Interview with Corinne Demas and Kathy Brown
Erin Daly, Daniella Bordonaro and Jeff Goodhind visited Kathy Brown and Corinne Demas at Kathy Brown’s home and studio.  Corinne and Kathy told the story of how The Littlest Matryoshka, and their friendship, came together.
Corinne Demas: Let me start telling the tale now.  The whole story began with this (matryoshka doll) I bought my daughter. It was on the sale table in the local toy store here in Amherst. As you can see, it has a crack in it, which is why it was on sale.  I thought if I’m giving her a damaged matryoshka I should probably make up a story about it both to compensate for the fact that the doll’s not perfect and to explain why it’s like this.  I wrote my daughter this story, and called it The Last Matryoshka. I’m not an illustrator, so all of these are my little homemade, amateurish illustrations and this is typed – so you can see how old this book is.  I typed the text and printed it out and glued it on my little pages here.  Here is the illustration at the end where the little girl gets the matryoshka. I gave the book to my daughter with the doll as a Christmas present.  Here’s a picture of my daughter playing with it.  
She was naming all the dolls and putting them inside each other, and that’s really where the idea came from that there would be one inside the other. I named all of the dolls in the story after characters in Chekhov short stories because I teach Chekhov and I needed Russian names.  My daughter enjoyed the story, her friends enjoyed the story, and then someone said “oh you should really try to sell it.”  I had to take the story I had written just for my daughter and give it a little more shape, give it a little more finish. The story got changed and it got revised many times and then it got sold to Hyperion Books for Children. They picked an illustrator for the book who seemed quite nice, and he did sketches for the book and everything seemed on course, but then the editor left and they got another editor and the new editor didn’t like the original illustrator who had been selected, so I guess they paid him off and they went out to find a new illustrator. And as luck would have it, they found Kathy Brown, who by chance, happened to live in this area. I had met her at a party at Jane Yolen’s house so I knew her slightly and I loved, loved her illustrations.  Kathy and I met at the Jeffery Amherst Inn for tea when she was about to begin working on The Littlest Matryoshka, and I brought, the actual matryoshka and lent it to her, for the time that she was working on the illustrations.  I remember it was in a special box.  Kathy unwrapped it, and I said goodbye to it and off it went. You can see she modeled very well, she stayed quite still.  One thing about Russian nesting dolls is that they stay still.  Kathy went off, and I didn’t see her for months and months. I knew she was working on the book, but basically she was working on it on her own and I was just waiting. When I first saw sketches I thought “Oh great this book is going to be terrific!” and when I saw some of her more finished illustrations and I knew we had a wonderful book.  
Corinne Demas: The original book is hand sewn. This is the old fashioned book making method, the way children make books--although now they don’t have to, they just do it all on the computer. This is amateur-level illustration, as opposed to book-level illustration.
Kathy Brown: Did the text change quite a bit?
Corinne Demas: The text changed a little bit. In the original story I had to explain why the biggest matryoshka had to be glued, as opposed to the revised story, where the littlest matryoshka gets lost and has to be found.  Mending a crack isn’t enough of a story. In order to make it a picture book I had to have something really happen.  The littlest matryoshka had to have an adventure, had to travel, and then be reunited. The book took on all sorts of other meanings-- reunification themes and themes of Christmas and Easter--which originally it didn’t have.
Kathy Brown: And once you turned it in and they bought it did it change after that?
Corinne Demas: No, it was pretty close.  The book underwent a major change from the time I wrote it for my daughter and when I wrote it for a manuscript that could work for anybody.
After that, it was just tinkering.
Kathy Brown: When I first got your original manuscript it was just text, right?
Corinne Demas: It may have been paged out a little bit, like this (shows Kathy a piece of manuscript). It probably looked like this.
Kathy Brown: Usually I just receive the manuscript and it doesn’t have the page breaks.  I just get the manuscript and read through, and then I do a dummy of the book, a lot like her little book here, only it just has the sketches
Corinne Demas: Here we are, here’s your dummy. Here are the sketches, how she imagines it all (shows papers).
