Gary Gianni Interviewed About Illustrating Michael Chabon’s “Gentlemen of the Road!”

Gary Gianni shares his experiences in illustrating Michael Chabon’s latest book, Gentlemen of the Road. Original interview posted on the Flesk website on October 31, 2007. Now added to my blog for better archival purposes.

Gary Gianni talks with John Fleskes about his recent art duties illustrating Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, available now from Del Rey.

John Fleskes: How did you pick up the assignment to illustrate Gentlemen of the Road?

Gary Gianni: It was out of the blue. The editor at Del Rey, Betsy Mitchell, called and asked me if I would be interested in illustrating Michael Chabon’s new book. It wasn’t until sometime later that I found Chabon suggested me as an illustrator for the project; although I understand that Betsy was instrumental in developing the overall look of the book. So both of them (Chabon and Mitchell) had an idea of what they were looking for and called me.

JF: Did they give you a galley of the book allowing you to read the text first?

GG: Yes they gave me a galley of the whole book, which I prefer. There have been times where people give me a synopsis or maybe the first few chapters and I always feel I don’t have enough information. I can’t get quite as involved when I don’t have the whole thing at my fingertips.

JF: So you like to read the whole book first?

GG: Yes I do, I always do. If it’s something that I don’t think I am suited for after the first few chapters I’ll realize that early on and I won’t finish the book. I’ll call and say this project isn’t my strong suit. But in this case, even as I read the first few chapters, I realized a couple of things; it was a genre that I felt familiar with, guys with swords, especially on the heels of working on Prince Valiant and the Robert E. Howard stuff for the last few years. There was a certain similar vein with the adventure material and the period and that it gave me the feeling that I wouldn’t have to do a lot of reference for it because I have so much of that sort of thing at hand. Michael Chabon was kind enough to send me some extra material that he had accumulated when researching the book so I had quite a bit of reference.

JF: How suited is Chabon’s text in describing visuals for you to translate into illustrations?

GG: This book will do equally well if it doesn’t have any accompanying illustrations. He is a very illustrative writer. I think in that sense he certainly didn’t need me or any kind of enhancement to his novel to make it read well. Nevertheless, I thought it was perfect for an illustrator because it is so colorful.

JF: How did you come up with the designs of the main characters, Zelikman and Amram?

GG: Well that was the fun part because I rarely get to work with a living author. Most of my uh…colleagues, working on books have been dead, Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard or Robert Lewis Stevenson. So it was a pleasure to work with a writer that I could actually speak with and talk about his work. We were right on the same page. The minute I talked to him I felt really good about the project.

Even discussing some of the characters. Chabon’s well versed in film, and we were able to talk about characters by using the reference to movie characters; choosing a certain actor who might have fit that role.

For example, as I read the book, one of the characters, reminded me of an obscure actor from the 40s and 50s by the name of Akim Tamiroff. Later, when I asked Chabon how he saw this character, he said “Ah I see sort of an Akim Tamiroff kind of a guy.” I thought wow, how cosmic is this? First of all there can’t be a whole lot of people who know who Akim Tamiroff is and we both see the actor as the character. It says a lot about the power of Chabon’s writing and how well he can communicate with his reader.

JF: When you came up with the designs for the characters did you send them to Chabon for his approval?

GG: I didn’t have a lot of time to do this, it was, what I felt, a tight deadline. Naturally, they wanted to see some pencil roughs, I sent 15 and they were all approved. So it was smooth sailing. I realized how closely aligned we were, the editor, the author, and myself and therefore, I felt much more comfortable about the job.

JF: Especially given the time frame you had to deal with.

GG: Well that was one of my concerns, and I did mention that to Betsy. “You know we don’t have too much time for this? I hope there’s not too much art direction.” And there wasn’t. I think John Huston said this, he was talking about making a movie and he said “…the movies that are the hardest to make, tend to be the ones that don’t turn out so well…” I agree with that. This was very easy to do once I got into it and so the inverse of Huston’s remark, the easy ones are the ones that turn out well, holds true.

JF: How did the approach to these illustrations differ from your Prince Valiant work?

GG: Oh there is a tremendous changing of the guard, stylistically; book illustration and comic strip illustration are two different art forms. You’re asking a really good question. It’s hard to describe without drawing some pictures. Seriously, I think it has something to do with, book illustration having more of a sense of being decorative. You don’t have to spell everything out. They don’t need to be as instrumental, (in the storytelling) as they do in a comic strip. They need to suggest a mood more than anything and in that sense it’s very different from comic strips. Actually, illustrations accompanying a good writer’s text could be downright gratuitous. It’s something that is almost intuitive and I don’t know how else to explain it. So feel free to jump in here and help me out John.

JF: Okay, well I am wondering about the illustrations themselves, there are 15 of them, correct?

GG: There are 15.

JF: Is there one that you particularly liked the most?

GG: I tried to do 15 very different illustrations but they work collectively. I don’t favor one over another. They are well paced and they fall at moments that lend themselves to making it an attractive book.

There is something I want to say here that is a little off the point but, when you are doing this sort of illustration, especially a book like Gentleman of the Road where there are plot twists, you have to be very careful in not tipping your mitt or allowing the reader to see any surprises before they read about them. So again, you want to be somewhat evocative in the pictures and avoid illuminating what’s going on too closely because that’s the author’s job. He knows how to tell his story and certainly doesn’t need any pictures accompanying it. The pictures are additions and I try to be aware of the intent of the author. He goes to great pains to lead the reader a certain way. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize how the reader is navigating through the book. This is another way that book illustration differs from comic strip art. Does that make sense?

JF: Yeah definitely, I understand what you mean. You are there to decorate, you don’t want your illustrations to overwhelm the text or give any of the stories away.

GG: That’s well put John. Maybe I should be interviewing you.

JF: Maybe when I’ve actually accomplished something worth talking about. Is there anything else you would like to share about working with Chabon?

GG: Aside from the adventure I feel the romance in Chabon’s writing. I know some critics have made parallels with Fritz Leiber, who wrote Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and others have mentioned Raphael Sabatini and Dumas. There are other 19th century writers of adventure like Talbot Mundy and even Rudyard Kipling. I’d add Joseph Conrad as another kindred spirit. On the other hand, Gentlemen of the Road has a whimsical touch that reminds me more of certain adventure films, like Gunga Din with Cary Grant and Victor Mclaughlin. And the Man Who Would Be King I, myself, respond strongly to these kind of influences and it made this project a nice match. He dedicates the novel to Michael Moorcock so Chabon isn’t just tipping his hat to the past masters. I will stress this is not a full-out fantasy. It’s set within a historical time frame and a politically complex period. Just like we live in today.

JF: 10th century Khazaria. The only Jewish state prior to Israel, I believe.

GG: A Jewish region snuggled in between the Christian and the Muslim empires. This area has not been explored much in popular fiction. Not only does Chabon bring it to our attention, but he has fun with it. So will his readers.

JF: Thanks for your time Gary.

 Artwork copyright © 2007 by Gary Gianni. Used with Permission.
Gary Gianni Interview © 2007 Flesk Publications. All rights reserved.