Pam Smy’s first novel, ‘Thornhill,’ was met with much critical acclaim and nominated for several awards so my expectations of ‘The Hideaway’ were high. Well let me tell you, she has crafted another beautifully told tale interwoven with atmospheric greyscale illustrations. Pam has written an exclusive piece for this blog about being an illustrator. You must read it!
‘The Hideaway tells the story of a boy, Billy McKenna, who runs away from a difficult situation at home and takes refuge in an overgrown graveyard. While hiding there he meets an elderly man who is tending the graves in preparation for a day in November when something magical is set to happen.
The book is written in two alternating narratives, both different aspects of the same story. One thread tells of Billy’s experience of hiding away in the graveyard, his mixed-up feelings and emotions, and the supernatural events he eventually witnesses. The other tells of his mother’s situation at home and the police search for Billy.’
Pam Smy on being an illustrator
You’ve said that you consider yourself an illustrator first and foremost – When did you realise you could or wanted to write stories, too?
I am an illustrator and have spent my adult life studying, making and teaching illustration. I began writing as I wasn’t getting as many illustration commissions as I would have liked, and I thought I could use Illustration as a part of the structure of a story for a middle grade/YA audience. As an illustrator I am thinking in terms of stories all the time, so taking the step to writing them as well as illustrating felt natural. That said, I am terrible at spelling and grammar, and am heavily dependent on the editor I work with, Alice Corrie, to help make my ideas communicate coherently.
Does it feel different illustrating your own stories versus illustrating for another author’s book? Is it easier or harder?
I LOVE illustrating other writer’s texts – if they are the right type of story for my interests. I enjoy trying to add another layer to their writing and using illustration to bring a page to life. I find it easy if the art direction is a light touch and I am given a free reign. When I am given particular spaces in the text and very detailed instructions as to the illustration content I find that harder and less enjoyable.
How does the process work for you when you’re combining words and pictures – what comes first and how do you plan the text around the images for the final layouts?
I imagine stories like films in my head, with the characters speaking or performing, so even though I may write a manuscript early on, the look and feel of the story as a whole is there very early on. With The Hideaway I wrote it first, knowing that there would be one thread (Billy’s) that would have illustrations, and one thread (Grace’s) that would not. I also knew that there would be a wordless sequence as part of the overall storytelling.
Once the manuscript was edited and the text dropped into place, I was able to make illustrations page by page, and adjust the layouts to fit with what I wanted the emphasis of the illustrations to be. This was a back and forth process between me and the editor, Alice, and the designer, Ness, so I wasn’t making all the decisions on my own.
There is a section in The Hideaway just told in pictures; did you know that would always be the case or did it evolve as you were writing? Why did you decide to pause the narrative here?
I imagined that there would be a section that was just told in pictures from the outset, and this formed part of my story outline when I first submitted it to the publisher.
I felt it was important to stop the text and let the reader see what Billy saw, and to let those scenes not have to compete with text on the page. I also wanted the feeling that this was a big moment in the narrative, and indicating this change with what the pages communicated was important.
Can you tell us a bit about your illustration process, from research and roughs to the final images?
Initially, I took sketchbooks out and drew on location in the graveyard that the story was set and in others around Cambridge. On the whole these are for information and inspiration, rather than direct use in the final illustrations, except for an image of the field beyond the graveyard that features at the end of the story.
In terms of medium, I work using emulsion wall paint in various tones of grey. In previous work I have added ink on top with a dip pen, but in The Hideaway I didn’t use any linework, and just worked with a tiny brush to capture the detail of the foliage. I love working with a tonal range of greys and black and white. I love the drama and atmosphere that you can create with such a limited set of materials.
When each painting is finished I scan it into Photoshop and clear up any bits of dust or dog hair that may have got stuck in the paint as it dried.
Did you have much say in the cover design and finishes of the book?
I was shown the finishes but I found it really hard to imagine what the shiny and glossy bits would look like, so I was happy to trust what the designer, Ness Wood, and the Publisher, Neil Dunnicliffe, had in mind as the cover came together.
I am amazed at the time and care that Pavilion have put into the look and feel of The Hideaway – they have made it into a very special object.
How did you find being a student on the Cambridge Art School MA course?
Being a student on the MA Children’s Book Illustration course changed my life. I was lucky to be in the first year that it ran, and I really relished the time to talk about my work and ideas and to learn from the other students there. I was commissioned as I graduated, but I think it still took me a few years to find my own voice and be confident to focus on the type of stories I want to write and illustrate – and the skills I developed on the course helped me keep evolving.
I now teach on the same course, and find working with new and emerging illustrators fascinating. I get to talk about my favourite subject all day and I never tire of it. As a teacher of illustration I hope that the students I work with will have the confidence to learn about what they have to offer as a creative person, rather than chasing current trends or echoing what is already out there. I think that there can be a lot of peer pressure to get that contract on graduation, but I think this is only truly valuable when that contract is one that is a really good fit. I worry for the students who are picked up by agents or publishers and are immediately asked to change how they work to fit a trend. I would rather a graduate was happy to make their own work and projects and get seen and commissioned for that, rather than chase a publishing contract at any cost.
Are you always ‘working’ when illustrating, or do you have time just to be creative for your own sake, without a brief in mind?
I love a brief, and if I don’t have one because I am writing or have a commission then I set myself mini projects, I screen-print from home, so usually I set myself a little set or series of prints on a particular theme to work on.
What are you working on now?
I have just finished illustrating a book written by the author Lucy Strange and I am developing a few collaborative projects.
Are there other children’s book illustrators, or more widely illustrators & artists that you admire or take inspiration from?
My current favourite illustrators are Sydney Smith, John Broadley, Julia Sarda and Richard Jones. I have always been an Angela Barrett fan. I am inspired by printmakers such a Charles Shearer and Melvyn Evans and older black and white illustrators such as William Stobbs and Charles Keeping.
The Hideaway by Pam Smy is published by Pavilion Books, out now, 14.99 hardback.
That illustrated sequence towards the end of the story is definitely something very special indeed – I love how the reader can see the events unfurling in front of Billy. Throughout this book, the illustrations perfectly capture the mood and tone of events, with lots of little details hidden in them for readers to enjoy.
There are several key themes which run through this text, all handled sensitively and clearly well-researched. I refer in particular to the theme of domestic violence which was the catalyst for Billy’s flight from his home to the graveyard. Great care has been taken to ensure that events portrayed are accurate but not too hard-hitting for the book’s intended audience of children aged 10+. Themes of love, grief, and doing the right thing also feature in this compelling tale.
*Many thanks to Pavilion Children’s for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour*