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October 24, 2016

S.F. Said --- Author of PHOENIX --- on Collaborating with David McKean

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PHOENIX is an epic science fiction novel set in space amidst a galactic war, following a young boy named Lucky as he discovers his destiny. This novel features some incredibly inventive world building, which is heightened by the amazing artwork that accompanies the text. On the blog today, we have S.F. Said sharing about his experience collborating with David McKean on PHOENIX as well as offering some explanations of the different artistic choices made in the novel.

The best part of writing, for me, is collaborating with my amazing illustrator Dave McKean.  He's one of my all-time favourite artists.  I love the work he's done on books by authors like Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Ray Bradbury.  But when I saw what he produced for my new book --- PHOENIX --- it took my breath away. 

I can't really describe our first book --- VARJAK PAW --- as a collaboration. I was too in awe of Dave to suggest anything; I just gave him the words and a fully illustrated text came back!  But his illustrations were so beautifully integrated, they seemed like they'd been part of the story all along. 

By the time I was working on PHOENIX, we'd become friends and collaborators.  We'd spent a lot of time together trying to make a VARJAK PAW movie, with many adventures in Hollywood and beyond.  As I was writing PHOENIX, I was telling him things like: "I'm writing a great big space epic about a human boy and an alien girl who have to save the galaxy!  It's full of stars, black holes, dark matter – and also all the gods and goddesses of all the ancient mythological pantheons!"

Luckily, Dave shares my love of both the science of the stars, and those ancient myths which tried to find meaning in the sky.  So science and mythology inform the two strands of illustration that run through PHOENIX.  

One of these strands is all about the stars.  All the time I was working on PHOENIX, I was collecting images of stars.  I had a giant book of Hubble Space Telescope photography in front of me as I wrote PHOENIX, and then I gave it to Dave, who had it in front of him as he illustrated it.  His images erupt into the text whenever the main character is dreaming of the stars or flying through them as he crosses the galaxy, using alien technology to follow the invisible dark matter that connects everything in the universe.  

It was Dave's idea to use fractal patterns to illustrate these connections.  What neither of us knew was that Dave's visualisation of dark matter would look astonishingly similar to the first images of dark matter made by astronomers, not long after the book was published in the UK!

The other strand of illustration in Phoenix draws on mythology.  The aliens in PHOENIX believe that all the mythological gods and goddesses are really stars who come down from the sky to walk among us.  They take different forms in different times, but they're always the same immortal beings, returning again and again through history.  The aliens call them the Twelve Astraeus.

Originally, I wrote lots of material about the Twelve Astraeus, to explain this background.  But it was impossible to find words powerful enough to describe them.  After all, gods and stars should be mysterious and awe-inspiring beyond words! 

Then I came up with the idea of describing them through illustrations and song fragments.  I gave Dave a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their names and attributes in different mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and so on), and asked him to make a series of illustrations depicting each one in turn. 

I wrote song fragments to go with the pictures, which give you little hints about them.  So when readers encounter the Astraeus of Love, for example, they can work out for themselves that she's been called Venus, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, and so on; and even if they don't, they'll feel who she is, without being told.  I find that more powerful than ordinary prose, and having seen what Dave could do on the Varjak Paw books, I designed the structure of PHOENIX around this series of illustrations, which became an integral part of the narrative.

As a huge Dave McKean fan myself, it's been such a privilege to share this journey with him.  We did an event together recently in London, talking about the process of creating illustrated books.  Someone in the audience asked him what his favourite work was of all the illustration he'd ever done.  Among the books he named was PHOENIX!  Hearing him say that was one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me.