Monday, May 10, 2010
Calamity Jack: a Conversation with Shannon Hale
You may know Shannon Hale from her awesome Newbery-Honor-winning novel Princess Academy. Or maybe from her many other novels, which manage to be both thoughtful and a hell of a lot of fun. Or maybe you know her from that time you thought you were just going to hear another author talk, and ended up laughing so hard you had cross your legs to keep from peeing your pants.
Or perhaps you know her from the fantastically entertaining graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge, which she wrote with her husband, Dean, with the fab illustrations of Nathan Hale (no relation). If so, you're in luck, because--tada!-- there's a sequel out this spring: Calamity Jack, and there's just as much fairy-tales-meet-the-wild-west hijinks as lit up the first book.
In honor of its release, Shannon and I traded secret passwords and "met" in adjoining airport bathroom stalls.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I enjoyed Rapunzel's Revenge a great deal, so I was thrilled to see a sequel. I particularly admire the pacing, which is often a troublesome thing for writers trying the graphic novel format for the first time. Can you speak to what it was like to transition from novels to graphic novels?
SHANNON HALE: Thank you! I think the key for us was having the right story. We didn't want to take any book idea and try to cram it into that format. We wanted just the right story that would really shine in this medium. The fairy tale was the skeleton, but the Hollywood western really directed the plot and let us have fun with the story.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: I think many writers coming from a novel-writing background are accustomed to the support that narration offers. But in graphic novels, the dialogue has to do the lion's share of character building AND plot acceleration. I suppose that could be either difficult or exciting (or perhaps both). What elements do you like best about the two storytelling media?
SHANNON HALE: I do depend a lot on my narrator. I love the third person narrator. It's such a useful tool, and allows for so much language, which is thrilling for me. But the truth is, I get bored easily. I have to switch stuff around to keep myself from getting disaffected with writing. I used a different narrator for my adult books than my YA books, I had a first person diary in Book of a Thousand Days. It is very limiting to lose that narrator entirely in a graphic novel, but it's a good, clean challenge too. Whittling down a story to dialog and captions, then turning over the action of the story to an illustrator is scary and exciting! Luckily we had a brilliant illustrator. Also, we re-wrote a lot, which is my secret weapon in any genre.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: Did you and Dean write the manuscript before beginning work with Nathan (the illustrator)? If so, how close to what you'd imagined were the illustrations/scenes? How much did the manuscript change as it came together with the art?
SHANNON HALE: I love the way it worked out. We had the plot outlined and first 1/4 written when we met Nate. We pitched it to our editor and Nate was on board before we finished the script, so we were able to work with him on character designs, as well as write to his strengths. (He loves beasties and creatures!) I think it became a stronger partnership that way than if we'd written in a bubble then turned it over to an unknown illustrator.
Graphic novels are so different than picture books, I think if the author/illustrators don't know each other, it makes it harder to have solid collaboration. We do write all the panel descriptions for Nate, since so much of the action is visual, so the script we send him is twice as long as what ends up actually printed in the book. After we see his art we go through and make lots of changes--striking unnecessary dialog, changing dialog to better fit the mood of the scene, etc.
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: What do you think it is about you that attracts you to total doofuses like the main character? Are you proud of the example you're setting for the young people?
SHANNON HALE: I know you don't mean Rapunzel, because she is Kick-Butt Awesome. And no way you mean Jack is a doofus, since he's all kinds of good times, built in the grand tradition of trickster/rogue/Coyote. But in answer to your question, yes, I am very proud. As you no doubt know, we children's authors took a sacred pact years ago to secretly subvert the young minds we so carelessly influence and lead them straight to a Bad Place. My part of this nefarious scheme is to trick my impressionable readers into growing their hair long and using it as a weapon. When the war comes, my army will be well-trained, and ALWAYS ARMED. (or haired)
EDITORIAL ANONYMOUS: LOL! I'll start growing out my bangs. Do you have any advice for people who want to try writing a graphic novel, or who want to fight crime with hair?
SHANNON HALE: I think there was this idea for awhile that graphic novels were HOT, HOT, HOT and easy to sell. That has not always proven true.
I've never had such gleeful responses to any of my books as I have to Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack. Parents, who were initially hesitant (there's that idea that comic books are Evil and kids should be weaned off illustrations by age 8), were so excited when their 10, 12, 14 year old non-reader read these books and decided he/she liked to read after all. That kind of feedback is worth a career!
Graphic novels have found a place in the libraries, but many book stores still struggle with where to shelve them (a kids' GN section? on the shelves with regular books? the general GN section?), let alone to sell them. I've been pleased with the success of our books, but they're very expensive to produce, both for the illustrator Nathan Hale (17 hour days, 7 day/week for 9-12 months per book) and the publisher. Less than hoped-for sales have discouraged many publishers, and I've heard of some publishers who are no longer looking at GNs. (I'd be curious to hear your experience with this, E Anon.)
But what that all sums up to is, the graphic novel market is no easier to break into than any other, and perhaps even harder. I think writer-illustrators have the upper hand here. I don't know of any debut author who pitched the script alone and got published. The idea, the hook, the script itself has got to be pretty extraordinary to catch an editor's eye. Still, if you can make it, wow. It's awesome. Based on reader response, I'd be thrilled to do more books like Jack and Rapunzel for the rest of my life.
As for the hair question, I find my own locks woefully flimsy and harmless. But as a child, I was Pippi Longstocking for Halloween and my mom threaded my braids with a piece of hanger to make them curl up. So I suggest pimping out your hair with lethal lengths of wire. Unless someone gets hurt in the process; then I never suggested such a thing.