There’s a dense law book, rife with footnotes and legal jargon, inside Nicholas Gannon’s Brooklyn home, a daily reminder of his years toiling inside a Manhattan cubicle. “I look at it every morning to remind myself of what could happen if I don’t do my work,” the full-time author says.
So far, so good: Gannon, who penned and illustrated his debut YA novel, The Doldrums (HarperCollins, Sept.), over four years, has already finished the rough draft of the second book in the series and started the meticulous job of turning his imaginative world of adventure and friendship into sepia-and-color drawings.
After earning an art degree at Parsons School of Design, Gannon worked a brief stint at a “Podunk animation studio in Yonkers” for three months before he was fired. The next several years were spent trying to pay the bills with odd jobs, including a construction gig in upstate New York—where he first sketched Doldrums protagonist Archer B. Helmsley on a plank of wood—and later as a production assistant for a legal publisher back in the city for four years. The mindless tasks and manual labor “helped me save all my creative energy for nighttime,” Gannon says. “I sometimes miss that, to be perfectly honest.”
Since childhood, when he discovered Roald Dahl’s Matilda and first mimicked Jon Scieszka’s fractured fairy tales, Gannon has regarded narrative as an integral part of illustration. “I never saw illustration as something that stood on its own,” he says. “Ever since I was little, it always needed to have some kind of story behind it. I kind of needed a reason for why am I drawing this, who is this character?”
But for years those narratives existed only in Gannon’s mind. “I think it was more of an accident that I wrote a book,” he says. The Doldrums started as a series of stylized pencil renderings sprouting spontaneously in 2009— Adelaide’s wooden leg, for instance, was the product of a little girl with knee-high socks that had gone wrong. Instead of scrapping the sketch, Gannon turned the ill-fitting sock into a prosthetic. He started concocting stories to accompany his artwork with a series of faux newspapers published online. The website caught the eye of a few book publishers, and Gannon recalls being told, “We think you’re an illustrator, but we don’t think you’re a writer.” But literary agent Rebecca Sherman at Writers House disagreed, advising him to take down the site and focus on crafting the novel. “I had never written three pages before, let alone 300,” Gannon recalls. “It was kind of daunting. It was really her vote of confidence that made me do that.”
For years, Gannon worked in a vacuum, alone in his apartment and immersed in his imagination. “There were so many times I wanted to put my head through a wall,” he confides. “The moments of despair far outnumber the moments you go to bed thinking you’re a genius.” He turned down other illustration jobs and even avoided doodling or creating characters that didn’t fit into The Doldrums’ world. The drawings were a laborious task in their own right; each full-color spread took about two weeks to complete. “I’m just kind of a masochist, I suppose. I guess I tend to be a bit myopic. I get obsessive. I’m a method writer or something.”
Now that the book is in the hands of readers, the thrill of meeting young fans is tempered for Gannon by the fear of audience reaction. “They’re asking questions about the characters as if they’re real people,” he says. “It’s a kids’ book, but I have no children. I was kind of skeptical that they would like it.” To add to his doubts, The Doldrums was the first and only manuscript Gannon had completed. “It changes everything,” he says. “Having this private world and working on it secretly is one thing. Now having people reading it and commenting on it... it’s kind of horrifying to have the first thing you write be published. I just hope the writing gets better.”