Thanks for joining us for Part 2 of YARN’s “Year of the Beasts” extravaganza. This time, Nate Powell interviews Cecil Castellucci. But just like last time, we’re featuring not-to-be-seen anywhere else early sketches for the book. It’s not every day you get a glimpse into the minds–and the sketchbook!–of two such amazing and important artists. Enjoy!
Nate: How do you balance the complexities of writing in so many forms (comics, prose, children’s books, stage productions, and music)? Even as a person dedicated to each of these outlets, do you identity primarily as a writer of any one of those forms?
Cecil: I identify as a story teller. I think that the way that I balance what seems like many forms is that I think of them all as being the same thing—a way to tell stories. You, as a visual artist, have pencils and inks and water colors and washes! I think of comics, prose, librettos, music or lyrics as just picking up a different tool to tell, or color, a story. I think that’s what makes me not freak out or feel scattered. I also really feel that a story tells you how it wants to be told. I think of it as my job to listen to the narrative and then try to tell it in the best way possible. Maybe that’s a little bit of the DIY indie rocker in me! I just figure even if I don’t know how to do it, I can do something. After all, three chords make a song!
Nate: “The Year of The Beasts” has an ambitious structure, with parallel prose and comics narratives linked only in considering the book as a whole, echoing each other between the lines. Do you feel that some otherwise well-done contemporary narratives (whether movies/TV, novels, or comics) tend to overexplain to their readers/viewers, or tend to underestimate their audience?
Cecil: You know, I think that there is also room for stories that spoon feed and I think there is room for those with ambitious structure. Goodness knows that I find those simplified overexplain-y stories whether they be books, comics, movies or tv shows to be necessary. Like the way chocolate is necessary. I live in Hollywood, and we all know that in Hollywood there are a lot of occurrences of oversimplification of stories. And that’s why I think that when something unique comes along, that trusts the audience, people get excited and people in suits get surprised. But I think that for the most part artists are willing to be braver and trust that the reader will come along for the ride no matter how ambitious a story is. Some people seek those kinds of stories, and they are out there.
But even in my own writing I find that in many of my drafts I have to cut the twelve times I say the same thing. It’s as though I don’t even trust that I’ve explained what I mean and have to overexplain what I’m writing to myself. It’s a hard balance to make sure you’ve given the reader a map but also let them wander in the wilds a bit. I think that there are many stories that do not overexplain and have faith that their audience is able to follow along.
Of course with “The Year of the Beasts” the intention is for people to read the book as a whole, but I really tried hard to make “Beasts” make sense if you read just the prose or just the comics if that’s where you are at. You just get more if you read the whole thing. And maybe that’s what well-done contemporary complex stories are supposed to do. You can see or read it on one level or you can see or read it on all levels. What one person might see as over explain-y might just sail right over someone else’s head unseen.
Nate: How important is dialogue and feedback from your audience? What kinds of personal impact or response have you received from your work, and how does that affect your approach to storytelling?
Cecil: I think dialogue and feedback has certain values. I like when I learn that “The Plain Janes” has started someone on their love of reading comic books. I love when a teenager tells me that one of my books got them through or let them talk to their mom in a better way than they had before. I’ve had a few people ask me what happened to Rose and Yrena in “Rose Sees Red” and I’m tempted to write a short story about them meeting up again 20 years later after Glasnost. But so far nothing has changed the way that I approach storytelling. I mean a lot of people say I write too short. That they’d like a little more. But a lot of times that is my style and I like to be very lean in my prose. “First Day on Earth” is sort of the culmination of that style with some chapters containing only one sentence. I wonder what it would be like if I were writing a long series. I think then it would be interesting or distracting in a different way.
Nate: Simply enough, what’s next on your creative agenda?
Cecil: Well, in the spring I’ve got a comic book for little kids called “Odd Duck” coming out on First Second and it’s illustrated by Sara Varon, whose work I adore! Everyone go read “Robot Dreams” and “Bake Sale!” And then next fall I have my first sci fi novel—the first of a duet—called “The Tin Star” coming out on Roaring Brook. I’m also starting to slowly write a new libretto for an opera with Andre Ristic, the composer with whom I wrote my other opera, “Les Aventures de Madame Merveille.” I’m also continuing on with my first conceptual art project, the literary diaspora, which is a mail-based, visual and text-based project that I am having a lot of fun with. And then I’ve got a million other things that I want to get to. More stories! All sorts!
YARN: Thanks for Nate & Cecil for this extraordinary opportunity to listen in on the shop talk of two awesome artists! Good luck with “The Year of the Beasts”!
For their bios and other cool info on Cecil and Nate, see Part 1. And if you can’t get enough of Cecil on YARN, check out her dystopian retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, “To Grandmother’s House” (in case you hadn’t already!).