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, they seemed like they must have been part of the story all along. And I was stunned to see how he used not just illustration but elements like layout, typography and white space to create the atmosphere of the book.
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?"
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.