The Song of Lewis Carmichael by Sofie Laguna, illustrated by Marc McBride
Author and illustrator interview with Sofie Laguna and Marc McBride
“The Song of Lewis Carmichael is written by Sofie Laguna with pictures by her husband Marc McBride, who is well-known for illustrating Emily Rodda’s best-selling Deltora Quest series. Sofie Laguna is equally acclaimed. She won the Miles Franklin award for her literary fiction for adults, The Eye of the Sheep. The synergy of ideas, words and illustrations in The Song of Lewis Carmichael comes from a collaborative shared vision. Together, they have created a contemporary classic.
Elements of the tale are allusive and open to multiple interpretations. Is Matthew dreaming his adventure, how does time change during his journey, and what happens to Lewis Carmichael at the end of the story?
This is a story, not just for the child who loves adventure, but for the child who is a little different, who is unsure about taking risks, who lacks confidence or who is unappreciated. The crow is challenged by a broken wing. Matthew might be neurodivergent, or he may be a sensitive, creative dreamer. The Song of Lewis Carmichael is a tale to read and re-read. It is empowering for all who open its pages and step inside.”
(The introduction to The Song of Lewis Carmichael above comes from my teacher notes on the book at the Allen & Unwin website. See link to these notes at the end of this interview.)
Author and Illustrator Interview
Sofie Laguna and Marc McBride have answered my questions with great beauty and insight below.
To SOFIE –
Why have you featured a balloon?
The early stages of writing a story, for me, are quite loose. As an idea or symbol arrives on the page, I will test it out, deciding later if it’s something I want to develop further. And that was how the balloon came into the story. I’m not conscious of my attraction to hot air balloons, but I think it’s there in my unconscious. There was a hot air balloon in my first novel for adults, One Foot Wrong, very briefly. What a delight it was, to escape in that balloon with Matthew. To see the night from its warm wicker basket, the gorgeous silk above. It was my way of being there too, on an adventure, yet feeling safe, guided.
Why have you intertwined the symbol of the moon with the balloon?
The process of writing a story is playful. I didn’t know I would play with the idea of a moon inside the balloon. But it happened. Imagine it! The moon illuminating the coloured silk. Mathew was responding to the beauty of the moment – it captured his imagination. As it does throughout the book – he sees it in the amber eyes of the wolf, in the wings of the eagle, in the antlers of the reindeer. He is open, yearning for change, for the pleasure of being alive.
Why a song? What is the importance, the essence of the song?
Songs can be played and sung and heard over and over. Lewis’s song for Matthew is one the boy must internalise – one that tells him he matters, he is unique, that he has much to offer. As it is for all of us. Lewis’s song provides the thread that weaves its way through their shared adventure. Life is a pleasure, there is reason to trust, to enjoy, to risk. It will be alright. Lewis sings to encourage his friend, to gently affirm him, to remind him he is enough
How difficult was it to decide whether to write this story for children or adults?
I knew from the start this was a story for children – the idea began to form about five years ago. I had pictures in my mind – of polar bears both fierce and kind, of wolves in their den, of geese carrying magical threads in their beaks. I saw a land of ice, breaking apart, cracks in patterns. I imagined a boy in search of a baby, troubled by its haunting cry. I remember sharing these ideas with my husband – we were excited all the way back then, by the prospect of Marc illustrating this not-yet-written book. We discussed the work of Escher, particularly, ‘Sky and Water’ and how it might relate to the story.
This story told a child’s world. I knew the perimeters of the book from the beginning, I knew its territory. The difference for me, between writing for children and adults, is only a question of content. The principles are the same: character, language, structure, rhythm, story. But if the story is for children it won’t compromise a child’s safety. Stories for children must take care of their readers in a different way to stories for adults. Adults have the resources to manage significant struggle. When I write for adults I am not restricted by that kind of responsibility. But at the very same time, every single creative work is a set of restrictions. It’s about deciding what they will be. And working within that chosen set. I know I am contradicting myself – but the nature of writing seems to me to be highly contradictory. Like characters!
Your writing for children and adults is of equally high quality. How similar or different is writing for adults and children?
Really, the work comes from the same place. It’s all a privilege, and in its own sometimes-difficult way, a joy. Easy to say once the work is complete! Sometimes it’s a slog! But The Song of Lewis Carmichael was a very rewarding story to inhabit – because of the wilderness it describes, and because it was a world where a bird could speak.
Why do your novels for adults have vulnerable child protagonists?
Perhaps I am giving voice to the vulnerable aspects of my own psyche. But I’m not sure about that. I do think everyone is vulnerable – and I suspect I am addressing that part in all of us. My characters often perceive themselves as marginalized. Different. But don’t we all carry that feeling inside of us? It’s a tricky question to answer, because I tend to just write what I feel like writing. For pleasure and release. And my characters are often outsiders. Eccentrics. Labelled as ‘other’. Kept away from the rest. But I don’t make any concrete decisions about that – it’s a theme that continues to insist.
