An Interview with Charles Vess (29th of November, 2004)

I'm sitting down with Charles Vess on an early evening here in the Green Man Pub to converse about his art, his taste in music and literature, and other things as may occur in the course of our conversation. A particularly fine single malt whisky is at hand for his drinking pleasure because, as he noted earlier in a conversation with me, he 'fell in love with English hard cider after being offered a pint after a long day of traipsing across Dartmoor. However, single malt whiskies are my drink of choice.' Should he wish there's also a keg of the house hard cider, Ryhope Wood, on tap as well.

Charles, I've been reading Martyn Dean's Dreammakers -- Six Fantasy Artists at Work which has an excellent look at your career up to the late 80s. I was surprised to realize that you hadn't lived in the Appalachians all your life, as your art in two works you did with Charles de Lint (A Circle of Cats and Seven Wild Sisters) suggests very deep roots in the region. Is your family from the region? Did you grow up there?

I grew up in Lynchburg VA. My father, an architect by profession, managed to design and build our house in a sharp bend in the road that no one else thought was useful. Directly behind the house was (and still is) a good sized rambling wood that drops steeply to a nice wide stream. Crossing that stream without getting wet (and thus getting caught out by Mom) was my first holy grail. When I wasn't devising various methods of bridging that waterI spent most of my youth either reading whatever I could get my hands on, drawing or playing in the woods on the Mom approved side of the stream. The grape vines dangling down so tantalizingly from huge oak, beech and poplar trees supported all my fantasies concerning Tarzan the ape man. There was a field a bit further up the stream that faced the afternoon sun and always offered splendidly warm spots to dream away the afternoons. That field is now a housing development. Right before it was plowed under I managed to snag an array of stones, roots and short tree limbs that I have tied together and hanging by a cord from my studio window. My 'roots' so to speak.

You lived in upstate New York and in New York City (for over a decade). You're now living with your wife, Karen Schaffer, in Abningdon, Virginia, a city of under eight thousand souls. Was this a move back to a region where you grew up? Or a look for a more sane lifestyle? Do you now draw much of artistic muse from the landscape you live in now?

We both loved upstate NY. The landscape was beautiful and there were writers and illustrators everywhere you looked making for splendid dinner parties and backyard get togethers. But, and it was a big but, was that the winters stretched on for what seemed like forever. Shoveling snow each and every week was a bit of a bore after awhile. It was also very expensive to own property there. So when the first royalty check arrived from my Spider-man graphic novel Spirits of The Earth and we had a bit of a nest egg we decided to move back south to Virginia (not far from where Karen grew up) and bought a farm with rolling hills all around. Alas the neighbors are not quite so culturally motivated but we do have peace and quiet. And at this point in my career I can live anywhere and still work for the same companies. I find that my shoulders relax around mountains and deep green forests, where ever they may be.

Who do you consider your artistic influences? Looking at a fair amount of work over the past twenty years or so, I see a strong influence by Rackham on much of your work? Is this an accurate assessment?

Certainly. I discovered his work while I was still in college and immediately fell completely in love with it. His art, unlike a lot of other artists that I discovered at the same time (Maxfield Parrish, Frank Frazetta, etc.) I've never grown tired of. I always find myself learning new things every time I study it. But there are many others that have influenced me, among them: the Swedish illustrator John Bauer, Howard Pyle, the 19th C. German illustrator Hermann Vogel, Alphonse Mucha (the father of Art Noveau), Willy Pogany, Kay Nielsen, W. H. Robinson, Hal Foster and Alfred Bestall (the British illustrator of the long running Rupert Bear series). Among the living I count Michael Kaluta, Alan Lee, Brian Froud, Lizebeth Zwerger and Terri Windling.

I mentioned Rackham because the trees particularly in your illustrations look as though Rackham himself could have drawn them. I mean this as high praise indeed as I consider you the equal of that illustrator. How much do Rackham and the other Victorian and post-Victorian childrens literature illustrators play into your own artistic style?

As a member of the Arthur Rackham Society I've visited several of his studios and even meet many of his relatives (all the Uncles look exactly like him: tall, spindly with a bald head!!). The landscapes that he drew into his pictures is that of rural southern England and the mountains of Germany (which he visited many times). Having grown up surrounded by the Appalachian mountains covered in a very different species of tree I would have to say that mine is a more American landscape. But I adore his trees with their gnarled and twisted faces and that particular iconography has become very much a part of my own visual language.

