Q&A with Mark Elvins, illustrator of the FLYNTLOCK BONES series

1. What does your working day look like?

Like so many other people, we’re home-schooling at the moment. My son is surging through his History and Politics A Levels, so sketching and inking-in take place against the background thrum of Lenin and the UK Constitution. I’m lucky to live in Harrogate, so I can take our dog Peanut for a walk on the Stray when the combined pressure of communism and cross-hatching becomes unbearable.

2. Do you have any rituals to get you in the mood before you start work?

I work in my studio at the very top of my house. I go through breakfast fads – a passionately held propensity for porridge one week, a burning desire for a bacon sandwich the next – but, whatever it is, I do like to feel properly fed before I start. And, for that matter, during. Which is where the lunchtime cheese & onion toasties come in. So, basically, cooking is a great distraction from doing any work. But, hey, you need something to soak up all that chocolate consumed during the day, right? I grab some news from the BBC News website, strike some attitudes, then it’s a loud toot on my highly coloured plastic trumpet – no, really – and I’m off! I need silence to concentrate when I’m designing the illustrations – checking the text for the visual details, getting the right size and shape for the picture, and the right weight of line – but once I’m grooving along in ink, it’s all about Lauren on BBC Radio 6 Music; and Melv on In Our Time and Evan on PM, both on BBC Radio 4.

3. How did you get into illustrating?

Flyntlock Bones: The Sceptre of the Pharaohs was my first book. After I left a decades-long career in law to do something that I found a tiny bit less soul-sapping than suing other solicitors, I did the MA course in children’s book illustration at Anglia Ruskin/Cambridge School of Art and Flyntlock Bones was, I am happy to say, a great thing to cut my teeth on, so huge gratitude to Sarah Pakenham at Scallywag Press for my break.

4. What do you use to draw and how many roughs and versions do you do of each character or scene? 

I found that the adult characters came to me much more easily than Flynn and Red did, and I had to work for weeks on getting them right… and not just right once, but consistently right. The Flyntlock Bones books have a gallery of characters at the beginning, so I work on the look of each character at the start of each book. I’m aiming to come up with characters that are distinctive and funny and very different from one another. I draw them first in HB pencil (not so difficult to erase when you’re inking them over) and then, once my publisher and designer have OKed them, I overdraw them using a good old 0.8 Unipin pen (and a 0.1 for fine shading) on paper pages cut from Seawhite of Brighton sketchbooks. It pains me to cut them out of the sketchbooks but I can’t scan them properly otherwise. I’ve found that, as I’ve got to know the characters in the course of the two books (and I am now working on a third), it’s got much easier to draw them. I guess that’s one of the joys of working on a series. Because they come more easily, they are quicker to draw and look more spontaneous and naturalistic. They loosen up. Sometimes there are days when they just jump out of the end of the pencil on to the page. Others … errrm … not. And it’s on those days that I have to coax, wheedle, cajole, bribe and shout (etc etc) at the pencil.

3. How closely do you work with the author when imagining his characters on paper?

Derek has a great visual imagination and a strong sense of what his characters look like while he is writing the book, which is a great steer, but also daunting! We both have a love of the comics that we used to read when we we kids (him, The Dandy, weekly; me, Sparky annuals), so we kinda share the same language of comic characters, their demeanours and actions. I don’t chat to him (and thanks to Covid we’ve never actually met!) but we do exchange emails, and we both talk to our publisher, so I know when I am getting closer to what he’d like. I think it’s a nice balance because we can both bring different directions to a character. I enjoy surprising him, though: in Flyntlock Bones: The Eye of Mogdrod, the feast scene on pages 36-37 called for a handsome warrior figure, so I thought Derek, with his film-star rugged good looks, would be just the ticket. (Actually, did you know that Derek?)

4. Do you research the historical settings (ancient Egypt in book 1, Ireland in book 2)

Well, the Egyptian hieroglyph module on my course helped – only joking! I did study history at university decades ago – and I can’t deny I do like a bit of Anglo-Saxon or Tudor – but Derek’s stories are properly fantastical, so I’m not aiming to recreate a specific time or place. Of course, what I know about a particular period does influence the general feeling of the book – the shape of the architecture, for example – a lot of that comes from films, I think. And little bits of historical texts leak in too: the bird in that same feast scene on pages 36-37 of Flyntlock Bones: The Eye of Mogdrod comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, written in about 731AD: “The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.” To be honest, I also sometimes find that illustrations I have seen long, long ago – maybe from books I saw as a child, or books that I read to my son – influence and inspire me subconsciously. So the ground-breaking Pauline Baynes line drawings in the Narnia books live on, in a way. 

5. Are there any hidden references for people to spot?

Plenty! It’s irresistible, I’m afraid. I’ve successfully snuck Derek in there – see above – and if you look closely you might spot some other people too in the feast scene and elsewhere in Mogdrod, I couldn’t possibly say … and Flynn is, of course, modelled on my son! (Top illustrator tip: have children you can order around, so you can draw them!) And I wouldn’t be surprised if Peanut barges her way into book three, too.

6. Which is your favourite character in the FB books?

Well, I can tell you that my least favourite is Scratch, the ship’s cat. He’s real trouble! I find cats – unlike rats, which are now a doddle – difficult to draw. For me, the more grotesque a character is the better, so I really enjoy drawing Fishbreath. Derek says he is “a meaty-faced pirate with a drooping moustache and wild eyebrows… [who] doesn’t have a hook like most pirates, instead he has a large silver spoon.” I put him in long-johns, a huge dirty apron and a chef’s hat like a partially collapsed Yorkshire pudding. Any resemblance to me rustling up a cheese & onion toastie is purely coincidental.

FLYNTLOCK BONES: The Sceptre of the Pharoahs and The Eye of Mogdrod are both available now in paperback (£6.99, Scallywag Press)

Find out more at scallywagpress.com, and be sure to check out the rest of the Blog Tour (see banner below).

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