Kathy Brown:  This is what I turn in to the publisher. Originally I start with just some little tiny sketches the size of a postage stamp. I start drawing.  I just start right away with what comes to mind.
Corinne Demas: Here’s Nikolai the dollmaker. Here’s a great one. Here’s a little squirrel.
Kathy Brown: From a little notebook I carried around in my purse. I think Nikolai looked a little more like this (holds up a sheet), which ended up looking more like the shop keeper than Nikolai doesn’t he, right here?
Corinne Demas: He does.
Kathy Brown: Nikolai, I decided, had to be a little older and wiser. Yes, there he is without much of a beard.
Corinne Demas: He’s acquired a beard.
Kathy Brown: There’s some Nikolais.  The reason I start sketching so tiny is because I’m thinking and I can’t think that big, so I just think little like that.  The storyline really predicts the style that comes out. All my books seem a little different if you look at the jacket art. At one point I worried about not having a style when I had to do a poetry book. Because I did the same thing in a poetry book. The words sort of predict what kind of character and what kind of style your story seemed to have. Your story was old fashioned, just the characters and the dolls. It was so great to meet Corinne. We met for tea and she gave me the doll. It’s always nervous-making  when you get to meet the author. I don’t always get to meet the author.
Corinne Demas: It’s not often you get a chance to meet the illustrator. I rarely meet the artists who illustrate my books.
Kathy Brown: I do remember meeting you. I knew you loved donkeys and I knew we were going to get a long just fine.  Meeting Corinne was just easy, she’s just easy and comfortable. She talked about her daughter and I have a daughter.  The dolls did live in my studio the whole time and I wasn’t sure if I captured them exactly but. . .
Corinne Demas: You captured their spirit, you captured what I wrote about them. By that time they had become characters.
Kathy Brown:  It is what happens, they kind of take on their own characters.
Corinne Demas: I’m going to open this up so the littlest one can come out and we can see them all – there she is, the size of a bumblebee.  It’s so much fun to be a children’s book author, you can play with toys, you can buy toys.
Kathy Brown: The dummy was just like setting the stage with the words and the pictures and how the drama would flow. I don’t really work so detailed on the characters at that point--they kind of come together when I paint.  And I do paint with watercolor, I use that medium a lot.  In fact, I have used watercolor on every book that I’ve done. Once in a while I use a little colored pencil with it, or I might use watercolor with pen and ink, but The Littlest Matryoshka was water color with just a little bit of colored pencil.
Corinne Demas: Did you use that black background [for the cover] on the inside?
Kathy Brown: That is what the publisher came up with.
Corinne Demas: So they used the interior picture when they decided to make the cover and they darkened it.
Kathy Brown:  That was their touch.
Corinne Demas: They’re giving it the Russian look.
Kathy Brown: Which is really spectacular. I’m always thankful for the designers because they come up with so many great details and then they give me feedback on them. For instance, I did a sketch of what I originally pictured for the jacket. Nina, the littlest matryoshka, was just going to be on a pile of oak leaves, with the title, and they said “No, we need something more bold.”  So, they took that picture with all the dolls lined up.
Corinne Demas: I think it’s great.
Kathy Brown: It’s really very dramatic what they chose to do.  Did we meet when I was [working] or did you just get this from the publisher?
Corinne Demas: I got it from the publisher.  Basically Kathy was in seclusion, painting.  My part was really done.  I just turn over the text, because when you’re an author you have no control over the illustrations. You’re basically selling your text, and they can do with it what they want. I say to people the only power you have is the power to whine.  But in this case I just waited, and what a wonderful surprise it was to see my book.
Kathy Brown: And what did you feel when you saw this?  Because usually I scare people
Corinne Demas: I thought, “Oh I wish I could paint!”  I looked at it and I said first of all I think the thing that Kathy had to do that was so hard with this book was to do sweet without doing cloying. Sweet can easily become a little bit too saccharine. She got it just right, and she managed to also have a dreamy quality that pervaded the book. It was absolutely tonally right because it’ a fantasy really, and the story has a kind of mythic and mysterious quality. There’s something about the watercolors and the palate that you chose, Kathy, that’s just absolutely perfect. Particularly when we look at these – this last picture of the little girl dreaming. This is one of my favorite illustrations in the book because it’s really what the book is about.  Suddenly, this matryoshka kind of comes to life. She can’t smile, she can’t move, but she has a soul, she has a mind, she’s feeling this emotional center.
