Interview with Meghan McCarthy

We continue our Interview series—in which we ask contemporary illustrators to share their experiences. Today’s guest is Meghan McCarthy.

Where were you born? 

I was born in Rhode Island, and grew up in a very small historic mill village. The house I grew up in was built around the time that Abraham Lincoln was president. 

When did you realize that drawing could be a living?

I always knew there was a slim possibility that I could do art for a living. My dad went to art school for a semester before the entire school went on protest for the Vietnam war. Even the professors didn’t show up for class. My dad—who paid out of his own pocket—had to go back to being a social worker.

But regardless, he always did art in his spare time. He had a large collection of art books. I therefore always knew there were artists out there making a go at it. It wasn’t until I got into art schools that I knew I could actually make it happen.

What was your first work-life experience?

I remember it was the final week of college [at the Rhode Island School of Design] and in an illustration class the teacher asked us to talk about what we’d be doing after graduation. Everyone seemed to have jobs lined up and this irked me. I did not. So when it was my turn I shocked the teacher by gleefully informing her that I’d be working at Checkers Pizza [in Providence, RI].

Truth be told, I had not even applied there. So, after class I did. I got the job but was told that it “wasn’t working out” after the first week (I’d gotten very lost for about an hour). I BEGGED the boss to let me stay and he gave me a second chance and I eventually got the hang of it, memorizing every street in Providence and every address of the “regulars” who ordered.

I remained there through all of the crazy ups and downs (the boss was a heroin addict so just imagine the craziest job possible) for a year. 

What was your first start in children’s books? 

After moving to New York City, I pounded the pavement and dropped off my art and stories at all the major publishing houses. After the first drop off, I got home and there was a message on my answering machine. It was an art director at Scholastic.

She said she loved my worked and asked me to come in for a meeting. I was blown away! This was really happening! I didn’t get a deal from Scholastic but I did from Viking shortly after.

I remember telling my parents that I was going to be rich and famous or some such. Now, I look back my notion of a well-off author as absurd. 

Did you sign with an agent? 

I didn’t sign with my first agent until I’d four books under my belt. I’d approached her to publish a novel, as I did not need help with my picture books. The novel never happened.

Most of my early dealings were with editors, as I write my own stories. I developed a good working relationship with both the editor and designer at Random House and I thoroughly enjoyed working with both at the same time. I think having good communication with both the art and editorial departments is essential. Otherwise the artist or writer will end up being unhappy with something.

Care to share a career highlight or two?

The publication of Aliens Are Coming! was important to me because it was the start of something very new for me. At the time I was working at Barnes & Noble and saw what kinds of books came in on a daily basis. There were not many interesting nonfiction books and I thought I could add something new and unique to that segment of the market.

I’m happy I did because as it turns out, I’m much more interested in nonfiction books overall (adult books, graphic novels, anything true). As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. I also enjoy doing research. I don’t think that was something I knew about myself until I started working on my first nonfiction book.

I’ll leave the second career highlight as a currently yet to happen event: when I publish my first graphic novel. If that ever happens I’ll be thrilled. It’s a medium I was unfamiliar with as a child but would have been great for me. I was very A.D.D and had a lot of trouble reading. If someone offered me a graphic novel I would have eaten it up. 

What insight can you provide about being an illustrator that you think all illustrators should know?

Make sure that you really want to do it. It’s always a struggle. Yes, there are those illustrators who win a Caldecott or hit the bestseller list but that is not the norm.

Also make sure you’re good with compromise. You’re going to have to compromise a lot. I’ll be honest: it’s still a hard thing for me to do sometimes. You really have to pick your battles.

Also, get used to criticism. I’m not talking about from anyone at the publishing company. I’m talking about reviews. More often than not, reviewers don’t even mention the art (unfortunately) but when they do it can be critical. So be prepared!

I remember when I was working on Aliens Are Coming!, I really wanted to make sure that my aliens looked more silly than they did scary. Children were my target audience and I figured that the book could work for both younger and older audiences. What did the New York Times say about my art? That the aliens weren’t scary enough! [Here’s the review.] I was crushed and wrote something ultra dramatic to my editor, such as I never want to publish a book again.

Also be good at managing your finances. You might get paid only twice a year. I always act like I’m broke even when I’m not, because I need to make my money last. 

We want to thank Meghan McCarthy for her insight. If you think this interview would be helpful to illustrators, please pass it along using the “Share” button below.

Be sure to visit her website here. And, thank you for reading!

Artwork © Meghan McCarthy