EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ALAIN GRÉE !
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– How and why did you become an illustrator ?
I’ve always liked drawing, for that reason I studied for five years at the “Ecole des Arts Appliqués” (art school) in Paris. After studying, I chose to start writing and illustrate books to be able to have the freedom to sail across the world on my ship together with my wife Monique – faraway from the usual phonecalls and meetings, living from my royalties….in my dreams…
– Why did you choose to make children’s books ?
No doubt because it took me a long time to grow up myself !
– What did you prefer doing at the time : to write stories or illustrate them ?
I’m passionate about both, in different ways according to the subject. In any case, I felt comfortable only when I was able to do both : to come up with the story, write the texts and make sketches and the page setup as well, as I have done with almost all my productions.
– How exactly did you make those books, how did you start on a new book ?
Using my instincts and reflection of certain things and a little imagination ! In fact, creating new stories has never been a problem, and I’ve always had ambition – I’m the type of active person who can never just stay in one place.
Every time I first came up with the theme of a book (series), then chose the size and number of pages a book should have, and then made a sketch of the first book, which I presented to an editor (Casterman, Nathan, Hachette, etc).
Once I had an agreement with them, I collected all the information about the book’s subject, then wrote and illustrated the books of the series one by one – or later also had the illustrations made by my brother Gerard Grée or my friend Luis Camps, based on my sketches.
I always made books with a lot of passion, because I can never do anything if I’m not passionate about it. Since I’m interested in almost anything, you can imagine…
– What thoughts went through your mind while you were drawing ?
I definitely was ‘living’ in the scene that I was creating at the time – as long as I didn’t think of Kim Basinger or my next sailing trip during work !
– How did you create the ‘Romeo’ character ? Was he modeled after an existing dog ?
No, he’s a purely imaginary dog, he came out of my pencil when I was looking for a comical and friendly appearance. I’ve always had dogs though, usually German Sheperds, like Sally (my actual dog).
– What made you decide to stop illustrating and write the stories only at a certain point ? Why did you finish the children’s books completely and what did you do after that?
I stopped illustrating children’s books because I had the impression that I was repeating myself too much. The same trees, the same animals, the same houses. I had the impression that I was wasting my time, even though I still felt like explaining to children about the world around us, with images and words, in a clear way.
A lot of my subjects couldn’t have been done if I would’ve had to illustrate them as well. Time passes very slowly if you draw with a lot of care. After my work in children’s books, I became very active writing for a magazine about sailing (Voiles et Voiliers) and publishing books about navigation (editions Gallimard), always a sort of guide for beginners with lots of designs and photos. More technical and for adults this time – I had grown up in the meantime.
– Did you do a lot of illustrations on your trips on board of your sailing ship ?
There’s one children’s book called ‘Les plantes’ (the plants, Casterman), which took me a lot of effort and constraint, because life on board of a ship on its own takes up a lot of your time. Also I wrote a lot of articles on board about the countries I visited, the local navigation conditions, etc. to attract new people to the adventure of sailing on the oceans.
– Were you interested in sailing ships even from a young age ?
I got this passion for sailing when I was about 15 years old, after having read the narratives of navigators like Alain Gerbault, Slocum and many others.
By reading about their adventures I learnt about sailing accross the oceans, with a sense of independence, freedom and the desire to face the problems of adventure and isolation alone (with my wife) on a ship.
– Did you ever have any bad storms or horrible weather conditions on one of your sailing trips ?
When you travel accross the oceans, you can’t choose the weather conditions you’re in. You need to face them and we did experience some bad weather we didn’t wish for, both in the offing and near the shores – the most dangerous.
But with a well adjusted ship, a little experience and logic thinking, everything goes without problem. Or almost. At least in our case, on a total of about 75000 miles (or 135000 km) that we travelled between 1970 and 1983 on board of our ships between stops at our residence in Saint-Cloud (France).
– How did you meet your wife Monique?
I met her through a friend of my brother on her last day of high school. Love at first sight ! She dreamt of living in a ship, and I on a sailing ship. From then on we became inseparable, we couldn’t do anything without each other – for more than 50 years of marriage now (and 3 years of being engaged).
– What are your likes and dislikes in food ?
I have very simple taste when it comes to eating and am unable to eat a dish that I do not know. So no exotic food, and great difficulties on my trips abroad…
– What do you do in your spare time ?
Curiously, I don’t have any. But if I did, I think I would make more books about sailing navigation, because I’ve been lucky enough to do the things that I like in my life, and make a living from them as well.
– What sort of music do you like ?
Classical music and jazz. While I was a student, I made money playing bass and later clarinet in pubs in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the New Orleans style of that time. Later, in the 1960’s, I played tenor sax in a modern jazz band we put together, as an amateur of course and purely for fun.
At the moment I relax playing “in orchestra” by myself on my amazing synthesizer – it gives me the impression that I’m talented. This also answers the previous question.
– How did you meet the illustrator Mr. Peynet ?
He was an ex-student of the art school I was in. I had contacted him during my studies for the occasion of an amateur film my friends and I were making about this school.
We then worked on a animated film project together with Mr. Peynet based on the characters he created, but it was never produced – due to my departure on military service (28 months !!). He was the most gentle and kind artist of his time…
– How did you feel when you saw your children’s books again to make this calendar, and to work on your creations again after such a long time ?
Emotional and surprised to see the drawings I had forgotten about – I never went through or read my old productions, and a lot of affinity and appreciation to RicoBel, who had this marvellous idea of making my creations relive in this way. Again thanks to you, for being tireless and dynamic.
– Since there are a lot of young illustrators that respect you and have been influenced by your work, are there any artists that influenced your work when you were young ?
I’m delighted – and moved – to find out that I have some influence on young illustrators. I was totally unaware of that, but I’m extremely touched by it. In my case, my debuts have been influenced a lot by the American illustrators Alice and Martin Provensen, lovely artists from the 1950’s – 60’s.
– And our final question : do you have any message for all your fans ?
I would like to thank them for their interest in my works from a long time ago, interest that surprises and moves me a lot.