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New Release: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell from The Folio Society

An Interview with The Folio Society and Charles Vess


Before this announcement, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was one of the most decorated and beloved fantasy novels to have never receive a high-quality special edition treatment. Fortunately, Folio Society has remedied that problem. After years of planning and designing what will surely be considered the definitive collectible version of this brilliant masterpiece from Susanna Clarke, it is finally here. Coming on board to illustrate this production is Charles Vess, an absolute titan within the fantasy landscape. Bringing his whimsical style, reminiscent of the best parts of the Golden Age of Illustration, he perfectly captured the tone of the novel, elevating this production even further. Anyone who has the privilege of being able to add this to their collection will surely cherish it for many years to come!


Q: I can hardly express how excited I am for this release, as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a masterpiece and deserves the kind of treatment that you are giving it! This novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Hugo Award in 2005. I would imagine that this project has been in progress for a long time. Can you walk us through the evolution of this production from the moment of inception until this moment on the brink of the release?


Sinéad O’Callaghan – Fiction Editor

 

From when I joined Folio three years ago to now, there have always been whisperings of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.


The book speaks for itself, traversing genres, and worlds, and is an absolute pillar of the modern fantasy canon. It was something we always wanted to do and was more of a question of when rather than if. It was fifth overall in our 2021 Reader’s Choice survey, and after seeing the appetite for an edition from our readers, it gave us the green light to go ahead. It has been a favourite of the editorial team for years and revisiting it as a Folio edition was beyond a dream.


Editorially, I was very keen for the book to be divided into its three volumes, so readers had the most immersive experience possible. With Sheri and Charles on board, the vision felt so clear from the get-go and having Neil’s original introduction (which he revisited and updated for our edition) felt like the perfect mixture of nostalgia and reflection that would entice old and new readers alike. It is a joy to hold in your hand – a completely different experience from reading the paperback – and each volume feels like a whole new adventure.


Q: As is clear from his introduction you mentioned, Neil Gaiman is famously a huge fan of the work of Susanna Clarke. He has called Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellthe finest work of English fantasy written in the past 70 years.” It is no surprise that you chose him for the new introduction, and I know many are looking forward to reading it. Though he loved the book, he confesses that he thought it would be a novel for the few, but somehow found the masses. How did Neil Gaiman get involved with this project and what do you think it is about this story that connected with so many people and became an instant modern fantasy classic, while having so many hurdles to get past (length, extensive footnotes, esoteric vocabulary and writing style, etc.)?


Sinéad O’Callaghan – Fiction Editor


Neil’s involvement goes back to when the whisperings of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were just beginning…He got in touch with us saying that his friend Charles Vess would love to illustrate our edition (whenever we got around to doing one). It made perfect sense to us – almost the perfect trifecta of Fantasy geniuses collaborating at the one spot. So then, of course, we had to ask him to write an introduction! He was keen, but also wary. There was an intro he had written way back when for one of the first editions came out and it felt odd for him to abandon that.


So rather than write something completely new, he revisited his old enthusiasm, and added a paragraph reflecting on the novel’s success, on his and Susanna’s friendship and the love he has to this day for her writing. It is the perfect companion to Susanna’s text and shows the power of friendship and collaboration in the best way possible.


I understand Neil’s initial love – and slight trepidation – for the novel. At first glance, it can seem daunting – the footnotes, the length etc. But once a reader gets beyond the text’s appearance on the page, they find themselves completely immersed in the magic. All these ‘hurdles’ are precisely why the book has connected with so many people; it is unlike anything else anyone has ever read. Susanna has provided a masterclass in world-building and alternative histories whilst also providing a narrative that is both ironic and romantic in tone and content. It is everything a novel should be, and not only in a fantastical context.

 

Q: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a novel that I have asked multiple press owners about in the past and the main point of pushback came from the sheer size and complexity of the novel. What was your thought process when considering producing this book? Were there any challenges that had to be overcome just due to the sheer size of the novel?

 

Julie Farquhar – Production Manager


When the hefty 1024-page paperback arrived in the office, we firstly considered using a larger format and thinner paper than usual, to ensure the maximum number of words per page and to prevent a book that might be extremely heavy and potentially detract from an enjoyable reading experience. We then considered a two-book set to overcome these issues, but a novel that is composed of three volumes doesn’t lend itself very well to splitting in half and each book, if the text was split equally, would still be over 500 pages in length.  The final decision was to take a much more sympathetic approach to the text and create a three-volume set.