All those other Victorian and Edwardian English fairy tale artists tend to hover over my shoulder when I'm drawing, mostly giving me good advice on how to proceed with a particular picture. I find that that English Fairy school of painters is much more of an influence on my work than the American pulp romanticists: Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Virgil Finley, Hannes Bok, Roy G. Krenkle, Frank Frazetta, Don Maitz, etc.

You've illustrated so many works from Neil Gaiman's Stardust and Peter Pan to Spiderman and Jeff Smith's Rose, not to mention your own works, some of which appear in the recently published The Book of Ballads. If you could single a few of the projects you've been involved in, which are you especially pleased with as an illustrator?

My illustrated edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream is an early favorite. As I worked on it I could sense my art growing by leaps and bounds. It seemed that I suddenly could draw with ease what had been a long hard struggle to achieve beforehand. I think that those magnificent, poetic words of Shakespeare really reached in and pulled a lot out of me.

Stardust was a blast to work on and I think that I did some very, very good work on that project which in the end totaled 175 paintings.

A Circle of Cats was my first children's picture book which has been a medium that I've long wanted to dabble in. Working with my pal de Lint again and editor Sharyn November was bliss.

Being asked to illustrate Peter Pan was a quite a surprise and it could only have been better if the publisher would have had the budget for some color illustrations. As it was I had a ball producing over 30 b/w pictures all based on the set and costume design that I produced for an earlier and quite local production of the play itself.

And seeing The Book of Ballads a reality at long last was also very pleasant.

On your Web site, you note 'In March of 2003 I was involved in designing and constructing a 'Faerie' tree for Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle's Toys, a splendid toy store in downtown Tucson, AZ which every year has a Fairy Festival Celebration. The tree is a permanent installation and will be used to display toys as well as for storytellers to sit under and spin their enchanted tales for listeners both young and old.' Considering the importance of trees in all forms in your work, what was like to actually craft a physical tree?

Trees. There are never enough trees as far as I'm concerned. It just hits me in the gut everytime I see a road crew cutting down some foliated beauty so that their power lines are 'safe'. Anyway, I've built four separate artificial trees in my life. The first, and probably the best, was for a gallery exhibition in 1992. The exhibition filled the whole second floor of a downtown loft. Walking into the art space the viewer was first confronted by a twelve foot floor to ceiling tree with limbs that stretched far out into the room (covering some ductwork as I remember). To get into exhibition itself you walked under a rather large root structure. The tree and roots were vine encrusted and covered in leaves (real), ferns (silk) and mushrooms (fake). My favorite part was that I had left a 'back door' into the tree so that I could lurk inside and thus listen to comments about my art with none the wiser. Unsolicited testimonials so to speak. Then there was a sixteen foot tree surrounded by giant standing stones (made from Styrofoam) that somehow all folded away and was carried cross country on a publishing tour in the summers of 1997 & 98. The last attempt at a tree structure was built at Mrs. Tiggy-Winkles Toys in Tucson AZ. It was a smaller structure with a root system adapted to allowing a storyteller to sit in them. I was able to paint a nice backdrop for that one. Maybe one day I'll build one for my home and lavish all this arcane and improbable 'knowledge' on a more permanent structure.

Can you talk about the Jack Tales Wall as well?

About twelve years ago a local community college asked me to design a thirty by fifty foot wall sculpture (that is deep bau relief) for a new building they were planning to build. I was given free range in choosing a theme as long as it was representative of the four counties that the college serviced. After quite a lot of research I finally settled on using the Appalachian Jack Tales as the focus of the wall. These 'Mountain Jack' tales are folk and fairy tales brought over from Europe by the Scots-Irish and German immigrants that first settled the hills and valleys of the Appalachian region. So you have a hayseed hillbilly youth rubbing shoulders with the typical inhabitants of European folklore: giants, kings, witches and other fabulous beasts. They are really splendid stories and the characters seemed to leap right up onto my wall with no problem at all. After my initial drawing the brick sculpture took almost two years to carve the unfired brick, carefully numbering each piece on the back. The bricks were then fired and kept in storage until the bricklayers were able to reassemble the giant tableau. That was my favorite part because I sometimes imagine these bricklayers scratching their heads and wondering why one of the figures that they were working would have one eye, the next two eyes and the last three eyes and so on. Every once in awhile I have a visitor to my studio and I'll drive them to the school (Southwestern Virginia Community College) to look at the piece and the wall is always so much bigger than I remember it as being.

