Interview: Writer/Illustrator Rowboat Watkins on Rude Cakes

Rude Cakes is witty, charming, and pure delight for children and their families. The title characters are cakes with delicious-looking pink frosting who are indeed very rude. A hilarious and very surprising twist leads to a happy — and less rude — ending. Writer/illustrator Rowboat Watkins answered my questions about the book, and told me a little bit about rudeness, marshmallows, skinny-dipping, noses, and pants. And of course, the name Rowboat.

Are cakes the rudest form of pastry?

No. Not necessarily. Most cakes are not superlative in any way. They are mostly disappointing because they’re too dry or have some disquieting frosting-to-cakey-middle ratio, and they usually taste like sweet packing material. Nothing personal. There are exceptions, of course. Some cakes are remarkably delicious. Like strawberry shortcake. Sometimes. Not always. And my wife’s pineapple upside down cake. THAT is an ageless classic. But if we are talking about cakes as a taxonomic whole, without breaking them down into sub-species, then cakes are superlatively lacking. And most of them secretly wish they were pies. Because pies are tastier. Generally. Even if they aren’t as snazzy on the eyes. Sorry, cakes. On the bright side, at least they aren’t as lackluster as meringues. Not even congress is as disappointing as a meringue.

What’s the most fun thing about being rude?

I wish I knew, but I’m too much of a lifelong marshmallow. From the outside, it seems like rudeness allows one to not care about what other people think. I’m sure that must feel liberating. Kind of like skinny-dipping. But since I hail from a long line of incurable clothes-wearers, I will never know for sure. It is also why I could never run for political office.

Are the rude cake’s parents rude, too? Is that how the cake learned to be rude?

That’s a good question. I suspect all cakes are a little bit rude sometimes. Because we all enter the world as self-involved skinny-dippers. And I don’t think rudeness is something one ever grows out of entirely. It’s like frosting. You can scrape it away when there’s too much, but it still leaves behind a glycerin stickiness — no matter how many layers of clothing you put on top. As to whether rudeness is learned by example, I’m inclined to believe that rude cakes are more likely to rear rude cakes. But sometimes rudeness flourishes more when one’s parents are marshmallows. So who can say. As to the parents in the book, I don’t know. I think of them more as exasperated than rude, but these are not mutually exclusive propositions.

Which is harder, writing or drawing?

It depends on the day. I find them both equally hard, but some days I’m better at skinny-dipping with my drawings, and those are the days when drawing feels exhilarating and breezy. Other days I’m above worrying over whether “pants” are better than “slacks” or “trousers”, and those are the days when writing’s inseam stops riding up where it’s not welcome. Sadly, most days it is mostly wedgies on all fronts. Trust me. No one is sorrier to know this than me.

Do pictures show what the words say or do they move the story forward themselves?

If the pictures in a picture book are simply showing what the words are saying, then one or the other is a third pant leg.

Who is the politest person you ever met? Or what is the politest thing you ever saw?

Wow. That is the hardest question I have ever been asked. And I honestly have no idea. Nothing and no one springs to mind. Zero. Which maybe makes me think that politeness more often than not operates invisibly. Like oxygen. And that we only notice it when there isn’t enough in the room?

When you are drawing a rude cake, do you make rude faces in the mirror to create the expressions? Or do you look at people who are rude or actors pretending to be rude to see how their faces go?

I don’t like looking at people, because I’m worried they will see me looking. Even if they are on my computer screen. I’m embarrassed to admit I usually just make faces while sitting at my desk and I try draw how my face feels. I don’t use a mirror. That’s how much I’m worried about someone seeing me look at them.

I like the lettering in the book very much. How many different kinds of lettering are there and where do they come from? How do they help tell the story?

I’m glad you like the lettering, Nell. I worked really hard to find a way to not have the speech and thought bubbles feel like they were from some entirely different visual universe from the pictures. Or overwhelm the narrative text. Because it is a book with very few words, under 150 I think. I am not a text and thought bubble guy by nature, so it was not something that came naturally. As with everything else in the book, it was largely a function of trial and error. But you also learn (or hopefully learn) to develop a gut sense of when something is maybe working. And then you let it sit for a day or however long. And if you still feel the same about it, then you know you have found a workable solution to something.

As to how the lettering helps the story, I don’t know if that’s the way I framed the question to myself. I think it was more a question of how in god’s name will I be able to get all this non-narrative text into the book without having it feel distracting. The display type on the cover is scanned Victorian woodblock print. The text in the speech and thought bubbles is called Artistamp Medium. I would have stamped the letters by hand with real stamps, but in the name of streamlining the process of making the book where it could be streamlined, I used a pre-existing computer typeface I love.

Do you draw with pencils or watercolors or do you draw with a computer and just make it look like that?

All of the above. If I were a better version of myself and I didn’t waste so much energy worrying about whether people can see me looking at them, or if I am wearing one too many pant legs, I would have maybe learned how to use real watercolors long ago, and I would be less afraid of making mistakes, and be able to treat the terrifying prospect of trying to preserve some faint whiff of freshness in the final art with some modicum of devil-may-care élan. If I were that better version of me, I would gladly cover my computer in frosting and feed it to a landfill. Sadly, I am not that me. I am a cowering marshmallow with pants that sometimes ride up in infelicitous ways. And sometimes one needs a computer to create enough room in the crotch to take even the tiniest step forward.

How many different ideas did you try for the characters or did you know what they looked like right away?

I knew the basic idea for the cakes right away, because I’ve been drawing anthropomorphic cakes in my sketchbooks for years. The only thing that was surprising about the cakes in the book was that they always had noses before. It wasn’t until the designer and I were going back and forth about nose sizes and they kept getting smaller or rounder and clownier that the designer finally said “Well, maybe they don’t need noses at all?”

When I told my wife and daughter that I was getting rid of the cake noses, they both looked at me as if I had told them I was growing a third leg. From my forehead. It took us a few days to sit with the idea. But the designer was totally right. The noses weren’t necessary. Cakes can’t smell anything anyway.

The other characters in the book took much longer for me to figure out. Because I had never drawn them before. And they had all kind of horns and other pointless appendages that I finally realized weren’t doing anyone any favors.

The main cake was originally pink. But then some people were worried that pink would turn boys off from reading the book. And then the cake was yellow with white frosting. And I don’t remember why that didn’t work but someone didn’t like it. Maybe it was me? And there was a can of worms with the rude cake being chocolate with chocolate frosting that I didn’t want to open up. And I didn’t want a purple cake or a blue cake or an orange or green one. I wanted a limited color palette and for whatever reason I felt like the book had to be the colors it is now. So we wound up with a pink cake. With no nose. And the boys of the world will have to deal with it.

What was your favorite thing to draw when you were in kindergarten?

Space aliens shooting each other. And flying saucers.

Please tell me how you got the name Rowboat.

My wife started calling me Rowboat eons ago. If you lived with me, you probably would have, too.

Originally published at

Movie critic, corporate critic and shareholder advocate, critic/editor at @ebertvoices @moviemom, and #corpgov #movies and editor at @miniverpress

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