I would like to introduce you to author/illustrator Roberto Calas on the blog today, and I’m excited to have him here. Roberto is one of those Renaissance men who can do more than one thing well, and he is both an accomplished writer and a working book cover designer. Roberto designed the book cover for my The League of the Sphinx: the Purple Scarab novel and we’ll look at that later on. He also designed the book’s interior map of ancient Egypt which is age-ready and fantastic.
*(interior map for The League of the Sphinx:The Purple Scarab designed by Roberto Calas seen here on left.)
Roberto loves history much in the same way I do and he always provides a fun, informative interview, so let’s get to it!
Q) Okay, well, let’s start with your writing. You have completed the three books of your Scourge trilogy; can you introduce a new reader to the main premise of the series?
Roberto: Thanks very much for having me on your blog, Richard. And yes, I’d love to talk about The Scourge. The book is a historical fantasy, set toward the end of the 14th century, in England. And while I pride myself on historical accuracy, this is not exactly your father’s England. Well, not your great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather’s England either. This England has been afflicted by another great plague. Only, this plague turns its victims into mindless demons. The Archbishop of Canterbury forbids travel north of the Thames River, where the plague is much worse. But one man defies the Church. Sir Edward Dallingridge (a real 14th century knight and the real builder of Bodiam Castle) travels north with two of his fellow knights, because his wife was in Suffolk when the plague broke. Sir Edward is determined to find his wife and bring her home. But he has more than a hundred miles of demon-ravaged landscape to cross if he wants to reach her. And, as he learns, it’s not just the plague victims that he has to worry about.
Q) I see that you travel to England a fair bit (I have been there twice and I hope to go about 15 more times), and I have seen you post pictures of churches and possibly other buildings which appear in the Scourge series. Is your main character based on a real person or is he entirely fictional but placed in a historically accurate setting?
Roberto: Everything in the Scourge is absolutely historically accurate, except the parts that aren’t. I was painstaking in my research. Traveled to every place I wrote about. Spoke with innumerable members of the National Trust and English Heritage. Collected suitcases full of literature on castles, churches and villages. Read books on the period and the characters. I even did the damned audio tours and didn’t skip over the boring parts. How’s that for dedication? So, despite the fantastical elements of the story, the book reads like a true historical fiction. With real characters from history, real places and real events.
Q) What is your writing method? I like to heavily outline my story with 3×5 cards and then manipulate them as I go along. Do you outline a lot or just proceed with a general idea of where you’re heading with the story?
Roberto: Ideas for stories are tiny seeds in my brain. No, seriously, when I was two, I put a twig with buds up my nose and part of it broke off. Was a real mess and my mom thinks a piece stayed in there. So I always like to think that the stories come from that tree. Um. Where was I? Oh, right, seeds in my brain. They start small, and I let them germinate and compete against each other until the strongest seed outpaces the others, and I realize that I have a story. When I finally go to write it, I determine characters and basic plot. Then I go into Excel and start plotting scenes (many of which will have already been catalog, tagged and released into the wild while the idea was gestating). I put down the keystone scenes, then spend a few days thinking of the other scenes. I try to get every scene in the book written down, along with brief, emotive notes about what has to go in the scene, or a snippet of dialog I thought of in that scene, etc. And when I have every scene plotted, I begin writing.
And, usually, I throw out about ½ to ¾ of the scenes and the story goes completely different places.
Q) That is very similar to my method, and I probably discard at least half of my original cards by the time I have finished. About your art skills–were you an art student or did you teach yourself?
Roberto: I’ve always had two loves in life: Coke and Twizzlers. And while eating and drinking those things, I found that enjoyed writing and making art. Of the two skills, I am by far a better writer than artist. Writing is the only thing I have ever been able to do better than anyone I know (not counting other authors, of course). I went to school for journalism, became a reporter, then magazine editor. And when the writing job market disappeared for a while in the 90s, I went back to school for design.
(*Book Design for Seasons of Truth:Spring on left by Roberto Calas)
Q) You run a book illustration business called Ravenscar and I see that you have done a fair number of covers. What has your experience been making covers with the author collective of Westmarch Publishing (of which we are both members)?
Roberto: Making covers for Westmarch has been fantastic. We all know each other well (as well as you can know someone online (although I have met at least one of you)), and there is no pressure. There is only support. Because of this familiarity with the authors, I can really let myself go and try things that are way out there, knowing you won’t threaten to sue me or send someone over to remove my left kidney with a tuning fork. Some of my best covers have been for Westmarchers.
(*Cover design for The Big Keep seen at right by Roberto Calas)
Q) You manipulate a lot of stock images in your book covers, something that is very common now. What are the advantages and disadvantages of making art that way?
