Cloud Country + an interview with Noah Klocek

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by Noah Klocek and Bonny Becker (Disney Press, 2015)

It was hard to not to picture these sweet characters on my holiday flights recently, peeking out the window at clouds that were beautiful but not quite as vibrant as the ones in Cloud Country. I chatted with Noah Klocek about it, and welcome him here today!

Where did this story come from?

The original idea for Cloud Country came out of daydreams of my own. For a time, my day job was located right on the edge of the San Fransisco Bay. This unobstructed view allowed me to watch giant thunderheads forming on distant hillsides and I would often wonder what it would be like to be one of those clouds going through the process of formation. Eventually, I began to write and draw around the edges of Cloud Country, attempted to wrangle my loose concepts into a compelling story. While this lead to lots of great ideas, a few dummies and tons of learning, Bonny Becker’s ability to distill and write remarkably compelling characters allowed all these unresolved ideas to finally coalesce. With a bit of writing back and forth, all of this became the story that is Cloud Country.

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What are some of your picture book memories from childhood?

My childhood was all books. I was raised by parents who were teachers by day and artist all the rest of the time. This meant that there was no TV or video games in our house, but the shelves were packed with books of every kind. When other kids watched Gremlins, I was reading Where the Wild Things Are and when other children where watching Stars Wars, I was reading Saint George and the Dragon. A working knowledge of pop culture in the eighties was replaced with an unquenchable passion for picture books. Almost every story I remember as a child came in the form of a picture book. While I was not a great reader as a child (due to a good dose of Dyslexia) I would spend hours and hours looking at picture books. I must have spent a cumulative year looking at Barbara Cooney’s wonderful illustrations in Ox-Cart Man. All these years later I can still remember almost every page.

What surprised you about the picture book process as compared to making movies?

For me the difference between making movies and making books lies in the process of collaboration. Filmmaking is an aggressively collaborative creative process. There are directors who make filmmaking as personal as possible, but making animated films at Pixar is all about collaboration. Picture book making on the other hand, I find a very solitary, personal, creative process. The process is so solitary at times that I have found myself looking for ways to show my work to other people, just to have a conversation about it.

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Who are some of your story heroes?

I’m not a fan of putting people on pedestals, but I have always gravitated toward people who tell stories visually, even in writing alone. There is a saying that I’m fond of that is used an awful lot at Pixar, “Show Don’t Tell.” For me this means show your characters suffering or experiencing joy, don’t tell your reader that they are suffering or filled with joy. So I would have to say, I really respect the gifts and craft of these visual storytellers: Maura Stanton (Poetry), Garrison Keillor (Spoken Word), Hayao Miyazaki (film), David Wiesner (Picture books).

What is your favorite piece of art that lives in your home or studio?

I have a lot of great art, but honestly my favorite piece right now would have to be the painting my daughter did when she was 6, of our house on a rainy day. It’s really inspiring.

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How do you balance a creative professional life that exists in both the day job hours and the nighttime ones?

My Mom was a kindergarten teacher for twenty-five years and she always told me that “rhythm replaces strength for children,” and adults are just big kids. So I spend a lot of time trying to build a rhythm in my life that attempts to find a balance between my daytime work, my nighttime work and my family. Honestly, it comes down to a bunch of rules and structures. If I don’t do personal work at night, I’m not as effective or productive at my day job, but my day job allows me to work with and learn from some of the most talented creative people on earth, along with paying the bills. On top of that I have two kids and a wife who come before my nighttime picture book work, so I have a steadfast rule that I don’t work on picture books while my kids are awake, but I work almost every night after they go to sleep. All this rhythm and structure allows me to be very diligent. So I work from 8am to 6pm for Pixar, then five nights a week I work from 8 to midnight on picture books and the other two I spend with my wife. Now that I’m writing all this out, I feel like I’m going to come off like a bit of a crazy person, but I must say, I could’t be happier.

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What’s next for you?

I’m continuing to Art Direct for Pixar and I have a bunch of picture books in the pipeline. Some of them I will collaborate as an illustrator only and the others I’m writing and illustrating. Right now I’m focused on trying to grow as a writer and illustrator. I think I have a long way to go and a lot to learn, but hopefully, I will be able to make picture book that move and inspire kids the way picture books inspired me.

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Thank you, Noah! This is such a timely chat as we move into the new rhythms of 2016. And no, you don’t sound at all like a crazy person, or we are all in trouble.

You can find Noah around the internet here and here, and make sure to listen to Noah chat with Nick Patton on the Picturebooking podcast (now hosted at All the Wonders!)

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4 Comments

  • Posted January 5, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Great to learn more about this beautiful book. It sounds like art and text came together a little differently. I’m looking forward to experiencing Cloud Country.

  • Posted January 5, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful work, and yes, kid’s make great inspiring art!

  • Posted January 10, 2016 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this wonderful interview. The illustrations are very powerful!

  • Posted January 14, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Those illustrations look amazing! I can’t wait to check this one out!