Writing, Reading, Inspiration, and DRAMA: An Interview with Raina Telgemeier by Dave Roman
Drama focuses on creative people who genuinely enjoy working behind the scenes (rather than in the spotlight). What do you think attracts people to that aspect of theater, and what were some of your inspirations to set a story backstage?
Not everyone wants the limelight. I was kind of a shy kid, very modest. I hated being looked at. Oral reports were the stuff of my nightmares. Stage crew is great for artistic people who enjoy spectacle, but also excel at technical work. And, you don’t have to be glamorous! Social misfits are welcome!
When I was a teenager, I came out of my shell a little, and did a lot of background/ensemble singing in school musical productions. In any given show, I might have spent 15 or 20 minutes total on the stage. That meant a lot of time backstage and in the green room, waiting for cues and goofing around. It’s an atmosphere that brings out interesting qualities in people. Some kids treat everything with total seriousness, while others are just there just to have fun. There are a lot of pranks and practical jokes. As a non-essential cast member, I was free to observe and enjoy.
I never did any tech work in high school, but I did help out a lot on my friends’ student films during art school. Making props, painting sets—it was a blast! My friend Adam was a seamstress (is there a male version of that word?) who had majored in production design, and spending time at his apartment, especially during Halloween costume season, was so great: thread, fabric, boning and batting everywhere. We spent much time pouring over the notions in the Garment District in New York, looking for just the right buttons. Adam also made my wedding dress a few years later! The intensity of craft that goes into theater, whether it’s professional or personal, is awe-inspiring. I also love how working on projects collectively really bonds you with your fellow crafters.
It has been a little over two years since the publication of Smile. In that time, you’ve traveled the country and met a lot of people! Have there been any special memories or experiences that particularly stuck with you?
In every city, I meet enthusiastic kids and their somewhat incredulous parents, who confide in me that their child was not a “reader” until now. I’ve seen graphic novels open doors for so many kids, turning them from non-readers into people who drag their parents to author events to get a book signed!
This past spring, I met a group of middle schoolers (and their fantastic school librarian) at a conference, and they wanted to know if and when a Smile movie was going to get made. I told them that it hasn’t been optioned by any film studios, and nothing is in the works—but that if they wanted to, they were welcome to make their own Smile movie. And they did! An ambitious girl named Charlotte became a first-time director, and filmed a 30-minute interpretation of Smile. I’ve only seen 5 minutes, but they absolutely blew me away.
With Smile being a memoir and Drama being an original work of fiction, what were the creative challenges that each presented? Do you have a preference moving forward?
They both have challenges and rewards. Kids are generally fascinated when they find out a story is true, while adults get caught up in how the story might have been stronger if it were fiction. I personally find writing memoirs very freeing: these are the facts, and it’s simply my job to tell them to you in a fun way. With fiction, there’s arguably more creative freedom, sure—but that can equal less certainty. Knowing readers will hold me to my choices and decisions as a storyteller kind of terrifies me. It will be interesting to see how what reader response to Drama is like. Ideally, I’d like to do more of both, I think!
In Drama, the main character Callie is always going back to her favorite book for inspiration. What books in your life have had a similar effect on you?
I love reading my favorite books over and over. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was my first big favorite, after having it read aloud to me by an early elementary school teacher. I still go back to it every few years. I also read my copies of The Baby-sitters Club and my Ramona books to shreds. The books I cherished the most, however, were my comic strip collections! My volumes of Calvin and Hobbes and For Better or For Worse are dog-eared and stained, from shoving them into my backpack and reading them at lunchtime in school. And when I read Barefoot Gen (at age 10), I made it my mission to share that book with everyone I knew, from my fifth grade teacher right on through friends from my senior year of high school. Its cover fell off and the binding wore out. My friend’s brother finally taped it all up for me. I have a newer copy, but I am still in love with my completely busted-up copy. The way I view it, the more destroyed a book is, the more it has been loved.
What’s the main thing you hope people will experience when reading one of your graphic novels?
My books are very personal to me, but it’s super rewarding when so many different types of people say they connect and identify with them. It takes me anywhere from two to five years to create a graphic novel from start to finish—I don’t cut corners, and each book is a labor of love. When a reader finishes one of my graphic novels, my hope is that they’ll want to read it again! And then, maybe they’ll seek out more graphic novels, and discover the same kind of joy I get from reading comics and sequential stories.
Dave Roman is the author of several graphic novels including Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity, Teen Boat! and Agnes Quill: An Anthology of Mystery. He has contributed stories to Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, Nursery Rhyme Comics, and worked as a comics editor for the groundbreaking Nickelodeon Magazine from 1998 to 2009. You can find him online at www.yaytime.com.
Raina Telgemeier grew up in San Francisco, but made her way to New York City when she was 22 to attend the School of Visual Arts as an Illustration and Cartooning student. She received her BFA in 2002, and has worked as a freelance artist ever since. She is the adapter and illustrator of four Baby-sitters Club graphic novels, the co-author of X-Men: Misfits, and the author-illustrator of the bestselling dental memoir graphic novel Smile, which recently won the Eisner Award for Best Publication for a Teen Audience. Smile was also an ALA Notable Book, a Kirkus Best Book of 2010, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards Honor title.
Raina lives in Queens, NY, with her cartoonist husband, Dave Roman.
ALL illustrations from Drama copyright 2012 by Raina Telgemeier. Used with permission from Scholastic/GRAPHIX.