It’s Monday morning, I have a fresh brew next to me (assam, if you must know) and a pack of ginger nuts for sustenance. I am about to tell you the story of how I came to illustrate John Connolly’s novella “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms” and divulge some parts of the process. I will try not to give too many plot points away, but there will be a few minor spoilers so if you haven’t read it yet I suggest you come back later. This will be a long and meandering blog so you might want to go make yourself a drink, it’s OK, I’ll wait for you to get back…
OK we good? Cool, let us begin….
A little background information: last year Mr C (as he will henceforth be known) ran a competition to coincide with the launch of The Wrath of Angels, to design a postcard based on the Charlie Parker books. I entered with my illustration “Reparation…” and at first I wasn’t chosen as a winner, which was fine. To be honest I enjoyed getting back on the old illustration horse and it was nice to be acknowledged by someone you admire. Then, a week or so later I received a second email from Mr C subject line: “and then again…”
“Looking at these images again as we load them to the website — and upon further consideration and consultation with minion Clair — I’ve decided that five is an arbitrary number, and your piece is really too good to save until later. After all, it’s my contest, isn’t it?”
Well as you can imagine upon reading this, I did a kermit arm flail round the Sky Castle a bit (a lot) and it took me at a while to compose myself enough to respond. Let me tell you, that was a good day, especially as I can count on one finger the amount of contests I have won in my 29 years on this spinning rock. As I am sure you are now wondering, the only other thing I have ever won was the chance to hand a spade to Princess Anne so she could plant a tree at my primary school. Well, I say won, I fell off the catwalk at the school fashion show in front of the entire school so they let me do it, I think to ebb some of the embarrassment. But I digress…what a marvelous honour for me to be included at the last minute, especially as the quality of entries was so high! Later in the year I got to meet Mr C at an event at Cleckheaton town hall which you can read all about here and I can get on with telling my tale.
Now that I have covered the obligatory background story, we can move onto the exciting stuff and veer off on more tangents. On March 19th I launched the International Geek Girl PenPals Club with my lovely friend Leslie after we had a mad flash of inspiration. What followed in the next fortnight was unprecedented, incredible, mind blowing madness and the beginnings of something magical. What most people don’t know if that the day after we launched, I received an email from Mr C. asking if I would be interested in doing some illustrations for a novella he had written called ‘The Wanderer in Unknown Realms’. So taking into consideration the excitement and giddiness from all the IGGPPC shenanigans (as detailed, in depth, in this post) and then add in the fact that someone who I am a massive fan of had asked me to do some work for them, I am still surprised I didn’t just spontaneously combust on the spot.
So here I was again, kermitting around Farquharson HQ like a mad woman. I think I read the email three times before it sunk in. This was/is a big deal for me, huge in fact, I just didn’t know where to begin. After a few emails back and forth about what was needed (I was basically given free reign, the only constraints being that they needed to be full page and in portrait and done within a month or so) Mr C sent me the manuscript and away I went. I printed it out and spent the next three days absorbing it. As luck would have it I had booked the next few weeks off work (for no good reason other than respite from being in Dewsbury), so I had plenty of time to really immerse myself in the project.
The first time, I just read it cover to cover, allowing myself to enjoy the story and the privilege that I was getting to read something long before anyone else would. On the second read I went at it armed with post it notes and highlighter pens, marking passages our for consideration and making notes on initial ideas, themes and motifs. For such a short story, there is a wealth of ideas to work on, given time I could probably have done an illustration for each chapter in the book.
At this point in the proceedings IGGPPC was really starting to build up momentum, sign ups were coming in thick and fast and excitement and interest in the project was starting to get fevered. As the book hadn’t been announced at this point, and me being a paranoid polly, I was very cautious about who I told about it. The Boif, my parents and a few close friends knew about it but no one else. It was only after the registrations for round one closed that I cracked and told Leslie about it, because there is no way in hell I could juggle pen pal madness with doing the illustrations. Of course, she was nothing but supportive and took on more of the workload so I could knuckle down with the task at hand.
What followed in the next few days can only describe as a blur. I was up all day and night (averaging about 4 hours sleep a night) for a week. I knew roughly which parts of the book I wanted to illustrate but nothing was working. Somehow my brain and my hand were not working together and I was starting to think I had made a huge mistake. My mind kept telling me that I was a fraud, that any talent I had was merely a fluke and I was sure to be found out. None of the ideas I has seemed to be fitting together and by Wednesday I was sure I was going to have to email Mr C and say I couldn’t do it, but I didn’t. I didn’t because at 3am Thursday morning I had a revelation and everything fell into place.
