Katie Vaz: My Life in Plants

I love plants.

They exist as personal metaphors for me; and as well, gardening is a hobby of mine, after studying and dealing with a fair bit of them during my university days as a landscape architect. Suffice to say, when it comes to plants, I do have a soft spot for them.

So when Katie Vaz sent me an email to let me know about the release of her new book, My Life in Plants, I was curious. I wanted to learn more about Katie’s process and journey, and requested an email interview, to which she’s obliged! Read on to find out more about Katie and how a personal project that she started in 2017, came full circle and became her fourth book.

Hi Katie! Could you tell us a bit more about your background, and how you got into illustration?

I’ve loved drawing for fun since I was a little kid. I decided to study graphic design in college because it seemed like a decent field to get into where I could still be creative. I got a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY.

I was planning on moving to New York City to get a job afterward, but my dad passed away a month before I graduated and it threw all of my plans out the window. My world had flipped upside down and I no longer felt grounded with any sort of plan. I decided to apply to a graduate design school in Germany and the reason for that big change was a combination of wanting to: escape my current reality, make up for never studying abroad during undergrad, and partly follow a boyfriend who was moving to France for school at the time.

My dad had always instilled in me the idea to prioritize traveling and to see new parts of the world whenever possible. It just felt like the right thing to do at that time. I spent two years in Germany and it was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to travel around Europe easily and cheaply, I was also exposed to so many different cultures and experiences while immersed in my international design program. It was there that I learned more about illustration and hand-lettering from a fellow student and fell in love with it.

After graduating, I moved back home to live with my family in the states again. I was in my mid-twenties at that point and smack dab in the middle of the “quarter-life crisis” and had no idea what I was supposed to do next. The original plan was to move to someplace like New York City to get a design job because all throughout design school it was sort of drilled into you that you could only be successful if you lived and worked in big cities like that. In my heart, it wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I stayed at home with my family for a little bit to figure out something else closer to home.

I opened an Etsy shop a couple of months later as a way to practice illustration and hand-lettering for fun on greeting cards. They started selling pretty quickly and I realized I really enjoyed that kind of work. That led to getting some freelance illustration projects from art directors who had seen my work on Etsy.

Each project was like a stepping stone to getting another project. I kept thinking that when that was over, I’d have to go find a traditional design job, but it just kept going. I did pick up some random freelance graphic design work on the side which helped provide some stability (and I still do some of that on the side to this day for the same reason), but I’ve never loved it as much as I love illustration work. One of my freelance illustration projects eventually led to a literary agent seeing that work randomly at a gift shop in New York City. She reached out to see if I had any interest in creating books and of course I did, though I didn’t expect to have the opportunity to do any until much, much later. We’ve been working together ever since and my fourth book was just published this September.

From sketches…
… to the final layout

The first book that she helped me pitch was an adult coloring book called Don’t Worry, Eat Cake that came out in 2016 and it was inspired by my experience of going through a quarter-life crisis and feeling lost, like I was getting left behind while everyone else around me was moving forward and knew exactly what they were supposed to do in life.

My second book is called Make Yourself Cozy, which is an illustrated guide to practicing self-care, which was inspired by a winter trip to Norway where I experienced hygge firsthand as well as my experience of living with anxiety and how I’ve used self-care to manage it.

My third book is called The Escape Manual for Introverts, and it’s a humorous, illustrated book about how to get out of social situations as an introvert. I feel like I’m a classic, textbook introvert, so it was quite easy to pull from real-life experience on that one! My fourth book that just came out is called My Life in Plants, which is an illustrated memoir that tells the story of my life through 39 plants and flowers that have been an audience to the various chapters of my life.

Today, I work primarily as an illustrator and author. Creating books is the thing I love the most, but I do enjoy taking on commissioned illustration work and continuing to run my Etsy shop where I still sell illustrated and hand-lettered paper goods.

Katie’s studio

You mentioned that this book had its roots in another personal project that you started in 2017. Could you tell us a bit more about that and where the idea of writing a memoir came from? What was the reason you decided to embark on the project?

Back in 2017, I was working on this fun little personal project called “Plants I’ve Killed,” where I documented all the green things I couldn’t keep alive. It was just for fun and meant to be a way for me to practice illustration and entertain myself (because I thought it was really funny how easily plants died while on my watch). Around that same time, I was starting to illustrate people for fun, and did a few sweet, but more serious, illustrations that looked like there were stories behind them.

My literary agent and I were talking about new book ideas around that time, and after seeing those she encouraged me to consider creating a more personal book with writing in it to accompany my illustrations, maybe even a memoir. I brainstormed a bunch of possible themes, but kept circling back to plants. I kept thinking about how so many of them were an “audience” to particular experiences in my life—some were plants I killed accidentally myself, while other plant memories involved things from my family’s garden or just simply the nature I noticed around me.

They were all a mix of experiences, some heavy and serious like the plants from my dad’s funeral, or the fern that died while I was depressed after my cat, Spanky, died. Then there were also things that were much lighter and funnier, like the succulent I bought that looked like a plump butt, or the Venus flytrap my sister and I fed flies to when we were kids. Plants remind me of home and where I come from—they’re also intertwined with my best and worst memories. They’ve just simply been in every sort of significant or memorable moment in my life. It really felt like a natural theme to talk about, and with the encouragement of my literary agent, the idea to create a memoir around the various plants in my life was born.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through.

I embarked on the journey of creating a memoir to share my experience in the hopes that someone else might relate to and find comfort in my stories. I’ve always had this feeling of not being “normal,” like there is a memo that everyone else has gotten about how to do something in life, and I just always somehow miss it. I also often have felt like I’m not experiencing or feeling things the way I’m “supposed to,” like every experience is somehow not as good as someone else’s. But getting older, learning how to be more forgiving and patient with myself, and going to therapy, all of those things have taught me that this is a pretty normal thing to feel in the end and I’m not at all alone in it. This has made me want to be more open and honest about what I’m feeling because I know there are others out there who are still struggling with that.

I know that I would have liked to hear more honest and transparent experiences about life when I was younger. Growing as an illustrator, I’ve noticed how the themes in my work have become more and more personal—I love drawing things that show what my human experience is like. To have the opportunity to create something that is put out into the world for others, I thought it would be important to use that chance to create something that might normalize that “not feeling normal” sensation. By talking so openly about my experiences with growing up, dealing with death and grief, and forging my own path in life, I wanted to show that it’s okay to do things your own way.

You wrote the book, and also illustrated it. Did you encounter any challenges in merging the two in your book?

I really enjoyed getting to write and illustrate the book myself, but there was one issue I encountered. Because I love illustrating scenes and details, and also because it’s about my own life, I often tried to squeeze too much into some of the artwork and got stuck on illustrating a room or landscape exactly how it was from memory. I had to pull back and leave in only the details that were important to the story. I also had to make sure that the featured plant didn’t get lost in the “clutter” since that really was the star of the show! I think I got attached to certain bits of the artwork, so it was hard to let some of it go, but I know it was for the best because I’m extremely happy with how the final product turned out.

How long did you take to come out with the entire book? How and what has the process been like for you?

In total, it took right around 2 years to create the book. I spent about a year and a half on the manuscript alone and that was even before it was pitched to a publisher. My agent helped tremendously with the editing process, so there were a lot of back and forth reviews of my drafts between us over that time period. I started with making a list of all the memorable plants I could think of that I would want to write about. Then, I fleshed out some memories attached to each one and wrote about the details of it and if there were any significant life moments surrounding it. I didn’t set out to write about any particular themes in the beginning (other than plants), but the themes of nostalgia, family, learning to be present, and dealing with death and grief, they started appearing naturally once I wrote more about each plant.

The process of writing about my life was surprisingly emotional. It brought a lot of things to the surface that I thought I had already worked through. My dad passed away in 2009, and though you never truly get over things like that, I thought I had processed it well by now. It turns out that I hadn’t! My cat, Spanky, got sick and passed away in 2016, and that was a particularly difficult time for me, too.

In order to survive and get on with life, I guess I had buried a lot of emotions surrounding those incidents. Though it was painful to relive those memories, it was incredibly therapeutic to write about them. It was a big purge of emotions and in the end, it felt kind of like going to therapy! Some of the things that used to haunt me just aren’t there anymore. I certainly didn’t have to include those experiences in my book, but because they are such pivotal moments in my life, it felt important to walk the reader through them. It was also helpful to revisit some past experiences where I felt like I made mistakes in how I handled those situations, like my botched engagement to the person who is now my husband. I think I discovered a lot of patience and forgiveness for my past self once I could look back on what happened from a distance.

So, back to the timeline, about a year and a half after I started writing, we were ready to pitch it. My agent submitted the finished manuscript along with 4 sample spreads of artwork I had created. My publisher (Andrews McMeel) that I worked with on my previous three books liked it and decided to publish this one as well. They’ve been so good to me and it’s really been a dream to get to work with them on multiple books.

I signed the contract in late summer of 2019, and then the final artwork was due mid-October that same year. That was an extremely fast timeline for completing the illustrations—normally you might have 6-9 months for something like that, but we all wanted it to be released the following summer to feel relevant with the gardening season.

Once you submit the final artwork, from what I have seen at least, it takes about 7-10 months before the book will hit stores. So, if I wasn’t able to meet that deadline, we would have had to wait until sometime in the spring or summer of 2021. I made the deadline, but it was rough! Even though it was stressful at times, I really do love the process of creating books and I know myself and how I work best under pressure.

The thought of getting to see my work printed in a book someday was definitely fuel to push through those many early mornings and late nights. Each time I have finished a book project, I feel such huge relief that it’s completed, but there’s also this small feeling of wistfulness. After working so intensely on a project I loved, it’s a little disorienting once it’s over. As a creative person, I’m often overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of the ideas of things I’d like to do. Having a book project to work on sort of eases that anxiety in a way because there’s a specific list of tasks and a clear deadline over a somewhat long period of time.

How has the publishing of the book affected your business so far? Did you gain more clients and interest in your work?

Each book I’ve done definitely leads to more growth and interest in my work. Some of this starts a couple of months before the book comes out, when I start to promote the book online. My publisher landed a pretty cool pre-order collaboration with Bloomscape this summer—the incentive for readers was to pre-order the book and then get an exclusive discount off a plant from their online shop. It was really helpful in getting the book in front of a new audience because Bloomscape promoted my book to their followers and email subscribers.

I’ve also been a guest on a few podcasts this fall and that’s been another great way to expand my audience. Marketing the book to bloggers, reporters, influencers, and podcasts is really useful in networking and developing relationships with various media contacts. If you can connect authentically with some of those people, they’re often happy to help promote future projects as well. I haven’t gained any new clients yet from this book, but I’ve definitely seen a noticeable increase in interest in my work. That’s always a good thing because when it comes time to market another book in the future, there’s a bigger audience already waiting.

Katie Vaz | Etsy shop | Books (via Amazon) | More about Katie’s process

Thanks so much Katie! You can get a copy of My Life with Plants here (via Amazon).

Note: The links to the books you find here will lead you to Amazon. I earn a very small fee if you do decide to purchase any books through these links. Being an affiliate of their program does not affect my choice of books nor the reviews I post.

Caitlin Keegan’s The Illuminated Tarot: From personal project to being published

Today I want to share an interview I did with Caitlin Keegan, author and illustrator behind The Illuminated Tarot. We’re focusing on how Caitlin took her idea that stemmed from a personal project, into one that’s published by Clarkson Potter (available on Amazon).

The Illuminated Tarot is beautiful! You mentioned that the idea behind it stemmed from an interest in learning about tarot symbolism and archetypal imagery. Could you tell us a little more about how your project began?

I’ve been interested in tarot since I was a teenager because I felt drawn to the imagery, but I always felt skeptical about the “fortune-telling” aspect. Much later (in my early 30s) I had a therapist who suggested discussing images as a way to ease into bigger conversations. That led me to think of tarot in an everyday, non-psychic context and inspired me to learn more about it. I read about the parallels and historical connection between playing cards and tarot and decided it would be an interesting challenge to make one deck that could be used for both purposes.

