An interview with Jackie Morris

posted in: Jackie Morris | 9

Jackie Morris creates illustrations that make you stop and stare. Even though she has over 30 books to her name, each time I see her work I still find myself gazing, under something of a magical spell, for her artwork is mysterious, beautiful, haunting and tender.

So, as a longstanding fan you can imagine I was very excited to read Jackie Morris’ latest book, a short novel for older children, titled East of the Sun, West of the Moon. To celebrate its publication I recently interviewed her, and today I’m delighted to share that conversation with you.

Playing by the book: I enjoyed reading your latest book to be published, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Can you tell us a little about the book and why this traditional tale means so much to you?

Jackie Morris: The book is a kind of retelling of Beauty and the Beast. It originates from the north lands and twists its way through several stages. It is about many things and the more I heard it told by others, the more I worked on it myself, the more threads I found in a story that is such a rich tapestry.
I love Beauty and the Beast and East of the Sun, but always felt a disappointment when he changes from beast to man. I think from an early age I fell truly in love with the gentle character of the beast, so never wanted him to change.

The painting used for the frontcover of East of the Sun, West of the Moon
The painting used for the frontcover of East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Playing by the book: Many readers will know you for your stunning picture books, books where the text to me seems more like a poem than an extended narrative. How did it feel to write a much longer text? Did you approach your writing in the same way as for picture books or was it different in any ways which surprised you?

Jackie Morris: Writing always surprises me. For some reason I expect to be in control of the story and in some ways I am. But in other ways the story takes over and becomes the most important thing. I wrote most of this book outside whilst walking. I write in pen, on paper … old fashioned. But I think differently when I use a pen from how I think when I use a keyboard.

With picture books I try to make the words as sparse as possible (sometimes). There are stories in the pictures, as with Tell Me a Dragon. You just have to find them for yourself. Sadly so many people don’t get this and I often hear parents telling their children to put the book back as it doesn’t have enough words in it. Some of my picture books are longer though, but even then I try to be as spare as I can and let the pictures do some of the work.

Hand written draft of East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Hand written draft of East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Playing by the book: The format for East of the Sun, West of the Moon is delightful – a small, quite chunky book with your lovely illustrations, that fits so beautifully in the hands. How did you go about illustrating your story? Both in terms of how the illustrations interact with the text  – how did you go about choosing the scenes to illustrate (are there other scenes you painted which did not make it into the final version?) – but also the physical process – did you paint the scenes as miniatures? (I associate grandeur and almost stateliness with your illustrations and have always imagined that the originals are very large.)

Jackie Morris: East of the Sun, West of the Moon was carefully designed (as are all the books). I wanted to try to make something small, precious and beautiful that could be carried around easily. I love seeing the way people hold it.

The cover was difficult to catch. I think I spent about 3 weeks going backwards and forwards with different images. We weren’t sure whether to do a paper cover, quarter binding. I wanted header and footer tapes, and in all honesty would have loved a red ribbon marker too and silver edges on the paper, but was told to reign in a bit, the budget being a major factor. Maybe if it ever becomes a classic we can have a deluxe edition. The interior design took more time, but small decorations became punctuations in the book. And I wanted to have bigger full bleed double page spreads to set a scene. The book is almost like a theatre performance with different acts.

The paintings are small. Took me a while to settle to the right size. They are about twice as big as the book, which still makes them a lot smaller than my usual working size.

An illustration from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
An illustration from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Playing by the book: Whilst I’m a great believer in books of all different types being loved by all different ages, as I believe you are, who do you think would most enjoy East of the Sun, West of the Moon?

I ask this partly because your novel include some references that some parents might not feel comfortable with. As a reviewer I would feel obliged to let parents know something of these issues in advanced so they can make up their own mind, but do you think we worry too much about what children can understand and deal with?

Jackie Morris: I wrote the book originally for the children who grew up on my picture books. There is a passing reference to prostitutes and drug dealers on the second page. Also the girl is from a refugee family. They are in fact illegal immigrants as they entered the country with no papers. I still remember the moment as a child when I realised that there were borders between countries, that people couldn’t travel freely, that some people who came to our shores because of desperate circumstances were treated like criminals when they should be welcomed in and helped. The world began to seem like a mad place. These things are woven in to the story. It isn’t a picture book for young children, but it is a book that might raise questions, I hope, about rights and wrongs in the world. Despite some criticism I have had of this, I stand by the way I have crafted this story and think each element is necessary to the strength of the book. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be there.

Fairy tales have always been dark, always contained dark things. Most of this book is love and light and life. It is a shame that a few have chosen to focus on the dark. By the same token stories should reflect the world in which we live, the times in which we live. (I would like to thank my publisher for being brave enough not to sanitize my book and reduce it to the bland thing it would be without this thread.) [Zoe adds: you can find out more about these references in a recent blog post from Jackie, here]

Jackie at a recent school event
Jackie Morris at a schools event in Falls Library, Seattle

Playing by the book: Moving away from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, can you tell us a little about how you became an illustrator? Is it something you always wanted to be?

Jackie Morris: I have always wanted to be an artist and saw illustration as a way to make a living in what is a very difficult world. Coming from a working class background I had no way of supporting myself other than through part time work until I managed to get my foot well and truly through the door and into the publishing world. Luckily I have been able to make a living in publishing since I gave up my last job as a dishwasher in the Circus Restaurant in Bath when I was 27. It is so difficult to make a living in publishing that ironically I subsidize my income by being an artist. How ridiculous is that!

