Green Bean Books

Q&A with Laura Catalan for The Chocolate King

1. Here’s an easy question to start with! Are you a chocolate lover – and have you eaten more since you started working on this book?

It is very hard for me to put chocolate down, I would eat it forever if it didn’t give me a stomachache, so yes, definitely a chocolate lover. I like dark the best. I don’t think I have eaten more since I’ve started the book, my intake was already quite high! But I really would have loved tasting it as they cook it in the book, roasted in a wood-fired kitchen, I’m sure
the taste must have been very special.

2. The story of The Chocolate King is based on Spanish Jews who travelled to France in the late 1500s and early 1600s. How much did you know about this history and how did you go about researching it?

I didn’t know much about the Jews who travelled to France specifically but I was well aware of the dark episode of the expulsion of Jews from the Peninsula in the fifteenth century; Spain also has left a strong imprint of Jewish culture and history – like the Jewish quarters in many cities, their art in museums – and many of our surnames are of Jewish origins, so definitely it is a culture we feel close to.
Researching for the book was hard since we were very careful with every detail, I got a lot of references from the editor and art director and then I had to fill in some small details like some parts of clothing, types of shoes, stockings, kitchen utensils, etc. I had to use my imagination to construct the scenarios since the engravings and paintings from the time showing streets or normal people’s lives and houses were very, very scarce. Most of
the art depicts big battles, prominent people or religious themes. So, using pictures of actual houses that are still well preserved from those centuries, I sort of pieced together a puzzle to recreate the streets of sixteenth-century Bayonne.
I also made a field trip to the chocolate museum in Barcelona where I got a closer look at the old equipment used for chocolate making and afterwards I did a small chocolate tasting at the museum cafeteria, of course.
I must say that the research part was a lot of fun, it was like searching for hidden gems that would fill the gaps in the information I needed. Luckily there are some extraordinarily well researched blogs online that I could use too.

3. Is this the most historical work you have undertaken? And, for you, how accurate does a book like this need to be? Where is the dividing line between fact and fiction?

Indeed, it is my first historical book. I think accuracy is important. Even if the reader is not an expert or too young to know about a certain period, being able to relay on the accuracy of the details in the book, I think, gives it an added value. For me, historical stories are a great way to start an interest in certain periods of history; maybe this book will spark an early curiosity in history for a young reader, who knows …?
I think fiction can fill in the gaps between facts, meaning that it can help us approach a certain period or event in a very human way. There were chocolate traders among the Jews who settled in France, that is a fact, but how did they live? What kind of families did they have? What did they love? That is where fiction, if done respectfully, can give us a taste
of what it was to live in that period as a Jewish chocolate trader, for instance.

4. When did you realize you were a talented illustrator, and where did you learn?

I’m not sure I ever realized that, but thank you! I entered illustration quite late but with stubborn determination. I wanted to create, I have had that urge inside me since I was very little. I studied Anthropology at university and when I decided to pursue a more artistic path I started with the basics: classic drawing lessons for a few years in Cercle Artistic Sant Lluç here in Barcelona; at the same time I took part in many workshops for children’s illustration with some much-admired illustrators, and then it was all about practice and practice.

5. How do you think children – and their parents – will react to your illustrations?

I really, really hope they will enjoy the details and little stories here and there that run parallel to the text. I also think I aim to create characters that will make a connection with the reader, as if they just started a friendship that will continue through the book.

6. There are so many wonderful scenes and elements in your artwork – do you have a favourite illustration, or part of an illustration, in The Chocolate King?

That’s a tough one! I think I had most fun drawing the king, I had a lot of freedom in general to create all the characters and to propose little gags here and there, but with him I thought I could go one step further in terms of exaggeration in gestures and in his clothing, although I must say that rich people’s clothes in that time were already incredibly over-elaborate and
so creative!

7. Who do you regard as the greatest children’s book illustrators of our time?

Another tough one! Many people inspire me for different reasons, I don’t know if they are the greatest of our time, but for me they are amazing illustrators. For example. I love how Shaun Tan or Jimmy Liao take you to their poetic worlds; I love the styles and personal point of view of Carson Ellis and Isabelle Arsenault – can’t get enough of their beautiful strokes
and textured work! The dark atmospheres of Ana Juan and surrealistic worlds of Javier Saez Castán. The classics are endless sources of inspiration: Edward Gorey, Emilio Urberoaga, Ronald Searle, Sempé, Quentin Blake, to name a few whose characters are beyond great. I also really admire the work of some younger illustrators like Freya Hartas or Júlia Sardà, Clotilde Perrin, Emily Hugues … there is so much talent nowadays!

8. What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Work hard, don’t lose the enthusiasm; if there are days when you can’t find it, think again why you chose this path and you’ll see how it will come back.

9. Do you know about the ‘Own Voices’ debate? You are a Spanish illustrator working on a story about Jews in the 1600s. Do you think any writer, or illustrator, can work on anything?

I’ve heard the idea of the ‘Own Voices’ debate but I don’t believe it to be true in any sphere of life really. Maybe this is something that I got from my anthropology studies, but I strongly believe in the value of the distance of perspective that being an outsider gives you, your otherness gives you another point of view that is interesting too. I strongly believe in the
richness of the influences of so many cultures out there: drawing lines that determine who can talk about what doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s world. So yes, I think anyone can talk, write – or draw – about any theme, as long as it is done with respect and love for what one does.

10. Or does a work like this suit a Spanish illustrator rather than a German or Japanese illustrator? How closely do you need to know the subject you are working on?

Well, I think probably, if I was Japanese, I would have had to spend a lot more time researching references and I would be a lot more distant from many of the aspects of the story, but then again, maybe I’d be a Japanese artist with a good knowledge of European history and then my origins would be totally irrelevant.
For me, it was fairly easy to imagine the broad aspects of the story. For instance, not long ago I saw the Spanish TV show Isabel based on the reign of Isabel la Católica, who decided on the mass expulsion of Jews from the Peninsula in the fifteenth century, not long before the story of The Chocolate King takes place. Also I am familiar with the art of the time – I guess there are a lot of references around us, like buildings or art, that make it easier to recreate the time in which the story took place.

11. What would you like to work on next, or what is your dream project?

My dream project is any project where the story gives me enough space to explore and lets me go as far as I can go with my visuals. The best thing about illustration is that, even though you have to stay within the limits of the text (actually, I really like those limits), the possibilities are almost endless – you can always take a step further than in your previous work, there is always a secondary character that can add something, a composition that can be improved to communicate an idea better, there is always room to grow.

The Chocolate King is a funny, engaging book: thank you!