Gaspard’s Foxtrot: An interview with James Mayhew and Zeb Soanes

Gaspard’s Foxtrot: An interview with James Mayhew and Zeb Soanes

I’m thrilled to welcome both James Mayhew and Zeb Soanes into #TheRealm today to talk about the third book in their delightful series, Gaspard’s Foxtrot!

Buy the book here!

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about your new book Gaspard’s Foxtrot?

Zeb: Honey is taking Finty to a concert in Hyde Park that celebrates London’s wildlife. Gaspard walks them to the bus-stop, Honey drops her scarf as she carries Finty up to the top deck and Gaspard trots on board to return it, the doors close behind him and he gets an unexpected fox-eye view of the sights, sounds and smells of London. When they reach their final stop, he loses Honey and Finty in the crowd and has no idea how he will find his way home … until, at the concert, a familiar face walks out on stage.

James: It’s been lovely to return to Gaspard and his friends, all the familiar characters are there – Finty, Peter, Honey and the Kind Man with the Bicycle. But Gaspard is still – quite literally in this story – the star of the show.

The book takes us on a colourful journey of London and I know you spent some time travelling around London together as preparation and research for the book. Can you tell us a little more about this?

James: Zeb is an extraordinary mine of information. I don’t know how he recalls it all! Having lived in London for many years, he knows all sorts of unexpected, hidden, delights, off the beaten track, and the history behind them. So for me it was a fabulous day out, being given a guided tour by Britain best-loved radio voice. How lucky am I? We had a delightful lunch with the REAL Honey, Cleo Sylvestre, and explored her garden, which features in the book, and then visited all the places in the story, before ending up at Hyde Park. I had my sketchbook, of course, and hastily scribbled drawings and notes along the way, backed up with photos. This kind of reportage gathering of information is vital. I don’t think I’d be able to illustrate the story without it!

Zeb: London is very much another character in this story, the book is a love-letter to the city. The bus journey is the backbone of the story. When I was writing I made the journey on the Number 38 bus that I had taken hundreds of times before but this time kept my eyes looking-up out of the widows, to see it with Gaspard’s eyes.  I noticed so many new details and I wanted James to have the same experience to make the illustrations as authentic a representation of the journey as possible and of course he has captured it beautifully. It was great fun being tourists in the city together and, as he said, Cleo (the real Honey) gave us a lovely lunch at the start of it and we spotted all sorts of details in her garden that made it into the book.  Cleo doesn’t keep bees but her daughter Zoe does and bee-keeping is a ‘thing’ in London with hives on top of many buildings, helping to improve the city’s biodiversity.

Lots of well-known London landmarks are featured in the book – do you have a favourite London landmark?

Zeb: Too many to choose from! The Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich; Broadcasting House which from the side looks like a great ocean-liner; Daunts Bookshop in Marylebone; Highgate West Cemetery; the narrow alleys that run from Covent Garden down to the Strand where you feel you could brush shoulders with a Victorian theatre-goer in top hat and cane. The locations highlighted in this story are not the obvious ones already covered in hundreds of picture books. I wanted to encourage children to notice the extraordinary details that are everywhere all around us — you just have to look up for them.

James: There are so many to choose from. I love Borough Market – It’s like being in mainland Europe, where the food markets have such incredible displays. There’s also a fabulous Spanish Restaurant just outside the market. My partner, Toto, is Spanish, so it’s always treat to go there. I love the South side of the river in general – The Golden Hinde, and Gabriel’s Wharf, Southbank. My son is called Gabriel, so that’s a nice link. I love the dolphin lamp posts, they remind me of Lowestoft, where I grew up, and they are the work of architect George Vulliamy, an ancestor of illustrator Clara Vulliamy!

A love of music definitely shines through in the book and compositions like The Pigeon Pizzicato Polka are mentioned. Can you talk to us about the book’s link to music – I know you were planning on some wonderful concerts bringing the book and music together, for example.

James: When Zeb and I first met we chatted about our respective work with orchestras. Zeb narrates lots of concerts, and I paint to music, live on stage. So we thought: wouldn’t it be great to collaborate? Zeb approached Jonathan Dove, a wonderful composer, who I already much admired, and who lives in Gaspard’s part on London. Happily he agreed, and this book, “Gaspard’s Foxtrot” was written specifically as both a picture-book text and a script for a narrated concert work, for orchestra!

There are five commissioning parties: The Philharmonia, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Docklands Sinfonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and the Three Choirs Festival, who will host the official premiere this Summer.

