It’s not often one can talk of owning a ‘lockdown project’ as impressive as a two-volume photobook on the Mount Everest expedition. But Mandy Kirkby did just that. She tells us how she brings the non-fiction titles to life with illustrations, getting pop culture fans closer to highbrow classics.

Mandy Kirkby (pictured), Non-Fiction Publisher, The Folio Society, with books displayed at MCM Comic Con London in October 2022. She’s the force behind the beautifully illustrated non-fiction titles published by The Folio Society. Image: Story Of Books

The Folio Society has done a great job in giving visual voice to non-fiction works such as A Man on the Moon (Andrew Chaikin), not to mention classics such as On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (Charles Darwin). Non-fictions such as The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins) and A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking), however, deal with truly abstract concepts. How did you interpret these known and yet complex works into illustrated books? What is that process like?

With these types of books, you have to accept that you can’t really illustrate directly or comprehensively, and so need to come at the subjects obliquely, glancingly, to just give a flavour and suggest a mood. Most of our science books are illustrated with specialist photography and we always find an expert to work with and rely on them to make the right choices. As always though, with Folio, we guide them to images that look good and have a certain compelling quality.

Andrew Chaikin collaborated with The Folio Society on the selection of photographs for A Man on the Moon, a book about the Apollo Missions. Image: Story Of Books

Hypothetically, if the Nobel Prize committee commissions The Folio Society to illustrate ‘quantum entanglement’, the concept that recently won the Nobel Prize in Physic 2022, how would you interpret that work?

Goodness, that’s tricky. I think I would pass this on to an expert! It might be that an artist-imagined depiction might work here…

We are very impressed by the project you did during lockdown, Everest (edited by Peter Gillman). How did that work come about? How did you and your collaborators decide on the selection of images sourced from the Royal Geographical Society? What was it like working on this publication during the period of isolation?

This book evolved from an approach by the Royal Geographical Society in the UK, who suggested that we might like to make a book from their important and extensive Everest Collection of photographs. Folio developed the concept (we took five key expeditions and told their stories through words and images) and found Peter Gillman, a highly respected writer of mountaineering books, to put this book together for us.

Kirkby worked with editor Peter Gillman and the Royal Geographical Society during the lockdown to put together the Everest: From Reconnaissance to Summit. It’s an impressive two-volume work featuring stunning images and maps. Image: ©The Folio Society

Peter alone selected the images (he was the expert, after all), basing his image choice on two things: whether the photograph played a role in telling the story of the expedition it depicted, and whether it was a stunner – Everest mountain photography is sublime! It was very challenging working on this book during lockdown.

We had one meeting in person at the RGS to look at images, not knowing that it would be the only one, and then we had to conduct all others online. But we were determined to make it work, and the expertise, dedication and goodwill of everyone involved from the RGS to the production department to the printers made it happen.

We didn’t expect to see an illustrated copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at MCM Comic Con. It’s highly regarded by scientists, and those interested in environmental issues relating to agrochemicals. What is the thinking behind the creative direction of this work? 

The fan base for Silent Spring isn’t just confined to scientists, though. Many readers of natural history and of the more general aspects of environmentalism find it an inspiring read, and especially admire Rachel Carson’s often very beautiful and lyrical descriptions of the natural world. We tried to reflect both the scientific and the lyrical, softer aspects of the book in our creative direction. So artist Teagan White’s clever images pair important messages from the book with delicate depictions of animals and plants, whilst a small selection of photographs of environmental decline provides a contrasting style – the reality, as you might say.

A pleasant surprise at MCM Comic Con London 2022: an illustrated edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a book of the perils of agrochemicals used in intensive farming. Image: Story Of Books

How did you get into publishing illustrated non-fiction books? 

I moved from working as a fiction commissioning editor for a large UK publisher to the Folio Society, where I had the opportunity to develop a growing interest in non-fiction. I love matching images to words, bringing books to life with pictures.

What book did you last read?

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. It’s an incredible book and so helpful in understanding the situation with Russia and Ukraine. Who would have thought that a book about Stalin and his cohort could be so completely compelling?

Which format do you prefer: print, PDF or e-book? 

Print, always.

About The Folio Society

Story of Books at MCM Comic Con 2022