Judith Rossell’s prodigious talents as an illustrator and writer, her inimitable wit and her obsession with Victoriana come together superbly in her latest book for children – Withering-by-Sea.
The story follows the trials of Stella Montgomery, an 11-year-old orphan, who lives with her dreadful aunts in a damp, dull hotel in Victorian England. But everything changes when she witnesses an evil act in the conservatory.
The book is the first in a series of Victorian adventures for Stella Montgomery and features the kind of beautifully intricate and magical drawings that have made Judith Rossell one of Australia’s most successful illustrators.
Judith joins me to talk about her new book and the historical period that inspired it.
JF: Congratulations on Withering-by-Sea. It’s a wonderful book and the illustrations are stunning. Which came first – the pictures or the words?
JR: Thanks Julie! I’m very happy with how it came together. (Particularly the ribbon. I’m very happy about the ribbon!). I started with the words, but along the way I did some of the drawings. Sometimes drawing the little details of the characters or the setting can give ideas for the story. Drawing the pier gave me the idea of a theatre, which gave me the idea that the Professor was a stage magician.
JF: What interests you about Victorian England?
JR: I’m a big fan of the early Sherlock Holmes stories, with the lovely atmosphere of fog and gaslight, and mysterious goings-on. And it was such an interesting era for the enormous changes that were happening, so many important inventions, and social changes. The pace of change in the 1890s was so much greater than now, people experienced the first telephones, motorcars, moving pictures, anesthetics, votes for women, education for all children… so many life-changing things. It must have been an exciting time to live.
JF: Why do aunties get such a bad rap in Victorian era fiction?
JR: Aunties and Stepmothers! You’d expect your mother to be on your side, sympathetic, reliable and looking out for you, but an Aunty might do anything! Aunties have many more possibilities, for exciting adventures, and for evil deeds. (I’m an Aunty myself, so I can say these things).
JF: There are some very fanciful characters in the story – singing cats, a clockwork beetle, and a hand of glory. Where have these come from?
I remember reading a story when I was little which had a hand of glory in it, and I found it terrifying! The clockwork beetle is a little bit steampunkish, I think. I like the idea of clockwork and magic working together. I can’t remember where I got the idea of the singing cats from… Sometimes things just come to you, and you think – yes!
JF: What are the most intriguing snippets of Victoriana that you unearthed while writing Withering-by-Sea?
JR: My favourite invention of the time is a bed that’s attached to a clockwork timer. You wind it up, and go to sleep, and all night it goes tick tick tick, and in the morning, the whole thing flips over and dumps you on the floor. What a way to wake up! I have a recipe book, too, and my favourite recipe is for negus, a kind of fruit punch, which was mainly served at children’s parties. The recipe says for 10-12 little children, a pint of cheap port is sufficient. Basically, don’t waste the expensive drink on the little kids.
JF: How long do you spend on each drawing and did you have to redraw any to suit the story that you eventually wrote?
JR: The single page pictures took three or four days each, and yes, I did have to do a couple of them again, because I rewrote the ending of the story, and there were significant changes. It’s difficult to be annoyed with the writer changing her mind, when the writer is yourself. haha.
JF: This is the eleventh book you have written. You have illustrated 80 books. Which do you find more rewarding – writing or illustrating?
JR: I like them both. I enjoy illustrating picture books, and bringing the characters to life. But it’s also been a real pleasure to write and illustrate my own book, without having to consider what another creator might want. I’ve never written something that someone else has illustrated, I think it would be difficult to put your work into someone else’s hands, and step back. I admire the writers who can trust the illustrator like that.
JF: You worked as a scientist before becoming an illustrator and writer. How does your background affect your work?
JR: The only thing I can think of is that I do enjoy the research. I love getting a new history book and reading it to find things I might use for my story. At the moment, I’m reading a book about shell grottoes, which were caves and tunnels people built in their gardens in the 18th and 19th centuries, decorated with shells and coral and stones. One was decorated with the knucklebones of sheep, and another with the baby teeth of the children in the house! I’d love to put a shell grotto in my new story.
JF: I remember sharing a stage with you and a group of other talented authors at a school in Rockhampton. Michael Gerard Bauer revealed that he had wanted to be a Ninja when he grew up. I shared my hopes of owning a wildlife sanctuary in Africa and you revealed that you wanted to be a rubbish collector. Why was that?
JR: I’d forgotten that! I was very little, and the father of one of the boys in our class was a rubbish collector. He used to ride on the back of the truck and jump down and pick up the bins. And it was clearly the best job in the world, this boy had a lot of status in our class, because his dad had such a cool job. I was a bit vague about what my dad actually did (he was a scientist), and so for a while I pretended he was a rubbish collector as well, so people would think I was cool too. Sadly, I don’t think they ever did.
JF: I understand you are working on a sequel to Withering-by-Sea. Any hints on what Stella Montgomery gets up to in that one?
JR: Aha! I’m working on it right now. The title is probably going to be Wormwood Mire. Stella is sent away to a mysterious house, to stay with two cousins and their governess. And there’s something lurking in the forest… Something frightening…
JF: Thank you for visiting Judith. Good luck with Withering-by-Sea. I look forward to the sequel!
Julie Fison writes for children and young adults. Her books include the Hazard River adventure series for young readers, Choose Your Own Ever After, a pick-a-path series that lets the reader decide how the story goes, and Counterfeit Love for young adults.