Cats, race cars and washing machines – what more could you want? We sat down with Ricky and picked his brains on his process and inspirations behind creating Alley Cat Rally.
FEB: You’ve done so many different things: album covers, posters, animation, and window designs (just to name a few!) What inspired you to do a children’s picture book as your next project?
RT: For my own sanity, I’ve never really taken what I do all too seriously. I think having a playful spirit must come through in what I do, because so many people have suggested over the years that I’d be good at making children’s books. I finally gave it a shot just to see if I could even manage something so expansive – writing a story was well beyond my comfort zone. That story eventually became Alley Cat Rally!
FEB: Why did you pick cats as the subject of Alley Cat Rally?
RT: My mum used to be a vet nurse, so I grew up in a house with lots of animals – cats, dogs, hamsters, and at one point in my childhood we had a crazy network of guinea pig runs made of drainpipes and chicken wire take over our back garden. I love all animals, but I always found cats inherently the funniest of household creatures. Anyone who has kept cats will have had a moment where you caught the cat doing something ridiculous, only for the cat to glare at you as if to say ‘what? I *meant* to do that’ before sauntering off. They’re like the perfect straight person in a comedy sketch.
The idea for the story came more from washing machines though – I have a soft spot for washers because I think they’re basically robots and are really under-appreciated for the incredible amount of human hours they have saved. I regularly hide them in my artwork, and one day my fondness for washers led me to discover an old corner of the internet that had been collecting photos of cats who climb into empty washing machines. It made me realise it wasn’t just one of the cats I grew up with that had such a terrifying habit, and I thought I could subvert the idea in a way that empowered the cat.
FEB: There are lots of weird and wonderful technology in this story, what is your own relationship like with technology?
RT: I’m not a person who lives on the cutting edge of tech (the Mac I do my work on is now old enough to leave the house by itself!), but I love technology and will usually find a way to make what I have do something interesting. My grandpa used to be an engineer, and he not only got me into using computers when I was really young, but he had filled my grandparents’ house with over-engineered gizmos he had made himself, and he usually needed a small pair of hands to help repair them. I was frequently drafted in to help repair things like a prototypical automatic garage door opener he made from tins of cough drops and parts of a radio-controlled car, or a convoluted personal telephone switchboard that was being held together with repurposed wire coat-hangers. So I’ve always had comfort with just trying things with technology – in this computer age, trying things out is low-risk too, as there’s almost always a way to undo an error!
FEB: Asta is pretty adept at creating things, is this a trait you see in yourself? Are there any other attributes she (or the other alley cats!) possess that you relate to?
RT: Totally! Someone I work with described me once as ‘relentlessly creative’, and I thought there couldn’t really be a much higher compliment. I’m usually in the doldrums if I don’t have some ridiculous side-project on the go – like how I spent part of the 2020 lockdown turning a tin can into an ambient solar-powered robot, or indeed, a project like figuring out a way to connect a miniature washing machine to the internet to promote my book.
Making stuff been a thing for me since I was small enough to have read Alley Cat Rally though. One of my happiest childhood memories was time spent in the shed dismantling a broken VCR that I was convinced I was going to turn into a time machine. I feel like I worked on that VCR time machine for ages by how large the memory looms in my mind, even though it was probably just one afternoon in reality. It was that spirit that I wanted to bring through in my book though: It didn’t really matter whether I could actually make a time machine or not – I didn’t even have a reason I wanted a time machine – I just found the process of imagining something fantastic and trying to bring it to life rewarding!
As for the other cats, a lot of them share that spirit of making things, but their inspirations all come more from looking at the rest of the world. I wanted the boys to be not unsuccessful, but all be a bit daft – because boys ultimately are silly and not as serious as some present themselves. I think if more people see that, they may be more willing to bring their own silly-sounding but unexpectedly genius ideas to world’s table.
FEB: Is there a spread in Alley Cat Rally which turned out completely different from your initial concept?
RT: I was looking through my first sketches last week, and it’s funny how much of the bones of the finished book are in there. Beyond the basic structure of the images, Flying Eye encouraged me to make the book into way more than I had originally imagined, and they drove me to build more detail into the world of Kibble Hill. I had to be a grown-up and get myself to see why the editors weren’t appreciating my original illustrations for their minimalism, but was worth it, because it’s all so much better in its full-of-life form now.
I think one of my favourite spreads in this book is a good example of how glad I am to have had this encouragement. I call the spread the map – where you can see the whole town and the route the cats’ race follows. It was one of the first illustrations I reworked to add more detail, but the editors were still asking for more detail right up to the final art deadline. It’s rewarding because it turned out much more like how I wished it would look, but hadn’t really figured out how to get it there without having someone telling me to keep going and make it through the uncertainty.
FEB: The world of Alley Cat Rally is so immersive and interactive. All the posters in the background to easter eggs included on each page, and you’ve even made a profile on each of the alley cats of Kibble Hill on your website. It looks like you really had fun with it, was this all part of your initial creative process or something which came naturally as you became more familiar with the story you wanted to tell?
RT: I absolutely had fun with it – I always try to enjoy my work – but adding all the details in both was and wasn’t natural. In looking back at my first versions, I spotted a couple more of these silly little jokes that were forgotten and never made their way through to the final book, which makes me think the little gags were there all along. I really feel like it was Flying Eye’s editorial encouragement that enabled me to fill in so many details though. I was so focused on what’s happening in the foreground when I first started this book that I needed someone to get me to look around while I was working on it too.
I publish a daily drawing on a post-it note to my social media every day – I consider doing so my creative debt to the day, as doing so keeps me thinking creatively. They’re kind of like an abstract diary – things that I find funny myself in everyday life, like seeing a dog looking up hopefully at the cash machine its keeper is using [https://www.instagram.com/p/CGN4U3UF8g4/], or pondering how one would put a pair of trousers on a horse [https://www.instagram.com/p/CDpKT8EJmCd/]. So making the little environmental observations and sight-gags is in my wheelhouse, but it was nice to be given the encouragement to put as many nonsense thoughts into this project as I could manage!
FEB: This book has a great lesson of chasing your dreams, even when they seem out of reach. Why was this the message you wanted to explore in your first children’s picture book?
RT: I believe that everybody has good ideas, but we all need a bit of encouragement to see where our ideas can take us… The development of this book is a perfect example of this! I also really believe in the power of diversity and think people being different should be more celebrated. I think about it every time I struggle to solve something – if everyone had the same background as me and thought the same way I did, then everyone would get stuck at the same places that I do. ‘I never would’ve thought to do it that way!’ is low-key one of the best feelings to experience, and if in twenty years’ time a person who read Alley Cat Rally when they were small does something as an adult to make me feel that astonishment, then I’d be a very accomplished person!
FEB: Alley Cat Rally is left pretty ambiguously, why did you decide on this open ending?
RT: My first go at making this book made a couple of references to humans, but I decided to take them out when I worked on it more because I thought that making it explicitly all a dream would make it so Asta never truly acted on her ideas and realised her goal. We’ve all had those dreams where we feel like we’ve solved whatever problem we’ve been working on recently, only to wake up feeling frustrated that it was only the dream and we don’t have the answer – I didn’t want the book to feel like that. Having removed the humans, I found Alley Cat Rally had a few interpretations, and I like the thought of people taking away different ways of looking at it. My favourite perspective is that it all happens in the small hours while the humans are asleep – this is why cats sleep so much in the daytime!
FEB: Finally, can you sum up Alley Cat Rally in five words?
RT: Five words? Hmm… ‘Engineer cats are funny things’? ‘Washing machines win the day’? ‘Imagine something, then make it’?
Alley Cat Rally
Asta the cat is on a mission: to be the greatest racer her neighbourhood has ever seen. Buckle up for this lively tale from Ricky Trickartt about the importance of getting stuck in, even when your dreams might feel out of reach…