Since a playing card deck has 52 cards, I realized that I could create one card per week and have a fully illustrated deck by the end of the year. To make it more fun for myself, I randomly drew a card to illustrate–so every week I would have a surprise “assignment” to look forward to and I would learn something new about tarot.



Having worked on the Illuminated tarot cards as a personal project – what would your advice be to other creatives who are looking to take their personal project to another level?

Be very realistic about how much time you’ll want to spend on something. I’m amazed and impressed when artists do daily projects because I know I could never accomplish that on top of other work deadlines. I would feel stressed and that would remove any enjoyment I was getting from the project. Then I would give up and feel bad about giving up– and that becomes a vicious cycle! For me, a weekly project is ideal. For others it might be bi-weekly, monthly, etc.

My advice is to know yourself and your work habits and don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind. You want the project to stay fun because that’s the best way to stay motivated and do your best work.

How were you able to take the Illuminated Tarot from a personal exercise in creating something new every week, to the deck of cards that you now have for sale? How did it go from a personal project to one that’s now publicly available for purchase?

I originally thought that at the end of the year, I would pull together the card images into a book proposal. But I was lucky that Jay Sacher, who I was in touch with through his work for Chronicle Books, saw the illustrations as I was posting them to Twitter. At that time, Jay was an editor at Clarkson Potter, the imprint of Penguin Random House that ultimately published the deck. I’m thankful that he liked the project and could see the potential in publishing it, and I’m thrilled with how the printed deck turned out.

My advice is to know yourself and your work habits and don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind. You want the project to stay fun because that’s the best way to stay motivated and do your best work.

I’ve noticed that you’ve used different mediums in your work – colour pencils and digital renderings. Could you tell us when you use one or the other, and why did you opt for creating digitally when it came to the tarot deck?

This is kind of a boring answer, but it has a lot to do with timing! It’s quicker to work digitally.

A less-boring answer is that I was really inspired by a book I have about E.A. Seguy, a textile/pattern designer from the early 1900s whose work is often grouped in with Art Deco. I just love the use of color in his work and I thought flat, bold color would be a good look for this deck. It has the look of a printed textile and also seems semi-psychedelic, which I see as a nod to the 1960s tarot decks I liked as a teenager.

I’ve since figured out a half traditional/half digital way of working and I’m excited to do more work like that. It’s a less time-consuming way to partake in one of my favorite pastimes: obsessive pencil shading.

How important are personal projects to you as an illustrator?

For me, they’re essential for staying motivated and inspired.

Has working on the project impacted your work in any way?

I think because tarot deals with universal themes, it’s particularly challenging to try and do something new with it. Modern tarot decks very often are reinterpretations of the imagery in the Smith-Waite deck–probably because those images are so ingrained in the memory of anyone who is familiar with tarot. I really wanted to break out of that as much as possible and find my own way of communicating.

Working on The Illuminated Tarot was like a lot like having a weekly editorial assignment. I would break down the card meaning into the simplest possible terms and then illustrate that idea. The process of doing this every week–while also trying (for the most part) to avoid traditional tarot imagery–really pushed me to develop my vocabulary as an illustrator.

I personally think that it’s a very exciting time for artists and illustrators, as they are able to take their ideas and run with it as opposed to waiting for others to collaborate with (which is how a lot of illustration jobs are like). What are your thoughts about that?

Certainly, with social media, it’s much easier to get your work out to an audience. That’s why I hope that we (especially we in the U.S.) will be able to stop those who want to privatize and further corporatize the Internet. Net neutrality is essential for the open exchange of ideas–for culture in general, not just for art. In terms of art and illustration specifically; right now almost anyone can be published online and I think that’s a good thing. The culture moves forward when more of us can be heard.

What’s next for you? Are you taking this project any further?

Right now I’m working on something involving dream symbols and interpretation. I’d love to do more tarot or oracle decks in the future too. I’m also keeping up a weekly surface pattern design project I started in 2016. I post a new repeat pattern every week to Instagram and many are inspired by my visits to museums and botanic gardens around NYC.


You can check out more of Caitlin’s work on her website, and you can get a copy of The Illustrated Tarot on Amazon

How to be Everything by Emilie Wapnick

I’ve been a long-time fan of Emilie’s Puttylike blog that talks about being a multipotentialite (read: people who have multiple interests/skills/preference to excel in two or more different skills). Her new book How to be Everything has just launched, and I’m really thrilled. So while you might say I’m biased because I was featured on her TED talk in 2015 (and I’m also in chapter 5 of the book) – reading her blog and talking to her made me realise that I’m not as weird as I thought I was; and instead, being able to straddle a few different industries with a varied set of skills meant that I could build a career that could play to my strengths.

To celebrate the launch of her book, I set up an interview with her to find out more about the book, and what it could mean to you.

Congrats on your new book! I’ve always been a fan, and when I found your website, I realized that I’m a multipotentialite myself. When did you figure that out for yourself?

In my late teens/early twenties I began to notice my tendency to jump between different disciplines and projects. I actually worried about it a lot at that time. I was afraid I would never be able to stick with anything, and I was afraid I’d never find my Thing. Plus the idea of making a living was terrifying to me because I thought I would either have to jump from job to job to job and have no financial stability or choose a single path and deny all of my other passions.

Why the label? Why is it important for people to recognize that they’re a multipotentialite?

Labels can be empowering or restrictive depending on who’s using them and for what purpose. I’ve found that many multipotentialites grow up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. They internalize messages from the culture that warn us of the perils of being a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” or a “quitter” or “dilettante.”

Learning that you are a multipotentialite–that there’s a name for it and that there are many other people out there like this, some of whom are incredibly successful–can be a huge relief and help you feel proud of your plurality. The term multipotentialite also brings a positive spin to the idea, whereas “jack-of-all-trades,” usually has negative connotations.

So the book – tell us how you got to being unsure of what you wanted to do, to broaching this big subject that you’ve brought forward through your website and the TED talk?

In my mid-twenties I made a personal declaration of sorts: I decided that if this was how I am wired, I was going to find a way to make it work. That’s when I started my blog, Puttylike. I wanted to create a space where I could learn from other people who were doing many things successfully and share what I was learning. My vision was to create a community of people who don’t just want to do one thing so we could share resources and figure this out together.

Over the years, I noticed that there are a handful of books about the phenomenon of people with many passions, but none of them go into much detail about how to make a living. And then there are a ton of career planning guides out there that help you whittle down your aptitudes and passions to that one perfect fit. Where was the work advice for multipotentialites? That’s how the idea for How to Be Everything came about. I saw a real need for something practical, specifically for multipotentialites.

I believe that great artists are multipotentialites in some form or way. Could you give us a few examples of creative people you researched when you were writing the book?

I agree. There are a lot of famous artists/creatives who have worked in multiple disciplines. Everyone from Bowie to James Franco to the Charles and Ray Eames. In my book, I really tried to focus on more relatable examples though. I wanted to make it clear that you don’t need to be well-known or some kind of genius to make this work.

I interviewed a percussionist named Mark Powers who performs, teaches, runs workshops, writes children’s books, hosts TEDx events, and travels all over the world creating records with a philanthropic purpose to them. I also spoke with a digital media artist named Margaux Yiu who works at a company that is open to her stepping out of her job title. So over the course of her 16 year career, she has done design, web development, photography, video editing, and writing.

But yes, I think the reason that great artists tend to be multipotentialites is that artists are curious people who draw inspiration from domains outside of whatever medium they happen to be working in. It’s not really about the medium anyway; the medium’s just a tool to express a deeper idea.

What does being a multipotentialite mean in this day and age? How can they make the world a better place?

This is a really good time to be a multipotentialite. It’s now possible to work from anywhere and get your work out to the world without the help of gatekeepers who have access to distribution. You can self-publish a best-seller, crowd fund an invention, or teach people on the other side of the globe! There are infinite opportunities to express your creativity and design a career that really works with your multipotentialite nature.

Embracing your many passions doesn’t just lead to personal fulfillment, it’s also about social contribution. Multipotentialites are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who can see multifaceted problems from several angles, make connections between disparate subjects, and relate to people from all walks of life. It’s no coincidence that the great artists, scientists, and innovators throughout history were (and are) multipotentialites.


Thanks so much Emilie!

Her book is now available on Amazon, and in bookstores near you!

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