Writing and Art
‘Florals in Terracotta Urn’. Acrylic gouache and impasto on canvas.
Deborah O’Brien (2001)
I’ve never been sure whether I’m an artist who happens to write, or a writer who also likes to draw and paint. What I do know is there are certain things that inspire me. First and foremost, I adore old buildings. If you’re read any of my books, you’ll know that buildings, their construction and renovation, play a big part, both on the cover and in the text itself.
I’ve written stories and drawn pictures for as long as I can remember, probably from the time I could hold a pencil in my hand. My mother, who was an artist herself, kept all the miniature books I made in primary school and the illustrated magazine I concocted for my dad when he went into hospital for an operation. At school I filled the backs of my exercise books with romantic stories and drawings of the heroines (never the heroes, because I couldn’t draw men). And when it came time to hand in my books for marking, I simply ripped out the offending pages.
When I was about ten years old, I sent a short story to the Sun Herald Juniors page, accompanied by an illustration. They published it and posted me a money order for the princely sum of two dollars fifty. After that, I submitted articles and drawings on a regular basis and the money orders kept me supplied with Paddle Pops until I was fifteen and too old to be a junior anymore!
Over the years I’ve continued to write and draw. Sometimes it was a job; at other times it was strictly for fun. Fast forward to ten years ago when my mum, who was always my greatest supporter, asked me: ‘When are you going to get around to writing your novel? I’m not getting any younger, you know.’
By then I had abandoned the idea of fiction as a career. But that very evening, fortified by a glass of wine, I sat down at my laptop and began typing a dual narrative whose premise had been living in my imagination for a long time: two women, one Gold Rush town, then and now. I called my story Mr Chen’s Emporium.
When my lovely publisher asked me to do a rough sketch for the cover, I was delighted to be involved, as I was well aware that authors are rarely consulted about cover design, except to approve it. Below is the first rough sketch I produced. When I emailed it to my publisher, she diplomatically suggested that, as the title of the book was Mr Chen's Emporium, the building should really appear on the cover. Hence, the second sketch, which was approved by the powers-that be, and then passed on to the illustrator to finesse.
‘Mr Chen’s Emporium’. Concept sketch – ink and coloured pencils
Mr Chen's Emporium produced two sequels – an historical novel, The Jade Widow, and a modern-day story, A Place of Her Own, about looking for a safe haven when nothing seems safe anymore. I drew pen and ink illustrations for all three books, but apart from concept sketches and hand-drawn lettering for the titles, I left the final covers to the experts. For some reason, my publisher actually preferred my rather wonky lettering to the computer-generated kind and used it on Mr Chen's Emporium and The Jade Widow.
Rough sketch of the Emporium Hotel for 'The Jade Widow'. It was used inside the book.
An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared on the Australian Rural Romance website 2015