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Mary GrandPre Interview


Andrew: We're now joined by the illustrator of the U.S. Harry Potter books, Mary GrandPre. Mary, it's an honor to be talking with you. How are you doing?

Mary: I am doing just great today, thank you. How are you?

Andrew: Good, we're doing good.

Laura: We're great. We - we heard you're in Florida right now. So we have to wonder if you've been to Universal Studios by chance and caught any glimpses of the Harry Potter Theme Park they're building?

Mary: I have not. I'm waiting to do that. We have a little girl that we will take with us, and when she's old enough, we'll explore it.

Andrew: Aww.

Laura: Aww. [laughs]

Andrew: Well, let's - let's get into some questions about the books, because we do have a lot of them and, of course, all the fans know you for your amazing work with them. But let's start with the basics. Could you - could you explain to us the process of designing one of the Harry Potter covers? We know that you read the books first, and then what?

Mary: Yeah, I'll get the manuscript and then I'll just go through and highlight descriptions of characters, descriptions of places, or creatures, or whatever is something that I might end up drawing. And I kind of have a code system that I, you know, highlight things that might be good for a chapter heading or a different color for things that might be good ideas for covers. And then make all my notes and try and get a really good understanding of the story and emotionally and visually as well. And then I just start out with writing notes and making some little sketches, and then at that point, after I feel like I've got some ideas, I'll call David Sailor at Scholastic and we'll discuss what some of my cover ideas are, and he'll discuss with me what they've been talking about at Scholastic for cover ideas, and we'll kind of come to a decision about a couple of different approaches. And then I'll go back to the drawing board and sketch those. It's usually a scene - sketch those scenes out. And, you know, working with the type, all the covers have - are handmade, or hand drawn - title in them, so I kind of have to design the cover with that in mind. After the cover is decided we'll go through and discuss what each chapter heading might be, and sometimes David will give me a list of his ideas, and sometimes I'll have a different idea so I'll shoot that to him, but I'll just then continue on with those sketches. I mean, everything's done in pencil first, pencil on tracing paper, and then it goes to pastel on paper after the pencils are approved.

Andrew: How long of a process do you think this is from, like, month-wise? It sounds like it must take a while.

Mary: It does, but there's not enough time. There's never enough time...

Andrew: Right.

Mary: ...because the, you know, the print deadline is really always looming, and since, like, the artist is the last one to get the... [laughs] ...to get the thing handed down...

Andrew: The book. [laughs]

[Laura laughs]

Mary: So, you know.

Andrew: Not fair.

Mary: But I would say from the time I get the manuscript to the time the final piece of art is due is probably about two and a half months or so. Two to three months, maybe...

Laura: Wow.

Mary: ...to get a cover done and then all the spots, yeah. And they've also been including frontist pieces, which is that colored piece at the beginning of the book, too, so...

Andrew: Right.

Laura: Mhm. How...

Mary: And then there's also a separate cover for the special edition too.

Laura: Wow.

Andrew: And is that done in that two and a half month period as well?

Mary: Yeah, I'd say maybe three months for that.

Andrew: Oh, okay.

Mary: Yeah.

Laura: How many ideas do you come up with per book? Is it ever hard for you to decide which scene you want to depict on the cover?

Mary: It is before I talk to David, but after I get some kind of validation and really knock some ideas around on the phone with him, we're pretty focused on a direction. I mean, it's hard to decide before that point because there's so many, you know, exciting scenes to show, and J.K. Rowling really gives us a lot to work with visually. She's such a - her writing is very rich in that regard, so it is hard to pick, you know, what wonderful scene to show, but once I talk with David, there's a pretty good direction, and then my challenge is just to work within those boundaries and make that scene shine the best way I can. Initially, I'll come up with maybe four different ideas for what a cover might be when I speak with David.

Micah: Was there any book in the series you had a particularly hard time designing? And, if so, what was that challenge?

Mary: I would say Book 5 was hardest for me because it was a very dark book. It was kind of a hard book for me to read. I mean, I think it was really good, but it seemed like that's when Harry was kind of coming into puberty and becoming this young man, and it was emotionally really - it seemed really heavy and dark, and so - and there were a lot of dream scenes, and Harry running through hallways, opening doors, and as dramatic and interesting and rich as that is, it was hard to find a scene that was not depressing to show on the cover, and...

