Poetry and Music, One and the Same: Interview With Author/Songwriter Johnette Downing and Illustrator Jennifer Lindsley

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 8.35.05 PMAuthor/singer Johnette Downing and illustrator Jennifer Lindsley are both native Louisianans who grew up listening to the many legends of the bayou. Pulling from their local traditions and personal experiences, together they collaborated on a  most original, eerie folkloric tale. I found The Fifolet to be so mesmerizing and uniquely wonderful, I just had to learn how this author/illustrator team pulled it off.

© Copyright – Image of Jennifer Lindsley (l) and Johnette Downing (r) courtesy of Johnette Downing

Author Photo 2012 Rick OlivierJohnette Downing

Where did the inspiration come from to write a picture book about a fifolet, and while growing up in Louisiana, did you always know the meaning of the word?

Being from Louisiana, I heard stories my entire life about the fifolet or feu follet, which means fire sprite in French. Elders, like my French grandfather, would say, “Don’t go too far in the swamp or else the fifolet will get you.” Like the loup garou, the mischievous Cajun werewolf, the fifolet is a mythical spirit used by grown-ups as an effective device to keep children in line.

For nearly three decades, I have dedicated my career to sharing Louisiana roots music and books with children as a means of ensuring that our rich musical, folkloric and cultural heritage will continue to be handed down one generation after another. Until the publication of this book, the fifolet legend has mostly been an oral tradition shared among families; therefore, I wanted to write my own original version of the legend with my own plot and characters as a way of preserving this story in book form for generations to come.

Does being a songwriter make you a better poet or does your ability to write poetry make you a better songwriter?

This is a great question, and one that I have never been asked. For me, poetry and music are one and the same. After all, language itself is rhythmic; each syllable is a beat, beats are words, words are poems, poems are lyrics and lyrics are books.

Many people do not know this about me, but I am a haiku poet and the co-founder of the New Orleans Haiku Society. The beauty of haiku is that one has seventeen syllables or fewer to make meaning out of an experience that connects human nature with nature. This Japanese form of poetry has helped me get to the heart of the subject matter by targeting what I want to say and then saying it in as few words as possible.

Therefore, to answer your question, yes, being a songwriter helps one be a better poet and being a poet helps one be a better songwriter.

“After all, language itself is rhythmic; each syllable is a beat, beats are words, words are poems, poems are lyrics and lyrics are books.”

Poetry is difficult to write well, yet I found your poetic verse in The Fifolet to be the smoothest to read of all the rhyming picture books I’ve ever reviewed. Why is poetry so difficult to write well, and is there a trick to your ability to do it?

Image 4Thank you for your kind words about my poetic verse for this book. As a poet and musician, I do not find poetry hard to write, but I do understand why others may find it difficult. I believe the trick is that poetry needs to “sing,” not so much in a literal sense, but that it needs to flow off the tongue as if it were music.

Another trick I use is to read the poem, or any other form of writing, aloud. While reading aloud, one can hear the cadence of the language. If it does not sound like music, or if it does not flow smoothly, the meter may be off, and editing syllables or words may be required to help the poem sing. Tapping your foot to the beats of each line while reading aloud and making sure the lines equal the same number of beats can transform a poem.

© Copyright – Cover Image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Do you have any plans to turn The Fifolet into a song?

Yes, I have written music for The Fifolet for the purpose of making the book into a song. I am also working on an orchestral piece of music that would be played while I read the story.

Listen to Johnette perform some of her music

I’d love to hear that! In what ways do you think teaching with music benefits children?

I was an early childhood music teacher for twenty-two years, and I have given workshops to teachers in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Central America, North America and the Caribbean on how to use music in the classroom to teach language and to promote literacy. Since language and the majority of other academic subjects are left-brain activities and music is a right-brain activity, combining the two helps students utilize more brain capacity in a more natural and balanced manner for learning. I enjoy writing books that are also songs because, in my opinion, not only does it help reluctant readers become motivated readers, it helps students use more brain capacity for higher learning, interaction, retention and enjoyment.