And the child is sleeping in this whole sequence, working in this dreamworld, and the stories are coming together.  Her wish is to bring the littlest one back, so the illustrations were just perfect.
It seemed to me if I could paint and if I had the right imagination that this is the way I would imagine it, but I didn’t, I couldn’t see it until Kathy had done it. Now, of course, it seems inconceivable to me that anyone else could ever have illustrated this book or that the characters could appear any different. The little girl is exactly the way she must be, and she’s become the character. So it’s really a true blending of the art and the text. Now the text doesn’t seem to have a life without Kathy’s art.  They’ve actually merged-- they fused is what’s happened-- and now we have this book.
Kathy how long did it take you from the time I first gave you the doll to the time that you actually delivered your [final illustrations]?
Kathy Brown: I think it took me a full year to do.
Corinne Demas:  One of the things you have to do when you’re a children’s book author is you have to be quite able to postpone gratification because there is such a long waiting period from the time your story first finds a home with a publisher to the time it finally becomes a book.   This story found a home pretty quickly.
Kathy Brown: Well actually you wrote this story in 1990 and it came out in 1999.
Corinne Demas: So, from the time I first wrote it, it was nine years.  And one of those years was after it was under contract while Kathy was working on it. Once she delivers her art it takes another year to go through all the steps it needs to go through before it actually becomes the book.
Kathy Brown: See this letter dated February 1997 and then this one is July 98 and they were just getting back to me on my sketches. They said they apologized to me for taking so long to get back to me on my sketches.  They’re always apologizing.
Erin Daly: I wondered if both or either of you had a favorite page in the final book?
[They look through the book]
Corinne Demas: So hard to choose.  I bought several of the works of art from this book and one of my favorite pages is this one [picture of the heron bending over the littlest matryoshka] because it’s absolutely gorgeous and the scale is so wonderful. You see the great blue heron with the littlest matryoshka.  It’s such a powerful, incredible bird-- it’s a real creature but it almost seems mythic proportions—and it’s plucking up this little tiny thing. It lets you see how tiny it is. It also shows you the littlest matryoshka in the natural world.  It’s really a story about how she takes this whole journey through snow and through ice and then the snow melts into rivers and it’s spring and it comes all the way around and here it’s bringing these two worlds--the natural and the manmade--together.  I love that illustration, and of course I love the one of Jessie sleeping.
And I guess my other favorite has to be the ending. Let’s talk about the sketch that you did and how you changed it, Kathy, for this one.  Here they are reunited. Jessie puts all the sisters in a circle so they can all see each other.  Where was the original sketch, remember, you had it a different way?
Kathy Brown: The other day you came over and you asked me about this and you said “Remember on that page that originally you had Nina off to the side?”
Corinne Demas: Oh yes, let’s talk about that.
Kathy Brown: So Corinne asked me sort of spontaneously. You mentioned that you liked that Nina ended up in the middle.  I said that’s because she’s the heart of the wood, because that’s her words in the story.
Corinne Demas: Kathy instinctively moved those together.  Let’s look at the difference, compare how they changed.  There was another one, an earlier one.  That was kind of interesting how that one changed.  This is a case really of how the illustrator just kind of breathed the story, and knew that Nina needed to be moved because that was really the theme of the story.  She’s in the center, she’s being embraced and it didn’t work when she was off to the side   But it was almost as if Kathy did it instinctively.
Kathy Brown: I think you’re right, because I wouldn’t have known it.
photo by Erin Daly
Corinne Demas: This is a great example of how a brilliant illustrator works. This is the original illustration, and then this is…
Reading the text: “Jessie had just enough money to buy the matryoshka. When she got home she set the dolls along her dresser in a line from biggest to littlest. At night she put a little ball of cotton inside Nadia, so she would not feel empty inside.  They she put Nadia inside Vanda, and Vanda inside Olga, and Olga inside Anna.”
