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Author & Illustrator Jessica Love

Written byKatie Hintz-Zambrano

Photography byAmy Sanusi

The beloved author and illustrator behindJulián is a MermaidandJulián at the Weddingis back with a stunning new title—A Bed of Stars—inspired by her journey into motherhood.

What was your life and career like before publishing your first book?

“I grew up in Southern California, in a cabin in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. It was my parents, me, and my younger sister. Our parents are both craftspeople—my mom is a basket maker, my dad is a potter, and they made their work in a studio behind our house. I went to college at UC Santa Cruz where I majored in Visual Art with a focus on printmaking, but I did lots of theater. When I was a senior, I was accepted into Juilliard’s acting program, and so the summer after finishing college I moved to New York.”

“茱莉亚是一个四年表演项目,我graduated in 2009, and worked as an actor (and therefore also as a nanny, bartender, waitress, etc.) for the next 10 years. I did regional theater and plays in New York, both on and off Broadway. I liked doing Shakespeare, and developing weird new plays best. That was my life and that was my community and I loved it. However, I was always broke, and always worried about money. Making enough to live on as a jobbing theater actor is kind of a joke.”

What was the process like to get your first book,Julián is a Mermaid, published?

“I worked onJulián is a Mermaidfor a couple years before I showed it to anyone. I would work on it when I was between jobs, and I also did a few shows where I was only on stage for like 6 minutes in these very cool roles that only had a tiny amount of stage time. The last time I was on Broadway, I was in this beautiful Jez Butterworth play calledThe River, and it starred Hugh Jackman and Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnely in this really mystical three hander—and then I came in for the last seven minutes of the play. So, I would sit in my dressing room listening to the play, and paintJulián. After that show closed, I put together my draft of the book, which was basically all the artwork layed out with some text but not all of it. I didn’t know what I was doing, it was like 52 pages long. The story was the same, the beats were the same, it just took me 52 pages to get through it.”

“So, I sent this draft of the book in an email to everyone I’d ever done a play with who I thought might be able to help me get a literary agent, because as an actor I knew how impossible breaking into an industry is without an agent, especially if you have no gift for pitching yourself, which I don’t. And this is where it feels like my life before helped me into my new life, like a current.”

“MakingA Bed of Starsfelt like a sort of talismanic weaving for my son. I wanted the book to have the function of an amulet. A token to give light in dark places.”

How did you end up getting an agent?

"The first time I was on Broadway was in a play by Sharr White calledThe Snow Geese. I love this play more than I can say. Mary Louise Parker was the lead, and we became friends. When I sent her my draft ofJulián is a Mermaid, she was in the midst of publishing her collection of letters,Dear Mr. You, and she was basically like, ‘I am going to help you get an agent. Leave it to me.’ And she showed my draft to her agent, who showed it to his then-girlfriend (now wife), Meredith Kaffel (now Meredith Kaffel Simonoff) who was also a literary agent, but represented just a few illustrators as well, and we had a kind of love-at-first-sight meeting and have been together ever since.”

“She is my friend and advisor and I owe her so much. She and I put together a list of publishing houses where we thought the story and the vibe would be a good fit, and then we submitted it. And then we started receiving our rejection letters. I thought I would be good at this part because I had so much practice with it after a decade in the theater, but it hurt in a totally different way. It was so much more personal. In some ways I had kept visual art as a kind of private practice for myself, I had never really submitted my work to any kind of judgment before and hearing this art that I had birthed (and making art is psychic birth, it’s more like that process than any other physical process I can think of) briskly assessed and dismissed was a kind of nakedness I had not known before.”

“Time passed. Then, one day at the end of the summer, we got an email from an editor atCandlewick Press. It was our dream publisher but kind of a long shot, and anyway they had passed on the book months ago. However, this editor found my submission in the slush pile, and she wrote basically saying, ‘I want to make your book! Is it still available?’ That editor is Katie Cunningham, and she kinda rescued my life from the slush pile. I did another couple of drafts of the story with Katie and Ann Stott, the art director. I got really lucky in having Ann work onJulián—she’s the Executive Art Director at Candlewick Press and is renowned within the industry. She worked on many of my favorite picture books of all time—like theHattrilogy byJon Klassen—and it was an unbelievable piece of good luck getting to work with her on my first book. I learned SO MUCH from her and from Katie.”

Tell us about the character Julián and how he developed into not one, but two books.

