Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox’s debut picture book Llama Destroys the World features a sweet but naïve llama whose outsize appetite for cake has serious repercussions for the fate of the universe. The book is only the first among many forthcoming projects, including a series of graphic novels, several picture books, and a new adventure for Llama. The pair—who are also engaged—spoke with PW about collaboration, the power of humor, and, of course, food and llamas.
In addition to being a creative team, you’re engaged to be married. How did the two of you meet?
Fox: We met when I was in college, and I guess we sort of knew that we’re both creative people. We didn’t actually know we were going to get into publishing. I went to school for graphic design and illustration, so I took a children’s book illustration course. And we were dating at the time, so I had found this old manuscript for a folktale and I asked Jonathan to rewrite it, and so I guess that’s how our collaboration started. He rewrote it and I illustrated it and we were like, “Hey, this is actually really cool and really fun,” so we ended up self-publishing my college project and we got our foot in the door that way. [We] decided that we didn’t really want to continue self-publishing because that has its own set of challenges that we didn’t feel prepared to face, so that’s how we started getting into the industry together and [began] sending out an original manuscript to agencies.
Jonathan, do you have anything to add? Were you doing a lot of writing before this?
Stutzman: Yeah, I was. I went to undergrad and grad school for film and screenwriting and before that I’d always been interested in history and writing in general, short stories. I got some stuff published in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tiny Book of Tiny Stories and I had a blog where I was writing poetry every day. But, I think Heather really gave me the courage to actually go for it and send work out to try to find an agent. I would have never probably done that if it wasn’t for her. And a lot of times she says that’s the same for her. We feel very lucky and blessed that we get to spend our lives together and we found love, but we also found our dream job together.
What are some of the advantages of having a co-creator who is also your partner?
Stutzman: I guess since we’re around each other all the time, it’s very easy. Like Heather said, we’re both very creative and silly and weird, so it’s very easy to bounce ideas back and forth together. And for me, as a creative person, that’s one of the things I need—I need someone to be encouraging and excited about the things I come up with. I’m guessing it’s the same for you, Heather?
Fox: Well, I have never worked with another author besides Jonathan, so for me at least having that constant closeness working together is really beneficial because we tend to edit ourselves. I’ll give him some suggestions on the manuscript. He’ll give me some art suggestions. It’s kind of nice, too, because it’s pretty hands-on. I get to see the manuscript as it transforms and he gets to see my art as it progresses through its various stages.
You’re describing a highly collaborative writing and illustrating process. How much revision is typically involved?
Stutzman: I could revise forever. That’s one of the things Heather really encouraged me about: just getting work finished and then sending it. We revise a lot, and we want to make the best story we can, but we also know that we’ll never get anything done if we just keep revising and revising forever. We’ll give it to the hands of our agent, Elena [Giovinazzo, of Pippin Properties], or one of our amazing editors, and they will use their expertise to help us get it to where it ultimately needs to be. We’re always revising.
Can you talk a little bit more about how your backgrounds have influenced your work?
Fox: Having a graphic-design background has definitely helped me in my process. I feel like much of graphic design is about typography, and that has really influenced some of my work. Doing big letters, hand-drawn typography—I love doing that stuff. And just having a simplicity that’s reduced down and is kind of graphic, that’s definitely helped shape my style. What about you?
Stutzman: No matter what I’ve written, most of my stories have revolved around children’s stories. I’ve always gravitated toward those for some reason. Even in the films I was making, there were a lot of coming-of-age stories with actors eight, nine, 10 years old. Because [coming-of-age stories] are some of my favorite movies: E.T. and Pan’s Labyrinth. That transition from youth into the scary world of adulthood is really beautiful and human.
I’ve loved telling kids’ stories for a long time and I think filmmaking is such a visual medium that it really helped when I transitioned to writing picture books. It’s very similar in the way you tell stories with the transitions; the page turn is like an edit or a cut in a film. I storyboard while I’m writing just to help my mind see the whole book, just like I would when I was writing screenplays. So I definitely see the similarities there and it’s definitely helped me.
How has it been different working with an editor for your forthcoming books compared to the self-publishing process?
Fox: It’s been so helpful. I always get back notes on revisions of things that I never would have thought of doing and tiny details that slipped my mind. So that has been awesome, just seeing a book get to the best that it can be, because I definitely wouldn’t be able to get it to where it would be if I didn’t have the help and the good eyes of the editors.
Stutzman: Yeah, we feel so lucky to get to work with all of these amazing creative people. I didn’t really understand the process of what an editor or even a publishing team does. They help in so many ways that it almost feels like we’re making a film. It’s a very collaborative process. With self-publishing you just do everything yourself and you can’t make the best product because you have tunnel vision and you’re seeing the work from only a certain angle, so when you get all these perspectives and talents I think it really helps elevate the work.
Are you working primarily with the same editor, and what has that working relationship been like?
Fox: So far most of our books have been with Henry Holt, so we’ve worked with the same editor, which is really helpful for me and my work timeline because they know what I’m working on and what I have coming up and so I don’t really have overlap in my projects. Usually I do sketches, I do final art, and I get all that done, and then I start the next one. So it’s just this constant flow of work, which is really nice.
Stutzman: Christian Trimmer is our editor at Holt, and I have a few other editors because I have some books at other places. Christian brings so much energy and also kindness. He’s very talented and gives us a lot of help on the book. But also something that I think creative people need is that encouragement and push to be better, and he does that amazingly, as well as everyone else at Holt.
How did you choose a llama for your main character in Llama Destroys the World?
Fox: Well, the idea of llama came from the title first. You came up with the title.
Stutzman: Yeah, it’s weird—sometimes I’ll just have silly titles that come into my head and I’ll be like, “I wonder if that will make a book?” so I sometimes send them to Heather and she’ll do sketches. I’ll describe somewhat of a plot or a character and she’ll make the character come to life and that will encourage me to go then finish the manuscript. So I came up with the title Llama Destroys the World—I was like, “Oh, this is fun and kind of epic. I have no idea how he’ll destroy the world”—but I told Heather and she came up with these really hilarious, sweet pictures of this adorable llama. And I was like, “Oh this is wonderful, we can kind of play his naiveté and adorable, cute face with this destruction that’s going around that he doesn’t realize that he’s causing.” And I just think llamas are adorable, silly creatures. They look like they could do anything at any time, but they’re also sweet and innocent in a way, so I just thought it was this perfect juxtaposition with the end of the world.
You have another Llama book in the works, too, yes? Can you hint as to what’s in store for Llama in the follow-up?
Stutzman: Llama is up to his old ways of destruction and silliness. At this point, the working title is Llama Unleashes the Apocalypse. So he has a new friend, Alpaca, who comes into his life and because of some messes that Llama has created, he invites Alpaca to come and clean them up and it creates more disaster.
Does humor play a role in all of your books?
Fox: So far, yes. I think it’s been in most of them—well at least in ours that we do together. They’re usually the funny ones. You’re working on some that are more sweet with some other [publishers], but ours together are pretty funny.
Stutzman: I think Heather and I are both just very silly people in general so a lot of the ideas we come up with are the same and a lot of them hopefully are funny. But also, Heather’s style is so bright and cheery and adorable and cute. I know she can do books that are sweet and emotional, too, but oh man, her characterization is so lovely, it just cracks me up whenever I see the expressions of the character’s faces—so it encourages me to try to be funny.
You also have a series of books for older children in the works. What is that series about and how has your process been different for those books compared to your picture books?
Fox: That one is going to be a young reader graphic novel. I haven’t done a graphic novel before, so this is going to be a little bit different on my end, at least. Jonathan said he storyboards it out, which I think for me especially in this project is going to be really helpful. It’s nice to have that kind of relationship where I can see his thoughts actually drawn out. But so far I haven’t worked on it, so that’s going to be a learning experience, but I’m super excited about it.
Stutzman: For me, it’s definitely different compared to a picture book. For a comic series or graphic novel there is a certain pacing with the jokes and the story that’s a lot different than with picture books. I loved comics as a kid. I grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes and Garfield and Peanuts, so this is kind of an ode to all of those. I always wanted to be a comic artist, so this is really a dream for me to write a graphic novel series, and it just felt very natural when I was writing and storyboarding it out. You can take more character beats or pauses than you can in a picture book. You can show a little more detail with the characters.
How did you come to have so many books publishing all at once?
Fox: I guess we just have a lot of ideas for stuff!
Stutzman: I feel very lucky. I keep saying that, but I know it’s really hard to find an agent. It’s really hard to publish books. And I feel like things have clicked nicely from the beginning for us and we are very blessed to find people who love what we do and what we create. I was working as an independent filmmaker—a lot of corporate work and wedding videos—and it was very draining to me. I just wanted to tell stories, so the fact that Heather and I can go and sit down, create a story, and then have someone want to make it into a book that can go out into the world is invigorating to me. And I was like, “Let’s make all the books we can, before someone finds out that we’re, like, terrible.” Imposter syndrome, I hear, is a big thing. And that’s what I feel like. This is like a dream come true.
Fox: It’s a little different for me. I just came right out of college and then we were working on our first book. I never had to work in the corporate world and try to figure out my life that way, so for that I’m also very blessed. It’s like: work from home and illustrate and hang out with Jonathan and write books all day—it’s pretty sweet.
Do you have regular brainstorm sessions?
Fox: I feel like we do. We don’t usually have it scheduled, like, Mondays are brainstorm days. It just sort of happens organically.
Stutzman: Every day is a brainstorm day.
Sometimes I have to curb myself and be very deliberate, like where does our relationship as people begin compared to where our creative partnership is? Sometimes I’m too focused on stories and ideas and I’ll be like, “Okay, we’re out on a date here, I need to just relax.” Even though we both love work, it is work. It’s very time-consuming. To us it feels like fun, too, but there’s still a line there that you have to balance. We’re still figuring it out together. But we’re enjoying it a lot.
Since cake features so prominently in Llama Destroys the World—what kind of desserts you have planned for the wedding?
Fox: Doughnuts. The two of us aren’t huge fans of cake, actually, which is kind of weird. Cake is fun to draw—I love drawing cake. It can be so many different colors. It’s so beautiful. But we’re definitely more doughnut people, so we’ll be having a huge doughnut display at our wedding.
Stutzman: For my birthday I never ask for any cake, and this has been going on since I was a kid. My little sister will make me a doughnut cake; she’ll just stack doughnuts and put candles in it. And Heather has made me one or two of these as well. We’re not cake people. Llama is, though.
Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman, illus. by Heather Fox. Holt, $17.99 May 7 ISBN 978-1-250-30317-2