Podcast episode: conversation with Amanda Niehaus

art by Kaylah Del Simone

My episode of Science Write Now’s Conversations podcast is live! I had lovely conversation with Amanda Niehaus about observations and story textures and narrative moods, and some of the topics touched on in the observation journal essays they reprinted in Edition #5.

You can listen on their website, or on Google, Apple or Spotify.

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

On getting maps into books: An interview with Karina Granda

Previously in this series of posts:

Karina Granda, Art Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, can be found at https://www.instagram.com/karinamakesbooks/. I’ve worked with her now on several books, including the maps and ornaments for Holly Black’s The Folk of the Air series (The Cruel Prince, The Wicked King, and Queen of Nothing), but most recently she was the art director on Samira Ahmed’s new middle-grade fantasy (and science adventure Amira & Hamza: The War for the Worlds, and I worked with her on the map.

She very kindly agreed to be interviewed about putting maps in books (generally, and specifically Amira & Hamza) — and to interview me right back! So halfway through this post the roles flip…

Kathleen 1: What do maps do for you as a reader/art director? Do you have a favourite map (literary or otherwise)? 

Karina: Typically we place our maps at the front of the book, and they are very useful for instances where the reader is being introduced to a new world, and/or where the sense of place and space is very important. We often think of fantasy books since you are entering lands unknown, often built from scratch by the author, and the characters move through a large space, multiple kingdom’s etc. But some are more unconventional. I recently commissioned a map for April Henry’s upcoming book, TWO TRUTHS AND A LIE, which is a thriller that takes place entirely within a motel. The motel map clues the reader into the entrances, the exits, the dead ends–which creates a really interactive experience where the reader can follow the map to chart the action, or try and guess escape routes for themselves! I also love the maps for the AMIRA & HAMZA series because they deal with time and space in such an unconventional way.

Kathleen 2: How do you decide when to put a map into a book? What do you look for in an illustrator, when commissioning maps? 

Karina: When I commission a map, the first thing I think of is the purpose of the map. Does it need to be highly literal? For non-fiction books, or perhaps a book where we are following a war, etc.—we often want to be very exacting about scale, relative positioning, dimensions, landmarks, etc. Or is this one where we can take more artistic liberties? Is this one where we can add more decorations and fun tidbits? Where we can choose which places to emphasize in scale/detail based on significance in the book, and not literal size? For very literal maps, I look for artists that have a cartographer’s approach. If not, I cast a wider net—including some artists that may never have done a map before—but that match the tone and feel of the story (and the art created for the cover). Or perhaps the map is an opportunity for contrast. One thing I found really fun about working on the FOLK OF THE AIR series is that we had these hyper-modern 3D covers, but were able to use the map and interior art to add a softness and whimsy that we needed for a more complete package.

Kathleen 3: Why did you want maps in this book? Did the particular requirements of this map give you any pause? 

Karina: The maps for AMIRA & HAMZA posed quite a unique challenge in that we were not just looking for how to move north to the mountains, or east to the ocean, let’s say; but we are dealing in different dimensions and moments in history. In all honesty, I conceptually understood what Samira wanted, but I did not have the vision for how to execute it in a way that was digestible as a map. But I knew Kathleen is so fantastic at fantasy, and maps, and also in giving extra special care and detail into everything she does, that I knew if she took it on, she would figure it out. And it was truly perfect.

Kathleen 4: Thank you!
Do all maps in books need to do the same thing? Or what are some of the purposes a map might serve? Have there been any Unexpected Moments in Maps in your career? 

Karina: All maps “set the scene”; but I think that can be literal, or more for the purposes of feel/tone. I do my best as an art director to avoid surprises! And really it is out of respect for the time and energy that artists are bringing to the work. So I try to start by seeking out as many details and as much information as possible. Though I have to admit that I was thrown for a loop when it was decided that FOLK OF THE AIR would need different (but similar!) maps in order to adapt to a changing landscape—and our artist works in ink! Series pose the most surprises since it can be the author’s prerogative to introduce change at many points in the process. That said, we were lucky that Holly and Kathleen are both so flexible, and such pros, and we were always able to make it work. ;)

Map for The Wicked King, by Holly Black. Little, Brown 2019

Kathleen 5: What’s the process you follow when you’re commissioning a map? Are there any surprises in that process? Has anything ever gone hilariously wrong (that you can talk about)? 

Karina: First we determine whether we need a more literal or artistic map, and then we look for artists that would complement the style of the art we are pursuing for the jacket. Typically we share some options with the author so they can have a say in the art style too. Then I pose what many authors consider to be a big challenge: Please doodle the map for me. It can be incredibly rough and amateur, but it is very important that we are all on the same page about the relative positions of the different landmarks and locations. And I promise that everyone has been more than capable of providing what we need. I also ask for a list of the landmarks and locations with written descriptions and/or visual references so that the artist has something to work with when adding all their great details. We’ve been lucky to work with so many fantastic artists and authors, that the rest of my job tends to be easy on my end! It mostly entails shepherding and clarifying feedback. But the artists are really the ones working their magic. I am just a gopher. ;)

Kathleen 6: What would be your favourite thing to find in a map? 

Karina: I think all great art for books brings its own level of storytelling. For example, when I think of a good picture book, there is always a little something more being said in the image. It is in conversation with the text, but not just a literal representation of the author’s words. And I think the same can be said for maps. I like finding the hidden characters, the specific flowers that would grow in that forest, the pearl or mermaid in the ocean, etc. I look for all the things the mapmaker brought to the art in order to make it feel vibrant and alive.

Kathleen 7: What would be the worst/funniest book to have a map in, if you could only get away with it? 

Karina: I imagine that any book with a map that would travel through the human body could have a hilarious and also totally gross component. A book like EVERYONE POOPS or TRUE OR POO? Or if there were some non-fiction book about how cities work, you could map some poop or dead goldfish making it’s way through a sewage system. And honestly think some kids would love maps like that. Kids can be totally weird! But that said, maps are always in conversation with the text, so I don’t think it would ever be any weirder than the story the author and publisher have already agreed to put out there!

Kathleen 8: Any questions you’d like me to answer?

Karina: Yes!

Karina 1:  What is your process for taking an author’s words and doodles and giving them an actual shape/drawing/form?

Kathleen: Obviously it depends a little on the final shape. Usually I sketch out the basic layout on the first page of my folded sketch paper, just to keep it in mind. But after that, I like to start by first just reading the manuscript or extracts, and taking notes. Where possible, I take make the notes in pictures. That way I’ve already solved (or identified!) a few problems, and can see at a glance where I might need to do more research — for example, whether certain creatures should be drawn with or without shirts, or whether something “appears” because it becomes relevant or because it magically comes into being (both of these on maps I worked on with you!). That’s where I might play with style, make little wishlists of things I’d like to draw, and so on. 

Sometimes this is like reading through the pencil — it goes straight from the book to the page and I just follow along. Sometimes it is a very complicated logic puzzle — sentences that seem to make sense can be tricky to turn into an actual picture, especially with fantasy! And then I have to get the tone right — what am I doing to the words. A picture can make something more grim, more whimsical, austere, warm…

After that I get more mechanical. I rule up several boxes with the shape I have to work in. Often I’ll make a cardboard template — I have a few standard ones already in my pencil case. They might be only a couple of centimetres/an inch tall. Then I start sketching the strongest ideas into them, very tiny.  I choose the best of those and send them to the art director, so you can consult and choose or suggest variations.

Tiny sketches from developing the map for Amira & Hamza

Karina 2: What is your biggest challenge when creating a map? Or, is there any map you have worked on that has been particularly challenging?

Kathleen: The biggest general challenge, apart from sometimes drawing more trees than I bargained for, is fitting the map into the page. Worlds are very rarely written to exactly fit two open book pages! And that’s working with just one world, and not the multiple tilisms of Amira & Hamza. But I have to fit the world plausibly into that space, and then fill the rest of that space pleasingly, accounting for margins and the area that risks disappearing into the gutter (fold).

Specific challenges vary. Amira & Hamza, with its map that’s more of a conceptual representation of the links and progression between spaces, made me pull right back and ask what a map could and should look like. For Folk of the Air, I had to think about real-world vs fairytale geology in designing the islands — and then fit new details into the sequel maps (splendid fun, but some spatial tinkering!). In two maps I have coming out next year, I had to deal with a lot of unexplored space, and ask how the characters who might have made the maps might have filled those areas up. 

I like to draw maps which capture the feeling of a world, rather than precise distances. But there’s still challenges there — with Folk of the Air, for example, you and I had to consider the ideal balance of whimsy and ominous elements, which led to me adding (among other things) some tiny skulls. But still I need to think a bit about geography — what flows where, or if it’s a slightly 3-dimensional map, what might be obscured by mountains or buildings.

Karina 3: What is the most fun part of working on a map?

