Sunday, 3 May 2020

Collaborating With Dave McKean

Dave McKean is one of my all-time favourite artists.  I love the work he's done on books and comics by writers like Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Ray Bradbury, as well as the books and comics he's created himself.  It was a cat he drew in one of these, Cages, that made me feel he would be the perfect illustrator for Varjak Paw.


I can't honestly describe Varjak Paw as a collaboration, as such.  I was just stunned to be working with one of my favourite artists!  The first time we met, I was too in awe to suggest anything to Dave; I just gave him the words, and a fully illustrated text came back.  But his illustrations were so perfect, so beautifully integrated, they seemed like they must have been part of the story all along.


By the time I was writing Phoenix, Dave and I were collaborating closely in the course of our adventures in Hollywood and beyond, where we were trying to make a Varjak Paw movie.  All that time, I was telling him things like: "I'm writing a great big space epic about a human boy and an alien girl who have to save the galaxy!  It's full of stars, black holes, dark matter – and also all the gods of all the ancient mythologies, as imagined by aliens in the future.  Do you think you could draw that?"  


To my amazement and delight, he did.

Fortunately, Dave shares my love of both the most cutting-edge science of the stars, and the most ancient mythologies, which also tried to find meaning in the night sky.  So science and mythology inform the two strands of illustration that run through Phoenix. 




One of these strands is all about the stars.  All the time I was working on Phoenix, I was collecting images of stars.  I had a giant book of Hubble Space Telescope photography in front of me as I wrote Phoenix, and then I gave it to Dave, who had it in front of him as he illustrated it.  His images erupt into the text whenever the main character is dreaming of the stars or flying through them as he crosses the galaxy, using alien technology to follow the invisible dark matter connections that unite everything in the universe. 



It was Dave's idea to use fractal patterns to illustrate these connections.  What neither of us knew was that Dave's visualisation of dark matter would look astonishingly similar to the first images of a cosmic web of dark matter made by astronomers, not long after the book was published!


The other strand of illustration in Phoenix draws on mythology.  The aliens in Phoenix believe that all the mythological gods are really stars who come down from the sky to walk among us.  They take different forms in different times, but they're always the same immortal beings, returning again and again through history.  The aliens call them the Twelve Astraeus.

Originally, I wrote lots of material about the Twelve Astraeus, to explain this background.  But it was impossible to find words powerful enough to describe them.  After all, gods and stars should be mysterious and awe-inspiring beyond words! 



Then I came up with the idea of describing them through illustrations and song fragments, rather than prose.  I gave Dave a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their names and attributes in different mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and so on), and asked him to make a series of illustrations depicting each one in turn.

I wrote song fragments to go with the pictures, which give you little hints about them.  So when readers encounter the Astraeus of Love, for example, they can work out for themselves that she's been called Venus, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, and so on; and even if they don't, they'll feel who she is, without being told.  I find that more powerful than ordinary prose, and having seen what Dave could do on the Varjak Paw books, I designed the structure of Phoenix around this series of illustrations, which became an integral part of the narrative.



As a huge Dave McKean fan myself, it's been such a privilege to share this journey with him.  We once did an event together in London, talking about the process of collaborating to create illustrated books.  Someone in the audience asked him what his favourite work was of all the illustration he'd ever done.  Among the books he named was Phoenix!  Hearing him say that was one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me.


Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Reading Aloud During School Closures

Since the UK school closures, I've been getting messages from teachers asking if it's all right to read my books aloud online to their classes.  I am very happy to give my permission for teachers to do this – in fact, I think it's vital that we continue to read aloud at this time, and I'm honoured if people want to read my books!

My publishers have also given their permission for this to happen, and they have put some guidelines up here:
https://www.penguin.co.uk/company/work-with-us/rights-and-permissions-/permissions/additional-guidelines.html

Happy reading everyone!


Friday, 6 March 2020

World Book Day 2020

Happy World Book Day 2020!  I'm in favour of anything that celebrates books & reading, whether it's dressing up as a character, making a potato, decorating a door, or any of the other activities I've seen people do with my books!  So here are some fantastic pictures I've been sent & tweeted this year:




















































Monday, 20 January 2020

Author Visits: The Grove Junior School

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to Tom Bolshaw and all the students and staff at The Grove Junior School for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them at the end of last term!



It was a total pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books, and to answer all of their questions.  I then spent some time with Year 5, looking at the brilliant work they'd been doing with Varjak Paw.


I was so impressed with their work that I decided to share some of it here!  So here's some fantastic Varjak-based writing from Catherine (above) and Anahad (below).


It was a pleasure at the end of the day to sign books for everyone who wanted them.  If anyone at the Grove missed out on the day, you can still order a signed book from the brilliant Pea Green Boat Books – just click this link to see the options!



And finally, there was one more thing to do on the day: a video interview with Gabriel and Catherine for the school's YouTube channel, all about writing!  They asked me some fantastic questions, and I told them everything I know about the subject.  Please do have a watch of this – I think it's fantastic!