Joanne Schwartz and Danny Christopher on The Legend of the Fog, their Inuit picture book with Qaunaq Mikkigak.
About The Legend of the Fog, from Inhabit Media: In this traditional Inuit story, a simple walk on the tundra becomes a life-or-death journey for a young man. When he comes across a giant who wants to take him home and cook him for dinner, the young man's quick thinking saves him from being devoured by the giant and his family, and in the process, releases the first fog into the world. Written by Cape Dorset elder Qaunaq Mikkigak and Marilyn Baillie Picture Book Award–nominated author Joanne Schwartz, this action-packed picture book brings a centuries-old traditional tale to life.
Writer Joanne Schwartz is a children's librarian at the Toronto Public Library and has a special interest in picture books. She is the author of Our Corner Grocery Store , illustrated by Laura Beingessner, and City Numbers and City Alphabet, with photos by Matt Beam. She lives with her two daughters in Toronto.
Julie Wilson: The Legend of the Fog is one of the most gorgeous, haunting books I've read in a long time. And it isn't the first time you've collaborated with another creator for a book. What draws you to these partnerships?
Joanne Schwartz: In my two previous books, City Alphabet and City Numbers, published by Groundwood Books, I collaborated with writer/photographer Matt Beam. I got to know Matt through his writing and then became aware of his photography. I felt very excited about how his photos could speak to concepts and ideas about urban life that I was interested in putting into a picture book. Matt had never thought of using his photographs in this way and so we decided to work together to merge my ideas and his images. The process of discussing, reworking, and refining the manuscript was very rewarding. It was a dialogue that produced two books and a great friendship.
Even my first picture book, Our Corner Grocery Store, was a collaboration of a kind, as it's based on a real couple and their store. I spent lots of time talking with them and observing their daily routines before turning the material into a story.
I think what draws me to these partnerships is an interest in other people's stories, and in finding ways to work with them to bring those stories to the page. By collaborating I get to challenge my own perspective and see through someone else's eyes. My writing has grown very organically out of these relationships.
JW: Talk about this particular collaboration with both Inhabit Media and Qaunaq Mikkigak. How did the partnership come together, and what was your process with elder and artist Qaunaq?
JS: I met Qaunaq on a trip I made to the North a few years ago. Although meeting her was somewhat serendipitous, the trip and what came out of it connected many things I had been interested in over a long period of time. As a respected elder, storyteller, artist and throat singer, Qaunaq actively works to pass on her knowledge to the young children in her community of Cape Dorset. She is a dynamic person and not having a language in common was no barrier to our collaboration. We spoke through an interpreter and agreed to work together. I went back the following year and spent a wonderful week recording her.
The second part of the collaboration came when I was fortunate enough to meet with Neil Christopher of Inhabit Media, the first Inuit-owned press out of Iqaluit. I was interviewing him for an article about the transition of Inuit culture from an oral one toward print. Neil was very interested in the material I had collected from Qaunaq because it fit exactly into their publishing mandate which is to promote and preserve the stories and knowledge of northern Canada. From the material I had recorded, we chose to start with Qaunaq's version of this well-known legend. Neil and his co-founder, Louise Flaherty, are real ground breakers in the publishing industry and working with them has been an honour.
JW: How does your role as writer in this respect differ from the role of a translator?
JS: I've never worked as a translator but I think my work in this project shares some of the same challenges. The translation was done through the press and that literal translation became my raw material, as well as listening to Qaunaq tell the story in Inuktitut. It was a delicate process to rewrite the story in English. My goal was to attempt to bring Qaunaq's voice to the page, flesh out the story with the most minor of details to give context to a non-Inuit audience, maintain the narrative sequence as closely as possible and give weight to the story in all the same places as the original telling in order to mirror the dramatic tension.
The Legend of the Fog can be found in many different versions throughout the Canadian Arctic. This telling is Qauanq's version, with her own variations, which is the storyteller's prerogative. The book is simultaneously published in Inuktitut as are all Inhabit Media books. Another recently published book from the press, The Qalupalik, came out in English, South Baffin Inuktitut, and is available in four Inuktitut dialect e-book editions—North Baffin, Anikiluaq, Kivalliq and Inuinnaqtun. This is the unique language environment the press is working in to make the stories available to all the communities across Nunavut.
JW: The Legend of the Fog has been adopted up by fans of speculative fiction. What do you think is it about this particular story that extends itself past the traditional children’s books audience?
JS: I think folktales and legends in general extend past a children's book audience. They really are stories for all ages. Although the publishing industry markets to a particular age, the stories from the oral tradition didn't function in that way at all. In the case of Inuit legends and folktales, these were stories the whole community would have heard, from children to elders. Children were not separate and stories didn't evolve into these distinct boundaries.
Maybe speculative fiction fans are interested in the legend because of its otherworldliness. I think Danny Christopher's fabulous illustrations really accentuate those elements in the story. This is a remote, rugged environment where a rich culture of mythological beings flourished. The tuurngaq in the legend of the fog is just one of many fantastical creatures that inhabit the myths and legends of the North.
JW: The story is quite violent in places. How important was it to get the tone just right in the retelling?
JS: I think the tone of the legend is very important, mainly because I wanted to reflect the tone in which Qaunaq told it to me. I think the tone speaks to the seriousness and relevance of the story in Inuit culture. Yes, the story is violent in places and grim but that speaks to the harsh environment that the stories grew out of. Folktales and legends in many cultures contain dark elements. The Grimm's folktales are the perfect example of another body of stories that came out of the oral tradition and contain many violent and dark elements, even after 200 years of watered-down versions. Like much of the Grimms, The Legend of the Fog is intended for older children who in many cases have already read other folklore or possibly fantasy novels. By this age, children have a context in which to wrestle with the dark aspects of the story. What they are unfamiliar with is the wealth of stories from the North. Neil and Louise have a brief afterward in the book that places this legend into the larger world of Inuit folklore.
Illustrator and artist Danny Christopher lives in Toronto and works out of a studio in Mirvish Village. To see more of his work, please do visit www.dannychristopher.com.
Julie Wilson: Often publishers don't like writers and illustrators to inform each other's process. Was that the case with The Legend of the Fog? Were you left to interpret the story alone, or was there any collaboration?
Danny Christopher: I was given a lot of freedom in the creation of the illustrations for this book. When I began work on the book, the full manuscript was complete. Joanne saw some of the images early in the process and the characters were sent to Qaunaq to make sure they were accurate and could fit into her vision of the story.
JW: Talk about your process. From your site: "My illustration style is the result of layering my sketches with watercolour textures, a negotiation between well defined shapes and organic watermarks." How does that negotiation manifest itself? For a book of this length, how long would each illustration take, and when do you know it's complete?
DC: To make my illustrations I create watercolour textures that I cut out digitally. While painting, I am messy and I embrace how watercolor paints have a say in the way they react to each other and the paper. I have a very different mindset when I am painting than when I am cutting things out on the computer. When I cut things out there is this sense of control that I don’t have when I paint. The combination of these two very different processes really informs the overall look of the illustrations.
Some of the illustrations in this book contain over two hundred layers and can take up to ten hours to create, but that doesn’t take into consideration the time spent thinking about things before beginning.
Knowing when to stop can be difficult. For some illustrations, I just know that it is done. For others, I get to the point where I realize that adding more layers and detail is not improving the image.
JW: You teach at Nunavut Arctic College. How has this informed your process?
DC: I teach a media studies course when I go to Nunavut as part of the NTEP program (Nunavut Teacher Education Program). The course focuses on using social media in the classroom.
My trips to the North over the last eight years as an instructor for Nunavut Arctic College have informed my work tremendously. The reason I work the way I do is because when I started going up to Nunavut to teach I couldn’t really take up all my painting supplies with me, so I made colour panels that I could digitize and take with me on my laptop. I would sketch and digitally cut those panels to color. My process really developed as response to this situation.
JW: Talk a bit about perspective. In some images, the reader is almost addressed by a character, such as the tuurngaq's son yelling to his father. In particular, I like the juxtaposition between the tuurngaq as he looms over the presumed-dead Quannguviniq and the following image of Quannguviniq's hand at ground level pulling at twigs to slow down his captor. The hand is almost as large as the monstrous tuurngaq in the previous panel, appearing almost as if from on high. What's the thought behind these choices?
DC: Perspective is something I really consider when putting images together. I try to have things visually move from page to page while also considering the viewpoint that will give the text the most impact. I enjoy the sense of dimension and space that changing perspectives creates in a book like this.
About Inhabit Media: We are an Inuit-owned publishing company that aims to promote and preserve the stories, knowledge and talent of northern Canada.
Our mandate is to promote research in Inuit mythology and the traditional Inuit knowledge of Nunavummiut (residents of Nunavut). Our authors, storytellers and artists bring this knowledge to life in a way that is accessible to readers in both northern and southern Canada.
Visit Inhabit Media at www.inhabitmedia.com.