Interview with Jeremy Zerfoss, Locus Award Winning Illustrator Extraordinaire

As people who rub shoulders with me probably know, l am a huge fan of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, which just won this year’s LOCUS Award for Best NonfictionWonderbook-coverThe author of the book is Jeff VanderMeer and the main illustrator is Jeremy Zerfoss (a serious congratulations to both of them is in order). Jeremy has been super kind enough to guest on A Bag of Good Writing today, so let’s get to it.

JEREMY: Sweet.

RICHARD: You live in Las Vegas: were you born and raised there or are you a transplant from somewhere else?

J: My home city is actually Coon Rapids, MN. I also lived in Nebraska for two years but the majority of my life was either in Boulder City, NV for most my childhood and then we moved to Henderson, NV which is bordering and mixed into Las Vegas, NV.

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTR: I have a retired aunt who lives in Henderson, near the Green Valley Casino. Ah, Vegas! Las Vegas has a powerful look and feel to it. Does the place where you live influence your art in any way, or not at all, as far as you can tell?

J: I love the desert and big empty spaces, so in that respect absolutely I have been influenced by the Mojave – as far as Vegas the city is concerned I think it’s had some effect on my art – I love goofy, cheesy crap with bright lights and whirly things.

photo 1b


R: If your art is cheesy then it’s a cheddar with one hell of a bite. Can you tell us a bit about your Tenno Art House?

J: Tenno Art House is my kinda art company – I have a deep seated love of drawing weird creatures in weird houses and I thought that’d make a cool company name. My old biz cards had this lumpy thing just hanging out in this simple boxy building and I just went from there. My friends give me a ton of grief about it though.

R: You create images with great striking power. What artists and, more specifically I suppose, illustrators, have had the strongest influence on you? I won’t be surprised if you mention Salvador Dali.

photo 5aJ: Dali is definitely an artist that I respect – he did so many things that I love, in terms of photos, paintings, art projects, etc. He really did it all.

My other main influences in terms of scope are Clive Barker’s art, along with Stephen Gammel (Scary Stories), Tim Burton is a huge one, HR Giger, Zdzis?aw Beksi?ski, Stephen Kellogg, Bill Watterson, “Berke” Breathed,  and oddly enough, Norman Rockwell.

R: The Norman Rockwell doesn’t surprise me. I think that all artists have anchor influences which inform their works in ways that are not immediately obvious, or even visible at all on a conscious level. How would you describe your art?

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTJ: I had zero formal art training (which shows, HIYOOOOO!) so I’m not even sure what to call my style – maybe surreal pastiche? Depending on what I’m doing, as in the more detailed stuff, I am learning how to properly digitally paint so instead I texture art using a mix of scanned and real world textures, pretty much the same way you’d skin textures in older 3D art. So much of it is a mix of photos and textures and scans of my skin, whatever works.

In terms of feel — goofy horror.

People have noted that I draw horrible things happening to cute creatures that just don’t seem to mind it. I always get stumped when people ask me what my style is… I landed the gig with Wonderbook because Jeff liked that I could do designs in many styles without being locked in to one main direction.

Jeremy Zerfoss ART R: That’s right up Jeff’s alley. Do you work best in a quiet, controlled environment or in a madhouse of scattered chaos? Or is it a mixture of both?

J: I’ve had to do both but my best stuff seems to come from frantic timelines with people breathing down my neck – most times it’s just sitting hunched over a desk with music cranked. My house always looks like a bomb went off – I still have reams of Wonderbook edits lying on the floor from a year ago.

R: You work a lot with sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer and your first project together, I believe, was building the immense, sprawling and complicated visual worlds of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. (I love this book) How did you get the job and what was your experience trying to create and execute so many artistic concepts all at once?

J: I actually lucked out on this one. A few years ago I randomly sent Jeff an email with some art after reading his short story ‘The Situation’ for the first time and picking up Finch and City of Saints and Madmen. It was just some drivel about loving his books and I thought he’d like some pieces I had made.

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTThree weeks or so later I got a reply and eventually he asked to use a piece for his new book ‘Monstrous Creatures’ special edition through Raw Dog Screaming press. So I got to design that cover from the ground up and it worked so well I’ve been his off and on artist for lots of Ann VanderMeer and his Cheeky Frawg releases along with whatever projects or April Fools jokes he felt like doing, postcards and what not.

I also got to do covers and layout work for the Shared Worlds collections (a phenomenal writing course/camp for young adults and teens at Wofford College), Datura by Leena Krohn, Jagannath: Stories by Karin Tidbeck and a collection called The Explorer and Other Stories by Jyrki Vainonen.

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTHe offered me a chance to do the art and layout for Wonderbook after about a year or so of working together, which we do well at, and it became this crazy two year whirlwind of ideas and hard work and email email email phone email. Non-stop full forward.

It was tough, there’s no lie there – Jeff has fantastic ideas and he’d hike in the morning and come back with more every day, chapters would mutate, grow, divide, change, move and finally die, only to be resurrected later or evolved into other chapters or concepts. It really is a living growing text.

The art and the ideas were the same way – we’d try one style, go another, step back, try again. The workload got so huge that I had to hand off the layout to a more seasoned designer so I could focus on the art itself.

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTJeff, myself, all the collaborators and other writers and artists and the wonderful people at Abrams itself all worked like mad to create this massive tome of beauty – I still can’t believe I’m involved with such talented people.

R: Well, Wonderbook is a masterpiece, period. I use it a lot. I have heard mention of something called the “free texture community.” Are you familiar with it? Do you use it in your art?

J: I use a lot of textures in my art, from stuff I make myself to scans of lines, ink, dirt, flesh from people that upload these lovely hi-res textures online for use for whatever – I like to provide my own as I make them as well. This goes back to this pastiche method, which is really not the right term – it’s more like recontextualizing textures to make something new.

R: I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to have you illustrate something of mine, the airship/kraken battle in my steampunk novel Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War. I loved what you did with it! (I have included a little glimpse of Jeremy’s art here) A Zerfoss teaser of the kraken battleThe artwork is a part of a new project you’ve been working on with Jeff VanderMeer and Desirina Boskovich called The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-Futurist Dreams (releases 7 October, 2014). That title is a mouthful. How was working on this book different from your experience with Wonderbook?

J: Well, for one I was only in charge of doing some portions as opposed to the whole thing, so that was nice – I was thrilled to be a part of it, for sure. I had never worked on anything steam punk before so it was nice to try something new. I’m glad yah liked it – I was stressed on that one since I had never attempted anything like it. The response from your fans online was awesome.

SUMThe actual image is huge, almost 60 inches across I think and I got so distracted that I didn’t realize until it was finished how crazy huge it was – the kraken I had to do twice because I misread what was sent and realized I had missed the description in my email somehow, so there is the real kraken that was used, proto-kraken and the Zerfoss space jelly monster that was banished forever.

R: LOL. I’d like to see that Zerfoss space jelly monster sometime! (Jeremy did send it to me later, actually – its wild) I believe that you also made the maps for Area X for Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Was there anything uniquely challenging about that?

jeff-vandermeer-southen-reach-commentary-area-x-map-Jeremy-ZerfossJ: Those were a lot of fun to do, another first for me so I spent hours tracing the coast of Florida and trying to make it look close to how a map would look for the period, then added layers and filters of grime and dirt to make it feel a bit more used and real.

The biggest challenge was just trying to capture the feel of a legit map and I think it worked ok for my first try – we also did tarot cards and warning signs and invented symbols for the various dangers of Area X. I have no idea how much will be used offline but the map found itself on the Spanish ARC so that was a trip to see.

R: Are you a big fan of comic books? If so, could you please list a few of your favorites?

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTJ: I was that kid who read all the weird stuff when I was a kid, like Aliens and Predator when my friends stuck to the Marvel and DC brands, but my fave comics are Hellboy and Great Teacher Onizuka. I read a lot of Junji Ito (another influence ) as well. I like anything Mignola and some select manga, along with whatever indie stuff quirks my interest.

R: What is your favorite restaurant in Las Vegas?

J: Crown and Anchor on Tropicana – great English pub and one of the few places that gets my annual Christmas cards. Great food, excellent service and the décor is awesome, plus dog friendly so you can take the pooches.

R: I’ll check out the C&A next time I’m there. What are you working on now, and what projects are on the horizon?

Jeremy Zerfoss ARTJ: Another cover I did just came out from Broken Eye Books called By Faeries Light, so that’s exciting and I’ll be working with them on some more books along with maybe doing some more tentative projects with other publishers and most likely a few more with Jeff as soon as we get back to normal working situations.

 I think Jeff had gotten a lot of clamour for more Wonderbook related work so there’s always a possibility he’ll call me back to that if the interest is high enough in that regard, but we have a running joke that he’ll give me a year off since we work together so much, but I like keeping busy so it’s all good.

Other than that I’m also working on a book for my family (who I owe so much too), trying to get more personal art done and looking at getting ready for Worldcon in London – Wonderbook was nominated for a Hugo and I’m in the running along with Jeff VanderMeer so I’m leaping across the pond and hoping to somehow convince them I need to hang with the Top Gear crew while I’m there.

I also might compare beards with GRR Martin.

…and I need to practice steam punk art, definitely.

 Looks like we’re done here – thanks for having me ^_^

R: Thanks, Jeremy! You’ve been an awesome guest!

Jeremy ZerfossJEREMY ZERFOSS BIO: Jeremy Zerfoss’s wild and crazy art is everywhere, including a fabulous line of stunning book covers for Cheeky Frawg Books. His prolific and abundant association with Jeff Vandermeer has produced scores of intricate and vibrant illustrations in Wonderbook and The Steampunk User’s Manual. He has also done art and design work for Symantec, BullSpec Magazine, Shared Worlds and RDS Press. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, with his dog Judge ‘Dredd’ and his cat Gizzer, where he runs Tenno Art House.



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