I have admired Emma Carlisle's work for a long time. Her illustrations are instantly identifiable and I just love the playful nature of her work. Animals feature heavily in Emma's work and she recently rescued two beautiful cats of her own, Stanley and Ruby, so she seemed like the perfect fit for this month's Crafty Critters interview...
It must be so exciting to see your books Lion Practice and Bears at the Beach in shops and being read by children! Can you tell us a bit about how the books came about and the process of getting published?
I’ve always loved stories; I studied Illustration at University and throughout my three years I kept being drawn back to narrative, although my final major project was far from child friendly! It was a series of books based around a sex dungeon which was uncovered in a local town!! I decided a year after graduating that I needed more time to develop and moved to Cambridge to take part on the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin. It’s the best picture book course in the world and is taught by amazing tutors. We spent the first 6 weeks working purely on location drawing (bliss!) and the next 6 weeks we were allowed to create a narrative – I made a book about a giraffe that was inspired from my initial 6-week project.
Then we had Christmas break and I spent a week with my nieces Amy and Ellie. One morning I caught my brother brushing Amy’s teeth - he was saying, “show me those teeth lion Amy!” and she was roaring back at him. I thought to myself “a little girl who wants to be a lion, that’s fun!” So when I went back to Cambridge after Christmas we had another 6-week project and that’s where Lion Practice started. The course takes 80 unpublished books out to Bologna Book Fair (the worlds largest children’s book fair) every year and in my first year of the MA Lion Practice was represented on the stand. I had no idea what to expect but I left Bologna with 9 publishers interested and several offers from agents. I signed up with my now agent, Elizabeth Roy, and a few weeks later I’d been highly commended for the Macmillan Prize and shortly after that I signed a two book deal with Macmillan. Bears on the Beach was my final major project on the MA, it was based around when I was 5 and got lost at Bristol Balloon Fiesta. I worked on it for 12 weeks on the MA and re-did all the artwork after Lion Practice was published. I still can’t believe it when I see them both on the shelves, I love seeing photos that people tag me in when they find them in their local book shop or abroad. Lion Practice was nominated for several awards and most recently read on Cbeebies Bedtime Stories which was amazing!
Animals play a big part in your work, which are your favourites to illustrate and why?
I’ve always loved animals, my earliest drawing I remember doing was a penguin (copied from my little brother’s changing mat) and I’m still drawing animals now! I love drawing cats – big cats and small cats! I always try and sneak one into a story! They have so much character and of course I now have my two little muses.
Am I right in thinking you got your cat Ruby from Rushden Persian Rescue, which is the same place Harriet (Hello Harriet) and Rachel (Oh No Rachio) got their kitties? What inspired you to rescue a cat and is Stanley from the same place?
Yes! Ruby is a Rushden Persian Rescue baby. We bought our flat almost 2 years ago and even before we’d finished renovating it I was constantly checking the local rescue centres and keeping an eye on Rushden Persian Rescue (who Rachel and Harriet recommended). Ben knew I was desperately after a cat and I was just waiting for the perfect furbaby to come up. As soon as our flat was finished (literally the DAY the builders said they were done) I sent an enquiry email to Patsy at RPR. I’d done my research and decided that a British Shorthair was for us, they’re laid back and give affection to all of the family, also they are less likely to set off any allergies and I’d already fallen in love with Harriet’s cats Meeko and Yoshi and Rachel’s cat Luna.
Patsy got back to me the next day saying they’d just had a chocolate British Shorthair in and if we were happy to collect her she was ours. We drove up to Rushden two days later with what I thought was a good sized cat carrier, turns out Ruby is a bit bigger boned than normal cats! The photo hadn’t done her justice and poor Rubes was squeezed into the carrier. Ruby hadn’t had the best start in life, the first time I stroked her she hissed at me, and as we were leaving she stretched one paw out of the front of the carrier and hit all the other cats over the head – sassy4life!
I stayed a member of our local cat rescue facebook page and Stanley popped up on my feed. I loved him instantly, I remember sending the link to Rachel and she loved him too! I messaged the rescue place but they’d been told by his previous owner that he didn’t get on with other cats and I felt heartbroken! A month later he popped up on my feed again, after getting to know him better the rescue had decided that he could be homed with other cats and I rushed over to meet him. The lady at the rescue told us he was very shy and didn’t often come out to greet new visitors, I knelt down and called him over, he came trotting out of his cat house and gave my hands a really big snort. You hear that Persians and Exotics snort like little piglets but nothing really prepares you for it, the first time he did I thought he was growling at me! But he gave my leg a head butt and I reserved him on the spot.
How did you find the process of introducing Ruby and Stanley to each other? Are they friends now?
So after reserving Stan I came home and Ruby greeted me at the door, I gave her my hand to sniff (which Stan had just head butted) and she hissed at me! I was so nervous and nearly rang up and canceled because I loved Ruby and didn’t want to upset her – but she’s a strong independent woman and only likes being fussed on her own terms, I knew I was constantly annoying her by showering her with my affection and in my mind I’d always envisaged us having two cats. I’m forever grateful to Harriet and Rachel for telling me about their introductions and how it would all be fine. We had just over a week in between us reserving Stan and bringing him home, so in that time I drew up an introduction chart and I spent hours finding out how to best introduce two cats. Swapping scents, keeping them separate, playing under the door, feeding either side of the door, Feliway Friends etc etc – if someone had suggested it I had put it on my chart. The first week Stan stayed in the spare bedroom and I sat with him watching Gilmore Girls and working on my laptop. Ruby is incredibly nosy and so I started scent swapping early on but she was livid – LOTS of hissing, lots of swiping at Stan through the door. The rescue centre gave us lots of advice about introducing - they said we should give it 8 weeks and if they were pulling fur from each other/fighting/messing on the floor/over grooming then we should think about returning Stan.
After a week our friend Olivia came over to meet Stan and we were all sat in the spare room and Ruby was meowing on the other side of the door desperate to get in, Ben said “Shall we just introduce them” and my carefully planned chart went out the window! I knew introducing them would be difficult but at the back of my mind I had this glimmer of hope that I’d open the door and they’d just curl up together and love each other – that didn’t happen! We’ve had Stan now for 8 months and they still scuffle and chase each other occasionally but quite often we come upstairs and they’re sharing the spare room bed or both asleep next to each other on the sofa – which would have been unheard of 8 months ago, you can tell they’re both really happy which is lovely. I think why it worked for us is because Stan and Ruby are the perfect pair. British Shorthairs are known for being laid back and sleepy and Exotics are known for being loving and soppy. Ruby is a bit feisty and likes going adventuring (climbing our book shelves!), whereas Stan is happy to be sat on my lap – which is where he is right now! Neither of them need to fight for our attention and the flat is big enough that if they need their own space they get it. We started off having separate litter trays and food bowls but they share everything now! The only thing that they are both still a little bit territorial over is the bedroom at night but we’ve just moved the furniture around (thanks for the tip Harriet!) and I’ve woken up two mornings in a row with them both on our bed so I think we’re starting to see progress with that now!
I love your custom cat pots and they're unsurprisingly really popular. How often do you release new batches?
I released lots of new pots over Christmas after being encouraged by my crafty BFFs - Harriet (Hello Harriet) Rosie (Rosie Drake Knight) and Annie (Annie Dornan Smith) and I was overwhelmed with the feedback. So many people ask about them being custom made but I had a nightmare with my kiln last year – everything was coming out of the kiln cracked, but after lots of testing it’s (fingers crossed) all fixed now. The initial plan was to do custom designs throughout 2017 with a certain amount of pots released each month. But I decided in January that I needed to concentrate on my picture book writing, I’ve been struggling the last year to juggle picture books, lecturing and ceramics and I decided that something needed to go on hold for a little while. My big main deadline has been Easter Saturday because that’s when Ben’s sister is getting married, so after then we’re hoping that we’ll get a bit of extra time to make some more cat pots – but my long term plan is they’ll definitely be back in my shop for Christmas and I’ll be bringing lots of them to Renegade Craft Fair this year.
Have you illustrated Ruby and Stanley yet or made them in ceramic form?
Every Ruby and Stanley I’ve made in ceramic form has cracked, which has been heartbreaking! But the last pot I made for Christmas didn’t sell in my Etsy shop and it was based on Ruby so I’ve kept it for myself. I’ve just finished pitching a new picture book, which may or may not have two cats in – one of them is definitely Mister Stanley Man! And the other has Ruby’s sassy attitude.
How long have you been lecturing on the illustration course at Plymouth University? It must be strange to be on the other side of the classroom! Do you find it inspiring to watch and guide others' work?
I’ve been a visiting lecturer on the course for three years, my current third years I’ve seen go from 1st years – 3rd years and I call them my baby year – which probably embarrasses them! But I’m so proud to see how far they’ve come. Although I’ve been teaching for a few years I’ve only been a contracted lecturer on the course for a year, which has gone by scarily fast. I was a student at Plymouth University so it is a tiny bit strange to be the other side but I’ve found it more beneficial than anything, I can relate to what they’re doing and I when I started I already knew all the lecturers so there wasn’t an awkward fitting in phase which there can be with new jobs. I love working there, it’s a dream job and a wonderful course! The most rewarding thing has been visiting Bologna Book Fair this year with a few of my students who are working on picture books and guiding them towards publishers and giving them tips and advice about showing their work, I was 100% an embarrassing tutor and took sneaky photos of them in meetings – very very proud!
Who are some of your favourite creatives on instagram who share their work and pictures of their cute pets?
Obviously my no.1 cat mums Harriet and Rachel! I am secretly a cat and dog person and Zoe’s dog Jasper is the cutest! I love catching up with Kim Lawler’s brood on insta-stories and of course Frankie the Forest Cat owned by Nikki McWilliams and Alex T Smith who has so many cute little puppers AND has just rescued 5 battery hens – something we’d love to do one day!
Thanks to Emma for her brilliant, honest and in-depth answers. I can't wait to see what she gets up to next...Catch up with what Emma's doing on instagram and pop over to her Etsy Shop to buy her beautiful work!
If you enjoyed this post you might like to read the other interviews in the series. Nikki, Kim and Rachel who Emma mentioned in her last answer have both previously been featured. Got a recommendation for a future Crafty Critters interview? Let me know on instagram, I'm @zabbyallen!