Kathleen: The fact that every map is so different! I really do love these little puzzles — and then, once I solve them, getting to fill all the blank spaces with simurghs or mermaids or skulls or ominous toadstools or stars. And getting to put tiny stories and jokes and reinterpretations into the design. And I love how much people who see them get excited about having a world unrolled in front of them.

When I was little, I envied the characters who got to climb into books, and of all the jobs I’ve had, being an illustrator is the closest to that, and of all illustrations, drawing maps is like parachuting in.

Karina 4: What are your favorite maps? Literary or otherwise?

Kathleen: The Muppets travelling by map!

Well, my least favourite is the big wall map I have which is centred on Australia, because it turns out there are good design reasons not to do that: vast oceans on either side, and all the other continents squished around the edges. It’s rubbish for reference, and has made me feel so much further away from everyone all year.

Favourite… Hmm. I love so many — I’ve previously posted links of some of my favourite books of maps. Pauline Baynes’ maps were my first fantasy maps and she was the first illustrator who made me realise what illustration could do. And the maps always make me taste salt air and smell pines in the snow… When I walked into the Tolkien exhibition and saw her maps of Middle Earth — right there, in gouache! — I gasped. And my father used to build 3-dimensional maps out of blankets and cushions, to demonstrate historical events or how our property was laid out. That was when maps first made sense to me, as objects you could — almost — hold and touch and turn to see how the world works. More recently, I really like Elisabeth Alba‘s work, especially her map for Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Finally:

And do check out Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, a rollicking, thrilling middle grade adventure through science, mythology, poetry, and more worlds than you usually get in one map!

Amira & Hamza — An interview with Samira Ahmed!

A few days ago, I wrote about the illustrated map I drew for Samira Ahmed’s Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds. Here is the link to that post: Map Process — Amira & Hamza.

Photo pinched from Samira Ahmed. Cover illustrated by Kim Ekdahl and designed by Karina Granda

Samira very kindly agreed to let me interview her for this blog, about the book and its world(s)!

About Samira: Samira Ahmed is the bestselling author of Love, Hate & Other FiltersInternmentMad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, and  Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, as well as a Ms. Marvel comic book mini-series.  Her poetry, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies including the New York TimesTake the MicColor Outside the LinesVampires Never Get Old and A Universe of Wishes. You can read more about her, her books, events, and more over at https://samiraahmed.com/.

KJ: You combine the physically observable world (in fact, astronomy is a big part of how the book starts!) with many things the readers won’t see so often through a telescope. How do these two parts of Amira & Hamza come together?

SA: Part of what made writing this middle grade fantasy fun for me was intertwining the known world with the unknown. It presents an interesting challenge to the characters, especially Amira, who is very much a science nerd and a logical, data-driven kid. What happens when the world you know is challenged by the fantastical? By the things you have to (maybe not so willingly) suspend your belief to confront? Those questions create tension and conflict in the story and are a space where the character can grow. And it also reflects our history. As Amira says, sometimes the magical is just science we don’t understand yet.

KJ: In between the adventure of Amira & Hamza, there is some very useful science. How (and why) did you decide to balance those two aspects?

SA: Science is real. And science is incredibly cool! Those are two facts that Amira understands at her core. Science allows us to understand the world we live in; it allows us to understand ourselves and our space in the natural world and I think that’s absolutely amazing. When confronted with some seemingly impossible situations, I really wanted Amira and Hamza to try and science their way out of things. Yes, there’s magic in the book. But science is also magical and I wanted to show that.

KJ: Is the box of the moon real?

SA: Yes! In a way. Al-Biruni (973-1050), one of the great scientists of Islam’s Golden Age (9th-13th centuries) designed the Box of the Moon—a mechanical astronomical calendar that had eight gear wheels and a gear train. It was considered an early processing machine. Though there is no existing “original” Box of the Moon artifact, I thought it would be cool to have one as a key element to the story. As a kid, I loved learning about ancient tools and instruments! And I wanted to incorporate a bit of medieval Islamic history into Amira & Hamza’s story.

KJ: Amira & Hamza is full of helpful, antagonistic, and warring beings, startling and colourful! [I had a wonderful time diving into reference images!] Where did they come from, and how did you fit them together with a story of two people who’ve grown up not seeing devs and peris on a regular basis? Do you have a favourite creature or being in the books?

