Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interview: Holly Black & Ted Naifeh

Foreword: I couldn’t let the Comic Book Appreciation Month pass without few interviews, which would have come a bit earlier, if January didn’t work against me on all instances, but what can one do. You would have to deal with a concentrated spread of interviews. Since the comic book format spreads from the series to the strips to the web comics and finally the closest cousin to the novel, namely the graphic novel. I wanted to have a dual interview with both writer and artist of a graphic novel and voila, the result is here.

--The Guests---

Holly Black: Holly Black is the bestselling author of contemporary fantasy novels for teens and children.

Her first book, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, was published in 2002 by Simon & Schuster. Tithe was called "dark, edgy, beautifully written and compulsively readable" by Booklist, received starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and was included in the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults. Holly has since written two other books in the same universe, Valiant (2005), and the sequel to Tithe, Ironside (2007), which spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Valiant was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award for Young Readers and the recipient of the Andre Norton Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.

Ted Naifeh: Ted Naifeh swooped onto the comics and goth culture scene as the co-creator of Gloomcookie with Serena Valentino in 1998. Ted illustrated the first volume of the gothic romance hit before departing to pursue his own projects.

Ted lives in San Francisco, which influenced his aesthetic from a young age with its magnificently spooky Victorian houses, romantic foggy nights and significant population of Night Things and other fantastic beings.

His works include Courtney Crumrin, Polly and the Pirates, Death Jr, How Loathsome and a trilogy of graphic novels written by bestselling fantasy author Holly Black and published by Scholastic. The first volume of The Good Neighbors is in stores now.

--The Subject--

The Good Neighbors Series, Book 1: Kin

Rue Silver's mother has disappeared . . . and her father has been arrested, suspected of killing her. But it's not as straightforward as that. Because Rue is a faerie, like her mother was. And her father didn't kill her mother -- instead, he broke a promise to Rue's faerie king grandfather, which caused Rue's mother to be flung back to the faerie world. Now Rue must go to save her -- and must also defeat a dark faerie that threatens our very mortal world.


1. What is the origin story behind the Good Neighbors trilogy? Holly, how did you decide to undertake a graphic novel project and Ted, how did you fall into the position as the designated writer?

Holly: I have loved comics for a long time. When I started working on the project that would become Good Neighbors, I was interested in exploring two sides of the story of Bridget Cleary. About a hundred years ago, she was murdered by her husband, Michael, in front of her family because they thought she was a faerie changeling. I was intrigued both by the horror and betrayal involved in a family murdering a member under the guise of helping her and by the possibility of the family being correct. Good Neighbors does not attempt to re-tell the story of Bridget Cleary. Rather, I want to have my cake and eat it too in terms of exploring what fascinated me. So that's how I started telling the story of Rue Silver, a girl who must discover why her mother suddenly went missing and whether or not her father had something to do with it.

Ted: My girlfriend was a big fan of Cassandra Clare's online work. Cassie knew my work on Gloomcookie, and in the course of their correspondence, she discovered my tween series, Courtney Crumrin. When Holly went looking for available artists for the Good Neighbors, I seemed like an obvious choice. So in the end, we all have Cassie's Draco series to thank.

2. Holly, what is the difference between writing a regular novel and a graphic novel as far as the art element is considered? Ted, what is the difference between supplying art for a comic book series [something continuous] and a graphic novel [a closed system]?

Holly: Writing a graphic novel does require considering the art as fully half of what makes the story work. The first thing is that you have to be brief - too many words literally reduce the space for art. At the same time, clarity is very important and a kind of precision. Much of the information of a graphic novel is conveyed by the art - nearly all of the mood and much of the emotional life of the characters - so I need to leave the space for that to happen.

I also had to learn to be aware of whether I was working on the left page or the right page if I wanted to set up spreads. And to be aware that the bottom right panel had to be a page-turner - something mysterious enough for the reader to flip the page and keep on reading.

Ted: There's really no difference from page to page, but I must say, it's quite a bit harder to think in terms of a 120 page volume rather tan 22 pages. If someone tells me I have to complete 22 pages in a month, no problem. If they then say I have to do 120 pages in six months, whew, that seems hard. Eight months is more like it.

Also, because this was a graphic novel series, it felt like more of a novel than a comic, so I was less inclined to render the characters as cartoons. They get wardrobe changes more often, and have less outrageous distinguishing design elements, such as Dick Tracy's nose or Courtney Crumrin's lack of one.

3. When everything was ready to go and you had a green light to start this trilogy, how did you approach the project? Did you slice the story into arcs and give them number of pages and was there an official number of panels on each page?

Holly: I broke out each of the books into scenes. I had ideas of what needed to happen overall, and to individual characters. I wrote each scene in a separate file, breaking out the panels as I went. I tried to stick to no more than five panels per page, fewer when I could. Then I played with the order of the scenes themselves.

I broke out the pages and scenes so that I could know how long the book was. Otherwise, I was sure I would be lost regarding the length. Any re-breaks that Ted or our editor wanted, I was happy for.

Ted: When I write my own scripts, I use a screenplay format and break the story into pages and panels as I sketch it out. But it's much easier, when working with a writer, to break it down to pages and panels, so that I'm sure both I and the letterer understand what dialog goes with what moment. You can mess up a comic badly by getting that wrong.

Every once it a while,though, I need to break a single panel description into 2 or even 3 panels, or I realize a couple of panels will work better as one. Say you have two character talking, and what you really need to get the emotion across is to see them touching or otherwise physically interacting with one another, rather than two juxtaposed panels of two talking heads. Obviously, the most important thing is that we all agree with those decisions. Right now, the third volume roughs are going through the lengthy process of review with Holly and the editor, so we all stay on the same page.

4. What’s the tricky part about such a collaborative project? What does the artist have to look out when working with the writer and what does the writer need to do to work with the artist?

Holly: The thing I found trickiest was finding ways that the images and text together convey the information needed to tell the story clearly, but don't repeat information that would make reading the book feel static or tedious.

Ted: Basically, as the artist, I become the director of the book. I decide the camera angles, the art style, and the acting. But one good thing about comics work is that it's the norm to defer to the writer's intent more than in movies. The writer frequently describes a character's expression in the script. I could ignore it in favor of my own ideas, but that would make me a bad collaborator. And anyway, it's my job to tell the story in the script, not to make one up on my own. Surprisingly, that kind of vanity is fairly rare among comics artists. It's more often that we just don't understand what the writer is getting at than that we want to do something else. But I like to think that I usually capture the emotional life of the characters as it was intended by the writers.

5. I few graphic novels as the perfect unity and balance between art and story, which have to complement each other and change to show off each other better. Did the story morph in tone as the initial art was supplied and did the art change accordingly to fit the story?

Holly: From my perspective, the story was changed in two distinct ways by the art. One was that when I first started talking with Ted about where the story was going, I told him the story and he said that the faeries had to win so that the town was covered in vines and faeries and he could draw them! So I changed the plot to make that happen, which made me re-think the ending in ways that I think made the whole project much better.

[Ted: No kidding! The end is really, really cool! But Holly shouldn't give it away.]

Holly: Secondarily, when the character art came in, I found that seeing the characters changed the way I thought about them. They became more themselves, if that makes any sense.

Ted: I definitely adapted my art style to capture the feel of the story as I saw it. I wanted to evoke a mixture of grimness and whimsy, a sort of gritty swirliness. But once that tone was set, that was where it stayed. Had I read all three volumes before starting, I might have designed things a bit differently, but not that much.

6. What are your future projects? When the trilogy concludes do you plan to work together again on something similar?

I have a new series of novels about con-men, curse magic and mobsters, called The Curse Workers. The first book, White Cat, comes out in May of this year.

Ted: We have no definite plans to work together again, but I would be open to it. In the meantime, I'm excited to start a project of my own called Princess Ugg, which is a story about a barbarian princess who comes to a fairytale style kingdom to go to princess finishing school.

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