When talking to Eric Anderson, the Texas-born author, illustrator, and part-time actor in his brother’s movies, the first thing I managed to do was suggest that he was, personally, ancient. An old-timer. I had merely said that I’d known about him for a quite a while.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “It’s been a long time now.”
I scrambled to explain that I simply meant that I’d admired his work for some time. But the damage was done.
We had been chatting because of a new venture here at FreeConference: Project Puffin. Having approached him for a commission as one of our featured artists, we wanted to see what he could come up with for our beloved mascot. Here’s what we got back.
I couldn’t wait to ask about it. But first, we discussed the weather. After listening to him complain about the unseasonable New York coldness, I inform him that we wear t-shirts above zero-degrees Celsius.
E: Well, evidently your blood gets thicker and heartier the further north you live. Are you in Toronto?
G: Yes, I am.
E: Classic town. I’ve never been there, but I’d like to.
G: That actually leads me into one of my questions. Do you have a favourite place in the world? Maybe one you’d like to make a map of?
E: Somebody actually asked me this, and I could tell she was testing me to name something very interesting. It was such an obvious and weird challenge, and my impulse was to say something transparently boring.
But I answered her honestly. I said I’d like to go on a tour of the Great Canadian Railway Hotels. She made this frown, but it’s the truth! You Canadians have those classic railway hotels straight across the country. I’m not even sure if they serve a railroad anymore. But they’re all kind of castles. Maybe they aren’t even hotels anymore. But they certainly look good to me.
G: That sounds a bit like a cross between Darjeeling Limited and Grand Budapest Hotel. You’ve got some cross-referencing happening here.
E: Yes, I agree, but you know, I was thinking more like … Have you seen “49th Parralel,” the WW2 movie?
G: I have not. I am not a classics cinephile. I have some catching up to do. Would you recommend it?
E: I would recommend it: it’s made by two of the top people in the entire artform in my opinion. It’s about Nazis in Canada, right before America has entered the war. It’s based on a true story. I think back then — mind you this was 1939 — the idea of shooting on location was quite exotic and a big effort; and this English director, Michael Powell, and his Hungarian screenwriting partner, probably writing in his third language, Emeric Pressburger, they shot all across Canada. And it’s … I know that my image of Canada is 70 years out of date, but I do know they go to a few of those hotels. At least one of them.
You’ve got to get off the main roads. I used to think that the U.S. was populated with this dense uniformity, just sort of straight across, and it’s the opposite. But you’ve gotta get off the Interstate to discover it.
G: So I guess when you said you’d like to do a tour of the Great Canadian Railway Hotels, it only made sense to request to do your book tour by train?
E: Ah, yes. Doing that book tour by train was because I like doing that. It’s one of those things where you see if they’ll say yes, and if they do — jackpot. And I was actually reading No Country For Old Men, not as a manuscript but as an email attachment. The author and I shared the same agent at the time, very different careers of course, and part of the joy was sitting on this train trundling across America reading No Country on a laptop.
I actually could not figure out when the book was set. So it felt very timeless. There were a few cellphones mentioned in the manuscript, but this guy in it was a Vietnam veteran who happened to be about 30, so it was slightly hard to get my bearings. Utimately, the extravagances, or idiosyncracies … anachronisms! That’s the word. They were cleared up. What an incredible novel.
G: Very obviously you enjoy landscapes and taking in the scenery. Where did your love of maps come from?
E: I think I was confused about that, or at least it was hidden from me because I hadn’t checked in with the memory for a long time. It was only after I started doing them that my father reminded me that his first job was working for Sinclair Oil in Texas, making maps of oil fields … I must have seen some of those. I now have his drafting tools and some of the guidebooks he’d use. For him, making industrial maps, his handwriting had to be immaculate — my handwriting is good but not immaculate like his. So perhaps, buried in there deep, is the fact that my father used to make maps.
The other is that at a certain point in my 20s, I simply stumbled across a map, a great map, that had immediate significance for me. It was great, partly because it was so detailed that it depicted individual trees, and whether the sidewalk was brick or cement. It was also a map of a historic neighbourhood I was trying to write a story about at the time. And that was a Eureka moment. It was like waking up in a museum.
