November 18, 2008

Winter Blog Blast Tour, Day Two: D.M. Cornish

Gosh, we are two lucky ladies here at FW. Seriously. Yesterday the WBBT kicked off for us with an interview from truly imaginative and talented Elizabeth Wein, and today, we continue our spree with none other than the author of the unique and epic Monster Blood Tattoo series, D.M. Cornish. We're really, really, really, really excited about having him here today -- so forgive us the occasional fangirl twitter, okay?

Mr. Cornish's work first attracted us--well, Aquafortis in particular--because of the fact that he's an author-illustrator--and a most talented one to boot. In the first two books of Monster Blood Tattoo (which we've reviewed here and here), he has created a complex, unusual magical world in which monsters roam and monster-hunters are both revered and feared. And lucky us--we get to grill Mr. Cornish about his themes, his influences, and about getting good ideas while taking a shower (glad I'm not the only one...). We even get a special sneak-preview illustration from Book 3 (see below)!

So, without further introduction, let's get into it!

Finding Wonderland: Hi Mr. Cornish, thanks for coming by!

You've said elsewhere that it took you ten years to develop the world setting for the Monster Blood Tattoo series. What were some of your primary sources of inspiration for things like the level of technology, place names (I mean, seriously, from where does one get names like Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Boys and Girls?!) and social structure?

D.M. Cornish: Quite simply the level of technology/ social structure/vibe has its first origin in the film adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis and co. Before then the setting was more "steampunk" – trench coats, factories, Model-T like cars, odd fairy-world creatures at the bottom of gardens and in public creeks (all of which may very well be the future for the Half-Continent as folks currently know it). But the very first action scene in the film, where the three hunters save the girls and the British officer from ambush, was thrilling and mind-shifting.

Since then my deep interest in Nelson and his navy and the world and history surrounding this have deeply compounded the first musket and tricorn fascination. The Half-Continent is not some direct graft of 18th Century Europe, but it is certainly heavily sourced from it--what it is certainly not (if I may take this opportunity) is, as some folks have written, medieval OR Victorian. As for place names, well, this is hard to place; it has a lot to do with taste, I suppose, and also with a dissatisfaction with how ordinary real place names can be, no poetry or lyric in them, no sense of the place they are naming. I think the Half-Continent is my desire to live in a world with a little more lyric in it, where even the most hardened soul still speaks and lives with a lilt of poetry and song in them.

FW: The mythology of Rossamünd's world is intricately developed, particularly with respect to monsters and those who deal with them on a daily basis. Was this your starting point for the story—the idea of a world filled with monsters and monster-fighters? Or did it start with a character, like Rossamünd?

DMC: It began specifically with a city, actually, Brandenbrass, a more early 20th Century setting than the Half-Continent is currently; and with this a character called Icarus who (unsurprisingly) wore wings on his back and walked about this city of Brandenbrass in a state of poverty and perpetual confusion. Indeed, notebook 1 begins with a story some sour octogenarian is telling to the rather clueless Icarus, if I may indulge myself...

"There was this boy, you see," and he leant forward, "and he was stuck on an island with 'is dad. Couldn't get off – no boats and high walls all around, too tall to climb with spikes on top. But you see, he was sick of having nothing to do and only his old man there so he saw the birds--flying, that is--and said, 'I'll fly out too!' So he got some feathers and wax and made his own wings, and 'cause his dad bugged him so, a pair for him as well. And he flew out of there with his dad, but it doesn't end here. All was well, but this boy got proud and soon soared higher and higher still 'til he was right near the sun; too near! 'Cause the sun--the nasty evil sun--melted the wax out of spite and jealousy and the boy's wings broke and the boy fell into the sea and 'cause his idle olds hadn't taught him to swim he drowned dead."

So, in a way, it began with a soliloquy, though I had written role-playing rules (yes, I was into role-playing, I am that kind of nerdy) much of which now features--heavily modified--in the Half-Continent, and a few H.P. Lovecraft-ian bits of what these days would be called "fan fic." Deeper still, it all began with Star Wars at age 5, with The Lord of the Rings at age 12, Narnia, H.P. Lovecraft, Fighting Fantasy books, the illustrations of Ian Miller and Angus McBride and Rodney Matthews, the Iliad, Frankenstein, Dune, Steinbeck, building with Lego[TM] and inventing worlds and stories to go with the models, the dinosaur and ghost books I read as a child, that really really cool Galactic Aliens book in my primary school's library (looking out for it still)...and all those things that boiled and bubbled until Mervyn Peake's Titus Alone finally burst the lid.

