Eric Orchard’s graphic novels are those rare children’s books that will please both children and adults. Both his first, Maddy Kettle and the Adventure of the Thimblewitch, and his latest, Bera the One-Headed Troll, have a deliberately old-fashioned, fantasy-influenced style, with storylines that resonate with meaning.
Orchard has illustrated a number of picture books by other writers, but his own work reflects something more personal: his experiences with mental illness, explored in indirect ways through the medium of children’s stories. Orchard’s mother suffered from schizophrenia, and her illness shaped his childhood. As an adult, he has struggled with his own depression and anxiety. Last year, after the release of Maddy Kettle, he talked to me about the effect mental illness had on his life and his work, and this month’s release of Bera seemed a good opportunity to check in with him again to discuss how the incorporation of these difficult themes impacted the nitty-gritty of the creative process.
A year and a half ago, we talked about your experiences with mental illness, both your own and in your family, and how they were reflected in Maddy Kettle. Can you update us on your own situation?
I actually had a difficult time last year. I ended up in hospital for a while. Part of Bera was done in the hospital. I would joke to Calista [Brill], the editor, it was probably the first time she had done editing calls from a mental institution. Macmillan was awesome and very supportive even though it was a major disruption. Since I went to hospital I am better than ever. I went for OCD and anxiety, and especially the therapy really helps. I am totally in a different place now.
Knowledge is so much. Understanding the issues helps so much.
Bera the One-Headed Troll has a very distinctive look. What are your visual inspirations?
A lot of it is Victorian and Edwardian children’s book illustration, Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. I want to establish it as part of that tradition visually and add to that tradition, so I was looking for a look that echoed that era of illustration as well as Maurice Sendak and his approaches to fairy tales.
I wrote the book about 10 years ago. I wrote it as a novel first then decided to do it as a comic. It was while I was studying landscape art history—that had a huge impact on the look as well, the local landscape and the way it is approached in fine art.
Which local landscape is that?
It looks a lot like where I grew up, on the East Coast. To me it looks a lot like Nova Scotia or Maine, that desolate look. I sort of connect the story to my childhood as well. I think of Bera as a stand-in for my mother, and the landscape almost is the East Coast, so I actually did sketches of craggy, barren eastern places and used them as references for the book. It seemed to suit the overall aesthetic of the story
So is the baby a stand-in for you?
I don’t know.
Can you talk a bit about your technique?
For this book, wanting it to harken back to traditional Victorian and Edwardian artists, I used a dip pen on watercolor paper and waited for it to dry, then colored it with watercolor and gouache. I wanted to reference the old styles of working. I usually color digitally, but in this book I wanted to have a tactile look. There are a lot of happy mistakes when you work organically and traditionally. You just can’t get that digitally.
Do you find that kind of pen work calming or relaxing?
Absolutely. One of my art teachers used to say I draw the same way as someone who’s quilting. It’s very meditative and I get sort of engrossed by it. My anxiety goes away and it’s wonderful. I love drawing, and I love drawing in that rich, detailed style.
What about the palette? Why did you choose sepia as the dominant color?
I want to have the look with the limited palette, and it was also a time thing. It took a couple of years to do the book. My editor thought it would look best as a limited-palette book, so it was really Calista’s idea. I love that she decided to do that because she felt it captured what I wanted so well, and I would be gilding the lily if I took it any further. It’s two paints, burnt sienna and yellow, but the way it’s painted it looks like it’s even more limited.
One thing that struck me right away as a visual aspect is that Bera’s eyes are blank. Most of the other characters have pupils. Why did you make that choice?
I’m not sure. I think I may have been thinking of Scott McCloud’s idea that the simpler a character’s face is the more easily a reader can project himself onto the character. Bera and the trolls developed very organically by sketching. There’s an openness and a tenderness that I wanted to convey. And I think it also comes across as a sort of emptiness. There’s no real philosophy behind it. They sort of surprised me the way they turned out too.
This is the second book you have written about a female protagonist going on an adventure to save someone else. Why do you prefer female lead characters?
I was brought up mostly by women—women struggling to raise kids and to look after families—and I see the women in my life as heroic, so it just makes sense to have girls and women as the main characters, just because it’s what I have been exposed to all my life. My mother, in spite of her illness, managing to give me love and shelter and bring me up, struck me as heroic in a way that I wasn’t seeing a lot in the world and in my own personal life. I project that onto my characters. I do plan on writing some male characters at some point.
And in each case, their quest is to help someone else—Maddy Kettle to rescue her parents, Bera to save a baby that she runs across.
It’s sort of how adventure happens to you in life. It just rings true that someone just got swept up into an adventure like that and doesn’t really have much of a choice. I didn’t want to make them perfect characters but characters who did the right thing. I don’t have a message with the book, but I still wanted to show characters that made difficult decisions and made the right decision to help other people. That was important in my own outlook on the world.
One thing about Bera is that even though she is committed to her quest, she stops to help others in trouble—Vince the rat, and a goblin who is about to be eaten by wolves. Why did you build those side trips into your story?
When I talked about the book with my editor, we thought we could take more time with the story than I did with Maddy Kettle, so it could have a less concise approach. I wanted to take the time to explore the characters and their world a bit more by taking these trips into the corners of the world. It was a world-building thing as well as a character development thing, to take the time with the story to go these places where in Maddy Kettle I couldn’t because it was a concise story, it was a different kind of storytelling.
In some ways, you invert expectations: The mermaids, whom we usually would think of as beautiful and kind, are ugly and mean. The rats, on the other hand, are helpful. Were you doing this on purpose?
I guess it’s important to challenge readers’ expectations, and also, when you track back to the original fairy stories of England and Wales, they are unexpectedly strange and dark in ways that Disney has sterilized. I think it’s important to bring back some of that strangeness and darkness, because it reflects the world better and makes for a more interesting story. A large part of that was thinking of those early Grimm’s fairy tales from Germany, or English fairy tales and fairy stories, and just how dangerous and tricky this sort of fairy world could be, and how that reflects on our world and the way we tell stories about it. I think a lot of the inversion had more to do with that—it was mainly about having fun with the way those stories were initially told and trying to update it a bit.
The heroes Bera seeks out all let her down—one on purpose, the others because they can’t help it. Why have such unheroic heroes?
The point wasn’t really that they were un-heroic, it’s that Bera is the hero. I wanted to have that sense of self-discovery. At first she is so modest and doesn’t believe in herself, and she limits her understanding of herself. As things go on, she is forced to realize that she has to be the one to make the decisions and the one to act heroically. I guess, too, you could say I’m a little tired of the traditional heroic tropes, the shining-light hero who comes in and saves the day. I want to sort of upend that a bit because it’s so tired and doesn’t really resonate with the world in the same way any more. Heroes aren’t the same way any more. I think there is a bit of a social critique in there, but I don’t think it was conscious at the time, of the perfect hero.
What is your next project going to be?
I’ve started a new pitch about a duck who was the familiar to a wizard and when he leaves the wizard he goes back to the family he lived with, but he has horns and breathes fire and is rejected by the farm. It’s about finding a new place in the world when you feel rejected by your home.
Will that be a children’s book?
It will be.
Do you think it will work on two levels, like Maddy and Bera?
I hope so. I write in large part to he child in myself, so I hope I can reach everyone I want to reach—kids of course, but I hope everyone can respond to what I write and the stories I tell.