Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Author Interview: Amy Ignatow

by Jennifer Sheffield

Hi, Amy! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. I've loved following the adventures of Lydia and Julie through the five books currently making up the Popularity Papers, and I'm looking forward to the sixth!

What prompted you to write about kids in this age group? What do you learn from them as they change and grow?

Before writing for middle grade I was writing a weekly web comic for adults called "Ig City." The comic got the attention of my literary agent who suggested that middle grade might be a good fit for my work. I had never before considered it but found myself really drawn to writing for kids and the ideas began to flow. Writing Lydia and Julie has made me think back on when I was their age and I feel incredibly grateful that I was lucky enough to have made wonderful friends. True friendship is incredibly important at any age but good friends are especially vital when you begin to take those first wobbly baby steps towards independence.

I can tell you've put in lots of time researching these books, particularly The Rocky Road Trip, with all its detail and Papa Dad's "fun facts". What specific research was required for each book? What parts have you liked or disliked?

Thank you for noticing! My husband is a research junkie, and in 2010 we drove from Philly to Denver and back, stopping in different cities to do book events and visit old friends (see the archives of my blog if you want to hear about what happened to us in St. Louis...) Mark had a ball preparing for the trip and printed out Fun Facts for every state that we visited, and that along with other trips that we've taken really inspired The Rocky Road Trip. But I also love learning about Norwegian folklore and Eskrima and London and nearly anything and everything. My brain is crammed with esoteric trivia for future stories (and for my own amusement).

I love Julie's and Lydia's families (and the way they seem to be family to each other), and I want to offer my personal thanks for Julie's two dads. Daddy and Papa Dad are important characters in all of the books, and I really appreciate the fact that they're accepted as given and unremarkable by most of Julie's peers and by most of her extended family. How did you decide to include them in the books, and what kinds of responses do you get from readers? Did you find any resistance during the publishing process?

For the story to work I needed Julie to be the sort of kid who feels no pressing need to venture beyond the comfort of her family and her best friend, so it made sense for Julie to be the adopted only child of two gay men. As anyone who has been through the process knows, it's difficult and expensive to adopt. It's even more difficult for a gay couple to adopt, so you've got these two amazing dads who have worked very hard and moved to the burbs to give their kid a great life. Julie is the center of their world and they're incredibly protective of her. Conversely, Lydia and her sister Melody have been raised by a single working mom (their father isn't introduced until the fourth book when [MINI SPOILER!] it's discovered that he's not very kind). With a gothy teenage sister who attracts all the attention by simply being her pierced self, Lydia has to work to get noticed, and drags Julie into her ambitions. This sets them on their quest to understand "popularity."

Could I have achieved these distinct personalities with more "traditional" families? Maybe. But even before I worked out all the reasons why, having a gay couple and a single mom just made sense for the story. I'm happy to say that Amulet never once balked at my decision to give Julie two fathers, and most readers are more interested in Lydia's hair color than they are in Julie's dads. I get the occasional basic question, Why does Julie have two fathers? and the rare unpleasant email, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EXPLAIN THIS TO MY INNOCENT CHILD? but on the whole most people don't think it's that big a deal. Gay couples are moving to the suburbs and having children and barbeques and yard sales and holiday parties and trouble finding a good gutter repair service like everyone else.

The bio in the fifth book mentions you spent some time as a back-up singer in a rock band. How long were you in the band? How old were you then? How did this experience shape Lydia and Julie's Awesomely Awful band? What was the age range of your audiences?

I was in two bands in my twenties. One was not so much of a band as a goofy acapella act, and we used to do open mic nights and also open for other bands. Despite our unwillingness to learn how to play instruments or read music we were actually quite good and were once invited to be guests on a Top 40 morning show. For a few years we also sang backup for a wonderful band called Todd Young & His Rock Band, but slowly drifted away when things like marriage and kids happened. Now Todd's kids hang out with mine. Maybe one day they'll start a band?

But the Macrame Owls in The Awesomely Awful Melodies are more akin to the garage bands I used to see when I was in high school--some cute boys abusing their guitars and our eardrums.

I like Julie and Lydia's friend Jen, whom I'm drawn to partly because of her quiet randomness and partly because of her name. How do you choose your characters' names?

I'm quite lazy about choosing names. Usually, if a name doesn't magically come to me I'll scroll through my friends on Facebook for inspiration. But I've learned that I have to be careful with that--the character of Jonathan Cravens is named after a couple of people who are very dear to me. He was kind of a benign presence in the second book but by the end of the third book he turned into a bit of a weenie, and I had some apologizing to do.

I'm so glad that you like the Jen character. She represents those lovely weirdos who even at a young age genuinely don't give a hoot about the whole popularity game. We could all be a little more like Jen.

Because Julie is such an excellent artist, I generally assume that her pictures are (with some obvious exceptions) reasonably accurate. How does her drawing style differ from yours? Are there ways in which you feel she depicts herself differently from the way she depicts others?

I think that Julie is secretly self-conscious about the size of her nose. There's no way it's actually that large. As for the style, if I were drawing it as me instead of as an 11-year-old I'd never use Crayola markers and pencils to color them in. It's a lot more work than just using ink or a computer. I need a helper monkey just to sharpen pencils.

Please tell us about your creative process. Do you work on the writing and the drawing together as you go, or sequentially? Does the story creation happen more in one mode than the other? How do you plan the pages and presentation?

First, I write a very detailed outline. My editor reads it and either gives me notes or a go-ahead. Then I write a script describing the text and the illustrations for the first twenty or so pages and when I'm done I start sketching out each page. Then I ink, then I color, then I write more, and sketch, and ink, and color, and the book begins to form. Once I'm done with the writing and the sketching and the inking and the coloring I scan everything, use the computer to fix mistakes, and then my editor gets a hold of it. Then revisions, and more revisions, and copy-edits, and discussions about the cover, and the title page, and polishing everything until it meets with everyone's approval.

And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:

1. What were your 3 favorite books from childhood/teen years?

The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber's Daughter, also by Astrid Lindgren, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt (which is definitely NOT a kid's book, but I was obsessed with it when I was a teenager) (still am, truth be told, with all three books)

2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?

Savvy, by Ingrid Law, is SO SO GOOD. Also Before You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead. But in all honesty, most of what I read nowadays is stuff like But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton (which I love).

3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?

This is sort of a tricky question because I tend to pick up influences like a great big sponge. But if pressed I'd say Gnomes, by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet (talk about your research journal), Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut, and Miss Piggy's Guide to Life.

Thank you for joining us!

Amy Ignatow is the author and illustrator of The Popularity Papers series. She is a graduate of Moore College of Art and Design and can fold many origami cranes. Amy lives in Philadelphia with her husband, Mark, their daughter, Anya, and their cat, Mathilda, who is an unrepentant gnawer of colored pencils.

Look for The Popularity Papers book 6: Love and Other Fiascos, coming out this October!

On July 16th, come check out Cordelia's upcoming interview with Jessica Leader, author of Nice and Mean.


Marie Elena Good said...

It helps to have a natural and endless sense of humor. Great interview!

Els Kushner said...

This is a great interview, and I'm fascinated to read about the origin of Julie's two dads! This series was a huge influence on me in writing THE PURIM SUPERHERO; the way that Amy presents Julie's family situation so matter-of-factly, and yet the dads' being gay isn't random but is relevant to the plot (especially in the first book) helped inspire me to write Nate's family the way I did. I'm especially grateful to Amy for that and am glad to get to say so here.

But really I just love everything about the books-- the friendship, the dads' jokes, Melanie's transformation, the Norwegian stuff-- just all of it.