This page contains two interviews, the first with the SF artist Dominic Harman, and the second with writer Tony Ballantyne
Veil of Dreams:
An interview with Dominic Harman
I visited Dominic Harman at his studio, in the small town of Southwick, with certain preconceptions as to the life-style and work-places of artists and illustrators: eccentrics with weird working practices, inhabiting all manner of strange abodes and surrounded by the paraphernalia of their trade: half-finished canvases, messy palettes, buckled tubes of burnt sienna and rose madder. Needless to say, Harman and his studio doesn’t quite fall into this stereotype. His work-place is a small and stacked high with videos cassettes and shelves buckling with books; a WWII gas mask hangs beside an old chair; every surface bears an eclectic collection of visual stimuli: the skulls of rams and, more disturbingly, human beings; dried sea creatures, cases of exotic butterflies and insects, and a beautiful Eurypeima Spinicrus (a large spider), cocoons and chrysalises, old paintings beside the drawing board. In pride of place in the centre of the room is a massive table where the Mac sits, alongside two monitors and hard drives, technology which gives a surreal sensation juxtaposed as it is with so much evidence of antiquity and the eldritch.
Over a strong coffee, with the late June sun streaming in through the west window, we talked about his career to date, his success and his ambitions for the future. Relaxing in his worn-out armchair, Harman sips coffee and reflects on what has been an eventful six years.
His visually fantastic, technically accomplished SF and fantasy artwork has been garnering praise and awards in Britain for some years now, and has recently been making a splash over in the States. Cover commissions for ST. Martins Press, Absolute Magnitude, Weird Tales, and Asimov’s have been followed by work for Baen Books and Analog. “Finding a way in to the book market was very difficult at first,” Harman says, “especially without an agent. Now that I have a British and US agent it makes it easier to focus on what is important: the creative side of my work, rather than all the PR.
“The desire to succeed was and is very strong. In my experience, all creative people have an abiding faith in their ability. I find myself constantly having to remind editors and publishers of my standard of work and availability. It’s a waiting game, in a way, and if you can constantly improve while knocking on the door, then opportunities will eventually present themselves.”
I first became aware of Harman’s artwork when Interzone editor David Pringle commissioned him to illustrate my short story, “Vulpheous.” It’s always a double-edged sword to have your fiction made visual. A bad illustration can say the wrong things about a story. One of Harman’s strengths as an illustrator is the effort he goes to in order to render the feel of a story as well as to maintain visual accuracy. He says: “When reading a story I try to pinpoint areas of interest. I try to be as faithful to the stories as possible, but also there sometimes has to be some artistic licence, the need to put across my perspective, a feeling for the book or story which comes from my reaction to the text as I try to capture the essence and atmosphere of a writer’s work.”
Harman has illustrated three of my stories to date, and a measure of his success in getting it right is that his scenes of gloriously alien worlds, beings, and characters have replaced my own original working visions. How does Harman feel about the response of the writer to his illustrations? “It’s great to get feed-back. I get a fantastic sense of achievement when writers say how close my visualisation came to their vision. That, to me, is the highest praise an illustrator can get, considering the fact that you’re employed, essentially, to help sell something. Not only you must make the cover eye-catching – as it won’t be sitting up on the bookshelf by itself – but you must also be true to the text. It doesn’t necessarily have to depend on the depiction of a dramatic or violent scene – a strong use of colour and composition can also have great effect.”
Harman has served a long apprenticeship. “I was always drawing: Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. An early influence was the work of Derek Riggs, who designed the album covers of the British rock band Iron Maiden. I remember poring over the details of the record covers, working out the technique.” But his influences also included the works of the Classical and Surrealist painters, Salvador Dali, Sassoferrato, Casper David Friedrich, Beksinski and Velazquez, among others.
“When I was studying in oils, I used to spend hours coping their works and emulating their techniques. It was magical when I discovered the SF and fantasy works of Frank Frazetta, the Brothers Hildebrandt. And in particular Boris Vallejo. The experience of studying the work in his book, Mirage, left me totally stunned by his genius. This cemented my desire for a career in this field.” He also read widely, and found this influential. “I was into High Fantasy novels from an early age. The works of Robert E. Howard possessed the raw energy and an explosive, non-stop action. It was an immediate attraction to me. It was later, though, that I started to read classic SF writers such as John Wyndham and Poul Anderson. They were a constant source of inspiration. I particularly enjoyed SF featuring aliens and the Alien.”
On the subject of Aliens, does he enjoy drawing them? “They’re certainly a challenge. To a large extent I go by the description in whichever story I’m illustrating, but sometimes there isn’t much description and I’m forced to fall back on my imagination. I start with lots of sketches in pen and pencil, and then scan the image into my computer and work directly on the drawing/sketch to flesh out the creature, so to speak. Depending on an alien’s appearance, I will refer to human, animal, and sea-life to study what possible types of structure and skin will best suit it. Sometimes I won’t look at any reference works at all, and just play about with the image. I most enjoy painting aliens and creating surreal landscapes (even though I’ve received praise and awards for my hard SF illustrations). I love the idea of creating a life-form and working out what kind of environment it might inhabit.”
After finishing a Foundation college course in Worthing, West Sussex, Harman honed his skills over the next few years and then gained the confidence to show his work around.
His first professional sale, at the age of 23, was to Interzone, in July 1997. In just six years Harman has sold over 200 interior illustrations and over 100 magazine covers/ book jackets.
They’ve had great responses, being nominated six years running for the BSFA Awards in Great Britain, winning in 2001 and also 2003. He also won The Paper Tiger Award 2000 (Best in Show) at Eastercon in Glasgow, Scotland, for the cover of Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999, and the Tangent Online Award in America for best cover in 2000 for the cover of Absolute Magnitude, Winter 1999.
He is a familiar face at SF and fantasy conventions in Britain, and
the year before last he attended the WorldCon in Philadelphia. “One of the delights of being a fantasy and SF illustrator is attending conventions and exhibiting my work to fans and potential clients. It’s also a great way to meet up with other artists and writers, to get feedback and inspiration, as I have done when talking to various writers whose work I’ve illustrated.”
In the early years, Harman worked with oil and acrylic, utilising the traditional techniques of painting. These days his work is mainly a composite of different media: pencil, charcoal, photography, oil and acrylic techniques, scanned images and textures, and designed elements in 3D soft-ware, plaster, clay, Resin and Metalwork with the final piece finished on a Mac.
He says: “For drawing on a Mac, I use a Wacom Pad. It’s a flat pad that you draw on with a pen. The image then appears on the screen, just like pen to paper. It’s a fantastic invention that has enabled me to draw and sketch on the Mac, which gives me so much freedom to explore different possibilities.” He goes on: “From a commercial point of view, mainly working in the digital format has benefits for the artist and the art director, making her or his life easier: the ease of colour adjustment, the manipulation of elements, makes the Mac such a useful tool – but it is only a tool. I often see artwork done by people who have just bought a Mac/PC and some 3D and photo manipulation software, and they think there is nothing else they need, but a fundamental understanding of composition, colour sense, and of course being able to draw in first place, are essential.
How long does it take Harman to complete a commission? “That varies a lot. If I get a longer deadline, all the better. But it does seem to work out that if an art director gives me two days, I’ll finish it within that time-scale, but if I am given two months, then I’ll make use of the leeway. I think most artists are the same when it comes down to it. If allowed too much time, I think most artists would kill a painting by continually fussing over it. But sometimes it does help having a deadline looming. It makes you become more efficient with your time management.”
All creative people, artists and writers alike, are forever asked which among their work is their personal favourites. Harman responds: “To be honest, I can’t really say that I have a favourite. I like many different ones for different reasons, although I’m very pleased with the Cover art for Interzone July 2000, ‘Hideaway’. Among other examples of my work I’m pleased with are ‘Old Infinite Worlds’, PS Books, ‘Alien Nativity’, Interzone, January 1999; ‘Butterfly Woman’ ‘Dark One’ Derision, CD cover ‘Serpents Milk’, ‘Humatetras’ and also the front cover of Weird Tales, issue 319, Spring 2000.”
In his spare time, snatched between work, he enjoys watching old horror and sci-fi B-movies, rummaging through car boots and jumble sales to build up a visual reference library of anything that catches his eye, and actively seeking out visual inspiration. “And also sleeping – as I don’t get much when on a commission!”
I ask him if he felt constrained by the technophilic aspect of SF – the need to represent hardware rather than people or ideas. “Well, fortunately I found early on that I had a facility for machinery spaceships and gadgetry – but as it happens things have developed recently…”
He goes on to say that his work has changed direction over the past year. With major publishing houses looking for something a little different from the usual covers, he has developed his style beyond his traditional approach, moving towards more of an icon-orientated look, increasingly textural, atmospheric, and emblematic. “After observing the field and talking to several publishing-related people, I felt that I needed to adapt my work in order to reach out to a new audience and try to appeal to the mainstream, as well as to the core followers of the genres.”
He also wanted to get into the record cover market, which necessitated developing a new approach. “I’ve been honing and pushing the new contemporary style in lots of directions. I didn’t show anyone for a while, as I felt people knew me for my SF and Fantasy, and I obviously didn’t want to turn my back on my traditional style, as I have a great love for what I’ve been doing in the field and that will continue for as long as I am in the business!. But for a long time I wanted to do something surreal and the strange, which is a great passion of mine – I guess it’s leaning towards fine art, in a way. Fortunately my current style fits well with everything from mainstream, fantasy, SF, and horror book covers today. I’m concentrating on ideas that I wanted to develop, but which my traditional style wouldn’t lend itself to very well. Anyway, after coming to a point where I felt the time was right to show my new stuff, I couldn’t believe the response from publishers – things have really snowballed recently.
He is currently working on covers for Harper Collins (Voyager), Macmillan Books, Baen Books, Analog, and Asimov’s SF. Other projects include more cover designs for record companies and a 3D sculpture. “I’m sculpting masks, casting heads and textured objects, which I photograph and incorporate into my 2D illustrations. I gained this experience from studying special effects at college. I learned to cast, sculpt (to a degree) and create some very Crude animatronics effects. I still have an interest in it and have used it to help further develop my 2D illustration.”
We then get down to the reason I visited Dominic: to discuss the graphic novel project I’m working on with the artist and the script-writer Josh Lacey.
VR, which is its working title, is the story of one woman’s bizarre entanglement with the futuristic technology of virtual reality. The idea began as the outline of a film; Josh and I worked with a director and producer, but it soon became apparent that the very thing that would make it work as a film, the visual disparity between a run-down future Britain and a glitzy anything-goes VR setting, was what also made it difficult to film within the production company’s limited budget. The project, like so many I’ve worked on in the industry, fell by the wayside.
Then Josh suggested we try it as a graphic novel, and I said I knew just the artist to bring it to life.
“What I like about the GN project,” Dominic says, “is that it gives me a opportunity to try something new and to consider the story through panels other than one-shot deals. There is obviously a new set of challenges in doing so, and it’s a very exciting project. The visuals for the story are rich, the possibilities endless, and the stark contrast between realities should lend itself very well to the graphic novel format.”
Before we leave his studio, to refresh ourselves at his local, Dominic shows me several pieces of artwork he’s currently working on. I espy a scene that seems familiar, and then realise: it’s from my novella Approaching Omega. It comes to me that the life of a writer, unlike those of many other entertainers, is often lacking in feedback – we might get the odd letter from a reader, but not the immediate response of a live audience. As I admire the illustration to Approaching, I get the subtle feeling of having reached out and implanted something in another’s mind, which after all is what writing is all about.
The Recursive Man:
An interview with Tony Ballantyne
Over the course of the past few years Tony Ballantyne has been quietly building himself a reputation within the science fiction field as a writer of intelligent, finely crafted short stories which, although embracing the latest scientific and technological ideas, never lose sight of the fact that fiction, even science fiction, is about the human condition. Often quirky and humorous, his stories explore what it is to be human in the increasingly frenetic future that we all inhabit. In this respect, the writer he most reminds me of is the American satirist Robert Sheckley.
Ballantyne lives with his wife and children in Oldham. A full-time teacher, he works on his novels and stories in his spare time, and manages to produce a variety of work which would make many a full-time writer envious.
At the time of the interview, his first novel Recursion was just out from Tor Macmillan.
Q) To begin with, Tony, how long have you been writing, and why did you begin? Who were your early influences?
A) I’ve been writing as long as I can remember: I started for the simple reason that I just like writing. It gives me a great deal of pleasure. I started writing seriously, however, in my mid twenties. I realised that if I was going to do this properly I would have to be a lot more disciplined in my approach. Early influences? Larry Niven, Ray Bradbury, Diana Wynne Jones.
Q) Three very different writers. What was it about these three that appealed to you?
A) The story, the story and the story. It amazes me how often people can talk about books and writing without mentioning this.
Q) Why SF? You wrote earlier romantic stories – but did you always want to write SF?
A) I enjoyed writing the romantic pieces. They helped me to understand how to “do” character. When the plot of a story is reduced to boy meets girl, you’ve got to really think about why the two are attracted to each other. It’s not as easy as it sounds, it’s far too easy to become
overly sentimental. I’m actually planning out a romantic comedy, very slowly. But, yes, I always wanted to write SF. The Space Merchants had a big effect on me when I was young. I’m also part of the 2000AD generation, and I think that comics influenced writers my age more than is realised. Plots and ideas surface from there in many novels and short stories written by my contemporaries.
Q) I’ve just read The Space Merchants and was very impressed. Have you read other books by Pohl.
A) Yes. I think Pohl is one of those writers who, whilst their contribution is not exactly unsung, deserves far greater recognition. In my more cynical moments it seems to me that we don’t recognise our writers until someone buys the film rights for one of their books.
Q) Do you think that SF has a function other than mainstream literature, or is it the same – to elucidate the human condition through drama?
A) I think rather that SF extends mainstream literature. If there is no drama, there is no story. However, whilst I, and I imagine most people who read SF, do not claim it predicts the future, I do think that it has played a big role in getting people to think about the future. Most people nowadays have ideas about aliens, global warming, cyber crime. They may not have read the books, but these ideas have crept into the media from the genre. Even before Dolly the sheep most people had heard of cloning and had formed opinions about whether or not this was a good thing. Okay, maybe some of the opinions put around were half-baked, but even so, people weren’t totally unprepared to think about this new reality.
Q) What I like about your work is the traditional elements of good characterization and story-telling combined with interesting scientific or technological situations. How do you go about researching the science in your pieces – or, for that matter, coming up with the ideas?
A) That’s very nice of you to say so. I research in two ways. Firstly, I just like to read: newspapers, magazines and the web, as well as books. I don’t do it so much to get ideas as from simple interest. I will read anything: I’m forever picking up leaflets and pamphlets when out. (A recent short story of mine, “The Ugly Truth”, was inspired by a children’s book on how iron was made. Although I had a good idea about how it was done, the background to the process set me thinking about the essential elements of the story.) But secondly, when I have a story under way I will read around it. If something particularly catches my interest I will look deeper. For example, some articles I read in passing when researching the next novel have led to me reading up on linguistics.
Q) Do you have any theories for the popularity of Hard SF at the moment? People like Baxter, Reynolds, Hamilton are very popular – do people read them for the quality of their scientific extrapolation, or the drama inherent in the situations they portray?
A) I think the popularity of Baxter, Reynolds and Hamilton is due to the fact they write a very good story. Saying that, fiction with a solid factual base does seem to be very popular at the moment, not just Hard SF, but historical adventures, techno-thrillers, the Birdsong and Atonement sort of war story. Maybe we’re moving back to the Victorian idea that entertainment should be educational too and we should all try and improve ourselves.
Q) Where would you place yourself in the Hard SF/Soft SF dichotomy? While your first novel Recursion is undoubtedly Hard SF, many of your shorter pieces have been character driven.
A) I don’t think that’s so much my decision as the stories themselves. Once I have the basic plot and the characters worked out, the stories tend to make their own way. Recursion was based around a Hard SF idea, but the plot ended up being significantly skewed by one of the characters. In that sense, the plot was undoubtedly character-driven.
Q) Do you think that the explication of big, high concept, Hard SF ideas in novels and short stories preclude serious attempts at believable human characterisation? (Does the scale of the idea dwarf the day-to-day events of human activity, making the two hard to combine in the same novel/story?)
A) Chris Beckett says that in SF the world itself can become a character… He makes a good point. Speaking personally, I find it’s sometimes all too easy to get caught up in the technology and end up with a story that has no characterisation. Then again, if you are left with a readable story, is that a bad thing? I feel that SF writers (and readers) are still hung up on the idea that what they write is not proper ‘literature’. Who cares? One of the strengths of SF is the way it crosses genres: Crime, Comedy, Historical. Literature is just another genre that SF can dip in and out of as appropriate.
Q) I agree with your point about ‘proper literature’. I think the minimum requirement of a story is that it presents believable characters. Sometimes, SF shirks this responsibility. (I’m thinking of writers like Clarke and Heinlien and Asimov. You might enjoy them when you’re young, but if you come back to them in later life, you see how poor they are.) Anyway, my question: where do you see Recursion in the role call of recent SF novels – would you cite writers like Baxter as an influence? If not, then who?
A) Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury were all early influences. Larry Niven too. I particularly liked the way his plots were so logical. After that came writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Martin Amis. Characterisation inspiration came from Diana Wynne Jones and David Nobbs. Where do I see Recursion? A lot of reviews have quoted Dick as an influence, which I found surprising. I’ve read an enjoyed Dick but never saw him as a big influence. Then again, I can see the connection…
Q) Tell me something about Recursion: where did the idea come from; what you hoped to do with the book.
A)I had the idea a long time ago. I wanted to give an answer to the short story the “Sixth VNM” that appeared in Interzone 138. (and accompanies this interview here on InfinityPlus) I actually had a stab at in the short story “Single Minded”, but I always felt that story never had the chance to develop properly. It seemed to be something more appropriate for a novel. After that I just tried to extrapolate from the situation I had. One big theme was personal responsibility. In the past people believed in God. One of the things I wondered about was if people would believe in themselves, or do we need to look to a higher power for a guide, be it religious or AI.
Q) What are your writing habits?
A) I write one hour every night between 8 and 9. I have a very understanding family that allows me to do this. I’m fortunate enough to be very disciplined, I can just sit down at the keyboard and type. All those hours soon add up.
Q) And what’s next?
A) I’ve just about finished Capacity, a loose follow up to Recursion. I’m very pleased with that novel. After that will come Divergence, which has all the answers, (although they are there in the first two books if you know where to look.) I’d also like to get back to some short stories.
Q) Speaking of which, I can finish the interview without asking about one of my favourite short stories: your “Teaching the War Robot to Dance”. Tell me about it – where did it spring from; what inspired it; what are your own feelings about this story?
A) Of the stories that I’ve written, it’s definitely one of my favourites too. It was inspired by reading a biography of Monet, of all things. Without wanting to give away too much about the plot of the story, I was struck by a quote of Monet’s where he claimed to try to paint what was actually there, and not to ascribe his own emotions to figures.
Q) And to end with, what’s your writing ambition?
A) To keep getting better with every book.
Tony Ballantyne, thanks a lot.