Artist Charles Vess and writer Charles de Lint discuss the collaborative process behindSeven Wild Sisters, their modern-day fairy tale.
CV:Seven Wild Sisters is the second major book that we’ve created together. Our first was a picture book called A Circle of Cats (the inspiration for The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, which takes place several decades before Seven Wild Sisters). Before you started writing Cats, I’d taken you for a walk through a particular landscape that I’d wanted to paint and asked you to set a story in it. Not long afterwards you pretty much handed me the finished text for Cats and said, “Start drawing!”
For Seven Wild Sisters we tried to integrate our two arts a bit more. You loosely based the seven sisters on friends that you’d just met, and gave me written descriptions of the sisters before you started writing the text. I drew all seven of them, as well as a fanciful sketch of them blowing across a hilltop, which I really liked. Everything got changed up a bit after I read the actual text, but it came together really well. A little magic seems to happen when we put our two heads together. Of course all the artwork for the original Seven Wild Sisters was black-and-white pen-and-ink illustrations. We later got to create a new edition of the book with full-color illustrations and several pieces of completely new artwork in it.
CdL: I’d forgotten that the initial inspiration for the seven red-haired sisters was a pair of sisters we met in Utah. I nicknamed them the red rock girls, although all I really took from them was the red hair and the notion that the story would be about sisters. It’s funny when you start thinking about how bits of things in real life can slip into your stories, like the way Sarah Jane finds her dog Root in the novel. That came from a story your wife Karen told me about finding a dog on your farm many years ago.
Actually, Karen and another of her dog stories inspired “Sam’s Song,” one of my favorite tunes on my Old Blue Truck CD. I think I need to pick her brain some more when we all get together in Seattle in February to launch Seven Wild Sisters!
CV: We both enjoy music so much, and I loved it when you gave me the ‘soundtrack of tunes’ that you were listening to as you wrote the book! It inspired my art as well.
CdL: That also makes me curious. My wife MaryAnn is a huge help to me in terms of inspiration, story pacing, and such. Did Karen have any input in the new art you painted for Seven Wild Sisters?
CV: I always depend on Karen’s critical eye. And if I’m ever questioning an aesthetic decision that I’ve made, I can count on her for a quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down. As I’m sure you know, a writer’s or artist’s life is usually so buried in our own heads that we absolutely need advice from someone we completely trust. Otherwise it’d be too easy to keep eating our own tails, too easy to keep drawing or writing the exact same thing over and over again.
It can be infuriating, too, when all you’re really hoping for is to have that someone say, “Yes, you’re right. That’s brilliant!” But you aren’t always right. Or brilliant. I shouldn’t just be painting yet another tree or faerie or even more kitty cats. Dogs are good too, sometimes. Actually, I wish our dog character, Root, played more of a role in Seven Wild Sisters. Maybe in the next book?
CdL: I had dogs growing up and finally have one in my life again, our little rescue dog, Johnny Cash. So I’m up for a story centered around a dog. Although I remember we talked about this at one point, and you balked because I also wanted a bicycle in the story and you so didn’t want to have to draw a bicycle over and over again!
But that’s the beauty and fun of collaborating—working with one another’s strengths and tackling the stories and subjects we might not have tried when left to our own devices. Complacency is the death of good art, and that’s why having discerning partners like Karen and MaryAnn in our lives makes us better artists.
CV: Collaboration with another artist or writer can be a very interesting creative exercise. You just have to check your ego at the door and do your best. In our case, a word bounces off a certain picture and becomes an idea or a plot point, which by yourself you probably wouldn’t have arrived at. The collaborative process continues with the reader, and is vital as well. What we choose to leave out is as important as what we put in, sometimes more so. Because if we can involve our readers in the making of the story, then we’re more apt to make a successful work of art that will resonate far beyond the printed page.
CdL: I couldn’t agree more about the reader/viewer being a part of the creative process. The trick we have to pull off is to give them just enough information to allow them to make a great movie in their own heads. I always feel lucky when I collaborate with you because I know your art makes such a good basis for readers to create those wonderful personal movies.