“I don’t know how to talk about what is happening when a character emerges out of…whatever plane they exist in and assert themselves in the mind of a writer or artist or whatever, and sort of insist on embodiment. It was like that. It was like this presence was pushing themselves out of the mist and into my brain. It’s a mysterious thing, but that’s how it happens. I think that’s not an uncommon way for artists to describe it, actually. It feels like your job is more like transcription rather than invention. Or like a psychic pregnancy. I realize that sounds both occult and self-important, but that’s what it felt like! It felt occult, and it felt incredibly important to deliver Julián safely into the world.”

With book bans sweeping the country, how have you been impacted?

“Ugh. I mean, it makes me feel unsalutary things about the people trying to enact these bans. I don’t think it’s healthy to feel disgust towards other human beings, but the hypocrisy just turns my stomach. It’s the fact that these people are willing to pretend, to themselves and TO THEIR CHILDREN that books which acknowledge the vast variety of human experience are dangerous, while kids are being MURDERED AT SCHOOL. It’s a level of unreason that kind of undoes me. What do you say to someone who chooses guns over books? Violence over knowledge? Death over life? I don’t know how to feel anything but revulsion towards these people. That being said, people are rising up against this death drive all over the country. I hear from people every week who are organizing to make banned books available. The resistance is strong, and growing stronger!”

Tell us about your latest book,A Bed of Stars—your first book as a mother yourself.

“While I was pregnant with Valentine, I started working on my third book,A Bed of Stars. The process was similar to the others—I start with the images, and the story emerges from these little moments that reveal themselves. But because I was pregnant, making the book felt like a sort of talismanic weaving for my son, like I wanted the book to have the function of an amulet or something. A token to give light in dark places.”

“So I found myself pulling all the best protection from my own childhood, and the lessons I’ve learned in my own life, and trying to weave them into this book. I shipped off the final art the week before he was born. Now he’s a year and a half, and next week he will be starting daycare (weeps, laughs, weeps again)!”

Has motherhood changed the type of children's books you want to make?

“I think it’s just strengthened my previously held convictions that didactic literature for kids sucks as much as didactic literature for grownups sucks. I believe picture books exist within the realm of art—whatever it is art does for us as human beings, that stirring—picture books are our first foray into that thing."

What are your favorite books to read to Valentine?

"The books I like are the books that are trying to give children that experience of a portal opening up into a world. Favorites right now areGrandfather Twilightby Barbara Berger,Squareby Jon Klassen, andHow Little Lori Visited Times Squareby Amos Vogel and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.”

“I have to say, the size of the pain of giving birth rearranged my brain permanently. Nothing seems hard compared to that.”

Tell us about your studio space.

“My studio is in an old one room schoolhouse on our property. When we moved here it was uninsulated, the electricity was off, and it had no water. It was also the residence of three 6-foot black snakes, as we discovered when we were doing demo on the ceiling. They fell from the insulation where they had been living and landed on the floor and yes, we screamed. I carried them outside on the end of a broom handle. And now they live under the floor of my studio and I have to say, they have perfect manners and spend their summers catching mice and their winters sleeping.”

“My husband Danny did the whole renovation of the school house—he put in new windows, did foam insulation, did the electric, built cabinetry, a sink, plumbing, a loft, and covered the walls in wood paneling. The first 6 months of us living here he was working on the schoolhouse while I was illustrating a book in our mudroom. I got to move into the studio in March of 2021, and it has been my place ever since."

"It’s an incredible thing to get to work inside this gift of love and artistry from my husband. I feel so safe here. It feels like some kind of Earth witch’s cottage—lots of plants, sage from my parents’ garden, all my books. The schoolhouse has a strong presence, and has taken good care of me. I often think of what these years have been like from its point of view, of the quiet years spent alone with the snakes, and then all that activity—hammering, spraying, sawing, sanding—and now I come in every day and listen to books on tape and make pictures and lay on the floor. I say goodnight to the schoolhouse every evening when I leave.”

Do you have regular hours that you try to work each day?

“I do. I am very lucky in having my studio at home, but in a separate building. I’m someone who needs to kind of trance out when I’m working, and so being inaccessible to Valentine when I’m trying to do it is essential.”

What about any creative habits or practices to get going?

“I don’t have the time to do this right now, but I am hoping that once Valentine starts daycare I can join a weekly figure drawing group. I never get to just draw with no agenda anymore and the few times I’ve done it it’s been so good. I think it’s like the practice of feeding your creative daemon without trying to extract a result. It’s like exercise. Of course, I don’t do it.”

Any advice you'd give to fellow creatives about juggling an art practice and a young child?

“When I was pregnant my husband Danny and I had this joke where we would say, ‘Instead of advice, why don’t you just give me fifty dollars?’ I really don’t have any advice, it’s just hard. And you figure it out. But I don’t think there is a way around it being hard.”

How was your pregnancy with Valentine?

