Interview: James Dixon and Tamsin Rosewell on ‘The Billow Maiden’

Hello, James and Tamsin. Since we’re separated in space and time, I thought I’d bring us together here in the midst of the novel’s action.

It’s late at night, and we’re standing on a pebbly beach with the moonlight radiating through falling rain. The air is also misted with sea spray, and we’re looking across to a lighthouse, where a mysterious figure stands at a window overlooking the waves. I’ve just seen two girls come running towards the lighthouse with a dog.

James, where are we and why is your novel set here?

James             This stretch of coast is fictional. However, it is very much intended to belong on the Scottish coast, east or west, on a fictionalised gestalt of the very beautiful islands this country boasts.

There is more than Scotland in the coast, however. I grew up going on holiday to Cornwall every year. My brother and I would spend hours exploring the caves along the Cornish coast – it’s dark, mysterious, and very much mythical. A combination of Arthurian legend and smuggling mythos makes it perfect for a young boy’s imagination!

Nick                And why did you combine the two real places in a fictional one?

James             Partly because of the above – these scenes are so ingrained in my own memories that I couldn’t wait to bring them to the pages of my novel. Much of the novel also revolves around environmental concerns. I wanted somewhere that was immediately, tangibly, almost overwhelmingly attached to nature. Salt-stained cliffs battered every day by the sea’s fury seems a good place to start.

Nick                The description of ‘billow maiden’ doesn’t come from Scottish mythology, is that right? Where did you find it and what led you to use it?

James             I benefitted from some of the most extraordinary luck whilst writing The Billow Maiden. I originally called the novel ‘The Rising Tide’. The idea was that nature was rising to reassert itself following the abuse it suffered from some of the island’s inhabitants (or mankind more broadly).

I wanted a selkie, as they exist somewhere between world of natural myth and of humankind, being able to transform between being sea dwelling faeries and taking on the appearance of women.

Then, whilst researching selkies and similar snatches of folklore, I came across the billow maidens. They are sort of Norse mythology’s answer to selkies, mermaids, sirens, and the like. There are nine of them, all daughters of the sea, and they are all named for some aspect of the sea. One of them was named Hefring for the rising tide. Hefring immediately became my selkie-like being and I changed the book’s title accordingly.

Nick                 The folkloric element in the book seems to be in balance with a much more real-world storyline involving Ailsa, one of the girls who just ran past. How did you come to put those elements together?

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

James             This is what folklore and fairy tales are all about. They aren’t fantasy or speculative – it isn’t about creating new worlds for new adventures. It’s about exploring and describing human nature. These stories are about who and what we are. As such, they are as relevant to today’s world as they have ever been. We can still see ourselves, our own strengths and weaknesses, reflected in them.

It’s part of folklore’s enduring appeal.

However, yes, there was a process of interweaving the mystical with the humdrum. This was easily done through spatial scene setting. Essentially, and very simply, when Ailsa is in the cave or lighthouse, she is in Hefring’s world. When not, she isn’t. And then these worlds eventually collide.

Obviously, I use rain and storms as a metaphor for Hefring’s growing presence in Ailsa’s world – this intrudes on the island, wearing it down, causing it to flood and so forth. I also very purposefully linked Hefring with Ailsa’s mum and her own illness and frailty, creating a duality that Ailsa must learn to navigate.

In this way, the folklore and the real world begin apart yet linked, then slowly move together until they fully and viscerally overlap.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                The air around us is filled with a strange sort of song, which seems to emanate from that lighthouse. What inspired that for you, and how did you go about capturing it?

James             As above, I looked into various selkie-style myths. Most canons and mythos have their own take on them. That song is very much a siren song, taken from Greek mythology. Hefring uses it in part to lure the girls to her whenever she needs them.

However, it is far more of a dialogue in this setting. It is a song sung between Hefring and the world, showing her at peace with nature. The stronger she gets, the stronger her song becomes, the closer she grows to the natural world of her home environment.

Nick                The novel seems to have a hopeful quality despite its various dark moments. Did you want that for readers?

