art

Why aren’t there more illustrations in fiction?

Ten years ago this week I made up International Illustrator Appreciation Day, so naturally enough I’ve been thinking about illustrations.

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Three very different illustrated novels

I’m halfway through The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, and though I didn’t realise they were there when I bought the book, I’ve been enjoying the illustrations that mark each new chapter:

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Illustration by Yoco Nagamiya

They set the scene in some way for the chapter to come, and unlike the cover art they depict the cat, Nana, as he’s described in the text. The wash style fits beautifully with the whimsy of this Japanese novel.

Not long ago I read Wyntertide, the second book in Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy. That, being a fantasy novel which also has a map, is the sort of territory you might expect illustrations, and indeed there are full-page pictures dotted through the book:

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Illustration by Sasha Laika

To me, these ones are reminiscent of the illustrations you might find in an old-fashioned children’s book, complete with a quote beneath, to show which part of the text they go with.

The ones that were delightfully unexpected and seemed a bit odd at first are these:

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Mid-text illustration by..?

This is from the Reginald Hill novel The Roar of the Butterflies, the final book in his Joe Sixsmith private detective series. Sadly it’s the only one of the series that I’ve got in this style (I bought them all second-hand), but OneMonkey particularly loved it. They’re not quite comedies but they’re light touch, and Joe is an easy-going central character so once you accept these drawings they work really well. I’m not altogether sure who drew them as I can’t find a direct reference, only that the cover art was by Christopher Burke.

Three different styles of novel, three genres, three different ways of arranging the illustrations (in among the text, full page within a chapter, chapter headings only). The only commonality being that these are all aimed at adults. In children’s books we often encounter illustrations like this but (maps in fantasy novels aside) rarely once we’re adults. Perhaps there’s an idea that they’re only for kids, and of course it adds an extra collaborator in to complicate deadlines and share the takings with, but I think they add something to the novel. Not everyone likes graphic novels, not all books lend themselves to that treatment, but surely there are lots of readers who’d appreciate a sprinkling of art in their books. We’re not demanding it because unless we’re reminded by books like these how nice it was to read text with illustrations when we were younger, we’ve forgotten what it is we’re missing out on.

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.

Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).

Week 5: Sleighbells ring, I’m not listening

Somebody please tell me how it’s December 5th. I’ve had the first listen to the old Metal Christmas tape, I’ve eaten half a dozen mince pies, but I’m not getting what you’d call festive. There is no tinsel in my heart. Of course this won’t surprise anyone that much if they’ve ever encountered me in December before, but I do try (sometimes) to feel the excitement and capture the magic. In a non-consumer-capitalist way, obviously.

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Hat(s) courtesy Sister Number 1.

Closest I’ve got this year so far is via the fabulous sketches by Chris Mould for Matt Haig’s new children’s book The Girl Who Saved Christmas – he’s tweeting pages day by day I think. Incidentally, it looks like Chris Mould is from Bradford, which I honestly only noticed after I’d been bowled over by his illustrating style…

This week I’ve made two story submissions, and written nearly 6,000 words of the novel I was doing for NaNoWriMo (it got derailed so I’m giving it a bit longer). And read a lot of urban fantasy (which is relevant to the novel I’m writing).

Time to start thinking back on the (reading and writing) year, soon. How has yours been?

Creative payment: the digital tip jar

How many times have you contributed to an author, artist or musician’s coffers when you’ve had the (legitimate) alternative of downloading for free? I’m guilty of neglecting the digital tip jar myself, I’ll download a book (usually a pdf) because it’s free (might as well) but I’ll wait and see if it was any good before I part with any money (after all, anyone can supply any quality of writing for free as a pdf). A couple of years later I haven’t got round to reading it, or if I have I can’t remember where it came from so whether or not I rated it, the author hasn’t got anything from me. It would take a more dedicated person than me to go back and pay in a separate transaction from downloading the book (album, etc) anyway. Given all this, I can hardly complain at the lack of funds flowing through my own tip jar (the biscuit and biro fund, accessible where you can download my novel, my SF collection or The Little Book of Northern Women).