I had given up for the day and resigned myself to bed to try get some sleep. In my bedroom I have some of my illustrations framed on the wall and I was staring at them as I willed my brain to turn off, or at least calm itself down.
While staring at them, the realization came that I had always worked with a quote. If I chose a sentence or paragraph that resonated with what I wanted to portray then I could make the pieces and ideas fit together so much easier.
Well, let me tell you at that moment you could almost hear the ‘ping’ as a light bulb appeared above my head. I sprang back out of bed, grabbed the manuscript and headed back to the computer. My grey matter was working overtime and no sleep would be happening anytime soon. From that moment on, my ideas just started to fall into place and I started working on what would become Soter on the Stairs.
Over the next few days ‘…Stairs’ would come together, Revolted/Maggs was started, I built Maulding’s house and then began to try give form to the creatures. From the book:
“I had a brief impression of an armoured body, pinkish-black in color with many, many legs. I caught a glimpse of sharp pincers like those of an earwig, except larger and wickedly sharp…”
From the first time I read it, I had an idea of how they might look; a sort of earwig-lobster-spider hybrid. With such a vivid idea of what they might look like I decided to run with it and try bring the creature to life. When I was finished, I’ll admit I was both proud and disgusted with myself; proud because the finished creature looked terrifying and disgusted for the same reasons!
I tested it on my best friend who screamed when she opened the image, so I considered the it to be a success. (Sorry to share that with the world Nicola, but you are a wet lettuce when it comes to creepy crawlies!)
On Easter Sunday I sent the first four illustrations off to Mr C to see what he thought and thankfully he approved! Some tweeks and reworks were needed on “…Stairs” and “The House” but the creatures went over well as did poor Mags, sat at his table. I had started working three other illustrations, what would become “Eliza Burns” and “Soter Waits” then another still unfinished and untitled one concerning ghastly children in a street.
Eliza Dunwidge, the purveyor of occult books, is my favourite character in the novella. Her zealous passion for “Terrae Incognitae” swirled off the page and into my imagination, and practically the whole of chapter twelve (XII) is highlighted and annotated in my manuscript.
“If ‘why’ was the first and last question, then ‘because I was curious to see what would happen’ was the first and last answer. A version of it has been spoken to God Himself in the Garden of Eden, and it was always destined to be the reason for the end of things at the hands of men”
It was important to me to capture the mood of that particular part of the book, as it is a major turning point in the story. I spent two days refining Eliza, framed by flames and a fireplace, and she became, in my opinion, the best of the six final illustrations.
The unfinished children, taxed me for quite a while but I could never quite make it work. The balance between the street’s perspective, the grotesque children and the light/shade never seemed right so I abandoned it to work on what would be the the final image.
‘Soter Waits’ concerns itself with the last page of the book, the last paragraph in fact. With darkness encroaching Soter is left with no choice but to wait, gun in hand for whatever is approaching. This illustration was probably the quickest to compose, although it went through quite a few reworks to get the feel just right, desolate but not too dark. The first incarnation was dark with curling, black tendrils, but was inevitably too dark so it had to be reigned back in.
And that was that. In seventeen days I had managed read “The Wanderer…” three times and completed six illustrations (as well as paired up 500 pen pals, launched a website, neglect The Boif and took a day off for Easter Sunday). I am still not quite sure how I did it. Working on anything that is to compliment someone else’s creation will always be a tricky line to walk. Trying to capture the essence of the story without giving too much away, so that the reader can formulate their own imagery in their mind’s eye was the core of the challenge for me. Ultimately, I was just happy that Mr C was pleased with the finished illustrations and that he felt they reflected the tone and themes of his writing.
After some liaising between the author, the illustrator, Minion Clair, the publishers and the printers they were sent off on their merry way to become an e-book and a limited edition hardback. The next thing I heard was through the John Connolly newsletter, that the limited edition hardbacks would be signed by both author and illustrator, but that is a tale for another blog. Don’t worry I shall regale you with tales of Belfast and book signing in due course, but I think I have droned on enough for now…
See the Final Illustrations
More information on ‘The Wanderer in Unknown Realms” on John Connolly’s official website