Episode 009 (Interview with Authors Eric and Joanna Johnson)
Interview recorded on Tuesday, February 23, 2016
I announce the winners of the contest announced in Episode 007!
All images copyright of Eric and Joanna Johnson, used with permission.
Mary: Okay, so I want to welcome Eric and Joanna Johnson to the Kino Knits podcast. This is the first time I’ve done an interview for the podcast, as is evident by the fact that we just recorded half of this, and only my voice was recording. So, they have very patiently agreed to do a take two. Eric and Joanna are the authors of several books that feature children’s stories with knitting and then have knitting patterns included. The latest one is Henry’s Hat, which I purchased and loved and asked for an interview. So here we are! Thank you for joining me.
Joanna: Thanks for having us.
Mary: Again. Alright. Could you start by telling me how you got into knitting and illustrating, please?
Joanna: Well, I grew up in a family that likes to make things. So my mother and grandmother taught me to knit when I was very young. I don’t remember learning to knit. I was probably 5 or 6, probably learning to read at the same time. So I don’t remember really learning. Just something that I always kind of had around. My mom likes to sew and knit and bake. Her mom and my mother’s maternal grandmother also was quite a talented needleworker. She did tatting and lacework and made winter coats with fur collars and all sorts of amazing things. And so I’ve always loved to knit, and I’ve always loved to read, and so being able to pull those two things together, for me has been really fun. And then marrying someone who’s an artist, you know, we always kind of had this idea, early on in our relationship that we would maybe someday write a book together.
Eric: Yeah, and I always liked to draw as a kid, and I grew up… my dad was a sign painter, so I grew up lettering signs and trucks, windows and things. I spent a lot of my life doing graphic art, but I always loved to draw. And so I have a full-time job that’s graphic art-related, but we managed to squeeze out this book idea after hours.
Mary: So how does the process go? Do you come up with the story first, or do you just wake up and decide you need to knit a platypus? How does it work?
Eric: Well, we collaborate heavily on everything. Well, mostly, what we would want is an animal that could knit.
Eric: That would be my area. What do you think, Joanna?
Joanna: I think it all kind of comes together. I feel like we have three parts to our books. We’ve got illustrations. We’ve got the story, and then we have the knitting. And for me, those three things kind of come all together. They don’t come separately. Little details need to be worked out as time goes on, but we usually have a simple problem in each of our stories that needs to be solved. So, in Henry’s Hat, Henry has lost his hat. That’s the problem to be solved. In Phoebe’s Birthday, she is trying to learn to swim and is afraid, so she needs to overcome that fear. So we usually have a central, simple problem that, as an adult, might seem kind of simple, but are really important to children. But then, yeah, Eric’s right, we collaborate with each other and with our three children to hash out all of the details and the background characters and the settings and the clothes and what are the eating? What are they baking? What kind of toys are in the room? And all of that is just really fun to hash out together.
Eric: Yeah, a lot of it is just right out of our own life.
Joanna: Our house is very similar to Freddie’s Blanket, so I was at Stitches West this weekend with Emily Straw from Knitting Butterflies, and she had read Freddie’s Blanket for a while before she came to our house. She lives in our little city here. And she came over, and she was like, “What?! This is Freddie’s Blanket’s house! How did this happen?” So we have this great balance of being able to imagine anything we want, but when we want to, we can carry in some incredibly specific details from our lives and the lives of our families and friends, and it’s just been really fun to make our own worlds together.
Mary: Right, and Emily’s podcast was the first place that I’d heard of you, and then started following on Instagram, and then I was really excited to see the release of Henry’s Hat and did one of the pre-orders, which came with cute little notecards and things. The thing that I really like about that story is that it teaches children the value of handknits. So you mentioned that the storyline is that Henry loses his hat. And then he goes through all this effort to get it back, and, you know, it shows kids that this is something to be valued and to be taken care of and that a lot of love is put into these knitted things. I really like that, and I like showing my children that. So thank you.
Joanna: Yeah, our kids really appreciate it when we make something for them, and they are very creative, too, so they know how long it takes to, you know, to learn a new song, or make a drawing, or to make a bracelet, or our daughter likes to crochet, and she knows what kind of work goes into making a sweater. And so we really love that our kids appreciate the things that we make for them and that other people make for them, too.
