Our next book of the week is The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze, which we published a few months ago. You can purchase it here in the Written Dreams store, and visit the author and illustrator, Mark Shamlian, at his website.
In this interview, Mark offers his insights on character design and what it’s like to be both an author and illustrator.
About The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze
Will Cheng Lee ever be the same after he’s taken on a wild, miraculous, earth-shaking adventure by the unlikeliest musical superhero?
Cheng Lee, former inventor, physics professor and one-time pioneer in quantum-mechanics owns an accordion shop in London, England where he works as an instrument repairman. His business is failing, his beloved wife has passed, and he may soon be evicted. Now old and broke, all seems futile for Cheng.
One morning a small package arrives, launching the shopkeeper on a crazy, magical journey. It’s not all easy, though, and Cheng faces some hard decisions. When a constable knocks on the shop’s door, his world turns upside down. He’ll need more than luck to get out of this precarious situation.
Along the way, Cheng, his apprentice, and a group of magical, musical cohorts learn the meaning of loyalty, faith, heroism, and the power of believing. But what will this new perspective do to Cheng Lee?
About Mark Shamlian
Mark Shamlian is a freelance illustrator, portrait painter and designer. He resides in a semi-rural area outside of Boston with his wife, Gina. With his debut novel, The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze, he combines his love for illustration, music, and writing. When not engaged in the creative process, he lives an unremarkable life, enriched by various hobbies, humans, and animals.
Q: What was it like to illustrate the characters you wrote about? Difficult? Easy?
A: Some of the characters I fleshed out visually before writing the book. A couple of years prior to writing my book, I and two other partners, composer Andrea Green and Paul Green (based in London), worked on developing a children’s character-based platform for music education and entertainment. I created visuals of the characters and helped in the development of their personalities and stories.
I happened to have a dream in the midst of a flu episode. In this dream, some of the characters that we had developed, plus a number of new ones, appeared to me in a fairly vivid adventure. Over the course of the next couple of nights in a semi-awake, fever state, I filled in many of the gaps in the arc of the tale.
The original shopkeeper in our Mr. Rogers-like education program was an old world Italian character. But in my dream, he was an elderly Chinese man with a background in physics. The accordion hero character in my book has superpower abilities. He can fly with the aid of his accordion/jetpack device. Other characters unique to the book are the old sage, Ling, the crotchety landlord/banker, Mr. Banks, the mob enforcer, Big Ernie Smalls, Archie’s parents, Chairman Hou, the courtroom characters, Eunice Tuttle, Shirley Dunnfor, Judge Higginbottom, Thaddeus Swaggert III, Lady Ima Werthaton, Count Avery Schilling, plus a host of other minor figures.
It was fairly easy to illustrate the new characters as they were presented in vivid detail in my dreams and imagination.
Q: Why set SqueezeboxSqueeze in England versus the United States?
A: In our related entertainment project, the music characters resided in a London music store. This was Paul’s idea, I believe (he is English). As my mother was British, I liked the idea and wanted to retain it in the book.
Q: Are you writing any sequels to The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze?
A: I have ideas for two sequels outlined. At this point, I would like to see if this tale goes anywhere. I genuinely think the characters should live on and I believe the world needs a musical superhero. Let’s see.
Q: What do you do in your free time when not writing or illustrating?
A: These days, I freelance as a designer/illustrator. Although my education background was fine arts (MFA, painting, Boston University), I spent most of my life in the commercial design field: stores, museums, trade show exhibits, visitor centers, corporate events, displays, etc. It paid the bills. I rarely paint these days except for the interior and exterior of my house. I miss it. Other than that, I enjoy playing music. I’ve been in bands my whole life, mostly as a drummer. I was raised in a musical family and studied piano, trombone, oboe, flute, and percussion.
Recently, I started playing again with some older guys like myself, and may be ready to go public again soon. No more bar gigs, though, which wrap up at 2am—that ship has sailed.
Most of the time, I’m happy to hang out with my wife at our home in central Massachusetts, tending to our gardens, enjoying nature and the company of family and friends. Things are pretty low-key these days, which is fine.
Q: Who is your favorite character and why in The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze?
A: It has to be the elderly humble shopkeeper, Cheng Lee. I think he has a great redemption story in SqueezeboxSqueeze. He also reminds me of my late father. My dad was a professional musician (London Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra) who was also a big-hearted, humble man. He reached the height of his profession from the depths of poverty. He never forgot his roots and gave back in the form of free lessons and instrument repair for young musicians of little means. I never heard him utter a negative word about anyone or say anything boastful. With his great talent and the looks of Cary Grant, he could have been excused for being a little arrogant. While in the London Symphony, a famous director at the time begged him to do a screen test. He refused. He just wanted to remain in the background as an orchestral musician. That was his passion.
Q: What advice would you give to other author-illustrators when creating their own books?
A: A lot of it is common sense. First, be very selective regarding which specific passages in a book to illustrate. These often tend to announce themselves, I believe. They may be pivotal points emotionally, unique points of action, or important junctures in plot development. Some scenes are just visually poetic and “ask” to be illustrated, at least in my experience.
Be aware of maintaining a very consistent style in the overall body of illustrations. I’ve found that the tendency is to hurry, which sometimes compromises the final results. By placing many illustrations together in close proximity, it’s easier to spot significant differences in style that need to be reconciled. Maybe these differences are in level of detail, line-weight, background treatment, etc. I would suggest from the outset, to have the “look” of your work be consistent. If you use a digital tablet (like me), remember which Photoshop pens you use from illustration to illustration. Remember percentages of grays in shadows and backgrounds if you are working in black and white. Keep a consistent (and limited) color palette when working in color. This will unify things. If you establish these details from the beginning, you won’t have to go back and rework pictures. At least, not as much.
Also, remember, if you work digitally, to work in appropriate dpi resolution. That is, maintain around 300 dots per inch resolution for the final physical size of the illustration on the page. This is required by printers for a clean output when your book goes to print.
Lastly, if you have repeated images of characters, make sure they are consistent in all views. You may have to draw a character from as many views as possible before you embark on series of illustrations. Try and really nail down who your characters are visually. It’s easier said than done, though. You don’t want the look of a character to evolve over the course of a book, unless it’s a shape-shifter.