“我怀孕是健康的,除了当我得到供应me, which was horrible. But birth was so, so hard. This will sound very dumb, but I just wasn’t prepared for how much it would, like, hurt? I was 6-years-old when my mom gave birth to my sister at home, and I remember being so impressed with her strength, but I wasn’t scared. I think on some deep level I deduced from that experience that birth was hard but manageable. Tough, but fair. But my labor began with contractions two minutes apart and they stayed that way for 20 hours of back labor. It was pain unlike…I want a bigger word, it was pain of a different category. I thought the pain would be like, the ceiling of the pain I had experienced before in my life—but I pushed through that ceiling only to discover it was actually the floor of a giant pain cathedral. But we made it through, and I have to say, the size of that pain rearranged my brain permanently. Nothing seems hard compared to that.”

What has your experience been like bonding with your son?

“For me the bond was one that developed. The newborn phase was so hard, just the relentlessness of it, the mysteriousness of why your baby is crying—you’re just surviving from moment to moment. For me it felt like around 5 months was when it started to bloom.”

Tell us about your son's name and any meaning behind it.

“This is kind of cool. My husband Danny and I went to college together. We were friends with chemistry, but we never did anything about it. However, we stayed friends through all the years of living in different cities, through different relationships. And then when the time was finally right, bam. This was the year beforeJuliánwas published. He had been living in L.A. but came to visit me in New York. We were walking through Green Wood Cemetery (my favorite place in New York City), talking about kids. We discovered each of us had a secret name we’d been holding onto, if we were to ever have a child. It turns out we had the same name in mind: Valentine.”

“Valentine’s middle names are Samuel, for Samuel Langhorn Clemmons, and Love, my mom’s last name, because I wanted the matrilineal line in there too.”

Are there things from your upbringing that you're consciously trying to incorporate (or not incorporate) into your Valentine's upbringing?

“I think one of the most precious gifts my parents gave me was an immediate relationship with the non-human world. We lived in the woods by a river, and my imaginative world was populated by cottonwood trees, frogs, river spirits, and dryads. I remember very acutely the feeling of coming home from middle school after some excoriating adolescent incident, and feeling in my body this sense of relief to be in the quiet company of trees I had known since I was born. I think one of our greatest wishes for Valentine is that he be in relationship with the world around him in this way."

"For Danny’s side of the family, I think they had a really special kind of closeness—especially with his extended family. They did things together constantly—camping, digging for mussels at the beach and cooking them in salt water from the ocean—simple things, but I think that opportunity to be with your parents when they’re just sort of happily hanging out is incredibly stabilizing. It gives you ballast. Unfortunately, we moved to New York and both of our families live in California so we’re still figuring that part out.”

Were you always doing art as a child? And is this something that you want to do with Valentine?

“Yes, always. My parents would roll out a big sheet of butcher paper on their studio floor and give me a bucket of markers and more or less leave me to it. Because Danny and I are still in the process of building our house, our kitchen cabinetry is all temporary, so we let Val draw all over it. But so far he seems far more intrigued with his dad’s work—Danny is a woodworker, he makes furniture. And his wood shop is Valentine’s favorite place on earth. One of his first words was not a word but like a ‘clock-clock’ sound effect of a hammer.”

你的喜欢是什么orite books as a child and teen?

“When I was little, my favorites wereMiss RumphiusandEloise. My dad read meThe HobbitandThe Lord of the Rings, and my mom read meAnne of Green Gables. I loved (and love)Ursula Leguin,Madelein L’Engle. When I was a teenager, I fell in love withNabokovandArundhati Roy.”

What excites you most about motherhood right now? What makes you nervous?

“Valentine is starting to talk more, and I am so excited to have conversations with him. Everything makes me nervous."

任何大happenings-professionally或personally-that you're excited about for the year ahead?

“I am in the middle of illustrating two really special books—the first is calledLittle PassengerbyDeirdre Sullivan, and it’s a book about the relationship you have with your baby while you’re pregnant. The other is calledThe Poet and the BeesbyAmy Noveskyand it’s a collection of poems about the summer Sylvia Plath kept bees.”

“The other big thing is thatJulián is a Mermaidis being made into an animated feature film, byCartoon Saloon, a really incredible animation studio based in Kilkenny, Ireland, with a screenplay by the brilliant Juliany Taveras, and directed by the incredible Louise Bagnall. The film is being put together with such care and deliberation, I think it’s going to be really special.”

Shopthe Story

Julián is a Mermaid

Jessica Love

A Bed of Stars

Jessica Love

Julián at the Wedding

Jessica Love

Art Prints

Jessica Love

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