Fairy tales and silhouettes: An interview with Juliet Marillier

Photo of Juliet Marillier by Mike Beltametti Photography

Juliet Marillier is the award-winning author of many wonderful historical fantasies, and also of Mother Thorn and other tales of courage and kindness. It was the first project I’ve illustrated for her, although I’ve admired Juliet and her work for a very long time, and I’m delighted that she agreed to this reciprocal interview!

I’ve written about the illustration process in previous posts: cover process and internal illustrations. The book is available from Serenity Press:

The sketches in this post are from my first read-through of Mother Thorn — quite a few of them ended up as silhouettes in the book (see the end of this post)

QUESTIONS FROM KATHLEEN FOR JULIET

The four full-page story illustrations

KJ: There are four stories in Mother Thorn. What was the idea behind each (as you took and turned the fairy tale at its base, or approached the shape of a fairy tale with new material)?

JM: I knew I didn’t want to do a straight re-telling of fairy tales. I love the stories I chose, but in their best-known forms they don’t work well for today’s readership. In keeping with my belief that traditional stories change a little every time they are re-told, I set myself a writer’s challenge with each story.

The Witching Well (based on a Scottish border ballad, The Well of the World’s End) is related to the frog prince idea. I don’t care for tales in which a young woman (princess or not) ends up marrying a virtual stranger because of a magical twist. In The Witching Well the frog is a toad, the girl is an over-burdened soul with a mother severely affected by past trauma, and there is no prince – but there is still magic. I was happy with the way these characters came alive.

The Princess and the Pea is one of the least believable fairy tales – another ‘’marriage sight unseen’’ story.  In my version, Pea Soup, the central couple are real individuals who try to solve their own problems and keep agency over their decisions. This ended up as a comedy of manners. It was such fun to write!

Final title header for Pea Soup (for the special edition — the yellow was printed in bronze)

I love The Tinder Box. Who could resist a dog with eyes as big as mill-wheels! [KJ: We all say this, but then someone has to actually draw what’s descrived!] But in the best-known version greed and violence are rewarded, and a princess ends up married to a stranger who wins her hand through stolen magic. My story, Copper, Silver, Gold, is based on what might have happened if the soldier at the centre of the tale had been female. It’s set in a real historical time and place, and it still has the dogs.

The title story is not based on an existing fairy tale, but on the folkloric idea that a lone hawthorn tree is a place where the divide between human world and Otherworld is quite thin. I wanted to write a story about second chances, and how true love may not mean what you think it does. Also, it’s about how important it is, when asking uncanny folk for a favour, to get your words exactly right.

Trying to work out dog’s eye-sizes

KJ: You frequently write through and with fairy tales, with a beautiful sense of their tone and structure. How do you judge the shape of a fairy tale? Is it the same as a short story?

JM: Some fairy tales have an epic shape, more like a novel than a short story, but they’re told quite simply – characters often don’t even get names, just roles like the mother, the soldier, the fisherman. They are more types than individuals. A lot is left to the imagination of the reader/listener – appropriate for oral storytelling. A short story conveys a wealth of meaning in a limited word count – therefore every word is carefully chosen, perhaps with use of allusion, metaphor and so on. A good short story will surprise the reader. There will be a turning point or revelation that makes the reader think. A fairy tale is usually more straightforward. I think a blend of the two is possible! 

Working out styles of dress for Pea Soup

KJ: The stories were full of beautiful imagery — dogs and doorknockers and wistful hybrid creatures. To what extent do you find the effect of a fairy tale depends on its imagery, compared to (for example) themes or situations?

JM: Fairy tale imagery is powerful. Details we remember from childhood storytelling – a harp, a rose, a mirror, a spindle – may resonate quite deeply for us in later life. Then there’s the way the imagery can conjure the idea of the uncanny or magical existing alongside the world we know. The hybrid creatures are part of that – both familiar and curiously unfamiliar at the same time. I think the imagery adds an additional layer of magic to the story – your illustrations for my stories so beautifully echo that.

Creatures for The Witching Well (a whole family of hedgehog-rabbits got into the book!)

KJ: There are some lovely dogs loping through these tales. Should there be more dogs in fairy tales? Which fairy tales do you think would benefit most from having dogs added to them (and why)?

JM: Since fairy tales grow and change constantly over the years, why not add more dogs if desired? Mind you, the presence of a dog might change the course and outcome of the story. If Hansel and Gretel had been accompanied by a dog when they went into the forest, its warning growl would have kept them away from the witch’s house. A dog would have disrupted The Princess and the Pea completely. ‘’What, sleep up there? Impossible. Muffin always shares my bed and she has very short legs.’’ I’d like to see a dog in Sleeping Beauty. It would snuggle up happily with its beloved human for a hundred years, only to be grumpily woken when the prince kisses her. I can imagine various ways the story might unfold from that point!

