Stephen Gammell is an elusive figure.

No one knows that more than me. Long story short, he has declined to be interviewed or involved with anything Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark-related for over 30 years. He doesn’t do interviews for anyone, including times he has illustrated or written new children’s books. Usually publishers want authors to promote their own books like crazy, given that book publishers need all the help they can get in this day and age.

Well, Stephen Gammell doesn’t do interviews.

What we have here is a book trailer that he did consent to participate in, a trailer for a heartwarming picture book he wrote and illustrated called Mudkin. That is his hands, creating the artwork.

People often glob onto Stephen Gammell’s black and white, macabre (yet beautiful) illustrations for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, but Stephen Gammell has had a long and diverse career in children’s books. And yes, he does do color. So while I think we do need to celebrate his contributions, I think it is important to learn more about books like Mudkin, Song and Dance Man, and many others.

Here is an exhibit he did of his artwork in 2019, which describes his life now… “an artist who, with dozens of publications, awards, and successes under his belt, continues to approach the blank page with fascination and enthusiasm, yielding highly expressive works of abstraction.”
Stephen Gammell exhibit at Sager | Braudis Gallery

My Stephen Gammell Interview

As far as I know, I got as close as anyone has gotten to a Stephen Gammell interview. And that is, I communicated with a family member. He declined. Via email, his direct quote:

I am like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) who essentially disappeared to move on. I admire that. I do likewise.

For years I let him know my intentions of making a documentary about the impact of not only the books, but also his illustrations on generations of artists. In retrospect I took it as it going from a nice “no thanks” to a slightly more annoyed “please stop asking.” So of course I had to give up, respect his wishes, and do what I could to make the documentary shine a light on the topics as best I could.

What I did have was a print interview that he conducted, and so I used that in the documentary to get a view of the man and his art. It is in a reference book called “Something About the Author” and it has several pages of interviews and direct quotes from Stephen Gammell. This has not been widely seen or publicized, so I found them to be very interesting and under-publicized. You can see it discussed in this Post Bulletin article dated June 19, 1989: “Stephen Gammell Illustrator lets his art do the talking”.

In the reference book the Stephen Gammell interview includes details of his childhood.

As years go by, you retain what is interesting from childhood and toss out the rest. Somehow the memorabilia and romance of Western history has always stayed with me. I suppose part of the lasting appeal is that artifacts are just plain fun to draw. I like the line and the form of the objects. An arrowhead, for instance is fun to pick up, to play with, to touch, to draw. Tomahawks, hatchets, old revolvers…

Elsewhere Stephen Gammell remarks on how he considered his work on And Then the Mouse… (1980) a turning point for him, which was a collection of folk tales authored by Malcolm Hall and published just one year before the first Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book.

With it, I was finally able to get silly and free myself form inhibitions. And Then the Mouse… loosened me up. I quit taking myself so seriously. As a result, I felt better about my attitude, my drawings, myself. From then on, I only accepted books that I really wanted to illustrate, books I could enjoy. I stopped trying to make an ‘artistic statement’ and freed myself from the restrictive, self-imposed seriousness.

Other quotes from this interview are heard in the documentary Scary Stories.

stephen gammell interview

Last Updated on May 4, 2021.

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