This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 3.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. Today, illustrator Francis Vallejo and romance author Mia Sosa talk about works that have shaped their own craft.
Francis Vallejo is an award-winning American artist, and an Assistant Professor of Illustration at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He earned his BFA from Ringling College of Art and Design and has since created artwork for many notable clients, including Candlewick Press, Snapple, Vibe magazine and Camelbak. His illustration work includes Jazz Day (2016), Roxane Orgill’s book on photography for younger readers, which won the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for best picture book, among other accolades. Most recently, he illustrated the Folio Society edition of Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.
Hello, my name is Francis Vallejo and Zoom by Istvan Banyai is my recommended.
Zoom by Istvan Banyai is a wordless book that he released in the ’90s. In the first page, it begins with a very abstract crop on the image and as you move throughout the book, it sequentially zooms into the images and you keep noticing a story start to play out just by the images. For instance, you might see a texture, a bumpy texture, and then you zoom into it, past it, and then you notice that it’s a starfish. Then you keep going and that starfish, the next image is on a beach, and so on and so forth. So the story’s told almost through a flying camera through the images. It’s really stunning and, in a novel way, hah, book pun, to create a story. It’s really great.
I encountered this book in a way that I’ve encountered a lot of books recently in that me and my partner go to thrift stores a lot. It’s just a thing we do, we like treasure hunting, antique stores, and such. In all of those type of stores, they always have a book section and it’s a treat because most books are like 50 cents. As a side note, if I ever find my own book in a thrift store, I’ll be the happiest of all time. It’s like the circle of life.
Anyways, I was just rummaging through some books and I seen this book, Zoom, which has a really bold simple cover. I immediately recognized it as Istvan’s work because I’m a fan. And that was immediately a treat, like, “Wow.” I wouldn’t have assumed I’d find his work out in the wild like this. I picked it up and I was familiar that this book existed, but I had never read it. So this must have been recently, probably in this past December. It blew me away. I’ve read maybe four or five times. I teach at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. I brought it into my class and we analyzed it and talked about it. It’s one of my better finds of recent.
I first came across Istvan’s work in, probably in art school. I must have been, maybe 19, 20 years old. This would have been in 2006 or so. I really appreciated the graphic appeal of it, especially because at that time, I was interested in line work and really bold colors. What blew me away is that he really started to make a name for himself in the ’90s and he’s still working, doing beautiful work today. But especially in the ’90s, that aesthetic was unique because there wasn’t necessarily as much use of Photoshop which is how that look would be done today.
He did it in a remixed version, if you will, of animation in that he would ink on a piece of clear acetate, like cel animation paper and then he would turn it over and he would paint the other side. When most people see his work that aren’t familiar, they just assume it’s digitally done, but it’s not. It’s done traditionally. So when I found that out about his work back then, I was like, “Whoa, that’s pretty neat.” Especially as an artist myself, I appreciate desiring a certain look for my work and using whatever I have at my disposal to do it.
I had a teacher, Marshall [inaudible], and he said, “Good line work is like dolphins elegantly jumping through the crest of the waves of the water and back into it.” He’s a very eloquent articulate gentleman, but I do tend to agree in that whatever you’re drawing, whether it’s a cactus, or a finger, or an eyeball, just the usage of a line to describe the form, whether it’s simply, or in a much more complicated way, is really exciting. I obviously can tell Istvan appreciates that being a primarily linear artist.
And in the way that he tends to like a little bit more complicated line work, I definitely take that from him in that when you’re going to draw an eye, especially if it’s a larger eye, you could simplify or not, like I might do and really get into how does the underside of the eyelid relate to the eyeball and the eyelashes. And how is it specific and individual to this character and really enjoying the searching and the movement of the line through the forehead. Definitely his work was an early introduction into that articulation of shapes and subject matter.
As far as how to approach how my illustrations work in books, I think when I’m given words, I think my biggest decision is, do I illustrate the words themselves rather directly, so if there’s a scene, for example, where a character is walking into a room. Does my illustrations literally show a character walking into a room and I just draw and paint it really well or do I illustrate between the lines? Do I illustrate perhaps what the character was doing right before that scene, or maybe show the outside of the building and you can just see the window of the room and I’m, through my illustration, adding additional context and mood to the scene?
And that’s a big decision and I can’t say that I have a strong opinion on that yet. I’ve talked to multiple authors. Some say their favorite work might be more like a Normal Rockwell where it’s literally a narratively describing the text, or the story. And some writers say, no, the reader’s imagination is the best illustration, so I want your illustrations to add additional mood and to add parts of the story that aren’t there, that I’m not writing about. That’s what I want you to do.
So I think my opinion on that is surely going to evolve throughout my career.
I selected this book because I do desire to put out a fully creator owned project where the story is my idea and I illustrate it as well. I think a lot of book artists tend to desire that, at some point in their career.
I’m very scared of having to write it, even though I think I’m okay with words, it’s just, who am I, that spent all my life learning to draw, all of a sudden, I can walk in and think I could write. You know? That might be self-defacing, but whatever. We’re our own hardest critics sometimes. So when I became aware of books like Zoom, it’s like, well, I still have to have a very fully fleshed out articulate idea of the story, but I can tell it through my pictures. I know I can do that. And maybe that’ll be my way of easing into a creator owned book is something like Zoom.
And I, in no way, am saying that that’s any sort of lesser art form at all, it’s just a different art form. So I think the emphasis on your pictures’ incredibly focused ability to tell the story immediately and every element in your picture, from the doorknob to the angle of the hand, to completely and absolutely communicate the idea of the picture becomes even more important because you have no words to support it. But at the same time, that is kind of what I do, that sounds really awesome. I suppose that’s where my head’s at as far as illustrating books.
One of the reasons, as a creator myself, that I really appreciate Zoom is, what does a book mean is an important question that I ask myself a lot. I only have two books under my belt and I hopefully look forward, if I’m so fortunate, to have the rest of my life making books. I continually want to evolve what that means to me. A book is a bound collection of words and pictures. There could be varying levels of words and pictures. In this case, there’s words on the front and the back, and then that’s it. All the interior is pictures.
With books going onto tablets, and virtual reality, and all this or that, some people are embracing that, but some people are doubling down and embracing the physical form. I think how the stories are told within the book art form is exciting. So when I see a book like Zoom that, to me, is such a fresh way of telling a story, that’s my favorite, I love that. Of course the story’s amazing, but just the challenge that it provides me and how can I approach things.
Someone like Chris Ware and his books where it’s more of like a suite or a collection of bound material, one’s a comic, one’s a fold out poster, one’s like a pamphlet, one’s like a novel and it’s in a big beautiful luxurious box where even the sides of the box are illustrated, and there’s many stories on the corners, like hidden stories. Ooh, that gets me all twisted up into a knot, that’s exciting. And Zoom did that for me. That’s why I chose it. And that’s awesome and that will never end with how books are presented to culture because books will never die. Long live books.
There will always be new approaches for how to sequence those words and pictures. And that’s awesome. That’s exciting. That keeps me going and Zoom was good fuel for that fire for sure.
Thanks again to Francis Vallejo for joining us and recommending Zoom by Istvan Banyai. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, with a foreword from Nalo Hopkinson and illustrations by Vallejo, is available from The Folio Society. You can follow him on Twitter at francisvallejo.
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Mia Sosa is an award-winning contemporary romance writer and 2015 Romance Writers of America® Golden Heart® Finalist. Her books have received praise and recognition from Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Library Journal (starred reviews), The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and more. Booklist recently called her “the new go-to author for fans of sassy and sexy contemporary romances.” A former First Amendment and media lawyer, Mia now writes fun, flirty, and moderately dirty stories about imperfect characters finding their perfect match. Her newest book, Crashing Into Her, follows an aspiring stuntwoman named Eva as she finds out that the one-night stand from a friend’s wedding is her new instructor, who doesn’t want her anywhere near his stunt school—or his heart.
My name is Mia Sosa and Sula by Toni Morrison is my recommended.
Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but Sula is the story in my mind of two black women in the 1920s in a place called Medallion, Ohio, and it basically is the story of their friendship and their experiences and the way that they relate to each other within this community and outside of this community.
So here’s the thing, I have the worst memory in the world, but I am almost certain that I read this book in high school and that’s how I first came across it.
Last month on Martin Luther King Junior Day, there was a video going around in the Twitterverse and it was a video of an interview that Dr. King did at some point and the question that had been posed to him, and I’m paraphrasing here, was to the effect of what is it about black Americans and every other group that came here as an immigrant but made the black American experience different? Is the color of their skin? Kind of explain. And Dr. King, not surprisingly, made some very effective points, one of which is that America freed the slaves but gave them no land or nothing in reality to get started on. And again, I’m paraphrasing here from what I remember, but was willing to give white peasants from Europe an economic base. And I immediately thought of Sula and that’s something that is rare only because I know how bad my memory is, but it was striking to me that I remembered the beginning of the book in which Morrison talks about the origins of the bottom, which is where the book is set and it’s this place in Medallion, Ohio where black people used to live but which is now sort of the suburbs and was itself a character of the book.
And there’s a story there as to how the bottom got started. And in the book, she describes that it was basically a joke that there was a white farmer promised freedom and a piece of bottom land through a slave if he performed back breaking work. But when it came time for the farmer to pay up, freedom was easy but giving up the land was not. So he told the slave that he had to give him value land even though he’d hope to give him bottom land. The slave was confused. This slave thought valley land was bottom land and he said, “No, no, the hills above the valley was the bottom with rich and fertile soil, and it was called that because when God’s looking down, it’s the bottom.”
So there was this trickery going on, which basically convinced the slave that he wanted the bottom land, which was up in the hills, but which in reality wasn’t good for farming, ultimately was not fertile soil. And it struck me that what Dr. King was talking about was this very thing that Morrison had described at the beginning of Sula. And the fact that I could remember that, was remarkable to me and it’s made me realize how impactful the book had been to me and how much an impression it had made on me over the years that I can sort of recall that instance of sort of how this community was created.
I think of her as sort of this figure that is in my mind similar to James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and sort of these incredibly nuanced thinkers who helped me to kind of understand the black experience in this country. As explanation, I am Afro-Latina, so I have an affinity for learning about black experiences, and so it’s not my own experience, but it is part of my experience. So I’m always fascinated by those kinds of discussions and I think that these individuals, Morrison and among them, played a role in me sort of understanding what that experience is like in this country.
the thing that is striking to me now when I think about Sula and the fact that I can’t forget it as a novel, is that it taught me things before I knew what they were. So as an example, I think that Sula taught me about intersectionality before I knew what intersectionality was. If you read this book, and this is why I think it’s such a powerful book, you really get the sense of what it’s like to not just be a woman or to be a black person, but to be a black woman in this country and how that is itself its own experience.
And I know that now to be intersectionality. I didn’t know that then, not in high school, but having reread the book recently, it strikes me that there is so much about it that is about the nuance of that particular experience, but also that that particular experience is shown between these two characters isn’t itself one experience, that there are nuances within the black woman’s experience in this country. And I just find it just so rich and effective at making me really think about how I perceive others, how others perceive me, what I put out into the world, what I feel safe about putting out into the world, and because of that, it’s one of those books that’s really stayed with me.
Sula is … it is a masterclass in world building. This community, the bottom is itself a character and the way that that community reacts to these two women and the things that they do in their lives is something that I think I tried to impart it in my books, I try to create a world so that readers really think these people exists and that they’re going to exist beyond the happily ever after. And I think to do that effectively, the places that they’re at become characters, the people who surround them as secondary characters are rich and have their own lives and have their own goals and their own troubles, and I think when I write, I try to do that, likely not as effective as Toni Morrison, nowhere near as effective as Toni Morrison, but it’s a goal and I think that’s really striking.
I read a lot of romance because I’m writing romance now, and when I’m not reading romance, I’m usually reading books about people’s experiences. So memoirs, I am about to start Michelle Obama’s Becoming. And so that is kind of what I gravitate towards. But really focus on, when I’m not reading romances fiction, I’m reading books about today’s reality or trying to understand today’s society and different people’s reality, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates as an example, is Between the World and Me was a book that I read recently. That’s kind of where I go. I kind of go between like full on romance and then really delving into sort of society’s ills and how do you deal with them.
It does creep into my writing just because I think when I’m creating those worlds, I don’t want to drop people into a world that doesn’t exist. I want my characters, particularly because I write characters of color, to have good experiences and to be surrounded by support, but what’s happening around them, is it something that I can completely set aside? And so in a couple of my books, I can think off the top of my head where there is a discussion about intersectionality and the experiences, for example, women in Hollywood and how that experience is compounded if you’re a black woman.
So it’s the stuff that people who are outside of the romance genre might not think they would find in a romance, but people who were in the genre know very well that that’s the kind of stuff that you may read when you read a romance.
Thanks again to Mia Sosa for joining us and recommending Sula by Toni Morrison. Crashing Into Her, published by Avon, is available wherever ebooks are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at miasosaromance.
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