A student of illustration from Cambridge School of Art, Pam Smy now lectures part-time at Anglia Ruskin University. She spends the rest of her work time producing amazing illustrations for various books. More importantly, Smy has recently published her first graphic novel, Thornhill. This graphic novel is a brilliant gothic story that spans two parallel time periods has been met with positive fanfare and criticism. Wanting to learn more about her background and Thornhill, Smy allowed me to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: When you were a child, what were your favorite books? Are there any that you enjoy revisiting?
Pam Smy: I feel that all illustrators should find their own set of illustrators to admire and be inspired by, and, beyond that, look at film and design and printmaking and sculpture…for each illustrator to find their own voice they need to have their own list of enthusiasms. My advice would be to look at what is being produced now, but also at what has been produced in the past. Don’t dismiss something because it is not ‘on trend’ now…if you like something it may be that it feeds into your work in a way that you didn’t and couldn’t anticipate. It is a bit like choosing an individual look of clothes to wear instead of something prescribed by the current fashion. In my case I love the work of ‘oldies’ such as Edward Ardizzone, Edward Gorey, Felix Toplolski, Susan Einzig and William Stobbs alongside work of Carson Ellis, Shaun Tan, David Hughes, John Lawrence, Emily Sutton, Angela Barrett and so many more. I love Hitchcock films and Wes Anderson animations. I love the paintings of Paula Rego and Stanley Spencer. I could go on, but it wouldn’t be helpful, as each student should seek out their own list.
Yanes: Given your experience, who are the illustrators you think all students in this field should study?
Smy: I grew up in a mostly bookless house, but I had been given a bind-up for Christmas of Frances Hodgson-Burnett stories – Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, and (my favourite) The Secret Garden. I read and re-read this book, and loved it. In adult life I developed a passion for Jane Eyre and re-read it every couple of years and collect it in different editions with different cover designs. I love how many similarities there are between The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre – both heroines find themselves in a daunting new home, both are troubled by mysterious sounds in the night, both uncover uncomfortable mysteries, and, most importantly, both heroines are stronger by the end of the story the they were at the outset. I borrowed from both of these books in Thornhill. The name of Thornhill is based on the two homes of Jane Eyre – Lowood school and Thornfield Hall, my character Mary is based on the Mary of The Secret Garden. There are other similarities, and clues in the illustrations – but I’ll leave it up to your readers to seek them out.
Yanes: To me, your work perfectly balances dread with a sense of childhood wonder. How did your art style develop? Was there a moment in which you realized what type of style you wanted your illustrations to be in?
Smy: I don’t think there was one particular moment when I ‘fixed’ on one way or style of working, I tend to adapt how I work and the materials I use depending on the feel of the book I am commissioned to illustrate. The big shift in my work came when I realised what it was that I wanted to illustrate, and what my enthusiasms were. It was more about the content than the method.
Although I will always produce work based on very traditional drawing skills I want to make illustrations with a strong feeling of place and the presence of nature in them. I discovered this through illustrating many types of books over many years, and working out that I produced work that I was more excited about when they were about themes I was interested in.
And the feeling dread? I don’t believe that childhood is a time of blissful innocence – at the very least children live in the same spaces as adults, who often have complicated existences. This crops up again and again in folktales and literature… and, of course, features in The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre.
Yanes: Your first novel is Thornhill. What was the inspiration for this story?
Smy: I was looking for a story idea, and whilst out on a walk I passed a boarded-up house. It was surrounded by keep-out signs and topped with barbed-wire. I felt I needed to draw it, so I took out my sketchbook and made a sketch there on the spot. As I walked home I wondered what would happen if there was someone still living there, why they would be there, and what would happen if that person was a child, and what would their story be?
By the time I reached my place I had decided there was a child who was there because of the history of the house in the past and that I needed the opposite of that situation which would be contrasted by the everyday. So I drew the view out of my bathroom window and that became the home of my second child character.
From then, the story of the two girls played out like a movie in my head and I just had to capture it on paper and make sure it made sense to anyone else. It was hard to get from the initial inspiration to a coherent story – and I only managed it because I had such a patient editorial team at David Fickling Books here in the UK. They held my hand through the whole process of getting this dream onto paper.
Yanes: This story is centered on the Thornhill Institute for Children. Was this based on any real buildings you know?
Smy: Yes, it is based on that building I saw out on the walk that day, but I developed the look of it as worked on it so that it would have a much darker, more brooding presence. I wanted the house of Thornhill to be like a character in the story, alongside the girls. When I point out the house that originally inspired Thornhill to my friends now they can’t believe it is the same place – it is now very posh with a roof terrace.
Yanes: Thornhill contains two alternating, but interwoven plotlines set in 1982 and 2017. How did you structure the plots so that they complimented each other but still felt complete on their own?
Smy: I knew that there were two separate storylines, and that I wanted to develop the link between them later in the story. So to pace it out, I cut up little pieces of card and wrote on each one what would happen, step-by-step, in red ink for 1982, and in black ink for 2017. Then I laid these 50 or so cards out and alternated them so that I knew how much I had to draw and write to complete each episode in the story for each plot line.
Yanes: Thornhill follows the characters of Mary and Ella. Where these characters based on anyone you know? Additionally, was there a point in the story in which Mary and Ella began to take on a life of their own?
Smy: Mary was based the description of the heroine in the Secret Garden. Because I had imagined her so clearly in my head since I was a child I felt she was easier to draw. I combined the look of her features as I imagined them with the presence of the character of Eli in the film Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson. I found Ella much harder to capture. Neither girls are based on anyone I know personally. With both girls I found their situations and home life (or lack of it) very clearly played out in my head and in both cases it was as if I just had to catch their stories. I became fond of both girls and cared for them, so I really struggled over letting them go at the end of the book.
Yanes: What are your long term goals? Do you feel that there might be a sequel in future? Are there any plans to adapt this into a film?
Smy: I just want to keep illustrating, talking about illustration and looking and learning about illustration. I want to do as much as possible! At the moment I am working on a picture book for younger children, and another novel in a similar format to Thornhill, but not a direct sequel. I don’t think I could back to Thornhill, the temptation to tie up the loose ends and explain what happens next would be too much. There aren’t any plans to adapt this into a film.
Yanes: When people finish reading Thornhill, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Smy: This may sound a bit worthy, but I would like them to think about how much we actually look out for and listen to children and young adults. Although it is a gothic ghost story on the surface I wanted to write about how sometimes we let kids down, be that in institutions and schools or by not taking a second glance at our neighbour’s child who may be having a hard time.
Yanes: Finally, what are you working on that people can look forward to?
Smy: My next book like Thornhill is called The Photographer’s Son, and it is a murder mystery set in a small town in 1913. But it’ll be a few years of work yet – the plot isn’t completely drawn out in roughs yet and I am on page 570.