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Imagination, illustration and pandemic creativity with Leila Rudge

In another instalment of our Swell Alumni series, we chat to author and illustrator Leila Rudge about her two latest books, getting creative during lockdown, and the power of imagination.

I completely forgot how much I loved chatting with Leila Rudge until 8:30pm on a Sunday night, as, what promised to be a 15 minute chat, blew out to well over double that.

The task was pretty simple. Chat to Leila about what she’s been up to since she appeared in Swell Magazine way back in issue three, pen a little ditty and move on with my life. But of course, we got sidetracked talking about big things like imagination, cats, and living (and mostly loving) the freelance life during lockdown.

I also heard all about the two books she’s had published in the past year – Winston the Indoor Cat (both written and illustrated by Leila – the woman has many talents) and Hello World written by Lisa Shanahan.

What was it really like freelancing in lockdown with two small children in tow?

I have so many different answers for this! On one hand it was so nice to pick up the slack for my partner as he’s so full on with his job. And so, instead of us arguing over trying to juggle everything and deciding who would do what and when I basically said, you focus on work and I’ll look after the little people and it was actually really (really) nice!

But in terms of finding windows of creative time, it’s always an ongoing struggle, I mean you get it right?

To be honest I think I ignored a lot of work for a long time going, ‘it’s fine I’ve got time’ but at the same time it was really nice to have an actual break where I wasn’t doing any work at all.

It also gave me the time to realise what an absolute luxury it is to be able to get into that creative headspace, but also just how much you need it too. You really need that time and space just for pure thinking time and to balance that out with the actual delivery time. Being at home (during lockdown) made me realise and appreciate those little moments too like hang on… I’m having a cup of coffee and you’re like ahhh this is what it’s meant to be like… No one is climbing on me!

How did you find those pockets of time for ideas, what did that look like?

I did a lot of walking. So whenever I could I’d go and just do a good hour of really fast paced walking. It helps that creative process so much because I just walk. I don’t listen to anything, I’m not distracted with anything else going on, and my brain just goes off on all of these crazy tangents. It usually involves getting a new book idea, or working through some sort of creative problem that I’m trying to solve. Sometimes it’s tough finding the space for new ideas when you’re in the middle of working on something. It can be a vicious cycle of being so busy and trying to work through to a deadline, but you’re also not able to come up with anything else new in the meantime.

I think that’s relevant to all freelancers absolutely! Especially at this time of year with the whole freelance scramble, you’re almost trying to make up for the quieter periods in January and February and doing extra work now (probably way too much) to make up for it!

As I’ve gotten older, that slight panic and anxiety has gone away and I feel a little bit less like I have something to prove. I think as well, I feel ok about where I’m going even though there’s always so much more that I feel like I could do – I’m Ok with what I’m doing at the moment. And I’m not going to get cranky at myself for trying to fill each and every tiny space with work, like I might have done in the past.

What’s something that’s inspired you that you never really expected? What’s something that’s been super left field but somehow in some way managed to spark that creative part of your brain and manifest an idea?

It could be an age thing – now I’m just going on about how much older I’m getting (laughs). But I think my perspective has changed a little bit and shifted especially since I’ve had children.

Of course, I have always shied away from doing any books that are overly preachy or anything like that, but I do think there are really important things to say, especially to the younger generation. It’s all about finding ways to communicate in a way that works –  it’s all about balance.

Other than that, and I know it sounds a little cliche to say, but my children constantly surprise me. They are always noticing things around them that I may have missed and they are just so great.

I feel like, especially with younger kids, their imagination just seems to be this endless source of wonder!

One of the things Albie really loves to do is draw. She will sit there happily for hours, I’m not even joking. We’ll go to a cafe and sit and draw and she’ll outdraw me most of the time! One of my favourite things to do is, I’ll start a drawing, and she’ll carry on and then I’ll do a bit more and this idea just grows and grows, and I love playing around like that with her. I’ll say something like oh what about this little seed here, look how it’s growing, and then she’ll follow with something like it’s growing into a MASSIVE tree. 

Every night before she goes to bed, she always asks me… ‘what should I dream of?’

Now that… is the absolute pure definition of imagination right there.

It’s lovely, isn’t it? Like…what do you even answer? What do you say? Yeah, anything you want? Anything!

Ok, I have to know, tell me about Winston and the Indoor Cat. Are you a cat person? Where did the idea come from?

Funnily enough, I’ve never been a cat person. When I was growing up we always had pet dogs. My mum in particular wasn’t a fan of cats and from that I guess I always assumed that I was a dog person. But, and especially as I’ve gotten older, there’s just something about cats that I feel as though they probably suit my personality a lot more. They’re really independent, and they just do what they do, and then they just kind of leave when they want to leave. I really like that. Dogs on the other hand, they’re always hanging around waiting for you to do something so I guess it started with thinking from a character point of view of a cat just doing exactly what it wanted to do. 

Also, my neighbour had an indoor cat named Winston (I’ve flipped things around in the book a little though as Winston is actually the outdoor cat in the story). They had this fluffy white cat that they used to walk in the garden on a lead and I always felt really sorry for it, but they just reassured me so many times that it didn’t want to go out, and it was true! It would just sit by the door, maybe take two or three steps outside, but then retreat straight back in. It was like he just couldn’t be bothered to go outside and it really made me laugh. 

I kind of mixed that with the story of my partner and I. He really loves being outdoors. You know, going surfing, exploring – he’s always ready to go outside and discover something new. I am not an outdoorsy person. At all. Sure, I like going for walks but that’s about the level of my enthusiasm. So really, the crux of the book is all about showing that it’s ok to be different from one another, that it’s ok to like different things. Sometimes I think we have this tendency to morph into another person and kind of check ourselves at the door. So this book is really all about being proud of the little things that make us, us.


And finally, do you have any words for aspiring illustrators?

I definitely had a good dose of luck when it came to starting my career. So I think it’s kind of a mixture of luck, but also putting yourself out there. So it’s sort of making sure that you’re putting yourself in the right places, but also not getting too hung up when things don’t go right and thinking that it’s a personal thing against you. Because there’s just so many people doing so many amazing things. And you just have to have, yeah, a little bit of luck to get you that sort of starting point, I guess. Because sometimes it comes down to things like timing and being in the right spot near the right people.

I feel so lucky to be doing what I do to be completely honest. I know there’s so many people, you know, far more talented than I am, doing amazing things! It’s just a matter of trying to keep steady, and keep going. And just doing the stuff that you really like doing and eventually it’ll hit somewhere that works, and it’ll all click into place.

You can find out more about Leila, and check out her work online here.

Words: Laura Kebby | Photography: Zoe Lonergan

As seen in Swell Issue 3. Grab your copy here

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Measurements (cm) XS S M L XL XXL
A: Half Chest 46 49 52 55 58 61
B: Body Length 66 69 72 74 76 78
C: Sleeve Length 19.5 20.5 21.5 22.5 22.5 23.5