A Sneak Peek into the GREAT mind of A.T. Balsara
Today, we are in for a real treat as author and illustrator of The Great and the Small joins the CDP blog and lets us pick her brain. The spooky and beautifully illustrated YA book released on October 31. You definitely want to get your copy!
Where did the idea of The Great and the Small originate from?
The need to write a book that explored questions of good and evil had been with me for a long time, but I didn’t know what form the story would take. About 15 years ago, a title came to me, Plague Rat, giving me a springboard from which to work. While the title eventually changed, it helped focus my search in gathering the elements that made up the story: the bubonic plague, rats as sentient beings, Stalinism, and the cult of personality.
How do your ideas come to you?
It varies. With my picture book, Greenbeard the Pirate Pig, I was inspired by my guinea pigs—when they ate lettuce, their beards turned green. There wasn’t anything earth-shattering about it—just something that I found funny.
With my young adult novel, The Great & the Small, it was a far different process. I have grappled with the question of how evil flourishes, ever since I was little. There was something in me that needed to figure it out, on paper, for myself. My radar must have been out the whole time, because when I finally wrote the story, elements from books I had loved, or people who inspired me (or horrified me) found their way into the book.
What is your writing process? Do you come up with the words and story first or do you visualize the images?
I definitely write first, and draw later. I usually need to have a good idea of where I want the story to go, while leaving space for characters to pipe in and write the scenes themselves. Once I have the story down, I pick scenes to illustrate that interest me. I don’t like illustrating minute details, or mega-crowd scenes. I love illustrating a moment, an expression, a feeling. For me, drawing is very intuitive, and driven by my feelings, probably because I never went to art school. Besides a few correspondence courses and weekend workshops, I’m primarily self-taught. One thing that helps me, whether I’m writing or illustrating, is to have a “soundtrack” playing in a loop and totally immerse myself.
How long have you been writing and illustrating?
My first attempt at illustrating a manuscript came in 1997. My sister, Michele Torrey, who is also a writer, had written a picture book manuscript and I begged her to let me illustrate it (little did we know, the publisher usually chooses the illustrator, not the author! In our ignorance, we had high hopes). When that went nowhere, I asked Michele to write another manuscript, so I could try again. She, very kindly and diplomatically, said I should learn to write for myself. And so, I did. My first manuscript was accepted 7 years later, after I took correspondence courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. Ironically, my written manuscripts were the only things I could get published for a while, until I despaired of ever being asked to illustrate anything. But learning to write, and getting published as a writer, taught me to value the craft of writing as much as illustrating.
What do you love the most—writing or illustrating?
I love them both. They both inhabit different parts of my brain. When I’m illustrating, I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. When I’m writing, I can’t imagine not writing.
Do you listen to music while you are writing or drawing?
Ohhh, yes. Just ask my family. I have ruined many a great tune for them, because I played over and over again (and again, and again) while I worked.
What is your favorite image from the book?
The one where Ananda is crouched over Fin. My sweet and patient daughter, Mehra, was my model for Ananda. Mehra crouched over a pair of socks that were stand-ins for Fin. She even had to re-create the image when I needed to revise and didn’t have the proper reference photo. Poor kid! I think she was studying for exams at the time, but she did it for me anyway.
What do you most want the reader to know about The Great and the Small?
That it was a book I was told to not bother with. I think that the “business” of writing can be heartless, and can cut the soul out of why you’re doing what you’re doing. There is more to a book than how it fits into current norms.
Your previous books have been geared toward the middle grade audience, what were the challenges for the YA audience?
I often feel that YA books lack hope. Having been miserable through high school, I get that the feeling of despair is real. But the stories that moved me, that changed me, were ones that depicted the “Hero’s Journey,” that inspired me to hope that there was more than the suffering I was experiencing. I believe that people, no matter what age, need hope, and that there’s a place for these kinds of stories.
Do you have any author inspirations?
Growing up, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was incredibly important to me, as was Watership Down, and To Kill a Mockingbird.
Recently, I read Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis. I loved its complex themes, interwoven with a feeling of perplexed innocence. There are a number of authors that inspire, me, too many to name. I read their works, and am in awe. When I read someone else’s brilliant work, it’s humbling, but inspiring. One of the unexpected benefits of becoming a writer is getting to know other writers. I belong to a number of writers’ groups, and the members have been, without exception, incredibly generous, creative, and supportive. I am constantly learning from them.
Do you listen to a playlist or music that helps the creative process? And if so, what songs, artists, etc.
I love writing and illustrating to “soundtracks.” One of the songs I listened to over, and over again, during the making of The Great & the Small, was Indoctrination, by Delerium. In it, the incredible singer, Kiran Ahluwalia, is mesmerizing. Another Delerium song, Awakening, is practically trance-inducing! Other songs in my “soundtrack” playlist are M’bifé Blues, by Amadou & Mariam, Sleep, and Manic Star, by Conjure One, Why, by TYA, Icarus, by Bastille, Radioactive, and Demons, by Imagine Dragons, Glassworks: Opening, by Philip Glass, and Beauty in Your Eyes, by Music Detected.
How long have you been writing? How long have you been drawing?
I started learning to write around 18 years ago. I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember, although there were a couple of decades where I couldn’t draw anything. I had undiagnosed mental health issues, and went through a very difficult time. Over the last 6 years, my drawing has slowly come back to me.
What started you on the path to writing?
When my sister told me to write my own stories and stop waiting around for her. Never having seen myself as a writer, writing was one of the few things that didn’t shut down while I went through my “dark night of the soul.” Because I had identified myself as a visual artist very early on, it was one of the first things to shut down when I was struggling. I still struggle with it, but have since learned many ways to by-pass my mental block, such as immersing myself in music while I work.