[Andrew and Laura laugh]

Mary: ...so that's why we went with the round spinning room with the candles, the blue lights. But, you know, I like to work with dark things too. I mean, it had that fun part about it, you know, dark is fun too, but it also can be kind of overwhelming if you get caught up in it emotionally, so...

Andrew: Right. Now that was also the first cover that was - had a single, I guess - I don't know what the technical term is - but a color tone, it was all blue.

Mary: Yeah.

Andrew: What was the reason for doing that?

Mary: Well, I think when I looked back at the first - the first three books were kind of jewel-toned, you know?

Andrew: Yeah.

Mary: Reds, and blues, and purples, and golds, and then the fourth book became pretty green, and I started to kind of think in terms of, you know, let's do something different with the fourth book. And then by the time the fifth book rolled around, and color seemed actually to be mentioned a lot in the fifth book, there was a lot of dark blues in the writing. And it just so happened that the next book, Book 6, The Half-Blood Prince, there's a lot of green. And so, I mean, it really made sense to kind of start making the books more poignant in their color...

Andrew: Yeah.

Mary: ...themes.

Andrew: Now what about a character? Did you ever have a hard time coming up with the idea for a character? Because there are so many you have to illustrate when you're including the character in your pictures too. Were there any challenges with that?

Mary: Not so much, I think, because she really describes well...

Andrew: Yeah.

Mary: ...how people look. I mean, it's not like I had to make them up, I really just had to pay attention to what she was saying and kind of envision the character in my head, and I really stayed away from watching the movies because - well, for one thing, they come out after the books, you know, and I didn't want to get caught up in the special effects and the "wow" factor of the, you know, laser beams or whatever you see on the T.V.

[Micah laughs]

Mary: But, I mean it's just - you know, I really wanted to make the books pure and simple and true to the writing, and - so I really just paid attention to the writing when it came to deciding how characters look, or places look. And so I don't think there was so much challenge. My biggest challenge was always the ticking clock to get everything done on time.

Andrew: Ah, right.

[Laura laughs]

Mary: Yeah.

Laura: Kind of going off of that, have you ever received complaints from fans who may not have liked the characters as you depicted them in the cover art?

Mary: No. I mean, I think - I know that I can go online and look at websites where they kind of pull apart the art and criticize the art, and I choose not to do that because, really, what's the point? I get more positive feedback and that's really what moves me forward.

Andrew: Yeah. I think in general, the fans just - they really do love your work and they seem to - we know they tend to get critical about the actors playing the, you know, the roles, so we were wondering if maybe they had any problems with the characters, too, but I guess not.

Mary: Well, I'm guessing they do, I just don't know about them. [laughs]

[Laura laughs]

Mary: I don't want to know about them because, you know - I mean, I'll do some public appearances as far as going to schools and talking to them about the process and the experience and about making pictures for books, and not just Potter books, but all books that I do, and, you know, I'll always have a Q&A at the end and kids talk about - asking questions, why I do something this way or that way, or have comments, and it's that kind of feedback, you know, in a public forum that I enjoy. Getting complaints in the mail or something like that doesn't interest me... [laughs] ...too much.

[Laura laughs]

Mary: And I don't. I don't really get them. I get some great letters, and there's some wonderful fans, and it's - and I - the encouragement is the biggest gift. So, you know, it's a funny thing because you can't really draw something in somebody else's mind. I mean, you can only draw from what - how you see it, that's how - the nature of art in any form, so that's that I guess.

Andrew: Okay. And you talked a little bit before about designing the covers, but we're wondering if you've had any involvement with the author, of course, J.K. Rowling? Do you talk with her at all when designing them? Or does she give you any feedback?

Mary: The way that it's set up, and it's this way with picture books as well, is it's usually the publisher is the go between. They kind of keep the author and illustrator separate so that they can each do their job, and of course they would send sketches to J.K. to get her approval, but I never dealt with her directly. I mean, I've met her and spoken with her, but I never - when we were working I never dealt with her directly. It's just not the way the agreement is set up. The relationship is set up. But if she wanted something changed, you know, or if she was concerned about something, she would relay that to the art director and the editor, and they would then speak to me about it. So far there's never been a complaint, really, I don't think, on her part about the covers.

