Words & pictures

Pairing a writer with an illustrator can be a complex, even dangerous, business. So what makes for the most successful relationship?

The first time Hunter S Thompson met Ralph Steadman was at the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Thompson had been commissioned by Scanlan’s Monthly magazine to cover the racing, while Steadman, on his first visit to the US, was to make a series of drawings for the feature. In the piece that eventually ran, Thompson revealed that the long weekend of drinking had culminated in Steadman being attacked in a nightclub by a man who claimed the artist had been flirting with his wife. Steadman’s response had been to start drawing – with the only tools he had, an eyebrow pencil and lipstick. “As a sort of final horror,” Thompson wrote, “Steadman put his fiendish pen to work and tried to patch things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he’d just been accused of hustling.”

That Steadman’s art was at the centre of this descent into “a vicious, drunken nightmare” says something about the effect his pictures had on the unsuspecting Louisville racegoers, even on the hard-living, hard-drinking Thompson. Hungover in a diner the next morning, the pair argued about Steadman’s inappropriate sketching, Thompson sprayed him with a can of mace, and then drove him out to the airport. A month later, he wrote to Steadman. He was eager that they work together again soon.

While by no means typical of the writer-artist collaboration (the pursuit of subjective Gonzo-style reporting is not for everyone) the almost symbiotic relationship between Thompson and Steadman has proved to be one of the most enduring, if not notorious. Their most famous collaboration, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also began life as a commission – or rather a re-commission – to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race over two issues of Rolling Stone magazine in November 1971 (Sports Illustrated having rejected Thompson’s initial draft). In The Joke’s Over, Steadman’s memoir of his time spent with Thompson, he recalls being sent the manuscript of the writer’s blitz through Nevada with his companion Oscar Acosta and feeling “a shock of recognition from a suppressed well of personal experience and personal dread”. He then worked steadily at his drawing board in London on a series of 24 illustrations to accompany Thompson’s text.

“The concept was by Hunter,” Steadman writes in the book, “but the pictures, drawn by me, augmented the crazy dimension he had hoped he could single-handedly create in his fat notebook.” Forty years after its publication, the combination of frenetic, drug-addled recollection and visceral ink scrawls is still compelling. Writing in the New York Times a few months after Thompson’s suicide in 2005, Rich Cohen cited Steadman’s art as successfully depicting the murk which Thompson had dug up just beneath the surface of manufactured America: “The drawings are the plastic torn away and the people seen as monsters.” Without Steadman’s pictures – Thompson’s monsters made flesh – Fear and Loathing would be a wildly different beast.

Beards and bird-pie

Another intimate collaboration between author and illustrator also began in the 1970s. While their work might seem a world away from Thompson’s illicit Vegas, what Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake sought to describe were not self-inflicted horrors, but those dealt out to children by adults. Blake’s work thrived in depicting the darker moments in Dahl’s books. The Twits, in particular, Blake recalls in an interview on the Web of Stories site, was “a very black sort of book” and “much darker in mood” compared to Dahl’s other work. Concerned with two particularly horrible characters, Mr and Mrs Twit, Blake’s job was to convey their many unappealing traits in pictures.

Early on in the story, Dahl describes Mr Twit’s beard as being lodged with bits of decaying food (Dahl apparently hated beards). Conveying this in a single portrait image was difficult, so Blake drew a ‘magnifying glass’ as an in-set illustration, which zoomed in on the hairs and the morsels of sardines, cornflakes and gorgonzola contained within. It was, he says, a question of “how do you enlarge the text slightly, without contradicting it?” Blake added further visual elements too which, while not taken directly from Dahl’s text, were pitched as if they were. To convey the contents of a ‘bird pie’, for example, Blake showed pairs of little feet sticking out of the crust. For his depiction of where the Twits lived he “drew their house probably eight or ten times,” he says, “until it got to look enough like a concentration camp”.