We felt that this fantastic novel was worthy of becoming a three-volume deluxe set, the first time the novel has been published in this way. With multi-book sets, for aesthetic reasons, we try to keep the appearance of the book spines consistent in size and so for Volume One, the shortest book, we chose a slightly bulkier paper.



Q: One of the most unique aspects of this novel is the pervasive number and length of footnotes, which presents unique formatting and typeface decisions not found in the average Folio Society production of fiction. Her created history within the world is one of the things that makes this story so rich. When it came to layout and typography, what was your approach to incorporating this unusual component for a fantasy novel? 


Charlotte Tate - Designer

 

The footnotes certainly added an extra challenge to the design of this book, but fortunately we have lots of experience of them from working on our non-fiction titles. It was important to retain Folio’s typographic and design standards to ensure the readability of the text was respected even when broken up by these long footnotes. The point size was carefully considered, not too large that the footnotes were longer than they needed to be, but also not too small that they were uncomfortable to read. Our aim was to avoid splitting as many footnotes as possible, but on the occasions they needed to be split, we spent time trying to give the reader the best outcome and create the least distraction.


Q: This is a beautiful production with a handmade slipcase and the binding done in collaboration with Legatoria Editoriale Giovanni Olivotto (L.E.G.O.). The fold-out endpapers are a really nice touch as well. Can you tell us a little bit more about the design process of the slipcase and the book design?


Sheri Gee – Art Director

I always aim to get the illustrator’s inspiration into the book design, without being too prescriptive, stepping in to talk about colours, materials or technical issues. The design for the books, slipcase and endpapers for Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were no exception. Charles had ideas of referencing a golden age style of binding, showing me drawings that could represent the three volumes and also sent me a charming drawing of the raven king for the slipcase. We discussed different ways of placing and printing it, but all in all, this remains Charles’s vision. He was an absolute pleasure to work with from the book designs through all of the illustrations, meeting several times over Zoom to make sure everything was going according to plan. Working with illustrators from all over the world, it’s not always that I get to meet them in person, but during the life of this book Charles was invited to speak at the British Library, so it was a bonus that we got to meet and discuss the book in person too.



Q: It is so exciting that Folio Society has chosen to pair one of the best fantasy novels of the last few decades with one of the most talented fantasy artists of our time, it feels like this was meant to be! Can you tell us a little bit about the evolution of this project and what your initial thoughts were when it was offered?


Charles Vess - Illustrator

 

Perhaps two years ago I heard from a friend that the Folio Society might be interested in producing an illustrated edition of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Immediately I leaped on that chance since I've loved the book since it was first published and even had the chance to illustrate Ms. Clarke's second book, a collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu for Bloomsbury which mostly takes place in the same literary world. A world that I am very happy to submerge my aesthetic in. 


So, first I asked my friend, Neil Gaiman, who I should contact at Folio (knowing that he had already worked with them on several occasions) and then took several days composing a letter begging to work on the book. Several long months later I heard from Sheri Gee (their Art Director) that they were still securing the rights to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but that I was in position to illustrate it if they did. More months slowly crept by, very nervously on my part, and then 'suddenly' the book was mine. At 72 years of age you begin to realize that you might only have so many books left in you so its best to choose wisely and only work on the books that you truly love, ones that inspire you.


Q: What was your relationship with Susanna Clarke and her wonderful story Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell before being offered to do the illustrations by Folio Society?


Charles Vess - Illustrator

 

Many years ago my wife was in a car accident, suffering a spinal cord injury. We had no medical insurance then and many, many efforts were begun to raise the necessary funds to pay for her treatment (please remember that we live in the US where there is no NHS). One such effort was generated from a book, 'Stardust', that I'd done previously with Neil Gaiman. This particular relief effort developed into an art portfolio, 'A Fall of Stardust' which also included two small chapbooks. One being written by Neil and the other by, wait for it... Susanna Clarke. Her story was titled 'The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse'. Neil explained to me then that I wouldn't have heard of Ms. Clarke before but that I would soon. Yes, I most certainly would! I eventually met Susanna when she was touring in support of the publication of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Subsequently, she asked me to illustrate her book of short stories and further, she graciously agreed to write the introduction for my 2009 art book, Drawing Down the Moon. Since that time I've read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell several times just for the pure pleasure of it.



