Interview by Tansy Rayner Roberts.
Kathleen Jennings is an illustrator and writer in Brisbane. She was raised on books on a cattle property in western Queensland, and practiced as a translator, lawyer, illustrator and writer before working out that was probably a few careers too many. Her art is on the cover of (and sometimes inside) books from publishers including Tor.com, Small Beer Press, Subterranean, Tartarus, Fablecroft and Ticonderoga, while her stories and comics have been included in publications such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and the Candlewick collections Steampunk! and Monstrous Affections. She has received several Ditmar awards for her art, fanart and writing, and is a three-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award for art. She can be found online at tanaudel.wordpress.com and as @tanaudel at all the usual locations.
This has been your Year Of No Day Job, allowing you to mostly focus on your art and writing. What have you been up to, and has it been everything you hoped?
I’ve been back at uni, beginning an MPhil in Creative Writing! It’s an illustrated project and I’m getting to explore the beautiful side of Australian Gothic literature. It’s also giving me a needed structure to the year! So far I’ve been concentrating on getting my feet under me after a long break from academia, but I have quite a few projects in the works and coming out – and of course I have to wait for the publishers to announce them.
The art is more visible, of course, but I am writing. There’s the novella, and a few weightier manuscripts in progress, as well as a growing pile of ‘orrible first drafts of picture books. When the pile begins to topple I will reach in at random and pick one to develop.
And then this six week trip to the USA, England, Iceland and Norway, which wasn’t a holiday, and which has given me so many new themes and textures and stories.
Tell me about Iceland! I know I should construct a proper question for this but really I just want to know all about your Iceland retreat! It’s exciting! Iceland!
Yes! It was a one week art retreat organised by Light Grey Art Lab, with 7 other artists plus the three from Light Grey. We’d go out for 8-10 hours everyday, climbing over rocks and behind waterfalls and down lava tubes, then come back and give each other workshops in the evening. It was a great group (you should check them all out:https://tanaudel.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/iceland/) and they worked us very hard.
The land itself felt so young. You could see the geology happening. It was like it had been recently terraformed. You can see why Verne started Journey to the Centre of the Earth there – the same reason our team got the theme to Jurassic Park stuck in our heads.
It was a fascinating mental exercise working out what to do with that newness, that relatively temporary and recent history of any people at all. Especially because my picture-and-story brain depends on movement and character, and I’d just come from Dartmoor where you can see what a volcanic landscape can get eroded down into, and what a Paleolithic society will do to it. They are opposite ends of a process, really – you could go from Thingvellir to Exeter and feel like Polly and Digory. It took me a while to like it, in fact, because I couldn’t quite parse it (don’t worry – eventually I liked it very much!).
And I will write more about this once I get home (I’m still in Oslo as I write this).
Well, there are – again – a few dim possibilities I can’t say much about. But I had so much fun working through Angela Slatter’s Bitterwood Bible manuscript and just drawing what I thought – very straightforward – and I’d love to be able to do that direct response to a book again. And maybe even the other way: illustrate a whole book and then give it to someone else to write.
Catherynne Valente and C. S. E. Cooney are some current writers whose stories resonate with me particularly, and with whom I’d like to do more.
I’d like to illustrate some classic works in the loosest and chattiest of my styles. Lately I’ve had the chance to illustrate a sequel to and a translation of two very loved childrens’ books (the first for Small Beer Press, more to come, and the second was Gobbolino, the Witches Cat for Utz Books), and I’m hooked. I want to illustrate Picnic at Hanging Rockand Cold Comfort Farm and I have at least three alternate readings for Pride and Prejudice, all of which I want to draw, so that may have to be something for my spare time (hah!). And maybe some Georgette Heyer, but she calls for such a degree of precision, whereas Austen is just, “a tree”, “a dress”. Who else, since I’m putting this out there: Joan Aiken, Dianna Wynne Jones, Patricia Wrightson.
Because my focus is often on story first, lately I keep thinking I’d like to illustrate Charles Vess or Alan Lee or Rovina Cai, and then remembering they are illustrators. There’s such a depth to how they think about story, when you look at their body of work or talk to them, that it feels like a door to a novel.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
I read Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy just after reading Burial Rites and My Antonia and rereading Tom Sawyer, which was an oddly suitable placement for it, because he managed to pull off a late-colonial coming-of-age-story but backwards, with vampires.
Rovina Cai’s illustrations are just enchanting. I love how she sees the world, or how it filters through onto her paper.
And Angela Slatter’s Vigil is now out, and she’s always working on new things which I sometimes get to see and draw in advance, so – watch this space!
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Jane Austen, because I keep finding out just how scathing and witty and kind she could be – also I’m pretty sure she would have a ball obliquely critiquing passengers on public transport.
Mike Mignola, because he sees even the shadowed world in very particular, simple, muscular, clear-cut ways in both his art and writing – but I’d want Guillermo del Toro to sit on the other side because he creates worlds that are so lush and foaming with weighty frivolity, and I’m fascinated by how well the two can work together and want to see that in action.
C. S. E. Cooney because she loves story so passionately, both when writing and talking, and Robin McKinley because they belong to the same part of my literary geography.