One of YA’s most exciting collaborations has culminated in the creation of ‘Grave Matter’. Author Juno Dawson and illustrator Alex T. Smith have both ensured this mesmerising story comes to life and is accessible to all levels of reader – in all its grave glory.
We caught up with the pair to find out what it was like working together and the real moral of the short story.
How did the decision to collaborate come about?
Juno: We were having breakfast at the Edinburgh Festival and I just asked Alex if he’d like to do something gothic and YA. I’d already been approached by Barrington Stoke and had had the idea to write a contemporary ghost story with hoodoo themes for a while. Alex was the last piece of the puzzle! Luckily he said yes!
Alex: I always really enjoy a challenge, and having at the time recently completed work on The Hundred and One Dalmatians – which is darker than you imagine – I was really excited about the idea of exploring all the gothic themes Juno told me about. I couldn’t say no!
Which came first the artwork or the story?
Juno: I wrote the novella in 2015 and sent it to Alex when finished.
How do you feel the artwork improves the story and vice versa?
Juno: I wrote the novella with Alex in mind. I wrote characters and set pieces that I hoped he’d be inspired by. I think the end result is quite breathtaking and also quite complimentary in that it looks just like it did in my mind, so either Alex is psychic or the descriptions must have landed.
Alex: When Juno sent me the text I sat down and devoured the story in one sitting. I always know when I’m reading something I want to illustrate because my hand gets a bit twitchy looking for a pencil and I start doodling in the margin. There’s so much in the book that I wanted to draw, but I also wanted to try and capture the eery, gothic and noir-ish tone of the story too.
The story is quite a dark one, was this always your intention?
Juno: Yes! All my stories are morality tales but the short form novella is a perfect format for ghost stories. Samuel does some terrible things. But don’t we all?
What message do you wish your readers to take away from this?
Juno: I suppose the moral here is “don’t mess with forces outside of your control”. Samuel’s actions are very selfish too, he doesn’t really consider Eliza or the bigger picture. There are hints there of Samuel becoming a very toxic boyfriend. I hope readers pick up on the message about cultural appropriation! It’s in there if you look hard enough.
What is your favourite quote and/or piece of art from within the book?
Juno: Personally, I love any scene with the Milk Man. He’s so camp but can flick to terrifying at a moment’s notice. My favourite illustration is the one of Samuel standing over Eliza’s grave.
Alex: I love the Milk Man too. He’s so spooky and terrifying. I think one of my favourite pieces to work on was the abandoned room with the message dubbed on the wall. I enjoyed the challenge of making an empty space feel chilling and frightening.
If you could bring back any one person from the dead, who would you pick?
Juno: I wouldn’t! Didn’t you read the book?! It doesn’t end well!
Alex: I agree. Also – I couldn’t be doing with all that digging you have to do.
Tell us a story from your time working together.
Juno: Alex and I are like a mother and baby group for small dogs. Most of our relationship is based around small dogs. This culminated in both of us attempting to smuggle small dogs into The Guardian. It didn’t end well.
Alex: Yes that’s true. Also, Juno’s dog Prince was so lovely and friendly to my dog Coco. However, Coco behaved like a spoilt Edwardian child and refused to even make eye contact with Prince…
Has this sparked the beginning of a blossoming working relationship?
Juno: I would work with Alex any day of the week. His talent and work ethic is formidable.
Alex: That’s so kind of Juno. I would really love to work with Juno again. Not only is Juno a brilliant writer and one of immense talent, I also find Juno herself incredibly inspiring. I’ve really loved working on this book together.
And lastly, for a bit of fun, if you could wield a power of your own what would it be?
Juno: I’d be Mystique from the X-Men. It’d save a fortune on surgeries.
Alex: Is there a superpower that means you can get lots of things done whilst also taking a really good nap? I’d like that power, please.
Featured image courtesy of Barrington Stoke.