Within a few years, Dahl trusted Blake implicitly with his books. They had first collaborated in 1978 and gone on to publish The Twits in 1980 and George’s Marvellous Medicine a year later. While working on The BFG in 1982, Dahl even altered his own written description of the friendly giant so it fitted with some of the drawings Blake had already made. In Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl, Donald Sturrock says that Blake was able to almost intuit what Dahl’s characters would look like. “Quentin began to realise just how precisely Roald imagined his stories,” he writes. “Initially, Dahl had described his character wearing a black hat, apron and large black boots. But when Roald saw Quentin’s drawing, he knew at once that the giant needed to look softer and more loveable.” For further inspiration, Dahl sent Blake one of his giant Norwegian sandals in the post. “I have been working hard with Quentin to make The BFG look curious and comical,” the author told his US editor Stephen Roxburgh. “I think we have about got it now and this necessitates a change in my brief description of the clothes he was wearing.”

Dahl’s respect for Blake’s craft also stretched to seeing that his talents were used as much as possible in his books; not something that necessarily appealed to writers of longer books for children. But enamoured by a kindred spirit in Blake, Dahl was adamant that his text be full of illustrations. “What was so nice about Roald was that he actually wanted the pictures,” Blake recalls on his website. “He didn’t like it if there weren’t enough. Not all authors are like that.” While working on the final stages of The BFG, Dahl discovered that Blake had only submitted 12 illustrations for the book. But then, Sturrock explains, he found out why. “It cannot be difficult for you to imagine my astonishment when I discover … that you were unwilling to pay Quentin more than £300 for illustrating The BFG,” Dahl wrote to his publisher. “Of course he only gave you twelve pictures! This is cheesepairing to the ultimate degree. It is also an insult to my book.” Blake was subsequently offered a better deal and started all over again, creating an illustration for each of the 24 chapters in a few days. But this direction, too, was pulled at the last minute.

Despite these setbacks, a distinct advantage was that the pair were able to look at the book anew and the relationship between writer and artist crystallised, becoming more interdependent in the process. Dahl even wrote a list of elements from the book he thought would work as illustrations. It was a turning point for Blake as both began working in an “immediate, collaborative kind of way” with Blake “taking drawings down to Great Missenden [where Dahl lived], and talking to him about it. [I] got to know the book better, in a way,” he says. After Dahl’s death in 1990, Blake was asked to re-illustrate the author’s first six children’s titles from James and the Giant Peach to Danny, Champion of the World. With Blake’s art on the cover of each, the look of the classic Dahl children’s story was fixed; Blake even wrote out the book’s titles in later reprints, his large signature scrawl branding Dahl’s stories a step further. “My belief,” Blake told Sturrock, “is that if you collaborate with the book, with the words, then you collaborate with the author.”

Surrealist sci-fi

The book cover designer offers a different perspective on the writer-artist relationship: the involvement is more about packaging up the work, distilling the themes of the book in a single design, rather than being a part of the reader’s engagement with the text. David Pelham, Penguin’s art director from 1968 to 1979, created some of the publisher’s most celebrated cover art – his striking design for A Clockwork Orange (1972) is often heralded as one of the best covers ever made. In 1974, he worked on a boxed set of four JG Ballard titles and, prior to creating a painting for each cover, he discussed the project in detail with the author. In an extensive interview with James Pardey on ballardian.com, Pelham describes the process, which began with a phone call to Ballard. “I explained that I was a great admirer of the work of the German artist Konrad Klapheck, a painter of monumentalised everyday machinery such as typewriters and sewing machines,” Pelham recalls. “The dynamic, low eye-line perspective and cold precision of his imagery struck me as a good starting point for a set of visually strong and related covers, and at that point I was considering commissioning the project to Klapheck.”

Pelham posted examples of Klapheck’s work to Ballard and arranged a visit to discuss the project. “In anticipation of that meeting I quickly airbrushed a sketch of a wrecked jukebox half buried in the sand, a reference from The Terminal Beach,” he says. “I positioned the jukebox at an angle, suggestive of a neglected tombstone. Satisfied with the impact of the image, I then produced a variety of objects half buried in sand – Coca-Cola bottles, crash-test dummies – all of which shared a common horizon, a strong yet simple device that related all four covers and clearly signalled that the books belonged together.”