And right here [next picture], originally the doll was very small and the little girl was kind of big and there really wasn’t that same kind of focal point and now the child is sleeping and you can see:
Reading again: “And she set Anna by the window so she could look out at the moonlit snowy fields and the star-filled night.  Anna kept her shining eyes wide open watching for Nina and remembering Nikolai’s soft voice ‘keep your sisters safe inside you.’
And somehow that whispery quality is carried out by the curtains and by the sleeping child, and they’re almost all in white and the colors of sleep. Where Anna is all bright and red.
In the early version you didn’t really have that intensity, the doll didn’t seem quite as much of a figure character, she seemed more like a little toy. Here she takes on personality.  So, I love this picture, too.  Kathy, you didn’t have any chance to answer the question-- which is your favorite illustration in the book?
Corinne Demas: Tell them about the modeling for that—about Frankie.
Kathy Brown: My daughter—yes, it looks a lot like my daughter, but it looks like your daughter too.
Corinne Demas: Kathy was lucky that she had a little girl at home to watch sleeping.
Kathy Brown: Yes, this would have been my daughter, Frankie, sleeping, and her window and curtains.
Corinne Demas: That really looks like her right there.  I think the fact that Kathy is the mother of a daughter gave her a particular connection with the story, because it really is a story about a little girl reuniting the family.  I’m an only child, but Kathy is one of many sisters.
Kathy Brown: Yes, I am--three sisters and a brother.  And I guess I also like doing this picture where she’s so little and so helpless and in they’re all kind of very helpless. [With littlest matryoshka on the floor of the shop]
Kathy Brown: Let’s see. This one.  I do like I think that same one. As you said, the doll character does take on the emotional quality--  just the little bit of moon on its face and just the little side of the eye. You feel like she’s really worried about the little one--such a big world out side that window,  and where could she possibly be? And Nikolai who had held her and kissed her forehead and said “ keep your sisters safe.” And this is going through her head.
Corinne Demas: They can’t move.   I love the angle of that.  That’s a really dramatic angle. One of the things you realize if you’re not an illustrator and not an artist is how much thought and choice goes into not just the actual illustration but which angle they’re going to do. There are so many words on the page – so many suggestions of different things they could illustrate. Which piece are they are going to illustrate and how are they going to look at it?
Kathy Brown: Yes. In the beginning you want to show Nikolai and his little workshop and maybe a Russian village, but you quickly want to get right to the characters. You want to introduce all the characters and then the drama begins and they’re saying goodbye.
Corinne Demas: One of the things Kathy has that’s so nice is she has the big picture and then these little ones -- so you can focus in on them.
That’s a wonderful one also [littlest matryoshka in the river].
Kathy Brown: First I do the thumbnail sketches then I try to make a dummy to show the publisher all the page changes and then I actually go and do research.  So, for instance, for this blue heron I looked at a lot of pictures in books. I really wanted to see a real one, and there was a stuffed blue heron at the Hitchcock Center where I could actually go and study it.
Corinne Demas: Tell them about the house.  Your father did carpentry and houses like that.
Kathy Brown:  Well, my father builds houses, and he always loves to add a little trim, so this is actually one of his little trims. This looks more like our cabin that we all built when I was a kid up in the Pioneer Mountains in Idaho.
Kathy Brown: I was under the weather last summer and my friend said put a colander on your head, so this was my colander, and then I got my book done.  It really helps.
Corinne Demas: See is she photogenic or what?
Kathy Brown: No, I’m not a bit.
[Kathy drawing]
She’s a little lopsided because she’s dancing.  They really do move.  That’s a little lopsided there.  What else do you need? Another picture? Want a picture?
Corinne Demas: You always draw those great cute things in the book.  When Kathy signs books she always draws that right in the front there.
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
photo by Daniella Bordonaro
Artemis with her matryoshka.  Photo by Corinne Demas.