Andrew: Cool.

Mary: She's quite agreeable.

Laura: [laughs] Do you work with the international illustrators at all?

Mary: No. I don't. I know there's a lot of different publishers around the world and some of my artwork shows up in different countries, like a lot of the Asian countries. But no, I don't speak with the others.

Laura: So there was never any concern about, maybe, like, the U.S. artwork and the U.K. artwork looking too similar? Or is that sort of a non-issue?

Mary: I think it's a non-issue, and I don't think they look similar at all, really, but...

Laura: Oh no, no, no, they definitely don't, but just in terms of scenes being used on the different editions.

Mary: Oh. No, I don't think there's ever really been a concern about it.

Micah: When you're designing the covers, do you have any other influences aside from the stories themselves that you may use?

Mary: That's a good question. You know, it's hard to say. I think so many of our influences are indirect and we don't really know what we're pulling from sometimes in creating something, but I guess I would really have to say my biggest and most tangible influence is the writing itself, the story, and the mood that it sets and, you know, how this book cover differs from the last one, how it progresses, you know, how Harry's aged, and just to think in progressive terms as a series. That's - that's really where my focus goes in deciding, you know, how the books change from one to another.

Andrew: Now, some more specific cover questions about your work. What, in your mind, was the significance of the heavily worn curtains on the Book 7 cover compared to the Sorcerer's Stone cover. And I know you spoke - you did a small interview, I think, when - when that cover was revealed you said that every little detail on the cover mattered. So could you talk about the significance of that curtain, because that was particularly interesting.

Mary: Yeah, well, the last book we wanted to harken back to the first book and the curtains was one element of that, and, you know, the book really changed from - from one through seven, the look of it. I think it just got more mature and developed, as did Harry. And, you know, Harry's more of a grown young man on the last cover, and so the curtains are more worn and older too, and, you know, a lot has happened. So we just had fun making this dramatic scene, and making the covers tie back to the first one. And also the outstretched arm, you know, it's a different - it's almost a different Harry even though it's the same Harry. He feels older, and more mature, and different, and he's in a totally different environment. So part of it was - the curtains was just this kind of staged, dramatic effect and - but most of it was to tie back to book number one, just visually and also, in a way to say, you know, this is the closing scene, almost like a stage.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah.

Laura: Mhm. Speaking of tying back to Book 1, how did you decide what to do for the Sorcerer's Stone 10th Anniversary Edition cover?

Mary: When David and I talked about that, we just both agreed on the idea that we would show Harry in a more emotional, up-close way, because we'd been showing scenes. And Books 1, 2, and 3 were really scenes of these little figures, you know? And I really don't like doing little figures very much. I like to get up close and do more of a portrait, more of an emotional connection with the characters, and so when it was time to do the anniversary cover, book - let's see - we wanted to just show him in a vulnerable place on a real human level, a side that we hadn't yet shown him on a cover that way, really, where he's just really in this reflective state, looking at his parents in the mirror. So - and the fact that we never really got to see his parents on a cover and parents were a big part of his spirit, you know, his - his strength. So that just seemed like a really good scene for those reasons.

Micah: Speaking of the 10th anniversary, both Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban celebrate their 10-year anniversary this year. Have you thought about cover ideas for them? Have you even been approached about those books?

Mary: We've thought about them. I'm not sure what's happening right now with it. I really - I don't really think I can comment on that. I'm not sure...

[Laura and Micah laughs]

Mary: ...where we're at with it. I know it's - it's approaching and then - I'm not really quite sure about it.

Micah: Yeah, no comment, right? [laughs]

Mary: Yeah. No comment on that one. [laughs]

[Laura laughs]

Andrew: Yeah, and one other future cover that's possible is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Encyclopedia. She says she wants to do this down the road. She's basically giving the impression that she really wants to do it. Obviously, everyone would be looking to you to do a cover for the encyclopedia for the American edition. Have you heard about the encyclopedia? Have you given any thought to it? What you could possibly put on - on an all-encompassing cover, you know?

Mary: Yeah, I know, that would be a tough one. That's a tough - a tough cover to figure out because there's so much and that's going to be a really big encyclopedia.

[Andrew laughs]

Mary: And, you know, the cover should represent what's going on inside. So that's just - that would take a lot of thought. I don't know if I'm going to be doing it or not, I - but should I be approached about it I would have fun trying to figure that one out.

