Editor Sarah talked to award-winning comic and picture book author/illustrator Richard Fairgray all about his latest hauntingly good series Black Sand Beach. Read on to find out about his creative process, humour, character inspiration and more!
What comes first in your creative process, character or story? Or something else?
Usually, there’ll be a tiny moment that captures my attention and I’ll work outwards from there. There are so many creepy things going on in Black Sand Beach and most of them start in my mind as a simple image or a twisting of meaning. What if someone never died, they just forgot how to be alive? Where do monsters come from? Sometimes I’ll just think of an object that creeps me out and then spend a long time trying to figure out why, or what’s the worst thing the object could do. It’s a very inexact process but I seem to never have any shortage of spooky ideas from it.
The kids in Black Sand Beach deal with some pretty scary stuff, but they seem more excited than scared, why is that?
I think things are scarier when you have the time to stop and think about them, but I never really give my characters time to do that. From the minute Lily and Dash get to the beach they’re confronted by a zombie sheep, magnetic sand, the sky getting dark at random times of the day so from there it’s just an adventure that they can’t help but be on. Also, I think it’s way easier to be brave for someone else than for yourself, so the four kids sort of take turns being scared while the others step up.
…most of [my ideas] start as a simple image or a twisting of meaning. What if someone never died, they just forgot how to be alive? Where do monsters come from?
While it is scary, it is also hilarious. Can you tell me about how you use humour in your books?For me, the best kind of scare is one that makes you laugh at the same time, because the physical sensations are so similar. So, I try to write stories that keep the reader ready to jump or laugh at any moment. Either way, you are feeling tense, whether you’re waiting for something to jump out at you or to get to the punchline. My favourite jokes are the ones that feel weird and my favourite scares are the same.
Have you always enjoyed horror stories?
Absolutely, I love being scared and I love scaring people. I started writing ghost stories before I even started primary school. As a kid, I loved Goosebumps and Eerie Indiana and all those books of short horror stories about kids getting carried away by moths or cats speaking for no reason.
For me, the best kind of scare is one that makes you laugh at the same time, because the physical sensations are so similar.
I love the outsider perspective Lily has. Can you tell me more about what inspired that character?
When I was eight I went to my friend Jack’s house and he took me into his dad’s bedroom and told me to be quiet. He then took a really nice watch off the bedside table and put it on the ground. Then he smashed it. Then he started screaming that I had broken this really expensive watch. The worst part was that I was stuck there for another two days. That feeling of being hated by a friend’s parent is one of the worst things I have ever felt because I knew that even if I explained myself I would still be on the outside. Jack’s dad was always going to forgive Jack, but he would always see me as an invading force.
I think most people have experienced that feeling, maybe not in such a literal way, but being an outsider is universal, especially when you’re dealing with a family. The thing about Black Sand Beach is it takes those fears and plays them out in very literal ways, forcing Lily to prove herself and win her way back into the house.
What do you think is the key to a good scary story?
Taking something ordinary and twisting it just a little bit. The best scary stories make your heart race, delight you but leave you thinking about them for a long time. Often that’s as simple as putting something unusual in the wrong place. You can scare me with a big fanged monster for a minute, but if I find corn cob holders in your toothbrush cup I am never going to stop wondering why they were there.
The best scary stories make your heart race, delight you but leave you thinking about them for a long time.
You grew up in New Zealand, a place with plenty of beaches with black sand, but in the story, you never specify where exactly this place really is, was that deliberate?
Yes. The reason I like stories about ghosts and monsters is that they can happen anywhere. All the reader ever finds out is that Black Sand Beach is the place on the very edge of the world, which means it could be anywhere in the world. It’s probably no coincidence though that I spent a lot of my summers staying right by an actually haunted lighthouse here in New Zealand.
I know you recently spent a few years in the US – tell us about what you saw in the comics scene over there that has influenced your writing and illustration style?
I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2017 with no real plan for what I was going to do. I’d hit a wall in New Zealand in terms of new challenges, I had a dozen picture books, 200 comics, a toy, two mobile games and I couldn’t see anything new on the horizon. I had thought I would spend the first year just kind of getting to know the place, making some new stuff if an idea struck me, and then figuring out my career from there. I had done almost everything on my own in New Zealand and I assumed it would be the same in the US, at least for a while.
What surprised me was how willing people were to get behind big and unwieldy projects. I got multiple offers of comic publishing deals before I was even over my jetlag (literally, I completely forgot I had signed on for a monthly series on my first day until I found a check in a coat pocket two weeks later). What had been a constant struggle in New Zealand (writing, drawing, and publishing, living and dying by each convention) just right away became a job that people were very willing to pay me for while also taking over all the bits I hated doing (publicity, design, printing, distribution).
What had been a constant struggle in New Zealand (writing, drawing, and publishing, living and dying by each convention) just right away became a job that people were very willing to pay me for while also taking over all the bits I hated doing (publicity, design, printing, distribution).
I think a lot of it is because Hollywood is filled with people doing equally ridiculous things, I learned quickly that I didn’t have to justify myself when I said I made comics for a living. Not having to worry about all that stuff has given me a lot more time to write and draw and less time spent doubting my choices or jumping up and down on the spot to prove to some imaginary judge that I was working hard.
I was out of the country when Trump banned all the scientists from coming in since they kept proving what an idiot he was and my class of visa got bundled in. In the middle of a pandemic, I have been forced to travel internationally several times to try and find a place where I am allowed to stay. Currently, I am in Canada, but I have to be out by May if my paperwork doesn’t get approved in time.
And are there more stories to come in the Black Sand Beach series – what is in store for Dash and his ghosts?
I just finished the art on the third book in the series and I have a fourth in the works. Book two is out in May (not sure if this is true for New Zealand) and that one is where we start unraveling what Dash can’t remember from last summer. I’m also exploring a lot more of the other creepy things happening/that have happened at the beach in short stories called Tales from Black Sand Beach which is out as an e-book as of last month.
Black Sand Beach 1: Are You Afraid Of The Light?
By Richard Fairgray
Published by Holiday House
Richard Fairgray is a writer, artist, and colourist, best known for his work in comic books such as Blastosaurus and Ghost Ghost, and he has written and illustrated several picture books – That’s Not the Monster We Ordered, My Grandpa Is a Dinosaur, and If I Had an Elephant.
As a child, he firmly believed he would grow up and eat all the candy he wanted and stay up as late as he liked. By drawing pictures when he wasn’t meant to and reading all the things people told him not to, he has made this come true.
Richard now splits his time between Los Angeles and Surrey, British Columbia, where he is able to work furiously, surrounded by plastic skeletons, dogs, friends, loved ones, and (possibly) the most comprehensive collection of Courtney Love bootlegs on the planet.