Cecil Castellucci left a dinner party one night in 2007 thinking about the phrase “odd duck”; it gave rise to a mental image of a duck with a teacup balanced on her head. No stranger to unconventional ideas, Castellucci has written comics, science fiction, and YA graphic novels. She named the duck Theodora and wrote her story in one stretch: “It just kind of exploded out of me,” she says. In it, Theodora forges a friendship with her freewheeling duck neighbor, Chad, who teaches her to see the beauty in being odd. Castellucci found a publisher, who in turn invited Sara Varon, the creator of Robot Dreams (Roaring Brook/First Second), to provide the artwork for Odd Duck. Castellucci and Varon quickly realized that Theodora’s tale would work better as a comic, but there were problems to solve first. PW spoke by conference call with Varon in Brooklyn and Castellucci on a train headed to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, to hear about how two self-proclaimed odd ducks combined forces to create an unconventional – and very funny – book.
How did the project start?
CC: I originally sold the book as an easy reader, and Sara was hired to do the spot illustrations for it. I’m a huge fan of hers, a huge evangelist for Robot Dreams. Once I found out that she was the illustrator, I told my editor that I thought there was potential for a more collaborative work. They were a little resistant. They just didn’t get what we wanted to do.
What did that look like?
CC: One of the fears I had was that they weren’t passing along what I said to Sara. I got the initial sketches, and something was wrong. What happened to all the suggestions I’d made? And it turned out that Sara was begging to talk to me, too.
SV: It felt like the editor was saying things [to Cecil that] I hadn’t said. I felt, “This can’t be what the author wanted. Can I just speak to the author?”
CC: Finally, we wore them down, and they said, “OK, fine, you can go ahead and talk to each other.” And Sara and I had this glorious, four-hour conversation where we just jammed. Then I wrote the editor a passionate letter that said they were making a terrible mistake. I said that I wrote comic books and Sara wrote comic books, and that we had an inherent language that we shared.
SV: Meanwhile, I was thinking, “Should I just publish this under a different name? Because I don’t like the changes they’re making….”
What was their objection to reconceiving it as a graphic novel?
CC: I think maybe they thought that if they threw out a lot of my words I would be offended. And that wasn’t so. I loved it as an easy reader, but once Sara did the thumbnails, the direction we had to go in was obvious.
And it was in the direction of a new publisher, it sounds like.
CC: Right. We were lucky. We got to take it to First Second. It’s one of my favorite comic book companies. All Sara’s graphic novels have been with them. They’re really trusting. We worked with Mark Siegel. He’s fantastic.
The way the story was going to look wasn’t clear to me at the beginning, especially since the format was really different. But once we started to work together it was clear that it was going to be fun – and a little crazy!
One nice thing about doing it as a graphic novel is that now it’s an all-ages book.
CC: Yeah, when Sara and I threw out all the words, I think that was one of the things we wordlessly agreed on! We wanted to do something a little kid could read with just the pictures; that an older kid could read with the words; and that adults could read and think “This is me!” about. Which Sara was really instrumental in doing.
SV: The pictures and the words should never tell the same story, so a lot of the writing had to come out. I recently reread the original story I received from Cecil. All the descriptions of feelings, all the reactions – all that stuff came out.
It sounds as if Sara got what the characters should look like from the get-go.
CC: Oh, yeah! When I got her initial sketches, I danced around my living room. I did a complete ballet. Chad’s feathers – he was a little more grey in the original than he is now. But basically it was absolutely perfect. And that’s how it is in general. I give her a structure but then she has to build the world around it. She would ask me questions, like “What kind of duck books does Theodora have on her shelf?” She didn’t change the story, but she added all the little asides. The cake. The egg replacer in Theodora’s kitchen. Sara put in things that were implied in the text. And she put things in to increase the idea of movement or feeling.
SV: Can I ask Cecil a question?
SV: Cecil, how does it usually go when you’re working with an illustrator?
CC: When I do a comic book? I usually give a loose description of a character, but I don’t say, “She looks like this,” because I’m a believer that the artist knows what she’s doing. The artist gives me a couple of sketches and we zero in on it. And can I ask Sara a question?
CC: Sara, when you designed Chad and Theodora, Chad changed a little bit. How did you feel them out? You nailed Theodora so well with the little hat and the bee and flowers.
SV: Well, I feel like a weirdo, you know – I’m a loner and I felt like I was Theodora right away. I read that you identified with Chad, but I felt like I didn’t know him so much, so he was a little harder. I’m always working on a couple of different things, so during the time that I was away from this project, I kind of figured him out a little bit better.
CC: Yes, I’m very, very Chad.
SV: You’re the duck with the colored feathers!
CC: That’s the thing about Theodora – weirdos don’t think they’re weird.
SV: Right! Sometimes you’re trying to be weird but it’s…
CC: …it’s not like you move through the world thinking that you’re odd. Anyway, Sara just kicked everything up to the next level. It didn’t bother me that she added words.
SV: You could have said, “This is my territory over here, and that’s your territory over there,” but Cecil is really open. I hadn’t had any illustrating experiences beside this one. I’d received offers to illustrate stories before and turned them down [because] I thought, “This is not something I can bring to life.”
How many books have you turned down?
SV: Maybe four or five. Two were about people, and I can’t draw people. But Cecil’s was about ducks, and I love ducks, and it was silly. I could find my way into it. I thumbnailed the whole book pretty quickly but it was kind of ugly at first; I was figuring it out. Then you pencil it and it’s a little easier, and then the next part, the color, that’s what takes a long time. That’s the part where you can sit and listen to the radio. When you’re drawing you have to focus, but when you’re inking it you can totally listen to the radio.
What are you working on now?
SV: I have four books in the beginnings stages with no titles yet. Two picture books for Roaring Brook, and two more books for First Second. Don’t expect anything anytime soon, though! I’m also working on an art show in Mexico City. It’s fun to do something different, and shows get put together much faster than books.
CC: I have a science fiction title, Tin Star, the first of a two-part series, coming from Roaring Brook next February, and a graphic novel about hobos that Joe Infurnari is doing the art for. It’s coming from Dark Horse Comics in the fall of 2014. And hey – it’s so nice to get a chance to talk to you, Sara. This gives me a chance to tell you – I think you’re a genius! Thank you very much for doing my book.
SV: Oh, thanks! I loved learning about writing, and taking things further. I learned a lot.
Odd Duck. Cecil Castellucci, illus. by Sara Varon. First Second, $15.99 (May) ISBN 978-1-59643-557-5