Elise Hurst on illustrating Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Australian artist tell us how a scan of her sketchbooks lead to Elise creating a beautiful new illustrated edition of Neil’s coming-of-age novel.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of those novels that’s about childhood – but not necessarily for children. It’s about being forced by circumstance to rediscover your early years and seeing them again both from the perspectives of who you were – and who you are now.

This type of story – coming-of-age reflected – is widely written about you could probably dedicate a section to it in a good bookshop. But it’s Neil Gaiman’s mix of fantastical wonder and brutal danger than makes The Ocean special.

First published in 2013, it’s now just been released in an edition illustrated by Elise Hurst. Elise is best known in her home country of Australia as a children’s author and illustrator – as well as creating lines of greetings cards for major retailers – and this is her first project with a household-name author.

Sitting in her publisher’s office in London, the day after sharing a stage with Neil to promote the book, it’s been a long way and time since she first almost-didn’t-connect with the author over a decade ago.

“When I had the opportunity to meet him,” she says, “I was actually too shy to go up and say hi – because I thought ‘I'm going to say something stupid and you'll never want to talk to me again’. But I managed to show my sketchbooks to him. Then he emailed and said, ‘I love them. We should do something one day.’

“But then for the next 10 years, we had no idea what that was.”

Elise and Neil kept in contact, until the latter told her there was interest emerging in an illustrated version of The Ocean at the End of the Lane – and that was the perfect project for them to collaborate on.

To say she was happy about this is an understatement.

“This is my favourite book that he's ever written,” she explains, “and when he said, ‘You should illustrate that’, I did a little Snoopy dance inside.”

Elise's sketch that became the inside cover illustration (above).

This happiness was tempered by a fear of screwing up in such a public away – not delivering what she was capable of in front of Neil’s huge fanbase. With her own picture books, she says that if they don’t sell, few people will notice – but this was at a very different scale.

“This book did do my head in for a while because I was thinking of all the other amazing illustrators that Neil's worked with – and how good they are,” she says. “I haven't had such a possibility for public failure before.”

For a while, this affected how she was conceived how to illustrate the story and this “filter of concern”, as she describes it, was getting in the way of creating the illustrations the book needed.

“I was thinking that every picture had to make your jaw drop when you turn the page. And then I finally got over myself,” she laughs, ”I realised that, no, it has to tell the story. It has to put you in the moment. It has to evoke an emotional response."

From here it was clear where she had to start from – the story itself, working with the text rather than trying to embellish it.

From here Elise says that she “went away and I started making the ‘Bible’ of the book – every physical description of every single thing that's in there: what the weather's doing, what plants you can see in the background and what people are wearing (and when that changes).”

You can’t go too far in working out what a character looks or dresses like based on their first appearance though.

“Sometimes for a description of a character, you get half a sentence in the first third of the book and there's another one three-quarters of the way on. And that last one I changes everything."

Once the book’s ‘Bible’ was produced, Elise also had to work out the overall aesthetic for the book. As a starting point, Elise looked to the styles common in the books the protagonist would have been reading as a child, classics written in the 1930s and 40s – she mentions the Famous Five and Sherlock Holmes specifically. But this needed to be adapted to the darker tone of The Ocean.

“Those book had beautiful line work,” she notes, “but I knew it needed to be scrunged up a little bit. I was definitely harking back to a very normal, expressive-but-figurative style – but then trying to work out how to really darken that up so that it doesn't ‘exist’ in any particular artistic time.

“And I hope that means it won't date too much.”

I grew up in the English countryside that The Ocean is set in, but as an Australian Elise could only base her experience on the representations depicted on TV, in books like Cold Comfort Farm and Google Image searches. For a project like this, things viewed from a distance were not enough – and there were so many details that she didn’t have information about, but would stand out to a reader who knew they were wrong.

“I know what hedgerows look like, but how high are they and how thick are they and what kind of size of fields?” she says. “It was all those tiny details that I didn't know what I didn't know.

“And because [the farm that inspired Hempstock’s] is an actual place and [the book] is somewhat auto-biographical for Neil, instead of trying to guess how reflective and glinty flint lanes are in the moonlight in a storm, I thought that I could just go and see for myself.”

So Elise hopped on a plane and headed for the UK. She spent a week stalking around forests and acting out certain scenes to imagine how they would play out.

"I arrived really late at night,” she says. "I got a car. I drove through a storm. I went into this big old house that I couldn't really get any sense of – an Airbnb that I chosen [primarily] because I knew it had a desk.

“But when I woke up in the morning, I was in a converted folly from some big mansion, which had had a house built behind it. I opened the window and a squirrel ran up a tree; there was a stream going through the garden. It felt like I was in story."

The rest of the trip was continued to be equally otherworldly and bizarre. She was told that the house where ley lines crossed, and met enough unusual people to fill a story of her own.

"This house just had wonderful characters coming through it all the time,” she says. "There was a man who talked to fairies. And it was so right for this because it was like I walked into the story. I was soaking it up, taking photographs to work from. And I knew it wasn't real, but it was exactly what I needed.”

She had also contacted the owner of the ‘Hempstock’s’ farm, who was kind enough to show her around and let her take reference photos.

In some ways, not growing in England proved beneficial to Elise – as she could draw on a broader sense of countryside past rather than being constrained by her own experience.

The monochrome colour palette was as much as practical choice as an aesthetic one – it allowed Elise and Neil to add illustration to as many pages as they wanted without financial implications, totalling 101 pages in the finished book. However, Neil uses colour as a metaphor more often than most other authors, so Elise had to find way to express the same underlying themes and characteristics with texture alone.

One way she’s done this is by bringing a dampness to many of the illustrations, like the pages have been soaked in water over time – something Elise links to recurring items in the books such as damp flapping cloth.

Before charging headlong into the illustrations, Elise created roughs as tiny thumbnails, which she sent to the book’s designer Patrick Insole. He would create layouts using the copy and roughs, seeing how the text flowed around them and how this affected the reading experience as the reader encountered moments in the plot both through the words and visuals – and change it if it wasn’t working.

A necessary change became apparent with the illustration of Fluffy, a kitten given to the protagonist as a child that meets an unfortunate end very quickly. In the original layout, the illustration was on the same page as Fluffy’s demise.

Elise says she told Patrick, “we cannot do that. We've got to give the reader one moment of pure happiness before we basically stomp all over them for the rest of the book.”

So the illustration and layout was changed to bring the illustration in line with happier times with Fluffy.

“The design was really, really important for having those moments – and those illustrations – land in the right place, and having the rhythms of the book working out properly.”

Personally, my favourite illustration is the one below. The look on the protagonist’s face is a perfect mix of sadness, vulnerability and hope as he clings to the book for security – a look and pose I recognise from my own childhood.

I asked Elise about the creation of this image, and she started by explaining how she came to represent this unnamed character this way at all.

“One of the challenges I had was whether or not I should show the main character – or any of the faces,” she says. “I really understand when people reject the depiction of characters in books – especially a book that's been out before and people already have that world in their head and they know what they think the characters should look like.

“So I was a bit worried about actually showing characters in that way, but he's our conduit for this story. He's our guide and I felt like it was really important to see his vulnerability and his distress to be able to go on this journey with him.“

The models for this illustration and others were Elise’s twin boys, who were seven at the time. Elise photographed them in different poses and affecting expressions of what she wanted.

“There were just some shots that I took where I just thought, ‘that captures everything about this moment’. And it was lovely to create a really tender picture where we could actually really feel for the boy.”

Elise notes that the fantastical nature of the story could lead to readers distancing themselves from the characters – but with illustrations like this she wanted to bring a sense of reality that would help readers connect with the protagonist as a child.

It’s clear that the pose is also one that Elise knows personally too.

“He’s hugging the book in the way that I think all of us did, because when everything's going wrong, that's your safe place,” she says.

Even with twins, each boy had a different role for reference.

“Sammy was able to do the sad face,” she says. “My other little boy, Archie, would look like a chipmunk and he just could not stop himself laughing every time. So he's the silhouette boy and Sammy is the face. Then I changed things to make it more line up with how I envisaged the character to be.

“But it was so useful. I can always tell when I haven't used models in different books because there's just something lacking in the realism – though I don't want to be photorealistic, because I think that's distancing.”

Elise says that she like the "scrappiness" of illustration because it gets readers to fill in the gaps using their imaginations, which again adds to the connection between reader and character.

Over the year that Elise worked on the book and Patrick laid it out, the number of illustrations grew.

"I was actually commissioned only to do about 40 illustrations,” she explains. "So I sent those two to Patrick. He laid in the text and then we saw where things were falling. Then I just start amending the drawings and something would get a little bit bigger and push a paragraph onto the next page.

As the number of pages grows, so did the need for more illustrations – first to 60, then to 80 and beyond.

“At one point it was going to have about 120 or 140 illustration and I realised that was just getting completely obsessive and ridiculous, because that was going to be a picture on every page and it was going to be this thick,” she says, using her fingers to indicate a book six inches thick.

From there, her and Patrick pulled back to a final tally of 101 illustrations – which is still much more than most high-end illustrated editions.

Next for Elise is an exhibition of artwork from the book in Melbourne – she’s also selling prints and original artwork on her website – plus a picture book for Compendium.

"I was so ready to work with colour,” she says, “but they've said that they'd really quite like it to be monochromatic. So I'm trying to get some bit of spot colour into that.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is published by Headline and can be bought from Amazon, Waterstones and bookshops. A play based on the book is currently on at the National Theatre in London.

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