Emily S. Whitten: Chu’s Day with Neil Gaiman & Adam Rex
Last weekend, I was in New York City with the ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman and the extremely personable Adam Rex. Bestselling author and illustrator were in town to do a marathon signing at the delightful children’s book store Books of Wonder for Chu’s Day, their new children’s book. Although it was planned as only a signing (seeing as a million-billion people showed up), they did, in fact, decide to stand up on stepladders and do an impromptu reading of Chu’s Day first. It was exceptionally fun, with Neil, writer of the story, narrating the story and some illustrations, and Adam, the book’s illustrator, expertly doing Chu’s sneezes. (He’s very good at dramatic sneezing.)
They also answered some questions from the crowd, which is how we learned that Neil’s favorite picture books as a child included The Cat in the Hat Comes Back: “I didn’t have the first one, just the sequel,” he said, “so I thought, “‘Comes back?’ This is the first time I’ve met him! This is weird.” He was also a fan of the English Ladybird books, including Robin Hood, Snow White, and What to Look For in Autumn. Adam’s favorites included The Monster at the End of This Book (a favorite of mine, as well), which he proclaimed “an excellent postmodernist story, years ahead of its time;” as well as The Bike Lesson, a Berenstain Bears book; and Where the Wild Things Are.
I spoke with both author and illustrator during their NYC visit, and happily, have the pleasure of sharing those conversations with you now.
Interview with Neil Gaiman, author of Chu’s Day
On Twitter, the excellent cartoonist John Kovalic was saying it would be interesting to hear about the process of working with Adam Rex on Chu’s Day, and I agree. Please tell us a little about that.
Chu’s Day began when I was in China. It began with the Chinese telling me that none of my children’s picture books were in print in China, because they showed disrespect for authority, and children doing bad things and not being punished for it, and children being wiser than their adults; so they couldn’t be published in China. And I thought, I want to do a story that has all of that – and that the Chinese will like.
One of the things I’d loved most about being in China was actually having a panda sit on my lap, and going to a panda facility. I’m a sucker for pandas. So I was sitting around chewing this over in the back of my head, and then I pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote a story about a baby panda, using pretty much the words that are in the book. Then I got it home, and thought, “I don’t know how to write a children’s book, because the only way that I know how to do one of these normally would be like a comic script. But if I do it as a comic script, then it’s long and it’s big and it’s complicated and…let me do this the easy way.” The easy way for me was, I got a pen brush and a little book, and I drew the story out. Beat by beat, with the words that I wanted. Because I thought, “If I’m pitching this to a publisher, I want them to be able to see what it is.” So I did my drawings and they said yes, and once they said yes, then we had to find an artist.
And how did you end up with Adam?
Adam had been sort of crossing my path vaguely for many years, so I was kind of aware of him. In fact, he even crossed my path before I was aware of him crossing my path, because when he was an art student he gave me a Morpheus meeting the Kirby Sandman painting. After we were working together, he sent me a jpeg of it and said, “Do you remember this?” and I said, “Yes! That was in my house for a long time, and then it was auctioned, for the Fiddler’s Green (Sandman) convention, for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.” So he’d crossed my path, and every now and then I’d get a book from Adam, for a blurb, so I knew who he was. And I liked him. I’d never actually met him, but I liked his style and what he was doing.
Then I was talking to my agent, Merilee, and I said, “I have to find somebody who can draw really good animals. I have this vision; I know I want to do the world populated by animals, and I know they have to look like real animals. They can’t be cartoon animals; but they also have to do very funny, sort of human things.” And she said, “Well why don’t you go and look at Writers House [which is my agency]. We’re also representing illustrators these days. See if there are any illustrators on the website that you like.” So I looked, and thought, you know, Adam’s stuff is brilliant, and that’s absolutely perfect, so I asked Harpers if they’d be okay with Adam, and they loved the idea and said they’d ask him, and he said yes. And when he finished the book, we all looked at it and went, “Ohmygosh, this is great!” and I said, “Can I do another one?” and they said, “Sure,” so I signed a contract and Adam signed a contract to do another two Chu books.
The next one, which is already written, is called Chu’s First Day at School. And for the third one, I have two different ones in mind. I might want to do Chu Goes to the Beach, and I might want to do Chu’s Very Bad Day. The beach has some really surreal stuff in it. They’d both be a little bit older than the first Chu book, because the first Chu book is for kids who can barely read. You know, kids who get stuff read to them.
Are they being published in China?
There is definitely interest in China. I’m very much hoping that Chu’s Day will be published there. And that nobody’s actually going to notice that Chu doesn’t get punished, and he actually does kind of know more than his parents.
Where does Adam live, and how does that work when you’re working with an illustrator at a distance?
Arizona. It works pretty well. For Sandman, over the years, I would talk to people on the phone, and talk in email, and that all kind of works. Adam and I have actually never met. We’re meeting tomorrow morning for the first time, and then we’ll go over and start signing books and posters and things.
Since we’re speaking of Sandman; tell us about the new one. I just saw that someone has been reading the script for it, so I guess the first part is written now?
Yes, the first episode has finally been finished…probably about eight months late! Because I kept getting scared.
Well, it’s been years since you wrote the original series. I don’t even know exactly what this new story is about; do you want to talk about that?
No! I’m not telling anybody what it’s about! Other than, well, it begins before Sandman #1. Sandman #1 opens with Morpheus being captured; he’s traveled unimaginable distances, he’s dressed for war, and he’s exhausted. And one of the things that is kind of strange about Sandman is, I always thought a lot of people would want to know: why? Why was he dressed for war; where was he coming from? I kept waiting for people to go “Why? Why, tell us, for God’s sake!!” But nobody ever did! So I will be telling that story.
Well I will be excited to hear it, because when I first read it, I didn’t know you, so I couldn’t ask, but I did always wonder, “How did he end up there? You know; he’s Sandman, he’s Dream!”
He should not have been captured, exactly. And why was he dressed like that, and what was going on? So now people will find out.
Excellent. I can’t wait! So one more Chu’s Day question. The story is filled with talking animals. If you were a talking animal, what animal would you be and what would you talk about?
I would almost definitely be a large black cat. But what I would do is never talk when anybody had a microphone or a camera, or there was more than one person around; so it would always be deniable. Because the last thing you want to do if you’re a talking animal is talk in public, because at that point suddenly you’re a celebrity, and they’re taking you apart and they’re examining your brains…
What you want to do is just drive people nuts, by sort of padding over to somebody as they’re sitting there, you know, looking at their computer, and getting really, really upset about something not working; and you just sort of walk over, and you just say: “Ctrl+Alt+Delete.” And then you walk away. And they go, “What? What!! The cat is saying Ctrl+Alt+Delete, oh my God!”
That is truly Machiavellian. And awesome. (And thank you for the interview, Neil!)
Interview with Adam Rex, illustrator of Chu’s Day
Adam, tell me…is your last name really Rex?
It really is, yeah; I think I kind of lucked out. Everybody asks me if it’s a pen name; because it sounds like a pen name. Growing up, I didn’t think it was anything special, because I don’t think anyone ever thinks their name is anything special at that point, but now I realize it sounds kind of like a superhero alter ego.
It does! So when did you first start getting into drawing in the professional sense; and when you were a kid, were you always drawing?
Yeah, but you know, all kids start drawing at about the same age. I think all little kids are illustrators. They all draw, and they all draw to tell stories; so when people ask me, “When did you start drawing?” I feel like the real question is actually, “When did you stop drawing?” – and I’m good at it because I didn’t stop at the age of ten or twelve or fourteen like everybody else does.
At a very early age I decided I was going to be an artist when I grew up, because when I was about five years old, I overheard my older brother, who was eight at the time, complaining to our mom that it wasn’t fair that “Adam draws better than me even though he’s younger;” and I wasn’t at better than him at anything, so I just decided right then and there that this was what I would do. I don’t know that everybody gets that moment of clarity when they’re five! So I always wanted to be an artist. I didn’t really understand what that meant until I worked at a Waldenbooks when I was a teenager and kind of fell in love with picture books all over again. In my teen years I wanted to either do comics or picture books; anything that would let me synthesize telling stories and doing art.
When you first got started, did you do some work for comics, or did you start in picture books and stay there?
I never really did a whole lot of comics work. Where I actually got my start was in role playing and trading card games. I did a ton of stuff for D&D, and for Magic: The Gathering, and that’s what paid all my bills while I was trying to get into the kids’ book industry. Those were great clients to have, but what I really wanted to do was the kids’ stuff.
How did you end up doing the kids’ books?
It was persistence; but it was also lowering my bar a little bit. When I realized that nobody was giving me a book to work on, I started looking for work from the kids’ magazines, like Cricket and Spider, and that got me refreshing my portfolio with new pieces. I always think it’s important to refresh your portfolio with assignments that other people are giving you, because otherwise, you just tend to play to your own strengths, and you can be lazy with yourself. But it was actually a piece that I did for Cricket magazine that led directly to my getting my first picture book assignment. That was a book called The Dirty Cowboy, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and written by Amy Timberlake.
And when was that?
That came out in 2003. I got that assignment in 2001.
So you’ve been doing picture books for about twelve years now; and the latest is Chu’s Day, and you’ve signed on for two more Chu books?
Yes; Neil is on the short list of people I would drop everything for.
When you first got the job with Neil and Chu’s Day, what was the first thing you did when you sat down to think about how you were going to approach it?
This was kind of an unusual case, because Neil had actually sort of made a book dummy himself, where he had given some indication of where he thought the page breaks would be, and I don’t think I really messed with that too much. I may have stretched it out a little bit; or condensed certain parts. But usually when I sit down with a manuscript, I’m going through and drawing brackets around the sections of text, and deciding, “Okay, that’s a page; that’s a page; that’s a page,” and then I review it the first time, count them all up, and see if I actually ended up with a viable page count. All kids’ books are pretty much either 32 or 40 pages, so if you can’t make it work in that format, then you have to go back and try again. So I do that, and then once I figure out what text is going to go on each page, that’s followed by a bunch of really messy thumbnails; planning the whole book out on maybe one sheet of my sketchbook. Those sketches are so messy that really only I can tell what I’ve laid out there. And then it’s just refining from there. Larger messy sketches, and then a good sketch that goes off to the editor, and then the comments back, or lack of comments; and only then do I actually start painting.
I think my favorite part of the process is figuring out what all the characters are going to look like. So there are a lot of totally self-indulgent days of just character sketches. I realize I can spend way too much time doing that; so at some point I have to cut myself off.
When you got to the destruction scenes in Chu’s Day, what was your favorite part to draw?
I think I really enjoyed, not so much the actual action scenes, but the aftermath. Just the shell-shocked employees of and audience at the circus, with their various expressions. There’s a lion-tamer in the crowd who just has this soul-searching, thousand-mile stare. It’s clear he’s just, like, re-evaluating everything he ever thought about life and the universe. I think it was actually the reaction shot of everybody afterwards, after the dust settled, that was my favorite thing to draw.
I liked the gumball machine that was in mid-explosion. I like little details like that.
It’s funny you mention that, because I think my wife said the same thing. “That’s the sort of thing,” she said, “that I would have obsessed over. I would have wanted those gumballs as a little girl. I would have spent a lot of time looking at that gumball machine.”
Do you prefer drawing people or intelligent animals?
A little of both, really. I don’t know why I dig drawing animals in waistcoats and hats so much, but I really seem to enjoy it. It’s a total pleasure, because if you take certain liberties with panda bear anatomy, people are very forgiving. If you take the same liberties with a human being, people say, “That’s not right.” So it’s all the fun of drawing characters and getting at what’s important about each character, without having to worry too much about whether or not you got that perfect anatomy down.
You said you had originally been interested in comics. Do you want to stay with picture books? Do you want to keep branching out and do other things? And what’s your newest project? Well; I know you have the next two Chu books…
Right, another Chu project is coming. My first novel that I wrote actually has about fifteen pages of comics in it, that I just sort of shoehorned in there, and so one of my upcoming novels, which is a sequel to that one, will probably be the same way. Whether or not I actually ever commit to doing something like a genuine graphic novel, I don’t know. It’s really daunting. Although because I happen to be friends with Scott Allie over at Dark Horse, I did end up doing a cover to the Free Comic Book Day issue of The Guild.
Last question: One line of advice for young illustrators.
Keep your receipts.
That’s excellent advice. (And thank you for the interview, Adam!)
Well! I hope you all enjoyed these interviews…
But wait! There’s more! I also interviewed Neil regarding his myriad of other exciting projects! So if you’d like to read the rest of the Neil Gaiman interview, head on over to the DC Books and Authors Blog, an affiliate of The National Press Club, and check it out!
And until next time, Servo Lectio!
TUESDAY AFTERNOON: Michael Davis
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold