You’ve seen the published stories and their illustrations in the September Slam at Fictive Dream, an online magazine focusing on the short story. Now, in a series of posts, I travel through the project from my perspective as an artist, covering the creative process, physical and mental – from the tools I used to the way I approached the various stories.
For other posts in this series, search under the term “September Slam”.
The next story I worked on was “Eat to Live”, by Sarah Daniels. The story is a study of excess: food, of course, but also of the effects an excess of a single focus can have on people and the actions they will take as a result. The story was strong stuff and for me, hard to read, which I think marks the author’s success in telling it.
Here I’ll digress into what I found to be the most interesting thing about taking on an illustration job – the need to enter the world an author has created, one that might be very different from my usual thoughts or themes.
In any commission work, of course, the artist is presented with a subject that is not of their own choosing – I’ve done plenty of this kind of work in the past, but it was pretty much related to depicting something visual – a house portrait, for instance. Illustrating written stories, though, required me to create a visual from the very thoughts of someone else.
In previous stories, that challenge for me had been more focused on getting the scenes correct – France, trains, Lisbon, ruins, World War I clothing, etc. The emotions of the characters had come more naturally to me or were something that I could find a parallel in my own experiences. In this story, though, I was out of my depth – these people were thinking in ways I would not.
It was a fascinating challenge – how to reveal character and support the story in a visual sense? The answer was of course right in front of me. The words of the story, as in all the other projects, told me all I needed to know to do a good drawing. I’m not showing people what I think about France or trains, or World War I in these drawings – I am showing people what the author thinks and says.
Ahhh. Now I was able to go to work.
For the first drawing, I chose the description of the meeting of the two characters. Fictive Dream Editor Laura Black had not marked this passage, but it immediately stood out to me, and I had a clear idea of what I saw:
I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. My face reflected back a thousand times, vapid grey and waxy from every angle. I folded another stick of peppermint chewing gum into my mouth. Dreamt of the bottle of antacid I’d left on the sink in my hotel room.
Roy Ogram sat across from me. Four time Competitive Eating World Champion. His famous mouth was wide and turned down. Tiny nostrils on a flattened nose.
You may notice this quote includes the prompt wording. I had a vision of what the restaurant looked like already – remember my drawings from the beginning of the project?
I envisioned Roy Ogram surrounded by food in this restaurant. In order to draw him, I needed a reference – Roy is a large man. I turned to Google images; by this time I had learned that pretty much whatever I asked for, I could find. I searched under the term “really fat man”. Yes, I did, and I found images that helped me develop the characteristic postures and look of a very overweight man. I drew quite a few sketches to get the image I wanted.
I also wanted to draw a LOT of food. Once again, Google images brought to me many photos of party tables groaning with food.
I created a painted background especially for this image – the colors prompted by the “vapid gray” in the story as well as the word “faded” in the prompt.
Here is the drawing I did:
Laura had marked two passages from the same section of the story. They both involved the birds. I considered her suggestion of the point at which Roy eats the bird. I just could not do it. Plus, as a practical matter, I thought it might be a spoiler. However, we both had chosen this line:
Half a dozen gulls hopped down onto the concrete. They pecked at the fries. Cocked their heads to watch us.
I thought it had great possibilities. It included both characters and marked a pivotal point in the story. I did some photo research on gulls and did more sketches of the two people, then I set all these characters into a rather vague plain setting so that they would stand out. I used a similar background as I did in the other illustration. Here’s what I came up with, and it’s the one Laura chose for publication.
From the Editor:
Here’s what Laura Black said about her thought process in choosing the image for the story:
I know that you found this a difficult story. There’s no doubt that it’s disturbing. I think you were absolutely right in not showing a bird in Roy Ogram’s mouth. In fact, your image – the one I chose – could be of a benign scene and it’s only when you read the story that it takes on a more sinister meaning.
I made the final choice at the very end of the procedure. In fact, this was my final decision on the artwork side. In the end, I chose on the grounds that the image shows both characters’ distrust of each other. He is eyeing her with his piggy eyes, and she, young and vulnerable, doesn’t really know what to make of him.
I also like the fact that it’s less colourful than the other images. In fact, the colour you chose engages with an early line in the text: My face reflected back a thousand times, vapid grey and waxy from every angle.
What I enjoyed about the alternative image was that it brought us into the restaurant with the mirrored walls, and having one out of the seven in the restaurant wouldn’t have been a problem at all. I like the young woman’s many reflections. But, I had to make a decision and finally opted for the gulls on the bench because it engages with what we know is to come.
So that is how this story received its illustration. If you haven’t read it, take a look:
“Eat to Live”, by Sarah Daniels.