Notes from the Shadowed City is Jeffrey Alan Love’s first book. It charts the journey of an amnesiac within the shadowed city, our narrator recording what he sees in his notebook as he tries to make sense of his quest to find magical swords, love and his way home.
I’ve read it several times now and each pass gives me a different experience. I become the journeyman and what I take from it depends on what I bring to it. It’s a demanding book that requires a different type of interaction to the traditional narrative. Each spread is an image partnered with a line or two of intriguing text, which gives the reader space to fill in the gaps and it gives the whole project a dream-like feel.
And the images are sublime, all in Love’s signature style.
I’ve interviewed Mr Love before (here) and as a fan I wanted to ask him more about the book.
Priya: Welcome! What came first for this? The concept or did the inspiration arise from a collection of your images?
Jeffrey: The images came first, accompanied by their line of text. At first I would just make one each day, and at some point before the next morning the next piece would suggest itself to me. It wasn’t until I had perhaps 20 or so that the larger story started to suggest itself. Up until that point it was purely play, seeing what story the juxtaposition of these separate moments would create merely by being next to each other.
P: Tell me about your protagonist. Why did you make him an amnesiac?
J: I think so that the reader and the protagonist would discover the world together, and that the sparseness of actual information that is given through the words and images would make sense instead of frustrating a reader who would feel that they weren’t getting the entire story, that the narrator was holding out on them. If the protagonist had been someone familiar with this strange world, the book might seem only a sketch or outline that needed fleshing out instead of something that could stand on its own, playing with that edge of how much information is needed for the reader to fill in the gaps and tell a satisfying story for themselves. I’ve also moved around quite a bit in my life, and have often felt like an eternal outsider, lacking the basic information that others have about their place in the world.
P: I’ve put this book in other people’s hands and watched them look through it. In each case, they open it and then compulsively turn the pages, usually until the end. It’s fascinating to watch. I think there’s something about the stripped back quality and the imagery that’s very compelling. How did you settle on the balance between text and image? Have you written a longer text to go with this?
J: With my artwork on its own I try to always ask myself “how much is enough?” and I tried to do that with the book. I wanted to leave room for the viewer to take what is presented and then head off into their own head to connect the dots and fill it in with the story that they most wished it would be. I wanted to leave room for imagination and dreaming. My fear, of course, was that there wouldn’t be enough, and that readers would leave with a feeling of dissatisfaction, of wishing that it was a novel instead. What I tried to do was craft a sentence or two that, when paired with an image, suggested other moments, other scenes, a fullness to the story that expanded from the compressed image and text. The bad joke answer would be that I tried to make each picture worth 1000 words. I don’t have a longer text written, but there is more to the story in my head but again, I wanted to find that space where the reader makes it their story, not just the one that is presented in totality by me.
P: I’m interested in the proliferation in hand lettering and font development in recent years. Your use of handwritten text is lovely and completely in keeping with the concept of this being a notebook. Did you develop a font for this?
J: I did. At first I thought it might be a little more ornate, cursive, done with a nib, but the plain block print of my handwriting with a pencil seemed more appropriate to the book. Legibility became key so that the story wouldn’t be interrupted by trying to decipher words.
P: You do beautiful work in colour but here you’ve gone with a stripped back palette- black, white and red accents, which I think feels quite primal. Why?
J: All of the pages were actually taken from my sketchbooks, so the short answer is that black/white is the direction my sketchbook has taken in the past few years. But I also really love black and white art. In today’s photoshop era where every single color is easily available to the illustrator one way to stand out is to step away from color. But it also comes back to the question I always ask myself: “how much information is enough?” There is also a sense of timelessness with black/white, a seriousness or starkness that I think works well with what I do, which is find the silhouette that most effectively tells the story I want it to. I like that my work can feel like sculpture at times, hewn from ancient rock.
P: I liked that our hero’s love interest isn’t a predictable princess but a warrior (“Never have I loved her more than when she slew the giant of the deep”). Tell me more.
J: I think that came from imagining my wife as being the love interest. We have similar tastes, and often find ourselves reading a book after the other. She would comment to me about the female characters in the fantasy books written by men, telling me how they could have been better, stronger, more interesting. Indirectly she guided the creation of that character. Also I often try with my work to turn stereotypes on their head. They give me something to fight against. The stereotype in fantasy is the princess as the love interest, but if a woman happens to be a warrior she’s wearing a chainmail bikini, she’s an object of beauty – here I completely wrapped her in mystery, in shadow, and what he loves is not her looks but her actions, her strength, her ease and absolute mastery of this strange world that seems to escape his grasp. Which seems to describe my relationship to the real world, and the things I love about my wife.
P: There are also some elements of humour in here, such as the masked swordsmen meeting for morning coffee and cigarettes.
J: I think that was inspired by M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels and Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner. Bringing those small moments into it, real life. Also making fun of myself and my work. Everything doesn’t have to be serious, or epic, and what there is that is epic can also be made fun of. Masked swordsmen is “cool” but it’s also kind of ridiculous – I wonder how well someone could fight with a sword with a giant homemade mask on top of their head?
P: Previously you mentioned that your travels have influenced your work- such as visits to ancient sites in Greece, Italy, the UK and Germany. You talked about capturing the magic of those places in images (I greatly envy this skill!). What have you channelled in creating the Shadowed City?
J: I think it was less of a physical place and more of the feeling of my childhood and early adulthood. Moving often, being a stranger, an outsider, always searching for my place and something that would make me feel like I belonged. Wondering if I could find magic somewhere, find love, if my life would be what I hoped it would be.
P: Will you ever revisit the city for other projects?
J: I don’t know! When I wrote it I wanted it to stand on its own, to retain its mystery and strangeness. But now of course I have all sorts of things popping into my head in that world. So perhaps!
P: Flesk have done a beautiful job with the book- very high quality binding and paper. Did you have any input into these choices?
J: John Fleskes did a wonderful job with the book. He asked for my input, but when I work with someone that is an expert at something I try to let them do what they are best at without muddying the waters. I knew from seeing previous books from Flesk that they made really wonderful books, not just in terms of content but as objects, and I trusted him to bring that same care and attention to this and he did a spectacular job. I couldn’t be happier with it.
P: Can I ask where things are up to with your graphic novels?
J: I wish I could say that I’m all done and they’ll be out next year, but I became a father 12 weeks ago and my life has been thrown into wonderful, love-filled chaos. I have the utmost respect now for anyone who has ever done anything after having a child – please forward me your secrets.
P: Have you got any other projects lined up that you can talk about?
J: I’m in the middle of working on over 100 paintings for an illustrated edition of Norse Mythology by Kevin Crossley-Holland that will be out next year from Walker Books UK and Candlewick Press in the USA.
Jeffrey Alan Love is an award-winning artist and writer whose clients have included The New York Times, TIME, The New Yorker, Scholastic, HarperCollins,Tor, Gollancz, and others. Nominated for the World Fantasy Award, the Chesley Award, the British Science Fiction Award, The British Fantasy Award, and the Spectrum Fantastic Art Award, he has won a gold medal from the Society of Illustrators and two Academy of British Cover Design Awards. Born in South Carolina, he has lived in Germany, Texas, North Carolina, Nebraska, South Korea, Hawaii, Colorado, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, California, and Missouri.
(Photos by Priya)