By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)
Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a Toronto-based writer and illustrator. Her illustrations appear in I’m Bored, a picture book written by Michael Ian Black that’s being published by Simon and Schuster this fall. I’m Bored recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Debbie also has an illustrated short story included in TOMO, a Japan teen fiction anthology (Stone Bridge Press, March 2012) whose proceeds will benefit young people affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Author of The Writer’s Online Marketplace (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001), Debbie’s nonfiction, fiction and poetry has also appeared in numerous print and online venues including Magic Tails (co-written short story with Michelle Sagara West, DAW Books 2005), Cottage Life, Applied Arts, Harp Column, Writer’s Digest and others.
Debbie was the creator and editor of Inkspot and Inklings, one of the very first websites and electronic newsletters for writers.
Debbie’s current projects include her own picture books, a teen novel that was nominated for the 2011 Sue Alexander Award, a compilation of her comics for writers, and a nonfiction book about board gaming.
As if that wasn’t enough, Debbie is also a talented musician and songwriter. In her spare time, she writes songs for and performs with Urban Tapestry, a filk music trio. (What’s filk? Click here.) Their songs have aired on national radio and are available on CD and in digital format.
We here at Toasted Cheese were very excited to talk to Debbie about her writing, illustrating, and experiences in the publishing industry.
Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Debbie Ridpath Ohi: I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first chapter book when I was in second grade. It had illustrations and was written in pencil, and I was so very proud of the fact that I used the word “horrendous,” which I had carefully looked up in Roget’s thesaurus before including it in my story. Unfortunately, I misspelled it, so the teacher wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had hoped she would be.
TC: How did you make the decision to take the leap from having a regular full-time job into freelance writing?
DRO: With the help of my husband. Jeff was my boyfriend back then, when I was a programmer/analyst at the head office of a big Canadian bank. I used to wake up around 5 AM every morning, get dressed up in my business suit and head to the office, briefcase in hand. As time passed, I would stay longer and longer at the office. Then I began working weekends.
I loved programming, but I felt like I was working on a very small cog of a huge machine (in terms of our programming projects) … a stark contrast to the creativity involved in programming assignments in school. I also wasn’t used to all the corporate bureaucracy, with intimidating stacks of forms and memos and meetings involved in what seemed like every small decision.
Anyway, Jeff was full witness to my gradual progression from optimistic enthusiasm to frustration to misery. One day, he offered to support me so I could find a happier path.
After some intense discussions with Jeff, I resigned from my position and embraced the freelance life.
In addition to freelance writing, I also earned money in a number of different jobs along the way, including working in a public library and in a children’s bookstore.
TC: Your writing career began in nonfiction. Was it difficult to transition into writing fiction?
DRO: My first writing sale was actually in fiction: a short story for Hobnob magazine (now defunct). I was paid US$10 and won their Reader’s Choice Award; I never cashed the cheque because I wanted to keep it.
I’ve always been writing fiction, though I haven’t yet sold any novels. But I will! 🙂
TC: You obviously keep very busy. What tips do you have for managing time effectively and finding balance in your life?
DRO: Hoo boy, I could write a whole book on this topic. Someday, that is, since I haven’t yet completely succeeded in the life balance part.
My main piece of advice, though, is this: Be conscious about how you spend your time. Don’t just be a passive participant, letting other people and external circumstances dictate how you live your life. Learn how to say no.
TC: When did you start working as an illustrator? How did that begin?
DRO: I’ve been doodling for ages, and from time to time people would pay me to do small one-off projects, like a birthday or housewarming card. After joining Flickr, I began posting some of my doodles and drawings that I did purely for the fun of it. Sometimes people who liked the art I posted would contact me for small custom projects. I also had a few online comics going, some of which attracted a lot of readers. My Waiting For Frodo comic, for example, even had fans at Weta Digital!