Andrew: Yeah. Yeah.

[Laura laughs]

Mary: Yeah.

Andrew: I think it would be cool if you drew, like, every character and every item ever, and just fit it all on...

Mary: Yeah.

[Laura and Micah laugh]

Mary: Okay, and the next ten years I'll be doing Potter. Yeah, there's so much. There's so much.

[Laura laughs]

Mary: But I think, you know, a collection of portraits would be very cool.

Andrew: Oh yeah.

Laura: Mhm.

Mary: Colored portraits, yeah. Because so many times we only see a lot of the main characters in just a black and white form in a tiny little spot, you know, at the chapter headings.

Andrew: Right.

Mary: But I think really getting to see them - their portraits - would be very cool.

Laura: Yeah. One of my favorite things about reading the books has always been the chapter art, because you always seem to be so good at not giving away too much with the drawings. Do you find the process of selecting a piece of work for each chapter challenging?

Mary: I found it more fun than challenging. Yeah. Challenging in a fun way. Yeah. Because that's exactly what you have to do. You just have to entice - the writing, of course, entices you enough, but the chapter headings just really had to give you a little glimpse of what's about to come without telling you too much. And, like I said, those chapter headings are also opportunities for us to meet some of the characters and then when we read on we find out who they are and what place they have in the story. So, you know, those are, I'd say, as much fun for me to do as the actual covers, because they really kind of mark places in the story that are important without giving it away, and that is fun to do.

Micah: Now, you're one of the first people to read these books when they come out. I want to know, how difficult was it with knowing the end of Deathly Hallows and not being able to share it with anybody? And then, also, how did you feel once Harry's story was done, because obviously you played such a big role in series as well.

Mary: Mhm. As far as the difficulty level of not sharing it, it's kind of hard, but I've gotten used to just, you know, signing the confidentiality contracts and just being true to that. And my focus is always so much on, you know, the artwork and doing a good job and getting it in on time and just really being true to the writing that, you know, the other element of the social aspect of not sharing my work is just kind of not that important. My family doesn't really - they know enough to not even talk to me about it at that time, and...

[Everyone laughs]

Mary: ... my friends know. And they just know when I'm not coming out and socializing I must be working on a Potter piece.

Andrew: Right.

[Andrew and Laura laugh]

Mary: So, you know, they know the program and it just has become a way of working when that rolls around.

Andrew: A couple people...

Mary: And the other - yeah, I'm sorry...

Andrew: Sorry.

Mary: ...the other part of your question was...?

Andrew: How'd you feel once Harry's story was done?

Mary: Oh! Sad. Sad, but also kind of happy. It's kind of like - I think I've said it before - like your eighteen year old is leaving for college...

Andrew: Right.

Laura: Aw.

Mary: ...and they're going out on their own, and now you move on to other things too. But sad too, because he really has been a part - and of course I look back at the work and I wish I could redo parts of it and do it better, you know, but that's what artists do. And that's what anybody does when they look at their work. Yeah.

Andrew: Well, a couple of basic questions: what's your favorite character in the Harry Potter series? And what do you think your favorite book is too?

Mary: Well, Harry is my favorite character. But aside from Harry, I would say Hagrid.

Andrew: Oh, Hagrid.

Laura: Aw.

Andrew: Why Hagrid? Did you have fun drawing him too? He looks like a lot of fun to draw.

Mary: Mostly I love Hagrid because I'm drawn to... [laughs] ...lovable, big, scruffy...

[Andrew and Laura laugh]

Mary: ...guys - people, characters, I guess. And he reminded me a lot of my best dog Chopper who was a big St. Bernard mix and he was there and loyal and protective, and that's what Hagrid was. And that, to me, is just really sweet. But I, you know, I also love Dumbledore and, you know, that, but I guess emotionally there's a little tug at the heart for Hagrid. But certainly Harry.

Laura: Out of all the cover art you've done for the Potter books, which one is your favorite?

Mary: I would say the last one is my favorite.

Laura: Mhm.

Mary: I think it's the best portrait of Harry, and I think, you know, I like the dramatic quality of it and the simplicity of the composition. I kind of like the curtain. I liked how it tied it up and it kind of related back to the first book.

