Interview: Colleen AF Venable Pt. 1 [of 2]

Categories:  Interviews

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If you’ve been to an indie comics show in the past year or so, you likely know Colleen AF Venable as the woman behind the felt beards—both figuratively and literally, selling temporary hirsuitness for $2 a pop. (Those interested in pursing makeshift facial decoration would be advised to check out the following Lumberjack Day page, wherein Veneable lays down beardy nuggets of wisdom like, “I find gray and orange beards the funniest, but they should be made in moderation for maximum ridicuosity.)

For anyone inside the book industry, she has become best known as the designer for First Second Books, where she has since December 2008.

At this year’s MoCCA, however, Venable was present primarily in the capacity of an author, debuting her first published book, Guinea Pig Pet Shop Private Investigator #1: Hamster and Cheese. The 46-page kids book, illustrated by Stephanie Yue, follows the adventures of a surly guinea pig tasked with solving mysteries in the pet shop she calls home.

Is this your first book?

It’s my first real, someone-gave-me-money-for-work book.

You were doing minis.

I was doing minis, yeah, but I’m kind of in the school where it’s like, “this mini took me six hours. Oh sure, you can have it for $5.” I would always have five and then I would always sell out, and then I would just wander for the rest of the show. It was a nice system, other than the fact that it makes you kind of broke.

This is a kids book.

It is. It’s a super, super silly kids book. It’s a mystery series set in a pet shop. It’s a guinea pig and the “G” falls off her sign and everyone is convinced that she’s a private investigator [laughs]. So it’s really hyperactive.

I love things that are based entirely on puns.

The original title, which got shot down was “Leave me Provolone.”

A cheese-based mystery.

Yeah. A sandwich got stolen every day. The pet shop owner can’t tell the difference between any of the animals. He’s kind of my homage to Amelia Bedilia and The Stupids. So all of the tanks are labeled wrong. The hamsters think they’re koalas. And whenever he puts the animals back in the cage, he’ll put them in the wrong one. He’ll put the hamsters in the fish tank, and he mixes them up all the time.

That seems to be a theme in kids books, right? Do kids like absent-minded characters?

I think they like yelling when things are wrong. When I read this with kids, they’ll be like, “that’s not right!”

They like interacting with the book.

They like feeling like they’re smarter than the adults in the book [laughs]. I think it’s one of those kinds of things.

Was the “PI” pun what gave rise to the story?

It actually did. Carol Burrell, who was my editor on the book, we were at a movie theater, waiting for the previews to start, and she was talking about how Lerner wanted to do a really young mystery series, with a lot of animals. And I had just drank a lot of soda or something, and was just rambling ideas at her. About two weeks later, she sent me a book contract, and was like, “how does this sound?” I was like, “whaaaat?” I had no idea I was pitching books. I was just eating chocolate and talking.

Most people would have had too much to drink in that scenario.

Exactly. Mine was like, “I had too much chocolate!”

You were talking about mysteries.

And animals. And she was like, “how does this work?” And I was like, “what if the “G” falls of a guinea pig’s sign and everyone keeps bothering her. The thing that I find entertaining is characters that don’t really like other people, so the guinea pig hates everybody, basically. So it’s this reluctant thing, where all of the other animals love her to death, and she’s just trying to be left alone, which is why the original title was “Leave me Provolone.” But “provolone” is too big a word for children of this age. Though I still worked it in there at some point.

There’s a huge tendency to speak down to kids in the context of TV and books and art.

Yeah. I feel like, if you’re writing down to kids, you obviously haven’t had an awesome conversation with a seven-year-old in a while. They’re the most fun people to talk to. They totally get puns.

And they have no filter.

No! They say everything! I had someone ask me recently, “how do you get in the seven-year-old mindset.” And I was like, “oh crap, I think I’m always there.” How do you get in an adult mindset? I’m not sure about that. I can channel my inner eighty-year-old and my inner seven-year-old, but I haven’t figure out how to get my own age yet.

You’re a colorist for your day job?

I’m actually a designer, but I also do color work and lettering. At First Second, I am the design department. So pretty much anything that needs to be done, I do. Or I have some freelancers who work with me.

Did you design Hamster and Cheese?

I didn’t, actually, which is a weird thing.

You weren’t too dictatorial about it?

I am so hands-off. I didn’t even see the art until it was totally done.

You’re happy?

Oh my god, I’m thrilled. When they picked Stephanie [Yue], the only thing I knew of hers was, the mice doing Tai Chi, which are these super-fat mice doing martial art moves. It’s so cute! Her idea with the book was to make the hamsters as fat as possible. That’s the key to cuteness, a little cotton ball with legs sticking out.

That’s what hamsters actually look like.

It is. That was the only thing I was nervous out—at First Second, I get to choose the artists, and at Lerner, I don’t [laughs].

You’re pairing artists to writers at First Second?

I do. I help do that.

They don’t come in with their own?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’ll come in in pairs. Sometimes it’ll be a team of three or four people but most of the time we’ll get scripts and we’ll pair them up with an artist. We’ll do auditions of a couple of artists. It’s actually really fun.

I assume they get approval before you go ahead with it.

Yeah, definitely.

Did you have approval of Stephanie for this book?

Because Carol and I are such good friends, she mentioned Stephanie’s name, and I basically jumped up and down for an hour. And then she approached Stephanie. She technically gave approval, but I don’t think I was ever officially gave approval, but I was like, “yeah!” I had my seven-year-old self give approval.

That sounds pretty contractually binding.

Yeah, exactly.

How closely did you work with her? Did you just hand her a script?

I gave her a script, but I came from a playwriting background, so my scripts are really detailed. It’s like a paragraph of detail and then one word of dialog.

A lot of stage directions.

Yeah. And I usually panel out the pages. But even with that, she did these visual gags that killed me. I get so excited about writing something and then seeing someone take it that other level. Something that was only moderately funny.

In a sense she did some writing herself.

She totally did. There are a lot of little parts. There’s one scene in there where the hamster gets so excited his face turns totally manga.

[Concluded in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater