Last night was the opening of my Angel Time exhibition with the wonderful painter Angus Nivison, at the New England Regional Art Museum in Armidale. It was so exciting to see it up: it looks absolutely wonderful, so gorgeously and imaginatively displayed, immersive and extraordinary, my words and Angus’ striking, haunting artworks flowing in and out of each other beautifully. As well as my poems, song lyrics and prose fragment displayed on the walls next to the paintings they are inspired by, there are several audio readings, accessible via QR codes, of extracts from my novel The Ghost Squadwhich directly inspired others of Angus’ paintings, and also a ‘word cloud’ which is projected onto translucent hangings: looks so spookily effective! There was a big, interested crowd present and lots of great comments–people were really intrigued by it. The exhibition is on till August 28, so lots of opportunities for people to see it! Below are some pics from the exhibition.
This was an absolutely fantastic creative collaboration, the whole way through, and I am so grateful to Caroline Downer and Arts North West for initiating it, and to Rachael Parsons, Belinda Hungerford and the whole NERAM team for showcasing it so magnificently. And of course, the very warmest of thanks to my co-creator, Angus Nivison, who’s not only a most extraordinary artist, but also a lovely, generous human being and a real pleasure to work with!
Today I met with the wonderful locally-based painter Angus Nivison, as well as Arts North West director Caroline Downer, New England Regional Art Museum Director Rachael Parsons and NERAM exhibition director Belinda Hungerford, to plan the final stages for a wonderful collaborative exhibition that Angus and I are creating. Called Angel Time, it will open on July 1 at NERAM and will go till August 28. It is something that grew out of an Arts North West workshop last year called Looking Both Ways, where artists and writers were paired together to create joint works. Angus and I led that workshop and part of it was that he and I would then create works for an exhibition this year. Angus had recently read my book The Ghost Squad and to my delight he loved it so much that he decided to use it as the basis for a series of paintings, based on certain elements of the book and its themes and allusions. Then, based on my seeing these paintings, in my turn I created some new pieces for several of his artworks: poems, prose, song lyrics and more…As well, for several of the paintings directly inspired by incidents or moments in the book, I’ve recorded short readings from The Ghost Squad.
It’s been such an inspiring and exciting process–and today, with both painting and word-based works created, it was all at the stage where we could sit down with the NERAM directors and talk about how it will all be shown in the physical space of the gallery. It’s going to be just amazing, I can’t wait!
Artist and designer Bettina Kaiser created the beautiful cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. Today I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog for a behind-the-scenes interview.
Bettina, tell us about your process in creating the cover for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. What preparations did you have to make? What stages did the work go through? What inspired you? And what materials/media did you use?
I really enjoyed reading your book. Currently we are in COVID lockdown, and so the timing was perfect to let myself be transported to Basque country through the story. As I was reading it, I was also researching the places online: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a beautiful little town and the place where most of the story takes place. The Camino de Santiago and the rolling hills and picturesque Basque countryside it covers. I then allowed myself to get lost a little in Basque traditions. The colours of the houses and window frames, the tricoloured flag, the beret, incredibly delicious looking food.
I empathised with all three characters in the story as well: Alex walking the trail (I love walking), Helen being the illustrator and loving to draw (a fellow artist), and Tony researching his family (an interest I share).
From there I had a few creative ideas of what the cover could look like. Conceptually, they were based on elements in the story that I found significant: the cobblestone streets, the wayfinding symbols of the Camino, Basque colours and symbols, but also the family photos that you sent me and the more recent photos from your visit there.
The art materials I used were just what I had on hand in the studio: acrylic paint, ink, gouache, paper scraps. From there I put together a few layouts to explore three main concepts: picking up the title, the butterflies, and doing a flat lay with other aspects of the interwoven stories, the cobblestones causing Helen’s fall but also representing the path, the Camino, and the twin sisters, one staying inside watching through the window, the other walking on a path.
What were the challenges? And the pleasures?
As with any book cover, my aim is to capture the essence of the book. I always also need to know that you, the author, are 100% behind it. At the end of the day, it is their book, your book, and I would not want to force the cover design “onto” it or indulge in some design folly that is just exciting for me as an artwork on its own. It needs to fit. But it took me a while to find what the essence is for me in your story.
What has now become the cover was pretty early on my favourite, and the more I tried to work on alternative ideas, the more I was drawn back to the actual artwork that we chose. I re-read passages of the book and realised how the stories of the three characters are so intertwined, and also link each character’s past, present and future. The other (unfinished) artwork concepts simply felt too one-dimensional. In my head I even likened this to one of those pinboards in a murder investigation with all the suspects, witnesses, and places, and the threads joining them. That was what I wanted to have the artwork reflect: old and new stories spanning continents. Stories that touched, overlapped, merged.
Then came a tricky point in the process where I was really loving that idea and artwork (which is almost exactly what we have now), but I laboured over other concepts, as I did not want to present you with just one option in a kind of take it or leave it way. But I really felt strongly about the concept and liked it visually too. So, after a few days of mulling it over, I decided that I will show you this artwork and explain with some images and words the ideas/concepts for alternative covers to see what you think. Well, it sure was nice when you concurred, and only a few hours later your very enthusiastic “YES! This is it!” came back.
Your novella was perfect for my lockdown escapism. I really enjoyed allowing myself to mentally wander into the ancient streets of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, to dream of faraway places, and to find out more about the Camino and Basque culture. It lifted me up and touched so many interests of mine though the different characters. I really very much enjoyed the video chat we had initially, and you telling me about your Basque family connections and getting to know you.
What do you, as both a designer and a reader, see as the most important things for authors and publishers to consider, when it comes to commissioning book covers?
I think authors in particular need to have a lot of trust to put their work, which they have laboured over for so long, and that often is so personal, into an artist’s hand to create the cover. I encourage authors and publishers to look at previous artwork that a prospective book cover designer has created (a good start is our industry organisation Australian Book Designer Association’s directory) and see if they like the general style and design approach.
While the publisher needs to keep their eye on a certain overarching style and standard for their publications, I personally do love that I can more often than not work directly with “my authors”, get to know them and get them to tell me what their work is about, what matters and where their focus is.
As in many things in life, trust and mutual appreciation is key. Many publishers work with a regular stable of illustrators and designers whom they entrust their publications to. I have been lucky to have worked with Bronwyn Mehan and Spineless Wonders on so many projects over the past decade and to have been given a lot of creative freedom. Plus, I am very happy to have often worked directly with the authors.
My pet hates are design for design’s sake (the self-indulgent kind), style trends in book covers. So, dear publishers and authors, I’d say watch out for that!
Does creating a cover for an audio book differ from that for a print or ebook? If so, in what way?
The short answer is no. It is just a different shape, and many projects that I work on need the artwork to be converted into all kinds of formats, ranging from eBook covers to website banners and more. So it is a style, a materiality and elements that you design, and then it is rolled out to different media. In fact, your story, whilst first published as an audio book (I love that format by the way), will also be available now as an eBook by Spineless Wonders.
You work in a number of art and design fields aside from books. Tell us about some of the other things you do.
I consider myself a “Jill of many trades”.
I like the explorative, conceptual aspects of design, but I do have a lot of bread-and-butter jobs that are layouts, websites, logo designs and the like. But I am also an artist and have a separate practice in my small studio – no screens allowed there – just for my art projects. I recently had an exhibition that featured prints, mixed media works, and installations around the current climate crisis and us humans in the environment.
(Book) cover design is where I work across both disciplines. I love it. I love working with authors, I love books and stories, and I love that each one needs their unique artwork. Often I experiment with materials and collages and photos in my studio, and I sometimes do hand lettering, as I did for A Hundred Words for Butterfly. I then photograph or scan it, bring it together on screen, manipulate it if needed, mix, cut, paste, experiment, tinker with typography. It brings it all together and as I mentioned earlier, I am so grateful to be given a lot of trust and creative freedom.
My artist sister Camille Masson Talansier lives in the small town of Hasparren in the Basque country, 25 kms inland from Biarritz. In this charming video, made for the run-up to the release of my audio novel A Hundred Words for Butterfly, you get a glimpse of her life in this beautiful region, and the things that are important to her: art, food, family.
To check out more of Camille’s art, visit her Instagram page here, and website here.
Today I’m welcoming my wonderful co-creator, Lorena Carrington, to this blog, to write about the travels in France that helped to inspire her glorious illustrations in French Fairy Tales. All photographs in this post are by Lorena. French fairy tale travelling, by Lorena Carrington In late September last year, I touched down in France with […]
So exciting to receive the first advance copy of The Snowman’s Wish, my upcoming picture book with the fantastic illustrator Ronak Taher! It is such a thrill always to hold that first copy in your hands, to touch it and turn its pages and revel in its presence in the physical world…and this is a book that in every way has been a truly magical experience, from the very first spark of the story idea, to right now, seeing and holding this stunningly beautiful book. Thank you so much to my co-creator Ronak, to wonderful designer Hannah Janzen, fantastic publisher Margrete Lamond, and all the team at Dirt Lane Press who have brought the world of the snowman to such gorgeous, sensual life. Thank you also to Robyn Ewing for the lovely back cover quote.
The Snowman’s Wish comes out with Dirt Lane Press in July and will be available in all good bookshops around Australia, including online. You can also pre-order copies now by contacting Dirt Lane Press at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Snow White, Rose Red & Other Tales of Kind Young Women’ is the latest artistic collaboration between me and the photographic artist Lorena Carrington. This is a project born out of our shared love of fairy tales, and our fascination with their history and meaning. It’s the third book in a series we are calling ‘Long Lost Fairy Tales’, because it is our intention to discover and bring back to life beautiful old stories that have been unjustly forgotten.
It’s our plan to produce a new book in the collection every year. To begin with, we choose a theme. Book 1 was tales of brave young women, Book 2 was tales of bright young women, and we are currently working on Book 4 – the theme of which is tales of gentle young men.
Once we have our theme in place, Lorena and I start to fling ideas around. We read through our vast fairy tale collections looking for inspiration, and begin to play with possibilities. We send each other stories, and gradually compile a list of the ones we like. Each collection has seven tales in it, and we want them all to be different. Some will be light-hearted and humorous, others dark and terrifying. Some will have ancient oral roots, others are invented literary tales. Some will seem familiar, with echoes of other better known tales; others will be entirely fresh. We also want a good spread of geographical sources for the tales – ‘Snow White, Rose Red’ has a Grimm tale from Germany, an old Slovakian folktale, one from Bavaria, two from Scotland, an English literary tale written in Victorian times, and an old oral tale from Ireland. Often I will choose a tale because I know it will inspire Lorena to create a truly extraordinary piece of art to accompany it, and she will choose a tale because she knows it will sing to my heart.
Sometimes we agree on a tale, and but then I find I cannot retell it – the story doesn’t spark with me.
Illustration by Lorena Carrington
For example, we thought about working with Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ – but when I began to work on it, I found the character of Gerda too passive. So I emailed Lorena, and we talked about it, and came up with other ideas, and ended up replacing that tale with another.
When I’m working with a fairy tale, I like to know where it came from, and who told it, and how it has changed over time. For many stories, there are dozens of variants, and I like to read them all. For example, ‘Strawberries in the Snow’ is one of my favourite stories in ‘Snow White, Rose Red’. It was inspired by a Slovenian fairy tale entitled ‘The Twelve Months’ but has many other variants – more than 1,000 of them!
I usually write the stories over the Christmas holidays, because all my children are home from school and university, and I have usually just delivered a novel, and want something different to write before I begin the next novel. Then I send the tales to Lorena, and she begins to think about creating her art – which are not simply illustrations of my stories, but her own expressive response to the inner meanings of the tales. We are always in constant communication, but we don’t criticise each other work much, or make suggestions, or ask for changes very often. We trust each other implicitly, and like to give each other complete creative freedom. This means it’s a free, joyous process in which we each inspire and respect each other. Together, our art creates something greater than it would be on its own. It’s a true collaboration.
I have just finished writing the tales for ‘The Gardener’s Son & the Golden Bird, & Other Tales of Gentle Young Men’ and cannot wait to see what glorious art Lorena creates for it!
My illustrations always start with what the landscape gives me. I head out with the camera, and often end up on my belly photographing the tiniest of landscapes: blades of grass against the sky, or fungus sprouting from the cracks of a rock. I also collect interesting things – sticks, leaves, tiny bones – and bring them home to photograph on a light box, which creates a sharp silhouette of each object. I montage these together in Photoshop to make the beasts and creatures that inhabit the tales. The illustrations are built up from many layers of photographs: backgrounds, human figures, creatures, looming silhouetted trees… sometimes more than a hundred separate photographs.
Of course the process begins long before this, in the choosing of stories, the to and fro about themes and ideas, in the delightful plotting and scheming that happens around the creation of a new book. As Kate has mentioned, we have a unique author/illustrator relationship, and for this I’m extraordinarily lucky and grateful. We weave our work together, sending stories and images back and forth throughout the process. It’s like a dance, and is a rare and beautiful way of working. Often the writer gives their work to the publisher, who passes it onto the illustrator and never the twain shall meet. One of the wonderful things about working with a small publisher like Serenity Press is the way we all work together to make the books that we do.
One of the most excited and inspirational parts of the process is when Kate sends me a new story. I make a cup of tea, build myself a nest on the couch, and immerse myself in her words. I try not to think too much about the illustrations on the first reading, though images do often spark in my brain. I try to get a feel of the shape and flow of the story, and a sense of the overall atmosphere. On second reading, I pull out my sketchbook to make notes and jot down any rough ideas. Sometime an illustration will flash fully formed into existence, and all I need to do is translate it from brain to screen. The Goblin, for example, just scrambled straight out of my head and plopped himself onto the riverbank.
One of the more interesting challenges was the illustration of the Glass Mountain (see picture below). At first I tried photographing glass (logically, you would think), but it was too transparent for a giant climbable mountain of glass. So I froze a block of ice to photograph the next day. It had the captured air bubbles that I wanted, but, as it was a 40 degree day, it kept melting before I could photograph any sharp edges! It was only that night, while serving jelly for dessert, that I noticed the way it sheared off into sharp edged pieces. I made up a batch of extra sturdy clear jelly, and let it set over night. Finally, after three days of experimentation, I had the perfect (if wobbly!) analogy for glass.
So, sometimes it’s easy and an illustration almost makes itself, and other times it’s like chipping a statue out of a cracked and temperamental block of marble. But never do I think I’d rather be doing anything else.
One of my very favourite things about illustrating is feeling something incredible grow out of our combined work. Kate has the most extraordinary gift in keeping the true essence of tales she retells, and also filling them with such new and shimmering delights. If I’m extraordinarily lucky, we be able to keep working together for many, many years to come.
I’m absolutely delighted today to announce the launch of a fabulous brand-new creative activity pack for children and their families, carers, schools and libraries, which I’ve created with Kathy Creamer, a good friend of mine who’s a fantastic illustrator. It’s called the Fox and Chook Creative Activity Pack and is themed around, you guessed it, foxes and chooks (for non-Australians, that means chickens!)
This gorgeous pack, which is presented as a downloadable PDF, includes lots of fun activities: from lots of creative writing exercises to colouring-in pages; from looking at and discussing classic paintings to discovering fabulous facts about foxes and chooks; from listening online to a fun fox and chook story(one of mine) to sculpting your own fox and chook out of modelling clay, from sharing real-life stories of foxes and chooks to learning how to draw them and to make your own shadow puppets–and more!
Please note that this activity pack is copyright to me and Kathy Creamer. Till September 30, it is available free for families, schools and libraries to download, use and print, but must not be extracted or reproduced without written permission and acknowledgement of authorship and cannot be sold or used commercially by any entity or individual.
Kathy and I would like to thank the fantastic New England Regional Art Museum (NERAM) in Armidale, for kindly researching paintings in their collections for the Foxes and Chooks in Art section of the pack, and for giving us permission to include images of them. We would also like to acknowledge Christmas Press and illustrator David Allan for images from Two Trickster Tales from Russia and photographer Nathan Anderson for the wonderful fox photo on title page (photo available free to download on Unsplash).
So have a look, check it all out–and hope you enjoy! And as we’d love to see your creative responses to these exercises, do tag me if you decide to put them up on social media. You can tag me on Facebook,Twitter or Instagram. And you can contact me via this blog, or via the contact form at Sophie Masson Presents. You can contact Kathy here.
Very pleased to let you know about a couple of fabulous new readings of my work: a virtual storytime reading at the wonderful new England Regional Art Museum (NERAM, in Armidale, of Join the Armidale Parade, my picture book with Kathy Creamer, published in 2019 by Little Pink Dog Books. Enjoy all the colour and fun of the big parade in the reading(especially needed these days, where sadly such events cannot be held…) On the page at NERAM, you’ll also find some great activities created by Kathy, centred around the book, such as mask-making and colouring-in and drawing pages.
Illustration by Fiona McDonald from ‘The Wrong Spoon’ by Sophie Masson, published in A Christmas Cornucopia(
Allan and published by Christmas Press. As the opening music to the story indicates, The Wrong Spoon is a humorous Sorcerer’s Apprentice sort of story, and was a lot of fun to write. And I just love the way Bob reads it!
My latest post on Writer Unboxed looks at my love of graphic novels/comic books (or BD, as we call them in French), and how I began creating my own. Hope you enjoy–and consider posting comments of your own on the Writer Unboxed site!