Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart (2009)
This is the second interview I did with writer Paul Stewart and artist/political cartoonist Chris Riddell. The first was in 2003, when I visited the pair at Riddell’s home in Brighton.
2003 was a catastrophic year for Brighton pier, with a fire and a collapse and the final decision not to rebuild. The day before I arrived, there was a storm and further parts had fallen away. I saw the impressive wreckage, besieged by a wild, foam-topped sea, a fantastic, apocalyptic sight, and an apposite visual metaphor for the way I was feeling at the time. This earlier occasion was the last interview I did for SFX, as I was shortly to leave for White Dwarf. I recall feeling a little sad on the day, as if an era were passing. Right now, about to leave Somerset for the second time, this memory feels especially pertinent.
An era was of course passing but there have been a few more since. That’s the thing about life, new parts come along one after the other, until all of a sudden they don’t anymore.
Anyway, this second interview was conducted via phone in 2009, not long before Death Ray closed its doors.
Postcard from the Edge
One of the greatest modern sagas of modern children’s literature, the Edge Chronicles, comes to a thrilling climax with The Immortals. Co-creators Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell tell us why they are abandoning life on The Edge.
The alliance between political cartoonist Chris Riddell (see his work in the Observer) and children’s author Paul Stewart has born some impressive fruit. They met waiting for their kids to finish school, mutual friends suggested they work together, a post-publishing party train ride home sealed the deal. 12 years on Riddell and Stewart’s partnership is still going strong. Their The Edge Chronicles concludes with the tenth volume, The Immortals, but they have other irons in the fire.
The Edge books are set on a massive wedge of rock that just out into an unplumbable void. Mostly covered in deep, dangerous forest, the Edge nevertheless harbours pockets of civilisation as well as various tribes of tricksy goblins and a whole host of unusual fantasy creatures. The chronicles detail hundreds of years of the Edge’s history, alighting here and there on different limbs of the same family tree. Harry Potter stand aside; the Edge’s wild invention is far more intriguing.
Death Ray: What made you guys click as a duo?
Chris Riddell: I think we both wanted to do books that were a little bit different. When we started, the books for the age group that we were working for tended not to be illustrated. We wanted to put that right.
Paul Stewart: I think that there was a perception by publishers that it made books look childish. Even when we were coming up with The Edge, the publishers said ‘Ooh, it mustn’t look childish, otherwise kids will feel that they are being patronised.’ But I said, ‘No Chris’s drawings won’t look childish, they will be as violent as the text!’
DR: What do illustrations add to a story?
CR: You don’t want to just describe the action visually, you’ve got to bring something else to the mix. What we’ve tried to do with the Edge Chronicles is give it a sort of visual style that compliments the text but doesn’t get in the way. I sometimes feel more akin to a set designer or someone working on a feature film than I do a traditional illustrator.
PS: If and when the Edge Chronicles do become a film, they’ll have no excuse not to make them look absolutely perfect, they’ve got all the illustrations there telling them what every character and every setting should be like.
DR: Traditionally, I imagined an illustrator to get a book and draw some pictures. You don’t work together like that, do you?
PS: Well, that’s how I fondly thought it would be! But Chris had lots of ideas of his own. Almost from the very start we sat down and worked out plot and character, sometimes based on bits of writing, sometimes based on illustrations that turned up in Chris’s sketchbooks.
CR: It’s sometimes nice to reverse that traditional process where the writer writes something and gives the illustrator the task of illustrating it. That sort of sets us on quite odd trains of thought, and I think collaboration is always about that, veering off in a surprising direction.
PS: I remember in one scene I said ‘he’s put in prison’. Chris drew this little picture, but instead of it being a room with bars, it was a ledge that jutted out into a vast atrium and so immediately, just from that little sketch, that threw it back on me. What sort of prison is this? The plot was driven by Chris’s interpretation of a simple word.
DR: There’s no magic in The Edge, despite it being very fantastical. Why?
CR: The fun in fantasy is trying to explain how something might work, without recourse to the supernatural, because of course it will work if it’s magic! It’s much more fun to say this is a sort of parallel world, but it’s got to have its own rules.
PS: Magic seems a bit convenient unless it goes wrong, so we had this alternative scientific, physical element [the floating rock, Phrax] to the world and everything, the economy, politics, stems from that.
CR: I like stepping aside and saying, okay, if there things like flying ships which use floating rocks, then there must be a trade in floating rocks, there must be people who deal with them, and there must be trade routes and monopolies, and people challenging those monopolies. You get into the arcane sometimes, but it does give you a great backdrop in which to play out the stories.
PS: It’s lovely as well how throughout the writing we’ve had lots of feedback. One comment was that there were lots of predators, but not much prey. So I addressed that in the next book, we had great herds of tilda migrating through the Deepwoods. There was another where someone said, ‘How does the sun rise? This is an Edge.’ This was in fact a fifty year-old in the audience and I thought it was a bit cheeky him even asking! But anyway we’ve dealt with even that now in book ten. The whole thing is, I hope, totally logically consistent.
CR: Book ten addresses a lot the of questions that we’ve been asked over the years.
DR: Surely it must be a bit of wrench to you coming away from this?
CR: Well, in a way it is not. The world exists and for our readers the stories will continue in their imaginations. I always liked the notion of something finite, the series of books that have an arc.
PS: We didn’t want it to be one of those series that just goes on and on. However, that said, we haven’t quite been able to leave it alone because we are just about to start posting a goblin blog on the web.
CR: And that is really both therapy for us, because we were fighting withdrawal symptoms, and the other thing is it’s to reward the readers who stuck with us.
DR: You’ve been doing the Barnaby Grimes books as well.
PS: We’ve just finished the fourth one, The Phantom of Blood Alley.
CR: Barnaby for us was something almost to refresh our thoughts about storytelling, rather than embarking on big, big projects – each of the Edge books has been a big project, Barnaby Grimes books are episodic, we wanted them to be good exciting reads that you can devour in a single sitting.
DR: Getting back to the Edge. What kind of revelations can we expect in The Immortals?
PS: It’s set five hundred years in the future from the Bark Scrolls, where they basically discovered how to split the atom, if you like, of Phrax. The third age of flight has started and everything has expanded.
CR: It’s our industrial revolution, if you like. The three great cities of the Edge have all grown out of all proportion. We show the wider world, and put the Edge in context, and we play games with the readers. We wanted this book to be an entry book and an exit book. Those readers that have read the other nine will come to The Immortals and will find all sorts of familiar faces and places, but they will be seeing them through the prism of history 500 years on. But for our new readers this book can be read absolutely as the first Edge book. The process of going back will be equally exciting because they will be delving into the background.
PS: Basically there were lots of threads we needed to tie up. We needed to know whether Twig was alive when he got to Riverrise, we needed to know what happened to Old Sanctaphrax, we needed to know what happened to the Gloamglozer. All of the threads have been tied up. You will know everything by the time you have finished The Immortals.