Zeb: I approached Jonathan Dove the November before the first Gaspard book was published. We met for lunch and all I had to show him was the text and James’ rough pencil sketches for the first book and I sat nervously whilst he read through the story. He told me how much he loved foxes and the possibilities they posed musically. I had already written Gaspard Best in Show but wanted to write a specific story, suited to a concert performance, not an adaptation of the first two books and so Gaspard’s Foxtrot has actually been brewing for three years.

I wondered if you both had a favourite illustration in the book and why it was your favourite?

Zeb: I love the double-page spread of the  concert in Hyde Park with Gaspard’s face enlarged on one of the TV Screens, it’s the culmination of his adventure but the picture that leapt out at me when I first received James’ finished artwork was the moment when the kind man reaches down and takes his stick from Gaspard’s mouth. The colour palate reminds me of the muted harmony in Edward Ardizone’s illustrations, it captures the kindness and understanding between the characters and the sense of occasion beautifully.

James: My favourite is the scene where people are arriving in Hyde Park for the concert. Gaspard looks rather anxious, but a little girl smiles at him; beyond, you can spot my Hitchcockian cameo – I’m strolling along with Toto and Diva the dog! I love the atmosphere of people gathering, expectantly, just before a show.

Can you spot James, Toto and Diva the dog?

This is obviously your third book together now! I was wondering how much the writing of the book is influenced by the illustrations and vice versa?

James: Of course, the illustrations take their cue from the writing, absolutely. There may be subtle sub-plots or added characters, but the writing Zeb provides me with is already very rich in detail, language and incident. My challenge is deciding what *not* to illustrate – with only 32 pages, I can’t always include every single detail I’d like to!

Zeb: The words always come first but I love discovering the stories-within-the-story that James creates in his pictures. Some of these are discussed, for example, making some of the passengers on the bus musicians who were carrying their instruments to the concert and others come as wonderful surprises, such as James and Toto’s cameo in the crowd! This story-within-the-story device is something we discussed from the beginning that we loved in the books of our childhood. It helps make a picture book worth reading over and over; the story may become familiar and yet you can be rewarded by spotting new things in the illustrations that add to the adventure.

What are the challenges for you both of writing a picture book series? What’s the most enjoyable part of it?

James: The challenge for me is keeping things consistent. I don’t work digitally, everything is created by hand, and so details like proportions and colours can’t be adjusted – it’s a lot of thinking and sometimes redoing. I think the hand-drawn approach suits the nature of the stories, to lend warmth, I hope, and the “sketchiness” echoes those early reportage notes. But it is actually quite hard to keep things light and fresh, and worry about consistency. It’s also a challenge to draw real locations, especially Piccadilly Circus. That’s a challenge architecturally, but you also have to choose the viewpoint, the angle, and impose to allow room for text. It’s a lot of juggling but I think it’s worth it for the tenderness and humanity a hand-drawn illustration can provide.

The most enjoyable part of a series is getting to know the characters better, as you return to them for each new title. It’s like catching up with old friends. I sometimes feel bereft when a book is finished, because I invest so much time, so much of myself in my work. So it’s lovely to know I can return to the Islington of the illustrations and see Gaspard once more.

Zeb: I try to write authentic-feeling stories that aren’t simply ‘capers’ for the sake of an adventure. I really enjoy the challenge of packing a rounded story into fewer than 30 illustrated pages but it can also be frustrating. Dialogue that helps to expand characters has to be pared down to essentials, but then that’s the beauty of working with an illustrator of James’ skill who can include so much expression and information in his pictures.

Are there any more plans for Gaspard? Do you have any ideas about what might happen to him in a fourth book?

James: Over to Zeb… (my lips are sealed!)

Zeb: I’ve kept one book ahead (for fear of approaching a publishing deadline and staring at a blank page) so the fourth book, Gaspard’s Christmas has been written for some time and needs to be revisited and tweaked before publication next year. I can’t wait to see how James will illustrate Gaspard’s winter streets. This means I need to get on and write book five!  I have lots of ideas simmering in mental cooking-pots. Sometimes a fun situation that comes to mind between the characters doesn’t develop beyond ‘a sketch’ — finding the strong story-arc, the reason for things to happen is key.

Finally, the fabulously snooty Peter introduces Gaspard to yet another new word – peregrinating. Which word do you think Peter might use to describe Gaspard’s Foxtrot?

James: Well given it’s musical pedigree, I think he might call is “Symphonic” or perhaps “Harmonic”!

Zeb: Oh I think he would describe it as ‘polyphonic’, which means (as he would tell you) ‘involving many sounds or interweaving melodies.’ Which neatly plugs Peter the Cat’s Little Book of BIG Words which will be out later this year!

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