It also reminded me of how many of the books I had growing up featured maps. Generally speaking, kids have a great deal of time on their hands — they dont have jobs, you know — and maybe it’s just me, but I loved the maps in stories. They were tantalizing — I would sometimes look at the maps as much as I looked at the story. And of course, kids re-read books a million times … That Eureka moment probably activated some innate desire. Immediately afterward, I went and got some very basic art supplies and began making maps.
I don’t want to say I have an extraordinary spatial memory, because who the hell knows about that. That’s just — you know, it sounds good. But this was a neighbourhood where I went to college. Enough had happened there that I could make decent maps from memory. Then I started branching out a bit. Why not a map of the house we grew up in? Why not my stepmother’s minivan? So I started making them as Christmas presents, and stretching the definition of “map” to include essentially anything that had writing and labels and arrows.
People back then who I spoke to about it would think that these maps could become almost purely conceptual, and I would get a funny panicky feeling, because I’m not good at pure conceptual thinking, and I know — for instance, that cartoonist for the New Yorker, is it Roz Chast? She could give you a map of various ways of complaining about the common cold, from extremely extravagant to not very interesting, and that’s not a map I could come up with. She’s incredible at that. But if there was a family with an old Fiat, and each family member had a particular experience, their signature experience with that car, that would be something I could do, as a memorial of sorts.
My brother used to have a kind of uniform for directing movies: he used to have a bullhorn that was a gift, a travel coffee mug, and a red ballcap. And the map would just assemble those elements … But a map can be anything. That’s how all that started. I began with maps, and then learned how to draw. That was the sequence.
G: That brings me to my next question. You’re self taught, right — how you learned to draw? Is that a thing that you just picked up by admiring illustrations and nitpicking at your own work? How did your process start? Did you just grab your favourite pen and get to it?
E: I think the answer to that sequence of questions is “Yes.” Like an idiot, I would be working in watercolour because that’s all the shop would have … This always sounds like bullshit when I tell it, but I bought my first good art tools in a bar. I was at a sports bar in suburban Washinton, D.C. And this guy came in carrying these German drafting tools: technical pens, French curve, triangle, ruler, compass, the entire freshman year architecture school pack from 1989 in an industrial Ziploc Bag. He was looking around, sees me and my friend, and was like “Right: college guys” and made a beeline. I think I gave him five dollars. I have no idea what that stuff was worth, but I used it — some of it I use to this day.
G: I bet that’s the best five bucks you’ve ever spent.
E: Yes. It probably implicates me in a crime. I did pay for them, though.
Things seem to just happen somehow. I was painting with watercolour until a very thoughtful guy named Rob Reynolds said to me, “Eric, have you considered trying gouache?” And of course my reply was: “What’s gouache?”
G: I was gonna ask, are there any pieces you’ve published you wish you could re-draw?
E: Yes and no, because if I redid the packaging for, say, the Rushmore DVD, then it wouldn’t be the same object. It would be something else. Maybe we should just let it be an integral part of the time capsule … That’s fine by me.
It’s kind of a steep curve though: Looking at the Zissou illustrations for Life Aquatic. I like them, but they are from a long time ago. Maybe I plateaued. Maybe that was the summit of my ability.
Or the Darjeeling Limited DVD cover. That’s one of my favourite drawings and was a real test. I don’t draw well large, and that thing had so many — there’s some stuff about perspective that’s always kind of tricky, because it usually looks fake, but there’s a lot of textures crammed into a tiny space. I think I have the amateur’s fear of adding paint, so I always water it down more than well-informed people usually do … just keep painting … very thin, reluctant layers … and you get about thirty of those thin, reluctant layers before suddenly there’s an actual square of colour. That’s probably something I need to work on. I forget now if I answered your question. Did I answer your question? That was a long answer.
G: I find it very funny that you started with watercolour, because it’s a very unforgiving medium. Most people learn to work their way up using negative space, so I suppose that gouache would be a lovely and more forgiving way to go, as it has more opacity. It’s hilarious that you ended up watering it down like watercolours anyways … I guess you know what you like.
E: Where were you in 1999! “Eric, stop working in watercolour, it doesn’t include white, you idiot!”
G: That’s right, it has an absence.
E: And you know what? It’s difficult. I didn’t know how to artfully use it, or have the kind of temperament to make something beautiful simply, to do it skillfully … Some people know how to lay down a masking layer, slap on a wash of color, use an eraser to lift the masking up afterwards … this kind of magic … Maybe it’s just not the kind of drawing I do. That sounds charitable.
