“There was a giant who stood on the shore of the sea.
She looked out across the water because that is what she had promised to do long, long ago.”
The Giant and the Sea by Trent Jamieson, illustrated by Rovina Cai (Lothian Children’s Books) is a significant multifaceted work. It is likely to become part of the canon of Australian picture books, sitting alongside works by Shaun Tan, Matt Ottley, Margaret Wild, Armin Greder and others.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Trent and Rovina.
(responses are by Trent unless otherwise stated)
You address the issue of climate change in The Giant and the Sea. How have you approached this?
I guess I have approached it as a kind of allegory or fable, but hopefully in a way that isn’t too heavy handed. As a fantasy writer you always start to worry if a work becomes too didactic. This is definitely a narrative approach to climate change, but I wanted it to be something with a definite emotional narrative arc, a sense of a world shifting, and how hard it might be for some to face up to that change.
Your giant is the pivotal character. Why have you used a giant and why have you created her as female? What does she represent, what is her role?
The giant was there before this was even a story. I like giants because they are big enough that they almost become the environment. I feel like Rovina has really captured that. Her giant is at once stony, and organic like a hillside, and a gnarled tree, but there is such motion amongst the stillness. It’s not just a very big human.
The giant was female because that’s what the story seemed to want, and a lot of the classic giants in children’s literature are masculine, and somehow monstrous, so I suppose I was working against that a little.
Getting back to what she represents, or her role, I guess, she is like the Ents in Lord of the Rings, a kind of grand and breathtaking element of nature. There is wisdom and deep time in her, and in her role watching the sea.
Rovina – how did you create the giant’s character and presence from Trent’s words?
When I first read the text, it seemed obvious that the giant should be tied to nature in some way. With that in mind, I designed the giant to look organic; made of rocks and other natural elements, as if she had just broken away from a seaside cliff or similar.
Trent – what delighted or surprised you about Rovina’s interpretation of the giant?
I adore Rovina’s artwork. I think what delighted me the most was that from the moment I saw what she had done it was exactly how it should have always been. Her giant is the giant, I don’t think I could imagine it any other way. I love the mixture of hard angles and flowing lines, this sense of great patience and stillness, and yet she is so alive the world flows around her.
It’s quite remarkable how the giant looks to me at once as solid as stone and as ethereal as a cloud.
Names often indicate something about a character but you have chosen not to give your characters names. Why is this and could you describe the relationship between your protagonists?
I don’t think I have ever written a book without character names: like most writers I spend quite a bit of time trying to get the right fit. But this felt more urgent without names. I guess you can put yourself in those characters.
As a fable you’re leaving much more space, in a way, for people to fill the story. The characters become symbols. The giant is patient and wise, the girl brave, the people fearful and angry. But, obviously, once you have a narrative, those elements all mix in, and it’s up to the reader to explore why those characters are those things.
I think this may be the most spacious story I have ever written, in that things which I would normally explore with more specificity I’ve left alone. Sometimes I think fables and fairy tales are less stories with a moral, but a mirror for the reader to look into and find their own truth.
Rovina – your landscapes evoke both beauty and bleakness. How did you achieve this?
The composition, colours, and shapes used play an important part. I think a lot about these things, and how an image makes you feel, when creating illustrations. My goal is to visually interpret not only what the text is saying, but the emotions behind them too.
Rovina – what is the significance of your endpapers?
Throughout the book I’ve used black ink splatters to represent pollution and things that are generally at odds with the natural landscape. I wanted the endpapers to hint at this, while remaining quite simple.
Trent – what tension between nature and human-built dwellings and machines have you amplified?
The tension that is always there. We live in a very delicate balance with the world, and one that our culture tends to centre humans as though we are not merely a strand in a vast and very intricate web of life. We prioritise a way of living that is harmful to the world. There is always going to be a tension between what we desire and what the world can give us, and what we take but shouldn’t. If the world calls us on this, and those who watch the health of the world call us on this, we need to think very carefully about our response.
What is of particular value in the girl’s new home?
Home is always important. To lose a home, to have a home taken from you is an apocalyptic thing. To lose the place where you are rooted and have grown up is to lose everything, even if you are given a substitute. But we are also a species of rebuilders, and in the new there is always hope.
The cyclic structure is beautiful. How important is this structure to your tale?
The structure is very important. I’m drawn to cycles because that is how I feel life works. Challenges are met and then new ones come along, sometimes even the same challenges again. I wanted a story that was open, that lead to discussion about deeper time. The reader can ask what happened? Why is the sea rising again? What’s going to happen next?
Your story has a gravitas and a momentous tone, but how have you incorporated some humour and lightness?
Well, the giant is accused of stealing everyone’s chocolate! Everyone chuckles when they get to that line. It’s the worst of all crimes.
Who is the Intended audience for The Giant and the Sea and what is your hope for this book?
Everyone who likes words and pictures. I’m terrible with intended audiences, I didn’t even know I had a picture book when I wrote much of the first draft. Really, my hope for the book is that it helps open the discussion around climate change a crack. This is a topic that we all need to be engaging in more. The sea is rising, but we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand.
It is exciting to hear that The Giant and the Sea has been optioned as a short movie. How are you involved in this?
I’m excited too, this is the first time that any of my work has been optioned. Like a Photon are an amazing company, and I’m sure that whatever they produce will be beautiful and powerful. I’m really excited to see how it develops.
Could you tell us a little about one or more of your other books or works, particularly something with a similar theme or style?
Trent – I’m a novelist who writes for adults. My favourite novel (though I love them all) is Day Boy, which is about a boy who works for a vampire in a small country town in a kind of post-apocalyptic Australia. The main character, Mark, gets into endless troubles, usually when he trying his best. It won two Aurealis Awards for best Fantasy, and Horror novel (and was short-listed for best YA) in 2015.
Rovina – Tintinnabula, written by Margo Lanagan, is another book I’ve illustrated that is similar in terms of how I approached the art. Though the subject matter is different, it also uses landscapes and colours to convey mood and emotion.
Trent – which writers or artists influence your work?
So many that I usually forget a chunk of them! So here’s some (there’s a few artists here, too).
Ursula Le Guin, Mervyn Peake (one of the great writer illustrators), Margo Lanagan, Marianne de Pierres, Mary Oliver (her poetry is amazing, so are her essays), Wendell Berry (I usually read one of his poems before I go to bed), Shaun Tan, J.R.R Tolkien, William Blake, Francisco Goya (really, I think his picture The Dog, as it’s often called, sums up so much of my work) and J.M.W Turner (he does storms and trains, and the furious nature of the world so wonderfully). Oh, and I adore Peter Carnavas’ picture books, The Quiet Girl and Blue Whale Blues are two of my favourites.
How can your readers contact you?
Through my website www.trentjamieson.com.au or Hachette Books.
Rovina’s website is https://www.rovinacai.com/
The Giant and the Sea is a sophisticated, important work. It may well be the Australian picture book of the year and deserves to be widely read, reviewed and recognised.