Book Chat: Shae Millward & Andy Fackrell
I’m not generally one for gushing, but Shae Millward and Andy Fackrell’s collaboration, The Rabbit’s Magician, is one of the most moving picture books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a very long time. The writing is both poetic and emotionally direct, and the visual storytelling brought to the book by Andy complements the text beautifully. I’m really excited to welcome Shae and Andy to Book Chat for my first tag-team interview!
Firstly, Shae, could your share a little about your journey towards becoming an author, and its culmination in the writing of The Rabbit’s Magician?
Trigger warning for aspiring authors: I was lucky enough to receive a contract for the first manuscript I submitted. Yup! Decided to give this writing thing a go, submitted to the slush pile, heard back from interested publisher, signed contract.
However, I was not in any writing groups (in-person or online), did not even know what writing groups were out there or all the benefits of them, had vague ideas of what I could or should be doing in regards to promotion and did not have any social media presence as a writer.
So, this very first contract was for a rhyming picture book story called A Boy and A Dog, which tells the timeless tale of a lonely boy and a lonesome dog who find each other and discover true friendship.
There once was a dog who just wanted to play, But his owner was busy, ‘No! Go away!’ And there was a boy who just wanted to play, But the kids at school shouted, ‘No! Go away!’
My next one was a rhymer too. It was written in response to the State Library of Queensland seeking stories with a Queensland theme. Koalas are the faunal emblem of Queensland. Koalas spend most of their time a) sleeping in trees, and b) eating gum leaves. From that, the two repeated lines were conceived. Koalas Like To… is a humorous picture book featuring fun rhyme and repetition along with a cast of cute koala characters and their quirky capers. This one was so much fun to write! It contains koala facts amid a bunch of wacky antics. I had a greater understanding of promotional avenues and was a lot more active in groups by this stage.
Koalas like to sleep in trees.
Koalas like to eat gum leaves.
Koalas like to sing and dance.
Koalas wear striped underpants.
And my third picture book is, of course, The Rabbit’s Magician – which came very naturally as a prose story. Another slush pile success story – yay! ‘Cos I ain’t all fancy-pants over here with an agent, haha!
And Andy, I’d love to know about the path that led to you becoming an illustrator of children’s books.
Drawing and painting have always been my first loves. I majored in illustration, as well as advertising, and the dream was to be published for books that carried meaning – The Giving Tree pulled me in as a kid. The lockdown, and a cancelled film project, gave me the time and motivation to finish my first book that luckily led to this one with Shae.
Shae, I love that you thought to base a children’s story on the Law of Conservation of Energy: that energy can’t be created or destroyed, but can change from one form into another. This idea offers a concrete sense of comfort in the face of death and loss. Where did the idea to incorporate this into a story come from?
I had long known of this scientific principle but had more recently come across a transcript of a speech by Aaron Freeman about why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral. It was incredibly moving, the way the science-talk, which is often cold and clinical, radiated with warmth – a heart-warming warmth. It mentions the conservation of energy; particles and photons; and uplifting notions – the comfort of which is so profound, perhaps, because they aren’t mere notions at all. This is something you can lean into, the science is solid.
I saved a copy and filed it away with selected inspirational quotes, lovely verse and pieces of touching text – a nice little personal collection to draw on when needed – and thought no more of it.
I never intentionally set out to write a story about loss – it was certainly not a subject I would have chosen to tackle. But an impression must have been made on my subconscious by those words I’d filed away because later in the year a scene appeared in my mind of a rabbit looking up at the moon. I sensed he was waiting for something. The moon phases changed, and still, he waited. What are you waiting for? I wondered. And then, he told his tale. In a matter of moments, the whole story of The Rabbit’s Magician suddenly existed, like a neatly wrapped gift. No tackling involved.
Andy, your artwork has so much atmosphere, and carries so much emotional weight in The Rabbit’s Magician. I’d be curious to know some of the thoughts that guided your palette and media choices, and whether these choices differed much from those you used in your own book, Group Hug!
The cover for Group Hug! gave me a clue how to approach this one. More shape based, less painterly, but more textural. The Aussie outback provided the emptiness and rawness – the red earth – and certainly gave it atmosphere, in that Arthur Boyd-like simplicity. However, when Ziggy and Alby are together (Ziggy recounting his past) I wanted it to be joyful and vibrant, reflecting their amazing life together. The ruby red, pale purple and green gold, the rainbow and flowers, contrasting the earlier pages; the sombre, inky night. Then when Alby’s gone, I introduce a silvery blueness, a melancholic sheen. For Group Hug! the paper texture was always present, but here I wanted colour to dominate, to smother you with emotion, and to isolate Ziggy’s whiteness and loneliness.
Shae, what do you most hope young readers will take away from this story?
Ziggy the rabbit has a sweet naivety about him, a child-like innocence. He does not comprehend what has happened or why his beloved magician has not come back/returned (we can sometimes struggle with this even as adults). If one day, a young reader is in Ziggy’s position, perhaps they will see that it’s okay to feel this way, or however they feel, and allow the love from family and friends to help them process it. Or, if one day, someone they know is in Ziggy’s position, perhaps they will remember how Ziggy’s friends were patient, how they listened and showed compassion.
However, The Rabbit’s Magician offers comfort to anyone of any age who has lost a loved one – person or animal. Its layered meaning and intertwining themes – including the universe, nature, the moon and its phases, reminders of loved ones, and the power of love – enables it to be interpreted in your own special way.
There are other picture books about loss, but none from this angle that I know of. There’s no intention to oppose anyone’s beliefs. It’s simply another tool to help bring some solace to hearts. It offers a sense of comfort from the viewpoint and solidity of a sound principle of physics. It fosters a gentle shift in thought, from the total emptiness of loss to the presence of a continued energetic connection.
We know everything in the universe is made of energy, including us, and so, that which can no longer be touched by the hand can still be felt by the heart.
Andy, I’d love to know how you decided on your style for this story. Did it take long to find your ‘way in’, visually?
Initially, I approached it more like a kid’s book, more pencil sketchy – more how I created Group Hug! – but then I began to think of it like a film (maybe Wes Anderson?). A design continuity was important, as the story jumps around from exterior to interior and back again, so I looked for shapes and almost a grid to unify scenes. Symmetry was used on many pages; we see Alby through Ziggy’s big ears, to be ‘inside’ their moment, and for Alby to be performing also for the reader. For the heart to heart scenes at the end, when Ziggy and the owl are talking back and forth, I use reverse camera angles, ¾ wides and even a Band of Brothers silhouette against the full moon – the full filmmaker’s arsenal. As the moon is so important to the story, I utilised its shapes throughout the book; from the koala’s ears, to the window of Alby’s house, to small details like the theatre’s suffete struts.
Shae, I’d love to know about the process you went through in drafting The Rabbit’s Magician. Did it come together in a similar way to your previous books?
No! My stories usually start with a spark of an idea – it could be anything: a set of rhyming lines, a character, a title, a situation, a basic concept or an image – which I then have to work at to flesh out. As mentioned earlier, this story came into my mind in a matter of moments – beginning, middle and end – all I had to do was write it down.
There was some hesitancy on my part in regards to the potentially sensitive subject matter, but because of the blessed way in which the story came into being – the way it presented itself – I felt it had come as not only a gift for me but for anyone who might need it.
Andy, does your background in advertising directly influence the way you approach your artwork?
My advertising has drilled into me the discipline of keeping things simple. Of never letting technique get in the way with the idea (or story).
Every single choice either detracts or enhances; communication is everything. I tend to adapt the style according to the idea, rather than having a locked in look, but I think both books look like they're from the same hand. Advertising makes you very adaptable.
I’d love to know about the nature of the collaboration between the two of you. Was there much bouncing back-and-forth of ideas as the artwork came together?
Shae: Paul [Collins, from Ford Street Publishing] put Andy and I in contact from the start, he was happy for us to communicate back-and-forth freely, with him copied in on our emails. So we were able to bounce ideas around and make good progress. We shared the common goal of wanting the best outcome, so it was never about ‘whose idea was better,’ but rather ‘which idea was best for the project.’
When the first sketches came through and I saw that darling little rabbit staring up at the moon while his ears drooped down, I knew it was Ziggy! Those images captured the sense of his waiting and longing. Even though I was in the loop throughout the process, just as The Amazing Albertino surprised and delighted the audience in the story, the amazing Andy surprised and delighted me with each picture. There are some beautiful silhouette moments with the moon as a backdrop that speak of Alby and Ziggy’s close relationship. The spread of Ziggy with the stars, rainbow and flowers has a peaceful ambience in perfect alignment with the words.
Andy: Shae had already done a LOT of the visual thinking for me. It was a case of pulling it into a style and form that did the words justice.
We had a few details to hash out, but mostly at pencil stage. The biggest discussion was on how much we revealed Alby’s death. In the end we felt the reader would understand through Ziggy’s body language, and that just Alby not being there was enough.
What’s next for Shae Millward?
Well, I always have a bunch of ideas for picture book stories floating around, and my long-term work-in-progress is a middle-grade novel which I pick up between projects. I’m also creating a range of t-shirt designs. It’s a bit top secret at the moment, however, I can divulge that some designs are autism-championing and others are especially for writerly folk!
And for you, Andy?
I have a writing project to shoot next year, it’s a feature documentary on someone quite famous. But I can’t tell you who.
But right now, I have a magazine cover I’m painting in oils that’s literally giving me a headache as I’m typing this.
Where are the best places for people to find you both online, and to get hold of your books?
Shae: Website: https://shaemillward.com/
Book available from: https://fordstreetpublishing.com/book/the-rabbits-magician/
Thanks so much for your time, Shae and Andy. The Rabbit’s Magician deserves to be read and enjoyed far and wide, and I have no doubt that it will facilitate many meaningful discussions.
This post is part of a blog tour for The Rabbit's Magician, presented by Books On Tour PR & Marketing. Please keep following Shae and Andy's journey on all of the fine blogs below.