(these did make it into the silhouettes!)

KJ: Are there some fairy tales you have found particularly difficult to play with, for original stories, or which you want to use but for which you haven’t found the right story yet?

JM: Some fairy tales are powerful but too dark for me  – The Juniper Tree is one such story. I think writers of very dark fantasy, verging on horror, are better at handling that kind of material. I’d love to draw on some Welsh stories. Many of those have characters from Arthurian legend, but are fairy tale stories in character. I did once plan an Arthurian book (I’m a big fan of Mary Stewart) but at that time the publishers felt there were too many of them around. With The Green Knight movie coming out this year, I think I’ve left my run too late!

KJ: Are there particular challenges to writing in the fairy-tale mode? And would you give any advice to writers learning to sustain that effect?

JM: It can be challenging to maintain a fairy-tale vibe for the story while keeping it real enough to engage today’s readers. You need to balance dynamic storytelling with the fact that the Otherworld moves at its own pace, which can be gradual. That’s where the little touches are helpful, allusions to something uncanny or magical, details that don’t quite belong in one world or the other. One telling image can be more effective than a paragraph of description. I’d suggest writers prepare by reading lots of fairy tales and mythology. I’ve devoured such material since I was very small. Seek out older versions of tales.

Working out the balance of real and fairy tale for Copper, Silver, Gold

KJ: Should all books have foil on the cover?

JM: This question made me laugh! In my story Pea Soup, Bella comments that Fred’s family must be quite grand, because even their kitchen has books with gold on the covers. My answer: Only the special ones. Some of those may be cook books, who knows? 

Cooking in Pea Soup

QUESTIONS FROM JULIET FOR KATHLEEN

JM: You posted recently about the process of illustrating Mother Thorn, and I was reminded of those lovely pencil sketches that were not used in the final book [KJ: I’ve put them through this post]. You’ve illustrated books for many writers. What happens when your vision for illustrations – in style and/or content – doesn’t mesh with what the writer or publisher wants?  How do you go about solving that problem?  (or how would you, if it happened?)

KJ: It doesn’t arise too often, because often the style is the first element discussed, although very occasionally when people just can’t agree we’ll negotiate a graceful exit (and ideally that will be in the contract, too!). But sometimes writer, publisher and I all agree on a style and then I discover that the subject matter of the book doesn’t fit it quite so organically.

My usual style — in pen and ink (as for Angela Slatter’s Bitterwood Bible and Tallow-Wife fairy-tale collections) as well as silhouette (as for you) — is an attempt to combine the lyrical and the conversational. It suits fairy-tale fantasy perfectly, but it is not a natural fit for very modern realism, grotesque horror, and hard science fiction. I tell people outright, now, that I don’t do straight lines.

However, I also enjoy the challenge of this — pushing my style into a more noir-ish direction for a contemporary fantasy (for e.g. a set of headers for Holly Black’s Curseworkers), or being willing to take ongoing pushes from an art director or editor to get an appropriately unsettling effect (Jonathan Strahan was very patient with me on this a few years back for a few stories in Eclipse Online, which is sadly no longer online). But I also enjoy finding ways to provide an alternative interpretation to stories, either to pull the story back into my territory, or to set up a resonance between the art and the story that lets the reader find a middle ground.

Baths are always tricky to draw. I finally bought a dolls-house bathtub for ease of reference.

JM: You’ve won awards for both illustration and writing. Notably, you wrote and illustrated a recent novella, Flyaway, which combines fairy-tale elements with an Australian setting. What was your process for that – text and illustrations growing together organically (on the page or in your mind) or in sequence?

KJ: The writing for Flyaway grew out of a series of very strong images, which mostly didn’t end up in the final art! Sketching lets me trap movements, aesthetics, elements I want to try and rework in words — and it was a good way to think through the work of some other very image-driven authors to work out how they did it (particularly Joan Lindsay, who described her Picnic at Hanging Rock as being more like a painting than a novel). I also sketched motifs that belonged to the sort of story I wanted to create. I didn’t use all of them, but their existence kept me on track. (If anyone wants to see a lot more information about this process, I wrote an article for Tor.com: Illustrating Flyaway — Kathleen Jennings on creating art and prose together).

