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Ian Beck on Visualizing the Characters in his YA novels,
Hearty congratulations on the release of your two new YA novels, both in the one year! That is some achievement! I’m fascinated by how you come up with such a range of amazing and vastly different characters and all so vividly drawn.
Do you ‘see’ with your illustrator’s eye, the characters before you flesh them out? What part of the author is still the illustrator? Does the novel roll out in movie sequence in your mind?
I do see the characters quite clearly and I watch them move about in my head too, so in a sense it is a little like watching an inner cinema sequence but not quite, not entirely. At the same time you are questioning their motivations and inner lives, thoughts etc so it is also like seeing an x ray of the character too, all very hard to explain and much more like a waking dream than a film, and one which you are able to leave and enter again at will. The story certainly rolls out in movie like sequences, a chunk at a time but not necessarily in the narrative order, which is where the importance of editing comes in, the shaping and reordering and the advice and admonitions of the third eye, your editor, which is the vital spark. I could never publish my drafts without the benefit of my editor’s input.
Firstly, the characters in “The Hidden Kingdom” [see review below]-
What was the origin of Prince Osamu, the arrogant prat turned soldier king?
The whole book started with a single sentence. I wrote it for inclusion in a book which was intended to kick start ideas in children and encourage their own writing . The original sentence went something like, ‘The Prince woke to the howling of wolves’, and I thought, ‘well I would like to write that story myself and see what happens’, and so my Prince was the first settled character around which the story built. I imagined him as a pampered princeling in a fairy tale forced to confront something very big but I wasn’t sure what it might be at the beginning of the process.
Why Baku and the Snow Maiden? Is this a tip of the hat to the Brothers Grimm with their tales of transformation and tragic love, thinking particularly of The Little Mermaid, but with role reversal?
Not quite, Baku and the Snow Maiden were in a separate book, based on a Japanese myth story. It was only after working on both discretely for a few months that I realised in a flash of inspiration, (which now seems obvious but didn’t at the time), that they belonged in the same book as Prince Osamu.
Lissa, the warrior maid, is a thoroughly modern miss. What were her antecedents?
I think Lissa is to me quite clearly based on the character and beauty of Zhang Zi Yi in the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, that is exctly how I saw her in my mind, fiery and difficult, but dedicated to the saving of the Prince even though she begins the story despising his weakness.
Secondly, the lead roles in the very visually realized, “The Haunting of Charity Delafield” [see review below]-
Charity Delafield, is a quintessential heroine for a disaffected generation. The working woman’s children, tossed from home to childcare, child care to school and back and never long enough in one place to identify with it as ‘home’, whom I suspect ask ‘Who is Mum? Is she really the hollow eyed lady who picks me up late afternoon/early evening, rushes me through dinner to bed and pulls me out in the morning, drives me and drops me off with a stress fraught kiss and a wave?’ Charity is a brave new kind of heroine, finding her way, finding herself. In a seemingly disaffected world. What inspired her?
Charity began life as picture book idea. I had drawn some rough sketches of a girl in a long red coat out in the snow in an old fashioned formal garden. I liked the place and time of the story, the only difficulty was that there was no story. At about the same time my daughter started leaving notes for the Fairy she believed to be in the house and I started to leave replies in minute hand writing, which developed into a nice game. I mentioned them to my agent and she thought it might be worth developing as a book. My editor at Random House, Annie Eaton, always liked the initial drawings and would occasionally enquire if I had done anything with them. After I had finished the Tom Trueheart books, I finally saw a way to develop the story as a novel with the girl in the red coat in the garden. It went through three very different drafts before it was finished.
Do you ever get tempted to ‘storyboard’ the creation of your characters in the way you used to ‘storyboard’ illustrations to a picture book?
I do have visual avatars of my characters in mind usually a strange amalgam of bits of drawings and half remembered films, or people I know or have known and so on.
Have any of your own doodles or sketches actually inspired one of your book characters?
In the case of Charity Delafield certainly yes.
How do you go about plotting a story or does it just flow through mind to pen as if you are scribing from a screening?
I am very much a ‘gardening’ type of author. Apparently there are two kinds of author, Architects and Gardeners. Architects plan carefully, and gardeners scatter seed and wait for the growth. I tend to plan in retrospect, what Bernard Cornwell calls ‘putting doors in alleyways’.
Finally, what are you creating for readers right now?
I am working on several things. One is a book of my own poetry (for grown ups) called, Behind The Dusty Glass. This will be a limited edition and finely printed on heavy paper, illustrated by me too, and in the case of the special copies each illustration will be hand coloured by me as well.
