Sparking Imagination and Creativity: An Interview with Renee Bolla
This interview series is about showcasing all sorts of creatives, but today’s author is only my second who writes picture books! Renee Bolla contacted me last fall, and I was eager to find a slot for her this year, as picture books will always have a place in my heart. Finding Bunny is a sweet story “for all the kids and parents who know that feeling of losing or misplacing a favorite stuffed animal and the emotional journey that comes along with finding it.” Renee’s second book, Imagine That, is “a story about the power of a child’s mind and their imagination. As quickly as it can create fear it can turn that fear into happy thoughts.” Her books are the sorts my children would have loved to read when they were little. Renee is busy at work on more books and balancing her author/entrepreneurial life with parenting and everything else life has to offer, so I’m quite thankful she found the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.
Christina: Your second picture book, Imagine That, published in September of last year. You might get asked this a lot, but why picture books? What about them is so compelling? Do you think picture books can tell a different story than another genre?
Renee: Starting with picture books was a natural choice for me. I have three daughters, and when I started this venture, they were 2, 7, and 10, so our home library was stacked with picture books. And having three daughters, we have books being passed down for ten years. We even have books from my childhood. I love reading some of my favorite picture books to my daughters and sharing stories about how my parents read the same books to me when I was young.
I find picture books to be magical. There is so much compacted into just a few pages. The power of words combined with illustrations is like two stories in one. You go on a different journey every time you read a picture book. And I love how it sparks imagination and creativity in people of all ages.
Christina: What’s your process for writing a picture book? Does it change, depending on the story? As a self-taught writer, how did the process evolve?
Renee: My process has drastically changed from my first idea to now. You are only as good as what you know. And in the beginning, I was very green. My first attempt was wordy, overly descriptive, and all over the place. I basically brain-dumped my idea onto a page. But it was my starting point, and we all have to start somewhere. So I spent months researching, connecting with other writers, and taking workshops. I discovered my writing is emotionally driven, as with everything I do. I like to start with the emotional message I want to convey. Some writers begin with the main character or the problem. There is no one way to begin. Just begin. I also like to write when I feel it. I don’t have a strict writing schedule. Ideas hit me at random times of the day and night. I have over 300 active notes on my iPhone, if that tells you anything. I will be driving in my car, have an idea hit me, and voice text myself to remember it. Sometimes I write stuff down in the middle of the night that I think is genius, and when I look at it in the morning, it’s gibberish. At the end of the day, I am continuously learning and evolving as a self-taught writer.
Christina: I love understanding why authors choose their particular publication pathways, and I love that authors have options! Why is self-publishing the best fit for you? Did you ever consider traditional publishing?
Renee: I love that authors have options as well. I came into this at the perfect time. A time when self-publishing is embraced, not snubbed. I knew from the start I wanted to self-publish because I wanted my stories to reflect my daughters, from the words to the illustrations. And I would lose creative control if I went the traditional publishing route. Plus, I wanted my stories released to the world while my children were still young enough to read and enjoy picture books. Self-publishing is typically faster than the traditional route. In the future, I would be open to exploring traditional publishing. But for now, self-publishing is the best fit for me.
Christina: Your tagline is, “Writing stories from the heart, inspired by my children and the everyday life of parenting.” As a mother myself, I recognize how rich the soil is here! What topics do you like to highlight? Is there anything you won’t write about in terms of parenting?
Renee: I have yet to find a picture book topic that is off-limits. I parent with transparency, and you will find open, honest conversations in our house. I want my children to feel they can come to me about anything. Ask questions about uncomfortable topics, see me in my vulnerable moments, see me not have all the answers. But know I will always be there. I want my writing to center around the feelings and emotions a child may experience around any topic. As a child, feelings, and emotions weren’t discussed or validated in our house. And now, as a parent, I see the importance.
Christina: Illustrations are crucial to a picture book. How did you find your illustrator(s)? How did you know you’d make a good team? As the writer, do you have ideas of what the picture should look like before the illustrator begins her work?
