News and Interviews

"The Words Felt Right and Honest" Deep Underwater author Irene Luxbacher on Finding Her Way Through Tough Times with Writing

Irene L



Irene Luxbacher's Deep Underwater (Groundwood Books) calls out to the wild imagination of young readers, those years when we were sure we could find mermaids, adventures, and secrets, if we could just dive deep enough. In Luxbacher's lush, otherworldly paintings, young Sophia does just that, encountering strange and beautiful fish, plants, and more. 

Deep Underwater is as much about the mysteries we find when we have the courage to explore deep in ourselves as those that Sophia finds below the waves. Inspiring without being at all didactic, it's a dreamy, brave book that will touch young readers and the adults in their lives alike. 

We're excited to have Irene on Open Book today to talk about Deep Underwater through our Lucky Seven interview series. She tells us about finding a model for Sophia in the strong women in her family, how it works for her serving as both author and illustrator on a project, and how she deals with discouraging moments while working on a book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Irene Luxbacher:

The text for Deep Underwater came to be about five years ago. I was going through a difficult time in my life (my partner had just been through aggressive treatments for a cancer diagnosis at the same time our three-year-old son started showing signs of Autism/ASD). I started writing down my thoughts as a way of staying focused and channeling my fears and feelings into something productive. The protagonist “Sophia” was a representation of my mother and my grandmothers — people I trusted, who had already lived through their own version of the terrain I was exploring and who could serve as an encouraging and reassuring guide. Deep Underwater took shape as a life raft, and the process of writing it was a way to safely explore the depths of my feelings without getting lost and drowning in them.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


When I started working on Deep Underwater, I wasn’t entirely sure what the story was about — if it was a story at all or simply an opportunity to sort out my own feelings and offer myself a colourful reprieve from the difficult days that lay ahead at the time. What I did know was that as I wrote out the text, the words and rhythm felt right and honest and offered a lot of possibilities that I could explore visually. As I began to work through the visual content (particularly when the drawings of the mermaid began to appear), the question that is central to Deep Underwater became clear: “what do we find at the centre of ourselves? What do we find deep down within?” This central theme is worth exploring, even in a children’s book — especially in a children’s book — because the answer is ultimately empowering, and kids need to feel that in a world full of experiences that are so often beyond their depth of understanding and control, they can be assured that they are stronger than they think. That at the core of who they are, their innate creativity will not only surprise them but also help them to soar.


Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The text remained pretty close to its original version, but the art changed quite a bit over time. The project took the better part of five years to create from start to finish and although I often set it aside for a month or two, there was a great deal of time to let the story take shape and my skills as an illustrator to evolve.


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


Time and space and quiet (and a few snacks) are all I need... which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is pretty difficult to achieve when you work from home and have a busy family swirling around you all the time, so my work hours usually begin when everyone else has gone to bed and the house is quiet. Then I just work for as long as I can keep my eyes open. As far as the process goes, I generally prefer to write down my ideas in a notebook first. Since my stories often work in tandem with images, I’ll both write and sketch out an outline for a story before composing on screen and shaping the text into an actual book proposal. I do have a favourite blue chair that I like to sit in while I write, but when I’m drawing or painting I like to stand and move around a lot.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


If I’m feeling discouraged during the writing process, I usually take a break from it for a bit. I follow my instinct and do something else, either begin a new drawing, catch up on a deadline for an illustration project that’s creeping up, or tackle a project around the house that needs my attention. I think the key to staying productive for me is to always stay busy with lots of projects or ideas so that if I need to take a break from one that isn’t working, it won’t be so precious that I can’t allow it to change or evolve or just let it go entirely. If it’s a good idea, it will always find its way back to me in some way, shape, or form.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


I feel like the moment I try to define what a great book is, I will discover a book that completely contradicts what I think a great book is... so I guess by saying that, I think a great book breaks the rules, or my preconceived ideas about myself or my understanding of the world around me. I like when I’m left with a feeling of wonder, or curiosity, or the sense that a story has revealed a truth that I didn’t know existed, yet feels like home at the same time. As far as naming one or two great books, I can’t do it. I will be racked by a feeling of guilt and annoyance at myself for picking one and forgetting to include another on the list and I’ve already spent two days trying to answer this question so I simply give up here – ha!


What are you working on now?


Right now, I’m working on two illustration projects. One for Orca Books, a story written by Mireille Messier (Summer 2019) and another with Groundwood Books, a story written by Monica Kulling (Fall 2019). I’m also working on a book that I both wrote and illustrated with Scholastic Can/US. I’ve been working on this story for a couple of years now and am really excited to finally be seeing it through to final stages. It’s due out in Fall 2020.


Irene Luxbacher is an artist and author living in Toronto, Canada. With more than fifteen years’ experience as an illustrator, Irene has received numerous awards for her children’s instructional and picture books. She wrote and illustrated the picture book Mr. Frank, which was selected for the USBBY Outstanding International Books Honor List. She recently illustrated Malaika’s Costume and its sequel, Malaika’s Winter Carnival, by Nadia L. Hohn, as well as Mittens to Share by Emil Sher.

Buy the Book

Deep Underwater

Sophia bravely dives down to discover the secrets under the sea. She encounters beautiful fish and floating forests. Farther down, the dark water is full of tentacles and treasures. Deep underwater, she is never alone. Do you dare dive down after her?

The ocean is full of endless possibilities in this dreamy, imagistic story from acclaimed author / illustrator Irene Luxbacher. Her otherworldly paintings show colorful fish, rippling seawater and the secrets to be found at the bottom of the ocean. Sophia’s journey will linger with readers long after the return to shore.