An Interview with Geoffrey Hayes

Like many I was surprised and saddened to learn of the death of children’s book author and cartoonist Geoffrey Hayes. I didn’t know Geoffrey well, but I had the good fortune to spend some time with him and with his work. In 2007 and 2008 I did production and other work on the first two seasons of TOON Books, Françoise Mouly’s line of comics for early readers. Hayes’s Benny and Penny in Just Pretend was among the publisher’s three launch books. We lavished a lot of care and attention on those books to really get them right and make a strong first impression.

In the middle of all this activity — and occasionally since then — I had the chance to interact with Geoffrey, and was pleased to meet a truly warm and gracious person who was never less than totally enthusiastic about his creative work. When I first met him, I didn’t realize how prolific he’d been as a children’s book author, and I was certainly intrigued to learn that the artist who produced such sweet and gentle work for children was the brother of the late Rory Hayes, whose bleak underground comix I was much more familiar with. I had a chance to fill in some of these gaps when Françoise asked me to conduct a brief Q+A with Geoffrey for the TOON Books blog to support the launch of his book. Françoise wanted something short and concise that could be read and understood fairly quickly by a casual reader, but I took the opportunity to try to get a broad overview of Geoffrey’s life and career so that I could understand it better. A greatly edited version of the piece was posted to an early version of the TOON Books blog, and is still online. The unfortunate circumstance of Geoffrey’s passing reminded me that I still had the full version of the interview, and I’m grateful for the chance to share it now.

This interview ends on an unresolved note, with Geoffrey hoping he’ll have a chance to write and draw more “Benny and Penny” books for TOON Books. In fact, he would become the publisher’s most prolific author, with eight books in their catalog (six in the “Benny and Penny” series). His second book for the publisher, Benny and Penny in The Big No-No!, was the first comic to win the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award from the American Library Association. At the time of his death Geoffrey was working on a graphic novel titled Lovo and the Firewolf, which was due to be published by Fantagraphics and the production of which he was supporting with a Patreon drive launched earlier this year.

I hope that readers who haven’t already caught up with Geoffrey’s work will take note of the substantial body of high quality children’s comics he produced over the past ten years. They are well-crafted, full of lovely colored-pencil drawings, and are emotionally authentic. In addition to the interview published here, I’d recommend reading his in-depth account of life growing up with his brother Rory for the Virginia Quarterly Review. TOON Books has also posted a remembrance of Geoffrey with commentary from Mouly and links to other interviews. These are all worth your attention.

BK: Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about what your childhood was like?

GH: Sure, sure. I had a happy childhood. I had some unusual, I guess I would say, phobias when I was a kid. I was terrified of being stung by a bee, I was terrified of injections, and since I was a small boy, dogs used to scare me. But those went away, of course, as I got older. Other than that I had a very nice childhood. It was just my two parents and my brother and me, so we had a small family. And we were close, we were close. My parents created a very loving environment for us to grow up in. And Rory and I, since we were just two years apart, always played together, we were friends, and so I was never lonely as a kid because I always had my brother. Plus I had friends as well.

BK: What town were you living in?

GH: In San Francisco.

BK: And what was that area like at the time you were a kid?

GH: Well, San Francisco I would say, when I was a kid in the fifties, it was more of a small town in a way than a city. It was a little more provincial than it is now. It wasn’t as sophisticated as New York. Nowadays with globalization and everything most cities are pretty similar. I would say it was smaller, even though it was a city. It had a slower pace, certainly, than it does today. My family moved a lot, but we always moved within the city, so we were always changing neighborhoods. And I grew up in quite a number of different neighborhoods within the city.

BK: Were you into comics or art or anything like that when you were a kid?

GH: Oh yes, oh yes, absolutely. Rory and I started drawing I guess when we were… I know I’d been drawing since I was five. And I think we started drawing together when Rory was maybe seven and I was nine, and we used to draw books for each other and write stories for one another. And of course I had tons of comic books. This was the nineteen-fifties, and there were so many comic books available then, so I grew up reading not just comics, I read other books as well, but I’ve always had comic books in my life.

BK: Do you remember what comic books you would have been reading at the time?

