TCR Talks with Shifting Earth’s Cecil Castellucci
Interviewed by Michael Medina
Cecil Castellucci does it all. In addition to writing for DC Comics (Batgirl; Shade, the Changing Girl; Female Furies), she pens music, opera librettos, novels, and everything in between. With her new graphic novel, Shifting Earth (illustrated by Flavia Biondi and colored by Fabiana Mascolo), the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author brings a “hope punk” take on climate change. In the book, a dangerous particle storm (based on true global events) brings Maeve, a botanist, and Zuzi, an astronomer, on parallel journeys to save their respective universes from impending climate doom. Through Castellucci’s careful curation, we learn how our world might be if it had two moons, how politics and customs might change if we were ruled by raging storms and vanishing islands, what divisive sacrifices we might be willing to make in such a world.
We caught up with Castellucci while she was preparing for her newest residency in France. She gave us insight into her research methods, how she got her big break in comics, and why, despite all her myriad successes, she still sometimes calls it quits on writing. Meet the punk rock female fury of storytelling, Cecil Castellucci.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: So if I have my facts right, your parents are scientists. And you have what I’m calling an alter-ego: Cecil Seaskull.
CECIL CASTELLUCCI: My punk name.
TCR: And you have the power to sway hearts and minds. Are you sure you’re not a superhero yourself? I don’t know—compounding evidence.
CC: [laughs] I can’t say.
TCR: So you’ve written books, operettas, graphic novels. How do you stay so flexible? How do you do all of that?
CC: I mean, a story is a story is a story, right? I feel like each form allows you to tell a story in a different way. My sort of goal as a writer is to tell the story in the best way there is to tell that story. So I feel like the more kinds of different things I do—like a libretto, a comic book, a short story, a punk rock song, a play, maybe a film one day; who knows—it allows [me] to sort of zone in [on] the best possible way to unfold a story.
TCR: After reading Shifting Earth, and knowing what I know of the characters from Female Furies and DC Comics, I realized you’re a character person at heart, aren’t you?
CC: Yeah, I think I am a character person, and also, I really love dialogue. That’s what I love about writing comic book scripts. Even most of my prose is very lean and mean. It’s mostly action and dialogue. I don’t do a lot of description and stuff. I try to listen and learn.
TCR: All we can do as artists is our best for the work we believe in, stand behind it, and let it kind of grow as it grows. We have so little control sometimes, and that’s okay. We have to live with that.
CC: Otherwise, where is the fun? It’s just like dread and deadlines.
TCR: Well, you’ve said in interviews before that this business can be tough and that you still question yourself regularly on your work. Do you still feel this way?
CC: Yeah, I don’t think that that ever goes away, insecurity, because we are craftspeople, right? As writers, we are always honing our skills, seeing what can be better, seeing other people’s work, seeing how masterful it is, and striving to be better ourselves. I think there is always an aspect of growth to being an artist. When I write a new book, it’s a totally new thing even though I’ve done something before and finished it. It’s like, Well I’ve never written this before.
TCR: It’s not like you’re baking the same item over and over; this is a new recipe.
CC: And sometimes your cake [laughs] flops!
TCR: And that’s when you remake it.
CC: And something that I tell my students when they ask me, “Well, how do you know if you’re a real artist?” I said this over and over again: “Well, try quitting. Because I quit all the time.” I’m like, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not able. I quit!” And then . . . you know, obviously I can’t quit.
CC: I remember once I got on the train and went to Disneyland. I was like, “I quit! I’m done.” I was standing in line for the Alice in Wonderland ride. My agent called and was like, “Hey what are you doing? Do you have a minute to talk?” I was like, “Sure. I’m at Disneyland, and I’ve quit being a writer.” He laughed at me and was like, “Alright. Why don’t you call me tomorrow when you’re a writer again.”
TCR: We wouldn’t have Shifting Earth! Speaking of, I’ve read that, for Batgirl, you went back and read everything, did all the research you could. Shifting Earth is so complex. How did you research? You need to know botany, physics, astronomy . . .
CC: I did talk to a physicist, and I did talk to a botanist whose job is to find wild seeds. I did talk to her and had her read some of my botany stuff. And the physicist . . . I was like, “This is what I want to have happen even though I know it can’t happen,” and he was like, “Here are some words you could use to make it sound plausible.” So I was thinking a lot about the Carrington Event that happened in the 1800s, where there was a huge burst from the sun. That was a real thing. Telegraph wires burst into flames, things went down . . . I do have parents that are scientists, so I’m already reading science with interest and getting inspired by that.
TCR: We’re reading about people dealing with these problems not so far from our own. They are facing this human condition. It gets you thinking, What do we need to be doing on our end so we don’t have the same problems they do?
CC: Yeah! And I also really wanted to talk about hope. I think that both characters, Maeve and Zuzi, they are both trying to find solutions for their own worlds—to be able to be heard so they can help—and I’m really into this idea. I feel like I wanted to have Shifting Earth be a story that has some real-world echoes, but has some ways that we can think about being helpful and hopeful.
TCR: Absolutely. I definitely feel that. Would you call this pre-apocalyptic?
CC: I’m calling it hope punk; I don’t know if it’s apocalyptic. I think it’s near-future in one universe and cautionary tale in the other universe. I think the aim for Maeve, even without going to another world, and for Evan is hope. They are botanists trying to help.
TCR: And that might be why it felt so personal. You balance highlighting these big problems, these real-world problems so that it doesn’t feel preachy. It stays fantastically entertaining. Any guess how you’re doing that?
CC: No! [laughs] Well, yeah! Editors are the best! Karen Berger, who is a legend, the one who founded Vertigo over at DC Comics, edited everything that is my favorite. Sandman; Shade, the Changing Man, all of it. So she is just an incredible editor. It’s a big book. In comic books, you only get so much time to tell a story. I could have spun that story out over seventy-two issues, but you have to be really focused when you’re doing it, and I think having an incredible editor and artist . . . let’s just talk about Flavia Biondi’s art as well.
TCR: So good.
CC: That collaboration in comics is how you can do it. I’m going to give props to my collaborator, Flavia Biondi, and Karen Berger for that.
TCR: I love it, and speaking of the art, just the contrast between the parallel worlds, what you’re seeing, the vibrant color changes.
CC: That! That’s the colorist Fabiana Mascolo. She did a fantastic job; you really felt the shifting earth.
TCR: An amazing team. You’re known for kick-ass women in your writing. Shifting Earth is no different—Zuzi, Maeve. Do you identify with these characters at all? Do you base them off influences in your life? Or people in history?
CC: Huh. You know, they kind of just arrived to me and were like, Hello [laughs]. I’m this person, and I’m that person, and, you know, I want to save my world. Please help me. Yeah, I don’t know that they were after any sort of specific people, except for ladies that I’d probably have as my dear friends.
TCR: Sure! Well, they have these distinct personalities, these ironclad goals and perspectives that are so clearly coming through the pages. It’s so easy to identify with them, be inspired by them. They’re doing work that makes you want to get up and think about doing something yourself.
CC: I also like that both Maeve and Zuzi are kind of ornery. They are kind of like, Grrr. They are kind of scrappy, both of them, and that’s what I identify with. Those are the kind of women that I love—women that are just sort of no-nonsense: I’m gonna buck the trend. I know what’s right. Maeve and Zuzi are both experts; they have a lot of knowledge, but they have a lot of people around them who are not listening to their warnings.
TCR: I have read the book blurbs for Shifting Earth. One of yourbook blurbs had a quote: “Humans must serve a person or pay an unthinkable price.” Without spoilers, I’ll say there is some aspect of the this society you’ve built around needing to have value or worth as a human being, or basically, being disposable. Does this draw parallels to our own world?
CC: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because what I wanted to do was set up a society on another Earth that just evolved differently. Their ideas are alien to us even though it’s humanity to our Earth and to Maeve, what she’s seeing happen on a parallel universe. It’s because they organize their society in a different way because of the different circumstances they have on their planet. I wanted to talk about how sometimes we as humans immediately assign weirdness to things that are different than what we might know in our own little bubbles. Something that may seem sinister isn’t necessarily sinister, and something that seems good could be sinister.
TCR: Exactly. You have to read to find out!
CC: There is a villain in Shifting Earth, someone who is trying to think of their world in a new and different way, but I think, to Maeve, there are things that seem horrifying to her that are not really horrifying to people in that society.
TCR: Speaking of parallel universes, was there any special work you did to create them? Some kind of template?
CC: I wanted to think about the way that Earth would be if it had two moons. I read there would be a lot more water on the planet than land—more water than we have now—and we would have incredible storms. So I just thought, What if your society grew from having all this wind, all this water, all this energy in [such] a different way that they would organize themselves differently? And if islands were constantly being swallowed by the storms and the oceans, you might organize to consider migration and things like that differently because it has to do with societal survival.
TCR: It’s fun to know the thoughts going behind these ideas, and they aren’t arbitrary. I hope you don’t mind me saying: you have helped break the glass ceiling throughout your career so that women can be rock stars in the world of comics and graphic novels. What advice might you give women, girls, or other marginalized communities who are trying to break into this boys’ club of a graphic storytelling world?
CC: My biggest advice always, to any creator of any kind, is work begets work. So finish your stuff and put it out there. I always wanted to write comics; I always wanted to break in. So I wrote my first novel, Boy Proof, which is about a girl who is obsessed with Vertigo Comics, and an editor at Vertigo read it. They called me and asked if I’m interested in writing comics. The point is make work. Even if you do something that is not comics, editors consume things, read things. So when they are looking for people, if you have something that you’ve put out, it gives them an opportunity to take a chance on you because they know you’ve finished something, completed it, gone through an editorial process. Editors want to know that you can take notes and finish a project.
TCR: In your writing, you have a wide array of different representation—in Shifting Earth, in your past works. Is that something you think about when you’re writing, something you consider later, or does it just happen naturally?
CC: One hundred percent [I’ve] always been thinking about it, from the get-go. From my first novel, I’ve always had diverse casts; I’ve always thought about it. For Shifting Earth, I did ask my friend, Adam, a sensitivity reader, to make sure I wasn’t falling into any traps that I didn’t know about, even though diversity has been part of my practice for my entire career. But just like I’ve talked to scientists, I’ve always had readers to make sure I’m not [overlooking] something. I’m sure if I looked back, I would feel like, I shouldn’t have written that or That was an unconscious bias I didn’t realize, so now I just make sure that I get somebody to talk to. It’s surprising! When Adam gave me his notes back, he was like, So here’s [an issue]. Oh, my gosh; I didn’t even know! And they were such easy fixes.
TCR: A lot of terms we used to use we are now realizing are hurtful and harmful.
CC: I just did a comic book for Critical Role, and they also had a sensitivity reader to read this script, and I just found it to be enlightening and helpful and very natural to fold into the notes that were given. Make sure you are doing things with intention.
TCR: So we’ve talked about theses heroes fighting battles not too far from our home. If step one is buying Shifting Earth, step two is educating ourselves with Shifting Earth and other climate change education. What’s step three? What else do you think we can do? What do you think is the next step?
CC: I’m hopeful something that Shifting Earth brings attention to is we need plant diversity to handle the coming climate crisis that we are dealing with. If you don’t have plants that can bend in the wind, then, guess what, you’re not going to have crops. I don’t know; I would love for people to start planting butterfly and bee gardens, drought-resistant front yards. Vote!
TCR: Right! Absolutely.
CC: Vote, reduce your food waste, plant a bee and butterfly garden, recycle—upcycling, like clothes.
TCR: Simple things we can do! Has this stuff been in your life a long time?
CC: I have been in climate change since the ’80’s. I started in my dorm at NYU, creating the recycling center in my dorm. [I] collected the cans and brought them to the center every weekend, so it has been something I’ve been thinking about for a really long time.
TCR: So, to wrap up, what do you want people to know, to walk away with after reading Shifting Earth, if there was one message over all others?
CC: Love your Mother Earth and take care of her.
TCR: That’s beautiful. That’s perfect.
CC: It’s never too late to start.
Michael Medina is a queer writer and purveyor of all things storytelling (from theatre to podcasting to putting words on paper). Pursuing his MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert, he is a self-proclaimed nerdy social justice warrior whose goal is to infiltrate heteronormative genres with queer, colorful, and inclusive themes. He curates The Coachella Review’s column Voice to Books.