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?
“Flyway is a brilliant piece of Australian Gothic literature; the dread in the air, the macabre details lurking in the shadows, and the unease of the landscape that Jennings writes is so unsettling it’s like every creepy, weird campfire ghost story rolled together, with a heavy dose of sinister fairy tale thrown in.“
And here is an interview Harry Spiteri did with me last November at the World Fantasy Convention, before Flyaway came out (although ARCs were just beginning to be in circulation). He has just released it as the first episode of The Harry Spiteri Show:
Bee of Spectology podcast interviewed me about Flyaway! It was a lovely, laughing, rambling conversation about stories and fascinations and Australian Gothic and many other things.
“Flyaway is a fairy tale-influenced (or structured?) Australian Gothic novel (or novella?). Small town landscapes and linguistics, productive misinterpretations of fairy tales… and what it’s like to write a strict first-person novel with a slew of other voices in it are some of the topics discussed.”
My interview with Mike Zipser on Faster Forward Live is up on YouTube, talking about art and Flyaway and all sorts of things — and while we were missing catching up in person, I think we got the chance to talk to each other with far fewer distractions than we would have at a convention!
Last week I had a lovely long rambling interview/conversation with Gareth Jelley of Intermultiversal Space to talk a little about Flyaway and a lot about… well, books, the effect of landscape on story, the Spitfire doing loops over my house, and narrative time as dealt with in Icelandic sagas vs Poirot.
Here’s a teaser clip of it on Twitter (in which I inexplicably got soil types confused — I should have said sand and black soil, but there were also clay and red dirt areas — there was a lot of area!)
Yesterday I got to speak with the illustrator and writer and academic Kathleen Jennings. It was an amazing conversation which jumped all over the place, skipping from continent to continent and idea to idea. Here is a snippet about Australia. @tanaudelpic.twitter.com/lvufGPKvKu
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:
Olivia Brown of the University of Queensland’s School of Communication & Arts interviewed me about my writing (including but not limited to Flyaway), illustration, and research, and wrote this lovely long article (with lots of pictures):
Jodie Sloan of The AU Review interviewed me about Flyaway, and parts of the writing process (you can read her review there, too). I very much enjoyed picking through some of the descriptive techniques I was trying out in the novella — textures and lighting and illustrative approaches.