Wonderbook: An Interview with Artist Jeremy Zerfoss

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(Watch the Wonderbook video, by Gregory Bossert, in HD.)

As readers may know, last week Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction was released, along with the debut of the related website, Wonderbooknow.com (created by Luis Rodrigues). The main artist on the project was Jeremy Zerfoss, who worked with me on it for almost two years. Zerfoss is best known for his innovative and bold line of book covers for Cheeky Frawg Books. He has also done art and design work for Symantec, BullSpec Magazine, Shared Worlds and RDS Press. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he runs Tenno Art House.

You can find some very cool coverage of Wonderbook in the form of a preview at FastCreate and a lengthy interview at B&N Review. In addition, Wonderbook is a Amazon.com October selection, and a selection of several other prominent booksellers and media outlets. Writers can enter this contest about getting the end of the journey at Booklifenow.com (worldwide; includes Booklife too) to win a copy.

Here’s an interview between me and Zerfoss that gives you a little bit of a sense of the scope and approach of the project…

Jeff VanderMeer: When you first emailed me, did you ever imagine it would result in a book collaboration?

Jeremy Zerfoss: I had no idea. It was just a really horrible, crappy time of my life and I randomly thought—well, why don’t I just send him some artwork of mine that’s suitably creepy and maybe he’ll get a kick out of it. Even just receiving a reply blew my mind at the time. I yelled a bit to my parents about it, all excited yah know.

Jeff: I remember how I’d been searching for new art, a new approach for our Cheeky Frawg e-books and also just in general, wanting something that had more of a pop-art feel but with depth and weirdness. I clicked on the link you sent thinking it’d be the usual crap, and was blown away….So, we did work on some smaller projects before this one, but nothing that could prepare anybody for Wonderbook..How would you describe the process of working on Wonderbook?

Jeremy: Right out the gate it was a huge honor of course, to even be considered. But it was crazy, in a good and frustrating way. First of all, nothing was set in stone and the book and the projects and art were constantly evolving, depending on your ideas and at times my input or thoughts. I’d get these crazy emails from you to STOP RIGHT NOW DO THIS OMG! It was very chaotic and fun and horrifying. It felt like a wolverine trying to mate with a tornado… we shotgunned quite a few emails back and forth.

Jeff: Do you think it could’ve been a more efficient process?

Jeremy: At times, yes. If I wasn’t juggling a 9-5 at the same time and had a bit more time to focus on long projects it would have gone smoother—working with you was an experience worth noting, both fun and exasperating in differing degrees. I’m sure it was mutual, h aha. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything though—I liked what we were doing. I think we needed to do more phone calls, but our schedules hampered that.

Jeff: And I felt every time we had a phone call that it didn’t work, just ‘cause I hate phone calls. And then your gmail would do what gmail does and disorganize everything. What did you enjoy the most…and the least?

Jeremy: What I liked best was getting these, just…whack-a-doo sketches and getting a chance to do new styles and techniques and concepts I would have never thought of. I still think every sketch should get put into a book on its own—call it Blunderbook: Or How I Learned to Trust My Gut. I really liked nailing a concept or maybe adding my own spin and we’d just go back and forth about how great Wonderbook was going to be—the times where you and I were ‘wonderbookin’.

What I liked least was the times where I just could not get. The. Damn. Art. Correct. I was stressed, you were stressed…setbacks. There were times where I felt so down because I couldn’t get the gold out of the mountain. I never gave up though, and I’m glad you never gave up on me.

Jeff: I loved the fact you just kept going with every nutso idea that came down the pipes—and then out of the blue would come up with something like the image that became the cover. So that was fun.

Jeremy: Getting all sorts of funny postcards is a hoot, but mainly you will work through issues and yer flexible to suggestions. Yer one hell of a cheerleader as well.

Jeff: I thought for sure you’d say it was ‘orrible. Was there ever a point when you just wanted to walk away?

Jeremy: At no point did I ever want out of the gig, but there were quite a few times I felt out of my league, both in my skills and my handling of your ideas, those moments when creating both the layout and the art started to really hamper each other—I was bummed that I had so little experience in some areas, and had to do quite a lot of emergency studying to even understand the systems I was working through. I did quite a bit of, uh… loud creative discourse with you (in spirit) when you’d change your mind on something. I should have recorded myself. Mostly I was just really frustrated with my own foibles.

Jeff: I’m sure I cursed you a few times, but not in any sense other than how family does, if that makes sense. Seriously, though, why didn’t you walk away?

Jeremy: I was having too much fun—regardless of how bad it seemed at times. I knew it was a big opportunity and I really wanted to be a part of it. Quitting wasn’t an option in my mind.

Jeff: Was there one illustration that was tougher than all the rest? Why?

Jeremy: That cover, hands down—which was also the first step we took and the one that hit me hardest right off the bat. At the risk of sounding like a dope, all I ever draw on my own time is usually desert flora, so when you wanted this lush, verdant jungle the first thought in my head was, “Trees?! I don’t know how to draw —— trees!” I still don’t—I kept looking at these simple friggin’ drawings online and just ramming my head in to a wall. We went through so many false starts for weeks—I had horrible artist block for a month; you even got really worried for a time, which made it worse, ha ha.

Jeff: I was worried, but I was worried mostly that I had gone down the wrong path, that I was trying to force something, which is never a good idea, But I didn’t have another idea for the cover, so when you came up with the whale, that kind of made everything come into focus. Besides the cover, what else gave you the most satisfaction?

Jeremy: The evolution of the author piece because I learned a new way of doing art I had never really done—most the details are invisible but I’m really proud of those two. That was when this project clicked in my head and I felt that maybe, just maybe I could do this justice.

Jeff: What did you think when you finally held the book in your hands?

Jeremy: It felt so surreal. Just weird. I remember chatting to you about it and we both were going on about how weird it was to be done finally, two years or so of work. Mainly I was proud—it really turned out amazing, and people have been so into it already.

Jeff: Would you ever work with me again?

Jeremy: Aren’t I at this very moment? Of course! I almost threw yer gift basket onto an effigy though – “Burn the VanderMan! Arggggghhhh!”

Jeff: LOL! Is there anything else you held back from telling me during the process of working on Wonderbook?

Jeremy: There were definitely some points where I just wanted to vent, but I’m the kind of person who tends to forget they’re miffed, and then I forget that I was miffed to begin with. I’m pretty sure there were a few days where I just said, “Screw it!”, and played Battlefield III, or just went and read a book. I’ll admit I should have maybe brought up that working a job on a computer all day and then going home to work another 8 hours on the book was getting to me, but hey, what’s a few 48 hour straight non-sleeps, really? Conversation starters! Oh and one day I rebelled and just got totally drunk, but that ended up culminating in one of the better pieces for Wonderbook – I was wonderbookin’.

Trackbacks

  1. […] 2. Wonderbook This came out last week from Jeff VanderMeer, it’s an excellent illustrated writing guide, which I’m slowly reading through (and trying to follow the writing exercises). Here are a couple of interesting interviews about the book: Interview with Jeff VanderMeer Interview with artist Jeremy Zerfoss […]