BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com.
KJ: Socar Myles and I first met years ago through the old Elfwood notice boards, and Socar gave me a great deal of thoughtful, professional advice on my early efforts. Her art enchanted me — ethereal creatures, and strange, soft, dense, spooky imagery with hints of Beardsley and Klimt and sly laughter — and recently she made a remark on Twitter that suggested she was writing seriously, only I couldn’t find anything under her name or any open pseudonym! So I sent her a message to find out more, which turned into this interview.
KJ: You’re known more as an illustrator, but you’ve moved into ghostwriting and I am fascinated. How did you get from illustration to writing full-time?
Socar: Many years ago, I wrote and illustrated a short comic, “The Zombie Ball,” which appeared in the Fleshrot Hallowe’en special. I posted an excerpt on my blog, and a book packager reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing middle-grade fiction. I thought writing middle-grade fiction could be a quick route to children’s illustration gigs, so I said yes.
As it turned out, I never wrote any middle-grade fiction (or illustrated any). I didn’t understand the market at all. Instead, I spent years writing “for fans of” books (something popular would come out, and I’d dash off something in the same vein). It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught me to write fast in a variety of genres, and to identify what would sell.
As my illustration career took off, I focused mainly on that, and let the writing fall by the wayside. But when my vision failed, I decided to pursue ghostwriting more seriously. By that time, my original publisher had gone out of business, and I wasn’t sure how to break back in. I Googled “ghostwriting jobs,” which led nowhere—mostly, I found Upwork gigs and content mills paying pennies a word. Then, I researched book packagers, and found a few that felt right.
At the moment, I’m doing contract work for two packagers, one of which produces mainly romance, the other YA fiction.
KJ: How does being, or having been, an illustrator feed into your writing?
So I asked Justin if he could answer a few questions (thinks not to say to a reviewer…) and he agreed!
Here, now, is Justin, “a fine artist and illustrator from California, who now resides in the Midwest with his wife and too many cats.”
And here is the interview:
Kathleen: So you’re a fine artist and illustrator, but you also do fanart (to be clear, this is a thing of which I thoroughly approve). How do the two relate for you — and/or how do the things you are a fan of feedback into your fine art and illustration career?
Justin: As I progress in my art career, I’m finding myself drawn less (so to speak) to working in a fine art/gallery-painting mode, and am instead leaning more towards storybook illustration, comics, and other forms of narrative art. In that respect, the stuff I’m doing for Drawn to Culture isn’t very different from my personal work at all. In fact, most of the designs I have available for sale right now (as prints or other products) are inspired by cult movies, tv shows, and/or books I love.
The only real difference between pieces I produce for the blog and work I’d show in a portfolio is the amount of time I put into them. Well, that, and the DTC drawings tend to be a little more portrait-driven than my regular work.
Kathleen: For the uninitiated: who/what/why is Drawn to Culture?
Justin: I often call Drawn to Culture a fanart blog, for simplicity’s sake, but what it really is is an illustrated pop culture recommendation feed.
The concept is that I—along with whatever other artists want to join in that week—recommend the movies, games, books, etc. that have been giving us life recently, and we supplement our recommendations with pieces of art which pay homage to those cultural products and (hopefully) get other people excited about them, too.
(Basically, it’s the “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” segment from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, but with drawings)
I started the blog last year (with help from my friend, the excellent Vincent Kukua) in part because we wanted to provide a regular ongoing challenge for ourselves, but also because we wanted to create a little bit of art-community centered people sharing what they love. In the just-over-a-year DTC has been going, we’ve showcased over 100 illustrations from almost two dozen artists.
Kathleen: One of the things about fanart that I adore is, as I said, getting to read over someone’s shoulder — reading is a great spectator sport at the best of times, and getting that experience plus art is just <chef’s kiss>. Could you tell me a bit about how you combine reviews and art — and what you’re trying to say in a piece of art vs in a review?
Justin: Basically, whenever I read any book or watch any movie, I try to imagine what I’d include on a cover or poster for that piece of media. As such, I’m always on the lookout for the characters, objects, and/or symbols I think would lend a compelling amount of specificity to an illustration without giving too much of the plot away (and these are usually the subjects for my DTC pieces).
The constraints of trying to make art with a somewhat tight (if self-imposed) deadline, and which is mainly going to be seen in a little square on Instagram, limits the mental-book-cover exercise somewhat, but the thinking is still there.
