P1020114AP portraitThis is my interview with Antonia Pesenti.

Which letter of the alphabet did you start illustrating for this book? I started Alphabetical Sydney as a solo project when my daughter Charlotte was born in 2008. I remember thinking it was such a brilliant idea for a book. I started with the letters I loved the most, B is for bats, C is for Cicada and W is for Mr Whippy. When I had done about 5 of the drawings I took them to show my friend Hilary Bell, and from that point the book turned into a collaboration between us.

Do you have a favourite illustration in the book? Hmmm, I love Delicatessen, because I think it captures the feel of some of these half forgotten, sparsely stocked, slightly depressing Mixed Businesses. I also love Parramatta Road and Circular Quay – busy urban scenes that I find quite beautiful.

Are there any cameos in the book? Many. My children are all the way through the book, and because the book took 5 years to create, they grow up visibly during the pages. My partner is also hidden in there, as well as Hilary’s children. At the last minute I took out a collaged photo of my daughter having a tantrum out of the Xpress bus image… I thought she’d really resent it later.

Which situations influenced you to start illustrating? When I finished studying architecture I moved to Paris, and stayed there for 8 years. France has an amazing culture of illustration, and picture books, and I really used those years to learn about illustrating – while working as an architect. I started going to book fairs, and collecting childrens books, and started my own self initiated illustration projects.

Looking back, which experiences do you think have really helped you? Many things really. I think working as an architect helped me really enjoy illustration which feels so free and personal in comparison. That background has also fed into the type of books I’m interested in, that talk about place really, not so much people. I think my time living overseas and the regular trips we have back to France help keep me abreast of what is happening internationally in illustration and childrens books – for me, looking beyond the Australian publishing scene is critical. I think being quietly determined helps too!

Is there anything in this book that was particular to your special experiences in Sydney? Alphabetical Sydney was created at a time when both my children were very young, and it is a real reflection of that time spent under Moreton Bay fig trees, or picking up Frangipani flowers with them. Those years moved at such a slow pace, I had plenty of time to really be in the moment with them – looking around at the city through their eyes.

What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Hilary and I really enjoyed working together, the book really added another layer (a lovely one) to our friendship. Of course the response to the book has been so amazing, we still laugh about how much we worried about the book selling – we knew our friends would love the book, but that didn’t seem to add up to very many people. Its been delightful to see how Alphabetical Sydney has resonated with so many readers – everyone has a different letter they really connect with. We are now close to the end of our second book, which will be coming out later this year. I think we have enjoyed this one even more, there have been lots of laughs and cryptic text messages. I’m aware that the next few months will be intense though, from experience, wrapping up the book is the hardest bit, stitching it all together, and designing the final object.

What is the most creative interpretation you have seen or heard about your book? Last week I met a woman who told me she was quite sure it was her husband sitting on the X for Xpress bus. I told her that I had actually used a criminal mugshot from the 1940s – she didn’t seem that astonished – apparently her husband does look like a crim!

What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? I find people really hard to draw. Even drawing animals make me feel a bit anxious. Give me a train station or a powerline to draw and I’m very happy.

What are you working on next? Hilary and I are working on a new book coming out at the end of the year. We have some funny ideas for another one after that…

Read my review of ‘Alphabetical Sydney’ here.


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