Today is the publication date of Nik Perring’s book Beautiful Trees, a deft and moving illustrated story of three people and their relationship. The process of making such a book, where words and images are balanced so finely on the page, fascinates me. I thought I’d ask Nik some questions about it, and his answers were really interesting. So I decided, with his permission, to share them here. Thanks Nik.
- So what’s your favourite tree?
Hello! Thanks for having me over again! Favourite tree? I would always have said the silver birch. There’s something other worldy about it, something that reminds me of bone and goblins and the gothic. I think they’re a little bit magical, especially under moonlight.
But there are plenty others and loads to love about those – while i was researching the book I found out that fruit trees can actually communicate with each other so they’re pretty high on the list. Plus, they blossom beautifully.
- Beautiful Trees is the second in a trilogy, the first book being Beautiful Words and the third being Beautiful Shapes. How does using an organic theme differ from using words, or shapes? How does the choice of theme affect the writing?
That’s a really good question and, to be honest, not something I’d really thought about.
I suppose the main difference in having trees instead of words is that trees, a lot of the time, gave me a very definite setting because they’re actually there and not as abstract as words or shapes are. So where Lily or Alexander were was a little easier to picture.
In terms of structure, because I had a good idea what the narrative would be across the series right from the beginning, the trees, or the words or the shapes, are what anchors the story and what allow each individual entry to be a whole tiny story on their own.
- Did you picture the book in this format as you wrote it, placing the words and images together? What is the process of getting this sort of idea from your head to paper?
Absolutely. I wanted to write a picture book for adults. I’m really lucky that all of my books have been illustrated (and, in my opinion, illustrated really beautifully) and I think there’s an awful lot to be said for books that have illustrations in them. Even if they’re only there to be beautiful.
As writers we place a huge amount of trust in our readers to interpret our words and characters and stories their way and, for me, what Miranda’s done with the illustrations in Beautiful Trees – helping tell the story through them – helps with that.
The process was pretty simple – I think most things are once you’ve an idea of what you’re doing! (It’s getting to that point that can be the tricky bit.) As I said, I kind of knew Lily, Lucy, and Alexander’s story while I was writing Beautiful Words. And writing this was really similar to Beautiful Words in that I spent a lot of time researching trees – finding out things that were interesting to me (tip for readers: if it’s interesting to you as a writer then it will be interesting to someone else – either because of a shared interest or because it’s different) – their shapes, their names, what they represented and what they could mean to Alexander and the others – and interesting facts too – the fact that some trees are able to communicate with each other brings me a ridiculous amount of joy.
So from there it was just a case of writing the story around them.
- You intercut fact and fiction so well in Beautiful Trees, along with first and third person perspective, and it really works in keeping the prose alive and fresh. How much of that interplay came from the subconscious? Do you set out deliberately to take such risks in writing, or did it just feel right for the material?
Thank you! I think all writing’s a risk. Even if that’s only the risk of writing something that no one will like, or that won’t work. And that’s why I think writers, good ones, are brave.
I approached Trees in the same way as I approach pretty much anything I write: I try my best to let the story be what it is. I know that might sound cryptic but it’s really not meant to be. I think a writer’s job is to tell their story in the best way they can and that can mean a lot of different things – from point of view to tense and everything else besides. So , to answer your question, it was a mix of trusting my subconscious and trusting the story.
- It strikes me that this book is about cycles and repetitions, from happy to sad, from beginnings to endings. I really like the way some trees reappear, just as emotions reappear. Do you picture the story of Alexander, Lily and Lucy as being part of a cycle, or a pattern?
I think things are cyclical. We talk about life cycles in nature all the time. And I don’t think it’s all that different if we look at things inside our lives – ourselves, our routines, our relationships, anything. We are like seasons: we bloom and we wither and, usually – hopefully, we blossom again. We repeat. And I think we can take an enormous amount of reassurance from that – things end, constantly, but they also begin again too.