Before creating Fish Girl, neither David Wiesner nor Donna Jo Napoli had ever written a graphic novel. Their collaboration follows a girl whose sweet face and mermaid tail make her the main attraction of a seaside aquarium run by a mysterious man named Neptune, who is holding Fish Girl captive. With the help of a loyal octopus and a human girl, Fish Girl gathers the courage to question Neptune’s stories, to explore the outside world, and to find her own voice. The aquarium Wiesner imagined for the story is a star in its own right, a three-story brick house whose water-filled rooms and stairwells are filled with a menagerie of sea creatures. PW spoke with Wiesner and Napoli about what makes working on a graphic novel different from other kinds of writing, and why it’s important that this mermaid story wasn’t a romance.

Where did the story start? And how did you find each other?

David Wiesner: It grew out of an image, a visual idea which I can trace back to art school. It was the idea of a house, a row house, filled with water, full of fish. I tried to make a picture book out of it, but it felt bigger than that. I was watching the rise of the graphic novel, watching it move out of superhero stories and into other concepts. I grew up on comics; they’ve been an enormous influence. And I thought, “It would be neat to do this as a graphic novel.” And almost in the same sentence, I was thinking, “It would be neat to work with somebody.” Within a nanosecond I thought of Donna Jo. We’ve been friends for a long time. I was playing around with a mermaid or folk-tale based story, and she had written a book about a mermaid. Her writing goes into darker places than mine does. I said, “Do you want to do it?” And she said “Yes!” She answered without hesitation.

Donna Jo Napoli: David came over with a handful of drawings and spread them out and we talked for a while. Basically I just wanted to spend some time with the pictures. They were isolated images. It was as if someone had taken a photo album and torn the pages out. But I trusted David. Whatever detail he put into any picture, no matter how small, I took it as something that had to be there.

Can you give an example of the small details he included?

Napoli: Well, the octopus. When I was in college, MIT was down the road; Jerry Lettvin was a researcher there and he was doing work on the intelligence of the octopus. I attended some of his lectures and I was overwhelmed by some of the things he described. They had different personalities. He had an octopus that waited all night to squirt water at him the moment he opened the door in the morning.

Wiesner: There was a mermaid and there was a little drawing of Neptune sitting under water with a newspaper. I looked at what I had picked to show her, the things that looked like they were part of the same world, and I thought, all of this stuff doesn’t have to be there. But she wrote out the first draft—and it was all in there. Oh, my gosh, that was incredible!

Napoli: You have to understand the context: I think David is a genius. When his brain is putting something on the page, it can’t be an accident.

Wiesner: So it became a back-and-forth between us, with very long gaps, because Donna Jo writes fast and I work slow. The first thing we had to do is work out what is this [story] going to look like. Then I had to put what we’d talked about down on paper so we could look at it. That took months; it ended up at 300 pages. I was determined that it would be in full color. Color is really important to me. But 300 pages in color would have killed me....

Napoli: …And it would have cost $100.

Wiesner: So we asked how many pages could we have. And the answer was 200 pages. Well, 192, in the end. Then a lot of what we did was make those choices. There was a point at which Fish Girl goes out and has a little side episode, but at that point, the story turned out to be so emotional that stopping for that... we didn’t use it. There was a sequence that I loved that we had to cut where Mira carries the fish back and forth to the ocean in a bucket and takes the octopus with her so they can watch the ocean with her, and then she brings them all back. I hated to have to take it out.

Napoli: When I do a novel, I have the luxury of spending time with the person’s internal development and growth—their frustration and growth of the courage to face that frustration. But anything internal is very difficult if you’re trying to present it visually. It’s got to be connected with action at every second.

Did the team you worked with at Houghton have a lot of input, or did you work more independently?

Wiesner: I was the one person who saw the whole thing. Then I’d go back and forth with Donna Jo.

Napoli: [Editor] Dinah [Stevenson] asked a lot of the questions that we were asking ourselves. And rather than discussing her comments with her, I discussed them with David because they would have consequences for the story visually.

Wiesner: Dinah would say, “What’s happening in this picture? This is what the dialogue seems to be implying.” We had it in the story, but was it coming across in the pictures?

And who was the art director?

Wiesner: Carol Goldenberg. I’ve worked with her for a long time. And Donna McCarthy is head of production at Houghton. She was very integral to the work for different aspects: the paper, the trim size, where it would be printed—oh, and the rules around the panels… and the word balloons. We did bring in John Green for that (not that John Green), to make the word balloons and do the type. Carol is a master type person. She did all the technical work. She had to go out and buy three external hard drives to hold all the files. She worked above and beyond. It was heroic. It was frenzied.

The unfortunate thing is that making a graphic novel takes a huge amount of time. I would love to do more of these, but...There was a point at which I looked down and said, “OK, are we finished? Is this it?” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to make it.” It took a year. A seven-day-a-week thing.

I know you usually use many layers of watercolor built up on the paper, but you couldn’t do that here, could you?

Wiesner: One of the things that had been holding me up about attacking the graphic novel format was that I can’t paint it the way I usually do. I would love to have colored it digitally, but I’m not skilled at it. It would have added a big learning curve. So I did the drawings one and a half times as large as they are in the book in pencil, 2B pencil. I scanned those, and they gave me a nice, dark line. Then I shrank them down to print size. Then I did the watercolor. I knew I’d have to put the color down in a more immediate way. It’s a different look, but it’s still painterly.

What kind of research did you do for the story?

Wiesner: Well, I didn’t have an octopus. Do you know Schleich, those plastic animal figurines? It’s a German company. They’re fantastically detailed and accurate. Those and watching videos. Fish have been part of my work for years, so that was no problem. I built [a model of] the house so I could understand the interior spaces. Once I built it, though, I didn’t need to look at it anymore. And I brought back a bucket of sand from the Jersey Shore. I was really hot to use graphics from carnival sideshows. I got some great material, and then I got rid of it all. It was distracting.

Napoli: I couldn’t interview any mermaids, of course, but I did read about people who have been captured, and how they feel about their captors. They’re your captor, but they’re also your company. That person loves you and feeds you. It’s important. And I went to the shore a lot while I was writing. Every time I had to face a new question I went back to the shore. I wanted to hear the ocean. I wanted to smell the smells.

Did the format present other challenges?

Wiesner: You need the visual realization in a graphic novel. You have to have something you can see every step of the way. For the longest time Neptune lived in the house. But that meant that as she was coming out of the tank and exercising at night, we were going to have to explain why he didn’t hear things. I had to get him out of the house. That gave her the nights alone and this freedom to swim without being seen, and that added some nice imagery.

Napoli: Neptune did have some outside life, but we didn’t pursue that. I saw him as quite a pathetic character: a deluded, isolated person. I did see him as an abuser. But it was gorgeous to see the release that David gave to Fish Girl when she swam. The water was her prison, but at the same time, it was her joy.

Livia, the human girl who befriends Fish Girl, is a really interesting character.

Napoli: Right; the ally who helps her leave is not a romantic ally. That was important. Because romance is not the only way for somebody to find strength. I liked that relationship a lot, the relationship between Livia and Fish Girl. Livia knew in a profound way, even if she couldn’t say it verbally, that the abuse was tremendous. Children recognize horrendous things even if they don’t understand them fully.

Wiesner: Near the end, there’s that moment where Livia comes into the tank and swims with Mira [the name Livia gives Fish Girl], and I thought, “Isn’t that against the rules?” And then I thought “Yes! Of course it is! That’s just the kind of thing Livia would do.”

Napoli: I’m so glad you said that! There’s pain in the story but there’s joy in it, too. There’s a lot of gentle glory in the book. There’s joy associated with swimming. She’s graceful and it’s a joy to move in the water. Livia had to go in the water. She has to enter Fish Girl’s world. It has to go both ways. It’s part of complete acceptance. It’s a deep kind of loving.

Could the story be characterized as a retelling of “The Little Mermaid”?

Napoli: Boy, I never even thought of “The Little Mermaid,” not at all. We never considered doing a romance. I see her story as a coming-of-age story, but also a story of reclaiming what is hers. The story is very much about having a voice. How you figure out who you are. Especially if you’re a hybrid. The part of her that’s human has been denied, and information about her history has been denied. She’s reclaiming the right to that information.

I have never been partners on a project like this before. It was totally exciting. This is the most luminous dark story I’ve ever worked on.

Wiesner: Like the painting where Mira stands in front of the ocean with her arms out—the intensity of the joy of that. That’s the one that’s going to be yours, Donna Jo.

Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner, illus. by David Wiesner. Clarion, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-547-48393-1