Tuesday, November 18, 2008

WBBT Interview: Tony DiTerlizzi

Tony DiTerlizzi co-authored (with Holly Black) and illustrated the bestselling Spiderwick Chronicles. He also helped produce the movie based on that series. Other works include the picture books The Spider and the Fly and Jimmy Zangwow's Out-of-this-world Moonpie Adventure. His newest release is the book Kenny and the Dragon, which he both wrote and illustrated. You can visit him online at http://www.diterlizzi.com

I had the opportunity to meet Tony last month in California while he was on tour for his latest book, Kenny and the Dragon.

Tony posing for the camera. He's such a hilarious guy. :)

Tony drew a few sketches, illustrating the different types of dragons and how the dragon in his book originated. He then took requests and drew a couple of Spiderwick characters. Afterward, he gave them away and I was lucky enough to come away with the sketch of the "European Dragon."

He also read a passage from Kenny and the Dragon aloud to us.
It's the story of a young rabbit named Kenny whose life changes when a dragon is discovered in the hills near his home.

After having such a grand time at his signing, I was so happy to have the chance to interview Tony! I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

What was your inspiration for Kenny and the Dragon? How did you get the idea to retell The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame?

I have always loved the original story written over 100 years ago by Kenneth Grahame. What I soon found was that many people (children and adults alike) either couldn’t remember it, or simply did not know it at all. So I thought, “I will re-illustrate the original text”, which has been done before. (Michael Hague’s version is a favorite).

But my editor and I thought that perhaps the original text, as brilliant as it was, felt a little Victorian and may not grab a 21st century reader. So I began re-imaging it, not to replace the original story mind you, but to get it back on people’s brains again..almost like taking a classic, old Brothers Grimm tale and redoing it.

What do you and Kenny have in common? I'm thinking quite a bit, after hearing you talk about your childhood a little...?

I actually struggled a bit in trying to write the hero, Kenny. All the other characters I had a good feel for, but Kenny was tough. I wanted him to be “book smart” but not particular wise on the ways of the world. In the end, I realized he was an awful lot like me as a kid.

He loves knowledge and seeks like-minded peers, but feels a bit like an outcast to his town. This, I feel, is a fairly universal emotion and I soon realized that, though he was inspired by a younger me, many would be able to relate to him.

Honestly, I struggled a bit with the notion that he was so bookish. I am not a real big fan of reading a book that imparts the value of reading...that seems sort of redundant to me. So here, I illustrated the point that book knowledge can only get you so far in life, experience is just as important. Hopefully I pulled it off.

What was/is your collaborative process with Holly Black for The Spiderwick Chronicles like?

Holly and I abandon the usual “author/illustrator” roles when it comes to Spiderwick. Prior to working on these books, I had written picture books for a younger audience, and Hol had written her first teen novel (which I helped her get published). So the Spiderwick books were a great middle-ground for us to combine our storytelling talents.

Basically, we sit down and discuss the story for each book, as well as the overall plot for the series as a whole. We throw around a bunch of scenarios to allow us to use the old fairy folklore in a new, (hopefully) exciting way. Holly begins writing and I begin sketching, but along the way we share the process so that it feels as if the books are coming from one, unified source.

That’s why there is no “written by” or “illustrated by” credit on the books. We blurred the lines so much that it was hard to determine exact roles.

What's the best thing about collaborating vs. working solo? The hardest thing?

I feel that working in the fashion that was used in creating the Spiderwick books allows the collaborators to use all of their tricks, talents and point of view to create the best book possible. And doing so creates a final story that neither Holly nor I would create on our own – it truly is a hybrid.

For me, working solo is still quite a collaborative process involving my editor, Kevin; however my relationship with Kevin is very different than my working relationship with Holly.

Editorial notes generally ask things like “What exactly are you trying to say here? Please clarify” or “How would this character react in this situation?” . In the process with Holly, it is more like “What if Jared did this here?” or “I think Sandspur should have more page-time”. The editor’s notes usually ask question that aim to draw the answers out of the writer. With Holly, I can actually be much more specific with what I’d like to see....and sometimes we use it, sometimes we don’t. Oftentimes, it leads to creative discussion that produces a third, better option that (again) neither of us would have come up with on our own.

You and Holly both helped produce the Spiderwick Chronicles movie. What did that experience entail? How much say did you have in the creative process of adapting the books into a movie, in general?

We were prepared for the movie-making process to:

A. not happen at all
B. produce a crummy film

Fortunately, we were participatory in a film adaptation that (I feel) retained the spirit of the books. And that’s all an author can really hope for in this process.

After all, you are taking 5 books that equal a 400+ page novel, and condensing it into a 90-minute, 3-act structure. It is not an easy feat and things are going to change, scenes will be dropped or edited – it simply is the nature of the beast.

So my attitude towards the film-makers was: I make books, you make films – so do what you do best. We won’t tell you how to do your job, but we’ll be here to make sure that the end result feels like the books and is a fun movie to watch. And I think we accomplished that.

What that meant for Holly and I was that we were primarily consultants on the various scripts and treatments. Also, I was able to meet with Phil Tippett’s team, and the folks at Industrial Light & Magic, to convey my inspirations and general notes on all the sprites, goblins and trolls as they worked on creating them in the computer for all of the effects shots.

Lastly, I worked closely with Jim Bissell, who was the production designer on the movie. He and I had lengthy discussions about how the themes and motifs of the books could be integrated into the sets, costumes and props of the film. And you can really see that in action if you take a closer look. For instance, the notion of fairies being “spirits of nature” is woven all throughout the movie. From the oak-leaf wallpaper in the Spiderwick Estate, to the flowers embroidered on Mallory’s jean jacket, the theme of of man and nature’s relationship is everywhere.

What's on your to-read stack at the moment?

From time to time, I like to revisit books that I haven’t read in awhile to see them from an older, perhaps wiser, perspective. So, I just finished Dante’s “Inferno” from “The Divine Comedy”, then read “From the Crazy Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” (how’s that for diversity in books?). Also, I just read Jon Scieszka’s memoir “Knucklehead”, which was hilarious and reminded me of John Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” (you know, “You’ll shoot your eye out kid!”).

What are you working on next?

Coming up is the grand finale to “Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles”, titled the “Wyrm King”, which will be out next fall. Fall of ‘09 will also be the debut of a silly, nonsensical series of picture books that I created with my wife called “Adventure of Meno” which is visually a departure for me, I don’t even know if people will recognize the artwork as mine...

What's your favorite thing about being a writer? What's your favorite thing about being an illustrator?

My favorite thing for both roles is that I get to make a living doing essentially what I did as a kid. Coming up with imaginative, far out tales and drawing pictures for them. Seriously, I have been making up stories and creating little books since I was in grade school. I love a good story: whether someone tells it to me, or read it in a book, watch it on a movie or even play it in a cool video game.

So the fact that I get to be a part of this story-telling universe is truly a dream-come-true for me, and I hope I can continue doing it for as long as I’d like.

...also I get to make my own hours, which means I can sleep in if I want...and don’t have to sit in traffic to get to the office (since my studio is downstairs)...life is good.

Thank you ever so much, Tony!
Find the rest of today's Winter Blog Blast Tour interviews:

Ellen Dalow at Chasing Ray
Melissa Walker at Hip Writer Mama
Luisa Plaja at Bildungsroman
DM Cornish at Finding Wonderland
LJ Smith at The YA YA YAs
Kathleen Duey at Bookshelves of Doom


Jessica Burkhart said...

Wow, Erin! This is such a fantastic interview. :)

TadMack said...

It's so incredible to get to meet the guy in person, isn't it!? And I love his artwork. Spiderwick is one of the few YA/children's lit films I've actually seen that is really true to the spirit of the book -- and it was a treat to experience it. Yay, great interview, and I love his little self-portrait!

Beth Kephart said...

Wow. What glorious work.

(and, but of course, what a terrific interview)

Sherry said...

Woohoo! Thank you both for the interview. What a fun, talented guy.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

What a fabulous interview! Love his work. Thank you for this.

Z-Kids said...

Thanks for the great interview! Enjoyed it!

bestbookihavenotread said...

I loved Kenny and the Dragon, as well as the Spiderwick books. Thanks for letting us get a peek at a talented author and illustrator. He does look fun!

Priya said...

Awesome interview! I really enjoyed reading it.

Maribeth said...

Oooo fun! Great interview. :D

Tricia said...

Terrific interview, Erin! My seven-year old and I are reading Kenny and the Dragon right now, and we're loving it!

Kim Kasch said...

Love this art and the interview was so fun. I loved hearing about the hardest part being editor notes that say, "What are you trying to say here. Please clarify."

Shelf Elf said...

What an interview Erin! Cool that you got to meet him. He seems like lots of fun!

Melissa said...

A fun interview, Erin. I'll have to see if I can find Kenny and the Dragon. It sounds charming.

David K said...

Great interview! I especially liked the part about collaboration. That's really cool how an author and illustrator co-create a book.

Solvang Sherrie said...

Great interview! I read anything that has Tony's name on it. Jimmy Zangow, Spiderwick, it's all good. Thanks for the interview!

Traci said...

so cool Erin!