just roam. Ideas tend to pop into my head out of nowhere in those moments, and if I was listening to music I would probably be too distracted to daydream like I need to. When I’m in my studio listening to music, I tend to select something with no lyrics. That way my brain can wander and resist the temptation to sing along with the latest hits.
Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?
I’m just plain stubborn. Always have been, always will be.
I started my career at a VERY young age, which I will touch on later in this interview. One of the biggest influences on me, a person who helped guide me along my path, was my 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Verlander. When I started selling my work as a child, I began to think that I didn’t need to study in school any more. I mean, for goodness sake, I was just going to make a ton of money drawing funny pictures…so why study?
She somehow figured out what was going on with me and sat me down for a talk. She pointed out that EVERY class I took, everything I studied, would be important later. My clients would be editors. Those were people who had studied English for extended periods of time. They would not want to have to waste their time fixing all of my mistakes, so I’d need to buckle down and learn my grammar, punctuation and spelling. I’d need to know math, because I’d have to calculate my billing and I’d have to measure proportions so my art would fit a page properly.
She went on and on about it. And I realized that she was a very smart cookie! She was right. I needed to work as hard as I could in school.
I dedicated one of my first books to her, and we still correspond from time to time. She had an enormous impact on me. And I will always be grateful to her.
If you were no longer able to write, how else would you express your creativity?
Wow. That’s a tough question. I guess I would wait for winter, then go outside and make snow angels. If you do them just right, snow angels can be very creative.
What has been your greatest sacrifice that has enabled you to become the author you are today?
I walked away from a job with great pay and excellent health benefits to concentrate on creating my books. It has been a struggle at times, but it was absolutely worth it. I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but I was in a situation where doing that became possible.
What words of inspiration were given to you that you would like to pass along to others?
The late, great cartoonist Gil Fox once gave me a book about his life and his work. Inside the front cover, he scrawled a message to me. It simply said, “Persist. Over and over and over…”
If you knew that you had only one last opportunity to express yourself creatively, what message would you want to convey to others?
My final message would probably fit on a bumper sticker. Or a gravestone. It would most likely be something like “Live Every Moment to the Fullest, Because You Never Get Them Back.” Or, “Carpe Diem”. Life is short. Do what you love. And love what you do.
When did you realize that you had a gift for writing?
The first time I came home with an A+ on my second grade English homework.
How do you balance your personal life and your creative endeavors?
That’s a never-ending battle for everyone in the writing and cartooning business. Any unexpected interruption can greatly impede my thought process. When I’m “in the zone” and really turning out the work, I need to be completely alone and closed off from the world. It can sometimes take hours to get to that place, and if I’m snapped out of it suddenly…it can take hours to get back into that frame of mind.
I balance my self-imposed exile by going out to dinner with friends, hiking in the mountains, searching for gems and minerals in remote mountain areas and camping whenever possible. I take breaks during the writing process even when I’m working under tight deadlines, but as soon as I wrap up a project I head out the door for at least a few days and don’t look back!
What is your typical day like?
My morning commute is rather unique. It involves rolling out of bed, strolling into the kitchen, brewing a pot of coffee and catching up on e-mails and correspondence. Then I head into the next room, where my studio is hidden away in the back of my cabin. Most days, I start with a morning warmup sketch, just doodling for a little bit to see what comes out of the tip of my pencil. When I’ve got a design I like, I’ll finish it while I daydream about what I’ll write to go along with it.
When I’ve got a book contract, the days become much more intense. I’ve been known to pull quite a few “all-nighters” in my life. I stay glued to the drawing table and the computer for hours on end, reworking and perfecting things until I am happy with them. I like to get as much of the book done ahead of deadline as I can. That gives me breathing room later on, and I can add nice little touches that I might not have thought of at first.
How much of your own life is reflected in your work?
Well, I write and illustrate drawing instruction books. So my work and style are greatly reflected in my books. But I do dream of authoring a book about my childhood one day. As a kid, I was a living cartoon character and so was everyone else around me. My life was hilarious! I’d love to do a humorous autobiography complete with cartoons that would come straight out of my own experiences. It would make a great movie, too. But I doubt anybody would believe even half of it.
Do you have family members who like to write too?
Yes. My younger sister writes wonderful poetry. My mother is a talented artist. My younger brother does wonderful wood carvings. And my older brother struggles to draw stick figures. But he could always kick my butt in sports. And he still can.
What was your childhood like? Did your upbringing influence the way you write today?
My childhood was idyllic in many ways. And absolutely crazy in others. But my home was a safe place where creativity was fostered and nurtured. When I began writing and drawing cartoons at an early age, my parents made sure I always had plenty of pencils, papers and pens. They encouraged me to chase my dreams. I think they were even more amazed than I was when I sold my first cartoon to a magazine while I was still in the seventh grade. Then I sold another one for even more money that year! I was off and running and I haven’t stopped since!
My upbringing taught me that when you’re working, you never look at the clock. You just do the task at hand. Time becomes irrelevant. The finished product and the satisfaction of a job well done is payment enough. If it puts food on your table or pays the electric bill, then you did good! My father was an extremely hard-working man, and all of his children got a very strong work ethic from him. My mother stayed at home most of the time, and was like a cheerleading squad for all of her kids. Mom and Dad both listened to their children when they expressed their dreams, and did their best to provide us with the tools we needed to accomplish our goals.
Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?
I’m proud of all of my books for various reasons. They all serve different purposes in their own way. But I think I like “Draw Crazy Creatures” and “Draw Awesome Animals” the best, because I’d like to think I learned from experience. That said, my “1-2-3 Draw” line was aimed at very young children or absolute beginners, so I tried to keep it as simple and easy to follow as possible. With the newer books, I was aiming at a slightly more advanced level of reader.
How do you think you differ from other creative people in your genre?
I think the one thing that is different about my books is that I always repeat my “No Rules!” mantra over and over again. One of the things that inspired me to begin writing art instruction books was that I read many of the ones by other authors, and they all seemed to have too many rules. I don’t want anyone to try to learn how to draw just like me. I wanted them to develop their own style. If my books help them create a unique look that is truly their own, my job here on earth is done.
Has your creativity changed stylistically as you have matured? If so, in what ways?
Yes. I like to think that both my books and my cartoons have begun to flow more naturally. Nothing is forced. I’ve learned to be less critical of my own creations while still trying to make them the best that they can be. When I was younger, I was highly critical of everything I did. That was not necessarily a bad thing. It helped me improve. But it also slowed me down. I reworked and reworked things for what seemed like an eternity. Now, I just pound things out then let them sit for a little while. I like to go back later and look at them with fresh eyes. If I spot a problem, I throw myself into fixing it with wild abandon. And a lot of the time, it’s just fine the way it is. If you second-guess yourself too much, you’ll never get anything finished.
When do you feel the most energized?
There are two times that I feel totally energized. One is just after my first cup of coffee in the morning. And the other is late at night, when there are no distractions around. Ideas just start popping into my head and I have to leap out of bed, jot them down and sometimes even begin working on them immediately. It’s not unusual for me to glance out the window and realize that the sun is coming up again.
Does your writing reflect your personality?
I’d like to think so. My art instruction books tend to be laid back and easy going. I always like to stress that the art of cartooning has “NO RULES!” Rules tend to cripple creativity, and that’s the last thing I’d want to do to my readers. I stress individuality and experimentation, which is pretty much the way I’ve lived my life and approached my work.
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