October 1 marks the official release day of the new book, 300 Things I Hope, written by Iain S. Thomas and illustrated by Carla Kreuser. This book is unique in that it started life as free pdf download that Iain had distributed on his website as a thank you to his many thousands of readers. Fans clamoured for it to become a “real book” and so we made it happen. It’s available everywhere you like to buy books and we truly hope you enjoy it as much we enjoyed making it.
To celebrate the release, Iain and Carla recently got together to talk about each other, the book and other things they find interesting. Here’s what happened.
Who are you?
Iain: I’m Iain S. Thomas. I only use the “S” because I think it makes me sound smarter, and there’s a phonetic resonance with Hunter S. Thompson. And there’s a Belgian pop singer called Ian Thomas now, so it helps avoid confusion. I’m an at least moderately successful writer and poet, although I struggle to call myself a poet as that feels like quite a loaded term, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling myself that at a dinner party.
Carla: But you are a poet.
Iain: I know I’ve sold more than 100,000 books of poetry but there’s an assumption of skill when you call yourself a poet. Someone smarter than me once said, and I’m paraphrasing, let someone write and at the end of their life, when they’re dead, let’s decide then whether or not they were a poet and that sounds fair to me.
Carla: But who decides?
Iain: Everyone else. Everyone else can decide, I don’t want to decide. Besides all that, I’m known for writing I Wrote This For You and all its sequels, 25 Love Poems for The NSA, Intentional Dissonance, a science fiction novel, an interactive poetry journal called I Am Incomplete Without You and How To Be Happy, which is a collection of prose and short stories.
Carla: Now I need to talk about myself and you might have to fill in the blanks because I’m not really good at this. I’m Carla Kreuser, a graphic designer and illustrator. I write poetry but never published. For my day job, I’m a creative director at an ad agency and on the side, I draw and I’ve got an exhibition coming up based on Nick Drake’s album, Pink Moon.
Iain: You’re very crafty and very awarded. You’ve won about a million awards.
Carla: I’ve won quite a few, I’ve spoken at Design Indaba and Pecha Kucha. And a few other things, I’ve recently graduated with a Master’s Degree.
Iain: I think it’s worth mentioning that we both live in Cape Town, South Africa.
What inspired the book?
Iain: I guess this is more my question. I think if I looked around me at the time, when I started writing the book, this was at the start of the worst year ever. I think Robin Williams had just died. There was the beginning of the election process in America. It felt like the world was in a really horrible place.
Carla: Lou Reed died.
Iain: Yes, and Spock, Leonard Nimoy died. And it’s always strange, the definition of celebrity, is that a lot of people who know you, you don’t know. Someone like Robin Williams, you always feel like he’s an uncle or someone you grew up with. And to discover that this guy who was the epitome of joy and happiness for me, killed himself, I found myself in what felt like quite a hopeless, cynical place. My wife and I were thinking about starting a family and I was going to bring someone into this world and so, as a challenge to myself, and a lot of my writing comes from this place, I said, “If I have to stand outside of myself and give myself advice, what would I say?” And I just started writing. And I think the first thing I wrote was, “I hope you always have a pen” and then “I hope you’re never lonely” and then I just carried on and on.
Carla: Isn’t that the beautiful thing about writing? That it’s a place to put those feelings? To pin them down and make something beautiful out of something hopeless. To take those feelings and make them real, give them shape, edges and boundaries.
Iain: Yes, that’s the thing, I wasn’t in a place where I felt particularly hopeful, it was the exact opposite. I’ve always said, good art is a way for you to process and move through feelings. If I write something, it’s usually a way for me to put an emotion down. “I’ve got this thing, this feeling, in my head and I need to put it down somewhere.” So if I write it down, and I put it out into the world, I can walk away from it and move on to other things in my life.
Carla: Yes, you’re not just wallowing in hopelessness. You’re looking at it and testing it and it becomes something hopeful.
Iain: And that’s the nature of the book, it’s a way to talk about hope but less overtly, fear, and what scares you. When I write “I hope you’re never lonely,” I’m talking about a fear of being alone. I don’t know. I just sat down and started writing and with all these feelings I’m talking about, that’s where it came from.
Carla: It’s strange how those two things are so interlinked, hope and fear, how fear stops you from doing things.
Iain: I always say to people, the opposite of fear isn’t bravery, it’s creativity. The only reason things don’t get made, whether that’s writing or art or music or anything else, is fear, fear that other people won’t like it or it won’t be good enough or that you won’t have time for it, or it’ll be embarrassing. I know it’s very easy to create ironic, cynical art. And what I’ve always said to myself is, “Ok, I will be painfully sincere.” I said the other day on twitter, I don’t think I’m particularly talented, I think I’m just more open to being embarrassed. This is a sincere book and I’m ok with sharing it because I think the world needs sincere things. There’s a dichotomy in this because I know you can’t see me, but I’m covered in tattoos and look like a truck driver.
Carla: I think the beauty of how you write though is how it’s always sincere but it never becomes schmaltzy. I think because it feels authentic, it touches a nerve. And so different people can relate to it in different ways. There’s something authentic about it that grounds it.
Iain: I hope so, that’s what I try to do.
Carla: It’s funny, I’ve known you for quite a while, and there is something quite fearless in how you write, you’ll try ten different ways to write the same thing and you’re never really precious about it or craft one single thing to death – you just write and rewrite so you can put it out there and make it better and make it part of a dialogue or a conversation.
Iain: I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword, I mean, I’ve published a lot of stuff. If I look at I Wrote This For You, that has more than 1500 poems on it and sometimes I’ll ask myself, should I have –really- published all of this? Shouldn’t I have kept one or two of these back? But I think that’s part of the territory in terms of being sincere and being open.
Carla: For me, I feel like when I’m creating, it’s when I feel alive and it’s this little part of the day that I control completely. Because there’s no perfect time to make art or anything else, you have to steal it from somewhere else. It’s my imagination, it’s creating a new world, the way I want it to be. It makes you feel real.
How was the book made?
Iain: The book was a collaboration, and the drawings existed before the book existed and I like that because it’s not a perfect process. You’ve got this moment here, where you’ve captured something, and I’ve got this line here of what I’ve wrote, and you put them together and you get this third thing. It’s like 1 + 1 = 3. There’s this entry in the book, that says, “I hope you love your family” and we’ve got this drawing of this girl brushing her teeth and there’s this unique, vulnerable thing about it that says family.
Carla: Very few people have seen me brushing my teeth, besides my family.
Iain: I think one of Evelyn, my daughter’s first memories, will be of her father brushing his teeth. And so with all the drawings in the book, you get this magical third thing from these combinations.
Carla: I love that the one isn’t an echo of the other one, that the pictures sometimes say something different. There’s this beautiful cross pollination between them.
Iain: It’s exponential. In practical terms of how we did it, we sat in coffee shops and we went through all your drawings over the last three years, and then there were a million emails backwards and forwards.
Carla: I loved that there was a degree of independence from each other. As was said earlier, there’s not always time to make art and so I always have a pen and a notebook with me and I’m always drawing and if I’m waiting for some coffee or something, I’ll just start drawing the people around me. I’ll do lots of those but only a few of them have the right spark of energy. And you did the same in terms of editing your lines, the ones that resonated with you and so when you bring that kind of editing together, the right illustrations with the right lines, there’s something awesome that happens, with these little pockets of energy and they have this little dance on the page together.
Define your drawing process.
Iain: I think you’ve kind of spoken about this but the way that you draw, there’s this kind of wonderful, beautiful naive thing about it, especially when you consider just how experienced you are, you’ve won a million awards and you’ve spoken at a whole bunch of different things. And if you look at the way that you draw, there’s this very simple genius in terms of the way that you do it.
Carla: In terms of my day job, as a designer and a creative director, a lot of my time is spent managing people and processes, I enjoy it, but it’s a lot more contained. When I do stuff like this, I do it for myself, it’s spontaneous and that’s important to me, it’s fun. The front cover of the book is actually a series of illustrations I did during my December holidays, and it was like being in the desert and finding a cup of water, I just wanted to sit and draw, and draw, and draw. It’s amazing how many of those drawings from that period made it into the book.
Who is this book meant for?
Iain: I think, my ideal situation for a book like this is, is that someone’s walking through the bookstore and they find it, and they have this feeling that the book is right for them, at that moment in time. The very first entry in the book is, “I hope you find this book or someone gives it to you when you need it.”
I think it’s ammo for life. It’s a stranger wishing you well, in 300 different ways.
Carla: And you don’t have to read it cover to cover, you can kind of pop it open on any page and find something that means something to you.
Iain: What I really want, is for it to live in your glove compartment, next to your bed or on a coffee table and every now and again when you need it, you rediscover it and find something in it again. I don’t know who that is, in terms of who is the book meant for.
What do you hope?
Iain: I’ve just had a child and we’re three months in, on the other side of this crazy, chaotic period where you’re losing your mind and everything’s all over the place but I’ve discovered that everything I hope for, all my hope is for her now. I hope she has a great childhood and that we’re friends and we get to go camping and we play board games and, it’s fruitless hope, but I hope she’s never hungry or cold and she never hurts herself or gets her heart broken. I know those things are inevitable but that’s just what I feel. I know one day she’s going to skin her knee.
I still have my own hopes, I hope my work is successful and that it reaches a lot of people but there’s some kind of biological change that happens.
Carla: I’m a God mother, and my dedication is to my God son, and it’s crazy but I know what you mean. What do I hope? I hope just for more time to create things, to make things for myself.
Iain: Well if the book does well, you’ll get that, hopefully.
What do you hope happens to the book?
Iain: I hope the book is successful and there’s always an egotistical aspect to every creative act where you go, “I’ve thought of this weird thing, and I need to show it to you” but for me, there’s this other element of it which defeats loneliness, when I write and I share it and people respond to it. I feel a whole bunch of different things all the time and I think I’m a very empathic person and I go through all these different experiences, as we all do, and my writing is always a way of capturing that and when I put it out into the world, saying, “I have felt this. Have you felt this? I have felt this. Have you felt this?”
And if I’m lucky, I can say, “You’ve felt this? And I’ve felt this? Ok, we’re no longer alone.”
What else are you busy with?
Carla: I’ve got an exhibition coming up called Pink Moon, that’s themed around Woodstock, a very colourful suburb of Cape Town and the exhibition is inspired by the music and the place, together.
Iain: I’ve just had a daughter so I don’t know when I’m going to do anything else but there is another I Wrote This For You book in the works and we’re doing something special because it’s the 10th anniversary of the blog next year. But other than that, I’m primarily focused on keeping my daughter alive. And my wife. And myself.
Carla: I’m also working on a children’s book with my friend Michelle Sacks, it’s a sweet story that we wrote six years ago about a child who discovers her parents are expecting a second child and she’s horrified by the idea of having a baby brother and I can’t really say more than that until it’s a bit more real.
Iain: I just hope people like the book. If it’s good, I’d love to do another one like it.