Kathleen: If we met in person I would probably get extremely specific about “quality of line” and that little tassled finial on the circle — but since this is written, would you be able to tell me a bit about the thought and art process for the illustration for Flyaway? (Do you have any process shots/layers?)
Justin: I didn’t save any progress layers, unfortunately.
I recently (finally) got an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, and for the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to learn how to draw digitally while retaining some of the line quality I’ve cultivated in my physical media/ink drawings.
When I started on this piece (which is entirely digital, except for the applied watercolor wash texture), I thought that drawing a couple of birds in almost-profile with some lightly scrolling botanicals was the kind of thing I could do in my sleep, because I’ve done it so often on paper. For whatever reason though, this particular drawing ended up being weirdly difficult for me to get right. In the end, though, I’m pleased with how this closely this digital drawing resembles what I would have done in pen-and-ink.
Kathleen: Flyaway has art through it, as well as on the cover, and I’m interested to know (a) how much cover art — and more so, interior art — affects how you read a book, and (b) what you do with your awareness of that art when you put together a new illustration?
Justin: I’ve been a voracious listener of audiobooks for the last couple years, and a vast majority of the books I’ve consumed during that time have been in an audio format. So, while I may be familiar with the art associated with a particular title because I follow the illustrator or publisher online, I usually don’t have it in front of me, except perhaps in thumbnail form. This certainly helps me not be overly influenced by the work that’s already there.
All that to say: while I actually now own Flyway in both the audio and print versions, I had already made a sketch by the time I acquired the latter. I had no idea, for example, how many birds cutouts were sprinkled throughout the book! I knew from my first listening though that I wanted to feature the words “coward” and “monster,” which are both so evocative, and the lantern bush blooms which are so specific and also so much fun to draw. Plus a couple of birds, because, clearly.
When I create an illustration inspired by straight narration—or even something photographic, like a live-action TV show or movie—the act of drawing itself seems interpretive. I’ve found during the past year of doing DTC (and before that, creating character sketches for myself), that the hardest things to create fanart for are comics, cartoons, or other extensively illustrated works, because it’s hard to translate a drawn image into a NEW drawn image, and imbue it with personal style while keeping it looking like itself.
Kathleen: Oh, hey! We’re both Light Grey Art Lab illustrators, too — and you’re in World Roulette! That involved a little bit of writing as well as visual worldbuilding. How do you approach writing, as an illustrator — particularly of something you’ve illustrated?
Justin: This was actually my first time doing a piece for LGAL, and I’m thrilled to be included! Although I’ve followed them for years, I visited the physical gallery space for the first time last year, and was excited to see one of your pieces on the postcard display as soon as I walked in!
Per my approach to the writing, I think anytime someone creates a scene or character from scratch, they’re answering a constant stream of questions as they go along: who’s populating this setting? What are they wearing? Why this, instead of that? etc. So, when I approached the text portion of the World Roulette piece, I saw it as a matter of simply writing out the answers to those internal questions and then rewriting that block of text to be slightly story-shaped.
My biggest challenge with that particular project was editing down my blurb to within the word-count limit (I tend to be fairly wordy when I write, which I’m sure is obvious from all my answers so far).
Kathleen: What are you excited about now, and/or what are you working on (or what’s already out) that you’d most like to wave around and shout about?
Justin: In addition to Drawn to Culture—which is always looking for contributors, btw, in case anyone reading this wants to participate—and the Light Grey Art Lab show you mentioned above; my wife, the fabulously talented Megan Lynn Kott, and I co-wrote/illustrated a book last year (my first, her second), which we’re both super excited about!
The book comes out on September 1st and is called Unfamiliar Familiars: Extraordinary Animal Companions for the Modern Witch. It’s basically a humorous take on the animal fact reference book, with a witchy twist. Even though the kind of writing we did for this book is more list- and blurb-based than it is novelistic, it was still the most writing either of us had done in years. That made working on it a little terrifying, but it was also lots of fun to explore. The book is chock-full of jokes (which at least we think are funny), esoteric pop culture references, and cute animal paintings, and we can’t wait for it to hit shelves soon.
Justin can be found online in the following places:
When I reposted the New York Times review of Flyawayon Instagram, I received a lovely comment from Felicity Jurd, the narrator of the audiobook! It was our first contact, but I cheekily went straight ahead and asked if she’d like to talk a little bit about the audiobook, and she generously agreed.
Kathleen:Felicity! Thank you so much for narrating Flyaway. I was so glad you were able to do it — I love your warm, laid-back tones. So perfect for the light I was trying to capture in the book.
Felicity: Kathleen! I am so honoured to narrate Flyaway – it is breathtaking! [K: Thank you so much!]
Kathleen: I read a book in very different ways depending on whether I’m reading it to illustrate, or for research, or just to enjoy it as a reader. What sprang out of Flyaway (or if you prefer, what springs out of any book!) to you, when you read it as a narrator?
Felicity: Congratulations on your NY Times review! [K: Thank you!] I have to say I really agree that it was an unforgettable tale. It is so original. You’ve captured entering another world, a sort of parallel magical world which makes the listener think it could actually exist alongside our everyday world. What really sprang out to me was the way you wove the chapters and time shifts as well as the rich descriptions of the Australian landscape and the animals and plants. When I found out that you were an award-winning illustrator it made so much sense because it felt like you were doing a coloured sketch with words!
Kathleen: A voice actor brings such a feeling to a book — you’re the way a reader experiences the audiobook, after all, and it’s more than just speaking the words on the page. How do you tell the story, or — more specifically — what choices do you make doing that for (for example) Flyaway?
Felicity: I feel that part of my job is to give space to each of the thoughts and concepts in the book so that the audience has time to absorb. It’s so different to reading silently at great speed on your own. I feel listening to and absorbing an audiobook is a personal and sometimes emotional experience. I try to find the balance remembering that many people listen to audiobooks on a train or in the car or before going to sleep. So I make a choice to be a soothing narrator at a steady pace and hopefully that comes across :) I make a choice to choose the age, size, energy and personality of the characters as it helps me make vocal shifts for the characters that stand out from the narration throughline.
Kathleen: I always wish that we could get cover designers and audio narrators (and translators, and…) together onto panels at writing festivals to talk about how they helped make specific books a certain way, and how they understand a book. You get as close to the text as anyone. And voice actors are actors after all (not disregarding that you are a screen actor too!). How do you like to describe what you do with audiobooks, and what most charms you about it?
Felicity: I’m just the vessel and try my best to let your imagination live through mine. I try to imagine what the author might sound like if they were reading the book aloud. I also look up examples of the author’s other work and with you, Kathleen, I did a lot of research by seeing how art and illustration was such a part of your process and how detailed the book cover was. There were so many images and they were layered and there was a sense of Celtic art to it. I always feel like it is such an honour to read a book before it has even been published. I’ve been so lucky to have that first moment with you and with a number of other authors. I did a lot of reading about new subject areas to feel ready to record. I don’t want to give anything away, but there were words and concepts I had literally never heard of before reading the manuscript! I find that part of my job fascinating and it forces me to learn more all the time.
Kathleen: I wrote a lot of twisty sentences in Flyaway — it’s very much a book for people who like sentences! But I worry there were tongue-twisters as a result. How do you narrate a book that’s admittedly in love with its own words versus one that’s more about action and momentum?
Felicity: I love sentences, it’s true. Total book worm! When you have a book that focuses on action and momentum, the narration needs to work much more delicately with pacing and energy pushing under the layer of the throughline for the author’s story. This helps to drive the pace of the book and if you get it right, it really helps the story and suspense to live in the imagination of the listener. With novels like yours that explore its world in poetic, detailed descriptions, I tend to do individual word research. One of the things I do is read complex passages several times at home and then find the key words and look up their origin in etymology sites or books and explore the multitude of meanings. I often have so many questions about passages and usually the team at Pan McMillan/Picador are able to check with the author and I really loved receiving your audio file with pronunciations.
Kathleen: Is there anything people should listen for in this audiobook — something you tried to bring out in a particular way, for instance, or a professional choice you needed to make?
Felicity: Oh goodness! I hope I’ve done your incredible novel justice! It’s a beautiful work of art. I really tried to work hard to keep the mystery by staying in the scene — a good actor’s note I try to remember — as the story does move quite rapidly at times. I found that helped me so that I didn’t give away the surprises. I also did my best to focus on the emotion that was in the subtext of the character’s dialogue. I love it when dialogue is underwritten so that the characters are clearly saying more with their bodies and therefore the reader has to really imagine more. As a narrator, I try to address this by emotionally loading each line of dialogue with the right intonation and mood so that it subtly communicates the whole meaning, not just the words on the page, but the whole vibe!
