Monday, May 18, 2015

In Which I Interview The Amazing Adam Rex In The Run-Up To The 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference

Author/Illustrator and #LA15SCBWI Faculty Member Adam Rex

Note: Parenthetical Stage Directions are believed at your own risk.

Lee: Hey, Adam. I better start out with the question everyone wants to know… What will you be wearing to the Conference’s Saturday night “Sparkle & Shine Party?”

Adam: Oh. Huh. That’s definitely the theme, is it? (Lee nods.) Well, my kid’s preschool is doing a unit on glitter right now, so I’ll see if he can make a little lapel pin for me. Otherwise, maybe I’ll wear the suit I bought for the premiere of HOME? I have to find some other occasion for it or it’ll be the second most expensive single-use purchase I’ve ever made, after airline tickets.

The suit is Aubergine. That’s the name of the color if you pay enough. The same suit at Marshalls is called Eggplant.

Lee:  Just give me a moment to shake off the image of you dressed as a giant eggplant.

Okay, I can go on now. Your MG novel, The True Meaning Of Smekday, was made into a big Hollywood movie - a successful Hollywood movie. Anything you wish you’d known going into it that you can share with us?

Adam: Hmm. Well, nothing was kept from me. I was not mistreated by DreamWorks in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact—I was kept very much in the loop and consulted all along the way. (Lee looks on, pensively.)

I’m what you could call a reluctant optimist. I can’t help hoping for the best, even if I know it’s unrealistic. So I wouldn’t mind being able to get my 2011 self on the phone to say, “You know how you’re telling everyone that DreamWorks is probably going to change your story a lot, but even as you say it you don’t really believe it? Like, deep in your heart you think they’re going to just film your book like it’s a script, even though you signed a contract saying that they can essentially do whatever they want? They are going to substantially change the story. You’re still going to like their movie, but it IS going to feel like something almost totally different when they’re done with it.”

I’d make that call—because I’m a reluctant optimist—knowing full well that the 2011 me would hang up and think, “That guy seemed nice but he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

(Lee laughs for three minutes.)

Lee: For those who haven’t read it yet, there are comic-style panels and drawings throughout your latest Middle Grade novel, “Smek For President.” As someone who writes and illustrates, you have more tools in your toolbox. But how do you decide which tools to use when? Which parts of your story to describe in words and which to illustrate?

Adam: In the case of The True Meaning of Smekday, I actually backed myself into a corner with the illustrations. That book was ostensibly an overlong school essay written by my middle school-aged protagonist, so I decided that the illustrations therein could only be artwork that looked like it was feasibly done by an average twelve year-old, and photos she’d taken during the invasion. Those photos were really drawings made to look like they were old polaroids, of course. Does that make sense? (Lee nods, takes Adam’s hand.)

So those restrictions led me to establish that my alien J.Lo was a comics artist who helped out with some of the storytelling in places, and that opened up a whole new field in which I could talk about Boovish history and so forth. I was super excited about this, because back in the early 2000s this sort of prose/comics hybrid still seemed like a new idea. I thought the mixture in Smekday was really going to turn a lot of heads, because I didn’t realize that The Invention of Hugo Cabret was also going to come out that year. (Lee bites his lip in Clintonian sympathy.)

Anyway, the comics sections were some of my favorite parts to write, and they wouldn’t have worked as well in prose because half the time there was a real counterpoint between what the captions were saying and what the images were showing. It was an easy way to get through thirty thousand years of alien history in a handful of breezy pages.

By the time I was working on Smek for President, it was just de rigueur that I was going to do this again. I had a “Previously, in The True Meaning of Smekday” sort of recap to write, and that might have been really tedious in straight prose. I also realized, early on, that since this second book takes place on the new Boovish homeworld, I could use Boovish media to provide nice little bumpers that summed up the conflict and provided new information quickly. And why describe what’s happening on TV when I can show it?

I think there are a lot of things comics do better than prose and prose does better than comics. Prose is great for really slowing down and living inside a moment. And comics have always been fantastic when you want to present a ton of information instantly. I’m still figuring it all out.

Lee: Very cool. And I guess this is an expansion of that last question: as a storyteller you craft poems, picture books and novels… when you’re working out an idea, do you know right away what form it will take? Was there ever a Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich novel-in-verse draft? A True Meaning Of Smekday picture book dummy?

Adam: Yes! Actually, there was a version of Smekday that was a picture book manuscript. I was coming off of reading John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s picture book The Rabbits, and I wanted to do my own book about colonialism. Mine didn’t work at all as a picture book. So no, I don’t always know right away.

Lee: When you’re not the author, and you’re illustrating someone else’s words (like Mac Barnett's), I imagine it’s a fascinating process to add your voice, your vision to their story-so-far. How do you go about making it your story, too?

Adam: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned Mac, because he’s one of the greats for realizing that a picture book has to be borne equally on the shoulders of both the author and the illustrator. He does not over-write his manuscripts. I think he’s also in the enviable position to know that he’s going to get an illustrator he trusts, and indeed he even sometimes writes manuscripts with illustrators in mind. Most of us can’t do that, of course. But in a Barnett manuscript there’s plenty of room for the illustrator to stretch his or her legs.

Adam: How exactly do I go about making it my story too, then? I’m not sure how to answer that, except to say that illustrators have to remember that they're not illustrating the words of a story—they're illustrating the world in which the story takes place.

Lee: Wow. That sounded really wise. So wise, I'm gonna call it out in it's own special quote box:

"...illustrators have to remember that they're not illustrating the words of a story—they're illustrating the world in which the story takes place."
-Adam Rex
Lee: Okay, let's talk #LA15SCBWI. You’ll be giving a Friday July 31 Keynote, “How I Make Picture Books.” Can you give us a hint of what to expect?

Adam: Probably a lot of lies of omission. Like: it seems to be important to my process that I watch a lot of movie trailers on the internet, but I doubt I’ll get into that.

(Lee excuses himself, leaves the room, comes back forty-five minutes later wearing a different shirt like it’s no big deal.)

Lee: You’ll also be offering an illustrator workshop on Saturday August 1st, “Characters With Character.” Is that a hands-on session, where illustrators will try out techniques?

Adam: Yes, I’m going to bring along a lot of reference and talk about anatomy and some of my half-baked theories. We’ll draw and design a character together, the ownership of which will then probably have to be settled in arbitration.

Lee: Fun! And your second workshop is on Sunday afternoon, for writers and illustrators, “The 32 Things I’ve Learned Since I Got My First Book Published.” 32? Is that a lucky number? Or were you playing darts when Lin needed the title?

Adam: Darts. It’s still an open question whether I know 32 things. I’ll keep a tally as I work on the presentation—I may have to break up some compound sentences if I’m running short.

Lee: Speed Round!

Is coming up with the titles for your books hard or easy?

Adam: Easy.

Lee: A time machine appears in your backyard and, for one day you get to travel through time to a specific past or future. When is your destination?

Adam: Well, okay—first of all: we’re definitely saying that past-travel is possible in this hypothetical? Because, of course, the current thinking is that it would not be (with only outliers claiming otherwise, and even THEY’LL tell you that you could probably never travel back farther than the point in time at which the machine was originally turned on). No less than Stephen Hawking himself has embraced the notion of travel to the future but dismissed travel to the past as impossible, with the most simple but powerful evidence resting in the fact that we’ve never met anyone from the future.

So then my corollary to this would be to ask if we’re talking about a round-trip or just one way? Even if, by some miracle, I could travel to the past, then the “present” to which I’d return could not possibly the same one I left. We’re into quantum “many worlds” territory here and that’s not really my area but regardless, it’s terrifying. And yet any jump to the future would (again, according to current thinking) be a one way trip, and so the only way in which I could even conceive of taking such a trip is if I no longer had any Earthly concerns anchoring me to this time and place—and that’s more terrifying. No wife, no son; nothing to prevent me from taking a joyless joyride into the careless amnesia of the future.

I’m sorry. Did you just want me to say dinosaurs? (Lee nods.) Okay. Dinosaurs.

Lee: Dinosaurs is a great answer. Favorite Ice Cream Flavor?

Adam: When people ask my three year-old this he says brown, so I’m going to say brown.

(Lee smiles, transforms into a magnificent crimson bird and soars, just soars away until he’s only a red dash; a copyedit; a blemish on the face of God—and then he’s gone.)

And there you have it... Adam Rex. Interviewed. I'm gonna go eat some baba ghanoush now. That's uh... what they call expensive eggplant salad.

Wanna see Adam do his keynote thing and get a chance to take one (or both) of his amazing workshops? Join us at the 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, July 31-Aug 3. Details and registration here.

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