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?
I’m very excited to have my short story “Not to be Taken” included in the forthcoming Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations, and in very fine company. The story has been described as “very strange”.
And then I saw this lovely reduction linoprint from Bethan Foulkes (bethanfoulkes on Instagram), and clearly it was meant to be mine.
t was a wonderful group of new and old friends — poets, directors, artists, writers, readers —and 14 people were reading aloud. (The screenshot above is from the text Claire marked up for reading).
As a writer, getting to see people play with the words, emphasise and pronounce and laugh in real time, getting to watch readers read (which is what I mean when I say reading is a spectator sport), and have people excerpting their favourite lines in the chat, and discussing their train experiences and reminiscing about certain movements of a carriage, and sending photos of scenes like those described, and discussing the qualities of pigs, was just enchanting.
I’ve included the screenshot above because of this line:
Night, and all the shape of the land is in the shift and wallow of the carriage.
It captured so much of what it turns out I was trying to do with Travelogues: to hold onto scenes and moments in such a way that the reader could get into them and travel inside them, the way a passenger does in a carriage, feeling the landscape through the movement. It’s one of the qualities of what I’ve been calling industrial fabulism — a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.
And then as a writer, to get to follow the reader’s experience — through accents and word choices and meanings — added a fascinating nested quality to this effect, and was an astonishing gift to receive from some very good friends.
We chatted about this after the readings, but I was also thinking of it because of seeing the Mavis Ngallametta exhibition at GOMA last week. Her work is vast and shimmering and affectionate. It’s deeply unlike Ravilious‘s (mentioned in Travelogues) and William Robinson‘s. And yet, like their paintings, Ngallametta’s enormous canvases convey the impression that if only you could get inside them and contort yourself just so (parachute up through the wall for Ngallametta and open your many-lensed eyes; slide through an old train window and fill your lungs for Ravilious; roll down a rainforested mountain for Robinson) you could be in the artist’s world.
(This connects to the discussion because Travelogues was a painterly exercise in many ways — it’s a (written) visual sketchbook, recording physical observations and sorting through pallettes and lines.)
Further thoughts no doubt to follow.
Travelogues is now available to purchase from Brainjar Press directly and the usual online suspects, as print and ebook. Brainjar Press is using local printer options where possible, but given the current state of postal services generally, it’s better to order earlier than later!
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:
“One of my favorite concepts this book plays with is the idea of folklore as invasive species, and what happens to stories when they’re exported to unfamiliar lands…”
I really like the combination of reviews and fanart — so I’ve spoken to Justin about that since and will tell you more soon…
Washington Independent Review of Books
Mariko Hewer wrote a thoughtful review of Flyaway for the Washington Independent review of books: Flyaway review. (FYI — this is not a spoilery review but it does follow the plot along reasonably far).
“As you might imagine, Flyaway is not the sort of book to tie every loose end into a beautiful bow for the reader’s sake. But it will leave you feeling deeply satisfied…”
And by post I received a beautiful presenter gift, made by Canberra fairy-tale glass artist Spike Deane (I’m a fan of her work, and already have a lovely glass key). But this was something new — it’s a little gold compact…
But when opened, and mirrored in itself, in blue glass are the words Once Upon a Time…
I had thoughts of using a mirror compact and doing something to it. Ideas came and went. I bought a lovely vintage powder compact, which sunk 60% of the budget. I settled on the idea of replacing the powder section with an engraved piece of coloured glass, with the text engraved in a way that to read it you are required to look in the mirror.
Happy with that concept I then mulled over how to create some ‘flash glass’. Flash glass is sheet glass with a very thin layer of colour on one side. When you sandblast or engrave away the coloured side you can create imagery or pattern. I could buy some, but $$$… make some, but $$$ and then guess what fell into my lap?
A large piece of blue blown glass was being offered FREE at the Canberra Glassworks, so long, as that person smashed the object. I jumped at the chance and claimed my prize. I clobbered it with a hammer (safely and satisfyingly).
I then cut a small circle out of one of the shards (harder than you would think). I ground the edges and engraved some lettering on one side and flourishes on the other.
This was a seven-cake birthday, somehow (thank you to all responsible!), but I particularly wanted to show you this cake my older sister organised from Sugar Art by Zoe Byers.
My sister gave her the link to my website, and Zoe chose the Flyaway cover!
The cut out was made by joining two pieces of wafer paper (to add strength for it to stand up). I then traced your gorgeous image, hand cut it out and painted it with edible paint. I am so thrilled you like it.
And here is the final cake — a wonderful cake and a marvellous surprise!
I’ve mentioned before how nice it is when someone takes away a drawing and brings it back as something shiny. Well, yesterday, when I was expecting an electrician to carry a sheet of melamine back through the open front door, Sue of Tiny Owl Workshop walked in, bearing treasure!
In all Owl Abbas, before it burned (after the Falling but before the Cartographer’s War and the Recurrence of Owls), there were among its many windows only two that need concern us…
This is the illustration reveal for Audrey Benjaminsen‘s beautiful charred, byzantine illustration for my story “The Heart of Owl Abbas”, which is to be published by Tor.com in April. It’s the first time (as far as I recall!) that a story of mine has been illustrated for publication by someone else, and I am so happy with it. Look at all those tiny engraved details, and the little lace cuffs, and that muscular, visceral heart.