Today we’re very pleased to be kicking off a serialization of The Lost Machine, a short novel illustrated and written by Richard A. Kirk. Kirk is no stranger to weird fiction–he’s illustrated works by Clive Barker, Caitlín R. Kiernan, China Mieville, and more. With protean landscapes and chimerical creatures, Kirk’s artwork fits perfectly within the weird fiction landscape. We’re featuring an interview with Kirk today, and in the next month we’ll also be posting more of his artwork. We think WFR readers will also enjoy The Lost Machine (available online via Richard A. Kirk’s website), which features deadly plagues, witches, and artificial intelligence in a dark fantastical setting. Be sure to check it out after you read our interview below.
Can you talk a bit about your artwork? What media do you work in? Are there any works that you think might appeal to weird fiction fans in particular?
I make drawings with ink, silverpoint and graphite. Most of my work is monochromatic. Art and books have been at the center of my imagination for as long as I can remember. Books were my introduction to art. Illustrators were my first artistic models, more so than fine artists, which is why I worked to develop my draughtmanship, compositional skills and narrative. Much of my art would appeal to weird fiction fans because the imagery incorporates a lot of morphing forms and bizarre creatures. I grew up reading a lot of weird fiction. Those early reading experiences find their way into my work to this day in the form of monsters, lush gardens and crumbling settings.
You’ve said that you have an interest in “the forms and processes of the natural world,” which is evident both in your artwork and writing. How did that develop?
Growing up I spent a lot of time in the woods and places that I had no business being such as gravel pits, rail yards, and the fringes of industrial sites. I grew up in a town that owed its livelihood to the petrochemical industry. From the head of the river you could see miles of refinery lights and flares. In the other direction lay Lake Huron. The lake was filled with all manner of life and the beach was an endless source of natural detritus. The neglected areas around the government docks and an abandoned foundry were great places to look for insects – a childhood obsession. The juxtaposition of the industrial and the natural world that caused me to develop an interest in forms and processes. When I began as an artist, it was very natural for me to draw a visual vocabulary founded on this interest.
Are there any other artists or authors who have influenced you as a writer and artist? Also, are there any illustrated works you’ve enjoyed?
Many of the book illustrators from the late 19th and 20th century influenced me when I was young – people like Franklin Booth, Maurice Sendak, N. C. Wyeth, John Austen, Henry Clark and William Heath Robinson. There are far too many to name them all. What attracted me was their ability to transport the reader. I wanted to do that too. Mervyn Peake, the English artist and author of the Gormenghast books had an enormous impact on me. He provided a powerful early model of the artist/author. The work of the Brothers Quay was a later influence. I became aware of the Quays through an article in a film journal that was accompanied by a number of stills. I was fascinated by the detail and atmosphere in their painstakingly created films. Salvador Dali was also an important influence. He is so well known that mentioning him as an influence seems almost banal. But his work had a profound effect on me from the first because of his fusing of immaculate technique with strange imagery. At the time I was exposed to Dali, it was more difficult to access art, there was no internet. Dali was a revelation, opening up the entire world of Dada and Surrealism to me. It released me from any notion that art had limits.
Illustrations are an invitation to the reader to visualize, by providing a pause for the reader to reflect on the story. They are a part of the design that makes reading a physical book a visual pleasure. For this reason, the placement and style of illustrations in a book it very important. The art should flow with the story and not be a jarring interruption. An example most people would understand would be E. H. Shepard’s illustration for the Wind in the Willows. You can read the story without them, but their presence somehow opens up space around the narrative for the reader to occupy.
How did you come up with the idea of The Lost Machine? In the beginning, did you start with some art first or did you start writing?
The Lost Machine started with a drawing I did with markers some years ago. It was two squiggly figures standing on top of a large head-like machine in the middle of a wasteland. I wanted to know who those figures were, so I started to write their story. As so often happens, the story veered away from the original starting point with the result that there is no such scene in the book. The illustrations that are printed in the book were created after the story was written.
Was working on illustrations for your own work any different from illustrating other authors’ works?
My approach is basically the same in both cases. When you are illustrating your own stuff you can proceed with greater confidence because you know how things look in your mind’s eye, and that you have interpreted things correctly. There is always a little nervousness when you are illustrating another person’s work that you might not capture things quite right. There are times however when you feel like there is a really good match. When I was illustrating Clive Barker’s Weaveworld it felt like I was illustrating something of my own, because the scenes we picked were close to my aesthetic.
The Lost Machine features a very rich world that includes pestilence, artificial intelligence, witches, and so forth. What were some of the influences on the world of The Lost Machine?
Thank you. It is difficult to say what directly influenced The Lost Machine. I’m constantly soaking things up, so a lot of the influences are indirect. I think of the atmosphere in films by Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. Books like The Etched City by K. J. Bishop and Icefields by Thomas Wharton also played a part in their own ways. It was the case with The Lost Machine and perhaps even more with my latest work Necessary Monsters that influences tended to be visual. Artists such as Agostino Arrivabene, Odilon Redon and Lebbeus Woods just to name a very few were triggers. I am intrigued by the idea of a future culture confronted by technology from the past that is beyond understanding, and as a consequence is misunderstood or regarded as magical, or even evil. The world of The Lost Machine has been overbuilt many times and exists the way old European cities are layered over other historical periods. Its culture is utterly divorced from the technology of the past.
What projects are you currently working on? Do you plan to return to The Lost Machine setting or illustrated novels again?
I recently finished writing a new novel, Necessary Monsters, which I am happy to announce will be published by Resurrection House in early 2017. Necessary Monsters concerns the characters and world of The Lost Machine. However, it is a much longer standalone story. The setting was compelling to me and I wanted to see and experience that world more fully through the eyes of the characters. The protagonist, Moss, is a fugitive. He learns that a childhood friend, long thought dead, is in fact alive. A criminal organization called the Red Lamprey tasks him to find the girl or be forced back to prison. The novel is about his search and revelations about his place in a much larger story. It’s full of strange set pieces, museums, witches and AI! I have at least one more novel in mind for this world, so I will be working on that this year as well.
Another project in the wings is a collection of short stories called Magpie’s Ladder. The 5 stories, one long and four shorter pieces, are completed and awaiting illustrations.
On the art front, I have 4 shows lined up for this year. So between illustrating and gallery shows I am spending a lot of time at the drawing table!