We’re taking another trip down memory lane with an interview with writer and graphic novel artist, Stephen Edmond at the Texas Teen Book Festival!
~post by Parker
How do you like Austin, and what’s been your favorite thing here so far?
Emond: It’s a cool city. I got lost in an Uber yesterday. They took me to the wrong hotel, so I went downtown. I got to experience downtown through an Uber, and I got a whole history tour of Austin, and they have a lot of funky little restaurants, and everything was cool. Nothing was brand name chain stores or anything like that. It’s a really cool atmosphere.
Keep Austin Weird, have you heard of that?
Emond: (Laughing) Yeah, I have heard that. They’re doing it. It’s successful so far.
So let’s talk about Bright Lights, Dark Nights. What was your inspiration for the story of Walter and Naomi, and then Walter’s dad?
Emond: If I were to say what was the genesis for writing this book, there were a lot of things that kind of led to it. One of them was I have a friend at work, Takara, who is a black girl, and she read my book Wintertown. She loved the book, but she said, “You have all white people in your books,” and I felt like, That’s not what I want; I don’t want all white people, so I started wanting to have more diversity, more representation. So that was one thing. Another was I had a crush on a girl I worked with, a different girl that was African-American, and this was from afar, so kind of my way of playing with that was, Well, what would that be like? So I would banter with Walter and Naomi. It was just me kind of daydreaming this relationship that didn’t actually exist. And a third thing was my cousin started dating a Nigerian man who was really nice and an engineer, and my grandmother was bothered by it. It was kind of a wake-up call. It was interesting that there are people who still think that way. So it was a long line of things that kind of finessed and led to the book I ended up writing.
In the story, people write a lot of comments on Facebook about Walter’s dad and also things about Naomi and Walter. How do you feel about social media as a way to express one’s thoughts about something?
Emond: (Smiling) Social media…It’s both really evil and really positive. I started this book in 2011, and it’s really the past couple of years there’s this mob mentality online. Sometimes it’s good. There’s a lot of really broad changes and feminism. There’s a lot more comic books having more female led stories and better roles for female…a lot of that comes from internet outrage and people complaining and making themselves heard. There’s a lot of good for minorities that wouldn’t normally necessarily have a voice…being not only heard, but people agree with, and they kind of push that voice to the forefront. There’s a lot of really good stuff. There’s a lot of bad stuff, too. There’s a lot of constant negativity, a lot of anger. There are people whose careers have been ended overnight because they said something stupid in an interview. Sometimes that mob mentality is very scary and very negative, and I wanted to show in this book two things. I wanted to show, one, how they could flip somebody’s life completely upside down, and I also wanted to show the short attention span and how they move on to the next thing, and the other person is kind of left with this tornado having blown through and ruined their life and have to pick up the pieces.
The cover of the book is really nice. How did the idea of their arms and shoulders making a heart come to you? Were you just drawing and it just happened?
Emond: It’s funny because literally the first thing I drew for the book was this little doodle. I don’t know, somehow it popped into my head. I said, What if their arms were like this…their shoulders…there’s kind of a heart thing, so I did a little doodle, and I was like, Oh yeah, you can kind of make a heart out of this. And yes, it was an early sketch, and I sent it to my editor, and she was like, “Oh, cute!” And when it came time to start talking about the book cover, I had this guy Ben Mautner design my first two books Happyface and Winter Town, but he had quit his job, so I asked, “Can I take a stab at making my own book cover?” I came up with a lot of different things. They’re all on my website. I did a whole bunch of sketches. There were two of them—one was Walter and Naomi on top of a roof looking out over the city, and one with them on a fire escape, and those were like the two that were in contention, and I must have done fifty drafts over the course of a month, just tweaking every little thing about these, and I was like, Which one is it going to be? I’m making two covers here. And at the end, she (his editor) goes, “We were looking through your extra material and saw this little sketch you did with a heart. What do you think of doing that?” And that was like the first thing I pitched when I started the book, so I was like, “Yeah, it’s a good cover; I’ll do that.” So it was after I had completed two finished different covers that we finally came back to that sketch and I fleshed it out, and I like it. I think it’s a really good cover.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers and illustrators?
Emond: My advice is usually just to write. Or for drawing, I will say to just do it and enjoy doing it, because people get really hung up on the idea of, Oh, I’m going to get rich off this, or I have an idea for a book that’s really going to sell a ton of money, but how am I going to write it?, and you have to just enjoy doing it. If you enjoy doing it, you’re going to do it, and if you keep doing it, you’re going to get better at it, so my advice is not to think about money, not think about having a finished project, not think about I gotta get published off my first book, but just write because it’s something you enjoy doing.
Who are your favorite illustrators and artists and sequential artists?
Emond: Craig Thompson was a big influence. He did a book called Blankets. It’s similar to Winter Town in that it takes place in winter. It’s all really lush brushwork…kind of a young adult, coming-of-age story. He’s amazing. I always liked Charles Schultz in Peanuts, Bill Waterson in Calvin And Hobbes. Jim Borgman has a comic called Zits…that was really good. I
like a lot of indy comics. There’s a guy Nate Powell who’s a really good artist. I tend to kind of
gear towards that young adult… kind of like This One Summer (a book I mentioned)…like that
kind of aesthetic…I like of lot of brush stuff.
Some of my favorites—have you heard of Reina Telgemeir?
covers. She’s really nice, yeah.
And the author of the Amulet series Kazu Kibuishi.
Emond: Oh yeah. The last time I was in Texas was for the TLA, Texas Library Association, and we had a mixer that we had to go to, and I was there with my editor, and she’s escorting me around going, “C’mon, we’ve got to find someone for you to mingle with,” and I looked across the room, and there was somebody in the corner, and it was Kazu Kibuishi. I said, “I think I know who that is,” so we walked over to him, and Connie (his editor) was like, “This is my author, Stephen Emond. He had his first book published, Happyface.” I was like, “Kazu, what’s up? I’m a big fan of your work. I did a comic book series with SLG.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, Emo Boy!” So we just sat around talking about the movie adaptation for Amulet that he’s working on, like Will Smith was attached to it, and his advice to me was to write a series. He said, “Stop your nonsense; write a series.” Ever since that day, it’s in my head: Write a series, write something commercial, and I just can’t do it. I keep coming back to these coming-of-age, one-off character pieces, but one of these days I’ll make ‘em proud and do it, do a series.
What can your readers look forward to next from you?
Emond: Right now I’m pitching a historical fiction. It’s a book I was talking about in the panel—about the professional artist vs. his personal art. It takes place in the civil war, actually, so I’m doing a lot of research on the 1860s. Almost every line I’ve written I have to go research. I’ve written about 15,000 words of the first two chapters. I think people will like it; it’s a clever idea. But it’s just a pitch right now. There’s no contract or anything.
I love historical fiction, so if you do carry out on that, I will be excited to read it.
Emond: Oh great. I hope it works out.
That was my last question. Well, I really appreciate you letting me interview you. Also, my sister and I got the game you made, Penumbear. My sister has been playing it a lot.
Emond: Oh my God, that’s so cool. There’s a guy that did all of the programming, and I did all of the art and animation for it, and we spent like a year and half working on it. It got like 9s and 10s reviews. Everyone seemed to love it, but it wasn’t featured on the App Store, so it’s kind of like saying there’s a really cool toy out, but there’s no commercials and nobody knows it exists. So unless you read all the reviews and find out about it that way, nobody knew it existed. So it was a really well regarded piece of, um…cult…it had a little cult following, and that was about it, but I was really proud of it. I loved working on that game.
Well, thank you so much!