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Guinea Pig, Hamster and Cheese

Guinea Pig, Hamster and Cheese

Continuing on with writer spotlights from last week’s look at Trina Robbins, this week I interviewed Colleen AF Venable, the author of our hilarious and cute new series Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye, with art by Stephanie Yue, who was in the spotlight in November.

Q. What was the first thing you were paid to write?

When I was little, I used to do my older sister’s essay homework in exchange for candy. When Graphic Universe first approached me with a book contract I was confused. “Wait. No Peanut M&M’s? What kind of a deal is this?!” Since then I’ve learned you can exchange that money stuff for candy at a lot of places. Phew!

Q. What’s your favorite genre to write in? What type of writing do like best—long, short, fiction, nonfiction?

My favorite genre is Silly. It’s like fiction only makes a lot less sense. I tend to write longer things, which I will now prove by rambling my way through the rest of this interview.

Q. Did you start off writing prose and switch to comics or vice versa?

What’s it like working with an artist? Have you ever been surprised how your artist(s) see your characters or world?

Actually, I guess my real start in the pro-writing world (as opposed to the amateur middle school ghost-writing world) was playwriting. In 2002 a play of mine called SID’S DREAM was produced Off-Off-(perhaps like four more Off’s in there)-Broadway. At the same time I started to get into webcomics, White Ninja and Dinosaur Comics being the first two that truly warped my brain. At some point—probably the night a blizzard left our “sold out” show with only two actual attending audience members—it hit me that writing comics is a lot like writing plays. It’s all about pacing and collaboration between dialogue and visuals. But unlike plays, comics live on forever, and it’s easier to share them with a wider audience. Also, you don’t need a lot of money or huge groups of people to make a comic. Just a pen and an idea or, better yet, a friend who wants to collaborate.

I always say that collaboration is my answer to the Meaning of Life question. Nothing in the world makes me happier! It’s amazing to see a panel I wrote that was moderately funny be transformed into something truly hysterical through someone else’s eyes.

As for being surprised by artists, I knew Stephanie’s work and had no doubts it was going to be cute, but nothing prepared me for how ridiculously adorable it wound up being. I am surprised I didn’t wind up in the hospital for cute overdose, huggina copy of Book 1 and rocking back and forth and repeating, “Hamsters! Like giant cottonballs with eyes!”

Perfectly ordinary author

Colleen AF Venable: Perfectly ordinary author

Q. Graphic Universe books are generally for kids; how do you get into the mindset of your audience?

7-10 year olds are the best! They are old enough to get sarcasm, puns, but aren’t afraid to laugh at the super absurd or slapstick. They don’t hold back their thoughts, and they aren’t worried about what others think of them. They are, quite simply, My People. I have yet to find many adults that are as fun to talk to as a group of upper elementary schoolers, though adults get some points because they generally keep their fingers out of their noses.

Q. Have your relatives bought copies of your books? Do your friends ask you to sign their copies?

I’m pretty sure my mom is planning on buying enough to build a giant fort.

My friends do make me sign them and it still feels so weird. Ever since I was little I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Even with the book in my hands, I have trouble believing that’s my name on it. I am in the running for “world’s most illegible signature,” so when I autograph a book, other people also have trouble believing that’s my name on it.

Q. Have you ever written someone you know into a story? Perhaps at their insistence?

I have a friend who recently asked me to write his middle name into a story, since it has a lot of sentimental value for him and he knows how fond I am of odd middle names. Unfortunately, his middle name is so odd I don’t know if I can do it and make it believable. (And this is coming from someone who has a character named Detective Sasspants.)

Q. Do you write full time? If not, what else do you do for a living? Do you want to write full time?

I’m the designer for First Second Books, another graphic novel publisher. I love my job and I think, combined with writing at night, it balances the two sides of my brain.

Q. What other stuff have you written outside of Graphic Universe?

Lumberjack. Srsly.

Lumberjack. Srsly.

