Shirley Hughes & Clara Vulliamy: 'The apple doesn't fall far from the tree!'

Published on: 15 March 2017 Author: Anna McKerrow

With a mother like Shirley Hughes, it's probably no surprise that Clara Vulliamy grew up to be an illustrator... But what was it like for the duo to actually work together on the Dixie O'Day series? We caught up with them to find out how they collaborate, what inspires them - and why coffee and biscuits are so important.

Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy

What's it like working on a project together? Do normal stresses creep in, or do you manage to keep it professional?

Shirley: We have coffee and biscuits and a tremendous amount of laughs. Clara and I have such different illustrating styles, as you can see in her own inimitable Dotty Detective stories, so it's quite easy to have a detached discussion about work in progress. As with all professional writing-drawing partnerships, you toss ideas around until you strike gold. Working together on the Dixie O'Day series was an entirely new experience for me, and an immensely pleasurable one.

When I wrote the stories I knew for sure that I was not the right illustrator for them, and it was huge good fortune to know someone who was just right for the job.

Clara: I'm amazed it took us so long to collaborate - the idea to do so was right under our noses all along. Although mums will always be mums and grown up children very often morph back into their 13-year-old selves the moment they cross the parental doorstep, I am glad to report that at no point during our time working together has Mum asked me if I am remembering to wear a vest!

How do you work together - do you have a process? Do each of you have particular tasks?

Shirley: An author's role, once they have produced the best work they can on the text, is to stand back and let the illustrator do the rest. And then it's like opening a door and letting someone else walk through.

What's the best thing about working together?

Clara: Seeing Mum's creative brain at work, right up close and under the bonnet, so to speak, rather than as her daughter (biased!) or as a fan (always!) - that's fantastic.

Shirley: We know one another's work so well, and yet when it came to collaborating with Clara I found her illustrations never cease to surprise and delight me.

Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy

How did Shirley being an author-illustrator influence you as a child, Clara? Did it inspire you to want to do the same, or did you come to it later?

Clara: Mum let me use up her paints at the end of the day: she says it was like scraping the icing from the bowl after baking. She kept her work fairly separate from family life, and I have no memory of her reading her books to us. She didn't have much time at the drawing board when my brothers and I were small. I now know it must have been frustrating to down tools after only an hour or so, although she heroically kept it to herself!

But the message was clear: she loved her work, and we knew how important it was to find something we would love to do, too. It was only a matter of time before I embarked on the same career. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree - at least, this apple didn't!

Do you still share books? What have been your favourites recently?

Shirley: I read Gwynedd Rae's endearing Mary Plain stories aloud to Clara when she was little, and so it is a huge pleasure now to see what an enormous amount she has added to them with her illustrations.

Clara: Mum recently gave me the complete set of Tim and Ginger by Edward Ardizzone, one of the very finest author-illustrators, which I'm absolutely loving. I am also standing by the letterbox waiting for the celebratory new edition of Dogger to mark his 40th birthday!

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