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

Categories:  Interviews


In this second–and final–part of our interview with the Guinea PI author, we discuss the importance of YA literature, the difficulty of shading a hamster, and how someone who stopped drawing in college started a career in comic books.

[Part One]

Was there anything [Stephanie Yu] added in the book that you were disappointed with?

I think the only thing she added that I was surprised about was, in my mind, I imagined the pet shop owner as a very, very old man. When we got it, he was a young guy. I guess I was thinking of it as him being more senile, but now he’s just really dumb. There was just a slight difference with that. Everything else I was really happy with.

Do you tend visualize things cinematically when you write? Do you see panels?

I really do. I see panels and a lot of times I’ll say, “I want this to be a long panel,” or, “I want this to be a circle with panels around it. I actually used to draw, but I stopped in college. I have an art degree, but I learned that I hated drawing.

You learned that you hated drawing?

Well, the thing is, I wanted to draw like [Yu] draws. I wanted to draw adorable characters. I’d sit down to draw a hamster and add a little bit of shading. And then, seven hours later, I’d still be shading the same hamster.

You were a little obsessive compulsive.

Yeah, if you give me a drapery, I can do it, but if you say, “draw a person out of your head, Colleen, I can’t do it.

And to do panel after panel—I can’t really wrap my head around how artists are able to do that.

Yeah, totally. And how the characters look the same at the beginning and the end. One thing that happens a lot at First Second—and any publisher that believes in revisions—when someone writes and draws a 300 page book, we make them draw the first 30 pages over again. Because the first 30 pages, the characters look nothing like they do on the last page.

Is there a sloppiness toward the end?

Actually, no, the characters are much better looking at the end of the book. They’ve gotten to know their characters. At first, they’re trying to find out what they look like, and then they start to really hone on certain things. I feel like you can’t really know your characters until you’re at least 40 pages in. Maybe with a shorter book you do… In this book, you know the character only five pages in.

As someone who stopped drawing years ago, how did you wind up in comics?

It’s funny—I didn’t step foot into a comic book shop until I was 27.

You were in college, drawing, but not reading comics.

I was reading newspaper comics and collections of old, defunct comics. They had a lot of Muppet collections, which were some random person who had drawn all of these comics based on the Muppets that I was obsessed with. And, of course, there was Calvin & Hobbes. I keep saying that that was the biggest comics influence of out entire generation of comics.

But it’s often overlooked. Perhaps because it’s a strip. Strips have been a bit marginalized. When people are citing their influences, you rarely hear them say, “Calvin & Hobbes and Maus.”

It should be!

What was it about that strip?

The jokes were above your head as a little kid, but you could always get something out of it. There were always really great visual gags. And you never really knew if Hobbes exists or not. There’s this overlying existential aspect to this adorable comic. It was just brilliant. I love humor. When people say that humor is hard to write, I have the exact opposite experience. I can’t write serious. When I try to, it sounds fake. I’m actually working on a long teen graphic novel, right now. This is really different than the 48 pages of super silliness. This is 200 pages of angsty teen issues.

An emo graphic novel.

It really is. But I wanted to tell this story because it really has meaning to me. I just want to get it out. No one’s does this that I know of. But then, as I started writing it, it just sort of turned into a comedy, accidentally. And the parts that were funny were the ones with emotional resonance. The parts where I was trying to be, like, “yeah, this is the point,” were horrible.

They were preachy?

It just sort of came across as, “hey, this is the point!”

Were you trying to prove to yourself that you could write something serious?

No, I think I always liked writing teen stuff. I like the whole super-angsty part. And, when you’re a teenager, the littlest things are the biggest things in the world. I kind of like the ridiculousness of it. But I finally figured out a balance between the comedy and the sad parts.

Why YA and kids books? You mentioned before that you can’t really break out of the childhood mindset. Is it a symptom of that?

Yeah, it’s partially that, but YA in particular is a genre that is so underrated by so many people. A lot of books that were published in England as YA books or adult books came over here and switched, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It’s an adult book here and a teen book in England.

I always say the only differences between teen and adult books is, first there’s a teen protagonist and second that there’s better editing. I swear that there are really passionate editors in teen books and in an adult book, it’s like, “yeah this is rambling for 200 pages, but we’re going to keep it.” In a teen book, they’ll get rid of that, because it ruins the story. I’ve always been into kid and teen stuff. And I feel like, if you’re going to have an impact on someone, it’s going to be during those years.

–Brian Heater