Matt Ottley is a writer and illustrator of stories for children and young adults. He’s published 14 of his own picture books and contributed artworks to many non-fiction books.
Beyond the book, Matt has produced paintings for private homes and art gallery walls. Furthermore, Matt is a musician and a composer and has released two commercial CDs. He’s currently involved in a large scale musical theatre work with Melbourne-based writer, Catherine Bateson.
Matt’s published work includes children’s books What Faust Saw (Hodder Headline Australia), Mrs Millie’s Painting (Hodder Headline Australia), and Luke’s Way of Looking(Hodder Headline Australia). His book for adults and young adults, Requiem for a Beast(Hachette Livre), combines all of his talents, and includes a CD of music for chamber orchestra.
Research, in its various forms, is an import aspect of Matt’s creative process.
‘There is direct research – in an academic sense – such as reading books about a subject, interviewing experts, travelling to specific places, and then there’s the kind of research one does for creative reasons, such as looking at paintings, listening to music or going to the theatre,’ explains Matt.
‘I’m not talking about inspiration in this kind of research, it’s more to do with technique. How does another painter get the quality of light I’m trying to express? Or how are the ways in which other composers use the devices of tension creation and resolution?’
For Matt, the time frame for a piece of work depends upon the project. Requiem for a Beast,which includes a novella length text, nearly 100 pages of images and a 70 page musical score, took five years from conception to publication. A shorter picture book may take six months to create the images and text.
‘I would like to say that I have a routine, that I’m a good time manager, but I’m afraid my working schedule is completely chaotic and haphazard. I tend to concentrate on whatever is most pressing, and try and fit everything else in around it. So if I have 20 paintings to complete for a publishing deadline, I’ll concentrate on that for most of each day, then panic when I know I’ve got a music gig coming up that I should’ve been practising for but haven’t. Somehow I muddle through.’
Matt finds that the most challenging part of the creative process is invariably the very first brushstroke, word or note.
‘That blank canvas, blank page or blank musical stave can be daunting. It’s almost mocking in its emptiness, gently telling you that the minute you make a mark on all that whiteness the idea you’re trying to express will be forever destroyed.
‘The “idea” in concept is perfect, in execution it’s flawed. Part of the beauty of the process is the struggle one has with the material in trying to wield it back to the purity of the idea. The closer one gets to that state of purity the more rewarding is the making of the work.’
Matt’s advice to those aspiring to publish work, is to try to develop a thick skin, and to accept criticism as a part of the process.
‘Make sure your self esteem is solid and that you’ve battened down your resolve because the first assault will come in the form of rejection letters. If you’re successful and write that book that everybody notices, this will be followed by a rearguard hammering from critics. Critics were torturers in their last life, and they know how to pull your fingernails out. They can also be very kind. But somehow you don’t remember what the kind ones say about your work.’
The key to producing publishable material, Matt believes, is a natural ability for storytelling.
‘You might be a lousy speller, but if you have the gift of being able to create amazing stories you’re more likely to be published than someone who writes well, but has no flair for narrative.’