Click here for a preview of poem and illustration for ”Behind the Dusty Glass”: “Flora at Kings X” by Ian Beck from forthcoming “Behind The Dusty Glass”
I am also publishing a book of poetry which I have written as if I were someone else; namely the husband of Lucia in the Mapp & Lucia books of the 1930s by E F Benson. He is called Pepino by Lucia and his book is called Fugitive Lyrics. The poems are mentioned in the novel and the appearance of the book is minutely described. He is dead and Lucia wants to be found reading the poems in her grief but can’t untie the ribbon on the binding. My late Brother in Law, Jonathan Gili, always wanted to see the fictional book made real and so it is being created in his memory as an elaborate spoof. I have also illustrated the poems and, again, specials will have hand colouring. I am also writing two novels. One is called The Sky Stone and is set in the 1300s, a big adventure story about art, lapis lazuli, and a fallen warrior which will be published by Oxford University Press. For Random House I am hoping to write a series of stories collectively called; The Casebooks of Captain Holloway about a top secret department during world war two in London dealing with the mysterious and the occult and the inexplicable. The first will (I hope) be called The Disappearance of Tom Pile. I also hope to write the story of the Sweep’s boy Silas and what happens to him up to and after the Charity Delafield story.
Thank you Ian! We have a feast to look forward to! Keep us posted!
Review – The Hidden Kingdom, by Ian Beck
The Characters are drawn very visually in this old world adventure with an Asiatic setting. This is no surprise, as author Ian Beck , is also a master illustrator who half way through his illustrious career turned to story telling himself. The prince, Osamu is very typical of his era and culture, spoiled, petulant, and arrogant. Not a particularly likeable character till circumstances take through him together with Lissa, a girl soldier and Baku, a humble potter’s assistant and the three of them find themselves fleeing for their lives in an unforgiving winter, though lands torn by war with a supernatural origin. Will the prince find his destiny, despite himself, as leader of his besieged people? Will the young potter ever find happiness with his love and nemesis the mysterious snow maiden? And the fierce soldier girl, is she capable of more than dealing death? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DyLad-6odnw&feature=related
Review – The Haunting of Charity Delafield by Ian Beck
Have you ever felt you are a stranger to your own family, a prisoner in the life you find yourself living? The heroine of Ian Becks’ latest YA book experiences exactly that. Her father treats her a bit like a potentially dangerous alien, surrounding her with rules and regulations so she feels a prisoner in her ‘home’. And where is her mother…? Children are good at unraveling conspiracies of silence, and this is exactly what Charity does with the help of a mischievous chimney sweep and a curious black cat. The cover is wonderful, a genuine enticement to open and savour contents, but then Ian Beck is a master illustrator as well as an award winning author. Peopled with larger than life characters and a magical world within a world, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. The central character deserves a revisit in another adventure. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XMwYigBNiw
Jennifer: Hi Ian,
Thanks for agreeing to the interview!
I’ve had a ball tracking through the amazing adventures you’ve had with pen and ink! You have a wealth of
experience in other arty areas, from designing album covers (including the cover for “Yellow Brick Road”), to advertising, from cards and calendars to murals.
What do you feel this more commercially driven art brought to your work as a children’s book illustrator?
‘Marketing’ is something that seems almost a dirty word to purists but it is an essential part of any saleable product in a competitive marketplace – does the ‘selling’ aspect play any part in your creative process? Should it?
IAN: I began my career as a ‘commercial’ illustrator, making drawings and paintings for anyone who asked, I just wanted to make a living from illustrating. That had been my goal since I was very young and I had noticed ‘spot’ drawings and the like in newspapers and magazines. My ambition had been to do something similar. I spent a very varied and happy twenty years or so in that illustration world. I learned a great deal technically through the trial and error of making drawings for difficult and or demanding clients. I learned patience, and the ability to redraft, remake, remodel, with a smile and good grace. This all helped when I was offered my first children’s book to illustrate (Round and Round the Garden) in 1982. It helped me to be consistent in my coloring, to get the mood of the book as demanded by the editor and designer, a process I was by then very used to. The selling part is obviously important. No publisher wants to make a book that does not sell, nor does any author. I certainly built on my experience in commercial illustration to make my pictures ‘appealing’ if that is the right word. I tried to bring tenderness and charm to my depiction of babies or animal characters. That was how I worked anyway, my commercial work had been influenced by the world of children’s illustration from the word go. I collected illustrated books from my time at Art School, and I still do.
Jennifer: With Heroes like Edward Ardizzone and Harold Jones and a teacher like Raymond Briggs one could say you were always going to end up illustrating children’s books.
What were your favourite books as a child? What images stuck in your mind – were they from books, films or somewhere else? How have these influences shaped your approach to your art?
