“We live in the age of the beautiful book” – interview with Chris Riddell

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Chris Riddell in his studio in Brighton. Photograph: Martin Godwin

Writer, illustrator and current Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell is becoming an increasingly familiar name to stumble upon in the literary world. He has collaborated on projects with Neil Gaiman, Russell Brand and is an award-winning author in his own right. From his often jaw-droppingly beautiful illustrated books to his lively social media posts of train journey doodles and illustrated documentation of his laureate’s role (the ‘Laureate’s Log‘) his pen is gradually making the world of books a more visually inspiring one. We chatted with Chris about Mervyn Peake, poetry and Instagram.

As myself and my colleague Thea prepare to call Chris from The London Magazine office at the appointed time to conduct a telephone interview, I can’t help but imagine us as we might be represented in a Chris Riddell doodle: two girls on a sofa huddled around a phone on loudspeaker, waiting excitedly and expectantly for it to disgorge wonderful revelations. And so it did.

I feel it necessary to immediately inform Chris that his Instagram feed is a fairly major part of both his interviewers’ day, as it must be for quite a number of people he talks to.

Chris' self-portrait as the new Children's Laureate
Chris’ self-portrait as the new Children’s Laureate

Do you often meet people who seem preternaturally well-informed of your movements, as a result of following you on social media? 

This is a really lovely part of my interactions with people. Yesterday I was at Waterstones Picadilly, and there were a number of people who came up and said ‘We’re so sorry it rained in Sardinia’. It’s an interaction and it’s all done through the medium of illustration, which is a real pleasure. This is another element of the interaction – the author’s voice is in your ear. Yet talking to authors face to face is an extra thrill or connection. And by extension, being able to read an author’s blog or follow them online is a further form of interaction.

I mention the many train journey doodles he posts on Instagram.

I love sitting on the train. It’s a form of time travel. I get on the train, I get a sketch book out and before I know it I’ve arrived at where I’m going. I’ve learned how to teleport through the medium of illustration. When I draw it’s a way of going somewhere else. 

This sounds like it corresponds to the experience of many readers who describe books as a mean of transportation to other places

There’s a lovely Book Trust motto which goes ‘its not a book, it’s a doorway’. You can open a book the way you open a doorway and step inside, and you’re somewhere else. That is an extraordinary experience. And the link we now have to writers through social media is another element of the interaction. When you read, the author’s voice is in your ear. Yet talking to authors face to face is an extra thrill or connection. And by extension, being able to read an author’s blog or follow them online is a further form of interaction.

Are there any particular authors you would love to work with in the future?

Almost every author I meet. I met a lovely local author at Waterstones in Brighton. She came along for a cup of coffee and I was drawing on a wall (as I do). We had a chat and she told me an astonishing story about her latest book which she was self-publishing because it wasn’t considered commercial enough. I said “look Nicky, what you need to do is come along to Waterstones and meet an illustrator – who might or might not be drawing on the walls – and convince him to illustrate your self-published novel”.

This is the story of how Chris came to illustrate the beautiful crowd-funded novel Island by Nicky Singer, a novel about global warming and how its consequences connect all humanity.

It has an epilogue about how we met. It’s an important novel about global warning, but its also a beautify, lyrical novel as well.

You’ve worked both extensively with authors on illustrating their stories, and as an author in your own right. We’re curious about the relationship between the text and the drawings in both cases, and whether the process differs?

When I write and illustrate that is something that I’m in complete control of. I often start with a drawing, or something just as simple as a title that I like the sound of.

He tells us that this is how his ‘Ottoline’ novels first came about – as titles with drawings of characters.

I took these titles and wrote stories for each and they turned into the Ottoline books. As an illustrator I’m always in search of stories. My way in is often to draw characters and find the stories after that.

When I’m sent a text it’s somewhat different. I had an absolutely magical experience when Neil Gaiman sent me the entire manuscript of The Graveyard Book by email and asked if I was free to illustrate it. It was extraordinary, and I read it thinking “I have to illustrate this”. Neil is one of these writers who never directs, who will give you the work and say “it’s yours now, to imagine as you see fit”. Something very similar happened with The Sleeper and the Spindle. It was up to me just to sit down and imagine how this entire book should look; how many pages it should have, what the cover should look like, how I wanted the pages to look. Working with wonderful designers at Bloomsbury enabled much of this to happen, I was given this text and was allowed to pour it into this beautiful vessel that became the book. That’s a very different way to work because I’m invited to share ownership of something, and it’s a wonderful experience as an illustrator to be invited into the imagination of a writer.

We live in the age of the beautiful book, because there are so many other ways that stories and information can be delivered. We’re all becoming, in a way, book collectors, in the best possible sense.0f9f3ba0-fe56-4b4a-bd5a-6a9b24034474-1020x691

Chris Riddell
From The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell. Image: Chris Riddell/Bloomsbury

Much of your work has a fantastical or fairytale association – your projects with Neil Gaiman and Russell Brand, for example, which have entailed a re-writing or re-imagining of traditional stories. Do you think this theme of re-telling traditional stories is important in the contemporary world?

I think rewriting is a tradition almost as old as fairytales themselves. Fairytales or folk tales are a medium which grow from very particular times or traditions but then are reinterpreted endlessly. I think we’re in an age when a lot of people are going back to these tales and re-imagining them fresh because they’re an important way to connect with timeless issues. As an illustrator I’ve always valued that tradition.

We have classic tales in the nineteenth and twentieth century such as Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings which form their own traditions, but we can go back even earlier to the folk and fairytale and find an incredibly rich source of inspiration. I think this chimes in with the idea of making books beautiful – these are beautiful tales that, when they’re re-imagined, suggest how one might make books themselves beautiful.

