Interview with Writer/Illustrator Billy O'Keefe

May 21, 2018 at 10:00 am by mhaase75

Billy O'Keefe is a talented, insightful, and funny author and illustrator. He is based out of Chicago in Printer's Row, writing code by day, but always busy with creating marvelous books. His first two books, These are my Friends on Politics: A Children's Book For Adults Who Behave Like Kids, and My Dog Wasn't Famous: But Let Me Tell You a Story About Her Anywayare both fantastic creations, with the former making you laugh and the latter tugging at your heartstings. I had the pleasure of interviewing Billy to see a little bit more about his creative process and what makes him tick. Please enjoy. 

 

Which came first for you: illustrating or writing? 

Technically I took up illustrating first, since I couldn’t yet read when I did. But I also abandoned it pretty early on (around the same time, I assume, most kids who don’t want to become illustrators do). My last year of high school was a total bore (college plans were made and I had my credits nearly wrapped up already), so I whiled away the time by doodling in a notebook — here and there at first, then more regularly as I realized how much I still enjoyed it (and how much others did too, even though the results were, being generous here, amateur). I wouldn’t say I put serious effort into drawing well until I was nearly 20, while I steadily been writing something somewhere ever since I learned how. 

Your first book, These Are My Friends On Politics, is styled like a children's book for adults about adults behaving like children. What inspired this glorious satire?

If you’ve ever heard the expression “I wouldn’t talk to you like a child if you didn’t act like one,” you probably have a good idea. The title — a play on “This is your brain on drugs” of course — came to me first after watching a table of friends go from jovial to feral and back whenever politics intruded the conversation. It was as if a drug took hold whenever someone said “Obama” or “Romney” (this was at the end of the 2012 election, in much simpler times). 

Initially I just thought it’d be an amusing illustration to make someday. But one notebook scribble led to another, and my Roger Ebertitis flared up and I just kept jotting until I had enough terrible examples to convince myself the joke wouldn’t go stale when spread out across a book.

The format was a no-brainer — short enough to keep the premise from going dry, roomy enough to take it places beyond *just* that joke, and of course I can use my other talent to really bring the thing to life. But beyond all that, picture books are perfect for sharing, and the idea of adults reading a child’s book together and laughing at their own childish behavior was too good not to explore.


What inspires you to create? 

Selfishly, it relaxes me. The only thing more zen to me than sitting down to draw is petting a dog. (Sometimes I do both at the same time.) Beyond that, it’s just fun to make things that take on lives of their own (whether art on someone’s wall, a book on their coffee table or a piece of code that does things I didn’t even plan on it doing) and delight people however they do. Few people are lucky enough to do things like this, so even when I’m not feeling it, I remind myself of that good fortune and get to work. 

Who are some of your influences for both writing and illustrating?

Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes) influenced both disciplines probably more than anyone. I wrote and illustrated a comic strip for close to 11 years, and telling a vibrant story that’s confined to such a small space was an invaluable exercise — you need the illustrations to say thousands of words, and you need to make the few words you have count. Every piece of writing I do, no matter how much room I have, was informed by that practice, and in my eyes no one did it better than he did. 

Behind Watterson, Roger Ebert. Left field, I realize, but the way he approached the mundane exercise of writing about movie after movie after movie and came away with a great read nearly every time was really impressive to me. And when, at a college journalism conference, I got a chance to meet him, I selfishly picked his brain to learn what he does when he’s staring at yet another blank page after seeing yet another movie that wasn’t *that* different from the thousands of other movies he’d seen. His advice — just go, just start writing, no matter how terrible the words are that come out, because then that blank page no longer is blank — was dead simple, but it’s a practice I’ve utilized religiously ever since, and it’s made me less timid as a writer (because sometimes those bad words accidentally form the basis of good words I never otherwise would have found). As my influences go, it’s hard to find something more literal and direct than him. 

