Death on the Empress Author/Illustrator AMA

We have been reading the book ‘Death on the Empress’ in class. As well as having the opportunity to read such a great book, we have also had the opportunity, through the wonders of modern technology, to talk to both Stuart Harper, the author, and Michelle-Rene, who designed the book cover. The book has a thoroughly engaging narrative, with marvellous descriptive phrases that really evoke the imagination. Earlier this week we drew the characters from the book as we thought they would look like. Helping us in this was the marvellous cover drawn by Michelle-Rene.

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We have many questions we would like to ask both Stuart Harper and Michelle-Rene, so the students questions have been added below in the comments and we are hoping both might get some time to answer them.


31 thoughts on “Death on the Empress Author/Illustrator AMA

  1. Questions for Stuart Harper from Sophie in Yr 6

    What is your favourite section in writing a book?
    What is the hardest part of publishing a book?
    Do you ever get nervous when you self-publish because you don’t know if anyone will read it?
    Where do you get your inspiration to write books?

    • My favourite section of writing a book is start. I have a good idea in my head of where I want the story to go, but I like discovering bits of the story I never planned.
      The hardest part of publishing a book is getting people to read it. There are thousands of great books out there and you have to try to make yours stand out.
      I don’t get nervous about people not buying it because I write for the love of writing. I’ve written whole books since I was fourteen and no one has ever read 90% of them. Obviously it’s nice if a few people buy it of course 🙂
      My inspiration comes from lots of different places: Holidays, artwork, museums, dreams. I’ll see something that really inspires me and I’ll dya dream about it for day (sometimes years)until it turns into a story, or at least part of a story. Death on the Empress took almost 20 years to turn from an idea and a dream into a finished book.

  2. Questions for Stuart Harper from Jade Yr 4
    If you got to illustrate your own book what do you think the main characters would look like?
    Do you ever think that you will ever write another book?

    • I think Michell really captured what they looked like. We spoke a lot over email (because we live in different continents)about what they looked like. Michelle would send me bits and we would discuss changes.
      I very much hope to release another book later this year – set in Victorian London. It’s darker than Death on the Empress – more supernatural.

  3. Question for Stuart Harper from Jack Yr 3

    I found the Star of India really interesting. How much research did you have to do to include it in the book?

    • It facinated me too, Jack. For Death on The Empress, I spent days and days researching airships, the 1930’s, fashion, music, menus, money, etc. I spent a lot of time researching the Star of India too. I end up writing pages and pages of research, but only a tiny amount ends up in the finished book.

  4. Questions for Michelle-Rene from Shevy Yr 6

    What inspired you to become an artist?
    What is the process of designing characters for the book cover?

    • Hello Shevy!
      Nice to meet you 🙂

      I was inspired to become an artist when I was pretty young, 12 I think. I actually used to tell my friends and family stories that I had made up for fun. I think it was my sister who said she would like it if I would draw pictures of my stories so she could picture them better. And what do you know? I have been an artist ever since.

      The process I went through in designing the characters for the book cover was fun! First I read the book and then I started by sketching up character ideas just like you all did in class. I came up with a dozen drawings or so and ended up with Mr. Craveth and Oliver. I couldn’t quite get grace and ended up redrawing her several times.

      When I thought I had captured them pretty well I painted them up. It’s was so much fun watching them come to life.

      Great Question Shevy, thank you 🙂

      Michelle Rene

  5. Questions for Stuart Harper from Gabby Yr 3

    How old do you think you would need to be to read the book. I am eight and I like the book so far.
    Did you use any other books for inspiration when writing your book?
    Is Stuart Harper your real name or do you use a pseudonym?
    Was your hand sore after you finished the book?

    • Hi Gabby, I think if you can read and enjoy the book then you re the right age. If your 8 and enjoy it, then that’s great. I know an 80 year old who read it and enjoyed it, so I hope that it has something for all ages.
      I read lots of mystery books before writing my own, to get ideas (more about writing style than content). I also love the book, Northern Light by Phillip Pullman. I love the adventure and travel in his books, so that inspired me.
      My real name is Stuart Fryd (which is originally a Danish name), but even members of my family disagree about how it is pronounced and no one can ever spell it. SO I thought that my mother’s maiden name Harper had a nice ring to it. Plus people can’t spell it wrong.
      My hands always hurt after a long writing session, but no pain, no gain!

  6. Question for Michelle-Rene from Sam Yr 4

    Were you always a good at drawing?

    and a similar one one from Anna Yr 3

    How did you get to be such a good drawer?

    • Hello Sam and Anna,
      it’s very nice to meet you both 🙂

      I was not always really great at drawing but I enjoyed it alot growing up. I used to only be able to draw stick figures, that’s why I’m so impressed by all your drawings! So detailed and expressive, I love them! I had to practice and practice to get better as an artest, and I still practice almost every day. I notice that practicing a lot I start to come up with better ideas and new techniques for making them into a finished piece of art.

      I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without all those hours of drawing I put in to learn. You could be artists too, just like me! 🙂

      Wonderful question Sam and Anna, thank you!

      Michelle Rene

    • Hi Henry, it’s great to meet you! 🙂

      When sketching up ideas for characters it doesn’t take me very long to do them at all, maybe an hour at most. They start out as just sketches and I do a lot of them for sometimes about a week till I come up with the right personality I’m trying to capture.

      The first drawings always look pretty rough and I’m always nervous to show them to anyone because I’m afraid they won’t see how great they can be. Stuart was awesome, he loved my first drawings for some of the characters of Death on The Empress!

      Really great question Henry, thank you 🙂

      Michelle Rene

  7. Question for Stuart Harper from Ben Yr 6

    What gave you inspiration to write this book?
    How did you meet Michelle Rene?
    How long did it take to write the book?