I also used to exclusively use watercolour blocks … which is madness. The pages buckle because of the way they are attached to the board.
So: gouache and double-thick illustration board, which is impossible to bubble, because every particle is stuck to its backing. That was such good stuff. Bainbridge Board, Cold-Pressed Number 80 … When a drawing was complete, I would take a knife and nick the edge to peel it away from the backing. Flexible paper was needed for drum scanners. I had to figure that one out.
G: Ok, so I did some crowsourcing to find out what other people who love you want to know.
E: [Skeptical sound]
G: Just bear with me. They want to know what your living space looks like. It says you live in a tiny apartment in the West Village. But give me something to work with. As a spatially sensitive person, there’s gotta be something. Do you colour-coordinate your mugs? Do you have many shawls?
E: These alleged people should probably allow for the possibility that there’s more mess than they would be thrilled with. A lot of books, very busy work table … Here’s something: one thing I realized I wanted was a classic red-and-white checked picnic-table tablecloth. I think it might be an anti-stress agent. So I have one on my drawing table.
Too many little objects generally. I wish I could say they were all gifts … . But some are. There’s a pair of anchor cufflinks in a little red box, and a classic scout knife; a small clay bumblebee from my niece; the goddess Minerva, whose sidekick is an owl, right? So, a sort of very hard stone owl.
The apartment … it’s very small. I painted it myself. The living room is the soothing colour of a Hershey’s chocolate bar. The entryway is kind of — I can’t get away from the name of the paint, which is “Frankincense” — a soothing, Earth-tone pink. When I first saw the bathroom here, I kept thinking of “Taxi Driver.” A bathroom where you would expect to discover a dead man. Just flowering mold and a naked lightbulb.
That was the first step, home improvement-wise. There wasn’t a single horizontal surface. It was as though someone had set up a camera to watch me try to balance things on curved surfaces. So I thought “To hell with this” and built a bookcase and then another shelf, which now has a lamp. I like doing that, building things, and figuring out spaces, because I work mostly from home, and you need to put in the effort. Sometimes it’s important, just standing in a doorway and thinking “OK, what’s happening here? How would that look? What needs to happen next?”
I’ve framed some photos and things … I might have to get some storage space for my past artwork. There must be businesses for people looking to store things other than jewels, things that need to be stored somewhere warm and dry. I might just put them in a box.
G: A nice box, I hope. They deserve it. On the topic of bookshelves, are you reading anything interesting?
E: I’m reading a novel called Camilla, originally called Camilla Dickinson by Madeleine L’Engle. Most of her books are somewhat fantastical, but this one is simply rooted in feelings and people and life. It’s the first novel I can remember reading where someone is dealing with the noise coming from the Third Avenue Elevated Train, which stopped existing in 1953. So that’s pretty neat.
There’s a novelist I love, Richard Price, who had the idea that he was going to crank out a crime novel. This is what he normally does, but they’re masterpieces — they take 8 years a pop — so (I think this is right) he had in mind that, under a pen name, this alternate persona, he would just crank one out in no time … And of course it took him 8 years. He was going to publish under the pen name, but the book as it ultimately emerged sounded exactly like a Richard Price novel, so the cover actually says The Whites “by Richard Price writing as Harrry Brandt.” Anyway, Brandt or Price, it’s wonderful.
G: Are there any childhood books that come to mind, either as influential for your personal journey or as an illustrator?
E: Yes. The first edition of James and the Giant Peach. I’m trying to remember the name of the woman who illustrated them, I used to have that name on the tip of my tongue. Nancy Ekholm Burkert. She’s great. And evidently much more famous for her version of Snow White. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Joseph Schindelman. Those are wonderful, too.
I think at one point my brothers wanted to show off to their friends the stunning fact that their little brother could read. I don’t think I started reading particularily early — I think they were just bored. Like, “Eric can read, check this out!” So they would stick The Hobbit in front of me, and I would read aloud the first couple of pages of The Hobbit. Then I just kept reading. The Hobbit was one of my favourites and certainly another early influence.
I got very sick in the 1st grade, and reading was all I did. I think all people who read for pleasure have to do this at some point. You have to, at some point, just dive in and make your own relationship with make-believe and words on paper.
G: Is there anything you’ve mentioned that you’d like to illustrate yourself?