GH: Mostly they were the four-color comics, the Dell Four Color. So they would be the Walt Disney characters, or Little Lulu, or, oh, anything of that ilk, those sort of funny characters. And then as we got a little older we started reading the DC Comics, and we always liked horror comics, anything scary we liked. And then as well we were young teenagers and Marvel came out, we started reading Marvel. But we started with the funny animal characters.

BK: Do you know if you would have been reading like Carl Barks comics when those were available?

GH: Oh, yes, absolutely, definitely Carl Barks, a lot of the Carl Barks. And when we used to buy comics, oh, I would say we probably bought, between us, maybe four to six a week. So we read a lot.

BK: You mentioned horror comics. Were you the right age for EC Comics when those were coming out?

GH: Yeah, we were a little young when they were popular, and we were aware of them, but I don’t think we had too many. And then later on we were able to find some in second-hand bookstores, second-hand comics, so we had a few of those. Not, I would say, a huge amount, but we definitely did have some EC.

BK: In addition to comics were you into any particular kinds of movies or books or anything like that?

GH: Oh, yes, we also used to go to the movies, I would say, twice a week. And so we saw a lot of films. In fact one of the theaters at the time, in San Francisco, every Saturday they would have matinees for kids. And they would have three movies in a row. And so we would go to see those. We were into mainly science fiction and horror movies, but we saw anything: comedies, adventures, westerns. We loved science fiction, we loved monsters, and things like that. Anything that was a little out of the ordinary.

BK: And drawing was something that you kept up even into high school and beyond, I assume?

GH: Yeah, yeah we did. I knew all along I wanted to be an artist. Well, I guess I would say when I was maybe 14 I decided that that’s what I wanted to do professionally when I grew up. And with my brother, I don’t think he ever thought of that in terms of a career. He just drew because I drew and because he liked to draw, and then it wasn’t until later when he got into underground comix that he started getting published. I think then he started thinking of himself more as an artist. But we did continue to draw.

BK: Did you go to art school after high school?

GH: I actually went to art school during high school. I was studying commercial art, so yeah, I did. Rory didn’t, but I did.

BK: Around what year would that have been when you went to school after high school?

GH: Oh I would say, around… this was around maybe mid-sixties, sixty-five or so. I moved to New York after high school and I went to college in New York. I went to Hunter College, and I was also trying to get published. Because I knew that’s where the publishing was. And it took me about ten years. I didn’t get published right away. I was really not ready yet. But I knew that’s where I wanted to be, and then Rory followed me a little later and we lived together in New York for about a year, maybe a year and a half, and then he didn’t really fit in with New York. He didn’t care for it that much. So he ended up going back to San Francisco, and that’s when he got involved in the underground comic scene.

BK: Now at the time, when you were looking for work after school, were you already set on doing children’s book work?

GH: Yes, yes, I knew I wanted to do children’s books.

BK: What were the kinds of children’s books at the time in the sixties that would have served as some kind of model?

GH: Well, it started out, I think, when we were kids. The books that we had that I think really inspired me the most were the Little Golden Books. Even though I had read a lot of other things. I read the classics like Charlotte’s Web and Doctor Doolittle and all of those kinds of books. The ones, I would say, because they had such bright illustrations, were the Golden Books that were the most inspiring.

And then as I got into high school I became aware of Maurice Sendak, and I’m trying to think who else at that time I really liked. I had always liked Garth Williams and… I think those were the two main illustrators, but there were other illustrators that I gravitated toward and liked.

BK: Thinking about Williams and Sendak, that’s kind of two models in the sense that, from what I know of Williams’s work, he was mainly illustrating text by other people, whereas Sendak, although he started out drawing books written by others he quickly moved over to writing and drawing his own picture books. Did you think that one or the other was going to be a more likely career or path for you?

GH: Even at that time I think Sendak illustrated more books by other authors than he wrote himself. I would say that how I differed from the two of them is I definitely knew I had a lot of stories to tell and the writing became as important to me as the art. So in that sense I would probably say somebody like Carl Barks was more of an influence in the sense of someone who just had a very fertile imagination, and who told his own stories as well as illustrated them.

BK: Now, I assume that while you were looking for work and while Rory was starting to get published, you were keeping tabs on what he was doing and what was happening in San Francisco in the underground comix?

GH: Yes, yes, definitely. Especially in those days… When he went right back to San Francisco and he had his first comic published, yes, I was very aware. And then I actually ended up coming back to San Francisco myself for a couple of years, so I was with him. Not necessarily living with him, but we were together right when his career was really starting to take off.

