GeekDad Interview: Author-Illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi

Books People

Tony DiTerlizzi’s new book, A Hero for WondLa, was just released this week and he’s currently on his book tour. It’s a sequel to The Search for WondLa, and both books are great sci-fi stories for kids, with gorgeous illustrations and wonderful characters.

Tony DiTerlizzi
Photo provided by Tony DiTerlizzi.

I spoke with DiTerlizzi over Skype last week just before his tour began, and had a fun conversation about the WondLa series, being dads, technology and nature, and some of his sillier books.

The interview does include spoilers about both books (mostly Book One); I’ve omitted the biggest spoiler from Book Two in the transcript below but it is included in the audio. Listen to the interview here, or read on for some of the highlights. If you want to avoid the biggest spoilers, they appear between 29:15 to 32:00. (And apologies for the microphone fumbling sounds, and the poor intro-outro: we started talking right away and I never did an “official” beginning to the interview, and then after we finished and I stopped the recorder we ended up talking a bit longer about board games and parenting …)

It was a delight talking to Mr. DiTerlizzi and I probably could have gone on for another hour, but I figured he needed to rest up for his book tour. And, you know, to get to work on Book Three, because I can’t wait.

Liu: I’ve been reading the books out loud to my daughters. We finished The Search for WondLa on Monday evening and immediately started book two. So there was a seamless transition for them.

DiTerlizzi: That’s awesome! I don’t even know if I’ve done that. I think more like I’ve read the last couple of chapters of Book 1; I did that for a few days before I started getting into book two. How did it go? It’s kind of like watching the first Lord of the Rings movie and then immediately putting in the second, or Star Wars and then immediately putting in Empire. Does it flow well?

Liu: Yeah. There’s a couple things where I noticed in book two, especially toward the beginning, where you remind readers what happened. You refer to things that, if you’ve just read book one, you don’t necessarily need all the reminders right away. On the other hand, if it’s been a year, two years since the first book came out and you’re like, oh, what happened at the end? Then it’s good to have those reminders. It didn’t bother my kids at all. They’re five and eight. My eight-year-old pays more attention; she wants to know a little more: “Wait, what was that again?” My five-year-old is just sort of absorbing the whole thing in general. But they both love it — I can never stop. No matter when I stop it’s too early.

DiTerlizzi: Aw, that’s great. That’s a great compliment. My daughter, Sophia, will be five at the end of the month. I always know it’s a good sign if we’re reading and she says, “No, Dad, just go a little further!” That’s awesome. I’ve done shorter chapter books with Soph, but that’s awesome you guys are doing WondLa. Are you just doing a chapter a night kind of thing?

The Search for WondLaLiu: Yeah, roughly a chapter a night. … I just started with WondLa and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — I said, I’m going to try something different. I’m going to read the same book to both of you. It’s this great experience of having both of them experience the same world together. It’s been really fun. When I first read WondLa when it first came out I was worried that my older daughter would be a little too frightened by some of the scarier scenes.

Have you read WondLa to your daughter? Is she curious about this world that you’ve created, or how much does she know of it?

DiTerlizzi: She knows a lot of it, actually. She knows who all the characters all because she’s seen me working on it, and I’ve told her what it’s all about and I’ve read her bits and pieces of it. It’s not that I haven’t read it to her because I think she would be necessarily scared. I don’t know if she quite has the attention where she can sit through an entire chapter of it. We’re reading Frog and Toad Are Friends, and a lot of picture books.

There’s definitely some scary moments. I’m obviously very conscious on my part to put in those stories. You need that sense of danger for tension. I also think when you’re crafting a story, if you dilute one aspect, the balance of the story gets out of whack. You need these darker elements to make the brighter elements that much brighter, you know what I mean? What Besteel’s doing when he’s butchering the water bear needs to happen not just to show how real of a threat Besteel actually is, but also for the reader to understand — and for Eva to understand — how important life is. At this point everything has been virtual for her. She’s never even experienced death yet, let alone other living animals. So for her to see it and to see this kind of interaction, and even though he’s an alien it’s a very human thing that he’s doing, I wanted that impact of how it would affect Eva.

I think in real life when we’re facing death, that is when we come out on the other side of it, whether it’s death of a friend or a family member, you come out on the other side of the mourning cherishing your life that much more. That’s kind of what I was trying to do.

Liu: Do you have any test subjects that you use? Kids in particular. Because you’re writing for kids, do you have any kids that you test things on? Especially in this book, where you’re getting into very complicated human technologies — I know there are things my kids aren’t going to understand right away. I wondered how you decide what to put into the books.

DiTerlizzi: Honestly, when I’m making these, I always go back to myself. And not myself now, but myself when I was ten years old, nine years old. I think about the stuff I was really into, the stories that I love, the books that I loved reading, the films, the videogames… When I first set out to make a story, I think about “What does ten-year-old Tony want that old forty-year-old Tony can make now?” I have that luxury. With the success of Spiderwick, it’s allowed me to be able to have the freedom to really be able to tell the stories that I really wanted to tell, that I’ve always wanted to tell.

So I kind of go away in my mind and I’ll start mapping it out and then when I get to a comfort level I start sharing it with obviously my wife Angela — she reads everything along the way, she’s giving me feedback. But then I have friends. In fact there’s a gal who lives across the street from us here in Florida, Paige, she’ll be thirteen this year, and she read everything along the way. She’s a big avid reader, she’s read a lot of books, and so I was interested in what she thought. And she would totally tell me what she thought. She doesn’t hold back, which is great.

I do have a lot of other readers that read for different reasons. A really good friend of ours back in Massachusetts, Heidi Stemple. Heidi is Jane Yolen’s daughter, and Jane has written over 300 books for children and her daughter edited a lot of those, so Heidi is fantastic in giving me feedback and input. I had another friend Steve who writes a lot of fiction. He was our reader on the Spiderwick books and I had Steve read this. So I have kids but I also have adults who write and read a lot of children’s literature as well.

I never want to dumb it down. If there’s any simplification, it’s just a simplification to make sure that the reader understands the point that the character is trying to make. I never really pull punches with the vocabulary they use. And I try to make it so that Eva, who’s kind of our eyes to this whole thing feels the same way. So for example in Book One, when Zin’s talking to her, she doesn’t quite understand everything. In Book Two, when she’s watching all the programs with Cadmus, she admits that she doesn’t quite understand everything but she knows what he’s saying is kind of important, so you kind of pull bits and pieces out of it.

I did it that way because there were books that I loved when I was a kid that my parents read me, like Wizard of Oz, and The Hobbit, and Peter Pan, that when I went back and read them when I was older, I got something out of them that I didn’t get before. And then in college I read them again and got a little more out of them, and then now as a father reading them to my daughter … I was really shooting for that with this book: you get a little bit each time you re-read them. There’s a little more in there that you might’ve missed the first go-around.

A Hero for WondLaLiu: I know it’s like that reading a lot of these books that I read as a kid to my kids now. It’s great to see things from the perspective of being a parent. Peter Pan, for instance — I actually hadn’t read that as a kid, I was just familiar with the Disney movie like everyone else. But I read the book more recently, and I was like, “This is full of snark, really, about kids!” And it was really funny to me to see that sort of thing. And Calvin & Hobbes: it wasn’t until I became a parent and my daughter became obsessed with it that I thought, you know, the parents don’t really seem so much like caricatures anymore. They seem pretty reasonable.

DiTerlizzi: I know, it’s just so crazy, that flip that happens. When you’re a kid, you’re just seeing it from your perspective, and you don’t realize the other points of view so much. Kids are — at least, I was — I was a very “I, me” kind of focused on my own world and stuff. Peter Pan is a great example of that. I think that some stuff goes over their heads, they don’t even realize it until you’re older and you’re reading it. First of all, Tinkerbell tries to have Wendy killed, I remember that. There’s the weird sort of fairy orgy that happens around Peter Pan while he’s asleep. When I was a kid, my mom would’ve read that and I would not have even know what she was talking about. It wasn’t until I was in college, and I’m like, “Am I reading that right? Wait, is that — ? Okay…” I guess that was the thing, you know?

But to get back to your point: there is some edge; there are some darker bits; there is some, perhaps, vocabulary or subject bits that may fly over the younger readers’ heads. But I hope it’s the kind of thing where they don’t get lost, but more so when they come back to the story it’s a richer story for them.

And books kinda gotta bring it. That’s another big thing I have. I really feel like movies, and videogames, all the things that nine- and ten-year-olds are doing now, books have to be right up there with that stuff as far as edge, gritty, reality, however you want to spin it. I think you can’t dilute it with a book just because it’s a book for kids.

Liu: Speaking of movies and videogames … in book one, there’s a sense that the technology is very futuristic. Oh, wow, the Omnipod is so cool, and the Sanctuary and the holograms. And as Eva gets out there she starts realizing, oh, there are things that my technology can’t do. But at the same time it’s still very useful; it’s still stuff that she needs. And then in Book Two you gradually get this more sinister look at technology. I started feeling more of this nature versus technology tension. Are these reflections of your own feelings about technology?

Eva Nine sees the more sinister side of technology in A Hero for WondLa.