What Russell was doing with The Pied Piper was rewriting it in his own inimitable way, and I was invited to join him in this endeavour. Russell is a seeker – he’s not a didactic person, he’s got this incredibly enquiring mind, so he was a very generous person to work with in that sense.

Chris' sketchbook meditations on working with Brand
Chris’ sketchbook meditations on working with Brand

 

If you could pick any text in the world to illustrate, what would it be?

There are quite a few. The top of my list would have to be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Its sort of forgotten in way, and yet its so remarkably visual. Peake was  an artist so I feel a real kinship with him in that. You get the personality of his characters from his illustrations. To illustrate Peake would be a dream project for the future.

You often post pictures of amazingly detailed characters from your sketchbooks. Where do all these characters come from, and does each have their own story?

They come from my sketchbook – from opening the page of a sketchbook and allowing my thoughts to flow across the page. This is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I’ve got a rather vast collection of sketchbooks in my studio which I dip into, and sometimes I’ll post things that I did 15 years ago, and sometimes things I did yesterday. But they’re a great repository of ideas and thoughts and musings – some whimsical some quite frankly unpublishable. I dip into them, take ideas and work these out into story form. When I sit down with a sketchbook I don’t immediately know what I’m doing, I just let thoughts flow out.

Its interesting to post these things online and get response. One can gauge what things chime. It’s a nice way of testing the waters. Every so often I’ll open a notebook and see a drawing from ages ago and think ’now it’s time’. This is something I did the other day. I suddenly thought about a Rudyard Kipling Poem called way through the woods, and thought what a lovely title that would be, so I sat down a wrote a little illustrated story. I think that’s going to be my next book and I don’t know where it came from. My process now will be to sit down and turn that into something that makes sense as a book. 

We obviously express enthusiasm at the idea of an artist like Chris bring poetry to life through illustration.

The fantastic thoughts of poets are right there and can be brought out through illustration.

The publishing industry can be quite tentative when it comes to illustrated books not marketed specifically to children. What are your thoughts on this?

I think that might be changing. There’s certainly a very strong and vibrant world of graphic novels in UK that owe a debt to American and European comics, and we’re beginning to grow our own here. I also think this idea of illustrated fiction or graphic novels for older readers is certainly worth banging on about, because there’s not enough of it. As children’s laureate, that’s something I’m interested in – reaching an audience that is perhaps overlooked, or pushed into a certain category. That’s why projects like The Sleeper ad Spindle, which has been described as a Young Adult picture book is very exciting. I’d like to follow that up with some illustrated poetry perhaps.

I’ve also just done a book called Doodle a Day which invites children to do a drawing each day, like a diary, accompanied by my own drawings. It takes you through the year. The proceeds from this will go to the Book Trust.

I think it’s a problem in an education system, when children aren’t encouraged to be creative. Its necessary to have testing and Key Stages in order to measure how education is being delivered, but within that space creativity is often very hard to quantify and so can get left behind. I think its important to emphasise the need for creative spaces in schools. One of the most important creative spaces is, I think, the school library – that is both a repository of book, but also a space you can retreat into, a quiet space where you can draw and think and makes notes and interact with books. The most important people in any school library are the librarians because they are the people who make readers. They’re not there to test or set exams, they’re there to encourage reading.

From 'Life Changing Books or Librarians I have Loved...A Love Letter' by Chris Riddell
From ‘Life Changing Books or Librarians I have Loved…A Love Letter’ by Chris Riddell

As children’s laureate, if I put my rather magnificent plumed tricorn hat on, I want to celebrate the role of school librarians in particular because I think they can be marginalised – through no fault of hard-pressed schools who need to get on and deal with an age of austerity – but I think we’re in danger of losing a creative hub within the school because we can’t actively test it.

How have you found the position of Children’s Laureate? Did you have certain expectation?

I had no expectations, but what I did have were eight predecessors who were astonishingly impressive. When I was asked if I would consider taking on the role I looked at each of my predecessors and realised that each of them had, at different stages in my career, been personally kind to me – had done favours for me or befriended me, little acts of kindness. I thought that was a remarkable thing and realised that if I took up the role I would need to continue that – to give something back. I’m trying to polish my halo and be as saintly as I can.

Are you a big reader?

I am a big reader, and always have been. The reason I became an illustrator is because I love art but also because I love reading. I wanted a way into the world of books and to be the sort of person who is able to work with authors. When I looked at John Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland I thought “I want to be that guy”. Oddly, I’m getting close to that dream because I’m about to illustrate ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. Being able to interpret over the ages a classic work but putting in a post-modern twist.

When you read do you constantly have to resist the urge to doodle?

I don’t resist. Philip Reeve gave me a copy of his latest novel Rail Head and I started drawing on it. I asked Philip’s permission to put a bit of fan art on my copy and he said it was ok.

As a literary Magazine, we always love the work you do for The Literary Review [Chris is their long-standing cover artist]. How did you begin working with them?

Just after Willie Rushton died, Auberon Waugh came along to meet me when I was working on the Economist and told me they needed a cover artist and would I become Willie Rushton’s replacement. They were very large shoes to fill but I’ve been there ever since. It’s a little bit of literary joy once a month.

[Cartoonist Willie Rushton preceded Chris at the Literary Review’s illustrator. Auberon Waugh was editor of the magazine until 2001]

From Chris’ ‘Illustrations to Unwritten Novels’ for The Literary Review

Chris has to put on that splendid plumed hat at this point, and fly off on official Laureate business. We tell him we’re very excited to see what comes out of his studio over the next few months. “So am I!” he says. Fingers crossed for an illustrated Gormenghast or hand-lettered Kipling collection. We’ll be first in line.

Interview by Thea Hawlin and Rachel Chanter