June 2007

Colleen Mondor


An Interview with Cecil Castellucci

For the past couple of years Cecil Castellucci has been writing young adult novels that highlight determined young women on personal quests to understand more about themselves and their place in the world. Her first novel, Boy Proof, was about “Egg,” a dedicated science fiction fan who is at a loss at navigating life (and love) without relying on her favorite film, Terminal Earth, for guidance. It was followed by The Queen of Cool, about a character similar to Buffy’s Cordelia Chase who decides one day that being the most popular girl in school is not enough. This leads Libby in all sorts of unexpected directions, where she faces some harsh choices about who she wants to be and what she wants to do. In that way it is quite reminiscent of Boy Proof and proved to establish Castellucci as an author who focuses on teen characters who are smart but, even more than that, curious, and also determined to experience more from life than what is obvious or expected for kids their age.

Last month was a big one for the author; her new YA novel, Beige, was released, along with a new graphic novel, The Plain Janes, from DC. (She also has an essay in the brand new adult collection Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.) Beige continues in the Castellucci trend -- it features Katy who, through some complicated parenting circumstances, has to spend the summer with her divorced father, the former drummer of an infamous band. Katy is not into music at all and has a lot of trouble identifying with her Dad and his friends, most especially the very musically talented and obsessed daughter of one of his band mates, Lake. Through her struggling friendship with Lake, Katy slowly finds her way both to what her father loves and who he is. It’s an unusual approach for Castellucci, but a winning one and sure to please all of her many fans.

The Plain Janes is the real surprise, though, as this is the first time the admitted comic book fan has had an opportunity to write a novel in this format. In Janes she tackles some of the new fears in our security-focused world and brings alive a group of girls who strike a blow for art lovers everywhere. Beautifully illustrated by Jim Rugg, Janes is proving to be a hit among YA reviewers. I was quite impressed with it, as both a reader of YA books and a very longtime comic fan (25 years and counting with Batman and a lot of other titles still coming to my house every month). Interestingly, Castellucci is the first author in DC’s Minx line, a, “new graphic novel imprint that's geared specifically toward female readers.” There has been heavy Internet commenting on the imprint among comic readers, shop owners and industry publications about the name Minx, the selection of a non-comic book writer to author the first book, and the paradox of DC going after female readers on one hand and then alienating them on the other (look no further than Michael Turner’s version of Power Girl’s gravity-defying chest on the cover of JLA #10 for the latest salvo in that long-running war).

As someone who regularly reads YA and comics, I think I’m in a unique position to review Janes, and I thought it fit squarely into the Castellucci milieu. It’s about four girls trying to find themselves, change their world, and maybe even carve out a place around them for who they want to be. It’s a great story for teenage girls in particular, as all of her books are, and although it might not read like many graphic novels out there today; it is purely and completely the voice of Cecil Castellucci that comes through. That voice -- that passionate, determined voice for freedom and individuality and pursuing your dreams -- is something that only she has. I think she just might be the most dynamic force in young adult literature today and I am sure her books -- all of them -- are changing the lives of every teen girl who reads them.

I’ve e-mailed with Cecil before on all things literary and I was quite pleased to be able to ask her some specific questions on both her two newest books, and also a few about her older titles, as well.

The parents are always represented as deeply crafted characters in your novels and this was something that I missed a bit in The Plain Janes. Were you hampered at all by the graphic novel format or, as this was your first novel with so many characters, were you focused more on the teens this go-round?

In my novels they are meant to be stand alone stories, so everything has got to be in there. One of the pleasures with comics is that often the characters continue on and grow and it can be open-ended. Hopefully, I'll get to continue on with these characters. I know that there are some assumptions made about all the characters, but trust me, their waters run a little deeper and questions will be answered and some of the developments in the future I have in store for them, if I get to do it, may surprise you. That said, I definitely did want to concentrate more on the Janes and Main Jane in particular, because I had so many characters and a page count that I couldn't really go over, so you know, some things got to give a little!

So, to answer your question, in a way, maybe, I think, that it's a little bit of both. I wouldn't say that I was hampered by the graphic novel format, but I would say that I felt that, being my first foray into this way of telling a story, I was not able to do things with characters 100% the way that I do in my novels. I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing, it's just different!

Hopefully I'll get to do another book with the Janes where all the characters will get more screen time. And, maybe, with a bit of practice, I'll get to write lots more graphic novels and comic books and I'll get better at distilling everything I need to distill to get that depth with the economy of words and panels that graphic novel writing requires. 

You've explained in other interviews how you came to write The Plain Janes, but I am curious as to how the writing process worked. Did you already have this idea prior to the graphic novel opportunity or did you craft it specifically for this format?

I did already have the idea of four girls named Jane [Brain Jane, Theater Jane, Sporty Jane and Arty (Main) Jane] who sat at the reject table every day at lunch together. Three of them wanted to bail and sit with what they thought was the cooler group which they were uninvited to join, and the arty girl thought that they were a group. So, the characters remained the same, but once I started thinking about it in terms of being a graphic novel, the idea changed a bit. The Plain Janes was a small idea I was carrying around for a while. I think if it had been a bigger idea it would have been less malleable. It was already fluid, because I wanted to follow these girls’ adventures. Originally I thought of it as a like an animated show, you know, like a Daria kind of thing. When Shelly called, I was like Oh! Of course! A graphic novel! Because hopefully it can go on and be continuous.

How did you work with Jim Rugg -- did you write some of the book and then send it to him or did you contact each other initially to come up with an idea as to how the girls should look and the story should progress from the very beginning? You've collaborated on many other projects in the past, although not your novels -- what were the major pluses and minuses of collaborating on The Plain Janes?

Jim and I did talk before I started writing. We talked more about the emotional state of the girls, I told him a lot about how they were feeling. Visually, I always knew that I wanted Theater Jane to be a little heavy and Polly (Sporty) Jane to have Frida Kahlo eyebrows and be very tall. He drew a lot of faces and stuff and then we would talk about them on the phone. We talked about people we knew in school and I'd say things like, "I think Cindy has a horse mouth, but a really good body!"

Once I saw the final girls we'd settled on all standing together (by the way, that first drawing he did of all of them you can see on the back cover of the book), I was over the moon, because I knew these girls. And I could tell what they would and wouldn't say or do. They were very real people to me. 

Collaborating on The Plain Janes was a dream. I love collaborating, and quite honestly, as an author you are always working with an editor, so someone is always weighing in. I like that. With the Janes, it is so nice to have a "partner in crime" in Jim Rugg. It's nice to have someone else who knows, cares and loves those girls as much as I do. I gotta say, I will work with Jim Rugg on anything, anytime. He's the best!

I've read in several interviews that, while you were thrilled to be asked to write for the Minx line, you also hope one day to write a superhero comic. Can you explain the appeal to you, as a writer and a comics fan, for that type of comic book and also what would you like to contribute to superhero comics that you think has been missing?

It's a question that everyone asks me! “Would you like to write a superhero comic book?” Well of course I would! I think it would be very interesting as a writer to get a chance to get my paws on characters I didn't create. I've never done that. In a way I think it would be incredibly hard, but I also think the fun challenge in it would be in having those set parameters and limitations of what they can and cannot do. Also, I grew up loving many of those iconic characters, you know, even wanting to marry them! (*cough* Batman Wolverine Superman *cough*) Or be them! I can't tell you how many times I played at being Wonder Woman or Lois Lane or Batgirl when I was growing up.  I don't know that anything is missing in comics per se; I certainly enjoy reading superhero comics and they certainly have enough versions of all the characters that you can find one thread of one story that sings to you and your narrative code, but I guess I think maybe I could contribute my girly-ness and girly perspective.

Where would you like to go with The Plain Janes story in the future, and would you also like to write more realistic graphic novels for teens?

If I got to continue with the Janes I would like to explore more of how P.L.A.I.N. forms and informs the girls, how world events affect the day-to-day of growing up, how friendships are formed and solidified, and ask more questions about what it means to be cool. I also want to know what happens with John Doe. I am all for writing another realistic graphic novel for teens. I loved writing Janes. I loved writing in the comic book form. It was a pleasure and I hope I get to do lots and lots of it.

Switching to your novels, Beige is your first novel where the protagonist is not particularly creative (even Libby was creative in Queen of Cool). Did you consciously want to write a book that showed teens who might not consider themselves creative how they can be transformed -- or at the very least come to enjoy the creativeness in others? I also thought it was interesting that Katy is your most insecure character to date (not insecurely written, just very unsure of herself) and you were clear to show how confident Lake is (especially in the music store scene) and how Katy envies her confidence. Soooo -- do you think that creativity feeds confidence and is this something you are trying to convey to teen readers through your books (especially Beige)?

I wonder how your books reflect who you are. I know from your site and our own correspondence that you are a very creative person involved in many different creative endeavors. In the books that you write, are you actively trying to open more teens to creative lives or is this merely the only life you know? (It's the chicken/egg question.) In other words -- do you set out to write with some sort of template in your head about a creative teen like Egg (from Boy Proof) or Jane or Lake and then go from there or... are these the kind of people you know, thus these are the kinds of books you know how to write?

And broadening that question a bit -- do you think creativity is celebrated enough in YA literature? Should authors be focusing on more ways that teens can be individually creative and express themselves in unorthodox manners (like The PLAIN Janes)? How do you think such types of books help readers navigate through adolescence?

These are great questions. I am one of those people who actually think that pretty much everything is creative. I am the daughter of scientists and have a great many friends who do a plethora of things, not just the arts, although I do have a lot of those. I think that everybody can live creatively and I don't see any difference between say, math and ballet. I think someone can even make something traditionally not "arty," like being a business person, a kind of art form. I mean, my accountant was in a punk rock band! I suppose that one of the things that I try to do is to show how everything is creative, life is creative and you can live life creatively no matter who you are or what you do or what you like. And yes, I absolutely think that when you do that it feeds your confidence because you are looking at the world with a bright pair of eyes.

I think that creativity is celebrated in YA literature, and that there is a bunch of books that express that, mostly in books where people are thinking outside the box, whatever the box is. Here are some examples of great YA literature that celebrates creativity in my mind:

Dramarama by E. Lockhart, which is about drama and really finding out what and where your talent lies.

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, which I think is a creative approach to science by having Colin want to solve this riddle, and it makes math creative.

Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier, which makes the talent of magic creative.

Sabriel by Garth Nix -- I have always believed that the way that Sabriel uses magic is exactly the way that I feel when I am threading together a story. It's the closest thing to describing what I do when I write I have ever read. 

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn -- A wonderful book about music and how you can speak with music, communicate with music, and the feeling music gives you. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak -- The power of books and what they do and how they transform and touch us.

Have you always wanted to write a "music" novel? Boy Proof clearly celebrates your love for science fiction -- is Beige celebrating a similar long held love for music?

I have always wanted to write a "music" novel. The first novel I ever wrote, which is in a drawer, never to see the light of day, was a music novel called Chloe's Jam. It is very similar in spirit to Beige. I like to think of Beige as her twin sister. I always loved the way music made me feel. I loved being a part of that world, and yet I always felt a bit like an outsider because my friends were all, still all are, bigger music lovers than I am, and I really am transformed by music. Punk was always something that seemed mysterious to me until I realized that whatever you think is punk is punk. Just be who you are. Live truthfully. Ask questions. I love that!

And do you have a similar attachment to art -- or at least art journals like Jane has in The Plain Janes?

I do have an attachment to art in the sense that I can't do it and I am in awe of it and anyone who can think like that. When I was 16 years old I was in Belgium and I saw this art thing called "Chambres des Amis," which was basically a bunch of people who opened up their houses to artists who went in and created an art installation in the house, being inspired by it. It was one of the best things I ever saw. I love people who do surprising art. I love art that is involved. I love when it is something you can walk into. Or participate in. I love street art. I am in love with Banksy. I love him. I want to have coffee with him. I think visual art, public art, any art, is a way of touching something larger than life in all of us and capturing what it means to be truly human and moving around and trying to make sense of this world.

In terms of your characters, I've often wondered how you came up with Libby after writing about Egg in Boy Proof. Libby and Egg are so very different -- did you want to write about a cool girl after celebrating the ultimate uncool girl (who really turns out to be wickedly cool)? Was Libby a challenge for you? And following up on that -- which character (Egg, Libby, Katy, Lake or Jane) was the most challenging to get inside and make real?

If I were writing what had been comfortable for me, I would have written Queen of Cool from Tina's point of view because she's closer to who I really am. As a writer, though, I was interested in writing something that really challenged me. What I was really interested in was the question of “What is cool?” I thought Tina was cool but Libby had the more interesting journey, to go from being cool, to becoming truly cool.

I must admit that Katy from Beige was the most challenging character to get inside of. She is a very quiet character who is very withholding of her feelings. She also hates music, or rather, she thinks she does, and it was hard to try to understand a character who wasn't like me at all. I am much more like Lake. So when writing Katy, it was like having all these blind spots and sometimes I couldn't figure her out. She also made me sad, because she was so tightly wound. But that said, I adore her and I adore what happens to her and who she becomes.

And what do you have coming up next?

Right now, upcoming, I just started working on a new novel. It's brand spanking new and it is set in the early '80s, and I suppose that makes it "historical fiction." But I only have like 15 pages, so it's embryonic. Other than that I have a picture book called Grandma's Gloves coming out from Candlewick and an early chapter book series with them for really young readers that I am so excited about.