However, my career in children’s book illustration didn’t start until the summer of 2010, when my friend Beckett Gladney convinced me to enter the SCBWI Summer Conference Illustration Portfolio Showcase. I was thrilled to win one of the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program awards, and learned so much from my mentors as well as my fellow mentees (see our blog). But that’s not all…
One of the judges was Justin Chanda, who is the publisher of three flagship imprints at Simon & Schuster: S&S Books For Young Readers, Atheneum, and McElderry Books. When he saw my illustrations, he immediately thought I’d be the right illustrator for Michael Ian Black’s I’m Bored (yay!).
You can read the full story here.
TC: What was it like collaborating on a picture book? What can you tell us about that process?
DRO: Working with Justin Chanda and Laurent Linn on I’m Bored was amaaaazing. Justin was editor on the project, and Laurent was my art director. I learned so much during the process, not just about illustration but also storytelling.
As a newbie illustrator, I had expected to be told pretty much exactly what I was supposed to draw, and have little input. Instead, Justin and Laurent were interested in my input throughout, and strongly encouraged me to be creative as I interpreted Michael Ian Black’s wonderful story.
I loved the back-and-forth in the discussions we had in person and on the phone. I was incredibly nervous at that first meeting but I remember that after only a few minutes, I was drawn into the conversation so deeply that I forgot about feeling self-conscious and focused instead on the book, and what we could do to make the book as strong as possible.
And as I write that, I realized that this was one of the turning points for me in the collaboration process: when I began to think in terms of what everyone was doing rather than only my part.
You can read my blog posts about collaboration and other aspects of working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers here.
TC: You are obviously incredibly successful at using the internet/social media to market yourself and connect with other writers. Do you have any advice for our readers about using the internet as a tool in this way?
DRO: Thank you for the kind words about my social media skills. I’ve worked hard at them and made many mistakes along the way.
My main piece of advice for writers wanting to use social media and the Internet to market themselves and connect with other writers:
If most of your posts have to do with self-promotion or trying to sell something, it’s unlikely you’ll attract many new readers.
Instead, offer something to people they can’t easily get elsewhere, that makes them want to come back. Once they feel they know you, then (and not before) they will be more likely to be interested in your projects.
In my opinion, the value of social media is much more about making connections with other people than in self-promotion.
TC: Who are some authors/illustrators you admire? Who would you say has influenced you?
DRO: My biggest influence and author/illustrator I admire the most: my sister, Ruth Ohi.
Watching my sister work over the years on over 50 children’s picture books, I have learned a great deal about the craft and business. She has also inspired me with her focus and productivity, especially how she managed her work time when her children were very young.
Ruth continues to support and encourage me. There were times during I’m Bored when I got discouraged about my illustrations (“OH MY GOD I SUCK WHAT IF THEY HATE WHAT I’M DOING AND FIRE ME” etc.); my sister talked me off the ledge. 🙂
Thank you, Sis!
TC: Do you have a favorite project, past or current, so far?
DRO: I’m Bored.
I had so much fun working on this. I am totally serious.
I also learned a ton about the craft and business of making a picture book.
TC: Earlier this year, you announced that you signed two book contracts with Simon & Schuster; one to illustrate another picture book, and another to write and illustrate a picture book of your own. Can you give us any update on those projects?
DRO: I’m in the very early stages of creating the picture book that I am writing and illustrating with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. So far, I have had two phone meetings with my editor, Justin Chanda. I would say that right now I’m working on the pre-pre-1st draft. 🙂
As for the other picture book, Simon & Schuster is still looking for the right project for me to illustrate. Fingers crossed!
I’m blogging about the process of creating picture books with Simon & Schuster, for those interested.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. She is the illustrator of I’M BORED by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Sept/2012) and her work also appears in the teen fiction anthology, TOMO (Stone Bridge Press, Mar/2012). Represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd. URL: DebbieOhi.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.
For longer bios, see: Press Bios: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
WHERE YOU CAN FIND DEBBIE:
About I’M BORED:
Author: Michael Ian Black
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers