Getting into the Spooky Spirit with Illustrator and Author Edward Carey

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Mainly I just draw and draw and draw.

Edward Carey

We’re officially in the thick of spooky season, with Home Depot 12-foot skeletons wreaking havoc in front yards across the country and parents making those dreaded last-minute Halloween costume runs to Party City. For illustrator and author Edward Carey, every season is spooky, as the England native is fascinated with surrealist folklore characters that he brings to life with pencil and paper. He’s been posting one of these sketches a day on his Instagram since mid-August, counting down to the release of his newest book, Edith Holler.

To get in the seasonal spirit, I asked Carey a few questions about his creative practice and affinity for folklore. His responses are below.

An improvised monster

How did you develop your signature illustration style?

I didn’t train as an illustrator and haven’t taken art lessons since school, but I study a lot of illustrators and they give me ideas. Mainly I just draw and draw and draw. A couple of decades ago I started doing cross-hatching and haven’t stopped since.

What about folklore and folklore characters do you find so compelling as an illustrator?

Folklore characters say so much about the landscape they come from; they describe it in shorthand. Suddenly you understand a place much better and feel its personality. I love all those old tales and stories. They’re primal, they describe people and their fears so perfectly. And suddenly the landscape springs to life. To paraphrase Claude Levi Strauss: “Monsters (he said animals) are good to think with.”

I love drawing, I love the pencil; I feel you can never fully fathom the pencil. The longer you work with it, the more it shows you.

Edward Carey

You’re incredibly prolific, seemingly sketching constantly, and are posting a character drawing a day up until Halloween on your Instagram. What is it about this drawing cadence and structured nature of sharing your work that you enjoy so much?

I picked it up during the pandemic. I said on Twitter, very near the beginning, I’d do a drawing a day until this was all over, thinking it might last a month or two at most. In the end I drew for 500 days. 

I love drawing, I love the pencil; I feel you can never fully fathom the pencil. The longer you work with it, the more it shows you. Daily drawing was a sort of exercise for me, a challenge—especially to fit it in among other things—but also something peaceful and constructive, a quiet moment in every day. 

The continuity was a comfort during COVID, and now it’s a daily way of pushing myself. But doing drawings from folklore has made me look closer at those tales and they’re so extraordinary, bizarre, moving, and compelling.

Mr. Jet, a theater ghost

How do your writing and visual arts practices inform one another?

I always draw the characters I write about, it’s my way of getting to know them. If I can’t see them, I feel they’re a mystery to me and drawing them challenges the writing. Sometimes they argue with each other and it takes a while for them to agree. I try to make different pieces of art for each book. Sometimes it’s sculpture in clay and then cast, or pencil drawings that I say are made by the narrating character, or pen and ink sketches in squid ink because the narrator’s stuck inside the belly of a massive shark and that’s all he can get hold of. 

My latest novel, set inside a theater, is illustrated with sections and characters and backdrops and side tabs from a Victorian toy theater— but this theater tells the story in the novel. Technically, you could cut the book up and assemble the theater, or you could download it from my website. I love making things related to my books— busts or full-size wooden puppets, or death masks in wax. 

When I’ve assembled enough words and objects, I think a book must be getting close to being done.

What are you being for Halloween?

Just myself I’m afraid. I’m not much for dressing up, though my daughter adores it. 

Growing up in England we didn’t have Halloween really, instead we had Guy Fawkes night which could be called, rather unfortunately, “burn a Catholic night.” It always seemed amazing to me that you’d make your Guy and burn him on a bonfire.

I do love Halloween. I still can’t get over the fact that you simply walk up and ring people’s doorbells and ask for some candy and that, for one night a year, is completely acceptable.

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