Roy Chen did, that's who.
Sydney-based artist and illustrator, Chen blew me away when I saw his cover for The Last Circus on Earth. I loved it, and many people have asked me about it. And because they did, and I wanted to know more about the shy-to-the-point-of-mysterious Chen and his work, I interviewed him.
Hi Roy! You created the cover for my debut novel, Brio Books' The Last Circus on Earth. If I told you my reaction to seeing it for the first time was a jaw-drop and a very loud 'f*** me!', would that seem weird? [Disclosure: I was wearing a huge grin when I said it.]
I'm happy that you loved the cover! I had a lot of fun putting it together (though now that I think about it, maybe the cover should have just been a shot of the elephant with the machine gun).
The Last Circus is a 400-page spec-fic road-trip from England to China in which a whole bunch of stuff happens. What's your process to pick just one mental image you feel sums up the book?
Usually, I'd just read a few key excerpts (often hand-picked by the author or editor) and be given some 'mood / style reference' images, and the cover would be based around those. But in this case, David [Henley, Brio Books publisher / editor / author] just handed me the manuscript. 'Dystopian apocalyptic sci-fi circus...and elephants. With guns.' So I read a few chapters and also kind of spoiled the ending for myself.
When I start reading to do an illustration, I'm mostly trying to get a feel for the tone first, with the specifics coming later. Often, you end up not needing much more than just the tone. I also go through a couple of different ideas and options before settling on the final [image].
People I've shown the cover have responded with very firm approval - they like your image, and are intrigued to find out more about the book itself. Did you paint this image as if you were the potential reader?
Kind of. I've sort of got one foot stuck in the 'design' door, and the other in the 'artist' door. I start by doing whatever I want, but always end up asking 'does this actually make sense for a fantasy / sci-fi / [insert other qualifier] cover? Full disclosure: my initial concepts for this cover didn't make sense.
For other illustrators out there, what media did you use, and how much is involved in font, layout and overall design? What size is the original artwork? Do you scan that and shrink in Photoshop? It looks like a lot of work - is it?
The image (and the title type) is done entirely in Photoshop. The illustration is a mix of photo-manipulation and digital painting, a process referred to as 'photobashing', which is often used by illustrators and concept artists in the film / games / vfx industries.
The technique is mostly a pragmatic one - it's just the fastest way to get a detailed finish without having to painstakingly draw every detail from scratch. There is still a lot of work integrating elements, painting over things, and drawing in details that don't exist, but far less than starting from nothing. It also means any WIP you might show tends to be more representative of the final image, so other people get a better idea of what they're getting.
The rest of the text is added afterwards in inDesign, which is software more specific to publishing.
What else are you working on, and how can people see more of your art?
I'm still collecting a proper body of work. My older stuff is not really up to par, so my online presence is a 'little' empty. I swear I'm doing something about it!
Can people contact you about commissioning illustrative art / book covers?
For the time being, and particularly if it's a book cover, you can find me through Fantastica / Brio Books - email@example.com
[header image, Roy Chen, blatantly stolen from the wonderful Seizure magazine.]
*See cover below
Why did you write The Last Circus on Earth?
I thought it would be good to travel to the near future to see how things worked out by writing a novel about it. As I was researching and exploring, the characters discovered what I was doing and pretty much took over. I really just edited it from that point on.
So, where did the characters come from? Why these characters and not others?
Did I choose them or did they choose me? After all, there's a lot of life-force in the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, who has been with me since my father came back from communist USSR with a cheap printed translation of Russian Folk Tales. Baba Yaga, and all the other classic Russian characters, became part of my life from then on, joining a host of others in my scruffy little head, from Wonderland, the Looking Glass world, Neverland etc. The circus performers from Tod Browning's 1936 classic Freaks joined the motley crew some time later.
The thugs, carnies and psychopaths are a mix of 'hard men', co-workers and narcissists I've had the pleasure of meeting.
What about the setting of The Last Circus? You travel from Britain to Central Asia, which is quite a hike, and requires dragging the poor reader through one post-Collapse nation after another to get to the denouement, which could've happened anywhere. Why put the reader through all that?
I basically wanted a good look around. If you travel all the way to the year 2070, you're not going to stay in the hotel room.
I'd just come back from a novel-writing trip to 1666 with a pacifist pirate, where I had a look at the roots of the so-called Age of Enlightenment. As a result, I wondered - during this spectacularly shitty era - whether those Enlightenment illusions of 'human progress' were actually delusions. Fifty years into the future seemed enough time to get the gist of where our species is headed, and to see if we made it or not. My characters, on the other hand, wanted more than mere survival - which is why the whole book ended up full of mayhem, mischief, murder and, for Shakespearian counterpoint, love.
What's the plot? In brief.
It's really just a variation on the old 'suicidal assassin boy meets super-intelligent locked-in syndrome girl' story. In mine they have a rescue dog together, and try not to get killed for 400 pages.
It's an adventure story.
Baba Yaga's in it so there's bound to be trouble and some sort of quest.
Does Last Circus have 'themes'? Is it Worthy Reading or escapist trash?
It'll never win any literary prizes.
You literally won the 2019 Fantastica Prize.
Good point, well made. As for themes, there's 'love'. All sorts. Love between lovers, between friends and family, and the most powerful love of all, between humans and dogs. And elephants.
There's also 'death'. Quite a lot of death in there. Being murdered, shot, blown up, dragged under the wheels of a train, drowning...all sorts. Also there's lots of 'nearly dying'. Take a good first-aid kit to 2070, folks. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, why 'intelligence' isn't a marker for compassion, empathy, wisdom or good / smart behaviour, plus questioning the limits of human biology in the context of our extinction crisis.
Spec-fic or sci-fi?
Bit of both. On the sci-fi side, I researched the heck out the singularity concept. The spec-fic side is focused on why homo sapiens can't pull themselves out of their collective dive into global civilisational collapse. I also ask how, if you had unlimited means, you could plausibly(?) augment humans to avoid a permanent end to our particular form of 'consciousness'.
No. I'm not a fascist.
Last question: why are you the only person who could write this particular story?
I'm not. It's hardly original. The only area where I push boundaries is arguing that our current concepts of individual and collective intelligence and consciousness are fundamentally incorrect, and that almost all other sci-fi and spec-fic writers get that wrong.