DiTerlizzi: Well, yeah, I think there’s parallels. This second book is all about adaptation, right? It’s about evolution and adaptation, and so this is nature adapting to survive, and the technology either adapting or failing to adapt to serve mankind’s needs. I don’t know if it offers answers. When I see how fast technology is advancing, my mind thinks of evolution and how organisms also have to evolve or adapt in order to, in their case, survive. Then for technology, I guess you would say survive, or at least remain relevant. In the case of Book Two, the statement is that the technology worked great in the microverse of New Attica, to make this kind of utopian world, but outside of that it wasn’t as helpful or as useful.

I think where it sits with me is that you need both. Or you don’t need both, but it’s nice to have both. It’s nice to be able to think with your brain and function in real life physically, but it’s also nice to have the technology to help you. I certainly am a person that, when I was a kid, I used to read the encyclopedia; now I read Wikipedia. I’m always online, researching things, and if something interests me I’m always going online and reading it. In my mind that’s how Eva is: she’s neither Muthr nor Rovender.

Rovender’s like, “I hate technology. I don’t want anything to do with it. I’m just gonna live off the land. I’m just gonna be one with the earth, and it’s all good. I have what I need right here.” And then you have Muthr, who was made of technology, completely reliant on technology. And Eva’s kind of right down the middle, which I think is kind of how I am. I think you can’t put your head in the ground and think that technology isn’t going to continue growing and become an active part — it is. It’s already such a huge part of our reality right now. But on the other hand, I think my inner fears that I’m working out as a parent with this kind of thing, is I’d hate for my daughter to become just a person who’s just texting all the time and playing videogames all the time, all the cool stuff that technology offers, and not just going outside and hiking or swimming or doing other stuff. I think that’s what I’m mulling through in these stories. I’m trying to find a comfortable place with how technology fits in our actual world, existing in reality.

Liu: Despite being a GeekDad writer, my kids actually get a lot less screen time than, I think, most of their friends, simply because I want them to play board games. I want them to play with Lego and go run around outside. Even though, admittedly, I was an indoor kid. There’s part of me that’s pushing myself to get outside with them, to be able to do things that are not just staring at a screen. Because I stare at a screen a lot.

There’s this talk of raising your kids as “digital natives,” growing up with digital literacy. And for me, I say, well, I’m not a digital native. I spend a lot of time with computers and I’m totally comfortable around iPads and new technology and I didn’t have to grow up immersed in it. I think there’s certainly no danger that my kids are not going to be able to use technology if I don’t have them using an iPad by the time they’re two.

DiTerlizzi: Exactly. You’re hitting the nail on the head. I’ll give you a perfect example: we went to Disney World last week and there was a parent pushing their kid in a stroller, in Disney World — in the middle of Disney World! — all the rides are going, and the kid had an iPhone and was just playing a game or watching TV on it, head down. I’m like, “You’re in DISNEY WORLD! You’re in DISNEY WORLD!” How much more stimulation can you possibly have? And the kid was just doing this [head down, playing game]. He was probably five, six years old. It wasn’t like it was a sullen teenager, “Oh, I’m too cool for this.” You’re the perfect age to be at Disney World, and you’re playing a video game.

And I get it! It’s easy sometimes when you’re out, or doing stuff, and my daughter gets antsy or whatever, it’s easy to just give her the phone and say, here, watch a TV show, or do whatever so mom and dad can have a nice dinner. But it’s more effort to say, hey, why don’t you be part of the conversation. Sophia loves board games too, we draw and paint a lot — she loves to sit and draw with me and my wife. So that interactivity is so key to me. I feel like, especially when they’re really young, if you don’t have those moments, you can’t get them back later when they’re more independent. That kind of stuff you’re talking about, like playing board games, even if it takes you out of your comfort zone to go and do stuff with them that they want to do, it’s really important. You get more enriched as a parent, too, to be able to experience that kind of stuff with them, because of them, that maybe you wouldn’t have done.

We’re probably off tangent a little bit, but I totally get what you’re saying.

Liu: Well, you know, we don’t have to spend the whole time talking about the book, either.

DiTerlizzi: Just being dads!

Liu: Yeah, that’d be great.

DiTerlizzi: I mean, definitely all of the WondLa books have been me as a parent trying to figure out how … I mean, there’s so much that I want it to be about an adult active in a child’s life, and these parental figures, whether it’s Muthr in the first one, or now how Rovender has kind of become Eva’s father. And it’s me. It’s me trying to suss through and feel my way as a parent for my daughter before we let our kids go into the world, and they’ve gotta do it on their own. You’re always there for them, but at a certain point they become completely independent of us. So I think that’s a lot of what I’m trying to work through in these stories.

Besteel, the villain from The Search for WondLa

The first book was a little more black and white. The villain, Besteel, was much more cut-and-dried. It was pretty obvious what sort of character he was. But then when she gets to the second book it gets a little more grey, right? Everyone kind of has their own self-interests, and neither of them is necessarily evil nor are they good. Now Eva is faced with this tough task of making moral decisions, having to live with the decisions she makes. And that’s life. That’s reality. I think it was a challenge for me as a writer, but I feel like I grew both as a person and a writer while I was working on it.

Liu: I asked my daughters if they had any questions for you. My older daughter, having only heard the first two chapters so far, asked, “Why is Hailey so mean?” Of course, at the end of the first book, it’s — gasp — there’s a human! He’s here to rescue her and take her home. And already in the first few chapters he’s acting a little strange. Why isn’t he … nice? So she’s asking about this. And at first I thought, oh, this is totally set up, he’s just gonna turn out to be this jerk, and he’s the foil. Later, when we meet so-and-so, we think, oooh, here’s the hero. This is the person that’s going to be the good guy. And I like how as you read you’re like, no, it’s not so simple. I liked the complexities of the characters, where they each have their own motivations and you start learning about their motivations, which lead to these actions that are good and bad depending on who you are. So I’m very curious about how my kids handle that, too.

This isn’t their first encounter with people who aren’t all good and aren’t all bad. But that isn’t what you tend to get in a lot of books. It is often pretty clear-cut who’s the bad guy. You don’t mourn for them when they die or get defeated. Whereas this one it’s very poignant when something happens. Do I want this character to survive? To succeed? Or do I want them to fail? It’s tough.

DiTerlizzi: And it was tough writing it. To rewind, I was very fascinated — we talked about Peter Pan a little, and also Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter… There’s a lot of books where the hero’s an orphan, they start out. It’s a great device because it frees the kids. The kid can go do everything without the parents being afraid if they’re all right. The kid becomes more this any kid: this can be any kid, any character, because they’re almost gypsy-like, a child of the world, you can be anywhere. But when I sat down to do the first book, I really wondered about the process of becoming an orphan. What does that do to a character? How does that impact a character?

So I actually ended up rewinding the whole thing. Originally Muthr, the robot, was going to perish in the beginning of the first book, when Besteel bombarded the Sanctuary. Okay, Eva, you’re an orphan now. Off you go, and go on your adventures. You’ll get over it; it’s just a robot. But then I thought, what if the whole book leads up to that moment where the character becomes the orphan? When I started to move forward into the second book, it informed so much emotionally how Eva would start to react to these other characters, especially — spoiler alert! — Eva Eight. How she would feel about, oh my gosh, I have this other person that was raised by Muthr in the same Sanctuary who’s kind of a weird, warped mirror reflection of Eva. She basically went and did everything, and in some ways you have to wonder if Besteel had never invaded Eva’s Sanctuary, would Eva Nine have ended up like Eva Eight? That’s the whole point of that.

And there’s a lot of that motif; there’s a lot of reflecting that happens. Eva sees herself in reflection many times in that book: she sees herself in the windshield before she goes to see Hailey. She sees herself when they’re in the middle of the arcade with the girls; she looks down and sees herself transformed. And then at the very end, after she drinks the water, she sees herself in the pool. So there’s a lot of that complicated transformation that’s going on with Eva.

Because I feel like when I was twelve, thirteen, that’s when all of that’s going on, and it’s really hard. You don’t even know yourself a hundred percent, but on top of that you don’t know who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy. Friends that you had maybe in elementary school are not so nice to you now in middle school. And people that you maybe didn’t know so well in elementary school, now you’re buddies in middle school. So there’s a lot of that going on while I was thinking about this.

Liu: How much of the story did you have planned out? Just now you mentioned you originally had Muthr dying at the beginning of Book One. How much of the world did you build? How much of the plot did you have when you started? Because I love at the end of Book Two, where you start finding out about the Heart of the Forest, which was referred to in Book One, and you start getting a sense of where all these weird creatures came from, and I love those little hints of things. I’m like: oh, I see that … but did you know that before?

DiTerlizzi: I knew a lot of it. Honestly, I had mapped out the three books, and the big beats. The big things that I thought were gonna happen: okay, this is what’s gonna happen in the first book, this is what’s gonna happen in the second book … and then I would kind of work through the chunks of the world building. Like I knew everything about the Sanctuaries and the HRP, had that all ironed out. I knew what happens in our real world during 2012, what’s going on, that leads up to the fictitious future that happens here. I had everything all figured with most of the technology and what happened.

