The OF Blog: An Interview with Martin Springett

Sunday, May 21, 2006

An Interview with Martin Springett

Martin Springett is an illustrator, musician, and author who has worked with many diverse artists over the years. Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay may recognize his work, as he did the original covers for The Fionavar Tapestry novels. He recently has done cover work for Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars and some musicial projects. This Fall, he will be releasing an illustrated book entitled Jousting with Jesters: An ABC for the Younger Dragon. This interview was conducted via email. Thanks again so much for Martin agreeing to do this. If you are curious to learn more about him and his works, visit his official web site, The Art & Music of Martin Springett.

For readers that might not heard of you, you're a person that has worn many hats during his lifetime, such as being an illustrator, musician, and author, among other things. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became involved in these various fields.

As a boy growing up in England I used to receive a great comic called The Eagle every week. It was in the pages of this magazine that I discovered storytelling for the first time, or at least this was the first time it had an impact. Dan Dare was an intro to Science Fiction, although it was basically the R A F in space, Heros the Spartan and other superbly drawn strips woke me up to that fact that here was a nifty way to make a living and I copied these images endlessly. In my teens I widened my reading tastes and started making the usual discoveries that one makes if you have a voracious appetite for all things literary and visual. So Toulouse Lautrec and Aubrey Beardsley rubbed shoulders with whatever hot comic guy I was infatuated with at the time, other discoveries were made in my short stay at Art School, the Brassey Institute in Hastings. One of the most important was music, and I picked up the guitar and learned all the basic chords by singing and playing every Beatles tune as they were released. The Art School had the usual crew of Jazzers and Rockers, although they all seemed to turn into Mods overnight when the Who and other R & B based bands came along. When my family and I moved to Canada I was faced with the reality of being out on my own and making a living. I did all the usual weird jobs that a young immigrant with few skills ends up doing, gardening, hospital porter, driving a fork lift truck etc, but all I could think off was returning to the UK, now very serious about playing and writing music. I was drawn into the music scene in Victoria and Vancouver B C. and I was in many bands my role always the singer and writer. I had my first brush with the Tolkien family at this time. I recorded an album of Tolkien’s poems that I had set to music. Everyone at the record company was very excited about it, “The Lord of the Rings” was just starting to peak. Unfortunately Christopher Tolkien would not give his permission for release, and so it never saw the light of day, but it changed my life as I discovered I loved being in the recording studio and creating sounds and story through music. I finally returned to the UK in the early 70’s and had a wild time in London and Germany, playing and touring. At this time I started to pick up my art again and worked for Columbia ( now Sony) doing L P covers and illustrations for various magazines and publishers. The London scene wore me down I have to admit, I loved to play but I couldn’t handle the business side of things, plus I missed the love of my life who was in Canada. I returned to Canada, this time to Toronto and concentrated on Illustration. In 1984 I was asked to illustrate a first time author’s fanatasy novel called “The Summer Tree”, the first title in a trilogy with the overall title of The Fionavar Tapestry. I met Guy Gavriel Kay at this time and we became friends as we still are today. The trilogy and my covers were published world wide. I went on to do many fantasy covers for the New York and Canadian market and this led to my becoming involved in illustrating children’s books. The editor at Scholastic had been reading “The Darkest Road” when she received a manuscript that she thought I might be interested in illustrating called “Mei Ming and the Dragon’s Daughter” by Lydia Bailey, a story based on a Chinese folk tale. This tale had plenty of fantasy elements and I guess my celtic dragon on the cover of Guy’s book intrigued her enough to offer me this chance at doing something completely new and I jumped at it. I have since created the art for many picture books winning a few awards along the way and finding a new outlet for my performing skills by going into schools and libraries giving presentations on my work to kids in all grades, as well students at the College and University level. I always play the guitar, usually pieces that have been inspired by one the books I’ve been talking about in the presentation. I have also continued doing Fantasy book covers, Y A and adult. Certainly one of my better covers was for Caitlin Sweet’s “A Telling of Stars”. I was really at home in the world she created and so did one of my better things. Around this time I was approached by Harper Collins in the U K to illustrate a Tolkien story called “Farmer Giles of Ham”, a lovely project. It was not to be though, Christopher Tolkien nixed the project after giving it an initial thumbs up.

After illustrating many children’s books written by a variety of author’s, I was determined to do my own picture book, and focus on a very different way of story telling, something more whimsical and amusing; and so I have just finished my first authored and illustrated book called “Jousting with Jesters / An A B C for the Younger Dragon” which will be published this fall by Orca books out of Victoria.

Very interesting story about how you came to draw the covers to Guy Kay's novels! If you don't mind, could you tell us a little bit about how you go about designing and illustrating a cover? I've heard different illustrators use a variety of inspirations for their cover art, so I'm curious as to how you came to draw the specific images that appear on Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars, for example. Is it a laborious process, or does it vary greatly between projects?

Illustrating a book cover, especially if one is inspired as I was with “Fionavar” and “A Telling of Stars”, is a joy to do. First of all I read every word, making notes on images that come to mind as I am reading. With “A Telling…” it was clear to me when I had finished the novel that I wanted to delineate the entire journey of Jael. There is a dream like quality about the book, and I wished to capture that. I did the initial sketch for the whole thing in five minutes as the imagery was so vivid. Laborious it wasn’t. That happens when I don’t like the novel and I have to go somewhere else other than the text for inspiration. That rather undermines the connection between the image and the story. And this has happened a few times.

I've heard from both Caitlin Sweet and Scott Bakker that you've written and performed music inspired by their worlds and characters. Can you give us some insight into how you came to write these songs and if these will be made available to the public?

I have always loved “making up” tunes. Early on it was always songs, so I got into the writing mode by creating lyrics for all these musical ideas I had. Two years ago I was moved to create an entire CD of music inspired by Guy Kay’s works called “Bright Weaving”, and lately music for Caitlin Sweet’s “Silences of Home” and a tone poem based around the characters of Esmenet and Achamian. from R Scott Bakker’s “Prince of Nothing” trilogy. I think the fact that I know all these wonderful authors personally certainly helped inspire me to come up with these pieces, as they have all given me insights into the worlds they have created on the page. But it comes down to me wanting to return to these worlds through music, there has to be some resonance I can respond to emotionally. Come to think of it that’s always the root of it, am I touched or moved in some way. It’s always that actually. I am hoping to record all this new music very soon, and produce a new CD, possibly called “A Telling”. It will be available through my website at as are my other CD’s.

I'm curious about this book you mentioned, Jousting with Jesters / An A B C for the Younger Dragon. What can you tell us about this work?

“Jousting with Jesters / An A B C for the Younger Dragon” is my first authored and illustrated book. It came out of a strong desire to do something essentially light hearted and fun, whimsical if you like. Having illustrated a series of lovely tales that were poetic and literate I wanted to create a different kind of book, one that tapped into my own sense of humour and also my British roots. It’s the story of Dennis the Dragon’s quest to find his flame, as every dragon must have one. So the story starts immediately on the end paper; we see Dennis newly hatched gazing across a landscape, in the far distance a Volcano. We than follow him through the Alphabet, an alliteration for every letter, every letter page being a plot point that moves him forward on his journey. So it’s quite possible to follow the tale just through the images. All twenty six illustrations have plenty of detail and incident and have many references to the appropriate letter. Plus there is a border for more visual references that aren’t exactly medieval in character. Dennis grows as the story proceeds and he gains his wings, At the finish on the endpaper we see Dennis, now bigger, in the same landscape in winter ( the front being in Summer ) with the Jester by his side. The back story here is that Dennis is a Fruit Eating Dragon; this kind of Dragon grows incredibly quickly after hatching, reaching puberty at six months. They stay that way for two hundred years. This is why some Dragons have a bad reputation, teenagers being what they are. Guy Kay has given me a witty one line “review” --- “An Elegantly Entertaining Elfabet”! The book is dedicated to Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of C S Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, and the first person to illustrate Tolkien’s stories, beginning with “Farmer Giles of Ham” in 1947. Pauline and I met a few years ago and have become good friends. She is eighty four and still working !

You've had the pleasure of working with many interesting and popular musicians and writers over the years. Are there any funny stories that you would like to tell us about them and you, to give us a better understanding of what takes place behind the scenes?

One amusing story is the events surrounding the first meeting between Guy Kay and me. My first reading of “The Summer Tree” was sitting on the couch in my living room, tea at elbow, note book and pen at knee regarding the pile of loose leaf pages with a jaded eye. I had recently illustrated a cover for a book, that while reading had sent me into a narcoleptic fit. As I began to read, lo, I found I was engaged and interested in the characters and story, enough that I was flinging aside the pages as I read and soon the carpet was covered in a veritable snow storm of paper. I’m certain I read most of the book in one sitting. (This positive engagement meant that I did not take the usual jotting of notes, and there is still one wee detail that I missed on the finished cover that still bothers me.) I was eager to start work on the cover, and as I sketched out various ideas it became clear to me and the art director at McClelland and Stuart, Tad Aronowitz, that we should focus on the overall idea of the tapestry theme, and in fact echo that art form in the images for the books. I stumbled along, looking for a way in visually, I had to make some real changes in how I actually created the images as with medieval art one is not concerned with depth or perspective, but surface decoration. I was asked to make many changes to the art, and by the time I heard that the pesky author also required some changes I was extremely grumpy. And so the day came when I was to meet said author at the publishers. In those days, 1984, the A D’s office was in the book warehouse of McClelland and Stewart. I found myself wandering through a canyon of books, gearing up for one more confrontation on this increasingly annoying project. I stopped by the washroom on the way to “groom” and breathe deep, and practice a ferocious glare in the mirror. I was completely taken aback though when I met Guy in the office. He leapt up, and shook my hand saying, “I love what you’re doing “, thus completely disarming and charming me and banishing the image of the demanding pesky first-time author. I stopped glaring and we got into the pleasant topic of what the changes might be to the art that he wanted. Simply, would it be possible to change the colour of the Unicorn. Well of course, easily done. Luckily, I didn’t say, “No problem”.

And finally, what was the most rewarding aspect of your careers as musician, illustrator, and now author?

Touring and playing through Europe and England as a young sprog in the 70’s was definitely a high point. We played Pop Festivals, seedy clubs and ornate rococo theatres all over Germany, Austria and the U K. The music continues though, in a different way. I enjoy writing, recording and doing the occasional gig as much as I have always done. Playing and writing music is absolutely central to my life.

Certainly being associated with Guy Kay’s Fionavar Trilogy has been a highlight of my career as it changed the path of my art quite dramatically. In fact all examples of my work on the website stem from the year 1984, the year “The Summer Tree” came out. I found my true artistic voice doing that one image.

As “Jousting with Jesters” won’t be out ‘till the fall of this year, ’06, highlights of being an author have yet to occur I guess. Although I have had some very good experiences in classrooms already showing the book to kids and teachers. Here’s hoping !

Thanks again so much, Martin!

1 comment:

Jacob said...

Great interview! Thanks for taking the time to answer Larry's questions, Martin.

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