Illustrators can be a lonely bunch, one cog in a production process involving a team of people you usually never meet. More often than not you deal with an art director, designer or editor, just one or two staff members who are merely the tip of an iceberg of people involved in the project. Others might include creative directors, producers, authors, copywriters, designers, marketing staff, printers and distributors.
So it’s always a pleasure to meet someone for the first time who had some kind of involvement in a past job, especially when it’s the author of a book, and even more so when illustrations and story were created at opposite ends of the world.
Back in 1994 I was deeply emerged in Tokyo life, having at that stage been based in Japan virtually without a break for eight years. This was before the internet, and although I travelled back to the UK for the occasional brief holiday, for all intensive purposes I was wholly preoccupied with business and life in Tokyo. All my work was in Japanese, from Japanese clients, regarding subjects in Japan. My friends at that time were exclusively Japanese too, largely connected with the creative business. All in all the UK seemed a very distant place.
So it came as a pleasant surprise to be asked to illustrate the Japanese edition of Fraser Harrison’s A Father’s Diary, a non-fiction journal recording the day to day life of two children in the Suffolk countryside. The book had been recently published in the UK, Media Factory had just bought the rights for Japan. The journal is set in a village outside Bury St. Edmunds, I’d never been to Bury, but as my parents were at that time in Norwich I was quite familiar with the East Anglian landscape. The commission was for a simple cover and a few light black and white drawings in the text, a modest job amidst the high profile advertising that usually filled my schedule then. But of course I agreed to the assignment, not only was it a welcome reminder of the old country, as a father of very young children myself Fraser’s touching account resonated strongly.
The book is divided into 13 months, so I created 13 little section heads and 13 narrative drawings, 26 black and white drawings altogether, plus the simple cover. Deadline was short and there was no time for research, this was way before Google image search of course! So the pictures flowed naturally, I pictured the children Jack and Tilly from descriptions in the text, the setting was based on my memories of the region, with a few references from the UK I had to hand.
The Japanese edition, translated by Sakae Kokawa, carried the somewhat bemusing title Bury St. Edmunds no Kofuku-na Oka “The Happy Hills of Bury St. Edmunds” – curious, Bury isn’t exactly noted for it’s hilly country!
So that was that.
Fast forward nineteen years. I’m now back in the UK (in Norwich in fact), there arrives an email out of the blue. It’s from author Fraser Harrison, who’d tracked me down online.
For years he’d presumed the Japanese edition had been illustrated by an anonymous Japanese artist, and was astounded to discover not only was I from the UK, but that I was now in East Anglia. The Japanese edition was the only one that carried illustrations, the children Jack and Tilly had grown up with the images, though the family no longer had a copy of the book.
Shortly afterwards I met Fraser and his wife in a local cafe on a day trip up to Norwich from Bury, where they still live. Despite having only worked from a few descriptive references in the text I was assured the drawings were close to the real children. Both are of course very much grown up now, and parents in their own right.
It all seemed satisfyingly fated. I was able to present Fraser and his family not only a spare copy of the book, but also the original illustration artwork, which, despite all the losses and upheavals when I left Japan I’d held onto over these years. I still have most of my children’s book artwork, and I had an affection for these simple drawings, a link for me with the UK at a time I was so very much involved in Japan. It seemed they were destined to find their way to the author’s family. It was really great to meet Fraser and his charming wife, one of those strange full-circle moments where everything just seemed to come together beautifully.