    • Hi Ben. I have never met Michelle before. We just email each other and chat on twitter. She lives nearly as far away from me as you guys do. But with the internet the world is a small place and I could see from her webpage that her artwork would be perfect for my book.
      It took me 2 years of actual writing to finish the book – about 4 or 5 hours a week. (a lot of that time is re-reading and editing) but I first thought of the rough idea for the book 20 years ago.

        • Yep, the protagonist changed from a number of times from a man to a boy, briefly to a girl and then back. I wrote lots of other stories in that time though too.

  8. Question for Michelle-Rene from Ben Yr 6

    How did you come to meet Stuart Harper?
    Why did you draw the pictures on the front cover the way you did?

    • Hi Ben! I’m very happy to meet you 🙂

      I had followed Stuart on twitter because he was an author and I love to read. After When I started doing artwork again I decided it couldn’t hurt to send a message to him and see if he might be needing an illustrator. He emailed me back and was interested in having me illustrate his book. I was so excited! Then he sent me a copy of the book to read and I got even more excited because the book was so great and I really loved the characters.

      We would email back and forth or I would post my progress on twitter for him to see how everything was coming together. It was a lot of fun.

      Stuarts book is only the second book I’ve ever illustrated so it shows you never know what you can accomplish, you just have to find opportunity on your own sometimes, and then put your best foot forward. I never would have thought four months ago that I’d be where I am right now. I love beeing an illustrator!

      Really great question Ben, thank you 🙂

      Michelle Rene

  9. Questions for Stuart Harper from Will Yr 6

    How long did it take you to write the book?
    How did you and Michelle Rene meet?
    What do you like about writing?
    I am trying to improve my writing, do you have any tips for me?

    • Hi Will, I hope you don’t mind but some of your questions I think I answered above, but…
      My favourite part of writing is that I get to write the stories I want to read. All the crazy ideas in my head get to run free on the computer.
      As for editing and improving your work – read it out loud, does it flow, did you get a little stuck reading a section out – if so, change it. Try not to use the same adjective twice, explore new words. Also, try not to over use adverbs. If your verb is powerful enough you shouldn’t need one. Example: “Clare GREEDILY ate her cornflakes” this is okay, but if my verb ATE was better, I wouldn’t need greddily, so…”Clare gobbled down her cornflakes.” sounds much better.

  10. Some questions for Michaelle-Rene from Sophie Yr 6

    How long does it take to get the idea of a specific character?
    How did you get to know Stuart Harper?
    When did you start illustrating books?
    Have you ever been to Australia or do you want to come?

    • Hi Sophie, I’m super happy to meet you 🙂

      Thank you for all these questions, this is really a great experience for me to meet all of you! I think it’s fantastic that you all enjoyed Stuarts book as much as I did!

      Coming up with a specific character idea can be kind of hard sometimes like it was with Grace. I drew her probably ten times before she finally appeared on paper and I knew it was her. that took five weeks, so thats a long time. Oliver took a week and a half. Mr. Craveth jumped right off the page immediately! I always know how I want them to seem when I start sketching, but sometimes the way they dress or a certain good expression will be hard to capture when it means so much.

      I illustrated one book when I was seventeen called “When Cats Could Fly” and then I didn’t start illustrating again untill this January, it’s all been happening very fast. I have illustrated twonin three months and have three in the works right now. Another one for Stuart too, and I’m so excited for it!

      I have never benn to Australia sadly, but would love to come there someday. It sounds like a terrific place to visit! I live in Washington State and have been to Mexico and Canada a few times, and Hawaii twice too. Maybe someday I will be lucky enough to see your beautiful country 🙂

      As for now all of my adventures will have to come from reading books. It always feels like an adventure while I’m reading them! I know that meeting all of you is like an adventure. I can’t even describe how happy it’s made me to see all of your drawings and to have you ask me questions! I think it’s just wonderful that we are all a half a world away from eachother and have managed to meet because of Stuarts great book!

      How fun! Thanks so much for your questions Sophie 🙂

      Michelle Rene

  11. Questions for Stuart Harper from Sam Yr 4

    Did you always like story writing?
    Is it hard to make a book?
    What is your favourite sport?

    • I have always loved story telling. I would just sit in my garden or on the train and write and write and write.
      It’s not too hard to make a book, but you have to never give up, be patient and work hard.
      My favourite sport to watch is football (soccer – not Ozzie rules) My favourite sport to play was always rugby – I was fairly fast when I was younger.

  12. Questions for Stuart Harper from Shevy Yr 6

    What made you want to become a writer?
    What is the process of self-publishing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing that way?

    • I didn’t really think of it as becoming a writer as I had always loved writing stories, except now I just share them with other people.
      To self publish is pretty much the same as normal publishing, except you do everything yourself. Write, edit, advertise, publicity, website, twitter, find an artist as good as Michelle, format the work etc. It’s a good thing and a bad thing – a double edged sword. I get the final say, I’m my own boss, but I have to be strict with myself, make m own deadlines and work very hard, but it’s worth it. Good question Shevy!

    • Not really, you just have to keep going (sometimes for months or years), it’s easy to write stories, it’s very hard to make them any good though – certainly good enough that other people want to keep on reading. Try to make the first sentence the best one. It has to capture your reader’s imagination and make them want to read on. The whole of the first chapter I totally rewrote at least 6 different times. I wrote it in the 3rd person 1st time around, then started off with Oliver turning up on a bus and seeing the Empress, then I wrote it starting off at his uncle’s house where he lived, one time had Oliver as an old man telling the story, but they either didn’t feel right or were too slow, so I started with Mr Craveth staring at Oliver and that felt the most exciting start.

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