Simon Philip: A Lion & Dragonfly Interview
We are delighted to launch our Lion & Dragonfly interview series with Simon Philip. Simon is the author of I Really Want the Cake, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti and part of Lion & Dragonfly's Food, Glorious Food collection. We reached Simon in his home in Chichester, England, and cannot thank him enough for taking the time to answer our many quirky questions. He sheds light on his artistic process, inspirations, favorite children's books, and love for affogatos.
Tell us about how you came up with the idea for I Really Want the Cake
I wrote I Really Want The Cake around October 2013, I think – so I’m struggling to remember exactly where the idea for it came from. Perhaps I was hungry, or craving cake. But I’m fairly sure it was one of those rare occasions when a title or sentence randomly entered my brain, and it was strong enough to make something out of.
As soon as that title came to me, I could see what I wanted to do with the story. It helped that that sentence contains a potential problem (assuming that the narrator can’t have the cake), which of course is a basic requirement for a good story. I asked lots of questions about that situation – What sort of cake is it? Where is it? Why can’t the narrator have it? What do they do about it? etc – and the story progressed from there.
How did you come to collaborate with Lucia Gaggiotti on this book?
Lucia was the first name put forward to me - I think Templar had previously proposed a different illustrator at an acquisitions meeting but the wider team felt they weren't quite the right match. As soon as I saw Lucia's other work I was delighted with the suggestion. When Templar initially storyboarded/thumbnailed the layout of the book, they pictured the main character as a monkey, but it was Lucia who insisted it should be a little girl, which I'll always be grateful for as that was much more in line with my vision for the book, which would be far more difficult for readers to relate to had the animal character stayed.
It's an honour to have my texts illustrated by Lucia! Obviously, I’m slightly biased, but I think she’s brilliant, and her artwork is beautiful – I love it whether or not it accompanies my text. There’s so much energy, movement and personality in her characters and illustrations, which really adds to the humour. I think we are well matched creatively, as she really ‘gets’ my writing and we share the same vision for our books.
There’s actually very little ‘working together’ as such – it’s not as if we sit down together and plan out the book, or anything. I’m always invited to offer my feedback during the various stages of the project – I’m shown the roughs, for instance – but I’ve never wanted to change anything!
What is your favorite page of this book and why?
There are so many great spreads, but I think my favourite is either the pages when the girl and her dog eat the cake, or the one where she attempts to bake her own…the cracking of the egg, it slopping about in the bowl, the ingredients flying everywhere as the little girl whisks them – there’s such energy and movement in the illustrations. Lucia’s very clever!
What inspired you to become an author and/or Have you always wanted to be an author?
I’ve always enjoyed writing and, growing up, wrote a lot of nonsense in my free time – so you could say not much has changed. But I never had a clue what I wanted to do as a career, and becoming an author just never occurred to me.
After studying History at university, I did a Primary PGCE but unfortunately wasn’t a great match for teaching and, in not very happy circumstances at the time, had to give that up before I’d completed the course. The silver lining was that it rekindled my love of children’s literature, and picture books in particular. At the beginning of each English session on the university side of the PGCE course, our tutor would read us a picture book – which invariably I found entertaining or thought provoking. Mo Willems’ Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus and Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle are two that I remember well from those sessions.
So, after failing at teaching, I was in a slightly strange situation where I had the pressure of trying to work out what on earth I was going to do next with my life, but also lots of free time – to write, it turned out. I started writing silly stories just for the pleasure, but, after some encouraging feedback, realised I wanted to have a go at getting published. After six months of submissions, rejections, revisions and far too much refreshing of emails, I signed with an agent and not long after had a contract for my first book.
Who has most inspired your writing life?
I’m not sure there’s any particular person, but I think certain books have inspired my writing life – just ones that I’ve really loved, and thought, ‘I want to do that.’
What’s been the most surprising thing about being a children’s author?
I think the thing that’s surprised me most is that, somehow, I keep managing to think of new ideas for stories! It’s not easy, and there are occasions when I’m not sure where the next idea is going to come from or whether I’ll ever have a good one again (!), but I’ve learnt to trust that I will, and that the difficult, frustrating part at the beginning is just part of the process.
What do you think are the ingredients for a great children’s book?
A combination of humour and heart, which works on two levels so that it appeals to both child and adult readers. Or, perhaps, a really novel idea (those are hard to come by!) or novel take on a well-worn one, that’s either hilarious or makes the reader think differently to before.
What is your hometown?
Chichester, on the south coast of England. It’s a nice place to live!
What is your favorite place to write or illustrate?
I do pretty much all my writing in my study at home. I’d love to be able to write anywhere, but I need as few distractions as possible. I’d spend all my time people-watching and eavesdropping on conversations were I to write in a public place!
Do you have a favorite indie bookstore? What makes it amazing?
There are loads of amazing indie bookstores around. I’ve done an event at The Book Nook in Hove, which is a lovely shop with a great reputation and friendly, passionate, knowledgeable booksellers. I think the staff and their enthusiasm are what make a bookstore amazing, and what usually comes with that is an inviting atmosphere that readers and shoppers want to return to.
Do you listen to music while you are working? If so, what’s currently on your playlist?
Very rarely, actually. I used to when doing homework as a kid, and wish I still could, but I usually find it too distracting – I think my brain ends up tuning into the lyrics of songs, rather than focusing on the idea I’m trying to turn into a story. Occasionally I’ll put some instrumental or classical music on – something calming, rather than rousing.
What was your favorite picture book growing up? and/or What picture book do you never tire of reading to children?
I remember loving the novelty-aspect of Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman books – I never tired of pulling the letters out of the envelopes!
I definitely have more favourites now than I did as a child. I enjoy reading Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, which contains one joke that just keeps on giving, as it can be fun to see kids’ reactions to Floyd’s ingenious (or perhaps not) attempts to get his kite down from the tree.
What children’s book (other than your own) are you recommending to friends at the moment?
I very recently read Milo Imagines the World, by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, which is about learning not to judge by appearances, a subject tackled very subtly, cleverly and heartwarmingly, I thought.
Inch and Grub by Alastair Chisholm and David Roberts made me laugh a lot on reading that recently, too. It has a great voice, complemented by superb and hilarious illustrations.
It’s summertime. I have to know: What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
I have to choose one?!
I’m a sucker for an affogato – hot espresso poured over vanilla ice cream, preferably with some biscuit crumbled in too. But if was having an ice cream in a cone…probably something like honeycomb or pistachio or a combination, depending on what’s available. I’m finding this difficult to answer, clearly…
Which superpower would you most like to have?
Infinite best-selling-story ideas would be handy, can I have that please?!
If not, the ability to fly (unaided, of course) would be pretty fun, I reckon.
What’s the last book you couldn’t put down?
The Unputdownable Book of Glue by Will Sticktoyourhand.
What museum would you most like to spend the night in?
London’s Natural History Museum, I think – just to see if anything comes alive…
If you weren’t an author or illustrator, what would you most like to be? What is your (other) dream career?
Top-level professional golfer. Or a musician playing in a band with good friends.
What would you want your ten year old self to know?
It’s not worth worrying about things that are out of one’s control; that being an author is a job I’d enjoy; and that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn new skills/languages (so get on with it, ten-year-old Simon!)
What are you currently working on?
All sorts! But I probably shouldn’t say much about them….
I Really Want the Cake, by Simon Philip and illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti is part of Lion & Dragonfly's Food, Glorious Food collection.