Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester is happy to shine our Spotlight on Fantastic Fiction Artist and Author (or Author and Artist) Duncan Eagleson. Duncan, Can you please tell us briefly a little about yourself and your artwork?
These days I’m primarily a writer and illustrator. Through much of my career, my primary focus was on art – I illustrated book covers, comics, movie posters, magazine articles, games — you name it, I drew or painted pictures for it at some point. I was always sort of a hobbyist writer, but it was only in the early 2000s that I started to get serious about that, and I published my first novel, Darkwalker, in 2013.
Through much of the ’90s and early 2000s, I had moved away from illustration, and made my living as a maskmaker, creating hand sculpted leather masks. Besides selling my masks at renfairs, craft shows, and online, I did custom work for clients like the Big Apple Circus, the WWE, director Wes Craven, and even the Smithsonian. In 2016 I retired from maskmaking to focus on illustration and writing. My mask website is still live, though now it’s just a gallery now. http://maskmaker.com/
In the meantime, indie and self publishing had exploded. Those books initially got a bad rep, but I found there were a lot of great writers out there publishing themselves or going with various small presses. Though the content was improving quickly, the quality of their covers lagged behind, so in 2015 my partner Moira Ashleigh and I founded Corvid Design to provide small and self publishers with professional looking covers that would also be affordable. http://corviddesign.com/
In 2017 I was hired to illustrate and art direct Evil Overlord Games’ online urban fantasy / horror game, Susurrus: Season of Tides. https://live.susurrusgame.com/ That was a blast. Right now, I’m illustrating and co-writing a children’s book, while also continuing to design and illustrate book covers.
Where can people can find your work (Besides Annie’s BSOW –though they should totally check here first!)
My own website is duncaneagleson.com., and I’ve got portfolios on Art Station https://www.artstation.com/duncaneagleson, Behance https://www.behance.net/duncan2085, and Deviant Art https://www.deviantart.com/duncan-eagleson. I’m also on Instagram and Pinterest.
Both my books, Fire Aloft https://www.amazon.com/Fire-Aloft-Aero-Pyrates-Rev-DiCerto/dp/1948929228, written with Rev DiCerto, and Darkwalker https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1939056047, a solo novel, are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. We’ve also got a website for The Age of Invention https://theageofinvention.com/, the series of which Fire Aloft is the first.
I also have author pages on Amazon and Bookbub.
How can we follow your work and share your awesomeness?
I’m on facebook and twitter, and my own website has a blog section. On the Age of Invention site, If you sign up on our mailing list, you can get free stories and other content, including art I’ve done for the series.
For readers unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe what you do? What can readers expect from you next (Latest cover, book, comic, movie, etc?) or what is the last thing you worked on?
I tell stories with words and pictures. Sometimes that means I’m illustrating a book, sometimes writing a novel, sometimes working on comics or games, and occasionally I’m contributing art or design to a movie. I’ve worked for clients as diverse as Tor Books, DC Comics, New Line Cinema, the WWE, and the Smithsonian.
My second book has just been published (Fire Aloft, a steampunk novel co-written with Rev Dicerto, for which I painted the cover), and I’ve got two more on the way, a sequel to Fire Aloft, and another solo book. My most recent artworks have been a cover for the audio version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and covers for a series of vampire mysteries by A.E. Howe.
I’m also in the process of illustrating a children’s book about the winter solstice, written in collaboration with Moira Ashleigh, called Stag of Darkness, Stag of Light. That story began as one of several live storytelling presentations which we performed several times at various solstice celebrations, and we’re now adapting it for print, and hoping to fund the publication through Kickstarter.
What kind of research went into your last project? What is your favorite research story? What cool facts and findings didn’t make it into the final product, but you loved discovering?
I’m a real fiend for research, whether it’s visual research for a painting or factual research for a book. Even when a story or a picture is total fantasy, it needs to be grounded in reality if it’s going to be convincing to a reader or viewer.
It was tremendous fun researching steam engines and airships for Fire Aloft and its sequel. Of course, steam powered airships are not actually practical, so we had to fudge some things. When we discovered that heating hydrogen increases the lift, we decided to make our Big Lie in the book that having a second boiler to heat the gas would give the ship enough lift that it could be armed and armored.