BK: Were you interested in the underground comix that were coming out?

GH: To a degree. Not that much. They didn’t excite me because they didn’t really sit with the kind of stories I wanted to tell. But I did actually have some work in several of the underground comix of the time. I did a handful of stories for various publications. One of the series that Rory had done was a series of books called “Bogeyman Comics,” and I did a few stories for those issues as well as a few for some others. But not too much. I would say my participation in the underground world was rather limited.

BK: And so did you spend a full ten years in New York looking for an opening…?

GH: Well, no, I was in New York and then I, of course was working at the same time I was going to school. I was working for a publisher, which was Harcourt – at the time it was called Harcourt Brace World – and I was working for them. I worked in the photocopying room there. And then I went back to San Francisco for a couple of years and then moved back to New York, and it just sort of took me a while for my work to develop to the point where it was professional enough for people to be interested and also to the point where I had stories that were viable.

And it wasn’t until… well, I was 26 or 27 and I had been working at a Japanese architect’s firm doing drafting and interior design, and I got laid off with a lot of other people. It wasn’t just me, but they had really cut their work force. And it was the first time in my life, actually the only time in my life, where I was receiving unemployment. So I just thought that would be a good time to beef up my portfolio, which I did and then I started taking it around to various publishers. And a lot of editors or art directors were very interested, but nobody was really giving me a concrete response until I went to Harper and I met Edite Kroll who’s now become my agent, so Edite has been with me from the very beginning. And the thing that was different about her is that she not only liked my work, but she was determined to get a book out of me. So we worked together until I did my first book, which was called Bear by Himself.

BK: And that was published in 1976? Is that right?

GH: Right, that’s correct, yeah.

BK: And how was the reception to that book?

GH: Actually quite good for a first book. It was in print for about thirteen years, which I think is very good, and it got good reviews. It was actually a decent beginning.

BK: And what did you follow that up with?

GH: My second one, which actually got better reviews than my first one, was a novel called The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth. And that got quite good reviews, that sold well too. And at that time I also illustrated a book by Margaret Wise Brown called When the Wind Blew, and that got a prize from the New York Times, one of the ten best illustrated books of the year.

BK: So at the time did you feel like there were a lot of good opportunities for you to function as a writer/artist doing picture books for kids?

GH: Yeah, yeah, there was. I would say that from what I’ve been able to assess from the children’s book field, that in the fifties and sixties was probably the ideal time for an illustrator like Sendak to come up from the ranks, because the libraries at the time had tremendous funding, so people didn’t really worry about the commercial sales of books because they knew that they’d sell enough library copies to make up for it if the trade books did not do well. Of course now the whole thing’s turned the opposite way, you know. So I would say when I started which was in the seventies, it was still a pretty fertile time, and there were a lot of good illustrators, but the market wasn’t as saturated as it is today. So I would say I had a lot of opportunities.

BK: So there was a moment in the late seventies then when you and your brother would have had work in print at around the same time. Were you responding to one another’s work?

GH: Oh yeah, definitely, he would always send me copies of the magazines he was getting published in, and I certainly sent him copies of my books. He was very aware of that. In fact my first book, Bear by Himself, was based on a drawing that Rory had done of a teddy bear sitting on a hill which he named “Bear by Himself.” So there was a lot of interchange between us. I actually, when I was writing my second book, The Alligator and His Uncle Tooth, I actually asked Rory for some input in that, he gave me his ideas, so, even though it’s primarily my book, there’s elements of his work in there as well.

BK: Now the two kinds of drawing that you and he were doing at the time were obviously quite different. Was that a logical extension of the stuff you might each have been doing in high school, or was there a kind of divergence on the part of one or the other after a certain point?

GH: Well, it’s funny, some of my work… maybe around 1970, this is before I was published, some of the work I would do, it’s almost indistinguishable from Rory’s. There were times when pieces I’ve had that for years I assumed were Rory’s work, and then when I looked at them more closely I realized, “Oh my god, I did that!” We started out I think being a little similar, but then, yes, I would say that a lot of the books that I did were sort of off-shoots of some of the stories that we created when we were kids together. And then Rory sort of veered off in a different direction. In some ways he kept some of the elements, but they just got much more strange, and more unique, more how Rory – I think what it was is when we worked together, in a way we were sort of merging our styles to a certain degree, and then we sort of separated that way. Rory was allowed to just become more 100% his stuff rather than influenced by mine, and vice versa.