Let's talk about The Book of Ballads. I read the original series about a decade ago I believe. They were collected into Ballads a few years later, but The Book of Ballads has extensive new material in it. How did this edition come to be? Will there be another volume later on?

Well, about five years ago my self published collection of the Ballads went out of print. Ever since I've been harassed by retailers and librarians to make the material available again. Especially now, with the booming market for graphic novels that has swept the publishing world. But I really didn't want to just simply repeat the material I had already put into print in yet another edition, especially as I had a treasure trove of undrawn scripts already in my files. So I contracted for a new, hardcover edition with approximately 50 pages of new material in it from Tor Books. I specifically approached Tor because a lot of 'my' authors were already publishing their novels through them and I have a long standing relationship with their splendid art director, Irene Gallo. The new edition is gorgeously produced and printed on luscious acid free paper, whereas my self published edition was unfortunately, due to my limited budget at the time, printed on newsprint that is already turning yellow! I thought that I owed this new edition to both the material itself and to my collaborators. Then of course there is Terri's wonderful introduction that puts the whole project into a historical context and the extensive discography by Ken Roseman. Comic book fans meet music fans meet fantasy readers and hopefully everyone will be as happy as I am.

Reading The Book of Ballads -- and my deepest thanks for sending along an autographed copy! -- I was again impressed not only by your superb artwork, but how well-written the tales were. How did you assemble all of the writers herein? Did they come to you? Or did you seek them out?

Way back in 1993 when the idea occurred to me (spurred on by De Lint's 'Sovay' script) I made up a wish list of authors that I thought might be interested in the idea. I'm happy to say that most everyone on the list is represented in the latest edition. Only Ellen Kushner and Robin Williamson didn't make it. Most of that original list of writers were authors that I was reading at the time and I though wouldn't they be cool to collaborate with. And I proved myself correct. Most of them had never written a comic book script before and thus brought a freshness of vision that I found very appealing. Of course, sometimes I had to use my editorial prerogative and move bits of action or dialog around a bit to make the story flow more easily but everyone seemed to enjoy the process. I think my most severe editorial voice came into play with 'The Three Lovers' by Lee Smith, a noted and NY Times best selling author (The Last Girls) of southern literature. The ballad that she choose was a dark and doom laden one wherein all the principles die in the end but the tone of voice that she choose to tell the story in always read like Victorian Melodrama to me. So when I finally (eight years later) got down to drawing it I choose to draw it that way. All of the action is seen through the procineum arch of a theatre, the actions on stage are quite exaggerated and I even added the peirot figure to accent this over the top approach. In the end I thought that it worked very well.

Shifting a bit, I notice our reviewer of the original series, The Book Of Ballads And Sagas, said 'Ken Roseman provides discographic notes, and Vess promises that Roseman will interview some of the musicians in later issues of the series.' Ken has indeed provided an expanded and updated discography for the tale, but the interviews are nowhere to be seen. What happened to these?

In the actual Book of Ballads and Sagas comic book Ken did indeed interview several folk musicians, we just didn't have room for those in this collection. There are plans for a very limited (300 copies) oversized, slip cased edition that will be signed by everyone involved and may even contain a CD of all the ballads involved. We might be able to include that information in this 'premier' edition.

Along those lines, what are your favorite musicians, both folk and not of a folk nature?

Starting with Pentangle (circa 1969), then Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention ('Liege and Lief' only), Silly Wizard, solo Robin Williamson, Relativity, Tony Cuffe, Kate Rusby, June Tabor, Frankie Armstrong, Waterson Carthy, Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy, Solas with Karan Casey, Capercaille, Dervish, Loreena McKennitt, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earl, Stacey Earl. Catie Curtis and Patty Griffin. Etc, etc., etc.

Are you a musician? I ask because many of the writers here (de Lint, Bull, Gaiman, Yolen) have been in bands or contributed lyrics to bands. Much of your work has a strong, almost lyrical feel to it.

No, I just draw as I'm very musically challenged.

Chortle. I do music booking from time to time. and am always asked what musical instrument I play. I tell the asker none -- it makes it easier to get along with musicians!

Who are your favorite writers to read?

Currently? Well, all my adult reading taste has been informed by my discovery of the first paperback publication of Lord of the Rings in my Freshman year of High School and subsequent to that devouring every Ray Bradbury book that I could get my hands on. Then there was Lin Carter's editorial vision that comprised the Adult Fantasy Line from Ballantine in the late 1960s. His gift to the world was the unearthing of the extraordinary treasure trove of then out of print authors that were and are Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peak, Evangeline Walton, Ernest Bramah, James Branch Cabell and Hope Mirrlees, etc. It wasn't until the early 1980s and Terri Windling's Elsewhere anthologies that the world of fantasy literature seemed to open up again to embrace a much wider scope than regurgitated Tolkien or Robert Howard pastiches. Somewhere about the same time I discovered Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber and fell in love with her work. Since then I've read and enjoyed Charles de Lint (of course!) but also most of what I would loosely call the Endicott crew: Emma Bull, Greg Frost, Midori Snyder, Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Carolyn Stevermer Jane Yolen, etc. Terri's own writing, in her book The Wood Wife is sublime. Neil Gaiman's writing is always interesting and exciting as is Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kij Johnson and Sharyn McCrumb. Travels in Scotland during the 1980s lead me to the discovery of several Scottish Nationalist authors such as Neil Gunn, Maurice Walsh, Eric Linklater, Compton Mackenzie and Naomi Mitchinson. Their sense of the landscape being very much alive and as important an element of the story as the characters and the plot was a huge revelation to me. Lately I've really been enjoying several Native American authors Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich and Thomas King. The nautical tales of Patrick O'Brien place you in a world of delight and drama. And then I can never read or re-read too much Dorothy Dunnett. Her Lymond series is simply a wonder to behold and to wallow in!

Anything strike you as particularly worth mentioning in what you read in '04?

I would have to say that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was one of the most wholly satisfying books that I've read this year. From the arch, witty dialog of her characters to the beautiful weirdness of her descriptions of Fairyland it was lovely, just lovely. After finishing her novel the only thing that I felt lacking was yet more of her story for me to read. Then too, I finally caught up with Emma Donoghue's Kissing the Witch and The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Richard Park's The Ogre's Wife (all of which were marvelous).

I won't talk about the splendid array of graphic novels that have come out this year because I'll be mentioning those in my yearly column on comic books and graphic novels in the Years Best Fantasy and Horror that will be out next summer. I'm just starting the current column and need to save my words for that.

Having covered both past and present work that you're done, could you share with us what you're up to for future endeavors? I know that you're illustrating the 20th Anniversary edition of de Lint's Moonheart novel, and I've heard rumors over at Endicott Studio of a project you and your lovely wife, Karen, are doing. so please discuss those and anything else you care to tell us about.

Moonheart should be out by the end of the year. I was terribly excited when Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press asked me to illustrate this edition of the book. Over the years I've probably reread Moonheart 4 or 5 times and with each reading my brain has exploded with imagined visual imagery. So I was damned if I was going to let anyone else illustrate the book! I've completed 12 color painting and 15 b/w vignettes for this new edition. The text is so rich in visual language that if it hadn't been for the time constraints I could have easily painted many, many more pictures.

On my drawing board right now are a huge pile of drawing for a signed and numbered, limited edition of George R. R. Martin's A Storm of Swords A bit further down the road is a children's picture book with Neil Gaiman, The Blueberry Girl, and the framing sequences (set in an Arabian Nights world of romance, adventure and eroticism) to Bill Willingham's original graphic novel set in his world of Fables And a few other surprises as well.

When I have a spare scheduling moment or two I try to get in some work on the contemporary YA novel that my wife and I are writing together, The Greenwood, or continue to dabble with transposing some of my images into sculptural form. I find that when I return to my primary medium of expression (painting and drawing) after each of these explorations into a new medium that what I have learned in those explorations informs and betters my art to a marked degree.

A question that I meant to ask earlier in this interview -- What's your work day like? And what's life like for you in what looks to be a fairly quiet area to live in?

I wish that I could say that I've a disciplined work schedule but I don't.

On a good work day I try to be in my studio (which is about 15 to 20 minutes drive away from my home) by 10 AM and will leave anywhere between 6 and 12 in the evening depending on the current deadline. A lot comes up each day that I've not planned for (this interview for instance) and I'll always be juggling my time back and forth on various projects. I have few visitors to my studio so it stays pretty quiet there. I tend to put 5 CDs into my disc changer and go with them all day long. When I'm really concentrating on my drawing I wont consciously hear more than one or two cuts at a time per disc anyway so I can play them over and over again. At home is an old farmhouse, constantly in a state of restoration, from which you can't see any neighbors just green rolling hills and deep forests. Quiet you bet, and just the way I like it!

Thank you Charles for joining me in the Pub this evening!

[Cat Eldridge]