Eric: And I’m not a knitter, but we tried to make projects that kids will really like. A child may not understand how much time it takes. I mean, I appreciate that, but, for example, our son, our youngest son, who’s really Henry – he loves that hat and the sweater. He wears it all the time. Maybe… I don’t know why, but we just tried to make a unique hat that would be fun as a… you know, I gave my input to Joanna, say, “Make it like a helmet, kind of like something, he can imagine he’s playing this or that,” and it kind of worked. So we tried to make it actually fun for the receiver and fun, Joanna works on trying to make it fun for the knitter. So it is actually something everybody likes. That’s kind of our general focus.
Mary: Right, I’m most excited to knit the sweater, but my son wants Henry, so, I think that’ll have to be what I do first.
Eric: We tried to make it like, put these clothes on, and the clothes will, they… won’t they work for the Phoebe dolls?…
Joanna: Yeah, everything’s interchangeable.
Eric: Freddie’s a little different-sized.
Mary: So, what made you decide to self-publish these, vs. going through a traditional publishing route?
Joanna: Well, that’s kind of a interesting story. I worked in publishing a little bit before we got married, but by the time we started working on this, it was about 10 years later, and the publishing world had changed a lot from the late 90s on into the next 10 years. We originally did not want to self-publish. And we originally were really looking for a platform to get Eric’s artwork out there, and we submitted Phoebe’s Sweater to a knitting book publisher and to a children’s book publisher. And it was rejected from the knitting book publisher in about two days. And it was rejected from the traditional children’s book publisher in about 9 to 12 months. And in the interim, we were so passionate this idea and so eager to see it happen because there was quite a bit of knit-lit for women: Kate Jacobs, Debbie Maccomber, Maggie Sefton… there were some fabulous, fabulous writers writing knit-lit for women, and, at the time, no one had published any knit-lit for children. And we just felt like it was something that was ready to happen. And we’re kind of do-it-yourselfers in all areas of our lives, and I remember we sat up really late one night talking about the idea of self-publishing. And what do we need?
Eric: You read an article.
Joanna: And can we make this happen? I think we stayed up will 2 or 3 in the morning talking about it. And the next morning, my Yarn Market News magazine arrived, and it had an article focusing on Cat Bordhi, talking about self-publishing. And it was like this ray of light shining on this magazine in my hands! Like maybe we need to pursue this? And so we kept knocking on doors, and I kept waiting for some big road block to go up, “Well, now there’s no way we can do this,” and every door opened. You know, we reached out to Brown Sheep Company to yarn support. They were fabulous. We reached out to a lot of printers and found a fabulous printer who prints all of our our books in the United States. He’s printed all of our books, every print run. We’ve done three print runs of Phoebe’s Sweater and two of some of our others. Everything just kept opening for us. And it’s not what we set out to do, and now that we’ve done it this way, I’m not really sure that we would want to have it any other way.
Eric: Yeah, it was really just an open door that we could go through. We just wanted to do it, and it’s hard getting rejected and waiting, and frankly, I don’t know where to go? You know? We tried to do things, and it just did not work. So this is just what happened, and you know, it required a lot of work from us, but we teamed up, we did it together, and it’s a lot of hard work, but that’s how it went.
Mary: Well, it’s interesting, I mean you’ve had a lot of success with this. I know there’s another sort-of similar book, Annie and the Swiss Cheese Scarf by Alana Dakos and Neesha Hudson, not that it’s a similar story, but you know, it’s a story for kids, and it includes patterns. And I was listening to an interview recently that the Knitmore Girls did with StephenBe. And he said that, you know, the age of a publisher saying, “We want 12 hats patterns” is over and that publishers need to realize this. And I think that, you know, what you’re doing is really unique, and as you have more success, maybe they’ll be more willing to, you know, do something that’s outside of the box for people in the future.
Joanna: And I’ll be honest, we were approached by, including the publisher that rejected us…
Mary: Oh, didn’t that feel great?
Joanna: And they had people I’m not gonna name, but several of the big 6 publishers approached us within our first year, “Oh, I would have loved to have had this, oh, can I take you to dinner…” and you know, at that point, we loved being able to release a book when we were ready and to work at our own pace and so forth. So we haven’t really gone down that path. I can’t say we never would, but right now what we’re doing is working really great, and we’re really happy with it.
Mary: So do you have any advice for someone who wants to self-publish in the knitting genre?
Joanna: Boy, um, I would say it’s to know your work and to know your audience. I don’t really feel like I had a ton of trade knowledge, but I felt like a had a lot of content knowledge because I had been so passionate about knitting for children and teaching children to knit for so long when we started doing what we’re doing. There are so many micro-niches within the knitting world at this point, and I’d just encourage people to follow what they love and throw themselves into it and know it inside out and just see where it goes.
Mary: Okay, then, so, one more question. I don’t know if you are familiar at all with any of the podcasts that I’ve done. I’m very new at this. But one of the segments that seems to be more popular is called “Knitting on Safari.” And I live in Kenya, “safari” is Swahili for “trip,”’ so it can just be any trip. But do you have any experience in your mind where you went on a trip and knitting was involved and it was just really memorable that you would like to tell people about?
Joanna: Boy, knitting on safari. Well, we do tend to do epic road trips. We both grew up in the same tiny little town in rural New Jersey, and we live in Colorado near the Rocky Mountains about an hour north of Denver. And every other year or so, we put 5 or 6 thousand miles on our van and drive our kids all around the country. So it’s not as exotic as a safari, but I have knit miles and miles and miles of socks and scarves and shawls while Eric drives, and we make a good team. He’s a great driver, and I like to navigate, so I call myself “the nagivator.”
Mary: I might borrow that.
Joanna: He drives, and we’ve taken our kids to some really, really cool places around the country and visited family and friends, and so I have, you know, really specific memories of some of the things that I knit and wear that, you know, we were driving by the St. Louis arch, or we were in New York City, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or, boy, Tennessee when I made those things. Mostly socks. I usually knit socks while we’re on the road.
Mary: Mm-hm, good travel project.
Mary: Um, so, we talked earlier, and you generously agreed to do a giveaway of Henry’s Hat:
Mary: For which I really want to thank you, so I’m going to open a Ravelry thread and ask people to answer a question. And I think I want to return to this theme of instilling value in handknits. So if you would like to be entered for the drawing, please post a tip that you have for inspiring children to value things that are made for them. I will keep that open for the next two episodes I suppose? And two episodes from now, I will draw one and make that happen. So thank you again for agreeing to do that. I guess, one last thing… Oh, I had a great question! One thing I wanted to tell you, Joanna. When I was researching for this, I, you know, I was looking up all your patterns, and you said that you have a lot of literary background. You’ve published in Jane Austen Knits and Harry Potter Knits and Downton Abbey Knits, and your book is Green Gables Knits.
Mary (continued): And I had a moment when I had an audible gasp. Because one of your patterns is one those dream patterns. You know, you have those things you want to knit, but then there are those things that you just, you’re absolutely madly in love with? And the Cottage Tea Cozy from Jane Austen Knits is one of those for me? I had no idea that was yours, but it’s been nagging me in the back of my brain for years since it was published, and it’s just devastatingly beautiful.
Mary: I will definitely get on that now! Anyway, so, where can people find you?
Joanna: slatefallspressbooks.com. We’re on Facebook as Slate Falls Press. We have a Slate Falls Press group on Ravelry. I’m pretty easy to find on social media. I’m joannajohnson on Instagram, joannajohnson on Ravelry. Eric also has a great site where he features his artwork. It’s called ericjohnsondraws.com. And from those places you can find us elsewhere, on Twitter, and so forth.
Eric: I’ve done a Craftsy class on Illustrating Animals.
Joanna: And all of this can be found right from our website.
Mary: Okay, well I’ll link to all that. Alright, well I think that’s it. Thank you so much! I appreciate you coming on!
Joanna: Thanks for having us.
Where to Find Me
“Kassongo” by Orchestra Super Mazembe, used with permission of A.I. Records (Kenya) Ltd