An interview with Michael William Kaluta

Ian Nicholas Mackenzie here. I took a break from working on our upcoming Brian and Wendy Froud edition to talk in the Pub over a few pints of Guinness with another master artist, Michael William Kaluta.

Green Man Review: Why don’t you introduce yourself to our readers? What should they know about you as an artist?

Photo portrait of Michael William Kaluta by Kyle Cassidy

Michael William Kaluta. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Michael William Kaluta: Contrary to the way I’d like to be perceived, always questing forward toward uncharted realms of art and accomplishment, I’m much more a slow, stumbling, whimsical worker full of overcautious doubt. Perhaps that zombie approach helps in the long run, but it does get in the way too often for me to be happy about it.

When I am ultimately able to get an image on the paper, I’m often surprised at how successfully I’ve accomplished the needs of the illustration. It’s rather as if I’m sleepwalking most of the time . . . somehow, once I do start, the work appears and is generally admirable. The glow I get from finding I’ve completed an assignment lasts a bit, then fades and is replaced by the sneaking suspicion that I’ve missed the point of the assignment totally. Back I go into the ice water of self-sabotage. If I get another burst of self-amazement and understanding that I have, indeed done my best and it shows, I shake my head ruefully, wondering at my awkward, if effectual, art process.

I had my heart set on being an illustrator from my very early years, though I had no idea how to go about becoming one. My young eye was impressed by all the picture book drawings I came across (never finding favorites possibly because my mind didn’t register the art I didn’t care for) until high school years brought a gaggle of brilliant illustrators to my attention. This wasn’t though classes, but on the newsstand: paperback books by Edgar Rice Burroughs sported very compelling art, and most had a black and white vignette illustration on the flyleaf. Portal Press was reprinting posters by Maxfield Parrish and Alphonse Mucha. Dover Books brought out volumes on Aubrey Beardsley at that time, as well as Heinrich Kley, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and J.J Grandville (Jean Ignace Isadore Gerard): all containing magnificent, inspiring, deft actualizations of varied worlds of wonder. I was hooked: all I had to do was play “follow the leader.”

A few years after the above burst on the scene, in my professional life, I thought to draw comic books, thinking, inaccurately, comic books were simply a series of illustrations. I won’t go into just how wrong I was, but I will say that my early devouring of all things Illustrative got in the way of my Comic Book Art until I was able to meld the necessary storytelling that is what comics is really about, with my love of the Single Telling Image.

One of the strengths that working in comics developed for me was to reinforce my ability to make up things “on the fly”: Comics publishing had Deadlines, and, though I’m the first to admit I was lousy at keeping deadlines, the “need for speed” in perfecting the Comic Book Method asked the artist to rely on their imagination, to not only see with the eye, but record when seeing. Once developed, this ability would allow one to work for days without cracking a single reference book, and, at the end, be told by the editors and the readers how impressed they were at one’s obvious depth of inner knowledge of such a variety of subjects.

As Richard Jeni said: “Honesty is the key to a relationship: If you can fake that, you’re in.” This was a good axiom to hold in one’s mind to combat the truism that defined Comic Book Production at the time: “Don’t do It Good, Do It Thursday” (I tease, but only a little.)

There were two other Early Helpmeets that gave me a boost for later years of story illustration: One was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work . . . reading it was a delight, drawing it, if one wanted to be accurate, was a Zen Journey where The Leap Of Faith was as prevalent as Burroughs’ leaps of logic. It wasn’t his descriptions: if he described a thing, he did it almost to the point of tedium, but, somewhere between the paragraphs that described a Thark and a Thoat, a fully blown world surrounded one, manifest almost because Burroughs ignored its description. Called upon to illustrate a certain scene, pages would be flipped looking for that bit where he outlined the architecture that was so vivid in one’s memory . . . calls to other Burroughs’ Fans and Artists would bring tentative assurances that the scene was right between where Thuvia dodged the marauding airship and her ultimate abduction into the depths of the double-moon lit distance.

Of course, the description wasn’t in the writing. E.R. Burroughs had the ability to wake in a reader’s imagination 10 times the “reality” he outlined in his adventure stories: Attempting to illustrate these subconsciously planted scenes became mind-stretching exercise for the nascent illustrator. (J.R.R. Tolkien had the same mastery of conjuring memories of things described. But in his writing there was often even less description of those elements so concrete to the reader that some believe rumors of edited later printings where the remembered descriptions have been excised.)

Cover of Amazing Stories by Michael William KalutaThe other “school of Hard Knocks” was my early stint illustrating for the 1969-75 digest versions of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories. I came to understand, after wrestling imagery out of my first several assignments, why so much Science Fiction illustration was variations of Men and Women’s faces, shot through with galaxies, looking up toward what must have been the plot. There are genius examples spread throughout the history of Pulp Illustration, and some 1930s to ’50s SF&F illustrators made their entire careers out of refining this leitmotif. I was convinced that Sol Cohen, then Owner/Publisher of Amazing and Fantastic, just couldn’t afford the Hot Suns and Hot Guns SF Short Stories, rife with glittery imagery, and was left with the 1/4 cent a word “There’s a Universe In My Mind And It Is Eating Me Alive” stories. But still, at 10 dollars per illustration, getting some imagery on the page was the job, and by doing as well as one could, the Illustrator’s Brain developed lots of little wrinkles for future endeavors.

GMR: How did you get involved in illustrating Catherynne’s Orphan’s Tales novels?

MWK: That’s got a simple answer: I was sent an email from an editor at Bantam Dell asking if I’d be interested in illustrating a book. My answer is the one I have always given when asked that question: “yes, please.” I was sent an agreement, I signed same, then received four pounds of manuscript . . . then the joy began. One year later, I got to do the second book: twice as many pages, in manuscript, twice as much joy.

GMR: You said ‘One year later, I got to do the second book: twice as many pages, in manuscript, twice as much joy.’ In The Cities of Coin and Spice is 516 pages long as opposed to 482 for In the Night Garden. Was the second book originally longer than the first?

MWK: It seems it still is. . . . With In The Night Garden, I got two full manuscripts, about 700 pages each, double spaced (one side of the sheet only), making approximately 1,400 pieces of paper that had to be referenced.

With The Cities of Coin and Spice I received at least three copies of the manuscript, about 1,000 pages each, double spaced, one side of the sheet only, making at least 3,000 pieces of paper. Tons of paper!

GMR: Interesting. In the present day era of book publishing, books intended for adults are not oft times illustrated. Do you know why Random House made the decision to do so?

MWK: I have no idea, and, frankly, knowing that what you just stated is a fact, I didn’t dare ask. Ask, and possibly wake them up to their odd decision? Oh no . . . “The Hungry Rooster Don’t Crow When He Find The Corn” (Joel Chandler Harris: Plantation Proverbs)

GMR: Obviously our readers would be interested in knowing what you as an artist think of In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Spice and Coin. Even a non-artist like me was impressed by the incredible visual imagery invoked in her words. What was it like for you as an artist reading these stories?

MWK: As a Reader, I was stunned . . . as an Artist who’s job it was to illustrate the books, I was doing The Happy Dance with bells on. Having done about 100 illustrations for the two novels, I can say I could easily do 100 more, different illustrations and still not have exhausted Cat Valente’s power to inspire imagery.

It was a stroke of luck that I was limited by the editors as to just how much art I could do for In The Night Garden. If I’d started drawing at the first page, I’d still be delineating . . . Having a limit set (even though I did fudge it a BIT) meant that to have the book appear to have drawings throughout the text we tried to pick places that were spaced equally throughout the book. (There was some last-minute rearranging of some chapters of In The Night Garden, so our efforts weren’t as successful as we’d set out to do. In The Cities of Coin and Spice, the second novel, with many more illustrations, we got the even distribution we’d hoped for)

GMR: Though the cover illustrations (which you didn’t do) were excellent, how would you have done wrap-around cover art for these books?

MWK: I’d certainly have taken a similar approach as the cover artists did: lots of character imagery from the stories all wrapped around themselves with some central image to arrest the reader’s eye. The over-all feeling would have to reflect the “otherness” of the novels while, as always, I’d draw secret little elements to enhance the viewing for any who’d take a closer look. I doubt I could top either of the covers as printed. My covers, if they’d been done, would be stylistically different.

Ideally, I’d like the two covers to be two sides of a single composition, so they’d “live” together in a long, long painting. If these were to be book store covers the double cover would have to be accomplished without defeating the Here Is The Cover element necessary for each book to attract readers, separately. Perhaps if there’s ever an Anniversary, two-volume boxed edition, I’ll get my chance to both do the cover(s) as described above, and add a ton more interior art.

GMR: One reviewer said that your work in these books “interprets and embellishes the tales with a bunch of enchanting black-and-white drawings.” Do you see yourself as interpreting her work, or are you enhancing the work?

MWK: I can’t help interpreting Cat’s words: it is in the job description, and it’s pleasant to hear someone feels my pictures enhance the work. To enhance the book without defining or freezing the imagery is a goal I set myself, though that stance is often at war with the assignment.

Within the parameters of the assignment, I’m rather a hitchhiker: Catherynne has done all the work. It is almost presumptuous for me to draw a line. The best I can do is not drag my feet or grab the tiller while Cat is moving forward. In my perfect world, my drawings would be of objects, scenery, vistas and characters off to the side of the story: seen there because Cat has done the story-telling: I would try to capture the imagery evoked between the lines. Even though Cat’s prose is explicitly fantastic, layered and defined, resonances from her written word awaken in the mind the complete environment, unread yet evoked. In adding my nuance to that borderland beyond the page I’d truly have enhanced the books.

GMR: I certainly agree that you have enhanced the novel(s) with your illustrations. Which are your favorite pieces? Among the ones I like best are the snowflakes, the garden illustration oppsite the title page in the first book, the knife held in two hands (first book), the various illustrations of geese, the coins and snowflakes depicted in the second book, the hedgehog in the latter book as Green Man has a hedgehog mascot (Hamish by name), and the mice — also in the latter book.

MWK: I’ve no favorites in the illustrations, just a satisfaction!

I didn’t really do a What If Cover Exercise. I was working on three books at the time and what time I couldn’t give to Catherynne’s novel had to go to the others.

Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I'm the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library here in Kinrowan Hall if the Neverending Session is elsewhere. I'm a violinist too, so you'll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.

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