Russ Cox was born in the backwoods of Tennessee and raised by a pack of wild hillbillies. After spending many years in the South, he migrated North to attend art school. With a portfolio in hand, he set out into the world of graphic design where he worked for many years. During this time, he became an in-house illustrator, which rekindled his love of drawing. Having settled in the moose-juggling capital of the country, Maine, he became interested in creating children’s books, which he still does to this day. When he is not locked in studio, he enjoys spending time with his wife and 4 cats, playing the banjo, and running amok in the snow.
Henry: I had the pleasure of meeting Russ at a Los Angeles SCBWI national conference.
For what age audience do you write?
As of now, I write picture books for the 3-8 year old range, at least that is what I am told. I do have ideas for some early readers and chapter books.
Henry: Me too. But, writing a chapter book after writing a picture book is like playing raquetball after playing tennis. You use different brain muscles.
Tell us about your latest book.
FARAWAY FRIENDS, my debut picture book as both author and illustrator, is about a friendship lost and found, usually under one’s nose. Wannabe astronaut Sheldon has a friend who moved away, in his mind, to Jupiter. With his his trusty dog, Jet, by his side, he goes in search of his friend through an imaginary space adventure.
Henry: In space, no one can hear you bark.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
hope that readers will learn that people come and go in one’s life, and that new friendships can be exciting. I also want kids to get the idea that they can go outside and invent worlds to play in. Imagination is powerful thing. And that computers, TV’s, phones, etc. are not needed, just brains and the outdoors.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Since I am an illustrator and new to the writing side of books, the whole process of writing is challenging to me. It is not in my comfort zone, but I find that very exciting. I learn something with each word and sentence. Maybe you can teach an old dog a new trick.
Henry: As a writer only, I cannot imagine gaining the skill to become a published illustrator.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
This is a lesson that I still need to work on: write every day. Good or bad, put words onto paper or a computer screen. You hear this from everyone in publishing.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been an author/illustrator?
I would never have thought I had stories buried deep inside me. After creating my first book, all of these stories are starting to spill out. I should thank Debbie Ohi for pushing me towards writing my first story and starting this new chapter in my life.
Henry: Fun coincidence: Debbie was the first person I met at my first Los Angeles SCBWI conference.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Do your homework by reading, especially picture books. Many people think they can write a picture book, but it is probably the hardest book to write. By sitting in the children’s section of a library or bookstore, and reading, you can learn how such a book is constructed. The words and pictures must dance in unison with our stepping on each others toes. It is a hard dance to learn and one I am still learning.
My second, and just as important, advice would be to find good critique partners. You need people who are willing to tell you when something is not working, but also cheer you on when you get things moving along. It also helps you to toughen up and become less sensitive to any criticism. You must be ready for any rejection, because it will happen. My critique group consist of about 18 very honest and supportive people. they make me so much better than if I just kept everything to myself.
Henry: And let me add that in once sense, being an author only is even more challenging, because we don’t get to live in the illustrator’s head. We have to write well, show rather than tell, but avoid excessive art notes so as to leave room for the illustrator to add their magic.
I completely agree on the benefit of being part of one or more critique groups.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King
“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” ― Neil Gaiman
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” ― Maya Angelou
“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway
“All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” ― Walt Disney
“We are the facilitators of our own creative evolution.” ― Bill Hicks
Henry: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ― Ernest Hemingway
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?
When I am writing, I tend to go the library to find a quiet room, and to disconnect from the social world, meditate for a few minutes to cleanse my head, and then let the pencil go for a walk. I still write my first several drafts with pencil and paper. I need that connection of hearing the lead scribbling and seeing eraser shavings. I guess I am old school at times.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I think being the Flash would be helpful. I could write and type my story ideas down much faster. Plus, I can get my storyboards, sketches, etc. done quicker. Of course the drawback could be the tons of typos and bad drawings created from moving so fast.
Henry: There are other drawbacks of moving very fast. See my mock interview with Edna Mode about the drawbacks of superpowers.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Okay, it would Poe because of his mastery of the macabre, and he is my favorite writer; Mem Fox who can say so much with so few words, and I would want her to read to me all evening; and finally E.E. Cummings, because he uses words and sentences as instruments.
Henry: I’m sure Mem would be thrilled to learn she’s in such company.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
The cyclops. I think they are misunderstood and really have a good soul. From being so different, they are ostracized which makes them a tad angry. All they need is a friend.
Henry: We haven’t seen that pick before on this blog. But, I don’t see eye-to-eye with you on this one. If you eat people, you’re more than just misunderstood. “Hey, Russ, wanna’ come over for dinner.” “Errr, I think I’m busy.”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
You can usually find me with either a banjo or a book in my hand. Maybe at the same time. I also love movies.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Have sketchbook, will travel.
Where can readers find your work?
Many of the books I worked on can be found or ordered through your local book store.
Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Russ. This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.