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Interview with:

J. M. DeSantis [jmdesantis] 

What is your profession? What is your title printed on your business card?
Writer and illustrator. The genres I typically work in are fantasy and horror, and I love to combine these, when I can. I write novels, short stories, comic and graphic novel scripts, and poetry, and the illustration work I do compliments these. Though I have done illustrations for stories I did not write.
Is there a web address where we can see some of your work?
Yes, my official website: http://www.jmdesantis.com.
Have you completed formal art studies, or are you self-taught?
I suppose a bit of both, really. I graduate from Pratt Institute with a BFA, however my concentration was Computer Animation. I'd only taken a few illustration courses and only one writing course, so much of how I developed as a writer and illustrator was due to my own efforts. Though, I would be at error to say nothing was gained by attending Pratt. After all, had I not gone to college (specifically at an art school) I wouldn't have been exposed to some of the art that ultimately helped me decide the direction I wished to take my work in, and certainly there were at least a few things I learned about both the crafts of writing and illustration while there.
How did you get your first full assignment? What did it involve?
I had completed a few private commissions previous to getting any published work. However, I was able to receive my first published assignment by a mixture of pure luck and the intuition to take advantage of the opportunity available to me. I was attending my first meeting with the Comicbook Artists Guild where it was announced that the penciler for a story they were publishing in their annual anthology (CAG Anthology #7 - April 2008) had not delivered. At that point (because of the artist) they were running behind schedule on the book. They were looking for a replacement artist and would consider any volunteers. Having no previous publications to my name, and being all too eager to get my career moving, I approached Mr. Keith Murphey (CAG's founder and president who was present at the meeting) to express my interest. He seemed thrilled that I took the step, especially being so new to the group, and I received the job then and there. The assignment was to produce the pencil-art for the eight page story, 'Recollections of a Commander,' and design two minor characters for it. I set down to work immediately after receiving the script and had the job completed with enough time for the pages to be sent to the inker and the letterer, and so the story made it into the book as planned. I do wish I had more time to complete the assignment and become familiar with drawing the characters before starting, but I they were very grateful that I was able to get the job done, do it well, and in time, despite the tight deadline.
How similar are your current drawings to those you did as a child?
I would say quite different. Forgetting the less refined drawings I did at a very early age, my style began as resembling the art of my favorite comics, and eventually video game art and Anime. There are still those early influences in my art today. When I was young, I had more of an interest in crisp, 'shiny' art, whereas now I think of my illustrations as being somewhat more fine art like ('without being fine art,' as a professor of mine once said), having a painterly and hand-drawn quality to them.
What was your favorite comic book as a child?
That is difficult to answer, as it changed over time. Children can often change interests like the wind. I believe I began with X-Men (being quite the Wolverine fan back then) as well as Batman and Ghost Rider. I would also occasionally flip through an issue of my brother's Spiderman comics, here and there. Though I suppose Ghost Rider was my very favourite. On the other hand, I can say with absolute certainty I have never been much for Superman.
What part of your work do you do on paper and what part digitally?
As time passes I use the computer less and less. There are of course times when the use of a computer is absolutely necessary (and I would not change that), such as for scanning a piece, working on my website, or typing and editing a manuscript, but I find sitting in front of a computer screen all day, day after day, to be tiring and depressing. This may seem strange considering I concentrated in Computer Animation while at Pratt [Institute], but even then I still preferred the look and feel of traditional media. What's more, I dislike that there is no original piece of work (when working digitally) that I can hold in my hand. Prints can be made, but they don't compare to a physical painting.
What research do you do for your illustrations?
I am researching all of the time for my illustrations. Being a writer as well as an illustrator, I do a considerable amount of reading, and that, believe it or not, has helped on numerous occasions with my illustrations and assignments. What's more, I do attempt to spend some time, here and there, seeking out new reference material and taking the time to sketch them. There is nothing like having even an amateur knowledge about certain subject matter before beginning to draw it. Any knowledge I can bring to my work, be it from research or life experience, can be invaluable. When I do find myself lacking, I always research the subject as much as possible and as much as time or the deadline allows for. And, yes, that includes both visual and written materials.
What advice do you have for someone who likes to draw and would like to make a living from it?
I always wondered what I might say to a question like this, as I've found too often there is advice out there which has been of little help to me. Equally I have come across some very useful advice. But now, being asked, I find it difficult to answer, as there is so much I could and should say. After all, I would not want someone to come away from my answer feeling it was anything less than helpful. I suppose, if I was forced an answer, the one thing I see that is hardly spoken of when speaking is business and professionalism. Too often you hear people speak about the Art Business, and all they talk about is the art, but they are obviously forgetting that very important and often overlooked second word: 'Business.' There is an honest reason why some (even working professionals) are successful at this career and some are not, and I vehemently believe this is closely related to one's attitude toward his career. If you wish to be successful and make a living from your art, you must conduct yourself professionally and you must treat your art career as a job. Now, it can and honestly should be enjoyable and rewarding, but, if you are making money from it, it is a job nonetheless. Think of it as owning your own business. You cannot hope to get anywhere with it if you don't take the necessary steps toward creating a demand for your product. This, of course, involves the very important element of self-promotion. If you find you are not comfortable with that, you would do well to find a way to be (and this may develop overtime, which is fine). Be shameless about it. If need be, stand atop the tallest building, with megaphone in hand, and cry out that you are an illustrator (although I would not advise this approach as it would not be very professional--again a necessary element). As per specifics, I would suggest creating a website, or using one of many free networking or art sites to create one (such as deviantART or Facebook even). Having a web presence in this day and age will help your visibility and will help others to conceive of you as being serious about your career. Business cards, with all necessary information (including your job-title, name, and contact information), are essential as well. Researching is another important element, and not just techniques or references, but business models, methods of promotion, and even literature on how to act like a professional will help. Again, think of it as owning your own business. Like your style or approach to your art, your business skills will develop and change over time, but no matter how good your talents are, if do not take the time to develop these other skills, it will be nearly impossible to make a living from your art.
Why do so many artists and creators have such volatile personalities?
I find this to be a slightly offensive perception that people (and even artists themselves) have of artists. There are certainly plenty of creative minds out there that, while wandering in some fantastical place in their mind for a good portion of the day, have fairly stable and down-to-Earth personalities, or as stable and down-to-Earth as any man. An artist need not be flighty, inconsistent, or easily thrown into a heat of rage. It's something I wholly dislike as a stereotype, especially when I see and meet other artists who embrace this idea. However, at the risk of sounding hypocritical and contradictory, I do understand why artists have such personalities (even if I believe it is in their best interest to keep such eccentricities under control). Artists, as a whole, are a passionate group, and being so, create work that is personal to them. Artists are met with a considerable amount of apprehension at their work being seen, or even disappointment or euphoria when it is disliked or praised (respectively). What's more, the creative process can often be a frustrating thing, to say the least. Even with the clearest idea of what you wish to create, there is much that can go wrong (unpredictably) in the process. I suppose, given these facts, it is easy for one to be given to drastic mood changes. Creating art is an emotional act. Yet, even acknowledging these things, I feel it is a poor decision to embrace these personality traits, if for no other reason than their effect upon the artist creatively and at the risk of their professionalism. It is more of an Eastern way of thought, and stemming from my interest in martial arts, but giving into passion and reacting (rather than 'acting') to situations is wholly undesirable and may cloud both your judgment and ability to perform. Being emotional, in general, is a sure way to lose focus, especially in the heat of the moment. Yet the martial arts too are artistic and martial artists equally as passionate about their art, and all without being volatile. I suppose this is the approach I try to take to my career, and would encourage others to do the same. It certainly has helped me, and I've been often complimented on my professionalism as a result. If you are going to have a career in any field, professionalism is essential, and a volatile personality does not lend itself to either the creative or professional aspects of an artist's career.
Which artists do you admire and how do they influence your work?
The writers I enjoy most are J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Yasumi Matsuno (especially when translated by Alexander O. Smith), H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and William Shakespeare, while my favorite illustrators are Ayami Kojima, Alan Lee, Akihiko Yoshida, John Howe, Hiroaki Samura (writing also), Drew Struzan, Mike Mignola (writing also), Gary Gianni, Adam Hughes, Frank Frazetta, and Norman Rockwell. I've also been a long-time fan of Tim Burton's films. The way they influence my work is difficult to define, and not all of them have the same or equal effect upon my work. Even the aforementioned writers have an effect on my illustrative work, and so too for the illustrators upon my writing. Often their work not only influences me artistically, but also in how I would like to be viewed as an artist or the approach or direction I wish to take with my career. Of course it would be unfair to say there are not others who influence me in such ways (some of them not artists at all), yet these are the artists who have the most profound effect upon me.
Does it pain you to let go of a piece you have sold?
No, I suppose it doesn't, though I have known a few people for whom this is an problem (so much so that they'll never sell an original). There have been occasions when I've felt the slightest twinge of something when selling a piece, but it passes. My feeling is simply that in my lifetime I hope to create a great number of pieces of both writing and illustration, and I will certainly not have the ability to adequately and safely store all of them. So, why not let others enjoy owning an original if they wish? And, for myself, if there is any money to be made in selling my original work, why not take full advantage of that while I'm still amongst the living? That said, if I create a piece I feel too attached to to sell, I simply keep it.
What did you first read? How did you begin to write? Who were the first to read what you wrote?
I honestly don't recall what I first read. If you mean as far back as picture books, I did enjoy the Berenstain Bear books, amongst others. Comic books (as aforementioned) as well. The Goosebumps series comes to mind, though there were also others such as 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' and 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.' I also vaguely recall some obscure young-adult horror novel called 'The Ripper' (by D. E. Athkins), and the ever so disturbing Scary Stories series (those by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell), which I still feel feature the most horrifying illustrations I've ever seen. I don't know the precise first book. However, I can say for certain the two novels I read which prompted a more serious interest in writing prose as well as scripts; those were 'The Hobbit' by J. R. R. Tolkien, and 'Crime and Punishment' by Fyodor Dostoevsky. As for who read my own work first, that would certainly have been my family. Though, if you mean outside of that, my friends and a few of my school teachers as well. How I began, exactly, is a mystery in itself. I know I was always possessed of a great imagination. I was always creating stories in my mind for the toys I played with or the bit of live-play I did, and, here and there, I might commit some adolescent silliness to paper (such as short horror stories, comic scripts, or a 'movie' or 'video game' script or two). For a long time, I wrote and drew a series of comics featuring a character all my own. But, I suppose, it was just something I moved toward, just as anyone does who finds interest in something and decides to pursue it long-term.
What is your favorite genre? Can you provide a link to a site where we can read some of your work or learn something about it?
Fantasy and horror, and I enjoy blending the two genres together, at times. Some may call this dark fantasy, and perhaps it is. I also enjoy history (true history and historical fiction) and mythology. As for where you can read some of my work and learn more about other places and publications where you can find it, again, simply visit my website (http://www.jmdesantis.com).
What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
I suppose every story begins with an idea. Sometimes it's a character or an object, other times it's a situation or concept, or even an ending, a sentence, scene, or phrase, or some combination of these, but always there is an idea. Then that idea develops into something of a vague story. At times the idea develops itself into a tale very quickly, while at other times the idea sits on paper or in my mind, and develops only very slowly (sometimes over the course of months or years) until it is defined enough that I feel comfortable to begin writing. Of course, there are ideas that never get any further, and sometimes find their way into a different story than I'd expected. In the past, when the idea had developed enough that I felt prepared to write about it, I would often then dive straight into writing, and this is sometimes still the case. However, I am now finding plotting and synopsizes more useful, before writing, especially with more complex plots. This is largely debated amongst writers, and, having tried both methods, I understand and agree with the opinions of why one would prefer one technique to the other. Then, of course, there are occasions when a synopsis is not necessary. So, I do still take both approaches, though I tend toward plotting.
What type of reading inspires you to write?
I suppose that's difficult to say, as reading different works inspire me differently. A work of fiction might inspire me stylistically, while something more like a reference or history book might inspire me as far as a plot or character is concerned, and even then neither may be the case, or quite the opposite for each. I would have to say reading any of my favorite authors is always inspiring. As it is, style is something important to me (I love rich, long-winded, beautiful language), and so I always enjoy reading works that inspire me in that way. Other than my favorite writers I do enjoy reading works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, as well as the literature of the Victorian era and the early 1900s--especially if the author is English (I am an admitted Anglophile). There is something about the language of those times which appeals to me most, and always has since I was young.
What voice do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
My immediate response is the third person, and for many years I all but detested the first person voice. All of my earliest work is written in the third person, and most of my favorite writers use(d) a third person voice. Yet, I do love the works of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, both of whom used the first person to profound effect. So, over time I have seen the error of my ways and used the first person voice when writing. I think it really depends on what sort of story you are writing, which voice is appropriate to use. Still I do largely prefer the third person voice, though I believe, whichever you prefer, it is good to have skills at writing both.
Deep down inside, who do you write for?
Myself. At the end of the day, no matter what peoples' opinions are of what I write, good or bad, I need to love it and love writing it.
Is writing a form of personal therapy? Are internal conflicts a creative force?
Yes, I suppose in many ways both are true, and I should like to think not just for myself, but other writers as well. Though I write fiction I do include a fair amount of my own experiences, opinions, inner thoughts, and observations in my stories. (What writer doesn't?) These are not always prominent in my work. Sometimes they are represented by a small, passing phrase, but there's almost always something very real in there. I feel this is something that helps the story feel more real to me. I hope my readers find this true, as well.
Does reader feed-back help you?
It does. I cannot tell you the times another person's eyes have helped me to realise that I might do better to lengthen or shorten a particular section of a story, or perhaps write it differently and to better effect. Better yet, it is always good to hear when someone thinks you've written something particularly well. Reader feedback can help you to see what you're doing correctly and what you are not but also when you have produced an undesired or welcome effect or missed the opportunity to write something much more powerful. Reader feedback is an invaluable and necessary part of developing a writer's confidence and craft (as much so as reading constantly); I suppose it's a sort of paradox then that so many writers are shy of wanting others to read their work.
Do you share rough drafts of your writings with someone whose opinion you trust?
I'd say most of the time I do, though rarely the very first draft. Sometimes I prefer to bring a tale to a more completed form before asking for outside critiques. But, apprehensive as I may be, I always take that step. Again, it's crucial.
What do you surround yourself with in your work area in order to help your concentrate?
Silence is the most important element of all, at least for my writing. I sometimes work on my illustrations with the television on or some music playing, but when I write, silence is best. It helps me concentrate on the poetry of the words. Other than that, I only require a desk, preferably with a good deal of space to spread out, and a chair to sit in. I'm not much for writing in my lap or on the floor, though I have done so, on occasion, and I've heard there are writers who are perfectly comfortable in those positions. For myself, a desk seems right.
Do you write on a computer? Do you print frequently? Do you correct on paper? What is your process?
I always write my first drafts longhand. I suppose this is, in part, because of the insistence of one of my High School English teachers in writing everything (even formal papers) by hand. Though it is also due to convenience; a laptop, after all, can never be as easily carried as a notebook. There is also something about writing a story by hand that speaks to me more creatively. I love the look and feel of the ink as it spreads across the page, turning words into sentences and sentences into whole paragraphs. Perhaps the tales feel more real that way, as though I'm recording them as I witness them (like a journal entry of sorts). After the first draft, I type the story into the computer (making changes as I see fit), and I always print out each draft and correct them by hand before changing the computer file. For me, useful as they are, computers are more mechanical, and so meant for the less creative and more technical revision work.
What do you recommend I do with all those things I wrote years ago but have never been able to bring myself to show anyone?
Well, first of all, if it has been years, for your own sake and the sake of the stories, you might want to revisit them and make revisions (you're certain to have some). Then, once you feel you're pleased or even somewhat content with the work you've done, show the stories to someone whose opinion you can trust (and by that I mean trust to be honest with you, though also possessing the tact not to crush all your hopes should they find something lacking in your writing). If you don't know someone like that personally, then I suggest joining a writer's group (there are many on the internet if there are none near where you live) or posting your work up for others to read and offer feedback (websites such as deviantART). Again, reader feedback is imperative, both for your confidence as a writer and the development of your craft. As self conscious as you may be about your work, you'll likely find there are those out there that really enjoy what you wrote. Even if your writing is in terrible need of work, one thing is for certain: no one will ever be able to help you if you don't show it to anyone, and certainly no one is going to discover you if you don't put yourself out there. I would also recommend, if you wish to see your work published, send it out to editors and publications. Rejections are likely to follow (you should expect them), but don't take them to heart (though this is perhaps easier said than done). Persistence will pay off in the end. Even if the story could do with a bit of work, if you really believe a piece you've written is well done, there is no reason to abandon it if it is rejected. Merely, rework it (if necessary) and send it out again.

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J. M. DeSantis

[jmdesantis] J. M. DeSantis
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