Friday, August 13, 2021

My writing day / Judith Kerr: ‘I’m still surprised at the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea’

Judith Kerr
‘I’ve spent 94 years looking at things.’
Illustration: Alan Vest


Judith Kerr: ‘I’m still surprised at the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea’

The creator of Mog on learning how to draw a tiger at the zoo, heeding the advice of her cat and still working at 94

Judith Kerr
Saturday 25 November 2017

ine isn’t really a writing day, it is a drawing day and it varies according to the time of year. I can draw by artificial light, but I can’t colour or paint by it, so I always hope to finish a book before the clocks go back. In the summer it is wonderful, I can work until 9pm if I want to, but in the winter I try to get on with it in the morning. The summers are very carefree because I can go out for a walk during the day, knowing I can work the rest of the day.

I need to walk in order to think about work. I feel lucky to be alive at this time: I’ve had two cataract operations so my sight is fine and I’ve got a new hip so I can walk. I live in Barnes, west London, so I walk along the river or to the duck pond or into the village. At the moment, I walk after dark so as not to waste the light. I like it too: everything looks good in the dark. The other day I got to the end of a book, which I’d worked particularly hard on, I’d only had one day off in the last month, and though it’s always nice to finish something, this time I felt strangely triumphant. So I went out for a walk at about eight in the evening and suddenly there were fireworks going off all around me. I hadn’t realised it was Guy Fawkes night. All these fireworks were going off and the church bells started to ring. I thought: this is very kind, but it’s only a little picture book. It was such a happy thing.
It may be my 32nd or 33rd book. They say you slow down as you get older, but it seems to be the opposite with me. I am getting faster. Tom, my husband, died 11 years ago, and this is probably the first time in my life that I can work 24 hours a day if I want. I don’t cook, I mircrowave. I also think I am getting better at it, because the work has been so concentrated in the last years. I think there should be as few words in a picture book as possible, and they have to be exactly right, so I mull over the words while I walk, whether something should be an “and” or a “but”. Drawing, on the other hand, is solid application. I rub out a lot and redraw to get it right.
I work in an attic at the top at the house with a view over the common. The yellow trees across the road have grown so much in the 55 years we’ve lived here that they have taken some of my light. Every so often a branch drops and I get a bit more light; I think it is probably my influence on them. This attic is where I live really: every book I’ve ever done I’ve done up here on the same drawing table, which is collapsing a bit now. You come into this room and you become the person who does this work. It’s as though something folds round you – yes, here I am, now get on with it.

Listening to music on Radio 3 is a great help to get going. I use Winsor & Newton inks and crayons on top. I keep the crayons in different jars according to colour so I can find them quickly, and I like very soft pencils. You know when something has totally died on you and you can’t do any more. Although often the work I am doing is rubbish, you do have to go through the rubbish, until sometimes at the end you just get it right. These days I’m better at planning and I do a rough drawing in a sketchbook before I start. I’ve spent 94 years looking at things, so I have enough images of people and cats in my head that I can draw them. If I don’t know what somebody looks like in a certain position I draw myself in a mirror. I have a small mirror on my desk to look at the reflection of my hands, because I like to get hands right if they are doing something. I’m not good at trees, because I don’t seem to look at those enough. And other things like badgers – I don’t think I’ve ever met a badger – I Google a lot. It’s a huge help. I used to have to look endlessly through books to see what a badger looks like. I’ve Googled open-mouthed tigers and you get photographs showing exactly what their teeth look like. There was no internet when I wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea so I spent days at the zoo drawing tigers.
Normally my cat, Katinka, who is all white with a tabby tail, appears when she thinks it is time to be fed. She’s always been good at judging when I’m ready to quit for the day. But since I published Katinka’s Tail she’s done something very strange: she comes up here and sits in my working chair. It’s as if she’s saying: this book is really my doing; you may have done a few drawings, but it is about me. When I tried to move her off she bit me. Katinka is Russian for Katy, she’s my ninth cat; Mog was our first. Cats are so strange and surprising that I thought I would do a picture book of all the mad things this animal did.
I’m still surprised by the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I made it up for my daughter when she was two or three and I put in everything she liked. She was crazy about going out in the dark, for example. I used to tell her all sorts of stories and she was quite critical of the others and used to say “talk the tiger”. I’m very grateful. It got me started on picture books. I went to art school, never had any money, never had the right clothes, and I remember my mother and brother getting quite worried about me. The last thing that they expected was that I would be a success and actually earn some money. And I’m still amazed that people are willing to pay me for doing what I love.
I would be very sad and lonely if I didn’t work. I finished this book a few weeks after the last one was published, which is unlike me, and I’m already thinking about the next one. There is a new urgency to my working. Maybe it is like the disease, honey fungus, that trees get when they have an incredible display one year and look better than they ever have before. And then it kills them. Perhaps you get something like that at the age of 94, because, after all, I can’t rely on going on and on.

In brief

Hours: on a good day, 10.30 till about 5 

Drawings: I’ve discovered rather late in life never to stop when you think you’ve finished; always start on the next thing so there’s something to work on the following day 

Refreshments: endless coffee. It’s nice that they’ve decided it’s good for you now. I also have a Martini Rosso on ice with lunch. It gives me energy to keep going in the afternoon – at least that’s what I tell myself

 Katinka’s Tail is published by HarperCollins.

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