Roberto: Speed. To illustrate a cover by hand would take days and days and days. By using stock images, I can finish a cover in days and days and days. Wait a minute. What *is* the advantage to stock images? Hmm. Well, for one, my hand illustration skills can’t match some of the wonderful photographs out there. And while I tend to do a bit of hand illustration on most covers, I can speed things up by finding the perfect background, or the perfect character image. I also tend to use a 3D modeling and rendering to create elements that I need.
(* Cover design for Ansible 15716 by Roberto Calas)
Q: You have designed my The League of the Sphinx: The Purple Scarab novel cover and I love it. We had a bit of a false start with it, and then you just took off and found the perfect image. Can you tell me about the process you used, and how you came up with the scene?
Roberto: I find that with 75% of the covers, the first one doesn’t work. I think of the first cover as a burning arrow. It strikes somewhere in the dark, illuminating the target. And then it lights the entire field on fire, and creates a massive grass-inferno that ravages the land. But it allows me and the author to see where the target is and adjust accordingly. Shame about the fire, but eggs and omelets, eh?
With the final version of The Purple Scarab, you had shown me some samples of covers you liked, and mentioned that you liked having a central element that takes the attention. When you said this, I knew right away that the scarab had to be the central image. So I set off to create the beetle in Maya (a high-end 3D program). It took me about four days and six different versions to get the scarab right, but once the beetle came together, I knew everything else would fall into place.
I used a stock image of the pyramids at night as a background, painted a bit in the night sky, and put the scarab in place. I spent a long time on the typography before coming up with the Eye of Horus R, and that seemed to tie it all together.
Q) Yes, I adore that R! (And I’d also like to note that I am writing The League of the Sphinx series as R.E. Preston, to separate it from my regular-adult stuff. All of my future Kids, MG and YA books will be in R.E. Preston mode.) Now that the Scourge series is complete, what have you got coming up, writing-wise?
Roberto: I’m finishing the last book in my fantasy series, The Beast of Maug Maurai, then writing a Scourge novella starring everyone’s favorite character from the series—Sir Tristan. And then I’m looking forward to writing a book I have been aching to write for five years: A historical fantasy about a thief in the 16th century.
(* Cover design for The Beast of Maug Maurai on left by Roberto Calas)
Q) If you had to place a line from one of your books on your headstone, what would it be?
Roberto: “In these times of madness, only madness will save us.” It’s not the best quote in the books, but it gets repeated again and again, in a number of different ways, and has come to kind of symbolize Edward’s struggle. I don’t have any tattoos at the moment, but I plan to have that tattooed on my arm in Latin soon.
Q) You live in Sandy Hook, NH. What is your favorite restaurant there, and your favorite meal?
Roberto: Sandy Hook is a beautiful little section of Newtown, Connecticut. No one had ever heard of it. Not until December 14, 2012, when a 20-year-old with an arsenal of weapons walked into the elementary school and killed twenty children and six teachers. I have two children, twins, and if we had not decided to put them into a magnet school the year before, they would have been there that day. It affected me more than I would ever have imagined. Seeing the flowers and candles and teddy bears piled up to my shoulders. Having to drive every day through a town that had become a memorial was a lot to handle. I still get tears in my eyes when I think about it. I could have lost my children. And many others did. The shooting took place less than a mile from my house, and I still feel a horrible black spot on my soul from that day.
Shit, why am I talking about this?
Sandy Hook is a beautiful place. I love The Hook restaurant (excellent pizza and the owner is a Miami Dolphins fan, like me). And the Newtown Library is one of the best small town libraries I have ever been in.
Richard: I don’t see how living so close to such a horrific event can leave a person unscathed. I thought of it when I typed the question, actually. But I am glad that you still think so highly of the place. And I’m sure your restaurant is nice but, the Dolphins? I can’t point fingers though, since my team is the repeatedly-imploding Redskins.
In conclusion, I’d like to thank Roberto Calas for dropping by the blog and having a chat about his writing and his art. If you are a writer looking for a cover artist I would highly recommend Roberto’s cover design, both for how the art looks and how professional he is to work with.
ROBERTO CALAS: AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR BIO & CONTACTS
Roberto Calas is an author and lover of history. His serial trilogy (The Scourge) is about a 14th century knight fighting his way through a demon-infested England to reunite with the woman he loves. And every bit of it is true except for the made up parts.
In addition to The Scourge series, Roberto has written The Beast of Maug Maurai (fantasy), and Kingdom of Glass (historical fiction in the Foreworld universe). He lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut with his two children, and visits the United Kingdom on a monthly basis to be with his fiancée, Annabelle. Sometimes he fights demons to reach her.
You can learn more about Roberto on his website: robertocalas.com.
He’d be most appreciative if you liked his facebook page, too: https://www.facebook.com/RobertoCalasAuthor.
And if you feel you can only take 140 characters worth of him at a time, his twitter handle is, @robertocalas.