Interview with Suzanna Leigh

Today is a first for Damsels in Regress: we’re interviewing the illustrator of a historical novel.  Suzanna Leigh provided cover art and some black-and-white illustrations for both Rotaida and the Runestone and Royal Spy.  She’s also written and illustrated books for all ages…and she happens to be Marj’s daughter.  It’s great to get another perspective on pulling readers back in time, and we’re thrilled to have Suzanna here to give it.

1.  What sort of research did you do before beginning your illustrations?  Did it parallel Marj’s research or did yours go in a different direction?

There are few images of the times of Charlemagne; I needed to know what houses looked like, how people dressed, what kind of boat Morag might have used (although I ended up not using that illustration). Sometimes a scene seemed so easy when described in words, but it took more research to figure out how it might really have LOOKED. I studied books on drawing hands, feet, facial expressions.
 2.  What most interested you about this period, either initially or as you were researching?  How did this influence your pictures?
I’ve always loved the middle ages, the old religions, and castles. I love learning about how things began, what life was like before the times we know, how people got along without the things we take for granted—like flush toilets and running water, central heat, and grocery stores.  3.  What medium/media did you use to create the art for these books?  What influenced your choices?
 Initially I thought I would do the illustrations to look like woodcuts, but dog gone it, I like the half tones pencil gives, so I used pencil and ink pens and brush. It gives a softer effect than a woodcut.
 4.  Who are some of your favorite illustrators, both from when you were a kid and those you admire now?
I think Walt Kelly, creator of the cartoon Pogo, really inspired me early on, like at age 14. I’m terrible at names, so I can picture the illustrations that I love, but can’t remember the artists. Steven Kellog, of course, and Mercer Meyer. I love the book Everyone knows what a Dragon Looks Like.  Willy’s Mamoth, by Stephen Colburn.
 5.  Describe the collaboration between you and Marj.  Were you able to work closely or were the books created in stages? 
Marj finished writing Royal Spy before I began the illustrations. Every illustration had to meet her approval, and she made some good suggestions. I did offer suggestions about the writing.
 6.  What do you want readers to take away from these books in terms of both the story and your artwork?
An appreciation for the basics of life; living conditions were primitive, and very different from today. I really like the way Rotaida makes friends with everyone, even her captors and the trolls, in Royal Spy, and how she sees both sides of the conflict. How she behaves with compassion, and her courage and strength of mind in facing Morag near the end.
7.  One last question: what’s it like working with your mom?
Marj and I have collaborated on shows of our art, but this was the first literary collaboration. I think we respect each other’s talents and spark each other’s creativity. I appreciated Marj’s sharp eye when critiquing the illustrations. We are enjoying doing school visits and festivals together.
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