For a while, a few years ago, both Wasted Years and The Little Book of Northern Women were for sale on Amazon, and people took a chance and paid real money for them (thank you, if you were one of those adventurous souls). I took them off Amazon because I’m not comfortable with their dominance and, longterm user of open source software that I am (and having now read PostCapitalism by Paul Mason I appreciate that I’m apparently prefiguring the transition to a post-capitalist society) it made more sense somehow to make them freely available under a Creative Commons licence and ask people to chip in if they’d enjoyed it, then do the same for everything else I wanted to get out there. Think of it a little like crowdfunding: everyone who contributes only pays a small amount they’ll hardly notice, but it adds up across all the contributors so that the author, musicians or whoever (in this case me, and OneMonkey who does most of the proofreading, formatting etc and designed the cover for Cracks in the Foundations) gets a reasonable amount of money. The trouble is, as mentioned earlier, not that many people do it (even me).

I completely get that if you only have a small amount of money to spend on books I can’t compete with the new Stephen King or JK Rowling, just like some local band with their first album out can’t compete with Iron Maiden. I also understand that even with good intentions (like me) people don’t go back to donate once they’ve read the book or listened to the album. And I’d rather know loads of people were reading my stuff (and, I hope, enjoying it) than put off the potential readers that can’t afford to take a chance. But digital tip jars don’t seem to be the answer. Given that all writers, artists and musicians need to eat even if they’re not household names, does anyone know how we make this kind of deal work?

End of the summer days

Where does the time go? One minute you’ve got 12 work-free days up ahead, ready to be filled with all manner of excitement, the next there’s a day and a half to go before you resume the day-job and the to-do list’s as long as your arm and you haven’t written so much as a blog post. Or is that just me?

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This picture of a red squirrel from last week might give you a clue as to what I’ve been doing instead of writing. A day at the seaside, some walks on the moors, a lazy summer afternoon with my sisters, a birthday visit to Big Brother, lots of quality time with paperbacks on trains. And then there’s the small matter of redecorating the study.

The study had pastel candy-stripe wallpaper and cream floor to ceiling cupboards, a relic from the previous owner. In our usual make do and mend fashion we’d covered the lot with posters and got on with our lives for five years. Fuelled by tea and a stack of old cassettes (AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Slayer, Coverdale Page and The Blues Brothers) it’s now got colourful cupboards, revealed hearth tiles (sadly no fireplace) and two of the walls are papered in carefully selected pages from an out of date children’s encyclopedia. Wall number 3 is largely bookcase which makes it a task for another time. As OneMonkey pointed out, the room needed renaming since neither of us actually study in here any more, it’s more of a creating space like a workshop. Ooh, or a shed! (Influenced by Joanne Harris, I suspect). Behold, The Shed:

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So here I am, ensconced in The Shed with a mug of tea and good intentions. Best get down to some writing.

(And yes, the title was a Tyketto reference. You should know my questionable musical taste by now)

Forthcoming Ostragoth comic: an interview with the illustrator

In between watching live streaming from this year’s Wacken festival, OneMonkey has been working on our new comic. It’s an adaptation of my short story Waiting for Boothroyd (which you can read in my SF collection Cracks in the Foundations).

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OneMonkey has done lettering, odd bits of artwork, and general editing/layout/adding brilliance for Ostragoth’s previous comics, but this time he’s taking on all art-related duties. To the backdrop of a Saxon gig I asked him why, how, and all those kinds of things.

I dabbled a bit last year and I thought I’d got the lettering I needed but I couldn’t get the character style right so I put it to one side. Coming back to it this year I hit on a good character design but that didn’t work with the previous lettering at all so I had to go back to the drawing board on that.

The character design is still under wraps because it may well change (I think it’s good, but I guess I’m slightly biased).

Thinking back to the odd 60s cartoons I used to watch, I wanted something along those lines. I saw a couple of what turned out to be Saul Bass-inspired fonts and they were close but not quite right. So I started from scratch, roughing out the outlines in the gimp then creating the vectors in Inkscape.

He’s like that. He sat and drew then re-drew all the letters until he was happy (a couple of days later). But now we have something unique.

Waiting for Boothroyd is planned to be a dynamic svg comic but we’ll have to see how that turns out. Not like I’ve ever done one before.

That doesn’t usually stop him. I for one am eagerly awaiting the completion of this version of Waiting for Boothroyd. I’ll keep you posted here.