Ballard reacted with enthusiasm and, says Pelham, “despite his admiration of Klapheck’s work he insisted that I should paint the images myself. I still have some of those early sketches, and in the margin of one are my notes, quickly scribbled at that meeting and obviously suggested by Ballard. The notes say ‘monumental/tombstones/ airless thermonuclear landscape/ horizons/a zone devoid of time’.” In order to “pay homage to Ballard’s playful involvement with paradox and surrealism,” he says, “I found myself needing to represent the landscape in which the ‘monuments’ were to be situated as not so much the evocation of a place, but rather a state of mind: the airless zone, devoid of time, that Jim had asked for.”

The (un)branded author

These days, the designer’s relationship with the author is usually more distanced; the work produced is often the result of an art director’s brief, or direct engagement with the text, rather than the writer. In 2004, designers Kai & Sunny were commissioned by Alasdair Oliver at Hodder to design and illustrate the cover of David Mitchell’s novel, Cloud Atlas. The idea, says Kai Clements, was to create a cover that “attempts to circle the globe and reaches from the 19th century to the future”. No mean feat. But Mitchell recalls “inwardly glowing with unearned gratification at how a single design could somehow evoke Victoriana, 70s prog-rock and a post-apocalyptic future. That was the moment when I understood that brilliant designers don’t merely make artwork like the rest of us, only to a more-practised and higher level,” he says, “rather, brilliant designers are brilliant because their brains are wired differently.”

According to Mitchell, Kai & Sunny’s approach (carried to a further three of his books) was to evoke the “structure of a text on which the content is hung”, rather than picking up on an element of the plot, or referencing a character or motif from the story. “A competent but average designer might read a novel called Chekhov’s Cat, notice there’s a lot of cats in it, and knock up a decent cover with a cat looking inscrutable,” says Mitchell. But in reflecting the “symmetry” of Cloud Atlas; the “vertigo” of number9dream; and the “interconnected narratives” within Ghostwritten in a single image, Kai & Sunny could then unite the books by employing a similar aesthetic and approach to decorative typography across all three. A more straightforward symbolic approach was used for Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – the heads of wheat echoing the cycle of life that animates the story.

For his most recent book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a new visual direction was sought. “Kai & Sunny did an entrancing design,” says Mitchell, “and my colleagues at Hodder, my agent and I discussed the decision for an agonised hour. At some point we realised the conversation wasn’t about the relative merits of the two front-runners – Kai & Sunny’s and the design we eventually chose [by Joe Wilson] – rather, it was about ‘Do I want to be a branded and brand-able writer, or do I want my brand to be ‘unbrandability’?'” In the end, Mitchell says, he went for the latter.

“A dominant artistic aspiration for me has always been that my novels mustn’t read as if they’ve been written by the same writer. Going for ‘unbrandability’ meant a new artistic departure.”

After years of collaborating on books, Dahl’s work with Blake and Thompson’s with Steadman has perhaps produced two of literature’s most recognisable brands. In addition to his drawings for Fear and Loathing, its companion volume of 1972, and his illustrations for The Curse of Lono (where the pair reunited in Hawaii in the early 80s), Steadman has sketched numerous portraits of Thompson over the years, each one compounding the visual mythology of the writer: the skull-like head, the cigarette holder, the trail of drink and drugs in his wake. Like Blake’s interpretation of Dahl’s most extravagant characters, Steadman’s drawings are an inseperable part of the experience of the whole Thompson story.

In Steadman’s case it was the art that locked the reader in, leaving the writer to take over and get to work. “It was the drawings that alerted potential readers in the first place that this was something to take note of,” he writes. “Drawings can be the means of energising the life of a text. Where is Winnie the Pooh without its illustrations? Where is Fear and Loathing without its Gonzo drawings? Impossible to say now, in retrospect, and I wonder still, but I wouldn’t have missed the trip for the world.” 

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
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