Strange goings-on in Jonas’ room | Noel Tanti

Teodor Reljic speaks to debut author Noel Tanti about the process behind the picture book ‘Fil Kamra Ta’ Jonas’ – illustrated by Matt Stroud – in which a young boy’s bedroom becomes the gateway to a journey that is both surreal and poignant

Debut author Noel Tanti
Debut author Noel Tanti

Could you tell us a little bit about the story behind Fil-Kamra ta’ Jonas?

Weird things happen in Jonas’s room. For one thing, a tiny goldfish named Feliċ swallows him whole. His bed... well, let’s just say that his bed ‘behaves’ somewhat erratically. There’s something odd about the staircase too. And all of this happens because Jonas is acting up: he doesn’t want to listen to his mum. On the other hand, he’s missing his dad. 

How did the overall plot first begin forming in your head, and was it always your intention to execute it as a picture book?

Everything started with this one image, of a boy falling asleep standing up in front of the television. From then on the story took on a life of its own, a life inspired by other stories, bits and pieces collected from here and there (mostly films). This approach, a sort of collage, convinced me more and more that the story should be told in the form of a picture book.

And on that note... what would you say are some of the main challenges of working on picture books, as opposed to more conventional forms of prose?

Writing a picture book is very much like writing a comic or a script – the story has to allow for the intervention of other people, in this case the illustrator. While writing the story, I could have gone into a lot more detail than I did but then I felt that I would be limiting whoever was going to illustrate it. This can create problems because unless you know who is going to illustrate it beforehand, you run the risk of him or her ‘not getting it’. Also, when you’re pitching the story to a publisher, as I did (to Merlin Publishers), it might seem unfinished or amateurish.

Is this a format you think you’ll return to in the future? If so, why?

I love how focused one must be to write a picture book. It’s like composing a flash fiction piece, where you have to know exactly what you’re going to say and how to say it; and then go for it without much meandering about. I also enjoy the fact that children’s books give you a certain amount of leeway in storytelling. For instance, repetition. I love repeating certain words and phrases throughout a text because it gives it a fairy-tale quality.

Fil-Kamra ta' Jonas
Fil-Kamra ta' Jonas

What was it like working with Matt Stroud, your illustrator? Did you bounce ideas off for the look and feel of the story from the get-go, or was it a more straightforward process?

Remember how I said that with picture books it’s a bit of a gamble because you run the risk of getting an illustrator who ‘doesn’t get it’? Well, in the case of Matt, he got it right away, so much so that it seemed as though he was in my head. Chris Gruppetta, my publisher, suggested him on the strength of his portfolio, so we had a meeting with him and briefed him about what we had in mind for the book. Matt started working on it straight away. From then on it was as smooth a collaboration as one could hope for because even as early as the sketching stage, it was obvious that Matt had hit the nail right on the head.

What kind of reach and appeal would you say the book will have, and do you think it ‘has something’ for adults too?

The book is aimed at 7-8 year-old children, however Jonas’s parents play a vital role in the story. Essentially it’s about the relationship between parents and children even though it deals with a very specific kind of situation. Hopefully both parents and children will relate to the emotional core of the story.

Some words from the picture-maker

Matt Stroud, the illustrator of Fil-Kamra ta’ Jonas, gives us the lowdown on how his collaboration with Noel Tanti panned out, and some of the challenges local illustrators face.

Matt Stroud
Matt Stroud

“When Merlin told me they had a project they were interested in me working on I very curious. Also, I knew the subject matter would have to drive my enthusiasm for the project through to the end, so I was also a little nervous. Though once Noel pitched it to me in that first meeting my nerves were settled. The mix of everyday and the blending of imagination and fantasy was very much up my alley, and what struck me more was that it was all emotionally driven. It got me very excited.

“As for the look and feel, we had discussed the story and audience for the book so I knew who was going to be reading it. It started with Noel and Chris showing me examples of my own work that they had latched onto when thinking about the book. They were heavily contrasted with lights and darks and had quite thick textures so that also gave me a visual map I could explore. Over all since the story had such a balance between whimsy and the hard facts of life, and the age of the audience being a transitional period between childhood and adolescence, I really wanted to play with that in the illustrations any way I could. Whether it be colour choices, angles or dark areas.

“Collaborating with Noel was great, and I was surprised that it went so smoothly. I was waiting for the ball to drop at some point where we’d get into a really heated discussion about how the walls of Jonas room couldn’t possibly be green for a deep and meaningful reason, but it never happened. The collaboration went as well as any illustrator could wish for. We synced pretty early on and I think a lot of that was down to a mutual respect for each other’s work and part in the process. It also helped that we realised that we were both very big on cinema. It made communicating much easier as words like closeup, panning, midshot, crossfade and fisheye lens were used.

“I think one of the main challenges that still plagues Malta is getting clients to understand the worth of what you’re creating. It’s fine when it’s a collaboration with people within the creative sector, there’s that mutual understanding and experience there, which is why I found it so easy to work with Noel and Merlin. Outside that circle, it’s a different story that requires a lot of open dialogue and navigation.

The other challenge of course is that there is only so much work to go around, and it’s not like in other countries where you can find an arts or literary agent to scout out work for you. You have to fish for the work and in a much smaller pond. The two best ways around this for local illustrators is either to create the demand yourself by creating something innovative that people want or building up a reputation and contacts abroad.”

Fil-Kamra Ta’ Jonas is published by Merlin Publishers