IAN: I grew up in a house with very few books. Ours was what you would call a ‘blue collar’ family. My father was a milkman, (as was Raymond Briggs’ father) we had a patchy library of mostly old novels, I remember we had volume two of Gone With the Wind, no sign of volume one. The printed images I saw were either in comics, magazines or newspapers. I began my interest by trying to copy those images, often on to the endpapers and flyleaves of the old books that were lying around. Later I joined my local library and began my life long love affair with books and the pictures in them. I started with Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books. I read all of those in sequence and often reread them too. Later I moved on to Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, and I still read and laugh over those. I think however if there is a single illustration that I remember, that opened my eyes and mind, it was the one by Pauline Baynes, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is of Mr Tumnus out in the snow with his parcels and the street lamp. It still gives me the shivers. I think my own illustration work has been made of so many influences it would be hard for am to untangle them all, but they are all there in some way even if the result is recognizably ‘me’.
Jennifer: The ability to tell a story inside a story as with your book “Five Little Ducks” –How did you set about that now classic ‘Beck’ book?
Was the other story of the fox there from the outset or did it ‘occur to you’ in the way the speaking crow did in Tom Trueheart?
IAN: As so often happens, Five Little Ducks began as a quite different book. I was discussing with Judith Elliot, then the overall editor at and founder of Orchard Books, the possibility of a book about night time. I had made some roughs, written out some ideas, but it had stalled. Jill Slotover who was an editor there suggested the rhyme of the five little ducks. I saw it complete at once in my mind, the fox, the brave duckling etc etc. I drew some thumbnail sized color visuals in a sketch book, and that was it, go ahead, and I did. It seemed to flow very naturally and was a very positive experience.
Jennifer: This brings me to the ‘right brain’ process present in much of creativity.
In one interview, you spoke of ‘trusting’ an inner nudge that told you to go with the talking crow, even though never envisaged as part of your original idea for Tom’s story.
How does this work in the illustrative process and is it different to that in the writing process?
How do the two creative processes compare?
IAN: In writing a longer story there is naturally a certain amount of planning but as you work on something the imagination creeps up behind you occasionally and goes, ‘boo, weren’t expecting that were you’? This is just what happened with the talking bird, it seems meant and obvious to me now that Jollity the crow should be there, but he was meant at first just to be a target for Tom to throw a snowball at. Once the notion popped into my head that the bird would speak the book opened up for me there and then. My drawings were always planned more rigorously, I was very much in control of them, I can’t imagine the same leap occurring during the making of a drawing.
Jennifer: I’ve checked out http://www.tomtrueheart.com/ and encourage readers to
do ditto! The silhouettes perfectly suit the darker story, but are very different to your style say for example used in “The Teddy Robber” and again from “Puss in Boots”.
How do you decide on your approach to each project?
IAN: The silhouettes were not in the planning of the book at all. I was working on some ideas for the cover of Tom Trueheart with the designer Molly Dallas at Oxford University Press. We had a lot of ideas scattered about on a table, when she remembered that the endpapers I had made for a previous book (The Oxford Nursery Story Book) had used silhouettes. I turned the image of Tom walking with his packstaff into a silhouette and it seemed to click into place at once. It was a short step from that to illustrating the whole book with silhouettes. It was quite a discipline to learn, but a very enjoyable one. So I suppose this approach was unplanned but seemed right. Most of the picture books would be planned with the designer and editor together. They have a valuable input as well after all, quite rightly. Sometimes an editor will say, ‘it would be nice if this book were some thing like this’, and refer to a past book or approach, that certainly happened with The Little Mermaid, I went for the sad and the romantic, the lavish and the wide screen in that book very different to much of my other more graphic output, I imagine for the first and last time.
Jennifer: Any career path is a journey and one might have predicted that having the story teller gift (as demonstrated in “Five Little Ducks”) you would eventually arrive at the point where you wrote your own stories.
Did you always want to do this, or is this a new adventure?
IAN: I was encouraged to write my own original story to illustrate by my first editor David Fickling. This became The Teddy Robber, a book still held in affection by readers twenty years later, as I am constantly reminded by teachers and children on
The urge to write narrative though has been with me from the beginning. When I was a young commercial illustrator I went to creative writing classes. It was my intention to write adult fiction. I wrote a couple of short stories, began a novel, but it all ended in a drawer unresolved, unfinished. The urge was still there, the itch, the frustration if you like, but all necessarily suppressed under my busy drawing schedules, the need to earn a living, growing family life etc. Then the seed for Tom Trueheart was planted and grew a little in the potting shed inside my brain. He lay dormant for a while until, sadly, one of my best friends died. This was a big wake up call, as he was younger than me. ‘Come on’, I thought, ’finish that idea, grow that seedling, do what you really want to do, life is too short’. So then Tom actually got finished, with the encouragement of my agent Hilary Delamere. The publisher liked him and so did several other publishers. He is in ten languages now I think, so sometimes trusting your instinct is the way to go.
Jennifer: Tom‘s second book of adventures “Tom Trueheart and the Land of Dark Stories “ is darker by your own admission. The same applied to the progression of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
What led to this?
What were the influences at work when you realized a second book needed to be written?
IAN: The second Tom Trueheart adventure came about by chance. I had not intended to write more than one book while I was busy writing the first, it seemed both
contained, and complete. The first draft ended with Tom confronting the villain Ormestone in a wood and Ormestone turning him into Tom Thumb, ie Tom finally had his own story to complete. My editor Liz Cross read it and said that she didn’t think it was the end of book one, rather she felt it could be the beginning of book two. I was delighted to think that there would be a book two as I had enjoyed writing about Tom so much. Book two needed a new set of stories and characters, there was the unresolved business of Tom’s missing father, maybe he would make an appearance and so on, it all just slotted into place. I used some of those darker fairy story elements, wolves, castles, bats spiders, skeletons, and so on, imagining that the villain would go to where he would be appreciated, and all this with Tom shrunk down to the size of Tom Thumb. It was great fun to do, and I have now nearly finished the third book, provisionally called Tom Trueheart and the Land of Myths and Legends. As you may know Suppertime Entertainment are developing animated films based on the books, so we wait to see what happens next.
Jennifer: How did you feel as an illustrator about someone else doing your illustrative work, as with the book covers for paperback edition in UK [Adam Stower] and the USA edition [Brandon Dorman]?
IAN: It is something of a luxury and a delight to see other artist’s interpretations of my characters and stories. As an illustrator myself you might expect me to be hyper critical, but no, I am very relaxed about it and I very much like what both Brandon Dorman and Adam Stower have done in relation to Tom Trueheart. Just recently, I saw the jacket for Pastworld which is far better than anything I might have done, completely spot on, designed by John Fordham and with an illustration by Paul Young, full of texture and mystery. It was sent to me as a ‘fait accompli’, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
Jennifer: What do we expect to see next?
What about film scripts [ I noted the trailer on your site.]?
What about your own totally Beck picturebooks?
IAN: I have a big novel (in terms of length and ambition) coming out in the summer of 2009. It is called Pastworld. It has taken me four years to develop and complete, Bloomsbury will be publishing. It is a much darker book, aimed at older readers, twelve years and up. A complex book, and hard to sum up in a few words, it is a dark adventure set in what appears to be Victorian London. I suppose you would perhaps categorize it as ‘Steampunk’, there are airships, and murders, and strange passions. It has grown out of my obsession with London, the city I have lived in for forty years, with the science fiction novels of H G Wells, and movies and all sorts of other things muddled together. It may surprise some of my readers, even shock them. It is intended as an older read, it is nothing like Tom Trueheart, and it is not at all cute.
After that I am writing a novel for Oxford provisionally called The Hidden Kingdom, in which the hero is thrust into a sudden drama and the reader discovers the truth as the story develops and at the same time that the hero does. It is set in a mythical place and time and will I hope explore love as one of the subjects.
As to films, I wrote a short story for adults called The Summer House. A young film maker read it and wanted me to adapt it as a screenplay for a short film. I did the adaptation and the film was shot in France two summers ago. Through the magic luck of casting the director Daisy Gili, got Talulah Riley, fresh from the film of Pride and Prejudice as the young female lead, and a boy called Robert Pattinson as the young male lead. Rob of course is playing Edward Cullen in the film of Twilight which just opened ‘big’. So our little 13 minute film now has the added bonus of two rising stars. My son has a film making company and he kindly makes book trailers for me, we are looking forward to making the trailer for Pastworld plus a website where further mysteries can be developed.
As to Picture books, I very much enjoyed illustrating the book Winston The Book Wolf written by Marni
McGee, but whether I will ever make another one of my own I don’t know, the longer form seems to have taken over.
Jennifer: You’ve had a lot of interviews that have covered a lot of ground.
Is there a question you wish you had been asked? Okay, now’s your chance! Question and answer – over to you!
Q. What would you have done if you hadn’t made books?
IAN: I would like to have been a ‘café concert’ cabaret entertainer in the mythical Paris of the 1900’s, singing in a tux with a cane, and hanging out with Ravel and Erik Satie and perhaps even having a passionate affair with Colette!
Jennifer: Yep – I can see you doing a Maurice Chevalier complete with top hat!
Maybe that is more than just a dream??????
Now here’s a tantalizing tease – Hidden Kingdom and Pastworld are coming up AND, with one shorter film under his belt already and two animated feature version of the Tom Trueheart books under way, can we expect Ian to be off to Hollywood next with a blockbuster in his sights? Stay tuned!!!!!