FW: It seems an interesting choice to have a very gender-segregated society yet also a society in which at least some of the women are perhaps even more powerful than the men—namely, the calendars and the female lahzars. Can you comment on the role of women in the world of Monster Blood Tattoo?

DMC: The patriarchy of the Half-Continent (well, the Haacobin Empire at least) is largely a product of sourcing real history for social plausibilities and inspiration; certainly it is not a pointed inclusion. Women have defined roles, men have defined roles and the rich lord it over all others. Lahzars and calendars are very much working against such norms, and teratology (monster-hunting) is probably one of the few areas where a woman can achieve as much notoriety as a man (if she was not born with status already). Teratology and all that is associated with it is a method of living contrary to social expectation whilst still being (grudgingly) accepted.

Feminism has been an overt force in 20th-century Western society and it has been very natural for it to manifest in the Half-Continent--though I must clarify that I am not really trying to make "comment" on anything. All the elements that seem pertinent or applicable in the story are more about my reaction and response to the world as it is about me, the environment in all its breadth I grew up in, rather than pointed statements couched behind a narrative. First and foremost, I just want to write really good, solid and believably other-worldly adventure stories, yet it is inevitable that when you put humans in strange and alien situations their humanity in all its contradictions is amplified.

One role women certainly do NOT have in Half-Continent stories is that of flesh-exposing objects of pubescent fantasy; I really enjoy clothing them sensibly and beautifully, especially the more "fighterly" types; it is like some kind of relief to dress women in properly protective, practical, functional and aesthetic clobber.

FW: These books explore the role of outsiders in whatever society--both the role of those who keep the world safe, who are revered and feared, and those on whom society turns. Rossamünd is an outsider within, with his girl's name and odd...sensitivity. His paradoxical place allows him to redefine himself and resist the oppressive norms that characterize the behavior of his fellows. He sneaks around and visits Numps, saves a bit of the bloom baths, and acts, and by acting, alters who has the right to action. Do you see a parallel between the idea of monsters and the idea of outsiders in general? What informed your creation of the monster vs. hunter dynamic?

DMC: We could probably get very Freudian at this first thought I cannot really recall there being a pointed reason for the monster v. hunter thing. Probably has its deepest roots in my own social struggles and loneliness and enduring bullying at school. I think it might be in some part my reaction to the mindless cruelty and unthinking malice that happens for real all too much. Everymen are thoughtlessness and convention, monsters are the alternative (and, by force of nature, unpopular) position, the teratologists (monster-hunters), the attempt to be rid of the uncomfortable and different. Of course we could get all very dark and deep and "into" things, but in the end they are also just monsters and monster-hunters, which are very cool in themselves and make for great action scenes and oh-so-fun illustrations.

FW: Your artwork was your first foray into the world of YA and children's publishing, and you've often said that you felt like a fraud as a writer--so, we'll talk about illustration. What is your favorite medium? Do you ever foresee selling prints of your characters? How did you get your first entrance into illustrating, and do you have any suggestions for other would-be illustrators who love both your story and your cover illustration?

DMC: I am going to be painful and say I do not have a "favourite" medium as such; they are all good in their way for whatever I need them for. Pencil is nice and precise, paint satisfying to move around the canvas, collage releasing and freeing, oils a sheer and rare delight...the one medium I am yet to try properly is water-colours, and I truly need to climb that "mountain" soon.

One of the things I really enjoy about both writing and more so illustrating a character from the Half-Continent is making someone who does not actually exist at all come to life. The characters of MBT exist in my head and soul like the memory of dear friends I no longer see but remember clearly and fondly, and to bring them out so that others might have a similar response is a genuine privilege. Scholastic here in Australia did a limited series of b&w postcards of the characters from Foundling, and there is a limited-print poster of the Branden Rose in all her full-colour glory that I give out as gifts--beyond that it would be great to get character prints out--even if the demand was not there, just to do so for the few who want them would still be great--it is about love not money, right?

I first got into illustrating by studying/training to be an illustrator at the University of South Australia, then jetting off to Sydney-town for several years walking the boards and getting work, especially with magazines and newspapers. By the grace of God it all grew from there. As for advice, hmm...don’t rely entirely on computers, draw draw draw--especially people, and with a real pencil on real paper, be prepared to suffer a bit and do unpleasant part-time jobs just to make ends meet while you promote yourself, be patient, pray (my answer to everything) if you are so inclined, and take the road less travelled even if folks about you do not quite get it.

FW: The original and awesome MONSTER BLOOD TATTOO title changed a bit. Who came up with the original title, and what was behind the change? Was it a happy change, or did you worry that it would confuse your readers?

DMC: The title Monster-Blood Tattoo comes from a casual bit of brain-storming with my friend Will, who said something along the lines of "the lamplighters could mark themselves with monster-blood tattoos!" Sometime later, whilst in the shower (too much information?)(Hee!) and contemplating the at-the-time-as-yet-unsolved problem of the title, "monster-blood tattoo" pops into thought and it spreads from there. The change of the title occurred because of some negative feedback that had MBT's publishers desirous for an alternative handle. I submitted to the change, though I personally believe that, as Mark Twain said, "a person with a new idea is a crank until that idea succeeds" and that we should have stuck to it. Fortunately the Australian hardback editions keep the "Monster-Blood Tattoo" title--so I am content.

As to causing confusion, well yes, it appears to have done; some folks (in the US anyway) do not seem to have the notion of the series title being Monster-Blood Tattoo. Rather the general understanding (evident by comments on the net and in reviews at least) is that the first book is Monster-Blood Tattoo and the second is done now, so what to do? If you look closely on the US edition of the second book you will find a meek little "monster-blood tattoo" above the much larger "Lamplighter," so it is not entirely absent.

FW: The Explicarium is--massive and detailed, probably much like your mythical notebooks. Are you still jotting ideas in notebooks, like Notebook 23, from which you started Monster Blood Tattoo? What number are you up to now? Will we perhaps ever see any stories from the previous twenty-two notebooks?

DMC: Ahh, well there are actually not many stories as such in the notebooks (to answer the last bit first), just lots of details and figurings of how the Half-Continent (and beyond) in all its layers and facets works, which I then source as I evolve the story. So MBT is actually made from all the notebooks--I just happened to be currently up to NB23 when I began to write it...if I do conjure more stories in the Half-Continent (and I surely want to) then I expect that there will be a good amount of overlap as I continue to build on world notions already established in the MBT series (such as lahzars, calendars, monsters, rams, the Haacobin Empire, black habilists &c).

I am currently in the midst of NB32; the invention of the Half-Continent (and beyond) continues concurrently and often independently of the novel--indeed, writing MBT solidifies many ideas I have had for the longest time which in turn gives me more ideas to fill more notebooks. Before MBT, my notebooks were (and continue to be) largely "narrativeless" (not a real word), a collection of "factoids" building the setting--this is my basic writing instinct and it has been going on for 15 years now, lots and lots of ideas jotted in those vaunted notebooks--so many I forget them and have to remind myself. The writing of actual narratives (stories with proper beginnings, middles and ends) is an advent of the providential intervention of a publisher (Dyan Blacklock, Omnibus Books here in Australia)... Does any of that make sense? (Actually, yes!)

FW: Your mind seems to just teem with imaginative peril (Gudgeons! Grinnlings! Rever men!) and multiple worlds. How do you feed that kind of mind? What do you like to read? To listen to? What gets you going when you get stuck?

DMC: The "Making of..." DVDs for the Lord of the Rings films and Star Wars are powerfully inspiring; Patrick O'Brian (whom I only began to read after a reviewer in the Washington Post mistakenly cited him as one of my influences), whose world building within the narrative is just awe-inspiring; real animals; odd moments; scenes glimpsed from a moving car; some odd bit of fact on the TV; any well-made movie (especially Stranger Than Fiction, Master & Commander, Anne of Green Gables, Pride & Prejudice BBC Version); history books; esoteric fact books; my favourite authors; music that sounds much like that of the Half-Continent; I am also rediscovering poetry at the moment through my friend and poet Aidan Coleman...

May I be frank, sometimes when I am really down I read the best reviews (I know I should not read reviews at all. but when someone really gets what I am trying to do it can be very affirming), or more so, "fan mail"--letters from kindred souls who have read the MBTs and are into the same stuff. Vivid dreams and a spot of prayer never go astray either.

FW: With your affection for drawing, have you much interest in graphic novels? Can you imagine doing one yourself? What is one project you'd really like to attempt in writing or illustrating? (Says Tadamack: Could you maybe go into fashion design? Because I *really* want one of those gorgeous paramilitary bell-sleeved, waist cinched coats that Europe wears, if you do go into fashion design. Just getting my request in.)

DMC: (Mmm, I would love to see Europe's many coats made real and have most certainly entertained the idea of being a fashion designer, especially operatic costume--I certainly own enough fashion and costume books!)

As for a graphic novel, the idea has occurred to me several times (at one time I put forward a submission to be the illustrator for a proposed graphic novel version of C.S.Lewis' Screwtape Letters, but alas, no dice...) Indeed, among my favourite books of all time are several graphic novels (Electra Assassin, Arkham Asylum, The Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke, Akira, Nausicaä &c &c… so I most definitely want to join this fine tradition. The problem is time... and a viable story--waiting for that flash of inspiration, that "Ah, yes! Of course!" moment. It would take a WHOLE LOT LONGER to produce a single graphic novel tale of the Half-Continent than to write a more regular text. Even as I am writing this, however, I am thinking of ways I might start small: a short comic strip of some sort and perhaps expand from there.

FW: Were you encouraged in your love of art and imagination as a young adult? How has your family responded to your success? What would you say to a child of yours who wanted to do what you've done?

DMC: I most certainly was encouraged, though I was perhaps a little more dreamy and talkative than generally makes for a totally smooth childhood--especially at school. My father is an art teacher (amongst other subjects), my mother a primary school teacher (retired), so there was both a general atmosphere of encouragement and much specific endorsement. My immediate and wider family are very happy with how things are turning out; I think we are all a tad baffled, very pleased but also surprised--none more than me.

If a "child of mine" came up to me and said "Dad, I want to make up a pretend world" (not that it works like that, of course, generally more of an accidental, osmotic kind of thing) but for the point, if they did I would say "Get lost, you're stealing my thunder!"... well, no, I would be happy, grateful, astounded (that I even have a child!) and would probably need to watch myself that I did not become TOO involved, rather encourage sagely and let them grow into themselves as they were made to be.

FW: Bonus question: A vibrant, intelligent community of readers is the best any writer could hope for, and man, do you have that in spades. How much have you gained from the online blogging community at

DMC: Most of all I have gained encouragement directly from readers (and dare I admit, an ego boost--though I've got to watch such a creature, always liable to turn about and gobble me whole), and gained insight and support from fellow writers. It is a meeting place of like minds, and knowing that other souls out there think along similar lines is firstly a relief, and secondly very motivating. I am truly grateful for them.

Sometimes I feel I let them down some by posting too irregularly, but I blame it on Book 3 Monster-Blood Tattoo: Factotum--I just hope folks will hang in there with me over the next 18 months it will take to get it on the shelves.

This has been seriously cool. Thank you so much for stopping by the Winter Blog Blast Tour. We are enormously grateful for your time, and we appreciate your thoughtful answers to our nosy questions!

For more information on D.M. Cornish, please visit:

D.M. Cornish's personal website
Monster Blood Tattoo blog
Official Monster Blood Tattoo site
An interview with Miss Erin
Monster Blood Tattoo fan forum

We absolutely love the imagination of D.M. Cornish! His books are simply lush with description and rich with detail, and they're books you can read again and again -- and find something new each time. If you're not a fan of fantasy or are afraid to venture into something so thick -- don't be. If you loved Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Segunda, and enjoy strange machines and potions, dive in and savor the experience! You'll be really glad you did!

More booklove can be found at:
Ellen Dalow at Chasing Ray
Tony DiTerlizzi at Miss Erin
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
L.J. Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom


R.J. Anderson said...

Another brilliant chewy interview! I'm loving this series. Especially the revelations of all those unexpected influences -- I knew about TITUS ALONE, but the ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN mention gave me all kinds of glee.

tanita✿davis said...

Glad you're enjoying it!! We are, too! Isn't he just so cool?

tanita✿davis said...

In answering Jules' question:

I've only found Grannysaurus Rex at Abebooks in the U.S.. It was published in 2004 in Australia, but I'm afraid it didn't jump the pond to the Scholastic in the U.S. - I checked the author's site to confirm. Boo!

Gail Gauthier said...

This is an excellent interview. Very professional questions that show a real knowledge of the author's work. His responses show so much depth as far as his understanding of his created world and how it came about are concerned.

Libby said...

what a great interview! My son (age 11) stole my copies of the MBT books before I could read them. Now I see I must get them back...

Camille said...

I see MBT 2 waving at me now from the top of the TBR pile. This was so interesting. I'm picking it up now.