SA: Jinn. Peris. Devs. Ghuls. These are ancient creatures and their countless stories and legends might be new to the Western world, but Amira & Hamza were familiar with stories of jinn and other fire spirits as are most people from South Asian Muslim backgrounds (and likely those of any Muslim background regardless of ethnicity/nationality). Specifically for Amira & Hamza, I was inspired by the Hamzanama—or the Adventures of Amir Hamza—an incredible Islamic epic about the warrior Amira Hamza. The tales of his exploits traveled across the Islamic world through oral tradition. It is believed that the legend began in Persia, well over a thousand years ago! My two favorite fantastical characters in Amira & Hamza are Maqbool and Aasman Peri—for very different reasons. But both were very fun characters to write and were critical to the story.

KJ: There are a lot of worlds in Amira & Hamza. Or rather, a lot of bits of worlds, and small worlds, and subworlds… It was quite exciting to try and draw them all on one piece of paper! How did the idea for/design of the worlds come together? And how did you keep track of them? (And do you have a favourite?)

SA: You depicted them beautifully! Truly, one of the things I’ve always wanted as an author was a cool map in my book and you gave me one! In the original tales of the Hamzanama, the warrior Amir Hamza travels to the fantastical lands of Qaf and visits many of the same tilisms and realms that I wrote about in the book. Of course, as I wrote them into the world of Amira & Hamza, I created them to fit the narrative and built them as intertwined—as you showed them—so Amira & Hamza would be compelled to travel forward to their quest’s end. I actually drew (very, very rough) sketches of the world of Qaf before I started writing so I could figure out how my characters would physically move through the world and how each place they visited presented a new danger and a new challenge.

Soon I will also post an interview with art director Karina Granda — keep an eye out for that! You can read about the map process here: Map Process — Amira & Hamza.

And do check out Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, a rollicking, thrilling middle grade adventure through science, mythology, poetry, and more worlds than you usually get in one map!

A thrilling fantasy adventure intertwining Islamic legend and history.

On the day of a rare super blue blood moon eclipse, twelve-year-old Amira and her little brother, Hamza, can’t stop their bickering while attending a special exhibit on medieval Islamic astronomy. While stargazer Amira is wowed by the amazing gadgets, a bored Hamza wanders off, stumbling across the mesmerizing and forbidden Box of the Moon. Amira can only watch in horror as Hamza grabs the defunct box and it springs to life, setting off a series of events that could shatter their world—literally.

Suddenly, day turns to night, everyone around Amira and Hamza falls under a sleep spell, and a chunk of the moon breaks off, hurtling toward them at lightning speed, as they come face-to-face with two otherworldly creatures: jinn.

The jinn reveal that the siblings have a role to play in an ancient prophecy. Together, they must journey to the mystical land of Qaf, battle a great evil, and end a civil war to prevent the moon—the stopper between realms—from breaking apart and unleashing terrifying jinn, devs, and ghuls onto earth. Or they might have to say goodbye to their parents and life as they know it, forever.…

“Ghoulish but sentimental” — an interview with Socar Myles, Ghostwriter

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?

Continue reading

Spectology interview

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.”

You can listen to the podcast here: https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-qvnig-ed8ddb

(And the Storied Imaginarium fairy tale salon is happening this Friday (USA)/Saturday (Aus) in case you’d like to hear more about fairy tales and Flyaway and writing games...)

Faster Forward interview

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!

A few upcoming events (all online):

Flyaway: Locus Review and 3CR interview

Katharine Coldiron’s review of Flyaway for Locus magazine is now up on their website.

“It should be no surprise that Kathleen Jennings’s debut novel is splendid and unusual, that it feels like a dispatch from another, finer world, that it frightens and enchants in the same breath.”

And I had a great conversation with David McLean of “Published or Not” on 3CR community radio in Melbourne, which is now online here:

(Flyaway is now available through all good bookstores and the usual online suspects.)

Podcast interview: Intermultiversal Space

“a prismatic work, a work of poetry decanted into the beating chambers of a novella, a living and breathing novella which is never prosaic”

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!)

But the full podcast episode is here on soundcloud: Episode 13 — Kathleen Jennings.

And you can find Intermultiversal Space generally (and there are some interviews with very interesting people, such as P. Djèlí Clark and Seanan McGuire) on Soundcloud, Apple podcasts, and Twitter.

Justin Devine: interview — art and books

A few days ago I posted the lovely lovely fanart of Flyaway that Justin Devine created for his review on Drawn to Culture.

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.”

Justin Devine by Justin Devine

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.

The Widening Gyre — Justin Devine (available as a print on InPrnt)

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.

From Chronicle/Hardie Grant

Justin can be found online in the following places:

Flyawayadjacent interviews

And since this seems to be becoming a series, some previous interviews that have happened due to Flyaway connections: