James Burks is funny, smart, and enjoys running, biking and swimming. When he’s not doing that he’s writing and illustrating books for people young and old. He’s the author of many great books including GABBY AND GATOR, the BIRD AND SQUIRREL graphic novel series, and the upcoming book PIGS AND A BLANKET. I had the pleasure of meeting James at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
For what age audience do you write?
I tend to write stories that I find funny and entertaining. I let the publisher worry about age of the audience. I like to think of my books as for all ages, as anyone can read them and hopefully enjoy them. As far as the genre goes I guess it would be fantasy. Mainly because my stories tend to feature talking animals.
Henry: I’m a big fan of talking animals. I think all kids wish their pets could speak.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book is the third installment of my BIRD AND SQUIRREL graphic novel series for Scholastic/Graphix called Bird and Squirrel on the Edge. Bird and Squirrel are almost home when they stop to chase off wolves hunting a baby bear and in the process Bird gets a knock on the noggin and a case of amnesia. So Squirrel has to set aside his fears and keep both Bird and the bear cub safe as they journey on foot over the Great Mountains with a pack of hungry wolves in hot pursuit.
Henry: That is one brave bird and squirrel!
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
Ultimately, I want my readers to have fun, to enjoy the stories and to laugh along with the crazy antics of Bird and Squirrel.
Henry: And to learn not to mess with wolf packs.
What aspect of writing/illustrating do you find most challenging?
The writing is probably the most challenging aspect for me. I’ve been drawing since I was little, so that tends to come easier. I didn’t start writing until I came up with the idea for my first book GABBY AND GATOR. Even then, I was pretty much writing with pictures. I would just draw out the story as it came to me. This wasn’t the most efficient way to work, and I ended up doing a lot of drawing that never made it into the book. Now I tend to outline my stories first. That way I can figure out the story structure and make sure everything is working before I do any drawing.
Henry: It’s interesting that many author/illustrators start as illustrators. I don’t know many authors who subsequently added illustration to their resume.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer/illustrator?
I think it’s that there has to be a certain amount of compromise if you want to have your books published. There are going to be lots of notes along the way. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them but you have to look at what the publisher thinks isn’t working and figure out your own way of addressing it. That being said, sometimes it’s okay to say no too. You just better have a good reason and be able to explain why you think it should stay in the story.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer/illustrator?
The best thing about being a writer/illustrator is that it has allowed me to work from home and set my own schedule. I get to spend more time with my family. I get to spend time running, biking, and swimming instead of dealing with a daily commute. It has also allowed me to connect with a lot of very creative people all around the world.
Henry: Note to aspiring illustrators: this only works once your level of success makes it financial feasible. Don’t quit your day job before that.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors and illustrators?
Don’t wait till you think your work is prefect before putting it out there into the world for people to see. It’ll never be perfect. Just keep doing it. Not everyone is going to like it. Not everything you do is going to be great. But the more you do it the better you’re going to get.
Henry: So true. Even successful authors and illustrators get rejected. It’s like preparing a meal. Just because the meal is well-prepared doesn’t mean it will suit everyone’s tastes.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” —Walt Disney
Henry: “Why, oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” – Cypher
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write or illustrate?
When I’m writing I like to go to Starbucks and sit outside with a cup of coffee and my laptop. Getting away from my home studio and out in the real world helps mix things up. Sometimes that’s all it takes to kickstart the creative juices. Large quantities of coffee helps too.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
To be able to clean my house and take care of errands in seconds.
Henry: In lieu of superpowers, you could benefit from having minions.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Hmmm…It would have to be Tim Burton, Steve Martin, and Bill Murray. Tim Burton because his work has always inspired me. Steve Martin because he’s super talented and very funny. Bill Murray isn’t an author but I love how he doesn’t seem to take life too seriously.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing/illustrating?
When I’m not writing/illustrating I’m either running, biking or swimming long distances in preparation for some kind of endurance race like a triathlon or a marathon.
Henry: I wonder if there’s a way to combine endurance training with errands…
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
James had no regrets and lived life to the fullest.
Where can readers find your work?
Readers can find my work at JAMESBURKS.COM. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram : @jamesburksart Thanks for the interview!
Henry: Thanks for visiting with us, James. This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.