Playing by the book: How does illustrating compare to writing for you?

Jackie Morris: I love writing. Illustration is 1 % inspiration and 99% hard work. You get this flash of an image in your mind and then you have to find a way to capture it. With writing I find that I become utterly absorbed in a story. It is a state close to madness and I believe that the only thing that keeps me sane is writing and painting. Sadly it also drives me mad … so I walk a fine line sometimes. But I love the places that writing takes me. And I love the way characters begin to take on lives of their own. I am only truly happy when I am in conversation with paper – either writing, reading or painting.

Jackie's workspace
Jackie’s workspace

Playing by the book: What different challenges do illustrating and writing pose? What different pleasures do they bring to you?

Jackie Morris: Both of these questions are difficult to answer. On a good day when paint or words are flowing then I get that feeling of free-wheeling down hill on a bike in sunshine with hedges of honeysuckle either side. On a bad day it is like being stuck in a mire, head down with your feet in the air. When a book comes out it is exciting, great to see it on the shelves and a wonderful sense of completion. Then the worry sets in about how it could be better, and all the stuff you have to do to try and sell it and facebook and blogging and tweet tweet twoo and book tours all get in the way of the next book, but you have to do them because there’s no point writing them if they sit in obscurity and are never found. But actually this can be good too and as you read to groups or do school events you learn so much about what works and what doesn’t and you see your work reflected back at you and learning, learning all the time. Sometimes you find another story out there…… and it all begins again.

Playing by the book: You have a picture book coming out later this year where you are the author, but you have not done the illustrations. Rather, in Little Evie in the Darkwoods, Catherine Hyde is the illustrator. What was the dynamic like, handing your words over to another artist? Was this liberating, scary, exciting? What were the nuts and bolts of you working together – did you meet to discuss the illustrations, or did you simply hand over the text and wait with baited breath to see how Catherine would respond to your words?

Jackie Morris: It was liberating, scary and exciting. At first I handed over the text and Catherine drew and drew and then we spoke over the phone about the shape of a book and holding the story all within the wood. Catherine painted and each day I would see this marvellous flesh appearing on the bones of my story. I love what she has done with it. She has made it beautiful. And I love reading it and showing it to children and adults. The story came from my utter disenchantment with Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not that I don’t like grandmothers, but I do love wolves and wild places and wild things.

A wolf from East of the Sun, West of the Moon
A wolf from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

Playing by the book: If you could bring together 5 artists (alive or dead) to share a meal and paper, pens, inks and paints, who would you invite and why?

Jackie Morris: Chris Riddell because I love watching him draw. The man can draw a straight line better than anyone.

James Mayhew because I love his company and we could have fun with my wood engraving tools and he is so full of stories … and he could make a great cake to bring along.

Albrecht Durer because he knew the shape of a hare.

Fra Angelico because he could draw on a wall or two with beautiful colours – and the artist who painted the Wilton Diptych.

But these are all men, so I want another supper at which I would have Mary Fedden and Elizabeth Blackadder, who are both so very wonderful and I love their work. Nicola Bayley, because it was watching her paint for the Tyger Voyage on BBC TV’s Pebble Mill at 1.00, when I was 14, that made me decide to be an illustrator. Emily Gravett, because it would be lovely to have supper with her. She used to live two fields away and walk past my studio when she was a student, on her way to the beach. She never once knocked on the door or window when I was working so she didn’t disturb me and I would love to cook supper for her to say thanks. I also love her drawings so much and …Pauline Baynes who did such absolutely wonderful work.

Playing by the book: That sounds like wonderful company Jackie – I wish I could magic up such an evening for you! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions today.

Jackie Morris’ blog

9 Responses

  1. Interviews over breakfast and supper. - Jackie Morris Artist

    […] A while back I was asked if I would do an interview for a blog called Playing by the Book. The blog is a fantastic resource about books and reading and children, so I was delighted to say yes, and the post goes live today. It is mostly about East of the Sun, but also about who to invite for supper, and a little about madness. You can find it at Playing by the Book. […]

  2. Mrs Brown

    Yes, I was distracted for a moment by that cat too but I’m now thinking lots about her questioning of borders as a child. I can’t remember when I first had that awareness. Praise for her publisher for not editing those conversation starting dark references.
    Mrs Brown recently posted..Whale by David Lucas

  3. Barbara Mojica

    What a perceptive and in depth interview! I enjoyed Jackie’s comment about good and bad days because that is exactly what happens to my author/illustrator husband. My first children’s book just came out so I have not had that much experience with feedback, but I found her comment about the book being reflected back at you bringing you new ideas an interesting one.

  4. Zoe

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Polly – she’s got two new bengal kittens! (who help her create art)

  5. Suzie Canale

    Hi There!
    I was searching my books and your wonderful blog came up! My friend and author Chad Poi recommended my books, The Beantown Tales for environmental themes. I have written 3 books, “The Land of Chocolate Cosmos”, “The Popcorn Hydrangea of Poppingtom” and “The Candy Roses of Cape Care”. All are written in poetry and all try to empower children to make key changes within their societies. I would love to be added to your email list!

    All the Best!
    Suzie Canale

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