Christa Pierce is the author of “Did You Know That I Love You.” This a is partial transcript of her phone interview with Cracking the Cover.
Have you always been an artist?
I was always drawing — constantly. When my mom taught music lessons at schools, she would bring me along and just sit me down with pen and paper, and I was totally, totally fine. I always entertained myself with drawing. I was pretty good, and my parents indulged me with lessons for most of my life, which I’m really grateful for.
Do it professionally? I think it was a slow realization. My family is pretty math and science oriented. They’re really smart. I really admire them. My dad is an engineer, my mom does some accounting and my sister is a chemist. I think at first there was a little bit of a push for me to do something like that, too. I think we all just slowly realized that my skills are really in art — I was pretty good, and I’d probably be able to make a living.
What made you decide to get into writing/illustrating?
I think I’m not sure if I gave myself a hard time or if other people did when I was starting to tell people in high school that I was going to be an art major in college. So I decided I was going to be as smart about it as I possibly could, so as to be on the upper hand of these negative comments. I looked into what kind of art I was good at and what I considered the best kind of job, and what kind of degrees I would need for those jobs. And I thought illustration was great because it’s always paired with articles or stories or words. It gets you into real publications; like magazines will never stop needing art, books will never stop needing art.
Ultimately I went to Seattle Pacific University because they were the only small liberal arts college that I could find that had such a specific illustration program. My parents wanted me to go to a liberal arts college because they were a little concerned that halfway through college I would realize I shouldn’t be an art major and change my mind, which of course I knew I would never do. So I went there because it was liberal arts, and they had a really nice specific illustration program.
“Did You Know That I Love You” is your first published book, but is it the first book you’ve written?
I did not think I would be doing the writing. As a little girl I remember it making a big impression on me — we had an author/illustrator come visit our grade school. I remember thinking that that was clearly the best job in the whole world. I think I always had that tucked away in my mind. That maybe one day I could write and illustrate a book and wouldn’t that just be the coolest thing. And I know I’m a good writer, but it’s never been a focus like art has been. It’s kind of a shock that someone wanted to publish my work.
How did that come about?
Just craziness. I’ve always painted and written, though I don’t really consider writing something that I do: I do. I do it a lot. I’ve always kept an art journal that’s half painting and half rambling of words. I still have one. I probably have like journals. I wrote a poem in my journal when I was upset. That poem is a children’s book. I put it away for some months. It made me feel better to write it and then I forgot about it.
Then I had an assignment in my digital illustration class. I could do a personal project, anything I wanted to do. I love children’s books so I took that poem out of my journal and adapted it into a children’s book. And it came out really well.
It’s the first children’s book I’ve put together, except when I was in grade school. And people were really connecting well with it so I decided to try and get it published. I was doing a lot of research and I found out it’s really hard to get something published. So I asked my professor if she could help me as I tried to figure it out. She said she was good friends with author and illustrator Marla Frazee. She’s an award-winning illustrator and she’s amazing. So I emailed her and said, “Hey, can I just ask you some questions? I’m trying get oriented into this field. I have this book and I think it would be really good.” I actually talked to her on the phone for like an hour. It was amazing. I was just shocked and nervous.
I wanted to write her a thank you card, but I didn’t have her address. So I looked on her website and I found her agent’s email address. So I deviously wrote him and said, “Your client Marla Frazee was so wonderful and kind to me. I’m trying to look into children’s book publishing.” And again, much to my complete shock, he offered to look at my books for me.
I was afraid, I didn’t send it over for like four weeks, I think. When I did send it over, he loved it and called me right away. He asked if he could represent me and not long after that he was showing it to publishers, and they were all making offers. We got more than five offers, and he set up and auction for me. I got to talk with all of the publishers. That was all during my senior college finals, so it was a weird experience, and I wasn’t able to tell anyone about it because I hadn’t signed anything.
Where specifically did the idea for “Did You Know That I Love You” come from?
My mom and I have a difficult relationship. We’d been slowly growing apart for years, and once I left for college and I was really able to come into my own, it just got harder and harder and harder. I finally got to this point where it was just getting too hard. I was coming home for school break, and I didn’t feel welcomed anymore. I think she didn’t think I cared about her anymore. … So it was getting pretty bad.
My mom suggested we go to counseling together. The summer I wrote the poem, we were in counseling together and it was really difficult and painful. I couldn’t sleep. I was so upset. I was thinking, “There’s no reason my relationship with my mom should be so difficult. I know we both care about each other. It’s just not being communicated for some reason.”
I don’t think I realized it at the time, but the last counseling session that I went to, I started to storm out of the room and the counselor caught me by the arm and said, “before you leave, do you know that your mother loves you?” And I was kind of like “hmm, yes, I guess.” And I didn’t think anything of it. But that night, I wrote this poem, “Do You Know That I Love You,” and I was thinking about my mom. If only I could tell her that I love her and get through all of this awful baggage that we have between each other and if only she could say that back to me. If we could just take a moment and reach out to each other and not be so hurt and angry, this could all be OK. Because I know we love each other, someone just needs to say it first. So I wrote this poem, felt so much better, and just fell asleep.
I assume she knows how the book came about?
She does, and I feel so lucky because I wrote this book, I illustrated it. Before I ever published it, it was just a homework assignment. I brought it home for her and said, “I made this for you.” This was back when there was only one copy. I think it had my professor’s notes on it and everything. I gave it to my mom and I didn’t know what she was going to do. … But she loved it. And she cried and gave me a big hug. It pretty much did everything that I hoped it would do. Which is kind of shocking to me. We were able to talk to each other, and she told me that she loved me, too. It really did help us to talk to each other again. Not that everything is peachy now, we’re still working on it.
I hope that they would be drawn to it because it can speak to a kind of inborn natural questioning that I think that young people and adults alike have. Which is to question Do I fit in with my friends and family? Do I matter? Am I loved? Is someone looking out for me? That’s what I hope everyone would connect to. And aside from that I did try to make the characters accessible. I made them animals so that anyone could project themselves into those characters. If it were a person it would be a certain age or gender or ethnicity and with those animals I hoped people would end up thinking oh that’s like me. They could project their own lives into it. That was my hope.
Is there a particular book from your own childhood that still resonates with you?
I don’t think any resonate with me emotionally as much as the one I wrote because I wrote for myself.