Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Interview: Prudence Shen & Faith Erin Hicks

Last week Craig reviewed the new graphic novel Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, and as excited as I was to see it here at Guys Lit Wire I was extremely bummed because I wanted to review it myself! No matter, I got the chance to interview author Prudence Shen and illustrator Faith Erin Hicks about their influences, the competitive passions of jocks and nerds, and as a bonus one of my favorite expressions – chuckleheads – makes an appropriate appearance.

A million thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second for making it happen.

Nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, robots, dysfunctional families, a road trip... you've pretty much got everything except dystopic vampires and superheroes in love!  Why tell a story about "normal" kids behaving like, well, normal kids?
Pru: Well, firstly, I hate vampires. I had at least one traumatic summer camp experience that convinced me that (a) they were real and (b) they were waiting for me in the locker room. I'm not entirely sure I've convinced myself otherwise, still.

I do love stories about superheroes and people living in extremes of one kind or another, but at heart I'm still the most curious about everyday, ordinary people. Just because we don't have fangs or powers doesn't mean we're not interesting weirdos, and that's why I prefer to write about them. 

There are details in the story that I'm willing to bet come from close observation. The one-upmanship, the acting-without-considering-consequences. You know, boys being boys. I'm wondering who your models were for this story. Brothers? Old school friends? Enemies?

Pru: I'm an only child, but I've known most of these chuckleheads through school and work. Because apparently no matter how old you are, you are still a 14 year old boy.

Faith: I don't know if Prudence based the characters off anyone, but I come from a family of three brothers (and no sisters, previously documented in my graphic novel Friends With Boys), so I'm definitely familiar with antics similar to the ones in Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong

These two boys have a past together, but they've got nothing in common, and yet are still friends. Charlie's a jock but, reading between the lines a bit, his dad seems to be a bit of a nerd. Is that where Charlie's sympathy for Nate comes from?

Pru: I actually think that Charlie's sympathy-cum-affection for Nate comes from recognizing that in some way, they both feel awkward in their own skin. Once you see past the other things and realize we all feel like square pegs in round holes, all the superficial reasons not to be friends seem really petty. But maybe even more than seeing a common strangeness, I think Charlie really admires Nate's ability to focus on a goal and go for it, regardless of what anybody else might think or say. Charlie's biggest weakness is his tendency toward passivity, and I think to him, Nate's personality is equal parts horrifying and fascinating.

Faith: Haha, I don't think Charlie has much sympathy for Nate! I think Charlie's just a bit sad and repressed, which makes him an easy target for someone pushier than him, like Nate. Charlie's dad is pretty nerdy; he's over-the-top into camping and probably other outdoor sports, and he's probably similar to Nate in personality, and thus able to make Charlie do things Charlie would rather not do. I think Charlie would be perfectly happy if Nate just left him alone. But Nate's incapable of doing that, because he has a plan...

You don't underscore it, but I'm getting there's a balance in the competitiveness between the basketball scenes and the Robot Rumble. They serve as mirrors to each other, and is it reading too much into the idea that the jocks and nerds aren't really that much different?

Pru: You're not reading too much into it at all! I think when it comes down to it, our drive to win is the same whether you're shooting for the National Championship game or casting shade to all and sundry at a massive live-action role play. We manifest our interests in different ways, but if you go down just a few layers, we're all wired the same way.

Faith: I think they're absolutely similar. Both nerds and jocks are known for having a passion for something, a passion that drives them to do things like dress up as favorite characters or favorite players, attend events where they're sandwiched into a convention hall or stadium with thousands of other like-minded fans and write incredibly long-winded opinions on their favorite sports team or Star Trek episode online. They are very, very similar. It's all passion.

Faith, you've worked on your own stories and those written by others. When you are working from someone else's story, how much input did you have and how much (if any) did you get from either Prudence or your editor?

Faith: I stuck pretty close to Prudence's original story when I adapted Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong from prose to comics. I did a lot of cutting and re-arraigning and polishing, but I liked the story and wanted to preserve as much of it as I could in the final comic. Prudence and I changed one of the later scenes (the conflict with the jerky battle bot team at the Robot Rumble) and the ending of the comic, but otherwise it was very similar to Prudence's book. I feel like I had a lot of input. I was able to shape the comic into a form I felt work best, which was fantastic. I'm very opinionated about pacing in comics, and I'm glad I got to do all of that myself. 

Prudence, I understand this is your first book (and congratulations, by the way!) but I'm curious why you chose to tell this story as a graphic novel? 

Pru: This is a deeply unexciting answer, but First Second made the choice for me! They acquired my prose novel and saw in it the potential for an interesting graphic novel. I'm thrilled with the way it shook out -- no matter how much I worked on the action scenes in the story, they're never going to be as engaging as an image of robot carnage can be. 

For each of you, what are the most influential books from your past, and what did you get from them?

Pru: For me, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Gordon Korman were the most influential authors of my childhood, and I still read their Little House and Macdonald Hall series frequently today. Ms. Wilder taught me the voyeuristic delight of reading about competency -- whether that's making butter, planting potatoes, reading about people doing something from an author with authoritative understanding is always a joy. Mr. Korman's writing basically convinced me that farce is a medium best told in prose, a lesson I clutch close to my heart still.

"Dear Faith: I like you, do you like me?  Yes/No (circle one)"

Faith: Jeff Smith's comic Bone is probably my most influential book. I remember reading it when I was in university and thinking "oh wow, so THIS is how you make comics!" I've yet to do a book with a story similar to Bone, but I want to be like Jeff Smith when I grow up. 

What graphic novels have you read that you think deserve more recognition?

Pru: This is so obscure, but there's a Korean graphic novel series called 1001 Nights by Jeon Jin-Suk and illustrated by Han Seung-he, a really fascinating retelling of the Scheherazade story. It highlights a lot of eastern fairy tales that I grew up listening to, and between the marvelous political story and the gorgeous art, it's fabulous and everybody should check it out. 

Faith: I'm always frustrated that the work of Japanese creator Naoki Urasawa is not better known in North America. He has a grasp of comics that is brilliantly magical and everyone needs to read his work. Start with Pluto, work your way through 20th Century Boys, and then hope that Monster comes back into print when Guillermo del Toro gets around to adapting it for HBO (this is a thing that is supposedly happening, for real!).

Finally, what's the one question no one ever asks you in interviews, but you wish they did?

Pru: I think probably everybody is way too smart to ask the "why did you start writing?" question. It's a long answer, but I can firmly blame a high school English teacher for derailing me into this. I was originally going to go to law school and do something with myself. 

Faith: Someone asked me that question last week and I had no idea! No idea now, either. 

Prudence, Faith, this has been swell. Thanks!


Curious to see what we're talking about here? You can catch a sample of the book here (though currently there are alternate endings, so maybe don't read too far!), and in case you missed it, see the Guys Lit Wire review here. 

If you're interested in the titles Faith mentioned, Powell's has the 20th Century Boys here , Monster here and Pluto here  (and a Guys Lit Wire review of Pluto here). 

The Jeon Jin-Suk 1001 Nights can be tracked down here

Of course, Faith's books are here, and you really should check out Friends With Boys.  Need convincing? Really? Okay, check out this Guys Lit Wire review! Need more convincing? Seriously? Okay, this was the 2012 Cybils Award Winner in the Teen Graphic Novel category (full disclosure, I was on the final judging panel). And you can catch a sample of it here

Still here? Linked out yet? Go check out Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong!  

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