Last October, I was invited to participate in something that I count as very special, as I was asked by Steve Fjeldsted, Director of Library Arts and Culture at the South Pasadena Library, to co-present the animated film adaptation of Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree at the library on October 29th, just a few days before All Hallow's Eve. As a huge Bradbury fan, I was incredibly honored to be involved in a public celebration of this icon's work, especially around Halloween, as no other American writer owns this special date on the calendar more than Mr. Bradbury.
One of the co-presenters was Gris Grimly, a Los Angeles-based artist, filmmaker, and writer who illustrated the most recent edition of The Halloween Tree book, published by Knopf. There was an exhibit of Grimly's work showcased in conjunction with the film screening, and I walked with the other eager eyes and I took in Grimly's work, digging the love of the macabre in combination with the playfulness of youth. The settings and tone made me feel as if I'd known this work, these images, my whole life. This was how I've always felt about Bradbury's fiction. I came to a serious reading of his stories quite late, comparatively, but it settled into me like it has always been there, coloring my imagination and showing me things both familiar and excitingly original. Grimly produces this sort of work, art with a Bradburian warmth and magic, with an undercurrent of something looming that threatens to shatter bucolic pleasantries. A joy amidst the dread, mixed together like a perfect cocktail. He makes everyone feel young and curious and open to wonder again, unafraid of the shadows, invincible against the night. It's a special power, discovering that balanced waltz, but Grimly - like Bradbury - has found the rare rhythm.
Before the end of the event, as we sat behind our respective books and grinned at the crowded room filled with fellow Bradbury acolytes ranging in age from single digits to eight or nine decades, I asked Grimly if he'd like to participate in an interview for The Cosmicomicon, and he generously agreed. This is the result of that interview, echoing back to a perfect pre-Halloween night in South Pasadena. I hope you enjoy the questions, the answers, and Gris Grimly's superlative work.
TC - Thank you for sitting down with us across this sturdy virtual table, Gris.
GG - Thank you for having me…cyberly.
For those who might not be familiar, give us a little background and context on what you do, and where interested eyeballs might be able to find your work, in print and on screen.
I spent the most part of my career trudging along a delusional road that weaved vexingly throughout frustration, confusion, and misguidance. I have come out the other side of this tenebrous backwoods, and for the first time, I can answer that question with more confidence and pride than ever before. I am a children’s book illustrator and author. These books can be found wherever fine books are sold.
We won't give away any secrets as to your true identity, and assuming that your father and mother are not Mr. and Mrs. Grimly, where did the name "Gris Grimly" come from?
My first book was about to be released, and I was feeling uncertain about beginning my career under my Christian name. This was for many reasons. Firstly, being of Scandinavian decent, my surname is not phonetic, and therefore it is impossible to pronounce, spell, or remember. Secondly, I had a vision of what kind of illustrator I wanted to be. Edward Gorey was a huge influence on me and I found his name delivered a distinct impression that was fitting to his work. I wanted a name that could represent the tone and content of my work as well as serve as my identity. I started playing with words and once it came to me, there was an immediate resonation.
What is it about the dark, the shadowed, the spooky that attracts you? Why, in the words of Joseph Conrad, do you possess a "fascination with the abomination"?
I’ve been asked this question quite a bit. I was born days away from Halloween. The zodiac predicts that I would be fascinated by the abominable. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest, isolated from cultured society, witnessing the harsh realities of life and death that surrounded me. At a young age, I was horribly burned in a bucket of boiling water, which put me in the hospital for a month. I grew up in a strict-religious environment where I was forbidden to watch horror movies, monsters were discouraged and Halloween was the devil’s day. Regardless, I consumed all of it. But with all these coincidences, I would still have to say, “it just is what it is”. For the same reason why some people are drawn to football.
In a similar vein, I have it on good authority that you grew up in Nebraska, which was also my home from late childhood through my 20's. Does coming from this particular state, or from the Midwest in general, influence your worldview and work in any way? I have my theories on this, but I'd love to hear yours.
I’ve recently noticed how much it has influenced me and I’ve become aware and sensitive to these skeletons that are buried so deep in my subconscious. A painting I did some years ago is called “The thing on the side of the road to nowhere”. This was from a dream I had where I was riding along down a country road, passing a long repetition of corn and fencepost, until the monotony was broken by a disturbing-hulking figure who I pass by. He doesn’t move or look back, and before you know it he is gone. Dreams like this one and other creative sparks have their roots in the vast countryside of Nebraska. I can’t escape them.
Much like Bradbury, you grew up in the Midwest, and feature children in a lot of your work, or more rightly, a childlike perspective on what is most commonly described as horror and dark fantasy/fable. Is this a conscious decision, this more innocent POV on often very dark things, or does it just work out that way when you sit down to create?
This is something I’m trying to figure out. Digging deep inside myself to uncover where this expression comes from naturally, and what is the cause that changes this perspective. In the past few years, my work has become more mature and structured. This isn’t necessarily bad, just different. I’m trying to find why this change occurred and looking for the innocence that came so naturally in my earlier work. Soul searching.
Music seems to play an important part in your life, and most likely your creative process. What sort of music to you enjoy most, and what are some of the bands and artists that provide the best personal soundtrack?
My taste in music is extremely vast and eclectic. If I were to put together a soundtrack for my life, the tracks would play as follow: Early sounds would consist of Christian hymns sung by a somber choir and 70s country like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn. Country would continue throughout my youth until middle school where popular 80s would permeate, including The Police, Stray Cats, Bruce Springsteen, and Steve Miller Band. Late 80s would introduce a rebellion with songs from The Cure, Bauhaus, The Smiths and the Clash. Soundtracks from Danny Elfman would fill a dimly lit bedroom where I drew endlessly. Nirvana’s Nevermind and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine were essentials. Marilyn Manson, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, The Cramps, Rob Zombie, and The Misfits are just some of the bands that would fill the space. In the early 2000s I found interest in bebop jazz, big band and delta blues. This would bring me full circle to now, when I’m listening to a lot of Country, Gospel, folk, bluegrass, blues and roots music.
If you could do one project, in any medium, with an unlimited budge and applicable rights, what would that be?
My current interests are in focusing on children’s and young adult books. I would like to get some of my own stories written and published by top publishers and create illustrated books that will remain classics throughout the test of time. It might not sound exciting for some, but my heart is set on a simpler life, focused on family, road trips and soaking up literature. I want to move out to the country and build a sanctuary where all my dark thoughts can be unleashed as published masterpieces for children and youthful adults to enjoy.
That sounds like a little bit of heaven, right there... Before you head to the country, what advice would you give to fellow visual artists, both new and veteran (and possibly long struggling)? How can they best balance enjoyment of what they do, with a hopeful paycheck for doing what they love?
Know who you are and stay on this path. Your career is not a time for exploration. Experimentation is fine and pushing the boundaries is applauded. But do so only with a clear and confident sense of self.
Tell us a little about your recent deal with Scholastic involving your interpretation of the classic children's song Old MacDonald.
Old MacDonald is the most sincere and pure book I’ve ever worked on. In the past, I would turn down a job like this if it were proposed to me. Almost two years ago, my wife gave birth to our son. This single event has changed my life completely. As soon as he was able to communicate, it was obvious he had an obsession with Old MacDonald and farm life. I am passionately doing this book for him.
What can you tell us about the untitled picture book you also recently sold?
Scholastic purchased Old MacDonald as a two picture book deal. The second book is yet to be decided, but it will also be based on an old folk song.
What else is on the dark horizon, in terms of projects and plans?
I have a few books that are just goodhearted children’s books that I want to see published. I’ve spent the past fifteen years of my career rebelling against the industry and childishly producing material to conflict with their structure. That is not the reason to produce dark works. I want to find grace within the industry, favor among the libraries and publishing houses, and then work with them to bring my own macabre stories to the pubic with their support.
Thanks again, Gris, for stopping by The Cosmicomicon. We wish you enormous success with your many exciting projects.
Thank you for having me.
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