The latest instalment of my Art of SFF column on Tor.com is a little different this time around. Instead of focusing on the overall career and work of one of SFF’s wonderful artists, I caught up with Charles Vess, who’s a legend of the field, to chat about Ursula K. Le Guin, her renowned Earthsea stories, and his work as artist and collaborator on Saga Press’s 2018 collection, The Books of Earthsea.
Le Guin had enjoyed previous collaborations with theatre groups and musical artists, but told Vess that every artist she’d worked with previously would say, “Yes! I’d love to collaborate,” and then that was the last she’d hear from them until the book was finished and printed. “So, I don’t think she believed me when I said I wanted to collaborate. But, after four years and lord knows how many emails, she sent me a copy of her latest book, her essay book, and her dedication to me was ‘To Charles, the best collaborator ever.’”
There was perhaps a bittersweet note to Vess’s laugh.
“I felt very gratified. It was a long, and very intimidating project, but it’s the best kind of project to have, because it will bring out the best in you.”
One of the book’s double-page illustrations shows Tenar, Ged, and Tehanu after they have just caught a goat that escaped its pen and fled into a garden. “It’s a very quiet drawing.” Le Guin loved it. “Every once in a while, she’d go, ‘More goats, Charles. Put more goats in there.’”
“So, I did!” he laughed.
Charles was absolutely wonderful to speak with. He’s warm and genial, and a natural storyteller. There’s something wonderful about speaking with an artist who’s a legend in their own field, and hearing the love, passion, and reverence they have for another master. It’s clear that Vess’ love to Earthsea and the rest of Le Guin’s work runs deep and long.
From a personal perspective, this interview was a long time coming, and fought through several technical difficulties, so it’s particularly vindicating to come out the other end with what I consider some of my finest work.