BK: And I assume that you’re a big fan of his work.

GH: Well, I was… a lot of his underground work, I’ll tell you the truth, when it first came out, it was kind of shocking and disturbing to me because it was so different in a way than the work that we did growing up. And certainly I’ve always been a fan of Rory’s work and the stuff that we did together.  But I don’t love all of his underground work, but I certainly admit that it’s very audacious, and in the intervening years I’ve seen how it has influenced other artists, whereas some of his stuff I think today is not quite as disturbing as it was when it was originally published because you’ve seen similar kind of things, whereas at the time it was very innovative and sort of raw.

BK: To go back to children’s books you were doing at the time, you did Bear By Himself, and the first Uncle Tooth you said was a novel, that was prose, for what age group?

GH: I would guess maybe 7 to 9. At that time they didn’t call them “chapter books.” This was a longer novel kind of book, maybe 128 pages, still for a young kid, but I would say still closer to Charlotte’s Web than to what a modern chapter book would be.

BK: And what were your next few books after that?

GH: Let me see… well, I started doing a few books where I would just illustrate from other authors’ texts, none of which I was that fond of. I think When the Wind Blew is my favorite collaboration. I did some more follow-ups with my main character Patrick who was in Bear By Himself. I had done a series of four little books with Patrick that I’m very proud of, and they were originally done for Four Winds Press. Those were hardcover trade books.

And then a few years after that I signed a ten book contract with Random House, and it was an exclusive contract, so for a while I was only doing books for Random House. I did a lot of books with my own characters, but in series that they had initiated themselves. My Otto and Uncle Tooth books I did as a series of Easy Readers, and those have done tremendously well, those have sold more than any of my other books, and I did five of those in that series. And I did some Patrick books with them, but I don’t think they were very successful. Part of that was because I was trying to adhere to what worked in their series and they were mass market, so it wasn’t the same as doing something more personal.

BK: One question I wanted to ask you is about the media that you use. It looks like you work a lot in colored pencil.

GH: Well that’s new. For years I would say my primary medium was watercolor, or pen and ink, sometimes pen and ink and watercolor, because that and acrylics are standard children’s book kind of tools most people work in – although now I know it’s different today because a lot of people are doing work in computers and all kinds of things, but for a while it seemed to be what the publishers wanted.

It took me a long time to realize that I just didn’t do my best work that way, even though I loved watercolors, but drawing on watercolor paper is just never comfortable to me. It just always sort of, I would tighten up and I was not really happy with that. So it’s only in the last, I would say, four years that I went back to pencil, and I realized because of copy machines these days I could do pencil, photocopy it, and have it look like inks. So I could add color on top of it. My problem in the past was I could do pencil, but it would still be on watercolor paper and I could put, you know, watercolor on top of it, but I was back to that same old thing. Whereas now I can work on any type of paper I want and photocopy it, and add the colored pencils. So this is sort of a new thing for me.

BK: Now you’re doing the TOON book, but had you ever had any impulse prior to this to doing something that was in more of a comics format?

GH: Oh, absolutely. Actually one of my earlier books that I did when I was at Harper and Rowe, now HarperCollins but it was Harper and Rowe at the time, was a comic book, it was called Elroy and the Witch’s Child. And it didn’t do very well. I think at that time there was a lot of prejudice against comics. And although it was starting, you were starting to see some influence because of Maurice Sendak and some other people, into the children’s book field, because there certainly weren’t graphic novels and I think the public just didn’t have that awareness of graphic fiction the way they do these days. So it didn’t do too well, but I was pleased with it and in those days I had to, because color books were still expensive to do, so I separated all the colors. I did each color individually, it’s the way they used to do old comic books…

BK: The hand-cut color separations…

GH: Yeah, yeah, and so it was quite tedious because I had all these little panels, and then I did all of the line-work and the text on a separate overlay, so I think I had like six overlays, five or six per page counting the original art. But I enjoyed it, I definitely enjoyed that. And then some of my children’s book after that, like those four little Patrick books that I did for Knopf, those had balloons. I wouldn’t say they were really comic books, but they had balloons to them. The art was watercolor so they looked like traditional children’s books with balloons.

