Sunday, January 30, 2011

Working with Illustrators

Years ago, when I was looking for an illustrator for my series, someone told me, "If you find a good one, hold him fast!" Someone else said that working with an illustrator is like a marriage. I think they meant the same - think well before you choose one, and then stick with him or her.
Many publishers don't allow authors to choose their illustrators nor to communicate with them.
Someone explained to me that authors and illustrators don't always see eye to eye and publishers try to ease that relationship by mediating between the two. In my view, however, this causes other problems. For example, it can be disheartening for an author to see illustrations that don't match what he or she had in mind. I imagine it's even worse to find this out once the book is printed. I have seen some picture books for children where the illustrations didn't exactly match the captions.
On the other hand, some of the illustrators I contacted had such horrible experiences working directly with authors that they refused to do so. Mostly, they said that authors are too close to their work and too demanding. I remember one illustrator giving me an unsolicited psychological evaluation from my emails. He had me figured out as a client and knew exactly what to expect if he had to work with me.
There is always a balance. Sometimes authors "see" the picture a certain way and want illustrations that match their view but, unless they can actually draw a sketch or take a photo of someone posing, they can't expect the artist to have the same mental image. I have often been pleasantly surprised at how different my artist's view of a scene can be from mine. The only time I correct him is when there is anachronism or when the illustration deviates from the actual story.
In this respect, I have found it useful to write a very detailed list of illustrations needed - stating the time of day, the place, the age of the characters, and describing the event in the most accurate way possible. In spite of this, there have been times when my explanations were insufficient and gave the artist the wrong impression about the event or the feelings of the characters to be portrayed. That's why it's good to always see and approve pencil sketches before the illustrations are finalized. My present artist is using oil paints, which is God's mercy for faulty authors like me, since some things can be changed even after the painting is completed.
Also, some authors are not too good at communication skills, while a graphic director in a publishing company is trained to do just that. Personally, I like to be totally involved. I would rather work very hard to sharpen my communication skills than relinquish this level of participation. I am very grateful for the editorial staff at Reformation Heritage Books, who has allowed me to do so from the start, even when it didn't seem like the right decision.
For my novel on Olympia Morata, which will be published by P&R this year, I was not given the choice of an illustrator and could not communicate directly with him. When P&R showed me some ideas for the cover of my book, I had to express my concerns to them, expecting them to talk to the illustrator. I was not used to this and I admit it was not easy. In this case, I have learned to yield, which I guess is a healthy thing to do.
As a bonus, my year-long search for the right illustrator for my series of children's books has left me with a group of new friends - wonderful artists who have decided not to work with me for several reasons (mostly because I cannot pay what they rightly expect and deserve), but who are gracious enough to answer my questions if I ever feel the need to contact them on any issue.
I am very grateful for Matt Abraxas, my present artist. Working with him has been a pleasure and I hope I am not too difficult a client.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Masterful Illustration

Matt (Abraxas) is outdoing himself. His illustrations of my book on Athanasius are the best yet. Here is his interpretation of Athanasius' trial in Tyre, where he had to answer to a charge of murder (among other accusations).

My daughter said, "It's evil."
"The men's faces, right?"
"The red color in the back."

Normally, my books are pretty sedate in tone, trying to express as much objectivity as possible, but while a biographer can be sedate, a novelist and an illustrator can't. The biographer can lay out the facts, but novelists and illustrators must necessarily tell a story, imagining emotions when they are not told.

Modern biographers tell us that some of the accusations brought up against Athanasius at the council of Tyre might have been founded. His election might have been out of order. He might have been too young to be a bishop, and he might have condoned some acts of violence. We can switch to any political channel today and feel just as confused. We don't know all the facts.

But we have this one scene. On one hand, Athanasius, a very young and energetic bishop, who had lived his childhood during the greatest persecution of Christians of all times and had been trained by one of the staunchest defenders of the full divinity of Christ in a cosmopolitan, highly cultural, and theologically divided city. On the other hand, we see those who disliked him - Arians and Meletians alike. As charitable as we can be toward those groups (after all, most heretics and schismatics truly believe to be working for the truth and the good of the people), in this particular situation their accusation was absolutely false, and anyone who hides a man and produces a severed hand to prove his murder deserves a red backdrop!

So Athanasius looks at us in the picture. (I love how Matt does this, he did it in the illustration on the cover of John Owen, where the little girl looks at us straight in the eye). He looks at us and explains. These are angry men. There is tension and contention. Their accusation was unfounded and he has proved it. There is a little hint of confidence on his face. He is asking but hoping we'll agree with him.

There it is - my interpretation of Matt's interpretation of the facts...

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More on Biographies

I have found an interesting article by Zoubeida R. Dagher and Danielle J. Ford about children's biographies of scientists ("How Are Scientists Portrayed in Children's Science Biographies?", Springer 2005), with an excellent critique of children's biographies of scientists. Immediately, I noticed that there are many similarities with Christian biographies. For example, the characters are usually represented as heroes and lone rangers (working independently from the scientific community and previous research) and relying on observation rather than methodical study.

One sentence in particular, regarding a biography of Galileo, struck me. "There is no hint to the complexity of Galileo’s proposal, suggesting that any person should have been able of looking carefully through the telescope and seeing what Galileo saw." We do this so often in Christian biographies for children! I have read some children's biographies of Luther that have left me with the feeling that anyone could have opened the Bible and discovered justification by faith! There was no mention of the work of others before him, both as individuals and in church councils.

I have already turned in my biography of Athanasius, but until the editor sends it back with their corrections I am still keeping it in the back of my mind to make sure I explain to the children the complexity of the Arian controversy rather than just giving a simple good guys vs. bad guys account. It's not a matter of complexity or simplicity of language. I think it's a matter of mindset. If I see the issues in simplistic terms, my books will be simplistic. If I take time to understand the issues in their historical and intellectual context, my words will reflect that, while remaining simple. The more I continue to read and understand, the better the end result will be. It's the same when writing historical novels - if I pick up a few details about the time period and insert them here and there, the artificiality will show, but if I soak my mind with a great variety of pertinent information, then as I write the images will appear naturally in their proper context.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Lady Jane

I have been very selective in the choice of titles for my series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers. From the start, my vision has been to introduce not a random choice of role models, but men and women who have helped to shape the church and our Reformed theology. In other words, the focus is on God's providence, His church, and His doctrine.
The first four titles in my series have done just that. Calvin, Augustine, John Owen, and Athanasius have all been instrumental in the understanding and development of very important tenets of the Christian faith.
It is, however, time to include a woman, and it's hard to keep the same criteria in my choice. Women were esteemed in the early church. My favorite is Marcella of Rome, a rich and very educated woman who was eager to learn all she could about Christian doctrine and became a great influence on Jerome and on Roman women of her time. Still, we can't say she impacted the church and its doctrines.
I don't remember how the choice fell on Lady Jane. I had her in my list of prospective titles, and the publisher thought she was a good idea. I couldn't say she had a monumental impact on the church either. Still, telling her life will give me the opportunity to show how God preserved His people and doctrine in England during the difficult transition from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant church.
I foresee some difficulties. There is much myth and hagiography around the figure of Lady Jane, but I am confident that the Lord will help me as He has done until now.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Athanasius - Black Dwarf?

Matt is now working on the first illustration for my book on Athanasius, and we are discussing physical features. We don't have many documents to help us with our decision. All paintings and orthodox icons portraying Athanasius were made many centuries later.
There is the common nickname of "black dwarf." I was puzzled when I first found it, because I could not read this description in any original documents. Something else was strange. When I tried the search in other languages ("nano nero" or "nain noir") I couldn't find any results. I asked an Italian expert on that particular time period and on the early Fathers, and he had never heard of it.
Finally I found this site with some explanations.
The fact that Emperor Julian had called Athanasius "a little man" does not necessarily mean that he was physically short, and apparently 20th-century American writers called him black just because he was African. I was later told by an African-American activist that the term "black" in America has a very wide meaning that goes beyond skin color. So an Egyptian could be called black just because he is African, and that could explain the "black dwarf" nickname.
I know this is a debatable subject and I am not interested in starting a discussion here. I just want to solve a practical problem: what did Athanasius look like?
We know that he lived in Egypt. His name is Greek, so he could have even come from a Greek family, which would make him Mediterranean but not dark. To avoid supposition, we can make him look as a typical 4th-century Egyptian. One of the best guidelines in this respect is the Fayum collection of portraits dated about the same time (1st-3rd century A.D.)
According to Philip Schaff (A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church), "later tradition adds a slight stoop, a hooked nose and small mouth, a short beard spreading into large whiskers, and light auburn hair." This is, however, just tradition and not an accurate first-hand description.
I will let Matt decide what to do. His guess is as good as mine, and he is the artist. This post is
just an explanation to anyone who might ask me later why our Athanasius looks like he does