Q: Whenever I see your distinctive style, it always makes me think of the Golden Age of Illustration and artists like Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, and most obviously Arthur Rackham. The story takes place in a time period that perfectly fits this style of art. Can you tell us a little bit more about how your own unique approach to illustrating evolved and why you think it lends to this particular text?


Charles Vess - Illustrator

 

Well, as a young artist you are always on the lookout for other artists whose work inspires you, that sends you to your drawing board eager to put pencil to paper. Many of those artists from that time have faded into the background, but not Arthur Rackham. There is always something more to learn from his work. So Rackham, and others such as John Bauer, Hermann Vogel, Maragaret and Frances Macdonald, Alphonse Mucha, Howard Pyle, Beatrix Potter, etc. continue to excite my imagination and push me every day to try to draw a bit better. Not only is their art lovely but the sumptuous, illustrated books that their art graced is the stuff of my dreams. It was a rare pleasure to collaborate on a book quite like those with The Folio Society.

 

Q: You contributed 18 stunning color plates across the three volumes, three multiple page spreads, a wraparound dust jacket illustration, as well as many black and white motifs. This is a lot of original art for a single production and I’m curious how you went about tackling it. How did you decide what particular scenes were illustrated and was it a collaborative effort with Folio Society?


Charles Vess - Illustrator

 

Before any actual planning or sketches were done, I purchased a cheap paperback edition and read through the story, circling passages that suggested visual images as well as underlining descriptions of the various characters. It is quite a lengthy book, so I also had to make notes on where those descriptions were. Once that process was over, I read through the book slowly trying to pace the appearance of each 6 plates in the three volumes thinking that it would be awkward to have a tight cluster of drawings surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of pages of type. Because of this I had to let go of more than several images that would have been a delight to draw. I think one of the most satisfying elements of the finished book are the 3 fold-out endpapers that are included (one in each volume). These, I think, were initiated because I made a mistake translating the book's proportions from millimeters to inches and drew my original concept sketches much longer than was needed.

 

Q: Well, I'm sure glad that you made that mistake, because the foldouts are breathtaking! I’m sure that each one of the illustrations from this project are dear to you, but is there one in particular that you will look back on as particularly inspiring and that you are really excited for readers to experience?



Charles Vess - Illustrator


Other than the three endpaper designs that would be page 585 wherein Stephen Black, after spending an uncomfortable night on a bleak bog, wakes to find The Man With the Thistledown Hair singing to the clouds, the earth, the wind and the stars who are all listening.


Q: I know you probably can’t answer this, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask it. Does this mean that we may see Piranesi in the near future? It is one of my favorite novels of the past couple years and desperately needs the limited treatment. I’m hoping you can give us a little glimmer of hope!


Sinéad O’Callaghan – Fiction Editor

All I can say is never say never. I know all of us here at Folio would love to lose ourselves in the halls and vestibules of Piranesi’s House…

_______________________________


If you want to stay up to date on the details of this upcoming release, sign up here.


This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank the entire team at Folio Society and Charles Vess for their generosity of time and thoughtful answers. If you want to keep up with the latest from Folio then you can check them out on their website to see some of their past and current productions. You can also follow them on Facebook or Instagram to stay up with all the incredible seasonal releases and limited editions. If you want to see some of Charles past work and keep up with what he is currently working on, check him out on his website.


Interview by: Zach Harney a co-founder of the Collectible Book Vault


*Since there are often different spellings in American English and British English of the same words, we have chosen to adhere to the spelling of the person who is speaking rather than conform to one convention for the whole interview.





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79 Comments


Thank you for this interview, I really enjoyed reading from different people involved in the publication of this edition, rather than just one person. Looking forward to having this edition in the flesh (and perhaps also, Piranesi!)

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Thank you everyone for reading the interview, such overwhelmingly kind responses!


The winner of the Piranesi Broadside is Steve Sargent - congratulations

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I have long adored this book and for it to have at last received a Folio-ing in the year of its twentieth-anniversary is simply superb. My thanks for the article, and for lighting a flame of hope that a Folio Piranesi might not take too many years to enter the halls lately trodden by JS&MN.

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Beautiful set, and another great interview!

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Oleksii
Oleksii
Apr 25

This book set is pure art. Thank you for the chance to get to know a bit more about the creation process!

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