And then I knew about the aliens. But what I didn’t know so much, I didn’t know Eva as a character yet. I just knew Eva as the hero, going through this wonderland or Wizard of Oz-type thing, but not her really emotionally. So that’s the gratifying bit. I’ve got my big mile markers that I’ve gotta hit, that I know are key, and now I’m actually on the journey going through these things, and how it affects Eva and Rovender and Muthr and Eva Eight.

There’s been surprises. I remember the chapter where Eva’s doing the truth bird in Faunus, and [And here Tony shares a huge spoiler from near the end of the book. If you’d like to hear it, it’s at 29:30 in the audio. I’ve picked up the transcript after the spoiler part.] I hadn’t even thought of it, it literally came while I was sitting at the keyboard, going, oh, that’s it! Okay, this all makes more sense now! I had an idea that everyone was bent because Rovender had turned his back on the village and left the village, but there had to be something more to it than that.

When that happened, it’s like rocket fuel to the end of the book… [a few more spoilers: 30:20].

So sometimes I got lucky like that. Other times I really had to work through it. Eva Eight in particular was incredibly hard for me to write. She’s very tricky. In fact, if you read the ARC [advance reader copy] versus the final book you’ll see amazing amounts of editing going on with Eva Eight. She becomes a little more condescending to Eva Nine, she speaks more like a person who’s never really had kids talking down to this kid. “You’re so naive. You don’t get it.” Not at all the way a mother would necessarily talk to her daughter.

Liu: There’s this sense that she wants to be Eva Nine’s mom, but clearly doesn’t know how to do it.

DiTerlizzi: What I came to understand is that Eva Eight is a lot like Cadmus, actually. She wants kind of the same things that Cadmus has created. She wants this insular, fantasy existence, where she lives in the Sanctuary, with or without Muthr, with Eva, and they’re just a happy little family, and it’s not gonna happen. Obviously, it doesn’t happen, and when it doesn’t, it breaks her, kind of. That I think is why, in some ways, she despises Cadmus so much, because Cadmus created that and exists within it successfully, and it drives her nuts. In a lot of ways.

WondLa Vision: steer the Bijou using the book and your webcam.

Liu: I wanted to be sure to hit the Augmented Reality, partly because I was thinking about this idea of the tension between the high-tech versus nature, getting out and doing things analog. I’m a paper book person myself; I like the weight of an actual physical book. But then there’s this AR, and now I can put this in front of my computer, and I can get the 3D maps, and now it’s not just a 3D map, but it’s a game. Which I’m very bad at.

DiTerlizzi: I can’t even do it! I had to have the programmers send me a Quicktime for my presentation for tour. I keep dying, and I’m like: can you just send me the thing from start to finish? Because I kept crashing into stuff. I’m horrible at it.

Liu: I wanted to ask you: what’s the impetus behind doing that, putting that into the book? What are you hoping for for this Augmented Reality?

DiTerlizzi: Well, I’m like you. I’m an old-fashioned person. I also could read everything I want on my iPad … and I don’t. I go and I buy the book. But I’m also the guy who still goes and buys CDs, too, and DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. I love media and I love having my media. And absolutely, with a book, I love the way a book feels, and especially a book like WondLa where the pictures are so integrated with the text. It’s such a big conscious design thing that doesn’t exist in the e-book version of it. That goes full circle back to what we were talking about, about the real world versus technology.

But I also know that a lot of kids love technology. And so if there can be a technological aspect that will get them to pick up the book? Then I’ll do it.

In the case of the first book, it was the map. I love a map. I’m a huge map person in my books. I love when you open up The Hobbit and there’s the map of Middle Earth right there. As a kid, I would go back and forth, and pinpoint where the character was going. Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, you can go on and on, Narnia, Phantom Tollbooth, all these books had these amazing maps in them. So what we thought was, with the first one, maybe we can do a 21st-century version of that. What would that be? So we did the pop-up map that actually shows the movement.

WondLa Map
Augmented Reality animated map from The Search for WondLa

So when we came around to the second one, we were kind of scratching our heads about what to do, what would be fun. You know, I love Star Wars, I love Hayao Miyazaki, and in all those my favorite scenes are always the flying scenes. I try to write them as best as I could in the book, but it’s not the same as visually being able to fly or see a flying sequence. So, what if we did this thing where you could fly Hailey’s ship? You’re Hailey, flying the Bijou. And we came up with these three scenarios where you get to fly the ship. And we thought, this is fun, it’s like a videogame, but it’s free. All you have to do is hold your book up. You don’t even have to hold the book up now; they’ve got it where you can print the Augmented Reality key and just play. And I just thought it was fun.

