The Fortunate Events of Lemony Snicket Illustrator Brett Helquist
Comics, chance and magazine covers culminated in the fortuitous success of illustrator, Brett Helquist. Brett is best known for (or worst known for if you-know-who had his way ) illustrating A Series of Unfortunate Events by the lugubrious Lemony Snicket. From The Bad Beginning to The End, the series hesitantly tells the tales of the hapless Baudelaire orphans. Brett has also illustrated such 20th century classics as the Green Knowe Chronicles by L.M. Boston and the adventurous stories of literary legend, Leon Garfield. He has also captured the art of art scandal in Blue Balliett’s, Chasing Vermeer. In my first phone interview (yes, there is a person behind this machine), Brett and I discussed sharks, the lore of pirates and just how fortunate events can truly be.
1) What inspired you to draw growing up?
When I was young, my earliest memories of art were the daily comic strips in the local paper that my Dad got. I used to love those things. So, my first aspirations were to draw a comic strip but that never went very far (laughs). My favorite was Alley Oop. When I was young, art was hit and miss. It came and went for me. Sometimes, I did it obsessively and then other times, I wanted nothing to do with it. I think during my high school years, I didn’t have any interest in it at all. I was in my twenties before I ever committed to it seriously.
2) Did you ever try to do a comic for a newspaper?
Not for a newspaper. When I was young, for a short while, I was writing one of my own. It was about a family of sharks. Who knows where that came from. It was just something I did for my own pleasure.
3) What inspires you now?
Well, that’s tricky. I love images of all kinds. When it comes down to it, I just love a good picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a photograph or painting or a drawing. I still go to the museums when I can and I look for a good comic book now and then. My biggest influences are my love of traditional, Asian art. Japanese and Chinese, especially. Also, the American illustrators from the Golden Age like Howard Pyle and N.C Wyeth.
4) How did you promote and support your work when you first started out as an illustrator?
I got to New York on an internship and that kind of paid my way for a few months. That and some savings I had. I think the first effort on my own was the cover of the Times Book Review. I thought that was it. I thought that was just going to shoot me right to the top and that was going to give me all the attention I would ever need (laughs). I think that it was close to a year later that I got my next job. Early on, (I don’t know if they still do this anymore) all the magazines, design houses and publishers had a day each week where they would take portfolio drop-offs. I just had four or five copies of my portfolio that I kept out at all times. I knew the schedule of when drop-off days were. When I was able to get money to print some mailing materials, I would send things through the mail. I just kept doing those things for several years and in the meantime, I had a job as a graphic designer to pay the bills. Over the years, jobs would start coming in every few months and then it would start to build from there. Then the Snicket books were published and the work really started rolling in. That was seven years after I had started.
5) How did you get involved with the Lemony Snicket series?
Well, I don’t think it was as exciting as most people want to hear. I met Tammy Shannon, an artist agent. She had expressed some interest in representing me and I wasn’t sure if I wanted an agent at the time. She asked if she could just show my portfolio around while I thought about it. I thought, there’s nothing I can loose. So I gave her my portfolio. A week or two later, she called me with a job illustrating two books by a new author. It was The Bad Beginning and The Reptile Room. I had never done a book before. I had been mostly doing editorial work. It was a book that made me laugh and a chance to illustrate a book which was something that I had been wanting to do. So, I agreed to do it. I don’t think anybody knew what was to come.
6) How do you usually approach a new project?
Well, I read it first. It seems obvious but I know some illustrators who don’t. Even on a job where I’m just doing the cover, I read the whole book so I can really visualize the world. I pretty much work from my head. I don’t use reference much, so it has to be really vivid in my imagination. After I’m done, I go back and re-read it a little more carefully. During the second reading, I’m looking for image ideas. I usually scribble those down. They’re these cryptic, rough sketches that I have to notate because if I don’t, a day or two later, I can’t even tell you what they are. If a book is well written, everything should be there that you need.
7) You did a book that you both illustrated and authored called, Roger, the Jolly Pirate. How did that story come about?
The editor of The Unfortunate Events books told me that she wanted to do a picture book with me. Writing is kind of difficult for me. I struggled with it in school a lot. So, I had never fancied myself as a writer but she said that if you have an idea for a picture book, I can help you with the writing. I thought it was a chance to learn something and didn’t think it would end up being a book. So, I took a stab at it. I always loved pirate stories. My favorite book when I was young was Treasure Island. There was a period when I would only read pirate stories. So I thought, if I’m going to do a story, it should probably be a pirate story. I had never been able to find a very satisfying explanation for the why the [pirate] flag was called the Jolly Roger. It sounded like there needed to be a funnier explanation than the ones that the historians had come up with.
8 ) What other projects are working on and promoting this year?
I’ve got a second book that I’ve written and that I’m in the middle of painting called Bedtime for Bear. I did a picture book adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which just came out. There’s a small novel by Neil Gaiman that I illustrated that’s just out in the stores call Odd and the Frost Giants.
9) Will you be making any appearances?
I will be doing a signing for the “Christmas Carol” book at the Books of Wonder on the 28th of November.