E: I knew you were going to ask me that, and I’ve been running through my head trying to come up with an answer. I love Quentin Blake, but I don’t like the idea of replacing the orginal illustrators with newer illustrators … I think I like them the way they are.
There was a James Bond Book about weaponry. I could probably make that a little more homely, a little warmer. I like itemizing.
Not that I could succeed at it, but I can sort of see myself remaking a Dungeons and Dragons guidebook. There’s a schematic feel to that stuff, and maybe more marginalia would be interesting. I never played Dungeons and Dragons at that level … But it — the game, I mean — was always conceived around maps. A kind of “Ah … story time …” feeling, if that makes sense.
G: So this idea of mapping, does it come from the notion of all stories happening within a world you understand?
E: Maybe it’s about the feeling of leaving the known for a while, and going somewhere potentially more interesting. Also the idea of being disoriented, and the adventure that disorientation suggests.
The maps for the Lord of the Rings were made by Tolkien’s son, and I like that idea. One thing that stuck with me was how, on the adventure, you only visit about 20% of the map. I think kids think to themselves, “Why aren’t we hearing from these guys over here?” Maps seem like an essential part of storytelling. So is the cover, though. That’s why you can’t half-ass a bookcover. The story starts there, whether you like it or not.
I was talking to some kids about my book, and they were pretty ruthless about the cover. It’s called Chuck Dugan is AWOL.
When you’re reading the book, you don’t actually get to the hero’s name until someone mentions it in dialogue. So these kids asked why the narration doesn’t just say his name. And I thought to myself, “Well, it’s on the cover, what more do you want?” But it’s good to be alert to things like that. Telling a story well is very much my cup of tea. And I’m not the only one.
G: Did you agree with the kids at any point about their criticisms?
E: I agreed with virtually 100% of their criticism. They surprised me actually. Chuck is sort of a born sailor, and they asked me, “If he’s such a great sailor, why can’t he manage to stay on a boat?” I hadn’t actually counted the number of times he jumps off or gets swept off various boats in the book. So I just said, “Well, you know, he’s not having a great week. Lot of bad guys. Lot of trouble. He can stay on a boat, yes, but he’s also an equally good swimmer. So when the bad guys pop up, it might be a good idea to jump overboard.”
What I didn’t mention was how the original jumping overboard inspiration came from Paul Newman, from a movie called “The Mackintosh Man” from 1974. Newman’s a secret agent who’s come to arrest a notorious spy/traitor played by James Mason, who happens to be pretty good at being a crook and is in cahoots with the local police, and so the tables are turned on our hero. Newman realizes he’s the one about to be arrested. So, in a full suit and tie, he dives overboard, swims under the boat to the other side, and escapes. It stuck with me as one of the great surprise moves by a grownup ever in movies.
G: Bringing us back around to the process behind your book, and most of your work actually, can you describe to me what your routine looks like when starting new work? I want to know what happened when you got assigned to Project Puffin.
E: Cutting illustration board. I dont know why I do this, but I then carefully erase the board. There’s nothing on it yet. But I think I’m just warming it up, like a car engine.
Then I go in and mark my margins, an inch from each side of the board. A little bracket, you know, longitude and latitude.
I wash my palette. I have a nice set of paint palettes, made from porcelain. They seem to be made of plastic nowaday, but I prefer the porcelain.
Cleaning pens … I haven’t used pens much lately. Somebody changed manufacturers, I think. The newer ones just flick ink everywhere. They don’t seem to hold a clean line.
Sometimes it feels like the end of an era. A lot of the tools and supplies I use … I seem to have arrived at the sunset moment. Most illustrators seem to have such an immediate connection to the digital stylus and tablet. I have no rapport, I’m afraid.
It’s the same way with e-books. I read hardback books and always have a pencil to make little notes. I think even the texture of the paper deepens the experience, you know? It just adds a little flourish in your mind you wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s like going to a real library instead of using algorithms to find new books. Sometimes, the accident can’t be an algorithm.
G: The accident can’t be an algorithm. What a line. If we had all day, I’d let you expand on that. But alas, we don’t. Let’s talk about the Puffin. What was your thinking process behind that?
E: It was supposed to be a sketch. I heard that and thought, “Well, let’s semi-ignore that.” You know, my sketches aren’t particularly good. My doodles look like “people who can’t draw” doodles. Can’t allow the façade to fall!