When we did the Spiderwick books, we had so many parents and teachers and librarians come up and say, “this is my son,” or “this is my daughter… they are a reluctant reader.” I didn’t even know what that term was, what it meant. Basically it’s self-explanatory: there’s a lot of kids who just aren’t inclined to picking up a book on their own and reading. So I was really touched and moved by the fact that Spiderwick was able to open doors for kids to become readers. Maybe all the books I want to make now are in that sweet spot. It’s that place where a child can read — they have the ability to read — and they’re reading, and they switch from reading a book because it’s on a reading list and they have to read it, to picking up a book and reading it because they want to read it. That’s a big moment! That’s where you become a reader or not a reader.

So if it means a 3D pop-up map or “Hey, if you hold this book up to your camera you can fly a spaceship,” I’m all for it. I’ll do that if that means they’ll become a reader. And as you saw, it’s just icing on the cake. None of it is integral to the story. If you don’t have the equipment and you can’t do it, it doesn’t take anything away from the story. It’s just simply more of an experience.

I love the fact that you’re actually playing a videogame by holding your book up. I think that’s kind of a cool, weird experience.

Liu: It’s a heavy hardcover! I’m like, my arms are getting tired!

DiTerlizzi: My arms are getting tired! For the promotion, they did these beautiful bookmarks and you can just hold the bookmark up and play with it. But, yes, I did the same exact thing where I’m like, unnnnh… the ship would start to sag down. Oh, here we go, now we’re back on track. But I’m just kinda doing this after a while: “My arms are tired! I don’t wanna fly…”

Liu: I know, my daughter was watching me. She didn’t realize I was steering the ship; she thought I was watching a movie, I guess. She’s like, “Huh. That person just keeps running into things.” I said, “Yeah. Yeah, that’s me.”

DiTerlizzi: “That person would be me.”

Eva Nine
Early Sketch of Eva Nine

Liu: I didn’t realize that it’s “eh-va” and not “ee-va.” I have a friend named Eva, and so it wasn’t until Book Two when Hailey makes mistakes and calls her “Ella” and “Emma” and I thought, “those don’t sound like ‘ee-va'” so I went and found your interview on The Today Show. I said, I gotta find out how it’s pronounced and, oh, it’s “eh-va.” So now I’m reading Book Two and I keep saying “ee-va” but I’m trying to remember to say “eh-va.”

DiTerlizzi: I think I am the last person to know that it’s pronounced “ee-va” and not “eh-va.” I mean, I knew it. I think of Eva Longoria, there’s a very popular Eva that everyone knows, but for some reason when I was writing it I thought of “ev” and “eh-va” versus “ee-va” which is how everyone says her name. So you’re not alone. I think I’m the only one who’s off; everyone else is right. There’s a section even in Book One, when she first meets Rovender and she’s yelling down the chute, she’s like “My … name … is … Eh-va …” and it’s hyphenated, phonetically spelled out. But it’s okay. I don’t think it matters.

I’m sure if they make the movie, it’ll be “ee-va” in the movie.

Liu: I don’t know, maybe it’ll be “eh-va” and you’ll have little girls named “eh-va.”

DiTerlizzi: That’ll be weird. That would be strange. Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Liu: The other pronunciation question I had was Rovender’s little exclamation of “Oeeah!”

DiTerlizzi: “Ooee-yaah!” It’s kind of Rovender’s sagely: “Ooh. Ahh. Yes, yes, that’s good, I like that, I like what you’re doing.” I have voices in my head when I’m writing them and Rovender’s is definitely kind of a … it started off as kind of a growly, Liam Neeson-y type voice. But then it became a little more, almost how Harrison Ford sounds now, you know what I mean? Where he’s just kind of gruff, but then he has these soft moments where he’s speaking softly to her. But, yeah, it’s almost like a purr, “Ahhh, yes.”

Those are tricky, because I want the transcoder to not be so perfect. But then you want to avoid like the Jar Jar Binks kind of cheeseball vocabulary, too, right? It’s always a little tricky. I try to do it, but then not go too nuts with it.

Liu: I know there is a movie optioned. Do you know anything more about it? Is that something you would have any input into the making of the movie or is it out of your hands?

Early sketch of Rovender

DiTerlizzi: I’m definitely involved, probably in the same capacity that I was involved with the Spiderwick films. So I worked with Chase Palmer, who wrote the screenplay, on the adaptation, and he did a great adaptation. Paramount’s very happy with it, and we’re actually going out to directors with it right now. So far, so good. It can take a while; it’s a process. My hunch is when we find a director they’ll have notes and changes that they’ll want to make to the script. But I definitely had a lot of involvement, probably even more so than Spiderwick, with the adaptation of Book One into the script.

Certain things work well in a book that just don’t always work as well in a movie. For instance, Chase had to build up to the bad guy a little more. The back story on Besteel that is going to be fleshed out in Book Three is a little more fleshed out in the first film. Because it just made more sense to do it that way. In Book Three you find out more actually about Besteel, and again I had it all figured out. It didn’t make sense to put it into Book One: Eva never goes to the places where she would discover these things about Besteel in Book One. It made more sense to have it happen in Book Three, because there’s a big thing that happens in Book Three, there’s a big thing she finds out about Besteel. Which is kind of why he’s been haunting her in the second book.

Liu: How long do we have to wait until Book Three? I figure, I’m reading it out loud, so … you’ve got another month or so before my kids are going to start asking.

DiTerlizzi: I know! You know, it’s tough because for me, I’m doing double duty. I’m writing, and then when I’m done with the writing, I go [draw]. This one I started January of last year, and it took me about six months to write it, and then it took about another six months to finish the art. So after I go on tour — I leave this weekend — I’ll get started on the third one. And it’ll be out next fall; that’s when they wanted it. I’ve got a lot of stuff figured out, and I’ve got a lot of twists.

It’s a trick. You don’t want to just play everything out — you also want it to work as a story in and of itself. You want it to have its own excitement and build-up and not just be: “Okay, here’s what happened to this character, and here’s what happened to this character.” I learned that working with Holly on Spiderwick. We definitely faced that when we did the Spiderwick series. I’ll start it, and work on it until about this time next year, and then it’ll come out in the fall.

Liu: I’ll tell you, I’m already looking forward to it.

DiTerlizzi: Hey, well, that’s a good sign.

Liu: When I read the first one, and it was this massive four-part book, and it struck me that each of those parts is about the length of the chapter books that my daughter was reading at the time. I loved the fact that it was released as one book. I didn’t have to go, okay, I got this one book and I have to wait a year for the second part, and another year for the third part. But then: oh, it means it’s going to be a longer wait for Book Two. My kids are not at the age yet where they understand necessarily how long it takes to create a book. Because, for example, by the time we were reading Harry Potter, all of the books are there. All seven books are on the shelf. They didn’t know this experience of waiting.

There are books where she’ll blast through a book and say, okay, I’m ready for the next one, and I’ll give her the next one — okay, I’m ready for the next one. And when I don’t have that next one yet, she’s like, “What do you mean? Where is it? You need to go to the store and get it!” Well …

DiTerlizzi: He’s in a cave right now, making it! He’s in a blank room in Florida, writing it as fast as he can!

Liu: It’s fun that they’re starting to get that now, that excitement of, hey, here comes the next one! I love that they get as excited about that as I do.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, and about a book. You’re right: I could’ve done them shorter like the Spiderwick books, and by now we’d have five or six of them out, if you had taken each section and made it one little book. I consciously did not want to do that. I felt like we’d already done that with Spiderwick and I wanted the story to feel somewhat resolved but still have a lot of open ends that hopefully would get readers to want to read the subsequent stories. But enough of a meal where you’d go, “Okay, I’m satisfied. That was a good story for now, but I can’t wait to finish it to see where it all goes.”

And it’s a tough balancing act. You don’t want to take so long to do it that your readers either simply forget or just outgrow the books. “Ah, I’m too old for that now.” WondLa certainly falls right in that weird range where they could go from reading these sorts of stories to: “Aw, I’m not gonna read that, I’m gonna read YA now.” But on the other hand, I really wanted to take my time. I really wanted to be able to make everything as quality as I could, both in the writing and the art. And the art, I really tried to step up the illustration from the first book, make them more detailed, more complicated, show a lot more of Eva’s world. It’s always a bit of a race, a marathon, while I’m working on them. Hopefully in the end, everyone is like, “Wow, this is such a great quality, and it’s a great book, and my kids love it.” That’s what you hope for.

WondLa Sketch
Page from WondLa Sketchbook

Liu: Are there any plans to do a sketchbook, or a field guide, or just publishing sketches, your notes and sketches of character creation? I love seeing that. For the first book at Comic-Con they had given me the ARC, and then they had that little booklet showing your illustration process and ideas of making it look more like these old fairy tale illustrations. And I love that, but that’s not something you can go and get in a store, right?

DiTerlizzi: No, right. We did a sketchbook for the first book, and a sketchbook for the second one, which I’ve seen the digital version. I do have a fourth book which in my mind is a travelogue of Orbona. I just get to draw and paint everything, go completely nuts. Here’s the vocal transcoder and the diagram and how it works, here’s an oil-painted portrait of Rovender, and all this crazy cool stuff. That’s the game plan. That’s what we’d like to be able to do with it. In some ways it does follow the same model that we did with Spiderwick. We did the little Spiderwick books and then did the big field guide at the end. That’s what we want to do, when it’s all said and done.

Liu: Well, I’ll make room on my shelf for that, too.

DiTerlizzi: I hope so! Those are always great fun. Especially when we did the Spiderwick one, it needs a little bit of the story but it can really kind of go off and do its own thing, a lot of sideways information and you can just have a lot of fun with it. I’m looking forward to doing it. That’ll be fun.
G is for One Gzonk

Liu: My eight-year-old had one other question for you: in G Is for One Gzonk, which I have read probably … oh, I dunno, a million times or so, why did you spell your name wrong? That’s what she was wanting to know.

DiTerlizzi: Why am I “Tiny DiTerlooney”? I wanted as soon as you picked the book up, you knew it was gonna be a silly book. Didn’t care that it was, you know, my name printed perfectly on it. I wanted it to be this zany, kooky little kid version of me. Each time I do a book I always have this kind of slogan or mantra about the book, of what I think the book is. And that one, Gzonk, I remember very well: this is a Muppet Show skit that just goes horribly awry, like any good Muppet Show skit. It’s gonna start out with the best of intentions but then it’ll just get completely derailed and end in pure chaos. And that was such a fun book to do because of that.

Although now, as a parent, I wish it was, you know, shorter by half. It takes a while to get through that. Sophia now doesn’t want me to just read … I’m like [really fast] “here’sahungryhooflefoofle,” flipping through, and she’s like, “No, dad, what’s the little thing? What’s that say?” The little captions, I gotta read all the captions… What was I thinking? It takes forever to read!

Liu: It was one that, because it’s a picture book, my daughter — especially my five-year-old, she loved it… I mean, I love the book, it’s why we have it, but it’s like, oh, you want me to read that and another picture book and that one is really long!

DiTerlizzi: We would balance it and go: okay, go get one of your board books. We’ll read this big thing and then you get a really simple one. I know, I know, I know. But you fight that. I guess that’s the question: if I was doing Gzonk now, as a parent, would I have made it shorter? I guess I would have made some of it shorter? That’s an inherent problem with an alphabet book because you have so many passages, so many entries for each letter of the alphabet. I mean, obviously a book like Dr. Seuss’s ABC just flows so good, but even that one takes a while to read. You’re going through it but it still takes a while to get to the end.

I guess I would’ve shortened it a little bit but I don’t know how.

Liu: Cut it down to, like, twenty letters. I mean, who needs those extra six?

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, that would’ve been funny. “Where’s the rest?”

“They left. They got bored. They got bored with the book. Print another book now.” That would’ve been great.

I actually had an alternate ending on that, I remember this now, where the numbers — so the Woos are there, and the alphabet guys are there, and then I had all these shapes show up. And they’re like: “I’m circle!” “I’m triangle!” “I’m square!” And he’s just pulling out his hair…

The Woos are like: “That’s 500 hairs you just pulled out of your head!”

“And they’re the shape of a line!”

That was such a bonkers book. I had a lot of fun doing it. I needed it after doing all the intense Spiderwick stuff. And I’ll probably do the same thing after WondLa, cut loose and do a completely ridiculous book afterward.

Liu: Like the Meno ones!

DiTerlizzi: Yes, yes!

Liu: I love the cameos, the cameo of Yamagoo [in WondLa].

DiTerlizzi: Yes, Yamagoo. There’s a funny story — those Meno books were made — we had a friend when we lived in New York, Joe, who’s a make-up artist, and he looks, he is Meno. He has the perfect blond hair. And Yamagoo is me. I’m Yamagoo. You see the glasses? And my wife Angela was Wishi. And we were just going to self-publish these little joke books, and just give them to friends as these ridiculous silly books. I brought them into Simon & Schuster, and my editor at the time, Kevin, loved them. Jon Scieszka happened to be in the offices, and he was flipping through them was just cracking up, he’s like, “These are so funny, you guys have to publish these!”

We’re like, no, no, we’ll just print 500 of them and give them away, and they’re like, “No, the world needs to be able to own these books!” It was kind of like, all right, I’ll sign the contract and see what happens… It was great fun. Angela and I had so much fun making those books. And, um, they bombed horribly, sadly. It’s such a select group of people who get the humor, but we had so much fun making them. It was great. I’m glad I had the opportunity.

Liu: We’ve had fun with them. We have two of them, and my kids really enjoy those.

DiTerlizzi: Yeah, they’re ludicrous. There’s more cameos.

Liu: We have the David Hasselhoff.

DiTerlizzi: David Hasselhoff, yeah.

Liu: Well, it’s been about an hour so I should probably let you go…

DiTerlizzi: What?!

Liu: I mean, I could talk to you all day. This has been fun!

Liked it? Take a second to support GeekDad and GeekMom on Patreon!