BK: So how did you get involved with the TOON Books originally?

GH: Well Françoise contacted me. I guess she just must have Googled me.

BK: And when you first started talking about ideas for the TOON Books, was Benny and Penny something you had already thought of?

GH: Yes, actually, because I think when we were just talking, before this was even formed, you know, it was just the very beginning, I had sent Francoise some of my portfolio pieces. And one of them was the story of these two little mice, although they weren’t called Benny and Penny, but they were similar characters. And when we decided on what the first book would be I thought, “Well, maybe it would just be simpler to do them,” and she thought that was a good idea. Basically it’s the same story as in the first Benny and Penny. I just reworked it, certainly with Françoise’s input, and giving her what she needed for the series as well, so it changed slightly, but it’s basically the same plot.

BK: But the way you had it was in comics form originally?

GH: Yeah, it was. It was a comic.

BK: So even if the TOON Books hadn’t started as a project, is that something you had thought about publishing in some kind of comics format?

GH: Actually, I hadn’t thought about publishing it. For the last few years I had just been, for myself, just doing a lot of stories, but, like, I said, “Well, if I didn’t have the imprint of a publisher, what would I just do? Just for myself? What kind of stories would I want to do?” So I’ve been working quite steadily, just getting down a lot of ideas that have been rumbling in my brain for years, and most of them are comic stories. And this was just a stand-alone story I had done. I hadn’t planned to do it even as a series, it was just this one story about these two little mice. Almost none of the stuff I’m doing now I’m doing with the thought of publication in mind. I’m just doing it how I want to do it. And then seeing what happens from that.

BK: So it’s recently when you’ve been doing this private stuff that you’ve gone back to something like the comics form?

GH: Yes, exactly, I realized a few years ago that comics has always been my first love, and now of course it’s starting, where there are comics for kids again. Because even though I love comics I didn’t really want to draw superheroes. That’s just not my kind of style of drawing. And so my stuff has always skewed younger. And there just really wasn’t any place for that. I mean, they’re not really doing…

BK: Dell comics…

GH: Yeah, like the Four Colors for kids these days. And then I just said, “Oh, the hell with it, this is what I like to do.” So I’ve been doing a lot of stories, comics stories.

BK: What kind of editorial guidance did you get when turning the original Benny and Penny story into the TOON Book?

GH: One thing that Françoise wanted, she suggested, was to keep it on the kids, not have any parental characters, or if they are, just have them very much on the periphery. And that wasn’t too different from the original story I had but that was something that Françoise stressed. And also in the original story when Penny had sort of disappeared at one point and Benny couldn’t find her, I had shown what had happened to her so that the reader knew where she was, it’s just that Benny didn’t know, and Françoise suggested she thought it would be better if the reader was kept in the dark as well as Benny, so that it was more of a surprise at the end of the story.

BK: And in terms of the story of Benny and Penny, was there some basic idea that you thought was important to communicate to the kids who’d be reading it, in that particular story?

GH: Not really, I don’t think too much like that. I just was trying to be true to their relationship and whatever kids would get from that, they would get. Because you can never really know what children are going to take away from your work. In all my relationships between characters I try to make that there’s some sort of love there even though there may be conflict. So in this one I just basically wanted the characters to have an affection for each other even though they at times would drive each other crazy.

BK: Did you find that your storytelling works any differently in doing comics pages than it does in the picture books?

GH: Well, in a way only because comics are sequential and I think I’ve always just had a love of sequential art. I’ve always been a big fan of animation for that same reason. But when you’re doing something sequential you’re showing almost every action, or you actually are showing every action, where when you’re doing a regular book you wouldn’t necessarily show everything. Again, if something was in the text it wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the art. I’m almost thinking like with Benny and Penny that the way you could look at it you could almost read the story without even reading the text, because there’s a flow throughout the art of where they are and what they’re doing.

BK: Are you planning to do more Benny and Penny books?

GH: Mm-hm! Well, that’s up to Françoise. I just did a dummy for a Benny book, just Benny…

BK: “Benny By Himself…”

GH: Yeah, which is what Françoise had asked for. If she wants more, I’ll do more.