“I enjoy writing books that are also songs because, in my opinion, not only does it help reluctant readers become motivated readers, it helps students use more brain capacity for higher learning, interaction, retention and enjoyment.”

Jennifer Lindsley’s illustrations in The Fifolet are outstanding. Did you have a vision of how you thought your story should be illustrated and what were your impressions on how the illustrations turned out?

While writing the book, I visualized a dark, mysterious, and mythical swamp environment that few would dare to traverse. The publisher, Pelican Publishing, suggested Jennifer Lindsley as the illustrator. When I viewed her art samples, I agreed that she was the perfect illustrator for this book. A native of Thibodaux, LA, Jennifer has created a watery world any fifolet would love to inhabit. What I love is that she gave Jean-Paul Pierre a lantern to carry. This is significant because the legend of a fire sprite or of a person carrying a vessel of light exists around the world as the Will of Wisp or the Jack of Lantern. This small detail, which Jennifer said was accidental, causes the reader to ponder whether or not Jean-Paul had been a fifolet all along – double creepy!

Image 1

© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

That is brilliant. I think you handled the folkloric subject matter in your story beautifully. Were you ever concerned that your plot, featuring a fisherman who disappears, might frighten readers?

Your kinds words touch my heart; thank you. Folklore has always been a passion of mine. After fourteen books, it was time for something a little eerie, especially since my previous book, Macarooned on a Dessert Island, was all about sweets. Actually, my young readers have been asking me for something spooky for some time. I am more of a scaredy-cat than most children; therefore, I didn’t want to have a scary book. I wanted to have something I would read myself repeatedly and not have nightmares. The Fifolet, with its promise of buried treasure, has one shovel dug into the attribution of mystical powers to natural phenomena, and one shovel dug into mystery; the perfect concoction for slightly spooky folklore.

The Fifolet, with its promise of buried treasure, has one shovel dug into the attribution of mystical powers to natural phenomena, and one shovel dug into mystery; the perfect concoction for slightly spooky folklore.”

Can you tell us a bit about your next book that’s in the works?

Louisiana The Jewell of the Deep SouthI have two upcoming books through Pelican Publishing. Louisiana, the Jewel of the Deep South, illustrated by Julia Marshall, is about State symbols and is slated for a fall 2015 release. Down in Mississippi, illustrated by Katherine Zecca, is the sequel to my Down in Louisiana book. It teaches Mississippi State symbols, and is slated for a spring 2016 release. Both books are also songs.

 

616rcjen-1ecd17096908960aJennifer Lindsley

What attracted you to illustrating the story of The Fifolet?

I had briefly been introduced to Johnette at Starbucks, as a friend of mine had recommended that I talk to her. I had just submitted art to Pelican on an open submission for artists. I had no clue that eventually I was going to be paired with her as “my” author! I was so excited as the story is close to my heart in that my paternal family is from Thibodaux (down the bayou), and I am very familiar with the eerie qualities of the swamp and loved the story. Johnette is also an amazing writer and the tale just flowed in an enchanting sing-song that stuck in my head even before I started illustrating!

“Johnette is also an amazing writer and the tale just flowed in an enchanting sing-song that stuck in my head even before I started illustrating!”

Your fluid, hazy watercolor method is mesmerizing and perfectly fitting for the story. I noticed on your website your other illustrations don’t seem to be painted in the same style. Were you given any specific direction for the artwork, and how did you come up with this brilliant depiction of the story?

Watercolor was the first medium I learned, and it is my absolute favorite. Next would be oils and then acrylics, which are used for many of my murals. Since the book took place in the swamp and was watery to begin with, I thought that watercolor would lend itself to the aesthetic. I wanted to have the drippy aspect representing the Spanish moss and eerie quality of the story. I wanted the colors to be moody and flowing. There is a quality to watercolors where the colors can blend seamlessly and once they dry some of the results are surprising. I was not given any direction with regards to medium, just minor suggestions when areas needed some “pop.” You can’t erase watercolor so it was a commitment to be able to adjust – luckily I had done the initial sketches and they were approved before I started adding color.

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© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Was it challenging for you to create images fitting for an eerie folktale without frightening young readers? 

I feel like the pictures just came to me with each of the lines of the story. I had drawn an initial sketch of Jean Paul Pierre and wanted him to be consistent throughout. He seems like such a selfish person and alone and pretty simple, so his clothes, shrimping boots, hat and little red patch on his knee helped me to keep him recognizable and simple. I also added some characters that are in the story consistently as witnesses of Jean Paul’s demise — the alligator that seems to follow him around, the ever present moon, his hat and his pirogue became as much a part of the tale as he was! I didn’t make the swamp black, I opted for purples and blues, so as not to create a harshness that could spook some younger readers…I was scared of the dark when I was little and the moon was always something that helped illuminate the scary away!

Do you paint all your illustrations traditionally or do you use digital methods as well?

I’m pretty much a Luddite when it comes to illustration. I have tried some digital work, but inevitably get frustrated and go back to my “old school” methods. I feel like I can convey emotions through art better “brush to canvas/paper” than dragging and dropping images and scanning. I would like to learn how to augment my work through digital though – I just have to find someone who will teach me and make me stick to it! Someday! In the meantime I love to paint traditionally and feel like I’m more efficient time wise.

There’s simply nothing that can replace an original painting, even though it’s more difficult to make changes than with digital work. What was the inspiration for the big-nosed beady-eyed fisherman? I love everything from his shack on the water to that image of him in bed with his toes sticking out from under the covers.

Image 2When I was little my dad used to take me to a little roadside store outside of Thibodaux, that also had a tiny bar and lots of Cajuns would come through and tell stories. Jean Paul is sort of a conglomeration of these colorful storytellers and one particular person I know that is extremely cheap and selfish. (Not mentioning names!)

© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

It’s fantastic that your real-life experiences created this fictional fisherman! As an art teacher, what is difference between giving an adult student direction as compared to a child student? 

Adults are afraid of messing up! Children are pretty much fearless with the ability to take risks and try things. I always hear from adults, “Oh, I can’t draw a straight line, I’m a terrible artist.” And then when I work with them and have them try different mediums, they inevitably find a niche of making art that they enjoy and can build on. Not every artist can draw, however maybe they excel at three dimensional art, it’s a matter of introducing them and trying to eliminate a fear of failure.

Children will dive in and go for it as long as there is positive encouragement. I think sometimes adults were told as children that something didn’t “look” like what they were trying to represent and it stifles them, so it’s not surprising when they pick up years later, they are still drawing at a level of a children who decided they weren’t good enough. I get inspired at the fearlessness of kids in my classes – I have a tendency to be afraid I’m going to “mess something up” but then I have to remind myself that if I mess it up, I can always fix it.

“Adults are afraid of messing up! Children are pretty much fearless with the ability to take risks and try things.”

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© Copyright – Inside spread image courtesy of Pelican Publishing

Is there another picture book in the works for you?

I am illustrating a few different books at present. The main one is a story about St. Charles and the streetcar lines and the fabulous sites that this city has to offer when you’re rolling down the avenue. I also have a book that I’m working on about a dragonfly that has a unique perspective, and it is a bilingual book for kids that might be a little different. But above it all I have some sketches of a lab rat who wants to be a famous music composer, but I need an author. I have the pictures, but I’m not a writer!

Jennifer, I have a feeling you’ll have no trouble finding that author, now that the word’s out. Thank you both for taking the time to share your unique journey with this book. I’m looking forward to your next titles.

Readers:

Visit Johnette’s website here.

Visit Jennifer’s website here.

Visit Pelican Publishing here.

Read my review of the book here.

Buy The Fifolet here.

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