When an artist is asked how an idea came about, the answer usually reveals depth and planning. These ideas often come about over years of weighty ponderance and intense suffering for the cause. So, when Greg Manchess, the author and illustrator of the young adult novel “Above the Timberline,” was at the University of Findlay recently and was asked the question regarding how he came up with the idea for the novel, his answer was a little unorthodox.
“I literally had to start making stuff up,” Manchess said. “People were asking, ‘What’s the story?’ and I really didn’t know.” He had been asked to do a video presentation on his process of creating, and, as he told it, it was approximately 24 hours before the crew was supposed to arrive at his studio. The problem, however, was that he had no idea what to paint. “I didn’t want to do another portrait,” he said. “So, my girlfriend, knowing I like snow, said, ‘Why don’t you paint a guy riding a polar bear?’ It seemed silly at first, but then I started a couple of thumbnail drawings, and the idea was born.” He ended up painting “a guy and his polar bear companions,” and it would eventually become the cover of the novel. At the time, though, he had little idea of what it was. “People liked it, so I had to figure it out,” he said. He began mulling it over and was soon having fun getting more and more into the blossoming story.
Manchess was at UF to discuss the result of the story: a beautifully and realistically landscaped, visual novel that spans 240 pages and 123 oil paintings. Set 1500 years into the future, it tells the story of a teenage boy in search of his missing father—a famed explorer—on an Earth covered in snow. An exhibition including several conceptual works developed for the book ran for nearly a month in the Lea Gallery at UF, and wrapped up after Manchess’s visiting artist reception, where he signed copies of his book and demonstrated and discussed his painting technique and writing style with an audience. The story is told in the form of journal entries, an interesting choice for a book of Timberline’s size. “Wesley [the book’s protagonist] doesn’t have a lot of time,” Manchess explained. “He’s trying to track his father, and is often in some sort of peril. I sort of modeled it after a graphic novel, where the pace allows just enough room for insight into the character and the history of things while letting the dialogue, the thing that gives character and keeps reader-interest, do the rest.”
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Manchess’s process for creating the novel was his penchant for dreaming about the unfolding of the plot, action and characters. “The dreams while sleeping didn’t happen a lot, but they definitely occurred,” he said. “More often, the way I’d get the character talking was to go to coffee shops and daydream—watch it in my mind. You can watch them like a film, take notes.” At the beginning of the book, there’s an airship battle that serves to incite action and pull the reader in. “All daydreamed,” Manchess admitted. “I patterned it off of all of the great submarine movies I’ve ever seen.” He explained that he would go back and forth with illustrating and writing. When the writing slowed, the sketching and painting would speed up, and vice versa.
If readers pay attention, they might even see a cameo by a special model in the book. “Well, I needed a model, so I used myself,” Manchess confessed. “A lot of people, even my friends, miss it, though. It’s a good example of a wide mix of things people can miss in the paintings if they hurry through them.”
The book is doing well since its release in October, and Manchess thinks this is due to the young audience and their period of life. “It deals with all of the stuff they’re thinking about anyway,” he said. “I tapped into my 10-year old self to create it. Full of wonder. Vivid imagination. I just worked to give a nudge to that imagination, and trusted that the reader would be spurred by the same curiosities.” It appears that this method worked, as there’s been some interest in a film being created from the novel. “Three producers, currently, have an interest,” he said.
Manchess, who did 122 paintings in 11 months, was understandably relieved when the book was finished, but is admittedly excited again because of the film interest. “If it happens, it happens,” he said. As for now, he’s already on to a completely different world and story. And how did he come up with it? “A painting. I made it up on the fly,” he said. “I’ve found that works sometimes.”