2020-04-08-KJennings-NotesOnAustralianGothicTropes
Australian Gothic tropes and motifs

To make the silhouette illustrations for the chapters and the cover, I went in a less-usual direction. Rather than concentrating on movement, which I usually do, I wanted to create a series of ornaments that would show where the story belonged and how to read it — as an Australian Gothic fairy tale. To create the illustrations, I went back over the written novella and my sketched notes and found elements that would work as a series of ornaments: square motifs and individual birds. Then I cut those out, sketching them again loosely onto the back of black paper and refining them as I cut them out.

I really like the two very different treatments the designers gave to the cover — I asked them more about that here: Flyaway cover comparison.

JM: Is illustrating your own writing different from illustrating someone else’s? In what ways?

KJ: It can be very different! When I illustrate someone else’s work, the sketching and illustrating is a way of reading and thinking through that story, of talking with the author, of responding to the book, changing it, being changed by it, playing in the world — the closest I can get to the old wish to actually get inside a book or through a wardrobe.

When I illustrate my own work, almost all of that thinking and ornamenting and varying has already been done in the prose. Also, I can be painterly in prose in a way I’m not when I draw — I use lines and silhouettes in my illustrations, but I love thick colour and the play of light, and that’s easiest for me in words.

Illustrating my own work is simplest if I start with the illustrations and add words. This is quite a good way to work up the aesthetic and big moments of a story — the risk, however, is that the prose gets away from me and doesn’t need the illustrations anymore. A recent story — “Gisla and the Three Favours” in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #43 — started as a series of drawings I did in Iceland (you can see one of them here). “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie”, which was illustrated in the end by John Jude Palencar, began as an illustration I did for an Inktober prompt.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

JM: What fairy tale would you especially love to illustrate for a publication, and why?

KJ: For an absolutely classic take on a traditional telling… I would have to say at the moment it’s Mr Fox — Lady Mary so brave, and the recurring warnings, and the challenge supported by gory evidence!. I have an old affection for Little Red Riding Hood both in its fairy-tale versions and in longer reworkings (Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend is one of my favourite novels, and it riffs heavily on many fairy tales, but especially Little Red Riding Hood), and also for The Goose Girl — unfairness, rhymes, comeuppances! And Toads and Diamonds… Really, I suppose, any fairy-tale heavy on the things I like to draw: gowns, foxes, birds, bones…

But I really like to illustrate variations, subtle readjustments, resettings, and so forth — it would be delightful to illustrated a reworking of The Little Mermaid as a tale of foxes and gowns, for example, or Little Red Riding Hood with strong nautical-fantastic echoes (the “Gisla” illustrations started as a landscape-changed Cinderella). I play with this a lot in my observation journal posts, e.g. changing fairy-tales by adjusting what story the in-world ornaments are from or even just shifting a viewpoint.

Chasing the energy of movement and poses for The Witching Well

JM: The silhouette style of illustration seems perfectly suited to fairy tales. Why do you think that is?

KJ: There are several reasons (at least). Silhouettes have a long association with fairy tales and tale-telling, as well as with various folk traditions. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations and Lotte Reiniger’s animations and shadow puppets, for a start, and many cultures have cut-paper traditions. So the use of cut-paper silhouettes automatically invokes that history.

Silhouettes can also be ominous — shadowy, sometimes open to interpretation, hard-edged for all their beauty. Fairy-tales are very closely related to Gothic stories, so silhouettes can capture that feeling, as well.

Then, too, silhouettes can be very ornamental. They tell the reader that this is a story worth reading as a beautiful object, which I think is useful for fairy tales, which aren’t always, e.g., psychologically-innovative character studies (not that they can’t be!).

Finally, as you said, fairy tales can be stories of types, of roles, of motifs — an author retelling a fairy tale or working in that mode can refine the story through detailed realism, of course, but often the underlying narrative engine runs on those aspects. Silhouette illustrations create a similar effect: they provide poses, movement, types, roles, shadows for the story to fill, and for the reader or listener to add their own details to, while still allowing the story to exist in that story-otherworld.

Cutting out the main illustration for Pea Soup — more in the internal illustration process post

If you want to read more about the art process for Mother Thorn, see these posts:

Mother Thorn is available from Serenity Press:

The Final Hen

7 thoughts on “Fairy tales and silhouettes: An interview with Juliet Marillier

  1. Pingback: Mother Thorn Process Post | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Process Post: Mother Thorn internal illustrations | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Ditmar Awards: Flyaway and Mother Thorn | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: Celebrating Mother Thorn — online on 1 December 2021 | Kathleen Jennings

  5. Pingback: November 2021 — round up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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