April 2010

Those were the words (above) of a New York Times book reviewer in 2008, describing a new novel by a Scottish author about modern day Scotland..  Call me melodramatic but when I’m an old, old bag yelling at all the neighborhood kids to Get The Hell Off My Lawn, I hope they go around telling each other that Old Lady Swift is foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out of shape.  It would be my reward for a life lived to the hilt.

I dragged Top Cat into Manhattan on Saturday (April 10) for The Tartan Day parade on 6th Avenue, from 48th  to 59th Street. I wanted to share with him one of the quaint rituals of My People in a glorious gathering of the foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out-of-shape of all ages.

Here come the Stewarts, a total booze hound gas bag glass-is-half-empty kind of clan.  In other words, the life of any Scots party!

Yo, kid! Don’t tread on that Saltire! It’s the oldest continuously flown flag in the world, in use since 832!

For some reason, I’m craving some Walker’s Shortbread right now.

What a Scottish soccer hooligan looks like before puberty.

Oh Jeeze. Here come those little bastards, the Scottish Terriers.

The history of the Scottish Terriergoes back many centuries and its ancestors include all other Highland Terriers (Dandie Dinmont, Skye, and Cairn). The Scottish terrier comes from the rocky area of Aberdeen and was bred to hunt foxes and weasels hiding in their burrows. The Scottie is proud and extremely stubborn and needs obedience training. It is an independent, one-person dog, devoted to its master alone, and is convinced that it has the  swagger of a much larger dog. Because of this, the Scottie can only live with someone who truly loves it and is tolerant of its faults.

(Le Scottie, c’est moi.)

And here come those Tinkerbelles of the Terrier Group, the West Highland White Terriers.

“The merriest, most optimistic, and most social of all the indigenous terriers of Scotland, the charming Westie is at ease in any environment and makes a wonderful family pet.” (Dog Encyclopedia)

Somebody better check that animal’s DNA. None of those words (merry, optimistic, socially at ease and charming) describe any Scot I’ve ever heard of.

Oh, wait: the Dog Encyclopedia also says that “This agile dog is full of fighting spirit and must be restrained when around other dogs. It does not get along well with other family pets and must be excercized in an area that is escape proof.

That’s more like it.

I know what you’re thinking: Is that the McLeod clan?

Yeah, that’s them all right. Another total booze hound gas bag glass-is-half-empty kind of clan. Except the McLeods are also terrible cooks. Who do you think invented haggis?

This is where they send you when you lose an election to the devolved national unicameral legislature in Edinburgh.


OK, nothing snide here. This is just cute.

‘That’s enough, now. Stop it.

I said STOP IT.

You know there’s going to be trouble when the Scottish High School girls from The Borders show up. Scottish lassies, they’re good with their fists.

See? I’ve been telling Top Cat for years that kilts are H-O-T.

And then came the Loch Ness Monster, bringing up the rear, and Top Cat and I went in search of some fine Scottish beverages in the convivial company of some of our favorite foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out-of-shape kindred spirits.

And I leave you with a Scottish joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a Scotsman and a Rolling Stone?

A: A Rolling Stone says “hey you, get off of my cloud!”, while a Scotsman says “Hey McLeod, get off of my ewe!”

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Because a dear reader asked me, I am going to show you what a Work In Progress looks like:

This is my Damn France Book in progress: a file folder for each chapter plus a few more for misc. notes about France and travel and publisher business stuff that I need to keep track of.  My spiffy Reebok shoe box lets me keep all that flotsam in one, portable place.

This week I’ve been working on the Normandy chapter (green folder, because Normandy is a very lush, green province) and today the WIP (Work In Progress) is opened to the pages where Top Cat and I are taking leave of Omaha Beach and catching a train to a little town called Pontorson:

This is how I block out art work and text. I would like to break up the text into interesting bits, instead of simply left to right wrap around.

This is what I do for every page. Every single page.

I used to wonder why it takes me three years to write a book.  I think I just answered my question.


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Top Cat answered the phone this afternoon and came upstairs to hand it to me: “It’s Betsy,” he said. Betsy’s my agent. She only calls when she has really good or really bad news. And we’ve been waiting for three weeks to hear from Bloomsbury  about their final decision about my Damn France Book…

And the verdict is: a huge, happy, double-the-advance -on-my-first-book  YES.

I’m very giddy with excitement and as soon as I meet with my editor and hammer out things like deadlines and publishing dates I will let you all know.

But today I want to show you what I was working on when I got the fateful call: it was an illustration for The Damn France Book and I was having a hell of a time getting it to come out right.

This is the sketch I made of Top Cat and me strolling down a street in a town called St. Malo in Brittany.  As with all my sketches, I have three options when it comes to turning them into an illustration:

1. I can leave it as a black and white drawing.

2. I can do a quick color wash of it on bond paper (it’s crap paper for watercolor, but it gives a nice “impromptu” feeling to an illustration).

3. I can copy the sketch onto good watercolor paper and try to make a “real” painting of it (with shading and light effects and other painterly stuff that I am not in the least qualified to do).

Well, for this sketch I didn’t think I could leave it as a black and white line drawing because there are too many lines here — all those buildings and perspective and all make it look a bit too busy. So I tried it out as a quick color wash on crappy bond paper:

Yeesh. This SUCKS.

So, reluctantly, I copied it onto good watercolor paper and had a go at making a “real” painting of it. I did this reluctantly because I knew there were things in this painting that I had never tried before: light from the shop windows reflecting onto the stone pavements, for example.

I know my limits as an artist and if I stay within those limits I am one happy and self-satisfied egomaniac. But when I wander out into real painterly territory and realize again how much I suck at trying to do stuff that real painters can do, well, it ruins my day.

But I had no choice with this picture. It didn’t work as a black and white drawing and it looked horrible as a color wash.

So I began stabbing at it with my paint brush:


Whew. I made it past the buildings on the right hand side of the street without screwing it up.

But it’s the buildings on the left side of the street that are the heart and soul of this picture. OMG OMG OMG I hope I don’t gunk this up…

I look at the finished painting and I think to myself, “I should have left it half-done.”  (Is it too late to un-paint it?)

Now the only thing I have to decide is how to crop it.  Like this?


And even after all this, I might not use it at all.  Because  I really hate it.  Why, oh why did I ever quit my job as the Bioterrorism Administrator of the Tea Association of the USA in order to illustrate a Damn France Book??

So that’s what I did today: try, and try, and try again.

And that’s A Day In The Life of A Crappy Illustrator.


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