Is there a particular reason why you chose the names Lewis Carmichael and Matthew Zajac?
I wanted the bird to be named something quite formal. The kind of names that I saw as ordinary and sensible when I was a child. Anglo-Saxon, like my schoolteachers. Matthew’s surname is Polish – as am I. My father is Polish. I know that both he and my mother felt like outsiders when they first came to Australia from Europe, after the second world war. They were children, English was not their first language, and both struggled in different ways.
The story begins with the illustration of the boy, Matthew Zajac, who is reading in bed. How have you channelled his love of books as a portal into the story?
Matthew’s fascination is really for The Arctic, and books – real paper books – allow him to get closer to it than another other medium. He can literally run his hands over the pictures, staring right into the eyes of the wolf while learning how it lives. Books allow him to enter this icy world, leaving his own world behind. And Matthew has access to books day and night. I imagine Matthew’s parents might limit screen time, but they don’t bother to remove from Matthew his pile of library books. He bonds with each book, considering the lives of the explorers and scientists who wrote them, dreaming that one day it might be him.
Which of Marc’s illustrations is your favourite and why?
I love so many of them. But I always come back to page 110, in Chapter 11, when Matthew faces the polar bear. I love the sky and the stars, the hungry bear, and Matthew, showing both fear and wonder.
To SOFIE and/or MARC –
Who decided it would be a good idea to collaborate on a book? How did you decide on the story and form? How did your collaboration work?
Who decided it would be a good idea to collaborate on a book?
Five years ago, on a beach in Bali, Sofie began talking about a story of a boy who travels to the North Pole in a balloon with a bird. Maybe it was because I was on a tropical beach but I was transported to my school days reading Jules Verne’s Mysterious island. I loved that book about prisoners who escape by balloon to an unchartered Pacific island! I really wanted to illustrate it- but it was some time before I got the opportunity!
How did you decide on the story and form?
I started working on the book in late February of this year. I thought I’d be sketching a couple of chapter headings and maybe, if I was lucky, a couple of full pages. I couldn’t believe it when Allen and Unwin told me to ‘just go for it!’ I did as many pictures as I could over six weeks. I wished I’d started it earlier to include more drawings but looking back I think it’s the right amount.
How did your collaboration work?
I read the story and wrote down illustration potentials. Sofie did the same. We chose many similar scenes, so the choice was easily.
Why the North, rather than South, Pole?
The North Pole gave me the animals I wanted to describe – polar bears, snowy owls and walruses.
How have you suggested/implied the fantastic and imagined in this book?
Over the years I’d sketched scenes from our talk on the beach, just for fun. They were drawings of a balloon over huge ice capped mountains. I couldn’t use any of them. I thought it was important to represent the Arctic as realistic. Lewis and Polar bear I gave a fantasy feel to show the emotion in their faces.
There are also fantasy elements in the town where Matthew lives. It has a story book feel. The houses are urban but there’s the river and trees where children play.
Which, if any, other writers and artists have influenced you while creating this work?
When I was a child, about nine years old, I read a book called ‘Una and Grubstreet’, by Prudence Andrew. The story is about a lonely girl, Una, who finds a lost baby she believes is neglected. Una is guided by her friend, a little wooden bear that speaks to her, called Grubstreet. The novel has stayed with me all my life. I realise as I write this, it has had a direct influence on me. But each time I go to purchase the book for myself I decide it’s too expensive! How ridiculous. I need to have that book in my hands again.
I have so many artists I love from Ralph Steadman to Edward Ardizzone. I particularly like classic book illustrators from the 19th Century.
Perhaps the biggest influence on this book was on a school tour earlier this year when I was lucky enough to spend time with the illustrator Leigh Hobbs. Leigh has an extraordinary knowledge of art. I showed him a couple of sketches and he immediately told me where to leave space and remove detail to create more of a focal point. I tend to get carried away with detail and sometimes overwork my pictures!
How would you guide children to be strong and brave, like Matthew becomes?
Take risks, that includes pushing back, even if the adults you need to push back against are your parents. Sometimes even your teachers. I know that’s a lot to ask of a young person. But I want my children to speak up for themselves, find words for their pain and share them. That’s the tool of a lifetime. If you can do that, and be heard, you’re going to be able to have relationships that work. You’re going to know your boundaries. I want that for my kids. For all kids. Relationships that work.
Sometimes it appears our own unique abilities let us down, they can seem a hindrance. We need to trust our own journey and realise that if we never fail we never learn.
TO MARC –
You used 2 B pencil and Adobe Photoshop – how does this process work?
Our babysitter was studying animation and told me about something called a Cintiq. It’s basically an extra monitor that connects to your computer allowing you to draw directly onto the screen. A year or so ago I would have drawn this book with a few different sized ink pens and paper. Using photoshop makes it a lot easier changing the composition and erasing is much cleaner! Perhaps I can compare it to using a typewriter compared to a computer for writing.