(Honorable mention: Another left field pick, David Letterman, who broke every rule I’d been told about what “funny” means. And he did it in a confined, limited format as well. Writing is writing, no matter the delivery medium. I watched that show every night growing up, and the degree to which it informed my sense of humor, which makes its way into everything I write, is past calculation.)

Give us an idea of your creative process. 

Imagine that oft-memed scene in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” where Charlie uncovers a mail room conspiracy and you have a good idea. Calling it a process is generous — if I get an idea or have a project I need to find a solution to, I just sit down and flail away in a notebook, canvas or text editor (if the problem is code) and go. I respect the methods people have to plan, outline and prepare — I just prefer to do those things while I’m actually waist deep in whatever it is I’m planning. It’s beneficial to the way I think, and it’s a lot more fun for me than starting at a blank page and wondering where to start. 

My Dog Wasn't Famous is a touching tribute. I had to hug my dogs after reading it. What was it like creating that book? 

It was cathartic, therapeutic and incredibly fun. I wrote it in one day, illustrated it in a couple frenetic weeks and went to town on a self-publishing adventure, utilizing every note I’d taken about self-publishing and just winging it. It released a month after she passed, and it’s been a source of joy ever since — among my family, who knew all her quirks and can laugh at the good memories, and from complete strangers who now know this ordinary dog’s story. I support dogs getting more hugs, so I’m glad this inspired a few. 



What do you use for your hand-drawn illustrations, and what software do you use for your digital work? 

It varies based on what style I’m going for. “My Dog Wasn’t Famous” was created solely using an iPad, Apple Pencil and a custom pencil brush in Sketchbook Pro. “These Are My Friends on Politics” was drawn on pencil and paper before being inked and colored digitally using a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. I have an unpublished-so-far story that combines photography and pencil-drawn art, and I mess around in everything from Micron pens to charcoal crayons and scratchpad and more. The illustrations I co-created for a children’s early learning company were created using felt and nothing else. Whatever looks neat, I’ll try it. 

What makes you decide what medium to use for your illustrations? 

Impulse, honestly. Whatever picture I get in my head when I imagine the illustration for the first time, I go for whatever medium seems best equipped to get me there. It doesn’t always work, but failing is usually fun in this instance.

 

What's your next book going to be about? 

Depends which one of my drafts I get back to first. (There are about five in some stage of not-quite-but-getting-there readiness.) One’s a fully-written sequel to “These Are My Friends on Politics” (that surely will need another rewrite), another is a book for actual kids about how boring grownups are. One’s about texting and driving. And I’m also cobbling together a book about my exploits in playing, for the first time in some 30 years, games I created as a kid when I was first learning to write code. That’s been a ton of fun. (They’re really bad games.)

Care to impart any wisdom that you have acquired from your experience as an author and illustrator? 

I’ll pass the Roger Ebert baton and just say: Go. If you’re stuck, write or draw something lousy. If life is busy and you only have 15 minutes to make something, use it and make something. Lousy is better than nothing, because sometimes lousy gradually turns into amazing (and sometimes it turns into something so bad you love it for that reason). We all put things off for when we have more time or more talent or the perfect idea or some other condition that’s more ideal than the present condition. And then lots of time passes and there’s  nothing to show for all that time we spent waiting for the perfect time to sit down and create something. Enjoy your gift even on its worst days. planning. It’s beneficial to the way I think, and it’s a lot more fun for me than starting at a blank page and wondering where to start. 


I'd like to thank Billy O'Keefe for his time. It was a pleasure interviewing him. As Nina's birthday (the dog behind My Dog Wasn't Famous) was on May 21st, Billy is going to be offering the Kindle version of My Dog Wasn't Famous for free from May 21st through May 25th. 

 

Related Links: 

Billy O'Keefe's Website: billyok.com

These Are My Friends on Politics: https://www.amazon.com/These-are-Friends-Politics-Occasionally/dp/1942645236

My Dog Wasn't Famous: https://www.amazon.com/My-Dog-Wasnt-Famous-Anyway/dp/0988527308