HAMSTER AND CHEESE is my first published book, but I’ve been making mini-comics for years. My personal favorite is LUMBERJACKS, A FIELD GUIDE: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF LUMBERJACKARY. A few years back my friend Marianne Ways and I invented a holiday called Lumberjack Day. It was an excuse to eat pancakes with a giant group of friends every September 26. The holiday got bigger every year, and last year we decided to celebrate by making a book.

Marianne and I co-wrote a fake nonfiction guide to Lumberjacks that features art from over 25 cartoonists. It’s very educational, with stories about famous lumberjacks of the past such as Lumberjackson Pollack, quizzes to figure out if you may be a lumberjack, a guide for what to do if you are an eco-conscious lumberjack (aka “The Guide to Cutting Down Cutting Down”), and a glimpse into what the future of lumberjacks may be. Every handmade book came with a free fake beard.

Needless to say, we sold out of our entire first print run in two days.

NOTE TO PUBLISHERS WORRIED ABOUT BOOK INDUSTRY DYING: Have you thought about adopting the “free facial hair with purchase” policy? It really works!

Q. Which of your comic projects was your favorite to work on?

Guinea Pig Book 1 is fun, but I swear there are a few scenes in Book 2 that just may make it my Magnum Opus. Or at least my Hamster Opus.

Q. Do you listen to anything while you write? Lyric-less music? Talk radio? Podcasts? Can you leave the TV on?

My favorite thing to listen to when I write is piano music by Vladimir Horowitz. The best thing I’ve ever found hidden in a thrift store was a signed record by Horowitz I got for a $1. Pretty sure the store had no idea it was autographed. Best dollar (not on candy) I’ve ever spent.

Lately I’ve been, somewhat appropriately, listening to the new Sherlock Holmes movie soundtrack. Only problem is, it makes me want to dance and get into slow-motion fights more than it makes me want to write.

Q. Do you have a favorite comic writer or prose writer? Who are your influences (in any media)?

My favorite silly book in all the world: WHALES ON STILTS by M. T. Anderson.
My favorite serious book in all the world: FEED by M. T. Anderson.

The fact one writer can have so much versatility, can make me snort with laughter with one book and stay awake staring at the ceiling with dread with another… M. T. Anderson.

Other writing heroes include: Ellen Raskin, Roald Dahl, Bill Watterson, Libba Bray, Laurie Keller, and Scott Westerfeld.

Outside the world of writers I’m very influenced by comedians: early Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Mel Brooks, those Python boys, Phyllis Diller, Madeline Kahn, and Eugene Mirman.

Biggest influence, though, is my family. No one can make me laugh harder than they can. Because of them I know what a whole lot of beverages feel like coming out of my nose. Thanks, Mom and Dad and Kath (I should clear her name and say she may not have liked writing essays, but she grew up to be a math genius).

Q. Which college did you go to, and what was your major?

I went to tiny Wagner College on Staten Island. I was a double major: Studio Art and English with an accidental minor of Gender Studies because I guess I took too many courses with “Women in dot dot dot” as part of the title. I loved my school and graduated first nerd in my class. One day I hope to have enough money to buy them something large and gaudy that will make all of the student stop and say, “She spent her money on THAT?”

Hmmmm. How expensive are giant 60-foot glass tigers, again?

Q. What is the next convention you plan to go to?

March 5 I’ll be at STAPLE! in Austin, Texas—my favorite small press show and an excuse to eat a lot of southern fried foods. Pretty much heaven, but with more comic books.

Question Mark

It's a mystery! Trina Robbins is writing a Graphic Universe book, title still TBA.

After several weeks of Artist Spotlights, we’ve decided to interview our Graphic Universe writers. Trina Robbins is the author of many books and comic books. She’s writing a Graphic Universe series that will debut this fall (Fall 2010). All we can reveal for now is that it will be a fast-paced and funny fiction series for middle readers.

Q. What was the first thing you were paid to write?

Not counting my own comics, I guess that would be my first history of women cartoonists, Women and the Comics, from 1985. Or wait a minute, did Catswalk come first? That was my first kid’s book that was really a book and not a comic. At any rate, they both came out in the mid 1980s.

Q. What’s your favorite genre to write in? What type of writing do like best—long, short, fiction, nonfiction?

Most of my non-comics writing has been nonfiction, but I really would love to write a fiction book. On the other hand, most of my comics have been fiction, except for the graphic novel biographies I’ve written. Right now I’m writing a fictionalized biography, and although it’s based on reality, I’ve had to use my imagination to flesh out what people said and did in the story. It’s a challenge, but I love it!

Q. Did you start off writing prose and switch to comics or vice versa? What’s it like working with an artist? Have you ever been surprised how your artist(s) see your characters or world?

I started by writing my own comics, and now I write for other artists. Because I have worked with some really good artists, I usually try to recommend them when I’m writing something for a publisher, but sometimes I’ve had no say in who the design director picks and, worse, I’m not allowed to give any feedback on the art as it progresses. On the other hand, when working with the artists I know and recommend, the books turn out to be something I’m really proud of.

Q. Graphic Universe books are generally for kids; how do you get into the mindset of your audience?

Hey, I was a kid once, and inside this aging body there’s still a kid trying to get out! Most of all, I always write what I would enjoy reading,myself, and I NEVER talk down to my readers! I’ve seen some comics, published by certain mainstream publishers who will remain nameless, which talk down to the readers, and those are so lame that they’re embarrassing!

Q. Have you ever written someone you know into a story? Perhaps at their insistence?

Sometimes when I’m strapped for names, I’ll use the names of people I know. In those cases, I always give them a copy!

Q. Do you write full time?

Yes! And I couldn’t be happier, sitting at that computer, punching the keys.

Q. What other stuff have you written outside of Graphic Universe?

I’ve written far too many books and comics to mention all of them, but you can check out my website at www.trinarobbins.com and if you look at the list on the left of the website and click on the part that says “Trina’s News,” you’ll find my blog, where I write about my current projects. My most recent book is a history of the Golden Age of Chinese nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown, from 1937 – 1964: a very glamorous and romantic era. For that book, I interviewed 22 retired Asian entertainers who sang and danced in the old nightclubs, one as old as 97 (and still with us!). Their stories are so great! Some of the women ran away from home as teenagers to dance onstage, because their traditional Chinese parents thought it was shocking for a girl to dance or show her legs in public.

Q. Which of your comic projects was your favorite to work on?

Of course I loved working with artist Anne Timmons on our continuing graphic novel series, “GoGirl!”, about a flying teenage superheroine. I really enjoyed writing a biography of 1940s movie star Hedy Lamarr, who was brilliant as well as beautiful and designed a secret communications system to deter torpedoes during World War 2. I met and interviewed her son, Anthony Loder, who was delighted that someone wanted to write about his mother, because he thought she had been forgotten. Far from it! AND I got the artist I had recommended to draw the graphic novel, so it came out a winner in every way. Right now I’m very excited about the new biography I’m writing, which will be drawn by that same illustrator.

Q. Do you listen to anything while you write? Lyric-less music? Talk radio? Podcasts? Can you leave the TV on?

I can only write in total silence! Anything else distracts me.

Q. Do you have a favorite comic writer or prose writer? Who are your influences (in any media)?

I happen to love mysteries and detective stories, because they’re pleasant easy reads for relaxing when I’m concentrating on writing. Ed McBain is great, so is Cara Black, who writes mysteries set in Paris, and Adele Leone, whose mysteries take place in Venice, Italy. And when I’m not reading mysteries, I’ll read anything (and have read everything!) by Michael Chabon, whose Kavalier and Klay is about comics! And I also love Maeve Binchy, who writes about Ireland in such a clear, Irish voice, and Saron McCrumb, who writes atmospheric, slightly creepy novels that take place in the Southern mountains, and have a lot of folk songs and mythology in them. I could go on forever!

Q. Which college did you go to and what was your major (unless you went to one of those major-less schools)?

Aas, I was one of those hippie dropouts of the 1960s, so although I attended Queens College (for English) and Cooper Union (for art), I never graduated!

Q. What is the next convention you plan to go to? (If any.)

I’ll be at Wondercon, in San Francisco (my home town) in April. Look for me and say hello!

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