I also discovered you can make your own digital pencil- you can get the exact tone of grey and rough or smooth texture as you desire. I designed my perfect pencil but to this day I don’t know how to save it, my computer skills are quite basic! Every time I shut down my computer I have to redesign my pencil again and it’s never the same! You might notice the pencil lines change in all my drawings! I don’t mind this as I’m quite chaotic and experimental with my art. The blue ink makes all my inconsistencies more forgiving!
How did you decide which pages to illustrate?
Between us both it was easy finding the right scenes to draw.
How have you created texture and contrasted light and dark?
Thank you for saying that. Light is one of the five elements of visual language and, along with colour, perhaps the most expressive. Light is where modern art begins- the Impressionists saw how a landscape appears different depending on the position of the sun. The Post Impressionists took it further abstracting what they saw and using colour to express how they felt about a landscape or object.
I don’t always get it right but I try to use light and shadow in my pictures to create atmosphere. I’m a fan of the silent era horror movies. Often a face was made to look scary purely by the direction of the light, usually from below. Light is also how we distinguish the shape of things, one side is light the other dark with tones in-between.
Are your illustrations all unframed because of the quote on p96 (In the novel Matthew thinks that “Every picture in his books had been limited by the size of the page, contained within frames. Here [in the Arctic] the picture didn’t end …”)? What effect have you created with unframed illustrations here?
It’s funny you say that because I do believe the pictures in a book extend past the frame. Books require more from the reader than watching a movie. Rather than just observing someone else you enter other people’s minds in a book. There are three creators of an illustrated book- the author, illustrator and reader. A reader marries the pictures and words together and creates in their imagination the spaces in between, that area outside the page is the readers creation.
How were you able to show the Northern Lights as animals? (p124)
The Northern lights page is a result of my love of detail. Drawing on computer allowed me to zoom in close to sketch the changing light. On the printed page it looks quite smooth but if you look in close you might be horrified to see how many lines I drew! It was an opportunity for me to literally fill up the page trying to create light effects!
Did you long to break out into colour?
I did long to break into colour but I was glad to avoid the struggle! I usually end up with at least twenty versions of a painting, all quite similar, but slightly different colours. I can get lost down the rabbit hole- that’s the problem with computer art, it allows you an infinite range of colours!
Working in black and white is so much faster, there’s less to get right and for me it’s easier to emerge myself in the story. I know when a line drawing is finished and can start the next one without that niggling feeling of doubt. I did about three drawings a day without much struggle.
How did you show colour through black and white?
The indigo ink was the editor Elise Jones’s idea. Despite being monochrome, it gives a strong feeling of colour. The team at Allen and Unwin were amazing. They have a reputation for art (as well as their books of course)- you just have to look at the amazing illustrators they publish! This is the first time I feel my artwork looks better on the page than on my easel or computer screen!
Which of Sofie’s word pictures particularly unleashed your creativity or imagination?
Funny enough my favourite is the very last page, a simple picture that captures a lot of emotion. It’s not that an image of a bird messily drinking from a cup is my best work but it’s the way it appears in the book. Again, this was Elise’s idea. I learnt a lot from this book about the space around the picture being just as important as the image. The space around it and position of the image creates a lot of emotion in that final page.
The Song of Lewis Carmichael at Allen & Unwin
My review of The Song of Lewis Carmichael in the Weekend Australian (11th September 2021, subscription required)
My teacher notes about The Song of Lewis Carmichael at Allen & Unwin
Additional activity to be used in conjunction with the M.C. Escher Sky and Water activity from the teacher notes at A&U (NB At the time of writing the teacher notes, I didn’t know that Sofie was influenced by Escher’s Sky and Water but I was reminded of his work, Day and Night, because of the transformation of the birds and also the patchwork landscape in The Song of Lewis Carmichael):
Birds in the novel and in M.C. Escher’s artwork Day and Night
View Marc McBride’s illustrations of the birds on pages 173,177 and 178 in The Song of Lewis Carmichael and read page 176.
Compare and contrast them with what is happening in M.C. Escher’s artwork, Day and Night. This work shows a patchwork landscape with day on the left and night on the right. White birds fly to the right from the centre of the landscape into the night and black birds fly left into the daylight.
View M.C. Escher’s Day and Night at the NGV https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/support-us/day-and-night-acquisition/
After viewing illustrations from the novel and Escher’s Day and Night, students adapt Escher’s form and style to design their own interpretation of what happens to Lewis Carmichael. This could possibly show a black crow turning into a white snow goose or something else. Students’ landscape backgrounds will represent the Arctic, possibly from the book’s written description on page 176, from the illustration on page 130 where the “ocean was a patchwork of ice and seawater” or from another scene in the novel.