Kathleen: I’d actually love to know how you’d describe Flyaway! (It’s been a bit of a Rorschach Test of a book.) Where does it fit into the types of stories you like (to read, or to work with)?
Felicity: It’s like a beautiful embroidery! Really rich in texture, and colours emerge as you explore the length and breadth of the fabric. It really reminded me so much of two other books. Hive by AJ Betts [audio] for its creation of a parallel world and unusual exploration of nature and also The Geography of Friendship by Sally Piper [audio] for its clear passion for the landscape, flora and fauna of Australian bush. I always love reading beautiful descriptive passages about nature & animals. And I especially love reading about each character and the way an author describes and reveals their character. I loved how deep the understanding was of each person with all their flaws, but how it seeped out like the sap of a tree rather than being delivered on a platter. I also really loved the way you wrote such a wide spectrum of female characters, all of whom departed from expectations/stereotypes.
Kathleen: What else do you do, and how do people find you and your work?
Felicity: When I’m not recording audiobooks, I am responding to sample requests for other audio projects and have been lucky to be doing all sorts of interesting projects from my home recording studio. I am lucky to have just finished work on the first children’s fiction podcast done by ABC ME. It’s called Mackeroy Uncovered – it was such fun! If people are interested in having their book narrated, I always love doing audio samples so that they can test it out! They can contact me via the incredible team at SCOUT Management.
I’ve mentioned before that I adore what Tor.com did to the silhouette for Flyaway. Having a book coming out in two markets simultaneously, however, meant a new cover — and in this case, that meant a different treatment for the same silhouette.
I love both covers — the rich embroidered density of the Tor.com cover, the airy spaciousness of the Picador — but as well as being exciting to me as an author, it’s fascinating to me as an illustrator, and as an occasional tutor/guest lecturer in writing, editing and publishing courses. It’s interesting not just because of how visible it makes the work of the designers (Jaya Miceli and Liz Seymour), but because of how clear it makes the story each publisher is telling to (and in the visual language of) their region.
I think the Tor.com cover (below) leans into the literary gothic/horror aspect (and possibly for an American-inflected taste), and I am very fond of the typeface, which reminds me of midcentury Faber poetry books. The Picador cover, on the other hand, bends towards the more literary realism/fairytale genre as it exists in Australia, with a Gothic current under the almost whimsical swoop and piercing of the title.
Both are accurate, both are beautiful, and it’s so neat to get this side-by-side comparison of what two different publishers and designers can do with the same piece of art.
I asked the designers about the direction they took (and the typefaces!)
Flyaway is an enchanting, mysterious fairy tale-like story, full of emotion and curious characters. While Kathleen’s paper cut illustration captures the elaborate quality and richness of the weaving stories, in designing the cover, I added an extra layer with an anatomical etching to peer through for color, texture and depth. At a glance the artwork feels like an intricate tapestry and up close the detail within reveals the pulsing eeriness of the story.
The opportunity to intertwine image and title type was an obvious design direction. Space, simplicity and choosing a sympathetic typeface were the key. Yana typeface is used for ‘Flyaway’, an elegant serif font, based on hand lettering.
And finally, a few words from Mathilda Imlah, publisher of Picador Australia:
There are some basic differences – the format was different, and though our markets have a lot of overlap, I couldn’t tell you why, but publishers in another country usually have really strong feelings about the type choices of other editions! When I briefed the cover I was only looking to change the type and maybe look at some variant colour.
But as we looked at those adaptations, I really felt the Lotte Reiniger-style silhouette was a strong visual referent for the audience – it speaks strongly to the tradition you work in – so preserving a silhouette became the first thing we did. I confess I always had in mind a kind of punked-up william morris illustration; that sort of literary, wistful, romantic notion of the folk/fairytale/legend oft evoked by illustrations like morris, aubrey beardsley, even mervyn peake. But you can see it cleaved closer to folk art, which suits both illustration and book much better! I would say the colour choice came out of that – I was initially asking for a much brighter set of colours – maybe even fluoro. But we didn’t favour those in the end.
— Mathilda Imlah
Flyaway is scheduled to be published at the end of July 2020, and is available for preorder from your local bookstore (see if they’re doing phone, online, or bicycle orders!), or: