After publishing The Monster on the Hill, a graphic novel, and The Life of Zarf, an illustrated middle grade series about a troll, cartoonist Rob Harrell has turned to writing prose with Wink, the story of Ross Maloy, a boy navigating middle school and a rare form of eye cancer. Harrell spoke with PW about the personal nature of his new book, his appreciation for editorial collaboration, and the cartoonists that inspire him.
Why did you decide to write this story, a fictional account of something you experienced in real life as an adult, from the perspective of a seventh grader?
When I went through my cancer experience, 14 years ago now, I was doing my comic strip Big Top. I continued to do the strip all through the treatments, and I always thought there was something there about humor and being forced to be funny every day. Writing the strip helped me. I kicked around the idea of writing a memoir or an adult novel. At one time, I considered doing a graphic novel or even having my characters from the strip go through it, but I never found the right tone or was happy with it.
Then my best friend’s daughter, who was a freshman in high school, found out she had cancer in her leg. She was a soccer player and it took her out from that. I was able to talk to her about it; it’s like we were both in this weird club. I saw how much she went through that I didn’t, especially in a social respect. She had some friends fall away, and it was pretty clear to me that it was because they didn’t know how to handle [her diagnosis]. In Wink, Ross has to wear a hat everywhere, which I had to do, too, but as a 35 year old it wasn’t that weird. I thought about how awkward that would be for a kid. I had just finished writing another middle grade novel, so it all kind of clicked.
This story is about kindness, but it’s also about anger. Why was it important to you that you depict Ross’s frustration and resentment?
One of the books that I read when I was going through cancer was Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. It’s a great book; it was just that, in its own weird way, it made me feel worse. Lance Armstrong goes at cancer like a superhuman. He has this take no prisoners, “I’m going to beat this thing” attitude. I think two days after his brain surgery, he went out and rode 50 miles on his bike. He just attacked it in this way that was meant to be inspiring, but, I wondered, where’s the part where he’s curled up on the couch crying? Or when it just all gets on top of you and you freak out? The anger is very real.
Humor is a trademark of your work. How did you strike a balance between funny and serious when writing Wink? Given the subject matter, did you find it more difficult to inject humor here than in your previous work?
I wanted to show the funny parts because it doesn’t seem like something that could be funny, but, when you’re going through something awful, it doesn’t turn off the funny part of your brain. You still see where things are ridiculous.
Striking that balance [between funny and serious] was the hardest part. I wanted Ross’s perspective on things to be entertaining; it’s a tough read if it’s just the awful stuff. But I got through it with a sense of humor, so I relived a lot of the stuff going through it with Ross. I tried to make the humor organic. Early on, I had a version [of Wink] that had more illustrations and jokier cartoons. It just didn’t feel right, so I decided to back off on the illustrations. In my Life of Zarf books there are around 400 illustrations; in Wink there are there more like 80. I didn’t want the humor to feel forced, I wanted to feel like it came from a genuine place. I don’t know how funny of a book it is or how sad of a book it is, I just told the story that felt right.
Once you found the right setting and tone, how long did it take to put this story to paper?
Wink took the longest of my books. I started working on my first version of it three years ago, but there were some false starts. Then I worked on it just with my agent for about a year.
I would work up a chunk and Dan [Lazar], my agent, would give me his thoughts. He’s a fantastic agent, but he’s also a great editor. He helped me see when I was losing sight of the core issues; he has an amazing ability to do that, as does my editor, Kate Harrison at Penguin. Whenever they make a suggestion, it’s always something that has been chewing at the back of my head, but they put it into words. I’d never want to write a book in seclusion; I like the process of working with others.
What was the most difficult part of writing this book?
The most difficult part was dredging through some awful memories. And I put Ross through some things that I didn’t go through, which felt a little bit mean at times. I’ll be honest, my wife had a hard time reading the book.
As a writer and illustrator who is working in novels, graphic novels, and comics, how does your creative process differ depending on format?
When I write a novel, like Wink, I work on a laptop and just write. I’ll make little notations where I might put in an illustration, but it’s all writing. When I work on a graphic novel or comic strip, I sketch it out, doing the writing as I sketch. So, the biggest difference is with the books because the writing and illustrating are completely separate.
Do you plot or plan beforehand?
I usually get the first third of the book planned, but I have no idea where I’m going from there. And then I get terrified and freak out and take long showers and think about it and then I just start writing. I guess I’m a pantser, but it would save me a lot of time and a lot of heartache if I would just plot out the whole book. I end up throwing a lot away.
What appeals to you about writing for children?
I think middle school is a particularly fun age to write about because the stakes always feel so high. Fitting in and being popular? Those things can drive a kid crazy! So much is happening in that three-year period. It’s when people really start becoming themselves and forming their own identity apart from their parents. It feels exciting and kind of dangerous; lives change in that small span.
And, then, having written comic strips for so long, I think my sense of humor is geared toward that age. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t want to write an adult novel or horror. And I came up with a couple creepy middle grade stories, but apparently, they’re a little too creepy.
Which illustrators or artists inspire you?
As a kid I loved Dr. Seuss and the comic Pogo by Walt Kelly, which I didn’t understand but loved for the artwork. I had a bunch of Charles Addams cartoon books that I got from my grandparents, too, and I loved those. It’s weird to name all cartoonists, but I think they really shaped my worldview.
I’m friends with a lot of cartoonists who went on to do middle grade books, so I’m inspired by them, too: Lincoln Peirce, Mark Tatulli, and Terri Libenson. It’s been inspiring to see graphic novels and hybrid novels become so prevalent.
Why did you make the jump from comics to novels, and how did being a professional cartoonist prepare you for the world of book publishing? Are there similarities or differences between the two?
When we ended my comic strip, Big Top, I scrambled for what to do next. I’d had five years of creating stories and punch lines and the art that goes with them, and I had been reading a lot of graphic novels. I thought, I want to try this. So, that’s why I did Monster on the Hill. I loved it. It was so hard, and it took so long, but I realized that the part I enjoyed most was the writing. I had always thought of myself as an artist who could write, but I started realizing that I liked the writing as much as the illustrating. I had friends like Stephan Pastis doing Timmy Failure and Michael Fry doing the Odd Squad books and it looked like so much fun. I felt like I had all the tools I needed, so I just jumped in with both feet. The Zarf books were so much fun. In my wildest dreams, someday I’ll get to write some more.
With a comic strip, you write it and it’s in the paper two weeks later. I feel like Wink has been done for so long, but, in publishing, it’s an interminable wait to get the story in people’s hands.
What’s next for you, after Wink?
I’m working on my next novel, which I think will be set at the same school as Wink, but I’m not sure how much I can say yet!
Wink by Rob Harrell. Dial, $16.99 Mar. 31 ISBN 978-1-984815-14-9