So I thought, he’s gonna be small, but he’s gotta be large in spirit. He’s gotta have character. So I went in, and I looked at the genuine article. I’d forgotten that puffins look nothing like penguins … so the first thing I did was get a bunch of photographs of puffins.
I wanted this businesspuffin — it’s having teleconference meetings, you know, this is a professional puffin — to have a briefcase and a tie. But he’s also a creature of nature, so I wanted him ready for action. He’s a bird; maybe there’s a strong wind blowing, his tie is fluttering, and his hand is, sort of, gripping the briefcase, out on an angle. He has one leg up in the air for balance.
Body shape — what’s funny? Egg-like, I thought. So then his head, I drew a couple versions. The one I like sort of looked like Eddie Munster. I thought he looked smart, and weird, and I thought, “That seems right.” So I tried blowing it up, and it didn’t have the right flavour anymore. And that’s always the dilemma, getting the spark from a little idea to stay alive once it becomes more fleshed-out.
So we have this Frankenstein head, sort of a trapezoid or rhombazoid, if thats the right word [it isn’t], something flat on both ends.
Initially, I was trying to give him expressive eyes, but with this little head, I eventually just tried dots. I remembered the claymation penguin from “The Wrong Trousers” — Have you ever seen it? — The makers manage to cram a huge amount of expressiveness into that penguin’s two little marble eyes. When he’s staring unblinkingly, it’s very unnerving.
I took away the wind thing, and instead thought, “If you look at his legs, we’re gonna have to give him some puffin shoes.” So I went to look at Church’s, the old established classic British footwear maker.
… So, yes, I started thinking about puffin shoes. He’ll be lifting his leg purely to reveal that he’s wearing special shoes made by the ultimate puffin shoe craftsman. What’s a good name for puffin shoes?
Goslings, Paddlers, a long name including Rudders … At this point, I’m just trying to generate puffin shoe-brand names. He’s a marine bird, his feet are essentially rudders. So I start honing in on Puddlers, Raddlers, and settled on: “Rudders Custom Made.”
He’s taciturn. But his socks match the colours of his beak. That’s his one quiet nod to style, since his tie is black with white splotches. Those were made from a typewriter corrective ribbon. It’s actually a little piece of film with white emulsion on one side. If you scrape a pencil over that, you can leave little white areas. So that’s what his tie’s white splotches are.
He seems businesslike, but not humourless. His shoes are good because they really are rudders: they’re the shape of his feet, and he has webbed feet. The briefcase is like something you would have carried on a B-52: the Air Force had these great big briefcases. Guys would go up with who knows how many notebooks and what-all — so, triple-wide, accordion briefcase.
G: I find the fact that you made his shoes wingtips pretty clever, seeing as he’s a bird.
E: I hadn’t thought of that.
G: You’re kidding.
E: I was thinking of how I’d heard those shoes described as as “perforated.” I liked that word, another anachronism for times past — old lingo. It’s what was on my mind. But yeah, wingtips. Of course.
G: I guess I’ll have to end on an overplayed question, because I know I’m eating into your daylight hours here. If you could only take one thing on vacation to make art with, what would it be?
E: My lucky pencil. It’s heavy. It’s German. It’s a serious tool. That pencil means a lot to me.
I’m reading a children’s book right now where every chapter begins with what appears to be a really delicate pencil illustration, and it’s very warm. So, I would need that.
G: It’s been a pleasure meeting you and talking with you so frankly. I’ll be sure to send this your way before publishing.
E: Thank you, I appreciate that. I have a hunch there were words I won’t want anywhere near each other.
* * *
While I didn’t have to sub out any of his words, I did spend several hours attempting to pick the best, most precious pieces of this conversation. FreeConference was helpful enough to guide me using our AutoSearch function, meaning I could find almost any part of the interview through a data search bar in the saved recording.
You can find more of Eric’s work here, which features a downloadable version of his portfolio.
Interviewing artists is one of the best parts of my job here, and wouldn’t be possible the majority of the time without virtual conferencing. If I’d had to knock at his door to book this interview, I can almost guarantee there wouldn’t be a map for it.
I almost forgot — Eric Chase Anderson puts cinnamon in his coffee. Now you know.
Eric Anderson, everyone. Thanks for reading.