Whether you know his name yet or not, chances are that Stephen Crotts is responsible for at least one piece of art—whether it’s an album cover, book cover, poster, or stand-alone work—that has stopped you in your tracks and filled you with wonder. The latest piece of magic Stephen has contributed to Rabbit Room Press is the cover and inside illustrations of The Door on Half-Bald Hill.
The reader’s imagination is an unruly, vivid, and intimate element in the experience of any novel. Consequently, the act of illustrating a novel—providing one’s own visual interpretation as a filter for that of the reader’s—is a fearful task. And yet, when it’s done well, it adds an indispensable aura to a beloved story.
In the case of The Door on Half-Bald Hill, it’s safe to say that Stephen Crotts has done exceedingly well, providing illustrations that both clarify the content of the story and unobtrusively encourage the reader in their own work of visualization. As someone who bonded deeply with The Door on Half-Bald Hill, I was grateful and enthralled to hear from Stephen about an artistic process I have zero knowledge of myself.
Drew Miller: Can you share about the process of reading The Door on Half-Bald Hill, imagining the story unfold in your mind, and then translating your mental images into illustrations? How does an image from the story progress from your imagination to a fleshed-out work?
Stephen Crotts: Before I’d even met Helena, Pete told me about a project that had a tone of Cormac McCarthy-meets-Tolkien. He said, “There isn’t enough illustration in books for grownups, and I’m going to do something about it.” So I was all in.
As I read through the manuscript, I made notes of visuals that stood out.
With a few, though, I underlined and boxed in sections that I thought were key visual moments. One was the comparison of carrying a question like a snail carries its shell. On the same day, I came across a snail on my daily walk in the woods. A snapshot of that became the basis for the engraving that appears in the book.
Drew Miller: What sorts of aesthetic decisions did you make throughout this process, to make the story “feel” a certain way to the reader, as they flip the page and find an illustration?
Stephen Crotts: I did some study and watched several documentaries about the ancient world of Celtic peoples to get a sense of some of what Helena drew inspiration from in traveling overseas. I made a huge folder of images to get in the right headspace. The emotion of Helena’s story lives well in the misty landscapes of the British Isles, Iceland, and the North Sea. The Isle of Skye became my primary reference for imagining Idris traveling in the mountains. For the feel of village life, I looked to Butser Ancient Farm in the South Downs. It is an experimental archaeological museum that interprets Iron Age communities.
Drew Miller: Am I right that there’s only one color really featured, other than black and white—red, for the Bloodmoon? Stephen Crotts: We wanted the sense of stillness and longing that the people of Blackthorn are experiencing to sit within the drawings. In my mind, much of the story is in a monochromatic world. A land that ought to be deep green is decaying. Red is associated with moments of reckoning in the story, so it felt right to include it in the cover. And from a design perspective, the red spine and flaps just felt really pleasing.
Drew Miller: Could you choose an illustration from the book—it could be the cover, too, if you like—and use it as an example, walking us through how you crafted it?
We wanted the sense of stillness and longing that the people of Blackthorn are experiencing to sit within the drawings. In my mind, much of the story is in a monochromatic world. A land that ought to be deep green is decaying. Stephen Crotts
Stephen Crotts: I used a variety of media to make these drawings, including wood engraving, scratchboard, and digital. For the cover, I made sketches, and then several comps. At one point, I composited several landscape photos to put together an idea of what I wanted to see. Pete and I went back and forth on overall design, color, and feel as we narrowed in. I drew that one digitally, on an iPad. I love the ability to draw subtractively with a digital format, much like I do when carving substrate out of a wood or linoleum block. Taking the white out of the black lends a more carved feel to the final piece. But the flexibility is a blessing and a curse, as I would find myself zooming way in and fussing over tiny details for a long time.
Helena pulls no punches in this story. While set in an imagined land, it has a rawness and honesty that is recognizable. The acknowledgement of brokenness and the frustration of not being able to fix it is something we all feel in our collective moment. I first read this book during the season of Advent, which seemed right after finishing it. Idris and his people, like us, mourn in lonely exile. Learning to carry the right questions in humility is crucial on our journey toward intervening light.