Despite being a self-described “late bloomer” in entering the art world, Jeffrey Alan Love has created some incredibly distinctive work—from painting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beowulf for The New Yorker to illustrating Tor.com Originals and Tor.com Publishing novellas. You’ve likely noticed his work on Yoon Ha Lee’s “Combustion Hour” and Andy Remic’s Song for No Man’s Land trilogy (both of which he provides fascinating process posts for). Now, Love is releasing his first book: Notes from the Shadowed City, a fictional travelogue filled with the sketches made by the main character exploring a fantastical world. Here’s the elevator pitch:
An amnesiac finds himself in a strange city over which floats an ominous citadel. The only clue he has to his identity is a journal which leads him to believe he was traveling to research lesser-known magical swords. As the years pass in this strange land he writes and draws his experiences in the journal in the hopes of rediscovering himself and returning home. But then he falls in love.
Love took to Reddit’s r/fantasy to discuss the book, in particular how these strange and compelling drawings inspired the accompanying text.
Love talks about how the art came first, with the story growing out of images with surprising links:
tonymcmillenauthor: I really loved Notes from the Shadowed City, it was lyrical and dark and really nailed what it feels like to move somewhere new. How did you develop the story? I know you have a lot of common mythic images in your work, horns, swords etc, did you create a story to work around these reoccurring images in your work or did the story come first?
JAL: The story started as individual paintings in my sketchbook. After I painted one a line or two of text would suggest themselves to me and I’d write it down. It was only after I had about 30 or so that I saw that I could use them as a framework to create a larger story (one that I had subconsciously been telling myself already). So the overall book came about by setting myself up with these moments and then trying to figure out how to give enough information/story between them to make the whole feel complete and not just a random series of paintings. It wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized I was telling a story about myself (growing up I moved every three years or so, and always felt like an outsider searching for something magical in the world that will make me feel like I belong—a feeling that persists to this day.)
jjohansome: What was the inspiration behind Notes from the Shadowed City? What made you want to tell that specific story?
JAL: The honest answer is I broke my foot and had to spend a few weeks with my foot elevated and not moving around much. So I started doing these weird paintings in my sketchbook, and the story started to suggest itself. I think of it like Sergei Eisenstein’s uninflected images—the paintings were unrelated until they were put next to each other, and when I did that my brain couldn’t help but start to tell a story that linked them together. As the number of paintings grew, so did the story. It was only when the story was really formed and I could look back on it as a whole that I saw how it related to my own life and early childhood.
Phil_Tucker: You art is very striking and atmospheric—it evokes the best of Dave McKean and Barry Moser (I’m thinking his Divine Comedy work). Love it.
How did being able to add visual components change your approach to world building? Can you explain how you went about choosing what to depict so as to best convey your setting?
JAL: Thanks for the kind words. My approach to world building is the same as my approach to image-making—I ask myself “how much information is enough?” or “What can I get away with?” I try to just reach that edge and then quit. I’m not smart enough to construct an entire world beforehand so that it will have all the wonder and mystery and strangeness that I desire. I want it to hide parts of itself from me, to have shadows and blank spots on the maps marked with “here be dragons”. If I can give just enough so that the viewer/reader grabs onto it and takes it off into their own brain and makes it their own—that excites me. I guess it’s a bit like being a pantser or a plotter. Do you build the world beforehand that then builds the book, or does the book you write build the world? I think I tend towards the latter.
An excellent question that should show up in more illustrator AMAs:
jdiddyesquire: If you could redo one fantasy or science fiction cover in your style, which would you choose? And how would you reimagine it?
JAL: This is a tough one, because I’d like the opportunity to redo ALL OF THEM. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer. In addition to being one of my favorite books, and the one that really showed me how wide and varied the world of “fantasy” can be, I have been trying to convince someone to let me paint a black square as a solution, and the fuligin cloak would give me a lot of ammo to try and convince someone that a cover that was 99% black paint was the right choice.
Could the artist go all the way to the other end of the spectrum and just write?
PingerKing: Does either writing or image-making take precedence for your creative endeavors? Would you ever write a long-form novel with no pictures (‘cept maybe a cover I guess) or do you see your illustrations as essential to what you want to make?
JAL: So far image-making takes precedent, just in the fact that I’ve established myself as an illustrator and that is what pays the bills. I’m working towards doing both, but whereas in painting you can finish something in a day with a novel it takes a long time to get something ready for public consumption. Right now I’m writing every day, and the projects I’m working on for myself include an illustrated book and a graphic novel as well as a novel, but I have no idea which one of those horses will race out into the lead. Time will tell.
Grassteeth: Along the same lines as above: everyone says to focus on ONE thing and go for it. How did you decide it was ok to do both? I ask because I also want to do both (maybe combined, maybe separate) but I’m not sure if I can (or should). Also, I’m a late bloomer.
JAL: I could be the wrong person to turn to for advice on this, but I say why not? I could end up being like Michael Jordan giving up basketball (image-making) for baseball (writing) but I’ll never know until I try. And I bet Jordan had a lot of fun playing baseball while it lasted. With doubts about whether or not I should do something, or if I’m too old, I generally just assume that I have the talent/age/ability to do it – you’ll never plow a field by worrying over it in your mind. You have to just go out and do it. The worst that happens is you make something that isn’t good – but that’s the only way you learn to make something better. You can’t fix nothing.
Ketchersid: Love you work! Whats next?
JAL: Thanks! I’m doing over 100 paintings for an illustrated book of Norse Mythology right now, written by Kevin Crossley-Holland. I think it will be out next year from Walker Books. I’m also writing an illustrated book, a graphic novel or two, and a novel. Hopefully one of those will turn into my next personal project that is released.
Read the rest of the AMA for Love’s favorite artists and tips for illustrators looking to break in.