Our first author/illustrator interview here at Shift comes from the delightfully talented Juno Dawson and Alex T. Smith, whose first collaboration, Grave Matter, came out earlier this month from Barrington Stoke. A short, haunting ghost story of loss and regret, with elegant, gothic illustrations throughout, it’s something truly unique. We’re very excited to have you both here!
Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about Grave Matter?
Juno: Grave Matter is about a young man called Samuel who is mourning the death of his girlfriend Eliza. He recalls his aunt practises Hoodoo and tries to convince her to bring Eliza back from the grave. When she refuses, Samuel takes matters into his own hands…with some very spooky results.
Alex – this is your first foray into illustrating YA. What kind of things did you need to consider when drawing for an older audience?
Alex: I think the main thing I had to consider for a YA audience is really trying to capture the tone of the book. Often the books I write/illustrate are funny so I have to find ways to make the images light and silly whilst at the same time getting the text bouncing along to keep a younger audience interested in the book. Grave Matter is obviously very different because the themes of the story – grief, fear, love and death – require a much more subtle approach. There are funny moments, but overall the book is very dark and brooding, so I wanted to capture that for the audience.
Another thing I realised when I started to work on the images, was how I didn’t really want to show the main characters very clearly We only ever see Samuel, for example, in silhouette or shadow. I wanted to leave room for the older audience to place themselves into the story, as I felt by doing that, the spooky, gothic and creepiness of the text would be heightened for the reader.
Juno – It’s been a while away from a horror story for you. Was it a challenge getting back into the mindset?
Juno: Horror is my first love. Grave Matter reminded me how much I’ve missed it. I would have LOVED this book when I was 13! It’s a return to the same vibe as SAY HER NAME but even more gothic!
And working with Barrington Stoke on a shorter novel must present some new challenges?
Juno: Yes, in that there’s less time to get to know the characters but it also forces you to be concise. This length really suits ghost stories…MR James was the master of this.
Alex – The role of an illustrator is often shrouded in mystery… how does working alongside an author like Juno work?
Alex: Most of the time, when working with an author, the text is written and taken on by the publisher who then approach me to see if it’s a project I want to work on. I then work on the images which are reviewed and approved by the editorial team and the author. I don’t usually get to meet the author until all work on the book has finished (Isn’t publishing weird?!)
Grave Matter didn’t quite work like that. Juno had the idea for the book and for me to illustrate it (which we cooked up together over breakfast one morning at the Edinburgh Festival) and then presented that idea to Barrington Stoke and they agreed! Juno has been SO generous with this text – not only in writing such a brilliant story for me to illustrate, but also in leading and encouraging my involvement with it.
Do you see yourself doing more illustration and writing for older readers, do you think? Is there a space for more illustrated fiction within YA?
Alex: I’d absolutely LOVE to illustrate more books for older audiences, and maybe one day try writing for them as well. I have a little list in my head of books for an older audience I’d love to illustrate, and I’d also love to work on new texts too. I think there is space for more illustrated full stop – whether that’s YA or for adult books. I know of very few people who don’t enjoy some form of illustration in books – whether that’s chapter headers, beautiful endpapers or full illustrations. I think we really do need to stop thinking that pictures in books is just for young children. I think they can enhance all sorts of stories.
When it comes to writing and illustrating within the horror-sphere for a YA audience, how careful are you with how graphic or upsetting things get? Is there a lot of editing around the more grim aspects?
Juno: When you speak to young people they have a thirst for gore and misery we sort of grow out of! However, I feel a responsibility to avoid torture and pain. I think alluding to these things is often more unsettling.
What horror stories have had an impact on you?
Juno: I grew up on Point Horror and Dean Koontz. I doubt I’d be writing at all now if it weren’t for such positive formative experiences.
What excellent new YA books are hitting the shelves at the moment that our readers should be checking out?
Juno: I fully intend to read the new Frances Hardinge novel next! Then I hear there’s a new one by this John Green chap..?
And finally – if they made an action figure of you, what three accessories would it come with?
Juno: A tiny bag of Haribo and Prince of course!
Alex: My four tiny, naughty dogs, a pencil and a piece of jazzy knitwear.
Thanks for joining us Juno & Alex! We hope you have a horrifying Halloween…