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Andrew DeGraff on the Making of Plotted

Plotted: A Literary Atlas releases this week to wide acclaim. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “a rewarding excursion across the literary landscape that will be cherished by map enthusiasts as well as bibliophiles.” Zest recently talked to artist/author Andrew DeGraff about these insanely detailed maps of some of the greats in literature’s canon.

Andrew DeGraffWhat is Plotted’s origin story? What led you to paint 19 maps from some of literature’s greatest works?

I’d been creating illustrated maps of movies for a few years, and I had been considering doing novels. The problem was time. Most of the movie maps are at least 100-hour and many times 200-hour projects. Combined with the length and breadth of reading and researching the novel, it seemed like too much to do alone. So when I was contacted by Dan Harmon about creating a book of literary maps, it felt serendipitous. I finally had the direction and support to take on the project, and away we went.

How did you choose which classic novels and stories to include?

Choosing the books and stories was an ever-changing process. I started with a list covering the scope of literary genres, creating about 40 or 50 map candidates. And then I just dove in. There’s so many great books; I was able to choose based on creating the collection as a whole as I went along (as well as what I could physically do in the time allotted).

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What were your favorite books as a child and how has reading play an important role in your life?

I’ve always been a reader. My mom is a teacher and both my parents read to me and my brother, often from the greats, but also nonfiction and whatever they thought we would like: Lord of the Rings, Treasure Island, Voyage of the Kon-Tiki, and Little Women were some of my favorites. Nothing’s better than a good book, and that’s coming from an illustrator.

When did you start drawing and painting? And, more specifically, when (and why) did you start painting maps?

From what I hear from my folks, I started drawing as soon as I was able to hold a crayon. I played about with a few different career options as a kid: astronaut, marine biologist, space pirate. Once I found out that art—and illustration in particular—could be a job, well, that was that. I was lucky to have a few other working artists in the family, so it didn’t seem so crazy to my parents; they were very supportive.

I first started painting maps for travel magazines and soon started making movie maps. I loved creating miniature worlds and thought it would be a nice way to illustrate a film without relying on characters or actors. I liked the way the maps presented viewers with a new experience of a movie they had seen so many times. Those maps were the whole movie as complete as I could make it. I’ve tried to use the same, basic thesis with literary maps.

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Some of the maps of Plotted are indeed very maplike—destinations, routes, landmarks—and others are representational. How did you set about each map when starting?

Generally, the process depended on the book and how many spreads I was using. Some were very natural—Hamlet’s five acts, or A Christmas Carol’s five chapters—it made sense to utilize the structure of the book in the structure and sequence of the maps. Some were broken up based on quantity or length of the narrative, as in Huck Finn. I really tried to have a slightly different focus in each piece. For instance, in Frederick Douglass I wanted to emphasize the dates of each of his moves around the Chesapeake Bay to show the disjointed nature of his upbringing.

Getting into the paintings or drawings themselves was more a question of “assembling” than a standard sketch process. I generally compiled a set of e-bookmarks and a photo-reference board in photoshop with all the visual reference I could find. It’s a lot of research. I had some great help from Olivia Ngai at Zest, but there were a thousand little details to check out as I went through the wording of the novel. I then created a flow chart and notated it with post-its in the actual text so I could go back and read the specific passage I needed. Sketches were pretty rough—laying the space I needed and trying to troubleshoot problem areas. The initial pencils for the piece generally served in the finish work. The finishes were completed with gouache and ink, and often assembled digitally.

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What would a sequel look like? Or, should we say, what will the sequel look like?

There are still so many good books out there and literary worlds to explore—I feel like it’s a never-ending project, in the best way. It’s a really involved process, but it’s so fun to immerse yourself is these books. There’s so many experiments I’d love to try and I’d love to just go bigger, and deeper, into the stories.

For more on Plotted, including where to buy, head over to the book’s homepage.

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