‘I’m more keen now on the work I do than perhaps ever before. It still excites me. Though it’s the future ideas that are more exciting than the actual carrying out of them – that’s hard work!’
Fiona French is slightly built, with sparkling eyes and a hearty, indeed heartening, laugh, which frequently punctuates her talk. She speaks thoughtfully, carefully considering each word before delivering it, reminding the listener that not only is she an artist but a writer too.
She is now firmly established in Norfolk, but much of her early life was spent in travelling with her family, so much so that she insists she comes ‘from nowhere in particular’. At Croydon Art College she trained in fine arts and print-making and was blessed with excellent teachers, including Bridget Riley and Charles Keeping (‘God bless his cotton socks’). Keeping was extremely generous to the young artist. ‘When I was looking for a job, Charles would give me a list of who to see at the publishers, so I would know who I wanted to see before I phoned for an interview. It didn’t mean I was any better in the interview, but it did give me a lot of experience.’
Fiona was drawn towards children’s picture books for sound practical reasons: ‘It’s where you get the most pictures, which, because of my training in fine art, I definitely wanted.’ She was eventually employed by Oxford University Press and her first book, Jack of Hearts, was published by them in 1970. It was at OUP that she developed her particular working-method, the ‘cornerstone’ of which is the rough. These roughs are drawn in crayon, ‘so that I have the freedom to choose exactly how I want to do the painting’. When the approved roughs come back from the publisher they are traced – ‘I just turn them over, scribble on the back and then trace them,’ she explaines, making it sound as easy as pie. However, the primary importance of roughs was only a gradual development. ‘In the first ten years at Oxford I never did any roughs at all, which looking back now seems absolute insanity. They enable me to work about twice as fast, because all the major decisions have been taken.’ Up to and including Hunt the Thimble, her eighth book, ‘I would never know what I was going to put on the next page. Looking back I think “God, how could I have done that? How was it possible?”‘ To demonstrate her point she turns to a double-spread in Hunt the Thimble – the scene in which all the market produce goes flying into the air – and describes how, during her work on the book, she had received some bad news which ‘completely changed the last part of the book. I went – well, flying into the air and it somehow got into this picture, everything in total chaos!’ Fortunately the completed book proved to be a popular and an artistic success, and the chance of such a potentially dangerous change of mind has now been eliminated because the rough acts as a safety-net.
One of the more obvious characteristics of Fiona’s work is that – although they are all recognisably her own and no-one else’s (the use, for example, of large, almost operatic, figures, often just head and torso) – the style of each book is governed by the needs and concerns of the story. To achieve the necessary ‘flavour’ she plunders a variety of sources. The inspiration for the figure of Noah in her latest hook, Rise, Shine!, was suggested by Ethiopian art, which is full of bright colours and geometries, lending Noah his slightly ritualistic quality. ‘Methuen wanted it softened. And from then on,’ she adds, with a laugh, ‘it was really only my imagination – desperately trying to think of something!’ She goes on to list the ingredients used to achieve the historical accuracy of Hunt the Thimble: ‘Take six books of paintings by Vermeer, as many as you can find of Pieter de Hooch, and a beautiful little book of engravings I found in the V & A. I took photographs of the engravings, chose the parts I needed and then drew them my own way.’
Photographs play a large part in Fiona’s preparation. For her research for Snow White in New York, ‘I had so many books out about what the city looked like and what the people looked like – jazz musicians, contemporary photographs of the clubs in Harlem, the dresses – everything. The wicked stepmother, she came from Erte, and I think the father from Hollywood glamour photos. I saw a street scene of New York recently and it was like my book – and I can’t remember how I got it. It’s like wearing blinkers, I pick things I’m going to use for information, and then afterwards, rather like an exam, it goes completely out of my mind. Then I want to move onto something different.’
Fiona uses colour to assist her in telling the story, to such a degree that it almost becomes a character in the story. This is an ‘absolutely conscious decision’. In Cinderella (‘That was a difficult book to get through! There are so many precedents, so many versions’) the dresses of the Ugly Sisters tell the reader a lot about their characters. ‘Who but an ugly sister would go to a ball wearing that colour? A heroine wouldn’t wear a lurid green like that.’ Taking another example of her use of colour as an essential item in the storytelling process, she cites the making of The Song of the Nightingale. The book was originally intended to be ‘quite realistic’ – based on an actual visit to Assisi, together with the inevitable batch of photographs – full of ‘greens and happy colours’. She prepared four or five originals to be shown at the Bologna Book Fair, but they were received without enthusiasm. ‘So I threw the whole lot out of the window and started again!’ Meanwhile, she had discovered a minute engraving of Assisi and this gave her the vital clue as to how the book should be tackled. The engraving was the direct inspiration for the first spread in the book, which shows the grey, oppressive city, brooded over by the encampment of the invading army. ‘Where the tents are in my picture, the engraving showed a gibbet, with a man hanging from it, and it was desert – and that’s exactly the right flavour… the feeling of war, the black of the city and the red of the sky.’ And then comes the song of the nightingale, colour bursting into bud on the tree, the dark is banished and the city becomes radiant. It is an exact visual depiction of the healing power of the nightingale’s song and a perfect example of Fiona’s ability to allow colour (and the lack of it) to carry the burden of the story.
Because she writes most of her books, does she regard herself as a writer as well as an artist? ‘A little bit, yes. It’s necessity really, because there are very very few words that are simple enough and with enough strength for a picture-book. I draw with as finalised text as I possibly can, because if it wasn’t I’d feel so insecure that I wouldn’t be able to draw. The words are right there from the start.’ In the original story of the Maid of the Wood, which Fiona discovered ten years before using it, the maid returns back into the tree. ‘I thought this was a little too negative. Sad really. So I changed it to what it is now, a little hint of Women’s Lib. Endings do have to be relatively happy in books this short… to encourage the reader to pick it up again. If it’s too nasty they’re going to leave it on the shelf.’
It is the painting that causes the headaches.-.’especially on the days it doesn’t go right! The difficult bits arrive in just the area you were least expecting. Often it is page two because the second page is the one that keeps the continuity going through the book. Now, here I am, back to roughs again, because they have helped me so much and now I know exactly what happens on each page.’
When asked whether she works with a particular audience in mind, her reply is immediate and emphatic. ‘No, no, no. Not when I’m actually painting. Never! Over the years you get to know what sort of story will appeal, it’s an instinct.’ The proper place to pitch it is ‘just meeting the very bright kids, or slightly over the heads of the not so bright ones – but that’s all right, that’s terrific. Definitely not talking down to them. If I had a seven-year-old or an eight-year-old in my mind while I was writing, then I would be talking down. Essentially I’m making a story that I’d like to read myself.’
The most recent book, Rise, Shine!, tells the story of Noah’s Ark, using the words of a negro spiritual, though in a slightly modified form. An editor expressed qualms about the possible attitude of American librarians when confronted with the verse ‘If you get to heaven before I doosie, doosie,/Tell St Peter to get out the boosie, boosie’, so Fiona, with a certain reluctance, has amended the line to ‘Tell St Peter, “Don’t be so choosy, choosy”’. The artwork is full of colour and wit and, once again, the style appears to be different, incorporating tiny pen-and-ink figures and landscapes in the backgrounds. ‘This is perfectly logical,’ the ever-practical artist insists. ‘You’ve got a picture of the Ark, and it’s got to be big – ! Well, you’ve just got one double-spread to show this feeling of size, so naturally everything else has to be weeny.’ When she first heard the spiritual, sung by a crowd of 3000 children, she thought ‘Good heavens, this is marvellous, just the right sort of funny flavour I like, not taking itself too seriously.’ Two years later, with the help of one piece of final artwork (subsequently revised), she sold the idea to Methuen.
She thinks that on the whole winning the Kate Greenaway Medal (for Snow White in New York) did make a difference. ‘I think it opens doors, and it helps with getting work. Instead of saying “Fiona French – who?” they now say “Oh yes, she got the Kate Greenaway Medal,”’ adding with a laugh, ‘“How many years ago?”’
In the immediate future is her current project, a picture-book set in Arizona, and the continuous search for subjects. ‘Yes, I do go looking, when I have to. It doesn’t fall into your lap, ever. One thing I can be sure of-the next one’s going to be better. Having said that, I don’t mean specifically the next one. It’s always the next book, anyway.’
Photographs by Chris Stephenson.
Hunt the Thimble, Oxford, 0 19 27971 9 0 £3.95
Maid of the Wood, Oxford, 0 19 279798 0, £5.95
Going to Squintums, Blackie, 0 216 91725 5, £5.95
Snow White in New York, Oxford, 0 19 279808 1, £5.95
Song of the Nightingale, Blackie, 0 216 91952 5, £6.95
Cinderella, Oxford, 0 19 279841 3, £5.95
Rise, Shine!, Methuen, 0 416 08122 3, £5.95