Interview with Cecil Castellucci, Author of Odd Duck

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci & Sara Varon
Meet Theodora and Chad, ducks with character. Art by Sara Varon. Image source: First Second Books.

Odd Duck, a new graphic novel from First Second, contains two of my favorite pairings of the year: Theodora and Chad, two unusual ducks who discover they appreciate each other’s quirks as much as all the things they have in common; and Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon, the author and illustrator of this mirthful tale.

I first encountered Cecil through her books (Rose sees Red was a standout among the hundreds of YA novels I read as a CYBILs Award judge in 2010) and was delighted when our paths crossed at a couple of publishing-industry conventions the following year. Sara Varon’s Bake Sale wooed my entire family with its whimsical, sometimes wistful, art.

A Castellucci/Varon collaboration promised to be huge amounts of fun, and Odd Duck is exactly that. Thoughtful, comical, and full of heart, it has become one of my family’s favorite books of the year. I asked Cecil to share a glimpse behind the scenes at the creation of Odd Duck.

Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon

Melissa Wiley: Tell us how Odd Duck came to be. What sparked the story?

Cecil Castellucci: I was at a fancy book dinner in Washington DC. I think it was BEA. I was sitting next to Peter Reynolds (The Dot) and we started talking about this author. I said, “Yes, but they’re our odd duck.” Peter then turned to me and said that I should write a story called Odd Duck. I immediately said, “She will be called Theodora and she will swim with a teacup on her head!” By dessert I knew all about Chad, too. I went home and wrote the story. I just loved the idea of two odd people not knowing that they are the one that is odd.

MW: Did you know Sara Varon would be the artist, or was that a happy surprise? At what point did you see sketches?

CC: It was a happy surprise. I sold it as a three-book early picture book/easy reader to another publisher. They hired Sara to illustrate. She had done a sample of Theodora and Chad and I was in love. Being a HUGE Sara Varon fan, my first thought was, “Let’s get rid of my words and do something totally hybrid-y.” I saw the spot illustrations as thumbnails. I still thought that we should get rid of my words. Sara was game and we talked and came up with the book you see now and proposed it. There was a lot of resistance to that. They wanted it to fit in with other easy readers. Now I think it’s funny. They were trying to normalize a book about being odd! Ultimately, Sara and I were so in love with what we came up with that we parted ways with that publisher and very happily landed at First Second.

MW: It’s a perfect marriage. The hybrid style is one of my favorite things about the book–a visual echo of the mold-breaking theme. And it’s hugely appealing to my kids. Speaking of–you know I have a zillion kids at different ages. One thing that strikes me about Odd Duck is how wide an age range it speaks to. My just-turned-seven-year-old pores over it, belly laughs over it. My 12-year-old has read it half a dozen times already. And my older teens, 14 and 17, have enjoyed it too.

CC: I’m so glad to hear that! It’s only been out a week and I’ve already signed it for adults giving it to adults. When it comes to oddballs, there is no age. I think (I hope!) it’s the kind of book that any one can read at any age and relate to/recognize their inner Chad or Theodora. I have been telling people that this book is for 6-106.

Image source: First Second Books.
Image source: First Second Books.

MW: Do you think you’re an odd duck? (I think we’re all a bit odd one way or another.) What are some of your own quirks? What are some quirks you love in your friends?

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CC: Oh, I’m definitely an odd duck. But like Theodora, I think I’m totally normal and then I find myself surrounded by normal people and I’m like. “Oh. Right. I’m a weirdo.” I don’t know that what I think is odd about myself is actually what is odd about me! I think oddness is a thing that other people observe in you! You’ll have to ask my friends!

MW: Right! Like Theodora and Chad aren’t aware of their own oddness at first. I love that moment of recognition: Wait, no, I thought you were the odd one.

CC: Yeah. I think that there is something beautiful about accepting oddness in someone else and in ourselves. I think it’s a thing that fluctuates. I always forget and then I always remember. And when I’m challenged by a friend, I’m always confused and then thankful.

But I guess, as I make my toast from my 1930s toaster, that might be odd. I will say some things that I love about my odd friends. I love that my one friend, when he’s thinking, moves his fingers as though he is playing his thoughts like an instrument. I love that my other friend will go around the block to go across the street. I love that another friend eats everything of one thing on their plate before moving on to the next piece of food on their plate. So like, all the carrots. Then all the chicken. Then all the potatoes.

MW: I always love to hear about other authors’ processes. Can you tell us a bit about how you work? (I imagine it’s different for prose and comics.) Do you outline, do you write character sketches, are you a pour-it-out-and-polish-later writer or a painstaking, polish-as-you-go type? What’s your workspace like? Do you have a favorite working food or beverage? (I require large amounts of gummy bears to get through a first draft.)

CC: Well, my process for writing is totally different not only for prose and comics, but also each project! I never outline. I usually know what the beginning is and what the end is when I start a project and I might even write those two things down as sort of my guiding stars. My books usually end up where I think they will but maybe a little bit to the left of where I thought I would land. Then I start writing. I write tons and tons of scenes. Sometimes placeholders. (Something terrific will happen here!) (Dad–remember to stitch him in here!) (Big battle!) Then I start shuffling them around until I get a “skinny skeleton.” I do this in Scrivener, by the way, for those who are interested. I just like how I can change the order in there. Then I export the draft and revise it. My first skinny skeleton for a novel will be very skinny. All the bones are there, so I feel solid in my idea. I usually send that to my editor so that we can have a conversation, and that is my first editorial conversation. Then I fatten up the baby! I put that flesh on it and I revise, revise, revise.

MW: I get a little thrill of kinship when I hear any of my writer friends talk about using Scrivener. I adore it the way Theodora loves mango salsa.

CC: Scrivener is great! I mean, I actually don’t know how to use the program.  I’m too lazy to actually learn it. But for me, it’s a great way to start a project. I love that I can have many documents in one project. Melissa, do you want some mango salsa in exchange for walking me through the parts of it that I don’t use? 😀

MW: It’s a deal! Okay, when you write for comics, do you break it down by page and panel, or leave that up to the artist? If you do it, how detailed are you with the panel descriptions? Do you ever do thumbnails yourself? Do you ever tweak the dialogue once you see the art?

CC: With comics, if I’m doing something for DC, I’ll do full script. So panel and page descriptions. But if not with DC then I do open script–action, tone, emotional temperature, characters, dialogue, captions. That way it’s more of a colloboration with the excellent artists that I work with. Then at thumbnails we have a conversation. I end up throwing out a lot of my text at that point and refining what’s left. I think it works really well as comics is really a marriage between the story and the images and so I take care of the narrative part and the flow and the artist takes care of the pacing and panels. With comics, for me, it’s always a conversation between us. We’ll get rid of words and panels. Just because there isn’t a word in a silent panel doesn’t mean that you didn’t write it, if that makes any sense!

Theodora swims / Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci
Image source: First Second Books.

MW: What makes one story a prose story and another sequential art? Do you approach a story with the medium already in mind, or do you sometimes discover as you start working through the story that it would fit better in one medium or the other?

CC: I am a firm believer that a story tells you how it wants to be written, so I know pretty much from the get-go what medium I’m going to tell the story in. What I find helpful is that as I start to tell stories in many other ways (plays! movies! librettos! novels! short stories! comics!) is that they all have their strengths and weaknesses. And writing all sorts of stories helps me to write better stories in the different forms.

MW: What were your favorite books and comics as a kid? And we’d love to hear about your current reading life. Books you’ve recently enjoyed, favorite genres or pet subjects, hard copy or digital…

CC: I loved Tintin. Also Asterix and Lucky Luke. The Peanuts. Then of course there were my boyfriends, Batman and Superman. Then I raided my brother’s comics and discovered Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers (although I liked West Coast Avengers better). Then he found Vertigo and that was when I knew that maybe someday I would love to write comics. Current reading life! I am actually rereading Fables right now. I’m on volume 6. I recently moderated a panel with Cornelia Funke and read Fearless (book two in her Mirrorworld series) It was great, and there is a cool iPad app that goes along with it. I’m obsessed with vintage Pan Paperbacks and so I found one at a con of Georgette Heyer’s The Toll-Gate. She’s a fun read. I’m taking a Coursera course on Greek and Roman mythology right now, so I’m reading The Odyssey. Basically, I like paper books because I like to read in the bathtub, but I’m not against digital. I have a Kobo and an iPad and when I’m traveling it’s the best. I have a lot of “homework” reading for panels that I moderate, etc. So I try to balance that with only reading for joy and where my heart wants to go and what will nourish my own work. I kind of love it all.

MW: Can you tell us about your next project?

CC: I have two coming out next year! One is called Tin Star (Roaring Brook, Feb 2014) and it is book one of a two book sci fi series.  It’s about a human girl, Tula Bane, who gets abandoned on a space station during a galactic war. She’s the only human there.  Stuff happens.  And aliens!  Then in Fall ’14 I have a new graphic novel out on Dark Horse. It’s untitled right now, but it’s about two hobos, one young, one old, in 1932. It’s being illustrated by Joe Infurari.  I’m very excited about both of these books.

MW: I can’t wait to read them! All right, one last question for you: At GeekMom we’re always talking about our geeky passions. What are some of yours?

CC: Oh my geeky passions run deep! I love anything sci fi. Anything space related. Anything science related. I am a big Star Wars and Star Trek fan. Love the Dr. Who. Love the Walking Dead. I love a good fairy tale retelling or fracturing, so you can imagine that right now is great since it’s so popular. I love Superman, but it’s because I love Lois Lane. I think Lois is one of the best women comic book characters there is. I also love caviar.

MW: With or without mango salsa?

CC: I’m more Chad, so I’m going to go with the mayo! 😉