A Conversation with Cecil Castellucci

By Annette Scanlon

Cecil's career is as fun and interesting as her personality. When it isn't indie rock or film, it's all manner and medium of storytelling. She came out to UCR Palm Desert's MFA program recently to talk about the process of writing graphic novels--only to delight and inspire us with her insight regarding not only graphic novels but comics, novels, and even mixed-medium work. She is one of those refreshing people who don't shy away from genre because it can be considered "commercial," and she helped this writer out with some fabulous reading suggestions to widen my horizons. In the interview, we discuss trends, the writing process, and what we can expect from her in the future.

When we met at UCR Palm Desert's most recent MFA student residency, I asked you about the best ways to construct and describe alien races in novels. Can you share some of that wisdom with us now?

Well, I'm no astrobiologist. But I've been thinking a lot about world building and aliens for my new novel Tin Star. I think that there are a few things to think about. For example, environment, gravity, atmosphere. How does the planet affect the biology of your species? Is the gravity lighter? It is the atmosphere thicker? Is it drier? Is it wetter? How does the planet affect then non-indigenous species? How does that aliens biology help or harm them when they go elsewhere? And then how do you solve that? Also, do you care? If you look at Star Trek, everybody just pretty much can go anywhere and breathe and walk no problem. But on Babylon Five the aliens are alien to each other. The other thing is that sometimes coming up with galactic politics can be difficult. I suggested taking a part of history and using that as a loose framework to have somewhere to start with. For example, in Tin Star, which takes place on a space station, I give all the aliens nanintes that regulate the atmosphere in each species. I also used the idea of the Vichy from World War II as a basis for how the space station fits into the politics of this particular galaxy. Of course, from there, you crack and fracture and invent. But it's nice to have a base to spring from.

While we're on the subject of aliens, let me ask you something related to First Day on Earth. Do you read any Kurt Vonnegut? There's a great YouTube video of you reading from FDoE, and Earl is giving advice to the support group of abductees--it reminds me in the best possible way of Slaughterhouse-Five, how Billy Pilgrim was stuck in an alien zoo exhibit with Montana Wildhack. Is this a case of great minds think alike, or did you have that in mind when you wrote Earl's character?

I did indeed read Slaughterhouse-Five and that was an intentional nod to the book. Thanks for catching that! Derek Kirk Kim has a great graphic novel called Tune that just came out where a guy gets a job as an exhibit in an interstellar zoo.

It seems like all writer interviews have to include some question about process--the people on the outside want to know how this creativity-turned-to-tangible-form works, and the people on the inside are mostly still wondering the same thing, not really believing that we've ever gotten the process or product right. What does a typical day look like for you, a published author with so many different pursuits claiming her attention?

Every project is different. Often times, since each project is usually at a different state I have to deal with different things. I try to clear my plate of the little things that will occupy my brain as something that is dangling so that I can fully concentrate on the bigger project. So, for example, right now I have a first draft of my new novel (book two of my sci-fi series) to write. But I have a bunch of short stories that I have to either finish or clean up. So I say to myself OK, let me get all of these off my plate this week so that the next few weeks I can just concentrate on doing the first draft of Stone in the Sky. First drafts are the hardest thing for me. If I have a bunch of things to revise, then I can work on those concurrently. I think that is the funniest part of writing. I don't have a set time to write. I subscribe to the leaving the page open and arriving to it. I think that dreaming is part of writing. So I don't beat myself up too much if I procrastinate. Sometimes that is needed to let the ideas simmer. I find that my brain is always working. I've also, for this Stone in the Sky draft, rediscovered longhand. I'm on a tight schedule with this book and I was freaking out. I found that dedicating a special little notebook to handwriting terrible scenes sort of tricks me into getting work down without the feeling of being in front of the computer. It's the not working kind of working. But like I said, every project is different.

Can you pinpoint a time in your life when you decided to "turn pro" and make writing your career?

Well, honestly, I decided a long time ago to be a full time artist. I always arranged my life to try to have as little day jobness as possible and maximize my time to do art. When I was first starting out that meant I'd temp or extra on movie sets for a couple of weeks and then take a couple of weeks of in order to write full time. So there was never a moment that I turned pro. I just always thought of myself as a professional artist. It meant and still means I'm broke as hell most times. But I think declaring the mantra "all art, all the time" has helped make it somehow work for me.

Now let's talk about YA. What draws you to writing YA more often than other genres?

I don't know that I'm necessarily more drawn to it than other genres. It's just that is where my natural narrative voice is most comfortable and comes most easily. It's my default voice. But I do write other things and have other stories. I write speculative short stories that are not for young adults. I've written an opera libretto. I've written comic books. I would say more that YA is my resting voice when I tell a story. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I fell in love with reading and stories when I was a young adult. Also, teen characters are incredibly compelling to write about because it's the first time that a lot of things are happening to them so the stakes are very high and life or death for them. I also believe that every writer has an inner age. Mine is 16. But I might be turning 17 soon.

You've written comics and graphic novels--do you find that process similar to writing YA? It seems the form and focus would be more similar than say, comics to War and Peace.

I'm going to change your question. Writing is writing is writing. Think of a visual artist. They have a tools with which to make the piece. I think that writing a novel or comic book or libretto or short story is just like an artist choosing to draw a landscape with pastels, water colors, oils, or whatever. So really, it's no different except that you shade differently.

I love the advice you gave to the Young Author's Writing Network workshop about not being afraid to share your writing with people. Do you have a core group of readers that see your work at some stage in the process prior to publication?

Absolutely. Though, I don't have a core group. I have different readers for different things that I might need for different projects. My brother reads a lot of my speculative fiction and short stories. He's great at things like galactic politics, and we dorked out about the same stories, so he knows exactly what I'm going for when I'm in those kinds of worlds. I have another friend who is my go to person for talking out my novel and who also reads my short stories and short comic book scripts and helps me focus in on the ending. Endings are hard. I'm the kind of person who shares my work very early on with my editors, and I know that they those drafts can look god-awful. But my first drafts, which I call my "skinny skeletons", are my rough sketches and sometimes that's the most important time to talk out a story. I trust them to know that that I'm going to fatten up the baby and get it into shape. It's just helpful to sometimes write everything wrong and then talk about it.

With all the paranormal and apocalyptic stuff flooding the market, I have to ask. What's your favorite monster, and what would be your preferred end-of-the-world scenario?

Humans. We're the worst. And I am going to say some kind of a genetic apocalypse. I'm fascinated by genetic bottlenecks.

Most YA authors seem to agree that the market travels on a loop regarding the popularity of certain themes. With Twilight we had a bunch more paranormal stories, with Hunger Games we got more post-apocalyptic. Do you have any guesses about what direction the market will turn next? Or any hopes, regarding the same?

I have no idea. I never pay attention to that kind of stuff. I just write what I write. But I suppose I hope that hard sci-fi is next, since that is what I am writing and what I like to read and there is not that much of it in YA right now.

And the most pressing question, for all your fans: What are you working on right now, and when do we get to read it?

I'm working on Stone in the Sky which is a sequel to my two book sci-fi series that starts with Tin Star. Tin Star is out in Fall 2013. It's about a human girl named Tula Bane who gets abandoned on a space station and realizes that everything she thought about settling the stars is wrong.


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