It wasn’t until after the book came out that I discovered there was a feature documentary on the Graf Zeppelin’s flight around the world. Today’s airships are very unlike the ships of the period, and though we dove deep in our research, no matter how much you read and look at still pictures and diagrams, seeing films of an actual early airship in operation is a whole different thing. I was gratified to discover that we’d done a pretty good job, and got most things right, and the things we got wrong were pretty minor.
I did have one good laugh at myself while watching that movie. They showed scenes on the bridge of the ship during flight, and I’m looking at these scenes, studying the controls, and wondering “Where are the Johnson bars?” Then I remembered there wouldn’t be any – Johnson bars are a control device we borrowed from steam locomotives, and imported into our fictional steam powered airships. So, of course, there wouldn’t be any on the Graf, as it was diesel powered.
What was the inspiration for Stag of Darkness, Stag of Light? What were the steps you took to bring it from initial inspiration to the finished piece of work?
As I said, Stag of Darkness, Stag of Light began as a performance piece, but we haven’t presented it for several years now. Recently, a friend of ours who has since had kids, was complaining they couldn’t find children’s books about the Yule or the Winter Solstice, and asked if we’d ever considered putting our solstice stories out as childrens’ books. We hadn’t – but we thought that was a great idea.
Because it was a spoken piece, we had to revise it considerably for print. And because it would now be a picture book, we had to begin visualizing the characters more specifically. When we started talking about that and exploring looks for the book, we found that while we were totally in agreement with who the characters were, how they behaved, but we had somewhat different ideas about how they should look. So there was some discussion and negotiation around that. That was both challenging and wonderful, because that’s how collaboration works, when it works well – the negotiation leads to something better than either of you could have come up with on your own.
We made mood boards, and I gathered reference. Moira felt strongly that it shouldn’t be too photo real, and that meshed nicely with my ambition to start working in a somewhat looser, more painterly style. Instead of finding models and doing a photo shoot, I set up some of the scenes in a 3D program, and exported images to serve as specific reference. I intentionally made the output low res, so while they showed how shadows fell and how light affected the forms, I couldn’t get caught up in fine photographic details so much.
What was the biggest challenge putting out Stag of Darkness, Stag of Light? How did you overcome that challenge?
The live presentations had involved the two of us narrating, and there was a lot of crosstalk and “disagreements” between the narrators, as well as some fourth wall breakage that happened, which was where a lot of the humor lived. Translating that into a text story while also preserving those aspects has proven to be quite a challenge. Do we just figure out how to work that into the prose? Do we create a framing device, and go the Princess Bride route of interrupting the story with passages that return to the narrators? Since it’s a picture book, that would mean sacrificing a story page to a narrator’s page, and we were trying to keep the page count to 32.
Our solution arose from my work in comics. On certain pages, the narrators will appear in a panel, similar to a comics panel, that’s set into the larger full page illustration. At one point, we actually considered using comics style word balloons for those insets, but decided that straight text that matched the text of the story would carry the continuity better.
What was your least favorite piece of work and why? Your favorite? Why?
My least favorite? Wow, that’s a hard one. Most of the time, I really love what I do. I suppose my least favorite dates back to very early in my career, when I did a painting for the Defense Department, to be used in presentations about a new anti tank weapon. It involved getting a security clearance, and was seriously over art-directed. I was also not real thrilled about working for the military-industrial complex, but it paid well, and at the time, I needed the money.
Favorite project? That’s also a hard call, there are so many. When it comes to art, much as I love illustrating book covers, I get the most satisfaction out of more extended projects, whether it’s a whole series of covers, or an illustrated book, or a comic – any project where it’s a deep dive into creating a visual world and characters. I loved working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman, on Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, and on creating and art directing environments and characters for the game Susurrus: Season of Tides. Stag of Darkness, Stag of light is a similar extended project. Doing this recent series of covers for Howe’s Baron Blasko vampire series was also similar – it was a re-brand, so I got to work on them one after another, as I had with a series of nine books by science fiction author Richard Levesque last year.
So I’d say my favorite project isn’t any particular one, but it’s a type of project – an extended one where where I can really dig in to the story and characters, whether I’m bringing a visual manifestation to someone else’s story, or writing something of my own, or in collaboration.
How important has the New England setting been to your work?
Depends on the work, I think. I was born in California, but raised mostly in New England, so New England has probably put its stamp on my work in ways I’m not consciously aware of. But I’ve also traveled all over the country, lived in New York City for years, in upstate New York, Ohio, Arizona, and those places all exerted their influence on me. Both of my published novels take place in the southwest, and several of my works have been set in New York City.
Mostly, I think New England expresses itself in my work through sensibilities, rather than direct references.
What is one thing that most people don’t realize about you?
Joseph Campbell once claimed that the best predictor of a career in the arts is the number of different types of jobs a person does in their early life. That was nice to hear, because before I settled on a career in freelance illustration, I worked a wide variety of jobs. I’ve been a ditch digger and a screen printer, worked in wholesale and retail clothing, sold musical instruments (I sold the first commercially available synthesizer), worked in advertising and printing, I’ve run office equipment trade shows, read slush for big publishers, I worked as a private detective, astrologer and card reader, bank teller, actor and stage combat choreographer.
Although that wasn’t intentional at the time, in retrospect, I think having worked in so many different fields really benefited me as an artist and writer. The range of my experiences has made me comfortable in a variety of contexts and situations, and given me first hand knowledge in all sorts of areas.
What has been your favorite adventure during your career?
My favorite adventure is traveling. There are few things that expand the mind like traveling to a place that’s totally and completely unlike your everyday experience.
Back in the ‘90s, I crossed the country in a van a couple of times. My first time driving in the desert at night was a truly bizarre experience. Although I was born in California, I’d lived most of my life in the northeast. So I’m driving along this long straight road, headlights making a cone of light in front of me, surrounded otherwise by the blackness of the desert night. And in my peripheral vision, I could swear there are trees crowded up to the side of the road, looming over me. If I turn my head to look, they’re not there – all there is is the flat desert, stretching out for miles around. Yet even though I know there are no trees there, when I look back at the road, I can still see them in my peripheral vision.
My brain, I realized, was manufacturing those trees because that was what I had always previously experienced when driving at night – except near the ocean, there’s no distant horizon in the northeast, just trees and houses and buildings on either side of the road.
The nonexistent trees went away after a few hours, but it was a visceral reminder of how faulty our perceptions can be. It’s the same principle as when we connect a series of dots to form a picture – in the absence of definitive evidence, our brains tend to fill in the blanks with what we expect to see.
While you’re working, do you prefer music, silence, other? Please elaborate!
These days, it’s mostly silence. I used to listen to music a lot, but when I began painting digitally, that was a steep learning curve, and I found it hard to concentrate on learning the programs and techniques while also listening to music. So I got in the habit of painting in total silence. It’s only now, after years of working digitally that the process has become so intuitive that I can afford to play music again. It doesn’t happen that often – like most people, I tend to be a creature of habit, and I haven’t rebuilt that music habit yet – my default approach is to work in silence. But I’m shifting that now.
I’ve also found that when writing, I can’t listen to vocal music, it has to be purely instrumental. I guess hearing lyrics must engage the language center of my brain too much, and it doesn’t do well taking in language while also trying to put it out. Interestingly, my sometime writing partner, Rev, doesn’t have that problem. He’s also a musician, and for him, a vocal line becomes just another part of the soundscape when he’s writing. Me, I can’t divorce myself from the fact that the words are words, so for me, it has to be instrumental music or silence.
Do you have any favorite foods or drinks that must be in the vicinity (or must be avoided) while you’re creating a piece of work?
Coffee. Definitely coffee. When I’m writing, I’ll occasionally sip some single malt scotch, or when I’m painting, I might indulge in a little cannabis (fortunately legal where I live now). But I learned early on not to over-indulge in either of those things, because then the work goes to shit, and the next day, you look at what you did and you’re like, “WTF was I thinking?” Used judiciously, substances that alter your consciousness can be great for inspiration, but they’re generally not helpful when it comes to execution.
What draws you to the particular genre or style that you create? What do you think draws readers to these works?
I create across several genres, and I think what draws me, and readers, may be slightly different for different genres. Author David Farland has suggested that each genre has its own predominant emotion that it evokes, and that emotional experience is what readers or viewers are seeking. Horror evokes fear, fantasy wonder, and so forth. I agree with Farland that those essential elements may be what initially draw us to a genre, but I also think if we don’t end up finding much more in them, we’re not gonna hang around all that long.
In the hands of intentional, skilled creators, every genre potentially has the depth and vision of any other – including the so-called high art genres. Those initial emotional tones may be what draws us in, but ultimately what we stay for is the characters, their relationships, their highs and lows, their reflection of, and on, our own human experience.
Duncan, thanks so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to be with us today.