The Uncanny Magic of Illustrators

There are so many things I love about working with illustrators.

Firstly, and entirely self-servingly, having a co-creator gives me an easy way to accept praise about the book without resorting to my usual impulse to shrink away muttering, Oh, it’s nothing. It could have been better. Eh, it’s just a thing I did. Having an illustrator, and their inevitably glorious work, to deflect compliments onto makes my life a great deal easier.

That reason comes first only in this idiosyncratically ordered list though, because really it’s the least important of all the things I love about working with an illustrator.

One of the questions I’m often asked about picture books is, “But what happens if the illustrations aren’t how you imagined them in your head?” For the longest time I answered this in a kind of bewildered, half-stumbling way, without really understanding where the questioner was coming from. Because the thing is: I don’t imagine the illustrations in my head, or anywhere else for that matter. I don’t think visually, and I don’t ‘see’ the world or characters while I’m writing (or when I’m reading, for that matter; it doesn’t matter how elaborately the setting or a character or an anything is described, I can’t see it. What I’m doing instead is skimming those descriptive passages, grumbling about how pointlessly wordy they are, because who cares what it LOOKS LIKE?). These days, that’s how I answer that question, though it does lead to some bewildered, half-stumbling responses from the visually inclined questioner.

Something I’ve come to realise, though, is that even though I never have any idea of what I want things to look like, I always know how I want things to feel, how I want them to make the reader feel. I couldn’t begin to suggest how you might get there visually; I just know it when I see it. I’m not sure whether this makes me extremely annoying to work with – I don’t know… I just want it to feel less noisy, or lighter or … just airier? You know that feeling you get when bubbles pop on your tongue? Like that, except different – or whether it’s par for the course in the author–illustrator relationship, but in any case, it’s all I have.

With Ella and the Useless Day, an interesting thing happened. For context, I should make it clear that when I talk about working ‘with’ and illustrator, what I really mean is that the text is working with the illustrator. There is a collaborative process, but it’s usually not one that happens directly between the author and the illustrator. Communication goes through the publisher, through an editor and an art director, and in working on Ella, Karen Blair and I weren’t in direct contact about the process.

Officially. Mostly.

Because hey. The thing is: we live ten minutes from each other. We bump into each other at industry events. Things are said. Secrets are revealed.

Rarely. So seldom! But sometimes.

Because hey. The thing is: if you, an author, happened to be at the WA Premier’s Book Awards ceremony, and someone else, an illustrator who had just agreed to collaborate on your latest picture book, was also there, how could you not say something? How could you not say, I’m so glad you’re doing Ella and It’s going to be great! and I can’t wait to see what you do with it! and then when that illustrator, who also happens to be a friend, gets a glint in her eye and says, I’ve actually already started playing around with some character sketches, how could you not practically force her to show them to you because she’s got a copy right there, on her phone, in the cloud?

That would clearly be impossible. I’m glad we all agree.

So here’s what happened when Karen Blair showed me her very early, very rough sketches of Ella and Dad. When I saw Dad’s wild hair and Ella’s cheerful self-possession and them both bouncing off each other with a delightful, zinging energy.

I put a hand over my mouth. I shook my head in ecstatic disbelief. I said, They’re perfect! I mean … I had no idea what I wanted, what they should look like but they’re perfect. How do you DO that? You’re a wizard of some kind. You –

Which was the point at which Karen interrupted, shaking her own head, and said, But Meg, they were there in the text. I got their energy from your words. I could see them when I read the manuscript.

Which was the point at which for once in my garrulous, over-talking life, I fell silent. I thought, Huh. That is very interesting. And isn’t it? Because I don’t describe Ella and Dad at all. They’re just there, doing things. But Karen’s right. They’re embedded in a text, in a language, that does have a delightful zinging energy, that suggests curls and wildness and loose pencil strokes. The things that Ella says, and the way in which she says them, do suggest a cheerful self-possession, a sense of purposeful, confident movement.

Karen’s simple comment has made me really reflect on the way that I write, often without thinking, and also on what it means to collaborate, in a more expansive and yet unconscious sense of the word. And there was something else she said, much later, when the work was done and dusted and the book was off at the printers. I remarked upon how much I love the sort of 1970s vibe of the illustrations, and Karen said that that too had come from the text, from the two-word phrase Fantastically funky!

Which I thought was cool, but also cool happenstance, because while I have very fond memories of, and a great affection for the 1970s, I had in no way intended to imbue the text with that vibe, and really that phrase was just all about the alliteration. But then I realised that it wasn’t happenstance at all, not really. Because Ella had been forming while I cleared out my childhood home of its 1970s knicknacks and outfits and memories. And I’ve always believed my most formative years were between the ages of 8 and 12, and they were lived in the 1970s, in that house. So now I believe something else – that all of that bittersweet nostalgic charge was bundled up without my realising into those two fantastically funky words and sent off in the text, where it hummed in a particular way that caught the ear and then the eye of a tuned-in illustrator, who drew from there the beginnings of a whole visual world.

How I love this stuff. How I love working with illustrators.

I reckon all of this makes some kind of sense. You can see the connections I’m making, even if you maybe think the bow I’m drawing is a little long. But here’s one final thing. Which maybe we’ll call cool happenstance. Or weird symbiosis. Or just plain spooky.

Here’s Ella on the left, and me on the right.

And here’s Mr Montgomery on the left and my father on the right.

I mean, come on now. Don’t tell me illustrators aren’t weird, spooky, cool wizard geniuses. I salute them all.

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