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For the Strange Horizons 2020 Fund Drive, a conversation between Art Directors Heather McDougal and Dante Luiz. They discuss speculative fiction, fashion, artistic dreams, and inspirations.
Heather McDougal: Dante, tell me about working at Strange Horizons. How did you get here?
Dante Luiz: I started reading Strange Horizons several years ago. My wife would read some of the stories out loud for me while I worked on our comics—we still do this to this day with any kind of story. Eventually, I saw that you were searching for a buddy in the art department and thought hey, I love this magazine, the aesthetics resonates with me, I could do this? I didn't really have any hopes of being chosen, but then you e-mailed me back and the rest is magic. I'm loving every minute of it.
HM: Yeah, I was hired when SH had never had an Art Director before, I had to do an interview with Niall Harrison and what felt like the whole staff. It was terrifying!
DL: I can imagine! Can you tell us a bit about yourself outside of Strange Horizons?
HM: Sure! I live in California, I have an MFA in sculpture from California College of Arts and Crafts, which was a very conceptual degree, lots of theory in among the welding and so on. I've traveled all over the world, and lived in the UK and Japan, and I like to make things.
I was raised in a craft school called Big Creek Pottery, where people came from all over the US (and sometimes further afield) to live with us for eight or nine weeks in the summer and learn pottery. It was a pretty crazy way to grow up, all these people making stuff and talking about it, singing and showing slides and reciting poetry in the evenings. We always had musicians and poets passing through, and lots of interesting conversation around the dinner tables. It was pretty terrible to go from that to school, where everyone was really conservative and had flat-top haircuts.
I started my art career by going to fashion school, which is why I know how to make patterns—and why I also make tents—and after working in the garment industry for a few years, I went back to school to get my BA. Then, when I was thirty, I went to grad school.
After grad school is when I started writing. I was in my mid-thirties and unemployed, sending endless resumes out. I had had a miscarriage, and it hemorrhaged for about six weeks, and I just felt like everything was going out, out, out. I felt like I was slowly fading away, but I hung onto a thing my advisors had said, that my thesis was the best one they'd ever read.
So I started writing. I'd always been a writer, even as a kid, but this was the first time I'd actually done it with any seriousness, and I actually started a novel that began with that sense of mourning. And it got me through. So that's how I ended up at the cross-section of art and writing. Nowadays, I mostly do graphics work and costume work, as well as my tents. And writing, of course.
How about you, Dante?
DL: What an interesting background, Heather! I can definitely relate to the intersection of art, writing, and design—and being a former fashion student, of course.
I was born and raised on an island in Southern Brazil, and always loved to draw, but my father was a great inspiration in this sense. He not only read a lot of sci-fi, nonfiction, and history, but he invented things—devices and small robots with pieces he found in the trash, as we didn't have the money to buy any of that. This led him to build his own computer in the late ’90s, in a time where most Brazilians didn't have access to the internet, and for me to begin writing and creating at a young age. More than having a particular connection with art, I was stimulated to read, create, and do many different things, never focusing on perfecting a single one. By my teen years, I felt unfocused, thinking I didn't draw well enough to be good, writing but without an aspiration to write, part-time working with design, but not a designer at heart.
I went on to do fashion after a gap year of sorts after failing my last year of high school, but it it was not a good match. It was, however, the driving reason for me to go back to drawing, and my skills flourished in a way they never had before. At the same time, I began helping my then-girlfriend-now-wife with her writing career, and we started creating comics together. Comics involve several skills: illustration, writing, design, research, and even "unrelated" things like math. It's multimedia, and that's what I love.
Nowadays, I pay my bills with comics, mostly working on Filthy Figments, a paid website for erotic comics. I've also participated in a lot of anthologies, and hope I can focus on bigger things soon. In a way, working with SH is part of the same love I have for comics: mixing written fiction with visual arts.
So, Heather, now that we both talked a bit about our stories—how did you start getting involved with speculative fiction? Is it an old passion, did it happen along the way?
HM: Oh, ha, I had a number of things point me in the SFF direction. Since I grew up way out in the middle of nowhere, I didn't have access to a lot of books, but I definitely had an early leaning to the more fantastic forms of storytelling. My dad liked science fiction, and read me The Hobbit when I was really young, which I loved. He also collected comics, and I read all his Carl Barks Donald Duck comics until they fell apart, to his horror. I liked the wild stories of adventure in those comics, and the way that things could be ridiculously fantastic.
At the time, American children's fiction was all about realism, and I hated it. I had these old books my parents gave me, Oz books and the Arabian Nights and Treasure Island and so on, and I read all the ones that had anything fantastical about it. And then someone gave me the Narnia books and I was lost.
But it wasn't really until I was in my early twenties that I really discovered genre. I never had the opportunity or understanding to get involved with fandoms, so it was super exciting in my thirties to find out that it was a thing, and that there were all these conventions I could go to and meet other writers.
What about you, Dante, what are your early SFF influences? And also, tell me, what kinds of art do you find inspiring?
DL: My first influences also come from my dad, who worked very briefly selling books when I was a toddler. During this period, he had access to books by classic SFF authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Douglas Adams, and I eventually read them as I was growing up.
Like many millennials, the Harry Potter series opened the gates of Fantasy for me, and I began reading and watching other speculative content through my teen years. I was particularly obsessed with The Songs from the Distant Earth, a book I reread hundreds of times, and some old school anime from the ’80s that were popular in Latin America. I didn't really know at the time that there was a greater, broader genre of speculative fiction and a community attached to it; it was something I only found out as an adult, and since then I have realized how much this influenced my artistic views since the beginning.
HM: Does living in Brazil affect your art, do you think? Or do you find more inspiration online/globally?
DL: It's a complicated question because art is not seen as a serious profession in Brazil. On one hand, we have countless talented artists, inspired by each other, by popular music, by our surroundings, our architecture, our shared cultural baggage, and our nature. On the other, we are constantly told we cannot be artists; that only those who can pay will publish books (a tragically common scenario here), that you will never pay your bills just drawing, etc. There are few resources for young artists, and even fewer formal jobs if you're not related to anyone already in the field.
I feel like knowing this has shaped my views on how hard I have to (over)work and fight to make a living out of my art, which can be tiring and is one of the main reasons I started to find international jobs. I do love a lot of Brazilian art and feel very inspired by it, especially telenovelas.
What about you? How has the United States Influenced your background? Which artists inspire you the most?
HM: Well, you know, I've never really felt as connected to the US as I probably should. California is kind of a place unto itself, and being raised in such a weird artsy environment, and spending years working in other countries, made me feel like an outsider to "normal" American life. But studying art, and circulating among artists and, eventually, writers (and the SFF community) in the US has helped resolve some of this conflict.
What you describe in Brazil re: being an artist, I think is also true here in the US. People always ask, "But what do you really do?" In other words, you couldn't possibly be an artist full-time, so what's your real work? It's interesting, because when I lived in other countries like the UK, or Japan or Croatia, I found this was not their attitude at all.
I'm always attracted to things that are well-made (my crafts upbringing coming out)! But I'm also very interested in how people make things that we don't normally think of as aesthetic into art. For example, I love Rosamond Purcell's photography, especially the preserved things in bottles and the dried birds, things that we normally would find creepy or odd. Or Cornell's boxes: the juxtaposition of objects' color, shape, and meaning to create something out of what might be considered junk. I really love, in William Gibson's Count Zero, the wonderful tale of the art boxes that weaves through the narrative! It just … touches that part of me. I have an deep desire to understand how things are made, whether it's an engine or indigo dye or cosplay armor, and his resolution to that question was just beautiful.
On the other hand, the part of me that grew up in the woods and believed in fairies is still absolutely in love with classic illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Ivan Bilibin, and Kay Nielsen. And as I grew up I learned to love the German Expressionists' woodcuts, ukiyo-e prints, Indian folk art, and those old four-color travel and propaganda posters from Europe, Russia, and China. There is so much really elegant design out there! I try to bring some of that feeling into the illustration choices for SH, that sense of space and detail and Other Places. I remember as a kid how good illustrations were so endlessly fascinating to me as a reader, how they helped inform the story for me, and I still feel like a good illustration for a story should be something that one can come back to again and again and just get lost in. If I've commissioned art that captures the imagination like that, I've succeeded.
DL: I wasn't familiar with Rosamund Purcell's work. Loved her delicate portrait of decay, this kind of visual also resonates a lot with me too. I'm particularly inclined to the aesthetic of aging mansions, abandoned houses, and so on. A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to visit Ouro Preto, a Brazilian city famous for being almost untouched by time when it comes to its constructions. Most of the buildings there are dated back to colonial era, and I got particularly touched by the work of Tunico dos Telhados, who specializes in painting pictures of the rooftops of houses in the entire city. Ever since then, it's one of my favourite things to illustrate when I work with this kind of scenario.
HM: I had to go look up his work, but I love how much he captures the spaces of that town!
So Dante, in a perfect world, what would you like to do? What projects do you have in the works, and what have you done that you're most proud of?
DL: Not exactly a perfect-world scenario, mostly a when-I-have-the-time-in-the-distant-future scenario, but my absolute dream project is working on a biographical graphic novel about a particular duo of workers of the RMS Titanic. I love history, I adore historical nonfiction, the Titanic is a subject I'm particularly obsessed about, and since I began reading On a Sea of Glass: The Life and Loss of the RMS Titanic last year, my brain has been haunting me with this idea.
Out of my most recent work, I'm very happy with the result of a comic I drew for Toronto Comix's anthology Wayward Kindred called "Sap & Seed," written by my wife. It's a little short comic about two plant-like siblings trying to survive a deserted wasteland while their relationship slowly deteriorates, and it's one of those rare times in which you put into the world something that you say "That's it, that's how I envisioned it," which is something really rare for artists to think? Other than that, I have a longer comic coming out soon, but I can't reveal anything about it yet. What about you?
HM: Well, I think in a perfect world, I'd have a nice big studio and for part of the day, I'd make tents both as an artist and as (maybe) a company, and I'd write for some part of the day as well. It's funny, the part of my brain that comes up with detailed worldbuilding is the same part that is able to envision how to make, say, a house, or a tent, or a giant Questing Beast costume.
I'm working on a series of novellas right now that take place on the ranch where I grew up, except it's a portal fantasy, and the Other Side is really the alternate version of that home-landscape I used to visit in my dreams. So I have a big map on the wall in my writing shed and I've got this whole multi-generational family saga worked out. I'm fascinated with how magic, and being able to go through a portal for however long—and then come back to the same instant—might distort family interactions, roles, secrets, etc.
I think the things I'm proudest of at the moment are actually 1) a tent prototype I designed and made. Getting it to work was a really hard journey of trial and error and sheer design intuition. And it's beautiful! I'm super happy with it … and now I have to make one double its size, and I'm terrified.
And 2) I'm actually writing again after a three-year dry spell. I'm finally able to world-build and play with ideas again. Getting back in that saddle was hard, and I'm super proud of myself for doing it, even though I only write about a hundred words a day at the moment.
DL: I've been writing more, too! I'm constantly bubbling with ideas for stories, but rarely have the actual drive to write them. I'm doing now a little short story about a nineteenth-century trans man who has his left hand possessed by his deceased narcissistic mother, this time for a Brazilian project I was invited to participate in. I think I'm also reading more short fiction than ever since I joined SH, and it's helped me get back to business in this sense.