Andrew: Right.

Mary: So, yeah.

Andrew: And also, what is your favorite book?

Mary: My favorite book of the Potter series?

Andrew: Yeah, like the stories in general.

Mary: It's a draw between the first book and the third book.

Andrew: Now, why's that? Why - was there anything...

Mary: You know, I think the third book because of Harry - the first book certainly because we're just meeting this kid, and it's just an amazing story and the fact that he lives in this little cellar under the stairs and, you know, and the funny parts. It seemed to be a little more lighthearted, and there was some good humor, and I guess when you meet a character and you're finding out about their quirks, or their personality, it's kind of - it's kind of exciting in that way.

Andrew: Yeah.

Mary: And just being drawn to Harry as this orphaned boy, and discovering in that first book that he has this power, is pretty exciting. And then Book 3, I think it was about him finding out who Sirius Black was, and that he had this connection with him, and that he wasn't alone, and there seemed be a real camaraderie between him and Ron and Hermione in that book, too. I mean, they are in all those books, but they really seem to come together physically and dramatically in Book 3.

Micah: Well, wrapping up, can you tell us a little bit about your exhibit that was recently held at Cedar Rapids?

Mary: Yeah, the exhibit was - it's a great museum, and, you know, I'm from the midwest. I'm from Minnesota, and so Cedar Rapids is just a couple hours south of where I'm originally from, and so I felt a kinship to go back to the midwest and have this pretty extensive show in a museum. And the curator Sean Ulmer is a great guy to work with. But I showed a variety of my illustration work from throughout the years from other children's books, and book covers, and posters, and opera, pieces I've done for the Cincinnati Opera, and also some sketches from the Potter series that I've got. I don't own any of the originals, but I do have a few of the sketches. So it was interesting because people were drawn to this show, I think initially, because the illustrator of Harry Potter was showing some of the sketches, but once they got there they saw that my work expands into other areas, and they ended up, I think, leaving with a bigger picture of, you know, what an illustrator does, or what certainly - what I did outside of the Potter books, and it was nice to be appreciated for the other work too, since I've been working in illustration for twenty-five years, and...

Andrew: Sure.

Mary: ...Harry's been around for ten, so...

Micah: [laughs] Yeah, definitely.

Mary: ...yeah, it was just a nice opportunity to show both sides of my work and to be appreciated on that level.

Andrew: Yeah, and we've received some reports from your exhibit from fans, and they sent in some pictures showing, you know, the galleries, how it was laid out, and really it was great, and we heard you went around and - I guess you probably didn't do this for every day, but I guess maybe the first couple of days, you were there and took everybody through with the exhibit.

Mary: They just had - I did a few things. I visited some schools, and had - there was a family day, and I helped kids with art, and so there was a lot of community involvement. But then on one day I did a gallery walk and walked through and just talked about different pieces in the show, and took questions from the audience. It was a good turnout, and then I think the curator - I think the curator might be on YouTube, you probably saw, Sean Ulmer. He goes through and talks about some of the pieces too.

Andrew: Oh, cool.

Mary: Yeah.

Andrew: Yeah, it sounded like a lot of fun too, just seeing you explain your work and all that.

Mary: Yeah, it was. It was a really nice opportunity, and it's really nice to see people interested in art, and in, you know, the art that goes with literature, and other kinds of illustration. Most people don't know what illustrators do and so when you get the opportunity to kind of support the craft and talk about it with them, it's fun. Just it feels almost educational.

Andrew: Before we let you go, just a quick question. Are you working on any other projects right now outside of Harry Potter? What's going on?

Mary: I'm working on some other picture books, and I'm working on a bunch of personal work for me. It's just, you know, painting and other kinds of medium. So, I'm experimenting with some of that, just trying to grow as an artist.

Andrew: And maybe you'll get a call from Scholastic about those two books.

[Laura laughs]

Mary: Maybe I will. We don't know.

Andrew: Yeah, yeah.

[Mary laughs]

Andrew: All right, well, Mary, it was so great having you on with us. Thanks so much for...

Mary: Thanks.

Andrew: ...talking with us. We learned a lot today.

Mary: Well, thanks. Good questions, guys, and keep up the good work.


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Written by: Kristina, Ellen, Casey, Cam, Melissa, and Heidi.