Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lessons from the Literary Life

Totally by accident, I had an extremely literary day on Saturday. (I also helped some friends move, which made the day extra busy but had nothing to do with books.)

At 1 p.m. I went to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center to see my pals Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman give a talk and sign books. They'd already taught a comics-making workshop at the museum in the morning. I've gushed about the husband-and-wife cartooning team of Dave and Raina in this blog before so I won't embarrass myself again. They're both very good cartoonists whose work, and maybe moreso their approach to their work, I really like and respect.

Although they're based in New York now, Raina grew up in San Francisco, so speaking at the Schulz Museum an hour north of the Golden Gate was a meaningful homecoming for her. They're making a quick Bay Area tour to promote Raina's award-winning book Smile and Dave's recent book Astronaut Academy, and did a terrific joint presentation in the museum's intimate theater. They talked about their influences and careers, and even about how they met and married. Best of all, they took turns reading passages from their books by inviting kids on stage to voice the parts. It was nicely and sweetly done.

Raina and Dave, whose microphone cord prevented him from pointing out something very important.

Whenever I hear cartoonists talk about their creative process, I can't help but compare theirs to mine. Nobody gives you an instruction manual when you set out to write and draw these things. The more data points the better.

Some people make me feel very lazy. Jim Borgman works seven days a week drawing the comic strip "Zits" and producing Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoons. Kazu Kibuishi ("Amulet") spoke at the Schulz Museum a while back and mentioned doing up to thirty pages per day, which I at first took as a joke. He has assistants, but still: thirty pages?! And they're beautiful pages! I can't comprehend how that's physically possible. If I rose at dawn and skipped lunch and really jammed late into the night, I could maybe do four. Without color. So I felt much better when Raina said it took her five years to do Smile and a few more for her next book, the forthcoming Drama. Don't misunderstand, I'm not calling her lazy; I'm saying I can relate to her workflow. I was relieved to find I'm not a freakish outlier. Unless we both are.


Raina standing on a chair for a group photo with some fans. I haven't asked Raina, but I imagine seeing girls wearing t-shirts with her big "Smile" happy face (with braces on its teeth) is about the most gratifying thing ever.

While Dave and Raina signed books for a gaggle of fans that gathered after their talk, I also had the chance to meet Raina's dad Denis, who had gone on stage during her Smile reading to voice the role of "Raina's Dad." In addition to being a proud father he's a writer, and he and I talked about how "overnight successes" like his daughter (and, well, me) seldom are. Unfortunately, I only had a few minutes with Dave and Raina themselves because I had to leave soon after their presentation to go to . . . another booksigning.

I swear this never happens to me. But my friend Frederick Weisel, whose debut novel Teller I mentioned last month, had a booksigning across town at the same time as Raina and Dave's. His is a career I'm watching and learning from as well--not because I'm interested in writing mystery novels like his, but because of his do-it-yourself approach to publishing and promotion.

A star is born.

The bookstore itself had no interest in advertising an unknown author's appearance; it took him great perseverance just to get the gig. So in preparation for his booksigning he'd printed posters, bought ads in the local newspaper and sent postcards to everyone he knew in the area. The result was a constant stream of customers--not all of whom appeared to be close personal friends--that really seemed to impress the bookstore clerks. He's building a fan base, building a reputation. It's neat to see. I look forward to benefiting from his experience.

I didn't start this post with a unifying theme in mind but I guess one emerged as I wrote. It's all about figuring it out as you go, isn't it? Observing someone else doing the same sort of thing you want to, learning what works and what doesn't, what you might do similarly or differently. Examples. Models. Successes and horror stories. You wanna know what cartoonists and writers talk about when they meet? This stuff. Business and process. "How do you do it?" Nobody else can tell you. Once in a while I've been lucky to get good guidance and I try to pass it on.

But seriously, thirty pages?! That had to be a joke.


sligo said...

It is amazing, isn't it? What the hell would we do without each other in this ever-dynamic flux thing called creating.

BTW, I'm sure it's a misprint; you mean 'thrifty' pages, right? Or thirsty?

Thirty? Ah, perhaps their quadruples spaced with 16ft font...

Guess I better get to work.

Mark Jackson said...

You have friends who have no books to move???

Brian Fies said...

Kazu might've said "thirty divided by ten." It's the only thing that makes sense.

Book moving happens next week. I may have a previous commitment. Books are heavy.

Mark Jackson said...

Speaking of process descriptions, what do you think of /MetaMaus/? (Almost as obsessive as the original.)

Brian Fies said...

Haven't seen it yet.

ronnie said...

*Thirty* pages? Most people can't *type* thirty pages a day. The mind boggles.