There are graphic novels, and there are illustrated novels, and there are also novels that have some illustrations. But in his first novel Above The Timberline (hardcover, Kindle), writer and artist Gregory Manchess takes a different approach by telling his story through oil paintings that have been augmented with a bit of text in the form of journal entries.
Photo Credit: Irene Gallo
Let’s start with the story. What is Above The Timberline about?
Y’know, the odd things is, in a complex storyline, it takes learning how to describe it simply. I’ve told it in so many ways, like an elevator pitch, and get better at it as I go. But essentially it’s a science fiction story that takes place 1500 years after the Pole Shift, when the Earth has frozen over entirely. In this timeframe, a famed explorer has been searching for a mysterious mountain city. When he goes missing too long, his son sets out to rescue him before it’s too late. There! That’s the crux of it.
The story in Above The Timberline is told through a series of journal entries. Why did you decide that this would be the best way to tell this story, as opposed to a third-person narrative or some other way?
I wanted to tell a story visually, in oil paintings, with very little prose that added background and dialog. Journals of explorers are not always long-winded explanations of every thought or worry. Generally, the notes are notes: short, descriptive, but direct and purposeful. You don’t have a lot of time to wax poetic when you’re trying to survive. This allowed me to let the reader fill in the blanks and get their mind working on completing the vision. Not spelled out.
Climate change is the catalyst for the plot of Above The Timberline. But did you set out to write a sci-fi novel with an underlying socio-political message, or did you set out to write a sci-fi novel and the story became socio-political as you were writing it?
I knew early on I wanted to tell a story about a character that learns about his world and about life while we watch and struggle with him. All set in a future world with explorers relearning the planet again…this caused socio-political themes, as you say, to arise and build conflict. Pretty simple.
Above The Timberline is not a comic book or graphic novel, but it does have over a hundred and twenty paintings in it. How is this different from what you see in children’s books or what Clive Barker did with his fantasy novels Abarat, Abarat: Days Of Magic, Nights Of War, and Abarat: Absolute Midnight?
Above The Timberline is my format, the kind of storytelling I would’ve wanted to see not only as a kid, but as an adult. I went about it from spread to spread building it the best way to express the idea of that particular spread, you see. What should the visual be; what kind of words are needed or not needed; how much can I leave out; what is absolutely necessary. I’ve been told it hasn’t been done like this before. Similar things, but this one’s all mine.
What came first, the idea for the story or the paintings?
The whole thing started with one painting. I built curiosity into that painting that caused people to ask more questions about the character. That led to more story. So one painting came first. The rest came from that one piece. I tell my students that the strength they possess to drive story with visuals is very powerful and can excite the viewer to want more. They can use this to pull people into their artwork and their stories.
So are there any writers or other novels that you feel had a big impact on Above The Timberline?
I pulled most of my inspiration from historical exploration. I have a long list of fiction writers that I love, but off the top of my head, Joe Haldeman and Michael Crichton come to mind as well as Arthur C. Clarke, Verne, Heinlein, John Steinbeck, Rosemary Sutcliff. I was always nuts about Pierre Boulle’s Planet Of The Apes. Logan’s Run has quick chapters that countdown in the novel. But James Gurney’s Dinotopia and Rien Poortvliet’s Dutch Treat were definitely influential.
And in regards to the art, are there any artists that you feel were a big influence on the illustrations you did for Above The Timberline, but ones that are not a big influence on your style as a whole?
David Grove, Gary Kelley, Jeff Jones, Toppi, Andrew Wyeth, Victor de la Fuentes
How about non-literary or art influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that you feel had a big impact on either the writing or art in Above The Timberline?
You’ll think this odd, but the films that influenced me the most are generally from the 1960s, especially The Blue Max, The Great Escape, The Longest Day. They were told in episodes to my eye, critical story bits strung together for overall impact. Also, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Andromeda Strain, along with Planet Of The Apes and just about every western and spy film I’ve ever seen.
A lot of science fiction novels that I’ve read lately haven’t been stand-alone books, but are instead part of a series. Is that the case with Above The Timberline, is this the first book in a series, or is it a stand-alone novel?
I’m a debut author with forty years of painting behind me. Debut authors have a tough time gaining attention, much like I had to go through when I became a fresh new freelance illustrator. I would love to do a series, but I didn’t know during my writing and designing stages if any publisher would give me the chance to do it twice. But because of all the uncertainty, I wanted a stand-alone story that could be expanded later, in all directions, and with many characters. If Above The Timberline does do well, I’ll be able to tell more of the tale I have in mind, to broaden it further.
Above The Timberline is available as both a hardcover and an ebook. But is there any difference between them? Like can you click on the images in the ebook and see them bigger or hear you discuss your inspiration for them?
Initially, I don’t think the publisher had planned on the ebook. It’s not easy for the format to be embraced in the same way the book is easily read. I’m hoping we can find a way to get this problem solved in the near future or for more books like Above The Timberline.
So has there been any interest in adapting Above The Timberline into a movie, TV show, or video game?
There’s interest in film and video games, but I’m staying guarded about all that at the moment. When I was working on it, many friends told me that they believed the book would be a film, and that’s simply because of how cinematic it looks. I’m a great fan of cinema and cinematic imagery and format. So it seems a natural progression, but not just because of the images. Both work together, the words and pictures, to create an overall effect of moment — something we glean from film — to put us in a moment, as close to experiencing that moment for ourselves as we can. To put you in the middle of the story, get the viewer involved on many levels.
If Above The Timberline was to be adapted into a movie, who would you like to see play the main characters? Or if it was going to be a game, what kind of game should it be?
I really can’t speak for movie roles, but for gaming, I think something along the lines of Myst would work because it’s very much a search-and-discovery story. Or maybe an adventure scenario of discovery while avoiding and conquering dangers of the Frozen Waste. I like a game that has a comfortable human pace, punctuated by moments of intense survival.
Finally, if someone enjoys Above The Timberline, what would you suggest they read next and why?
For a historical read, they gotta pick up David Grann’s The Lost City Of Z, or Hampton Sides’ In The Kingdom Of The Ice, Dava Sobel’s Longitude, Mitchell Zuckoff’s Frozen In Time, and South: The Endurance Expedition by Sir Ernest Shackleton. For fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune is a must-read, simply for its world-building and characters. Generally, you want a book that puts characters into the world and not just describing a world that characters play in. A world isn’t a world until characters blend into it. Equipment, landscape, even architecture, becomes character.