Tag Archive for Matt Phelan

One Question, Five Authors #4: “What role does music play in your creative process?”

Sound the timbrels, bang a gong, today the focus is on music. Welcome to the internet’s laziest interview series, where I ask just one question. My thanks to our five guests: Chris Tebbetts, Matt Phelan, Yvonne Prinz, Charles Smith, and Michelle Knudsen. Click on the “One Question” icon on the right sidebar, under “Categories,” to visit past editions.

 

Chris Tebbetts

99% of the time, I write alone and in silence. That said, I’ll add that some large percentage of my non-writing time is filled with music. And some amount of that time is filled with bad singing and (yes, I’ll own it) not-half-bad dancing. I sing in the car all the time, and I dance like a fool around my house whenever I get the chance. Because here’s the thing. I once heard a writer at a conference talk about using other artistic pursuits as a way of maintaining her connection with the kind of free-flowing creative mindset that can become elusive at the keyboard, when the job of writing is a daily requirement. And I totally agree. I love to sing and dance anyway, but more to the point, I believe in the tangible benefits of putting myself into that creative mindset on a regular basis, where there are no mistakes, no revisions required, no deadlines, and no audience to pass judgement. For the woman I mentioned above, it was knitting that got her there. Maybe for someone else, it’s doodling, or painting, or designing roller coasters. For me, it all flows from my love of music, and more specifically, from the way I use music to make a private fool of myself, every chance I get.

 

Matt Phelan

Music has always been a big part of my life. My parents started me off with The Beatles, Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Jackson 5 records when I was a kid and I just went from there. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life playing in bands, and a day rarely goes by without me fooling around on a ukulele, guitar, or piano.

I often make a playlist to listen to when working on specific books, both in the planning/writing stage and in the final drawing stage. The right music can instantly put me in the “space” of the story. I will usually include music from the time period of the book, but I’ll also go beyond that if the music fits the mood or spirit of the story. For example, Snow White takes place in the 1920s and early 1930s, so my playlist had pop songs from those decades, but also included some darker film scores from the 1930s and 1940s, like Max Steiner’s score for King Kong and various soundtracks by Bernard Herrmann. And for fun, I also included the Bryan Ferry Orchestra which is a great record that takes Roxy Music songs from the 1970s and 80s (which I love) and arranges them like 1920s hot jazz. Sometimes the music is not from the period but inspires the right mood anyway. I wrote and drew the climactic ending of The Storm in the Barn while listening to Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.” Whatever works. For my latest book Knights vs. Dinosaurs, I had a song called “Swords of a Thousand Men” by the fairly obscure early 80s band Tenpole Tudors stuck in my head.

I just started listening to the newly released demos for The Beatles’ White Album and I imagine I’ll be obsessed with that for the foreseeable future. Luckily, no matter the book, The Beatles are always a safe bet.

 

Yvonne Prinz

I think a lot of authors don’t give a thought to music as they write but in my case it shapes the story. In some cases it is the story.

My head is full of music.

I was raised by a classical musician who vacillated between Shostakovich and Abbey Road. Music played around the clock in our home. I worked for minimum wage in record stores and now I own three of them with my husband (and a bunch of other music nuts). That in

spired The Vinyl Princess, the story of a cheeky girl who works at Bob & Bob Records and judges people by the music they listen to. I took breaks from the story just to build the soundtrack (I can’t listen to song lyrics while I write).

All You Get Is Me is a social justice story about farm workers set in Northern California. My character “Roar” (short for Aurora) is a reluctant farm girl.  I listened mostly to plaintive pastoral soundtrack music like Mark Knopfler and Ry Cooder as I wrote. When it was finished I created a soundtrack with a lot of Tex-mex, Hispanic artists, Mariachi, things a migrant farm worker might listen to.

If You’re Lucky is a thriller set on the dramatic coastline of Northern California. My main character is a schizophrenic teenager named Georgia. I listened to Django Reinhardt and modern gypsy jazz players. My secondary character is a Juilliard trained guitarist of Roma heritage. It’s a dark story. I fantasized about being the music supervisor on the movie a lot.

 

Charles Smith

Music plays a crucial role in my creative process as a poet. Different poems call for different types of moods and music helps me convey that mood. In my book, Brick by Brick, it focuses on how slaves built the White House. To reflect the back breaking work, I looked to negro plantation spirituals sung during slavery and prison work songs. There’s a specific cadence and there’s call and response. This helped guide the pacing. The use of repetition also helped with emotional impact. In most projects, I’ll often use music to establish a rhythm that conveys what I want to say. For instance, in the case of a non-fiction project I’ve been working on that focuses on a motorcycle rider, I wanted the words to move fast like a motorcycle so I looked to fast paced hip-hop. But sometimes I’ll go very traditional and look at the structure of a song and mimic it in a poem. For instance, using a chorus to hammer home a point or image. Overall, the biggest role that music plays is acting as grease to loosen up the creative wheel to help me say what I want to say.

 

Michelle Knudsen 

When I’m writing picture books or early readers, I generally can’t listen to anything. But for novels, I’m nearly always listening to music while I write. I like to create a playlist for each novel filled with songs that capture the feeling of the book for me. The playlist for my upcoming novel Curse of the Evil Librarian (book 3 in my Evil Librarian trilogy) includes songs like Tool’s “The Grudge,” Bryce Fox’s “Horns,” and Melanie Martinez’s “Tag, You’re It.” There are a couple of tracks by Halsey and a few by Depeche Mode and a whole lot of My Chemical Romance. I’ve also got a few songs from Les Misérables in there (this year’s fall musical in my characters’ high school) and one from The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was the featured musical in book 2. (There’s more, too, but that seems like a pretty representative sample to go with.) Listening to this playlist instantly puts me in the right mental/emotional/creative place to work on the book, whether I’m actively writing or outlining or going for a walk to try to work out tricky plot problems in my head. The only rule is that I’m not allowed to listen to it at any other time—it’s book music only, no matter what.

5 QUESTIONS with MATT PHELAN, Graphic Novelist and Creator of “Snow White”

 

Welcome to “5 Questions,” where the number 5 is conceptual rather than literal. Today we feature one of the most acclaimed graphic novelists working in children’s books today, Matt Phelan.

 

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Yo, Matt, I’m over here. Yeah, no, look this way. It’s just weird with you staring off into the distance like that. I’m literally right here. Fine, whatever, let’s just get through this. Take us back to the period before the idea came for this book. Is there a “between books” stage for you, when you are not exactly sure what’s next? Is that stressful? Are you walking around with your antenna up, hoping for lightning to strike? Or do you keep a spare file of “BRILLIANT IDEAS” by your bedside for just such occasions?

My mind tends to wander quite a bit, so I often have new ideas percolating when I should be focused on the book at hand. I have notes for Snow White going back ten years when I was pitching Storm in the Barn. I have a few ideas on low simmer now that I hope to get to eventually.

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That’s how I feel about painting my living room and front hallway (and upstairs bathroom, and guest bedroom, and). It’s all on low simmer. But for you that simmer reached a boiling point. Was there a specific moment, or an image, that came to you? Why that particular period in New York City?

I was thinking about apple peddlers in the Great Depression (as one does) . . .

Naturally.

. . . and my brain connected that with the stepmother in “Snow White.” I sketched an image of a busy street, people racing by, with a single young woman stopped in her tracks before an old hag holding out an apple. I liked that idea so much that I began to think of more parallels for elements in the tale if they were set in the early 1930s.

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Yes, that’s part of the book’s pleasure. It’s cool how you re-imagined the seven dwarfs, for example, as street urchins. In that case, you had to find a balance between making that allusion, but not turning those boys into cardboard stand-ins for Grumpy and Sneezy and Bashful, and so on.

The Seven came to me early on, inspired in part by the Dead End Kids from the movies of the 30s and 40s. But considering their situation –- orphans, runaways hiding in alleys and warehouses at night –- I realized that withholding their names would be of utmost importance to them. That was a clear contrast to the Disney film, where if you remember anything, it’s probably the names of the dwarves. I did give the boys some of the same personality traits in passing, so it would be fun for the reader to make those connections.

The Dead End Kids.

The Dead End Kids.

Those translocations are so much fun. The equivalencies aren’t absolute. It’s not, oh, this kid equals Sleepy. But, well, he does look a little tired.

Bringing the elements of the story like the seven dwarves into the time period started as an exercise, but the more I thought about it, the more I became invested in the characters and what I could maybe bring to this ancient story.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The challenge in any retelling is to answer that essential question every artist must face, for any work of art: “So what?” In your case, I think you were able to explore a familiar story, turn it around, pull it apart, and discover new elements. Upon reflection, what did you learn about the story of “Snow White” in the process of your work? Did anything surprise you?

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I was surprised about how much it started to mean to me on an emotional level. The scene where the boys reveal their names to Snow became the whole reason to do this book. For me, the book is about how there is more goodness in the world than evil, that there is beauty everywhere despite how bleak things may seem. I wrote the story three years ago, but it sadly seems very timely and relevant today.

I recently wrote my first road trip book, and one of the best things about it, as an author, was that I knew when/where the story was going to end. It’s comforting to know where you are in terms of beginning, middle, and end. You enjoyed a similar luxury in this case.

Yes. I agree. It was refreshing to have a framework to the plot from the start. But the story is so solid that it also allows for invention within that framework.

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Your book benefits from our familiarity with the classic story. Everybody knows it. That known structure gave you more freedom to pick your spots, skip over the boring bits. You didn’t have to fill in every blank space. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. I also use “chapter headings” which look more like title cards in a silent movie. That device acts as a dramatic shorthand. I could write “Late Night at the Butcher’s” and I’ve already set up not only the setting but an idea of what is going to happen there.

I agree, that was an effective device, a pause but also a jump-cut into the next scene. Hey, it had to be fun killing off the evil queen-slash-stepmother. In the movie that’s such a tense, dramatic scene. The seven dwarfs are not cuddly and cute in that surging, swelling scene; there’s murder in their hearts. The origin material was dark. That had to a challenge for you, to meet that big climatic moment head on. Were you particularly pleased on the day you figured out she’d not only get electrocuted . . . but she could fall off the building as well. Well done, sir!

My ending plays off the Disney one which I think they changed for good reason. In the original Grimm, the stepmother is invited to Snow’s wedding only to find that Snow orders her to dance to her death whilst wearing burning iron shoes (for the amusement of the wedding party). A tad sadistic for our heroine, I think. Disney used lightning, but I opted for her to go up in lights on the marquee of the Ziegfeld theater. The fall was probably a nod to King Kong now that I think of it.

How do you make these paintings? How many are there? I ask because my sense is that when I look at some graphic novels, many individual images appear rushed, unfinished. But in Snow White, I can see –- I think –- the deep care and commitment to every single image. It’s so impressive.

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I use traditional media: pencil, ink, and watercolor on watercolor paper. I’ve made it a rule since my first graphic novel to never ever count how many individual panels are in the book. Each panel is a painting, maybe three to six per page, more than two hundred pages . . . it’s a lot. 

Right, it’s one of those deals where if you knew in advance, if your really calculated the amount of work, it would be hard to get started. Like taking your kids on their first hike. “Don’t worry, kids, it’ll be fun!”

Yeah, the “hike” is not about the number of steps it takes. It’s all part of the greater whole. I wanted each panel to have the correct mood and atmosphere, but at the same time I never wanted one particular panel to cause a reader to stop and dwell on it. I want you to keep moving. Pace is important.

And pace is mostly a function of layout, right? The decision of multi-panel spreads compared to, say, a strong single image. At what point do you make those design decisions?

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The actual sizes of the panels are decided when I’m doing the first loose thumbnail drawings. You are correct about size and number of panels dictating pace. It’s like a musical score, in a way. For Snow White, I did try something a bit different, in that each page was drawn completely fresh on a blank sheet of paper. I had rough sketches to inspire me, but I did not enlarge the sketches and use them on a light-box as a guide like I’ve done before. By drawing it again fresh, I hoped to catch the energy and life of the sketches. If it was wrong, I just drew it again. Watercolor is also a great way to give your paintings energy and unpredictability. It’s hard to completely plan or fix a watercolor painting. You get what you get. That’s an exciting way to work.

I relate that to music. A belief in the positive value of raw performance — live in the studio — including the messiness of it. Rather than, say, polishing a song to perfection. Something vital gets lost in the refinement. The flawed version is somehow better.

I couldn’t agree more. I’d rather listen to something with mistakes played like the musicians’ lives depended on it than a supremely polished “perfect” performance. I’ll take the Replacements over Steely Dan any day.

I know you love music. Do you listen when you paint? Did this book have a specific soundtrack, or sonic influences?

I listen to music when painting and maybe during the writing (but only instrumental music). I do make playlists for the books. Snow White’s playlist had some leftovers from Bluffton, plus soundtracks like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Magnificent Ambersons and Max Steiner’s great score for King Kong. I also included The Jazz Age, a recent record by the Bryan Ferry Orchestra that arranges Roxy Music songs in a hot jazz style. It’s brilliant.

Yes! I have The Jazz Age. At first I wasn’t too keen on the idea, it felt gimmicky, but then I heard it. Good times. I’ll have to explore the scores by Herrmann and Steiner. Thanks for the tip, Matt Phelan!

 

614852MATT PHELAN does a great job with his website, which he stores somewhere on the interwebs. You can visit for free, but like the Hotel California, you may never leave. Matt splits his efforts between graphic novels (The Storm in the Barn, Bluffton, Around the World), picture books (Marilyn’s Monster, Xander’s Panda Party, and more), and whatever else inspires his attention. Like, oh, listening to Replacements records.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” Interview Series: It’s a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. 

Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: Bruce Coville, London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, Matt Faulkner, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guest so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Susan Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

6) Nancy Castaldo, “The Story of Seeds”

7) Aaron Becker, “Journey”

8) Matthew Cordell, “Wish”

9) Jeff Newman, “Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly?”