Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.
Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?
Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!
There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?
Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.
What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”
At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”
Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.
DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.
I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.
I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?
I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.
Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.
It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.
Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.
JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.
Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.
If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.
Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .
Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?
I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.
There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?
I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?
I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.
Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.
Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!
We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.
Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.
You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?
The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.
When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”
Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.
I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?
TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.
Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?
I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.
Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?
That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).
Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.
I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!
I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.
Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!
Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.
No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.
No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”
There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”
Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”
Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.
So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?
What? No vampires or zombies in it?
NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?
I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).
You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.
Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.
Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?
My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.
Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?
Gonna have to go with Sandler.
Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?
I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.
Separated at birth?
I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?
Has to be Nestles Crunch!
Top of your head, five favorite books?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend(any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker(it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.
Five favorite movies?
The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.
First album you ever bought as a kid?
The Who’s Quadraphenia.
Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.
Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?
1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!
Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.
Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly: