Ellen Forney, Megan Kelso and Raina Telgemeier on Process

This excerpt is from a roundtable inspired by Trina Robbins’ Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists 1896–2013. What follows is what happened after I opened the discussion up. Participants Ellen Forney, Megan Kelso and Raina Telgemeier began talking about their processes. — Kristy Valenti

KRISTY VALENTI: If there’s any topics you want to open —

From Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso, 2010.

MEGAN KELSO: Whenever I finish something, especially if it’s something major, then the next thing is different somehow — maybe even just a minor difference in process — based on what I experienced and learned in the last project. I would just love to hear from you guys — not just what you’re working on, but how is your work evolving right now as you learn and grow, and become a more mature artist?

ELLEN FORNEY: Here are a couple of thoughts of mine on what I’m working on. I saw a talk by the novelist Nicholson Baker this past fall, and one of the things he said rang true to me, which is, writing a book is hard, and when you put it out, it took so much out of you that you have this big hole that you will never be able to fill again. And maybe that’s all you have, and then it takes a long time for it to fill, and he was like, “and it will,” before putting together your next book.

It spoke to me so much, because putting out Marbles was such an enormous effort for me, and then just deal with it being out there and me being out there in that way, and so it’s taken me a while for me to really get moving on my next book, which I am. It’s about imaginary friends, and I’ve been doing interviews, and I’ve been shaping what I want the book to be. But one of the things I know, and I don’t know why is that I don’t want me in it. I feel like I just opened myself up to such a degree, not because I’m like, “I’m done, I can’t put myself into it,” but as a relief, for the reader, and just for me. I just need to focus on other people and other topics outside of me. So, the one I’m working on now, it feels intimate, but at the same time, it’s not about me.

KELSO: So, that’s clearly an outgrowth on the work you did on Marbles.

FORNEY: Absolutely. And it’s about imagination, and so much of Marbles was about creativity, there’s a lot of overlap there. So, that’s my answer.

RAINA TELGEMEIER: After Smile, I was really surprised by the reaction that book got. I thought it was my little autobio story and that my friends would read it, and I would get a few readers who’d nod their heads and say, “That was cool,” but, what I got was thousands of 9-year-old girls emailing me to ask me, “When’s the sequel coming out?”

I was like, you don’t understand, this was a true story and I managed to condense four-and-a-half years of my life into a package with a beginning and a middle and an end, and you can’t just do that, that has to exist, that has to be a part of your life that you feel comfortable compartmentalizing, and I don’t feel that way about any other aspect of my life. And they were like, “Well, that’s nice, but when’s the sequel coming out?”

From The Baby-Sitters Club: Claudia and Mean Janine adapted by Raina Telgemeier, 2008.

I had an existential crisis and was like, “No, no, I’m going to write fiction now, I’m going to write Drama, that’s my fiction story,” but it was also just so tied into my own life that it felt like arms-length fiction, it was not true fiction. Then I decided to write a sequel to Smile … but I’m not calling it a sequel, I’m calling it a companion because it’s not about what happens next. I think that’s what people — at least young readers — expect when they see another book in a “series” coming, is that this is a continuation of a story. Instead, this is just going back to my life. This is Sisters, which will be out in September. And with that story, I really was exploring my family dynamic, and I don’t want to say that my family and I aren’t close, but none of us live in the same part of the country. There’s five of us: I have two siblings and two parents, and we all live in completely different places. And I felt like reaching into their histories to try to tell their stories was risky business, and it’s not my story anymore: it’s our story.

FORNEY: You can just change their names. [Laughter.]

KELSO: You’ve done the script, and the book’s coming out in September? You must have drawn some of it by now.

TELGEMEIER: Oh no, it’s drawn. When I say the script, I’m sorry, I thumbnailed it the summer of 2012: time is flying! I spent all of last year on the artwork. My family’s sophisticated enough to read thumbnails, but I felt that they’d probably get it better if I waited until the art was done and the thing was lettered. They’re seeing the final, lettered artwork; it’s just not in full color yet. They’re seeing a version of it that’s as close to a finished draft as it can be before the book actually comes out. And I didn’t want my parents’ input, because I didn’t want to get their take on things: I wanted it to be my take on a chapter of our lives. But because it’s primarily focusing on me and my sister, I did show her the very first draft of the story back in 2012. So at least she gave me her graces to make her the “villain” in the story. Now I’m just waiting to see what my parents think, which is really very terrifying.

FORNEY: One of the really interesting things about autobiography that any memoirist comes up against is when you’re writing about other people. Exposing yourself is up to you, but when you’re exposing other people, how much responsibility do you take for what their comfort level is? And what they want? And every creator has a different way of dealing with that. How might you react to their reaction?

TELGEMEIER: My stance is always, “Well, it’s my take on this situation, so, you may not remember it the same way I do, but since I’m ultimately the narrator of this one …” My family’s all creative people too, so they’re welcome to issue their rebuttal if they feel … I don’t think it’s gonna come to that. My family’s really proud of Smile, and they’re really proud of me, and ultimately, we all really care about each other and I did go out of my way to make it as balanced as I could. But again, is that telling the truth? I don’t know. We can only go with our guts.

From Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, 2014.

I’m at a point now, having just spent the last two years working on this project, where I do feel like I do need another break from autobio, because this is a lot to contend with, and things that are as simple as, “You know what? I really liked Fritos when I was a kid, I want to show myself eating Fritos, but if I put Fritos in my book I’m gonna get sued.” That, to me, takes away a little bit of the authenticity of something. I’m finding that I’m coming up against more walls for what I can and can’t depict in my books.

FORNEY: Would you be sued if you put Fritos in?

TELGEMEIER: Scholastic’s lawyers are just always erring on the side of caution.

FORNEY: When I wrote Band-Aid, I had to write it with capital letters. I wanted it to be bandaid: “I’ll put a bandaid on it!” But it had to be capital B, a-n-d, dash, A-i-d, and I really resisted it; it was really hard. But Scholastic won’t let you put in brand names?

TELGEMEIER: It depends on the brand. They have a whole big database of companies that let you get away with that stuff and companies that don’t. The problem is that in Smile I had no cares. I put The Simpsons in there, I put The Little Mermaid in there; I put all those snack foods of the ’80s and all the clothing brands that we all wore. No one noticed, but I guess now they’re concerned that somebody will notice. There was a lot of changes that had to be made to the artwork and to the script in the eleventh hour. I’m in that phase where I’m like, “I don’t want to do this again, at least not right now.”

So now I think I’m gonna try fiction again because I’ve got a two-book contract, and I’ve got a contract right now that says that my next script is due next summer. I don’t even think I’m ready to talk about what this next project may or may not be, because it could go in so many different directions right now. I’ve got an outline that still needs to be carved out into a good shape, and I’ve got to write it.

I’m also curious to know how you guys work and what your writing process is like. Megan, let’s hear about you.

KELSO: I’m working on a collection of short stories. The last completed thing I put out was Artichoke Tales. I was working on it off and on for 10 years, which is crazy. But there it is. So, I definitely think wanting to do short stories is a reaction to that, and I just didn’t want to start some big, long, involved thing that would then maybe take me 20 years at the rate that I’m going now.

But when I started working on these short stories, they were turning into really long short stories — like the last collection I did, Squirrel Mother, some of the stories were only two pages long, and all these stories are at least 30 pages long. Another thing I noticed is that they have a lot more writing in them than I feel like my work used to have, and I don’t really understand why. I’ve just observed that all of them are just much more heavy on the dialogue and narration than my previous work.

But the main thing that I’m concentrating on is starting my stories based on images rather than on a written plan, like an outline or a script. Just beginning with an idea: but beginning with the image of that idea, and trying to avoid writing about it until the images congeal a bit. Not necessarily the whole story, but I have a sequence of images, maybe a scene or two, so the images have the upper hand. Because, for years and years and years, I pretty much had the idea of the story and then wrote the story and then drew the story, and I feel like it was this way that, in that process, I would lose the initial passion of the idea. What I’m hoping by working this way is that I can tap into the mysteriousness of how stories begin and why they lodge themselves in our brain, because for me that’s usually more of a picture in my head than words. To try to begin and stay with those pictures until they gather some strength, and then start writing, I feel like I’m just able to construct a truer version of the story.

But another thing that’s really changed for me, which was a result of doing Watergate Sue — which was this extended short story that I did in New York Times magazine, which was in color, and it was really pretty, the most elaborate color I’ve ever done, the largest palette. It was just so much work, and I remember just really dreading the point at which the thing is all inked and then I had to color it. Not because I don’t like the way color looks, because I love it. But, I just feel so disconnected when I’m doing computer color; it doesn’t really feel like part of making the comic.

Actually, watching Ellen do Marbles, and thinking about Ellen’s work, and how just incredibly expressive and elegant it is with only black and white and not color, I just decided I wanted to be one of those cartoonists who gets it all on the page in black and white and doesn’t have this elaborate post-production stuff, because I really had just grown to hate and dread all that computer work. So, in my last couple stories, I’ve had to remake the way I draw, because really — since the stuff I was doing for Girlhero — I haven’t really done black-and-white shading, because I’ve just saved all of that work for doing computer color.

It’s been a little bit scary and freaky. It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to approach it. How exactly do I shade somebody’s dress, or the side of a wall, or something, but it’s also just been so exciting and fun because I do all my work on the paper, and then when I’m done, the comic is actually done. I still have to scan it and clean it, but then it’s done and I don’t have this whole post-production thing that I just grew to hate so much.

Making this really dramatic change in my style has been really a crazy experience. It’s been frightening because I feel like suddenly I’m a bad drawer: I’m going back to square one. But on the other hand, I consciously made this decision to draw differently, and I’m actually starting to figure it out. I feel like it gave me a certain confidence: I can do this, I can decide to draw differently, and I’ll figure it out and it’ll be OK. So that’s been just an amazing revelation to me, that I can consciously change the way I draw. Because for years and years and years, I was like, I’m lucky if I can just draw something, let alone refine it and change it into some other style. So that’s been very exciting for me.

I read some different drafts of Ellen’s Marbles as she was working on them.

FORNEY: I had my editor at Penguin who I really, really liked, but she had never edited a comic before. It was really important to me that somebody who I trusted and respected as a cartoonist, knows the language of comics, and knows that it’s not just words and illustrations, and knows how they all work together, would give me feedback on my work — so I asked Megan if she would do it.

KELSO: When Ellen first approached me — you’d finished the first chapter as part of your book proposal, and then you had an outline of the whole book. I think maybe you had thumbnails of a couple chapters, but you by … You had an idea for a book and a plan for a book, but you did not have a complete book.

Then she sent me, progressively, thumbnails for the whole thing, and then we had this marathon session where we went over that. I’ve gotta say, Ellen, being connected to the making of a major book like that, but not being the maker, was so helpful to me. I remind myself very often of when we were first sitting in that restaurant and you were telling me about your plan, but you so didn’t have it all figured out. And then thinking about the completed Marbles, and reminding myself that I saw it at these various stages: you don’t have to have it all figured out from the get-go, you know? You begin with an idea that has a lot of power over you that you know that you want to work with, and you just start to chip away at it. And I watched you chip away at it. It’s been this great source of comfort to me. I watched you do it. I know it can be done. [Laughter.]

From Marbles by Ellen Forney, 2012.

TELGEMEIER: And how long did that project take from start to finish?

FORNEY: Well it depends on what you count as when it started, but basically it took four years. I had thought about it for years before then, but I knew really that I wasn’t ready to delve into it yet. I had to wait until I felt that I was strong enough and that I could have enough perspective. It was still really hard, but basically two years to get the proposal together, so to go through all of the brainstorming, just as much memory as I could come up with, and basically interviewing family members and close friends about what they remembered, which was all very intense, and then a year of putting together the thumbnails, which was very intense: then one of the difficult, jam-packed years of penciling and inking this 250-page book. It was a ton of work, so I’m really glad that it wound up — when I was turning in a manuscript at the end — this says what I want it to say as best as I am able, and I’m satisfied that it says what I want to say, which was my goal really, and all I could ask of myself. But yeah, Megan, sitting in the sandwich place, that was quite a start. That was when I told you I was bipolar, you didn’t know before then.

KELSO: Well, I knew, but we had never talked about it. I had only heard it through friends.

FORNEY: Right. So, we had never talked about some of the times that actually wound up in the book, because you’re in the book as well.

So that’s part of the answer, Raina, to your question about what our process is. Because I usually do short form, and generally really short form, like a page, I do that pretty straightforward progression that Megan had just outlined, which is scripting in words, then thumbnailing, and then penciling, and then inking. And then going back and forth, because once you’re penciling, you’re like, “Argh, I need to re-thumbnail this.” That kind of thing.

When I was doing Marbles, my process was a bit different, just because there was no way I would be able to script everything and then thumbnail everything and then pencil everything. It was a different order and I had to do things that were different for me: type up a chapter outline. I don’t brainstorm generally on the computer. I had just so much more material to work with, and different people coming in and out of the process that I had to communicate with and do thumbnails that were a lot tighter than usual because I had to show them to other people. So that process was a little bit different, although I would say that overall the arc was similar.

What I really like to do is surround myself with my material and shape it, so however it is that that can come together best. Usually, that’s going from scripting and thumbnailing and whatever, and research coming into play, all the way along — taking photos, looking things up; I’m one of those cartoonists who uses a mirror or a tripod and a camera all the time.         

That reminds me: when you were talking about wanting to do fiction because you felt like that was more … real? Better somehow?

KELSO: I think she said more mature.

FORNEY: More mature, right. I think that so many of us feel like if we can’t draw out of our heads then we’re not as good if we have to rely on reference material. I know a lot of my students feel that way, and that’s one of the things I have to redirect. “No, starting from life is often one of the best ways to figure out how … what direction that elbow bends in or what happens to the cheek when your eyebrows go up,” and that kind of thing.

What I’m doing now with the imaginary friends is gathering material, because it’s something that I haven’t looked into before. I personally didn’t have an imaginary friend, so I’m doing a lot of interviews and reading to figure out what’s there before I try to shape it.

TELGEMEIER: I’m a thumbnailer. I wish I was a scripter. I would love to be able to script in advance and have words that make sense on the page to me that I can then translate into pictures, but I can’t separate the two. I can’t have words without pictures and vice versa. I can outline in words, but then when I sit down to thumbnail from the outlines, I really don’t know where it’s going to go, I don’t know who the characters are going to be, I don’t know even where the story’s going to go. It can veer drastically from what it looks like as an outline. I’m fine with that, I think that’s really an interesting process: it’s just a really solitary process. I can’t have music on, I can’t have people around me, I can’t really have too much other things influencing what’s going on in my mind.

I think, Ellen, it was you who was talking about the certain well that needs to be filled with inspiration, and for me that’s the period of just coming back into myself after finishing a project and taking in all the influences and reading and watching and listening and just trying to draw more inspiration from the world, and then the writing process takes what’s in that well again and puts it onto the page. I still feel like I have a hard time articulating this to people that don’t know it, but the people that do know it usually go, “Yep, yep, yep.” [Laughs.]

It’s kind of different every time, but it’s the same every time. This is the fourth time I’ve sat down to write an original work, and I feel like I’m starting to understand it, but I want to keep doing this, so I don’t know if this will work every time, or if I’ll need to look for other ways or other sources in the future, but this is where I’m at now. I do miss writing short stories: that’s what I did for so many years. It was nice to just sit down and think of something and execute it in a short period of time. Now it’s like a two-year process.

FORNEY: I just did it and it was so awesome. If you look in The Stranger this week I did a — it’s not even a full page. It’s like, three-quarters of a page, and I realized it’s the first comic that I’ve done in a couple of years now. Like, the first comic for publication that actually got out and got published, and it was just so hard! The deadline was really tight. Actually, that was probably a good thing, because I didn’t have to drag out this agonizing … I did so many thumbnails and pencils, and I went back and forth, and it was on a grid and that looked terrible, so I did over and it’s more organic … oh my God! But it was so satisfying in the end just to be able to see it out there.

KELSO: Well, I think there is — besides the empty hole aspect of completing a big book — is the finished book comes to dominate your memory of making the book and having it be this definite thing out in the world that people are reading and having opinions about, and that you’re talking about. It seems like you get this case of amnesia where it becomes really difficult to remember what it was when it was still an un-fleshed-out idea, and it’s hard to remember how you got from the un-fleshed-out idea to the finished product because the finished product just completely obliterates the unknown phase.

But of course, we all know that that’s the major experience of making a book: the horribly-uncomfortable-yet-exciting unknown phase where you have an idea, but it isn’t a finished thing, and you don’t know how it’s going to conclude, or what it’s all about. I guess that’s what I was trying to say: having that memory of Ellen’s experience, it’s not as fraught for me because it’s not mine, but I watched her do it. [Laughter.] I can remember Ellen going through it way better than I remember myself going through some of it.

TELGEMEIER: Next time she comes to you and says, “I don’t know if I can do this,” you’ll say, “I know you can.”

FORNEY: That has already happened! We got together, how long ago, a couple months ago? And I had that hazy cloud of confusion and indecision and sort of flickers of inspiration, but I didn’t know how to catch them, and Megan you did exactly that, just reminded me that … like remember what seems so concrete now, Marbles, this book, remember how confusing and overwhelming it was in the beginning, and how I didn’t know what it was gonna look like, so it’s OK. And it really calmed me down.

Another thing you said that was really helpful is that I’m not going to know until I start fleshing it out until I start writing and drawing. And that was also very true.

From Sisters by Raina Telgemeier, 2014.

KELSO: That’s another amnesia thing that I forget and remember over and over. I have this fantasy: I’m going to have it all figured out before I actually start making it, which sounds psychotic when you say it out loud, because, obviously, that’s not how it works. But there’s just this scariness when you begin and you don’t have it figured out that I just continually forget that you just have to get going on it and then you’ll, like you said, then you’ll be shaping it and you’ll start to figure out what it is. It just seems really bizarre to be 45 years old and to continually have to relearn that.

FORNEY: Well … [Pause.] What are you gonna do? [Laughter.]