Jeanie Palfrey, author of the book series; Stories of The Sticks, talks to us about how, after much rejection, she didn't let anything hinder her from getting what is a truly spellbinding story finally published. Jeanie has a unique way of creating her characters and turning them into the focus of magical, mysterious and mischievous plots taking the reader off into a world of funky faeries and gangster goblins.
How did you get into modelmaking?
When I left school, I couldn’t find work straight away. As I had always enjoyed sewing, I began making rag dolls to fill in the time between employment applications. My mum encouraged me to treat it like a job, to give me a focus, and that was a piece of advice that has helped my motivation to this day. She used to take the finished dolls with her into the hospital where she worked as a nurse, and sold them to her colleagues, until I found work in the Unemployment Benefit Office. From then on, I was always making in my spare time. From chess sets to puppets. At a Christmas Fayre one day, I saw people selling cast ornaments, from bought moulds. I thought that if I were selling them, I would have wanted to sculpt the original, make the mould and cast from it. But my knowledge of materials and processes was very limited and wasn’t sure I could make them to a professional enough standard. I found a weekend paper sculpture course, where I made a witch, and that was where I discovered there was such a thing as a Modelmaking diploma. I had never heard of it before, although they had existed for years. It was fortunate timing. I had taken voluntary redundancy and had my second child, so wasn’t giving up an income. I applied to the local Arts Institute at Bournemouth, just before my 40th birthday, and was accepted onto HND Design Modelmaking, based on the sculpts and puppets I had produced in my own time. So I became a student for the first time, along with a majority of 18 – 19-year-old young men. I was a surrogate mum, and I loved it.
You have a unique and wonderful style of modelmaking. Where does your inspiration come from?
That is so lovely, thank you, Cat. Well, throughout the two-year course, we had to create models in each of the genres, Architectural, Product Design and Media, from a series of briefs. The crispness of architectural models and the perfect finish of the product design were a bit of a challenge to me. I’m too messy. Making props and characters were much more my forte – I loved making the toad – and the fantastic tutors helped me find ways through the tricky bits. Then one day, the course director, Ben, offered me a live project, creating an animated ‘rogue fairy’ for some Film and Animation students. Then he handed me a book from the college library about soft sculpture, and said he thought this might suit me as a method. He hadn’t used it on the course before. I made the fairy, and then a character of my own design, Old Father Time. This was the beginning of my love of soft sculpture.
Feeling inspired? Palfrey shares with us the different mediums she works with...
What materials do you use to make your model characters?
Basically, a scull of dense, modelmaking foam with painted pearlized beads on wire set in for eyes. Aluminium wire for the jaw, nose, and lips, and a thicker one for the skeleton of the body, the armature. Sometimes I have used Locline for the spine, a modular plastic tubing used for fish tank irrigation. Wadding to build the body shape then a covering of stockinette.
The heads and hands are covered with layers of coloured stocking. I try out a variety of colours in different combinations to get the right effect. It is stretched across the face, and stitched. If there are teeth, I use Milliput, a two-part epoxy putty. The hair can be knitting wool, or some have Merino sheep wool, and some (including Faerie Godmother) are alpaca fleece, given to me by a friend with alpacas. The feet have
developed with time, and now start with a sole of Plastazote and wire, then uppers of upholstery foam, wadding and muslin, felt or hessian. Or whatever suits the character. The clothes are mainly calico (for jackets and trousers etc) and muslin (for floatier garments), hand painted and distressed. Hessian is good for detail too. Other suitable fabrics are mixed in sometimes, but any patterned fabric needs to be to scale. I have a large collection of old jewellery too, which the accessories can be created from.
Had you always planned for your models to become characters in a book?
Well, the original character was Esmoylda. And she started life as a life-size hand-and-stick puppet. Well, four versions of her, actually. I had gone back to Art college, direct entry into the final year of BA(Hons)Costume for Screen and Stage, thinking I might go into teaching and need a degree. As I hadn’t done the rest of the course, they suggested I make costume for puppets. And make the puppets too. So I wrote a poem about Esmoylda, so that I had a character I could make. Later, I made her into a soft sculpture model, with a view to turning it into a picture book, and possibly photographing her for the illustrations. As the idea developed I realised that I wanted to write for older children, and that the illustrations would need to be in simple black and white, so the models of the characters would be posed and photographed, and the illustrations taken from them.
Describe the process of creating your characters to writing your stories.
The characters start life in the writing of the story. When a new character is introduced, I try to picture them in as much detail as possible, and describe them in words, including their face, clothes, hair, size, shape, and stance. As if I was creating the model. I use the description I’ve written to draw a rough sketch, then make the model using that as a guide. Then I use the model to create the illustration. I know it sounds bonkers. I know it is a lot more work than is probably necessary. But for me, the characters really come to life when I have physically created them. I can get detail into the illustration that I would have struggled to otherwise, as I am a stronger maker than I am an illustrator.
And the truth is, I love doing it.
What is your creative space that you work in like?
I am feeling very spoilt at the moment. I have just moved out of the small bedroom upstairs and into a beautiful log cabin studio in the garden. There is enough space for two tables (so I don’t have to keep packing the sewing machine away) a dresser, a chest of drawers for books and materials, and some lovely new industrial-style shelves to display the models on the top, lit by industrial rusted wall spotlights. More materials are in baskets underneath. (Modelmaking requires a lot of stuff!) And finally I have a place for my rocking chair that my parents gave me for my 18th birthday!! The cabin is painted inside as well as out, has carpet down, and most importantly - faerie lights! I also have a TV/DVD which keeps me company through long hours of modelmaking and illustrating (not writing), particularly box sets of costume dramas such as Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford. (When I’m not watching Midsomer Murders.)
Describe a typical day for you.
Although I would like to say I go down to the studio on the dot of 9 and work to 5, it is more likely that I am doing things in the house first. It seems only fair to do the washing, ironing etc first, as my longsuffering husband works outside in all weathers. So I go down the garden whenever I’ve finished what I feel I need to do first. (Including walking the dog). And take a cup of tea or coffee, and a glass of water with me. Then I work until Trev comes home from work, only stopping to go and get another cup.
Do you have any advice to someone who’d like to have a go at modelmaking?
I would thoroughly recommend doing a course of some kind. There are so many different courses now. Whether it is a degree course at an Arts University, or a short course in animation with Aardman Animations or the like, you learn about the right materials and processes to create professional standard models. Otherwise, there are many, many tutorials around these days on Instagram and YouTube etc. And day and weekend courses too. Modelmaking is a wonderful world that many people don’t even think about.
What inspired you to begin writing the series Stories of The Sticks?
After ten years of designing and making costumes for the dance school that my children went to, and they had both left home to train as professional dancers in London, I needed a new focus. A good friend knew I wanted to write a book and bought me an online writing course to get me started. I had written puppet scripts, and songs and poems before, but I wanted to write a children’s novel. And it was bound to be about trolls, goblins, and faeries, because...
...I loved Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal and Labyrinth,
and found that I enjoyed creating characters that weren’t very pretty. I had created characters as models, and through costume on the stage, but now I wanted to create them on the page too.
What is the theme of these books?
They are set in a world–next–door where funky faeries and gangster goblins live and are full of tricky situations and thought- provoking problems. But there are also underlying issues such as confidence, self- esteem, bullying and bereavement.
Who are these books aimed at?
They are advertised as suitable for 7-13, although I would like to think they are for any age, adults included. And I know of children as young as four whose parents are reading it to them. Anyone and everyone, I hope.
What do your family think of these books?
My daughter read through some early drafts and came up with some constructive points. But mainly she said she forgot that I had written it as she was reading until a familiar phrase came up. My son and my husband didn’t want to read it until it was in print. And I’m very proud to say that all three of them really enjoyed it. They couldn’t be more supportive.
Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Stasia was my mum’s name – short for Anastasia. She died recently, and I am so pleased that I used her name. She was always my biggest fan, whatever I did, but she wasn’t really aware of the book as she had Alzheimer’s. She was a lovely lady. Her mum was also called Sarah. Those characters aren’t particularly based on them, although there are some traits of mum in Esmoylda. Also, I brought in a storyline to tackle bereavement because I worked as a Creative Artist in a hospice for 17 years, and I believe it is a subject that is best introduced as early as possible, to help to see death as a normal part of life, so to speak.
Do any of the characters remind you of yourself?
Stasia has elements of me when I was young. The lack of self-confidence, tending to listen to other people’s opinions instead of believing and trusting my own judgement, and not quite knowing where I fitted in. My mum once said to me, you must be true to yourself. This was something that I wanted to convey in the story.
Can you share a snippet from the first book in the series; ‘All About Stasia’ that isn’t in the blurb?
Of course. This is from chapter nine, when Stasia and Esmoylda enter the ballroom in the Winter Gardens:
"A spectacular white staircase, dripping with lights and sparkling crystals, took centre-stage. It swept down from the galleries on both sides, like a waterfall dressed for a party. Icicle chandeliers hung from a ceiling of sculpted ice, embellished with a thousand twinkling lights. Curled around every pillar were flowers and foliage – frosted and frozen. Tables were laid with glittering tablecloths, silver cutlery and crystal glasses. Doors opened onto terraces that were lit by candles in hanging glass bowls. Frosted spiderwebs hung like bunting from the awnings. ‘This is amazing!’ Stasia repeated, as she took it all in. ‘Yes, it is,’ said Esmoylda, ‘but look at what they’re all wearing! Ball gowns and party frocks! Look at me…I dressed for warmth!’ She looked down at her layers of skirts and tabards and her hand-knitted shawl. ‘Well, I didn’t even manage that. Why did I listen to Drivel? I’m freezing.’"
What has been the highlight so far in writing Stories of The Sticks?
Finding the lovely Kath Smith of Heddon Publishing, and seeing the book in print, with your amazing cover design.
Do you already have ideas in place for the next book in this series?
Absolutely. The first draft is already written of Imperia Jobsworth is Missing. Hopefully, it will be ready for editing in the New Year. I have the first draft for the third book too.
If your book were made into a movie which celebrities would you choose to star in it? Now there is a question. Actually my good friend Julie Searle is going to record the audio book, and she has been trying out voices, based on various actors. I know she mentioned Isobel Steele, who plays Liv in Emmerdale, as a good voice for Stasia. And we agreed that Pam Ferris as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda was good for Imperia Jobsworth. I would love Hugh Laurie and Mark Williams in there, perhaps as Rizber and Razber, in the style of their 101 Dalmatians’ characters. And maybe Jason Isaacs for Arton Mudd?
Just for fun....
Who is your favourite author?
What are you reading at the moment?
What was your favourite book as a child?
Do you have a favourite illustrator or artist that inspires you?
Top of the list would be Brian Froud, the designer of the characters in Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. His books Faeries, The Goblin Companion, Trolls, and Good Faerie Bad Faerie have been a great inspiration. I also love the humour of Nick Park at Aardman Animation, creator of Wallace and Gromit. And I like Muddle Earth, illustrated by Chris Riddell.
Lastly, is there anything else you’d really like to share with our readers about you or the work you do?
I would just like to say that I, like many, many new authors went through years of submissions being rejected by publishers and agents. And each time, I reviewed it and revised it and sent it off again. And again. And again. The main character went through many name changes, as did the title, and even changed gender. And still it was like swimming in porridge...
"Eventually I took some good advice and looked at self-publishing."
But for me, even that was a nightmare. I didn’t understand the process. And then I found Heddon Publishing. If it weren’t for Kath, this book would still just be a dream. She bridges that gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing, and helps you steer clear of the expensive vanity publishing route. She is a gem.
Now I am having to become my own marketing executive, but it is all possible on social media with the help of some very good podcasts made by people who know how it all works. And children that understand it! It just involves learning a whole new skill, but at least I am in control of everything that happens to my book. And however many more episodes of Stories of The Sticks that come along. And thank you, Cat, for making it look the way it does. I couldn’t have wished for a better cover design. I would love for you to do the same for the rest of them.
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