Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Les Petersen – Cover Artist

I was lucky enough to win a competition recently. The prize: a cover for an ebook created by artist and writer, Les Petersen. I’m in the process of compiling a special edition of my Witch Honour and Witch Faith novels, complete with extra material. To your right you’ll see the magnificent cover Les created for the book.

I’m delighted with the result, and particularly with the different elements of the two novels he’s managed to weave into the cover without clutter. The picture has a lovely balance and he’s captured those two characters very well.

Les had created cover art for a lot of Australian writers, including Ian Irvine, Karen Miller, Trudy Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Tony Shillitoe and Jennifer Fallon, so I feel especially chuffed to have my own Les Petersen cover!

Cover art is a specialist skill, of course. We’ve all been won over by lovely covers, or been disappointed by covers we didn’t think captured the essence of a favourite novel. I decided to ask Les about the process of creating good covers, and some other things about his own work.

Les has a special offer for people who need cover art either for their ebooks or their published-on-paper books. More about that at the end, though.

Les's cover of The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody from her Obernewtyn series. (Design by Cathy Larsen of the Penguin Group)

You captured the essence of my two Witch books very impressively for the cover of The Witches of Tyne. How do you go about absorbing and synthesising someone’s novel to achieve that?

It’s a kind of magic. 😀 I suppose synthesising someone’s novel is like capturing the images that form in your mind when you read books. You hear the writer’s voice and it creates a texture of a story: best described as the internal movie that plays in your daydreaming mind. Then it becomes a purely mechanical action of putting together an image that gets as close to that movie as you can.

All illustrators have a personal visual repertoire and style/language they use, an arrangement of symbols and parts of symbols that go up to make the whole image, which they feel more than see in the beginning. So, it’s taking that personal repertoire, challenging your skill in using it, using a few references to help make sense of the vague ideas you have, and making the image work as best it can to fit the story.

Or, if you prefer a simpler explanation – “it’s magic!”

A lot of your cover art seems to be for fantasy or SF books. Do you prefer to create art for those genres? What other genres do you work in? Is there a genre you’d like to do art for – crime, westerns or romance for example, that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve been lucky to work in the fantasy genre, with a smattering of sci-fi as well – and they tend to be the kinds of commissions that come my way.

I’d work in any genre, except maybe overtly romantic images with bare-chested men and frocked women. That doesn’t challenge the image creation enough when you are restricted to a very narrow visual language. Horror also doesn’t interest me that much though I have done a few. My preferred direction would be to do more relaxed, “childish” images, like the cover I did for Ford Street. James Roy’s The Gimlet Eye.

You’re a writer as well as an artist. Has that influenced your approach to designing covers?

What an interesting question! At first I was willing to say the act of writing hasn’t really influenced the style of image I create, but on reflection, as we all know, both writing and image making are ways of telling stories. All images have narratives, or should, IMHO, so I suppose the construction of an image includes beats or suggestions of the story you are illustrating.

You should be able to look into the image and see details that suggest plot points. Insufficient image details make it all feel slick, I suppose – and maybe that’s the difference between design and illustration. Both look interesting, but one tells you more. Or maybe I’m getting to wrapped up in answering the question…let’s move on.

What do you think is the essence of a good cover?

Ok, I’ve spoken about the narrative of a cover, and that’s important. Also, there are the craft-based requirements: composition, colour harmony, style etc. And all publishing houses have their own ‘livery’ (for want of a word), but the difference between a good cover and a bad cover probably is ‘intrigue’. The art of being able to draw a reader into picking up the book off the shelf. If the marketing team have done their job well, the customer will buy the book. How do you create intrigue in a design. Ummmm. My, doesn’t the sky look wonderful today!

I know you are interested in animation. Who would be your favourite animation houses?

Les's Firebug, from his portfolio work.

It’s hard to go past the work coming out of Pixar, which have great story lines and wonderful character designs, but the ones that I am continually drawn to are Studio Ghibli’s collection – magical to look at and wonderful stories.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is also superb (I’ve watched that over and over again) and as he’s a gob-smacking amazing illustrator, I’d almost say he’s the top.

However, if I was to choose just one animator to wave the flag for, it would be Jonathan Nix and his inspiringly beautiful work, with evocatively whimsical music. I recommend his The Missing Key.

For the tech-heads – what are your favoured tools for creating cover art?

Photoshop. Smith Micro’s Poser for figure marquettes, Vue. And a Wacom Tablet to draw with. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY pencil and paper. Without using those, for me the rest is distracting and I end up with rubbish.

Les's cover for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology, Outcast. (2006)

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Les has very kindly offered a special rate to readers of my blog who need cover art for their e-book or print book.

Until the end of June 2012, you can commission Les for an e-book cover for $300. If you want the full works with e-book, high res and small images suitable for print as well as digital, he’s offering the special price of $1200.

If you are interested in taking Les up on this generous offer (the prices are significantly less than his usual charges) email me on narrelle@iwriter.com.au with the subject line Les Petersen and I’ll get you two beautiful kids together.

See more of Les’s work at his website.

F2M: the boy within – The book that scared libraries

Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

In mid-2010, I reviewed a fabulous book by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy called F2M: the boy within. It’s a warm, moving coming of age story about transgendered Skye who is becoming his true self, Finn. Co-author Ryan himself transitioned from female to male in his 20s. He brought that experience and courage to the collaboration with his long-time friend and respected children’s author, Hazel Edwards. Together they have produced a work that is both an excellent story and an important insight into what life for transgendered people and their family and friends. F2M: the boy within is also about friendship, punk rock, secrets and truth.

Bloggers wrote about it, and psychologists and gender counsellors have picked it up. In talking about the reaction to the book, Edwards and Kennedy noted “We assumed that YA librarians would welcome the fictional opportunity to encourage ‘distanced’ discussion of gender, including gay issues although our Skye-Finn was not gay. Suicide occurs in trans communities, and maybe we could save a few lives by reducing ignorance and fear of the unknown. Suicides also occur in gay communities, due to family, religious and social pressures. Maybe our book could prevent ignorance contributing to further deaths.”

Unfortunately, regardless of how sensitively, intelligently and well written it is, it seems that libraries are frightened of F2M: the boy within. Ford Street Publishing was willing to bring this book to the world, but school and public libraries, spooked by the spectre of controversy, have shunned it.  The risk of backlash from conservative groups has kept the book from shelves that would otherwise normally carry Hazel Edwards’ books. Literary awards have likewise overlooked it, in spite of  Edwards’ long association and regular appearance on such lists.

Recently, I spoke to Hazel about the book and its reception.

Narrelle Harris: Hazel, you and Ryan have known each other for a long time. What made you decide to do this project together?

Hazel Edwards: I knew Ryan as a family friend from about age 9 and had kept in touch across his adolescence and early twenties. I enjoy his mind and sense of humour.  He is around the age of my adult children. I’d also done some gender research in connection with a medical project about children and was aware that transitioning  was a controversial subject about which little had been written in fiction. Even the appropriate  vocabulary ( or pronoun) was a challenge.

Since Ryan is NZ- based, I hadn’t seen him since his ftm transition, but he came to Melbourne for a computer conference in connection with his work. He looked so much happier. Simultaneously we decided to co-write, via Skype and e-mail , a YA novel utilising his experience, but it was not to be autobiographical.

f2m The Boy Within

Ryan had experienced what it would have taken me years to research. As a published author, I was able to place our book proposal with Ford Street Publishing and gain a contract before we started the intensive year-long writing and about 30 drafts. I knew Ryan was a hard worker. But he was also far more IT skilled than me. It has been an equal collaboration. We were aware that ours might be the first  ftm YA novel internationally co-written by an ftm, but we also wanted to write ‘a good read’  of a ‘coming of age’ story. Thus, I had to learn punk music, another area in which Ryan is far more skilled.

Fiction provides the opportunity to discuss issues, at a distance, removed from the individual. Family can be given a book like F2M: the boy within as a ‘gentle’ introduction  and an informed  way of  handling prejudices

Narrelle: F2M: the boy within has received excellent reviews, but it has also met with reluctance from libraries and schools. How do you feel about how the book has been received?

Hazel: We knew the subject would threaten, especially libraries and schools who fear even one parental complaint. Often it is the anticipatory anxiety about potential complaints that cripples possible exposure to a ‘mainstream’ story where the subject is controversial, but not our handling of it. We have no ‘bad’ language. But we do have the opportunity to learn a new vocabulary and diplomacy about how gender issues might be phrased. Not just whether you say ‘He’ or ‘She’.

I have been shocked by the ‘ignoring’ by groups whom I would previously have  expected to be open minded. Some of the reactions have been aggressively negative, and they haven’t even read the book.

I now realise how courageous Ryan has been in co-writing.

Fan art by Rooster Tails

Narrelle: Given the difficulties you’ve encountered getting the book to its readership, do you have any regrets?

Hazel: No.  If we’ve saved one life, it’s been worthwhile. And if we’ve enabled readers to view from our 18 year old character’s perspective for the length of the novel and beyond, it’s been worthwhile.

We knew that some readers would expect F2M: the boy within to be like my picture books for young children like the cake-eating hippo series. It isn’t. But I have also co-written a psyche text on Difficult Personalities , including sociopaths, and written of scientific material from an Antarctic expedition.  An author can write in multiple fields. What matters is how well they write.

I also have growing admiration for some of the volunteer gender counsellors I’ve met. My regret is that I haven’t known about some of these issues earlier.

Narrelle: What is the best response you’ve had to F2M: the boy within so far? The worst?

Hazel: Ryan has received poignant e-mails about how significant this book has been to individuals and how they wished it had been available earlier. I’ve had much favourable contact from parents of gay children (even though our character is not gay) who are grateful for the opportunity to open family discussion via the novel. Being listed for the 2011 White Ravens, top 250  children’s and YA books internationally. Word of mouth recommendations  are slow but genuine and significant. Being recommended via the Safe Schools Coalition was helpful.

My worst experience was at a literary festival  where a student from a Catholic school reported that his teacher had put ‘that disgusting’ book and the brochure  in the bin, in front of all the students. Being ignored or ‘left off’ lists where my works would normally be included, thus depriving readers of the opportunity to even know the book existed.

Narrelle: Since both public and school libraries have been reluctant to risk controversy by getting it in, what do you think the best way if for people to get hold of it? Would it help if people specifically asked their library for it?

Hazel: Yes to all of the above. And our websites have material and links which are useful for Book Discussion Groups. One soccer parents book discussion group read and recommended it.

I still think this is the most important of all my 200 books, and hope it gets a fair reading in the future. It is not just bibliotherapy about gender, it’s a novel novel. At times, Ryan has had to make difficult decisions about refusing some kinds of highly paid magazine interviews which wished to concentrate on his private life rather than the book. That takes courage too.  Working with such a courageous man as co-author has been the other bonus of this novel.

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If you think anyone can benefit from F2M: the boy within, whether they are a transgendered person, their family or friends, or just people you think would enjoy a coming of age story with a difference, you can get F2M: the boy within via the following links.

Ask your library to order it in for you or recommend it to your book group.

You can download a study guide here or from Hazel Edwards’ website.

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