Friday, July 1, 2011

The Magic of Interpretation

During the Writers’ Festival recently I attended a session about picture books. I have no desire to write my own picture book at this stage, but I found the session interesting because of my artistic background.

I didn’t realise most authors don’t get to meet the illustrators of their books until the book launch. They don’t even discuss the book together one on one. Publishers will actively keep them apart because invariably what happens if they do get together is the illustrator will suggest the author change their text and the author will tell the illustrator to change their art.

Publishers don’t want them influencing each other because there is magic in the interpretation. The illustrator will gain so much more from the writer’s text than even the writer.

Likewise, everyone who reads our work will have their own interpretation of it. As writers we need to give our readers room to imagine. We don’t have to lay down every minute detail. We need to create mood and atmosphere, but the real magic happens in the reader’s mind.

What's been your experience of this phenomenon (picture books, movie adaptations, cover art etc)?


  1. I spoke briefly with the illustrator who did my cover art, but he asked most of the questions. So when I saw it the first time, it was a complete surprise. Fortuantely a good one!
    But I can imagine the conversation that would ensue if each started suggesting changes...

  2. I think that's true about the artist's interpretation of the words. If they're good at what they do, a good cover artist can come up with something so much more amazing than anything I might have conceptualized as a writer. Doesn't mean I wouldn't want to give my opinion, though. :P

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  4. I know it's bad, but I do judge a book by its cover. I mean, who doesn't love a gorgeous cover?? As far as interpretation, I think you put it well, Lynda. This made me think of the music artist Seal. A long while back, a reporter asked him why he doesn't put his lyrics inside the cd cover. His response was something to the effect of, "because I want each individual to interpret my music as they will, in a way which reaches into their soul."

    So, I believe it is safe to say we, as writers, feel the same way about our books. How often does a reader tell you, "Oh my gosh, I looooved it when yous said !" And you think... Really? To each his own, right? :)

  5. I'd never let someone illustrate my book without my extreme control and surveillance :)
    But believe it or not, even we translators usually don't have any contact with the writers, which is even more shocking and weird and unexpected.
    But then again, some of the writers I did have contact with were extremely snobbish and pompous and I was tempted to ruin their work while translating it deliberately but I'm not naughty enough to do that :)

  6. Alex, I'm curious to know if the artist read your book before he did the cover or did he base the cover on that brief discussion?

    L G Smith, even though I have that artistic background I think I'd prefer to leave it up to another artist because they will discover that extra dimension.

    Alyssia, I think we all do that. I know I do. And that's exactly it. Well said.

    Dezzy, If I liked an artist's style and skill, then I think I'd be ok to let go control (not that I'd have much choice). It is surprising you don't get any contact with authors when you're translating. And yes, it's a shame some writers get that way :(

  7. I have absolutely no idea about the productions side of picture books but I do know I absolutely ADORE The Gruffalo!! Awwwwwwwwwww!! How cute is the Gruffalo??!! Yay for artistic freedom and interpretation! Take care

  8. Lynda, I think he read part of it, enough to get a sense for the spaceships. Not exactly how I imagined the Cosbolts, but somehow better. If my manuscript is accepted, I hope the next cover is just as awesome.

  9. I've heard the same thing - no contact. But I did meet a writer who was asked, and she said the illustrator didn't listen anyway. I've heard several authors say the pictures came out like they'd pictured (ha) or better than they could've imagined.

  10. I can't draw a stick figure you can recognize so letting someone else do it would be ok. Do you have any say later if you don't like the work?

  11. This is totally news to me, and really fascinating. I always pictured the author and illustrator as a collaborative unit. Wow. I could see how that could really go either way--joy or disappointment at the big reveal.

  12. Cool point! I always notice in a book when I can't picture anything in my mind, and the books where I get such vivid images. It's amazing what our brains can do with a few words!

  13. I didn't know that! I guess interpretation is magical. :)

  14. I love this...
    I have written a chapter book and left on sub story up in the air... I'm getting mixed crits back on it.. some what to know ... others come to their own conclusion...
    Yep I love to read and be allowed to interpret.

  15. I guess it was after my first book, and I started getting reviews and comments from readers. I was amazed at what I realized, people actually got things I had not thought about when I was writing.

  16. Old Kitty, hehe. We all have our favourites. Mine is an old Aussie one called Possum Magic.

    Alex, what do you mean IF your ms is accepted? ;)

    Theresa, that would be a common thing, I think.

    Giggles, I think the publisher gets the final word, so technically, no.

  17. I never got to interact with the artist who designed my cover art, but I was extremely pleased with the result :-)

  18. Sarah, The author is shown the art along the way and I believe the publisher makes them feel like they get a say but it all goes through the publisher's channels.

    Alexia, yes, exactly

    Madeline, it is indeed

    Michelle, ha, that's really interesting.

    Myne, yes, I love it when that happens.

  19. Samantha, yes, it's a great cover. I love it :)

  20. Hi Lynda - I agree with you that we as writers need to give our readers room to imagine. We as readers are our own illustrators of the story we are reading. Even if it is not a picture book that we are reading. We each have our own visualization of what is going on in the story. It is amazing how the writers and illustrators craft such wonderful picture books.

  21. Hi, Lynda,

    Well I'm on both ends of this coin... I write and I illustrate. My first novel I illustrated the cover and the inside chapters. It's an m/g fantasy. Who knows better that the author what the characters or places look like.

    I am such a freak about imagery, that I don't know how I'll handle it when someone else designs my cover. My second novel is an edgy Y/A contemporary. I have a picture in my head but I haven't designed the cover yet... The publisher will most likely have other ideas, and I'm uncomfortable just thinking about it.

    Theoretically I think it's a good idea to keep authors and illustrators apart, but it for me personally.... I'd have to adjust...

  22. Lynda...though I prefer to call my books, books with illustrations and not Picture Books, I never met the illustrator at all. I was just asked my opinion about the kind of illustrations I wanted by my publisher and they chose the illustrator. She has done a wonderful job.

  23. I know! That was the most interesting thing I learned about PBs, even though I don't write them. But I really respect those that can!

  24. I like to give readers room to imagine, as well as challenge what they thik they already know? Don't we all like that, I know I do?
    And even though we may write X, so much is down to interpretation like you say that they may actually read X as Y.

  25. Yes, the real magic truly does happen in the readers' minds. I remember a scene in one of my works where I pictured Kevin Spacy as one of my characters. A reader wrote about that scene, describing the same character as a "sort of Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain." And you know, at the point we stop writing and the reader starts reading, that book is more theirs than ours, so that's OK.

  26. Wow, u kinda just blew my mind. I had no idea, thanks for the info:)

  27. I never got to meet the illustrator of my picture book, but I love her folk-art style and was pleased with her work. I've heard of cover art that was way off the mark so it was evident that the illustrator never read the book, and the authors were quite upset. That's interesting that the publishers don't want the author and illustrator interacting. I can see how it might open a can of worms. I agree that the magic is in the interpretation.

  28. I was worried about what the cover of my memoir would be. But in my case, it was easy. Since the book was about "real" people, they wanted pictures. But of course I didn't have any control over how they used them. Fortunately, it turned out well; I was pleased when I saw the cover, and let out a sigh of relief!
    Ann Best, Memoir Author

  29. I'm sometimes baffled by what my crit partners read in my stories ... stuff I never intended. I give the artists I work with full creative license. It works out best that way.

  30. Huh, I never thought about like that, but it makes perfect sense. Honestly, little kids are so creative they don't even needs words or pictures. There was one series I 'read' as a kid about Carl the dog, but it didn't have any writing, just pictures.

    I loooved it~.

  31. Wow, really? That's fascinating! It makes sense and I bet the magic does come out in the interpretation, but I would never ahve thought of it.

    I remember at primary school our librarian read us a fantastic book called Drac and the Gremlin (a picture book) with the cover hidden under brown paper, and didn't show us the illustrations. We all thought it was about an amazing fantasy adventure--then she showed us the two kids having that adventure in their garden, wearing home-made armour. Brilliant!

    Really sorry I missed the Childrens and YA Lit Festival -- that would have been worth a trip to Sydney for!

    I'm back from holidays (obviously) with exciting news!

  32. My goodness, it never occurred to me that an illustrator might suggest a change in the text. In my case, I just told her the three themes I wanted the cover to reflect, and the result was fine.

  33. Maeve, it is amazing isn't it :)

    Michael, yeah, I'm the same. With an artistic background, I have an image in my head for my book cover but I have to leave it up to the publisher.

    Rachna, In Australia we call those chapter books. That is, books for the young reader that include illustrations. Picture books are more for children who can't read yet.

    Lisa, yep, I think write a PB requires more skill than most think.

    D U Okonkwo, yes exactly

    Mohamed, it's a wonderful thing when a reader take ownership of a story because it means we did our job right.

  34. Mark, hehe

    LynNerd, yes, sometimes the author doesn't like the illustrator's work. When that happens we have to trust the publisher.

    Ann, yes, you should be pleased. Your cover is great and reflects your memoir perfectly.

    M Pax, it IS amazing isn't. That's also why it's good to have more than one crit partner too.

    McKenzie, kids do have wonderful imaginations.

    Amie, a HUGE congrats to you!!!!! Your news is fantastic!!

    Bob, glad to hear you were happy with the result :)


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