What inspired you to create the Cat’s Cradle Series?
Ironically, it was inspired by a dog! You know those types of gentle giants that think they're tiny little lap dogs? My partner's family had the biggest, sweetest pit bull just like that. He had a habit of flopping down on top of me when I sat on the floor, and then refusing to get up. So one day as I'm lying there pinned to the floor, I plead with him that if he'll just get off of me, I'll take him to the land of giants where he can finally be a lap dog. The thought stuck with me, and over time it grew into this whole story about monsters, friendship and finding your true home.
What is your creative process? What does your creative process look like? Do you ever switch it up? Do you have any tips for breaking writer’s (or illustrator’s) block?
My stories start like a sprouting seed— one scene that excites me and grabs my attention. Everything grows from there, and my role is like a gardener's in a topiary— nurturing new shoots and pruning others, until I'm satisfied with the shape. The drawing will usually grow alongside the story, as I need to know what my characters look like. If I'm ever stuck drawing, I just sketch loosely until I find something interesting. Writer's block is harder to tackle for me, as I came to writing later than drawing, but I have developed a few techniques that help. If I'm stuck in a particular plot point, I'll sometimes try the opposite of what I originally intended: If I wanted my characters to escape, what if they get captured instead? I send all these feelers out and see if any take root.
What do you think draws readers to your work?
It's tough to get an outside perspective on your own work, but from the comments I get, I'd say that “charming spookiness” is one of the factors. Even when I try to make a monster downright scary, I can't seem to help making it cute somehow.
Outside of writing and illustrating, what do you like to do in your personal time?
I love treasure hunts! My own type of treasure that is— mushrooms and fossils. Where I live in the Ottawa region, we're lucky to have some pretty cool fossil deposits, and the trails in my village are full of weird mushrooms if you look for them.
What is a cause you care about?
Education. Education is so much more than preparing kids for the workforce— it's about making them creative, critical thinkers and good human beings.
Could you tell us about authors and illustrators who have inspired you?
I have a wide range of influences, from Calvin and Hobbes, to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½. Style-wise, I've been hugely influenced by Isabella Mazzanti and Matt Rockefeller.
What advice for do you have for aspiring authors and illustrators?
Create and share. Start putting your sketches or short stories out there, even if you think they're not quite ready yet. Participate in online writing or drawing challenges to get practice and reach a wider audience. And don't be afraid of trying out techniques and motifs you see in artists you love. When I was younger, I resisted looking at other artists too closely— as if I was "cheating", and that my style had to come purely from my imagination to be my own. But once I gave myself permission to learn from other artists, my style improved in leaps and bounds!
Graphic novels are captivating but a lot of work. What do you like best about the graphic format and what are the biggest challenges?
Comics are magic— they give the impression of action with just a few key drawings. They're the perfect blend of story and art, where both reinforce the other. The biggest challenge is exactly what you said— they're a lot of work!
What does your working space look like? What do you need in order to be productive?
Like a Victorian alternate reality, with a mix of thrifted antiques and giant computer screens. I LOVE old objects and paintings— they nurture my soul! And though I'm far from a neat freak, I keep my studio fairly tidy these days, as I find clutter distracting.
Talk to us about music. What are your favorite songs for writing? Do you have different favorite songs for illustrating? Why the difference? Do you have a theme song for yourself as a writing professional?
For writing I need wordless music, so classical is a first choice, along with some contemporary piano. I don't have just one theme song, but I have music to associate with particular times of the year. My music playlists are divided by seasons, with autumn and winter being more inspiring usually!
What has it been like working with Dunham Literary?
Amazing! I first met Jennie at a conference and connected instantly! I love her straightforward approach and her genuine love of books and stories. And it's great to have someone who's very organized to keep an eye on me, since I can be scatterbrained when left to my own devices.
What are your favorite moments of suspense or happiness in your upcoming book?
In the second book I introduce a young thief who's hiding a dark secret from Suri, my main character. I love the tension it creates when the audience knows something the others characters don't!
What are your favorite quotes and illustrations from the series so far?
I love drawing dynamic scenes and moody lighting. Because much of the action in The Mole King's Lair takes place in a cave, I got to play with colors to my heart's content!
How do you celebrate a book release?
By getting together with some of my writer friends, and rewarding myself with more books! I love getting books— maybe too much. We have bookshelves in every room and we're still running out of space!
Welcome to a new feature on the Dunham Literary Blog! Jennie and Anjanette will be sharing our thoughts from the industry insider perspective on books we read. Our first read is CAMP ZERO by Michelle Min Sterling, published by Atria Books. Erin Harris of Folio Literary Management represented the book, not us, but it's important for all of us - authors, agents, and editors - to read widely and to support all those involved in making books. When we talk about books, we foster connections with each other and we understand each other better.
Blurb from the Publisher:
“In remote northern Canada, a team led by a visionary American architect is breaking ground on a building project called Camp Zero, intended to be the beginning of a new way of life. A clever and determined young woman code-named Rose is offered a chance to join the Blooms, a group hired to entertain the men in camp—but her real mission is to secretly monitor the mercurial architect in charge. In return, she’ll receive a home for her climate-displaced Korean immigrant mother and herself.
Rose quickly secures the trust of her target, only to discover that everyone has a hidden agenda, and nothing is as it seems. Through skillfully braided perspectives, including those of a young professor longing to escape his wealthy family and an all-woman military research unit struggling for survival at a climate station, the fate of Camp Zero’s inhabitants reaches a stunning crescendo.
Atmospheric, fiercely original, and utterly gripping, Camp Zero is an electrifying page-turner and a masterful exploration of who and what will survive in a warming world, and how falling in love and building community can be the most daring acts of all.”
Why did we pick this book?
Jennie: I knew I wanted to read this book the first time I heard about it because the premise sounded great. It’s set in the not-too-distant future, which makes it feel like it’s on the edge of possible, yet the world described in the cover copy seems markedly different from ours today. I was also intrigued by the characters and how their lives would intersect, how their motivations would bring conflict.
I also chose this book in order to stay current with reading books that are popular. It became a bestseller instantly, so it’s striking a chord with many readers. As an agent, reading successful books is part of staying aware of the industry.
How did you feel about reading this book after Jennie chose it?
Anjanette: The Arctic setting certainly appealed to me as an Alaskan! I was also intrigued that this is set in the near-future, but still sounded dystopian. Those two things were enough to pique my curiosity, and I tend to gravitate toward upmarket and genre fiction. I love a fast-moving plot. Also, how about that gorgeous cover!
What do you think about the choice to tell the story from multiple pov?
Jennie: It’s ambitious to write a book from multiple perspectives, so as a reader I tend to be hesitant at the start. In this case, part of the drive in the story is to find out how the characters are connected. Also, the multiple perspectives makes the story transcend the individual characters by laying out a bigger, more significant narrative that overarches the individual characters.
Did the author accomplish what they set out to with multiple timeline structure?
Anjanette: I think that the way time was handled in this story added to the complexity in a positive way. The three povs are never confusing, and as the clues start to point toward their being multiple timelines as well, it increased tension and kept me turning pages. It was skillfully done.
Do we think that Dystopian novels will make a come back? Is this Dystopian? Or just near-future cli-fi?
Jennie: I’ve heard editors saying that right now they are tired of Dystopian stories with the perhaps too accurate joke that the shelf for Dystopian books should be renamed “Current Events.” That said, I think readers are drawn to explore the future despite how unsettling it can look. It can be tiring to read books without hope.
As with any type of story, readers, especially voracious readers, want stories to be fresh and to add something different to the stories that already exist.
Which characters are most relatable and why?
Anjanette: The chapters are narrated from three different perspectives – Rose, Grant, and White Alice. I found Grant to be the least developed character, and was happy with the role he ended up playing, though I could not relate to him. “White Alice” feels like a single entity even though it/she is comprised of multiple characters, which makes Rose feel like the primary protagonist. This is story is told through a feminist lens, so it makes sense that the women are in the forefront. All that stated, I was surprised to find myself relating to and most invested in a secondary character – The Barber. Perhaps it’s because he stands in for the majority, and for the “past.” He is less of a revolutionary than many of the characters, but is still trying to actively navigate his life and not settle for status quo. I enjoyed learning about the hidden parts of his life as the book progressed.
Is CAMP ZERO “plot-driven” or “character-driven?” Or an “issue book?”
Jennie: CAMP ZERO is a character-driven story. It’s speculative fiction because it’s set in the future and because all the characters face challenges which exist because of the situation of that future world. It stays true to the genre of speculative fiction by having several big plot twists. But, it’s not a plot-driven novel because the characters aren’t sacrificing themselves to accomplish a bigger, more important goal for society; they are following their individual motivations.
While much of the setting and characters’ situations rely on the issue of climate change, the characters in the book are not actively trying to address climate change with political activism, rebellious vandalism, or progressive science. The world ravaged by climate change is not more important than the characters, whereas if this were a plot-driven book, the opposite would be true.
Why do you think this became an instant bestseller?
Anjanette: CAMP ZERO blends a literary style and character-driven story with a fairly commercial plot. Those who enjoy genre fiction will gravitate toward its speculative elements, and those who prefer book club or literary fiction will find robust themes for discussion. The combination of the publishing weight behind the book (it was sold to multiple markets simultaneously, and backed by strong publishers), the gorgeous cover, and the fact that it was picked up for “Read with Jenna” before publication day set it up for success. And the book has a great hook!
Check back soon for our take on more popular books. And remember that reading widely is one of the best investments of time you can make as an author!
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