The Hardest Part: Jeremy Zerfoss on Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

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The Hardest Part: Jeremy Zerfoss on Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction

Posted on 2013-11-13 at 14:56 by montsamu

Life is sometimes a fortuitous sequence of events and meetings all leading to someplace interesting. For example: artist Jeremy Zerfoss started doing work with Jeff VanderMeer; I was publishing a review of VanderMeer’s non-fiction collection Monstrous Creatures and found room for Jeremy’s fantastic limited edition dust jacket cover; and then was later able to commission Jeremy to put together his amazing cover for Bull Spec #6 to celebrate all things VanderMeer. Looking back, I barely remember the process on my end of asking for that cover: “Do something weird and cool, thanks!” is probably as far as I got, and before long this amazing thing grew and became the cover. This process was quite short and brief, not taking years of back and forth collaboration via email, phone, and perhaps coded telegraphs or carrier pigeon missives, as the process Jeremy writes about here: that of working with Jeff to create Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction.

[caption id="" align=“alignnone” width=“280”] Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction
By Jeff VanderMeer and Jeremy Zerfoss
Abrams Image, 2013[/caption]

By Jeremy Zerfoss:

Blunderbook: Or The Hardest Part Of Working With A Murderous Bear

Hello everyone – my name is Jeremy Zerfoss and I’m the main illustrator of Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer, newly released by Abrams and available wherever awesome can be found.

Sam asked me to write a bit about the hardest part of working on this two year (OMG!) project and it took a bit longer than I expected since for a book that was this crazy, and this unprecedented — there were quite a few obstacles to tackle.

So… let me break this down as best I can:

I’ve actually been working as a go-to artist for Jeff for around 3 years, ever since I randomly sent him some artwork and we quickly established a mutual bond through our love of weird monsters and ridiculous emails. Oh the ridiculous emails that this project alone entailed – just over 10,000 at last count.

Then, two years ago he asked if I’d like the job of helping create Wonderbook which I immediately jumped at – it was huge opportunity for me, and we work very well together.

However, and this is true with any collaboration, difficulties can arise.

The main difficulty out the gate was the very first piece of art required to send to Abrams Publishing – the cover. Jeff had a basic idea mapped out: he wanted a gate in a jungle with a fantastic array of hidden monsters behind it, which could then be revealed later in the book or on the back cover.

Cue a two month long bout of artistic block.

I sent over 10 possible covers that were just… awful, just absolutely horrible by my own standards, which in turn affected him as we needed to turn something in; and there-in lies the hardest part of any project like this – creating the vision or in turn, creating your client’s vision of an artwork.

Nothing clicked, not for weeks until in a fit of depression I got crazy wasted and churned out a massive picture of this huge leviathan beast submerged in the ocean, complete with a city on his back and another floating in the sky surrounding the title – which is a horrible way to go about things, but it worked that one time.

Ironically, he ended up loving that and we were out the gate.

I kinda feel like what I’m writing here is crap as well – breaking down what I do is bit difficult as I hate to admit that my best way to solve issues is to just freak out and let the madness hit the page in a frantic race against the clock and the deadline, even though it works at times. For any future clients – not always, I swear.

Okay, full disclosure – I’m typing this up at my 9 to 5 job and the environment here is to creativity what gravity is to feathers – zero impact. Wait, only 468 words typed? Judas priest… this sounded so much better in my head. There’s a tip for fighting conflict right there – hand held recorder.

Let us try this again – the hardest part of working with Jeff and creating Wonderbook was also the really fun part of it: the constantly evolving nature of the book and the mad visions of this century’s Alhazred.

Every day I’d get these batshit crazy genius sketches on napkins and paper and leaves and whatever substance he had on hand. Just mad renderings of fish and wolves and cats and shapes, arrows blasting forth, etc., and it was so much fun and so maddening at the same time.


There lies the crux of it all though – the book itself was constantly evolving, based on inputs and new ideas and ways of thinking. One day a chapter would be here, the next it would be digested, regurgitated later in the book, defecated entirely and gone, only to arise months later for inclusion, and here I was – a rookie – managing this insane amount of information and layout changes, while juggling a grave shift job and coming home to work an additional 6-8 hours. Another tie in the pain train’s track was that Jeff lives in Florida, and myself in Nevada – and with my hours and his personal work load, we had to communicate mainly through email, with both of us having to stay awake way past our respective bedtimes to toss ideas and concerns back ‘n forth.

We were both very tired, all the time.

This leads me to how even the hardest job can be heartening if you love what you do, provided you can make it work.

Collaboration is like speaking a language, or reading – you can be on the same page with someone and still have no idea what paragraph they’re reading from, and lots of days felt like that, with Jeff trying to relate his latest vision to me and my submissions back not being quite what he was looking for – even instances where neither of us understood each other’s lingo. I’d relate some issues with raster to vector, he would be asking about some editorial concept or rule that I didn’t know and we’d spend a day or two trying to find that perfect compromise that translated best.

Then again, how many authors get a chance to control the vision on paper of the artwork?

Not many, and I feel that’s what made Wonderbook so special – both in the design choices made and the content itself. It’s a very engaging book and I highly recommend you check it out – it’s pretty as hell with over 40 artists and authors covered.

I guess sometimes the hardest part of working with anyone on any one thing is being able to have the mutual respect to work with another’s passion and drive and know when to let it flow, when to try and curb it and when to compromise. We scrapped a lot of pieces and we went on and made more based on discussions or random ideas as time went on – and every designer has that moment where you spend two or three days working on what you feel is the BEST DAMN THING EVER and the client is like, ‘nope.’

Then you do some stupid doodle that took 5 seconds and they love it and have to have it (yes, some of those are in Wonderbook). Life is funny that way.

Provided Sam uses this, haha!, feel free to ask me any questions about my ramblings and I’ll try and answer them as best I’m able.

  • Jeremy Z

Editor’s note: You can find more examples, galleries, and some of the cutting-room-floor bits on Wonderbook’s accompanying website,, and a host of links and other assorted info in my release-day write-up for the book — which I’m enjoying myself, very much.

Posted in The Hardest Part | Tagged jeff vandermeer, jeremy zerfoss, wonderbook