James             I never look to be purposefully hopeful. Previous works of mine haven’t been, though they were aimed at adult audiences so this perhaps easier to forgive. I wanted to show nature’s rage and the effect of our ruination of and increasing separateness from the natural world. I also wanted to show the true face of depression and negativity.

However, as Tamsin has pointed out, The Billow Maiden is a story of dualities. Ailsa’s mum’s illness isn’t based on depression; it’s based on bipolar, from which I suffer. Bipolar by its very definition is a state of duality. These dualities show up throughout the story: Ailsa and Camilla; Hefring and Ailsa’s mum; nature and man; sea and land; fair weather and storms. Add despair and hope to this. I didn’t try to do this. Rather, it naturally arose from the book’s own nature.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                Tamsin, your cover feels quite unlike other children’s book covers of today – painterly, intricate and atmospheric. How did the concept develop?

Tamsin            The whole concept and finish of the cover image has its origins in the book – I know that sounds obvious, but I think that one of the reasons the book looks different and (I hope) stands out on Middle Grade shelves is because it deliberately doesn’t follow a publishing trend of what an MG book ‘should’ look like. The first thing I did was speak to James. As a bookseller the thing I hear most often from authors is that they are quietly unhappy with their book cover – they’ll never say so publicly of course, they’ll support the book and acknowledge their illustrator. But because I’ve heard that so many times over the last 15 years, it was really important to me that I created something that James liked and felt connected to.

We have a ‘tradition’ in publishing that authors and illustrators don’t meet and talk; the publisher controls that. I suspect that is the origin of this disconnect between what an author sees as imagery for their book, and a publisher’s desire to make it ‘fit’ into a trend or a particular place in the market. I think it says a lot about Bella Pearson and Guppy Books, they James and I were put in contact pretty much immediately! When so many publishers, even smaller ones, are stuck in a rut feeling the need to stick to their own outdated ‘traditions’, Guppy feels intelligent, fresh and modern in its approach to publishing. 

Brian Wildsmith’s cover to Roger Lancelyn Green’s book of Norse myth

Nick                So how did you approach that collaboration?

Tamsin           James and I had long email conversations and I asked him, for example, about the imagery of Norse Mythology. Each generation has its own access to the Norse – for my son’s generation it is Marvel and Loki; for my generation it was Roger Lancelyn Green and the work of illustrators like Victor Ambrus and Chris Achilleos – there is a lot to choose from! James talked a lot about Arthur Rackham’s images of the Norse; those detailed ink and watercolour images. He was keen to have Rackham and his contemporaries, the work of the Glasgow School: Margaret Macdonald and Jessie M King for example, visually referenced. We talked too about atmosphere and energy – we could have chosen for it to look slightly menacing, or spooky, or even like a sort of Tintin adventure. James talked to me about the energy of the storms, and said ‘something like the power and churning waves of Turner – but for children’. If you’re the illustrator of a book, information like that is incredibly helpful!

Also, I read the book! Again, I know that sounds really obvious, but I hear from fellow illustrators that they’re given an extract, some character guidelines an indication of what the publisher has in mind, and half a dozen other book covers that they want it to look like. Why does anyone assume that if a book ‘looks like’ lots of other books, that it will help sales? It doesn’t at all, it just confuses customers and exasperates booksellers!

Jessie M. King’s Little Mermaid, 1923

Nick                I have to agree, there’s a great homogeneity in book covers – and sometimes, I think, underestimation of their young readers. The Billow Maiden has a richness and complexity that I can imagine children poring over.

Tamsin            The whole structure of the cover, spine and back cover of the book is based around the duality which runs through the novel: two girls, two ravens, two keys, two locks, the old way and the new way, the land and the sea, day and night, illness and health. The duality is even reflected in the images inside the book – for example, on the opening page, I even painted the publisher’s logo (a little Guppy fish) twice, not just once. But I needed to have read the book to have seen that powerful element of it. You don’t get that from an extract.

Nick                One of the immediate things you notice as a reader is that it’s not digitally produced, it has all the texture of a physical painting.

I’ve nothing at all against digital cover art, except that there is an awful lot of it, which can make a children’s section of a bookshop feel like a monoculture.  The bookseller in me would love to see designers really start to explore what a book cover, spine and back cover can be. Working traditionally also means that I have a physical object, in this case a 90cm x 60cm canvas – and we’ve really used that canvas to support the book. It’s been travelling round the country visiting Waterstones and Blackwell’s stores from Canterbury to Edinburgh. When it comes back to me, it will be going to schools to allow students to see the image close up and think about the importance of design in the book industry. We’ve turned the older way of doing things to our, and I hope to the bookshops’, advantage.

Margaret Macdonald, The White Rose and the Red Rose, 1902

Nick                The book is also filled with wonderfully evocative undersea images. Did you draw them from an aquarium or elsewhere?

I live in landlocked Warwickshire, about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in any direction! So popping down to the beach and collecting seaweed and shells wasn’t an option. I know its not as evocative, but I did manage to get to London Aquarium where I ignored all the glamourous glowing jellyfish and zombie-eyed sharks, in order to look closely at the various types of seaweed and how they tangle themselves together, and into each other. There was also an element of research – my fishing boat silhouettes are pulling up nets bursting with Atlantic Cod – one of the main species fished there, and over which many corporate vs local battles have been fought. It is a tiny detail, but I wanted to get it right – I could have just painted generic fish I suppose, but that wouldn’t have served James work so well!

Nick This is your first published illustration work, I think – how was the experience?

Tamsin               It is! I loved working with designer, Ness Wood and I learned so much from her too, I was totally open at the start and basically told her that I knew nothing at all about design, so asked, and took, her advice at all times! It seems that having been a bookseller for 15 years, I actually knew more than I thought I did – when you’ve seen and worked with that many book covers, you know what catches the eye – and also what happens to a book when the cover doesn’t quite work for it. Then there was the matter of the book’s spine – as a bookseller I also understand how important a distinctive spine is. If you’re lucky, for the first few months your book will be face up on a table or in a window display in a bookshop, but after that it will be on a shelf, in a bookshop or a library, with only the spine visible. The spine of The Billow Maiden was constructed very carefully to represent the cover and back cover of the book – you need a bookseller or librarian to be able to lay their hands on it immediately, even if it has got itself into the wrong space on a shelf.

Nick                So do you have more illustration work on the way?

Tamsin           I’ve done a double book cover for Berlie Doherty’s new novel, The Haunted Hills, which is out from Uclan in early October. When I say double cover, I mean that the image extends from the inside from cover, to the front cover, spine, back cover and then the inside back cover too – there are three canvases for this book. Berlie is one of the great writers of our time, she’s won the Carnegie TWICE!! It was a huge honour and a total joy to work on The Haunted Hills with her, publisher Hazel from Uclan and designer Becky Chilcott too. Having a cover that uses all that space, opens out into one continuous landscape and represents that past as well as the present, is what I mean by exploring what a book cover can be.

Illustration by Tamsin Rosewell

Nick                And James, do you have another project underway?

James             Always! I am just in the process of finishing my next middle grade novel. My agent has a rough copy at the moment and I’ll be spending the next little while finishing it off with her input. I’m also about two-thirds through the first draft of a book aimed at adult readers, a gothic horror detective story with plenty of parallels to The Billow Maiden.

Nick                Sounds marvellous! Now, let’s get out of this bad weather – I think it’s time for some tea and chocolate brownies!

Tamsin           I did actually draw some chocolate brownie silhouettes for the inside of the book, but they did just look a bit silly! We didn’t use those images. Still, it was a great excuse to bake loads of chocolate brownies so I could do some proper artistic ‘observation’…

A big thank you to James and Tamsin for their time (and to Tamsin for supplying the images that illustrate this blog piece). The Billow Maiden by James Dixon, illustrated by Tamsin Rosewell (9781913101725) is published by Guppy Books, priced £7.99. You can order it from Waterstones here, or your favourite independent bookshop. It’s a perfect mix of atmosphere, character and ancient magic – enjoy as summer slips away, envisioning the surge of stormy waves on the coast, and a strange aura of ancient song…

An image from The Little Mermaid illustrated by Jessie M. King, an inspiration for Tamsin’s illustrations

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