We’re kicking off October with a Friday Feature! Friday Features are an irregular occurrence on my blog that include things other than book reviews, something a little extra. This might include author interviews (hint to any authors out there who want to get interviewed), bibliographies, book trailers and program ideas. While I’m not limiting myself to talk about these things just on Fridays, it will be something extra special to finish off the work week.

I’m so excited to bring you an interview I conducted a very long time ago with Piotr Parda, illustrator of The Gentleman Bat. I read it a while back and was so entranced by his artwork that I had to contact him, but I had always planned on kicking off the month of bats, costumes, and the unexplained with this Friday Feature. So thank you to Piotr Parda for answering my questions and for being so patient with the publication of his answers.

Gentleman BatTitle: The Gentleman Bat
Author: Abraham Schroeder
Illustrator: Piotr Parda
ISBN: 9780991386604
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Ripple Grove Press, c2014.

Victorian inspired costumes are donned by a bat and his beau in a nighttime stroll. Schroeder’s rhyming couplets are descriptive and set the scene and direction for Parda’s detailed illustrations. It tells the tale of a “gentleman bat” who meets his date, they dance the night away in the public square, and then return to their respective homes in the rain, under the cover of the gentleman’s umbrella. While the story is sweet, more mood then mayhem, the phenomenal pictures inevitably steal the show. After you pour over them on your own, you can glimpse at the process and find a list of Easter eggs to discover, prompting additional returns to the book. A coworker pointed out that the clothes even have slits to accommodate the bat’s long wings and their attachment to the shorter bat legs. In the final scene, where the bat is tucking himself in for the night, his nightcap has slits for his ears so it stay on his head even when he’s hanging upside down. A great book to share with a group, but also take the time to share one on one so everyone can get a close look at this detailed debut for both author and illustrator.

I had the opportunity to speak with illustrator Piotr Parda about his work and creative process:

  • First, did you do any research regarding bat anatomy before starting? How did building the model pictured on the book’s website aid in your illustration efforts?

It’s safe to say that the research was the larger (or longer) part of the work than completing the illustrations. It was mostly about finding some good solutions to the problems that come with drawing the  anthropomorphic (human shaped) bats: how to make them able to walk, dance and gesture despite of the wings being the most dominant part of their bodies but most of all what would be the best way to design some fancy clothes for them. As you know the wing membrane stretches right from the bat’s ankle all the way to the tip of its pinky. No way a bat could put on a pair of human pants! There is a huge amount of bat related material on the internet and we saw all of it. The wire toy I built for reference was supposed to help me with arranging the poses. It was like one of those little wooden dolls artists use for anatomy drawing, except bat shaped. Strangely enough, once my ‘action figure’ was ready, drawing poses came naturally and I rarely had to resort to looking at my doll-bat. It is also very helpful to me personally when I try to imagine that I myself am the creature I draw.  Since the skeleton of the bat is based on the same “template” as the human one, it wasn’t hard to imagine my fingers stretched far enough to support my weight in flight. Believe or not the wings of the bat bend the same way human fingers do. If you saw me working, you would notice that I’m looking at my fingers a lot.

  • Readers see a significant amount of everyday items created specifically for bat use, such as the scissors and the beetle pets. We also see the bats wearing glasses and monocles, a vendor selling ear plugs, and adapted clothing. What sort of collaboration was there between you and the author when designing these details?

Yes, all bats are sporting some eye-ware in our book. They are bats! Wearing earplugs might be a stretch because for a bat it would be an equivalent of a blindfold. But because the glasses help them see, maybe the earplugs would’t affect their orientation in space too much.

(EDIT from blogger: I guess it’s my mistake, as I thought the vendor was selling ear plugs. I’ll have to go back and take a third – or is it fourth – look at the book.)

Once we knew we are going to create a story about humanoid bats, the ideas and quirky jokes came down like an avalanche. Abraham would pitch some ideas to me and I would tell him if they are possible to draw – for me at least. I was sketching some of my own ideas and Abraham would tell me if it resonates with his vision or not. There is still a lot of details that could’t be drawn but we feel as if they are included in the story: there are coins with profiles of some prominent historical bats featured on them, there is a lot of different bat snacks with candied bugs and there is bat jewelry. I had to try very hard to avoid drawing bat gloves for obvious reasons. We were exchanging ideas via e-mail mostly. One time we’ve spent nearly an hour on Skype to figure out the umbrella scene. Waving umbrellas in front of the computer and taking screen shots was the best way.

  • Quite frequently books featuring smaller characters (like the Borrowers or the Littles) show every day items made from adapted materials (like a table from an empty spool). There is no such adaptation seen in your photos. The chaise lounge is a chaise lounge, and not a matchbox filled with tissue or cotton balls. Were you ever tempted to go that route, and what prompted you to make this world more “realistic”?

We eliminated this kind of depiction right from the start. Our bats, the inhabitants of the town called Batford, are the masters of their own world. Even though they might still be the size of an average vampire bat, their world matches their size, not the other way around. It’s an alternate universe in which the vampire bats evolved into talking, singing, dancing and clothes wearing individuals. There are no humans to speak of in Batford. We also decided to avoid carriages being pulled by bunnies or squirrels. Mini bat-horses would be simply too weird even in our scale of weirdness.

  • The methods and materials you use for this book are a sharp departure from the works found on your website. Was it a challenge to get the right “look”, and what impacted your final decision to use the methods you did?

When I show the books I illustrate to some of my old friends, they often exclaim: “So, this is the stuff you’re doing right now!”. Well, not exactly…

I’m used to this binary system in my work. When I feel like I’m getting tired of the disciplined and labor intensive illustration work,  I complete my deadlines and start working on my artwork ranging from building objects to creating moving images and abstract paintings. When in need of more focus, I come back to book illustration. For me there are no two projects that would require using the same medium. Why would there be? I like the idea of being “medium conscious”. For example if you were to print a book about saving trees, would you use paper or recycled plastic?

The technique for the bat book was inspired by the 1880 woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The mood of this particular image was our basis for the technique from the beginning. Of course I haven’t had enough time or skills to work with traditional wood blocks but I used the next best thing: bamboo pen, ink and watercolor – tools often used for designing woodblock prints. There is no need to create woodblocks when faster and more accurate printing technologies are available, unless you are exploring the beauty of the old technique. I also found a lot of inspiration for my ink lines in some classic comic book titles such as “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore, but also XIX century painting, victorian prints, some old illustrated stories such as “The Wind in The Willows” and Charles Dickens’ stories. Among the inspirations you can also find Peter Bruegel the Elder, architecture and street signs of Buenos Aires, architecture of Harvard Square and Beacon Hill,  architecture of London,  American cinema (“Singing in the Rain” and “Midnight”), British movies and TV shows. Even “Doctor Who”!

  • What does your workshop look like? Can you provide a picture?

I’m afraid a picture would be of no use right now. My desk at which I usually draw and do my computer work is quite messy at the moment, so is my work table. There is no way anyone could discern a pattern from this chaos. I guess I’m overdue for some discipline and focus. One thing is for sure: I did all my bat illustrations using a special pulley mechanism enabling me to hang up side down and of course it was all done in the light of a candle.

I may have made some of it up…

  • I read on your website that it took years to complete the book. Did you, the author, or the publisher ever get impatient with the process? How did you maintain your focus throughout? I understand you are friends with the author. Did your work on the book ever strain the friendship, or vice versa?

Talking for myself here, I never got impatient with the process as much as people around me did. (I’m laughing here a little) It took a lot of patience for them to put up with this little obsession.

Even though the author’s idea originated in 2006 (?) the work itself wasn’t continuous.  We were mostly fantasizing about the bat world, exchanging ideas and sketches. There were at least two versions of more or less finished Gentleman Bat before this one. What was different about this last version was that a brand new publishing house (Ripple Grove Press) bravely decided to make our story their first book to ever be published. What helps in regaining focus the most is a deadline. Since “The Gentleman Bat” was the very first product to launch a new company I knew that my work had to be as good as it can be. But no pressure… (there would be a wink and laughing here if I was talking)

In reality working on The Gentleman Bat was very pleasant and for the first time in my career I felt like I could take as much time as I needed to do my best. I welcomed all feedback from the author, the publishers and anybody else (even my parents) because it helped in creating even better work. I guess it’s what one would expect when a group of like-minded people works on something.

  • Are you planning on doing any other books in the future?

I would like to work on more books, yes, but I guess wanting to do something can’t really be called “planning”.  The Gentleman Bat was the first book created independently after abandoning the more stressful commission based work. Until then I wasn’t even sure if I would even get back to books.

If  I ever work on more books I will try to recapture the sense of creating something that doesn’t necessarily have to become the hit of the season but rather becomes one of those worn around the edges books that can be found on many bookshelves a hundred years from now. Something you could call “an old favorite”.

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All pictures included in the interview are from the book’s website and I strongly encourage everyone to take a peak at large quantity of photos found there for a more in-depth behind the scenes experience. You can find out more about Piotr Parda and the other forms of artwork that he creates through his website.

Personally, I would suggest pairing Gentleman Bat with another old favorite, Stellaluna, for two very different looks at the bat world. For similar stories, readers might want to check out Lindbergh the Tale of the Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann which has equally detailed drawings of a small rodent trying to make a big impact, although his story is more traditionally set in the world of humans.

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