Renee: I have a different illustrator for each of my picture books. Jess Bircham is the illustrator for Finding Bunny, and Ellie I. Beykzadeh illustrated Imagine That. I discovered both talented ladies on Instagram. I spent a lot of time reviewing illustrators’ portfolios to find the perfect aesthetic and technique that aligned with each of my stories. Working with an illustrator open to working off images of my daughters as the main characters was also important. I wanted them represented as closely as possible in the books.
From the beginning, I had a strong point of view on the illustration style and aesthetic I envisioned for each of my stories. Finding Bunny is about the emotional journey a little girl experiences when losing her favorite stuffy friend. I was looking for an illustrator who could clearly portray a range of facial expressions. Those facial expressions needed to be easy to identify and interpret for little readers. I also wanted images to feel soft and whimsical. And to state the obvious, the book is about a bunny, so finding someone who has perfected the bunny illustration was vital.
Imagine That is a story about a fear of the dark, so there is a big play on light and dark. I wanted to work with someone who visually mastered the technique of representing light and shadows in unique ways. It is also about the power of the imagination, so I was looking for exaggerated illustrations, ones that even challenged the norm of your typical picture book.
I was lucky because my illustrators were amazing to work with. We instantly connected. A big part of our process was establishing trust early and ensuring we could work well together. As a result, there was strong collaboration, and we created magical picture books for little readers to enjoy.
Christina: You were in corporate retail before pivoting toward writing. How did your experience prepare you for the writing life? How does that experience inform your writing? Do you miss anything about the corporate life?
Renee: I will be direct with my answer here. I’m not concerned about ruffling feathers anymore. Corporate life prepares you for a lot but can also hinder you. I’ve grown up in a red tape environment where creativity is sometimes stiffened because it doesn’t check all the corporate boxes. Being a creative entrepreneur at heart made it hard at times. So when I resigned, it was refreshing to remove the handcuffs and let myself chase possibilities even if they failed. Twenty years in corporate retail definitely contributed to my perfectionism. Which I’m still working on undoing.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience I gained in twenty years has been instrumental in building my brand and my business. It’s a LOT of work self-publishing, and I feel I have an advantage coming from a corporate setting. I know the ins and outs of running a P&L, creating a brand, marketing, networking, building business relationships, etc. If I started from a place where I had to learn the business side in addition to the writing side, my choice to self-publish might have turned out differently. But here I am! A retail exec turned self-published picture book author.
I do miss the thrill of retail. The connection to the ever-changing consumer. The trends. The merchandising. Travel. Every day being unique and different. And the opportunity to always learn something new. But mostly, I miss the people.
Christina: As you said, you’re a mom to three daughters. Are they involved in the book-writing process? What do you hope they learn from your decision to change careers?
Renee: My daughters were 100% involved in my writing process. That’s one of my favorite parts of my writing journey. We connected over the love of reading and the excitement of creating a book just for them. I would read and reread my stories to my husband and kids daily (thank you, family, for always listening). They would give me feedback and make suggestions. It was like having our own little business meeting from the comfort of our bed. And their faces when the actual books arrived, and we read them together for the first time—a moment that will forever be engrained in my memory.
My daughters loved when I worked in corporate retail. They would visit me at work, hang out in my office, attend a meeting, walk the design room, and collect souvenirs from wherever I traveled. But they weren’t an active part of my journey. They were on the sidelines. Now, we are in it together. They get to see the ins and outs of building your own business and play a part in it. I’m more present and available than I ever have been. I have more time. They join me at book events. They are curious and ask questions. They show a genuine interest, and I’m so touched.
I hope this shows them that you can do anything you want. There are no rules. If you find something you love and work hard, you can make anything a career. And if you decide it no longer fulfills you, feel empowered to find something else that does, no apologies.
Christina: What’s next for you?
Renee: I’m working on my next book, which will be dedicated to my oldest daughter, Nina. She came into my life when she was two years old. This picture book is about the relationship between a stepmother and stepdaughter. It is a story that celebrates the love between a stepmom and a stepdaughter while unraveling what old fairy tales taught us growing up. All while weaving in a bit of humor. I am in the process of looking for an illustrator and have a plan to self-publish by fall of this year.
Renee can be found in multiple places!
Thanks to Renee for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an artist, author, or podcaster who’d like to be featured in an interview (or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me via my contact page.
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