Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Today, I am pleased to welcome to our site, Aliza Layne, author of the Graphic Novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, from Simon & Schuster which came out on August 4th.
JR: Hi, Aliza and thanks for joining us today!
AL: Thanks so much for chatting with me!
JR: First off, for those who don’t know about the book, can you tell us a little bit about Beetle & the Hollowbones and where the idea for this story came from?
AL: Beetle is a story about a young witch whose routine of bumming around at the mall with her best friend is shaken up when she realizes that Blob Ghost not only is a kid living by themselves in a mall, but is actually trapped there by a wall of necro-energy. So when the mall is about to be torn down, the only thing to do is get B.G. out of there. Beetle has a lot on her plate with this and it doesn’t help that her crush might be evil! It’s a story about unforgivable birds, rowdy grandmothers and trying not to be awful at magic. The idea started with the characters, I made up some Halloween kids who had great chemistry and just figured everything else out from there!
JR: The crush is always evil! I learned that in high school. This started as a web comics, which you do a lot of as well, such as the popular Demon Street. What are the pros and cons of doing a web comic as opposed to a more traditional format?
AL: Webcomics are really incredible! Almost anybody can do one if they have an internet connection, a camera or a scanner, and a pen and paper. You find a place to put it up and you put it up! The problem with webcomics is, not to get too down to brass tax, that you don’t make very much money at it, usually. You also don’t have as much access to collaboration and editors so it’s difficult to put something out that’s super slick. And because people are generally not being paid enough for their time, most of them are passion projects that take a really long time to finish, because you have to focus on other stuff! But when it comes to showing everybody your raw talent, they can’t be beat. I see things being done in webcomics that are raw and weird and brilliant all the time and I wouldn’t trade my time in webcomics for anything!
JR: Much of the action takes place at a mall, which right there had me hooked. Malls were a huge part of my childhood. So much so, that I made it an important in one of my books, as well. What is it about a mall that appealed to you and also made you think it made for a good story?
AL: There’s this thing that’s happening to malls around the country that is SO spooky, where they are becoming the kind of gothic that’s really funny, because we DID used to have mall goths. For the benefit of your readers who might not know, in the late 1700s the genre of romanticism in literature gave way to the genre of gothic; that is to say, there was (I’m kind of paraphrasing here) a loosely-defined era where art dominated that had this focus on beauty and prosperity, followed by an era where a genre showed up in response to that. Beautiful castles and manors became spooky, crumbing ruins. Poetic heroes got twisted became wicked, bizarre creeps, and sometimes people who were the wicked, bizarre creeps of the story became poetic heroes! It was really cool! For people who grew up hanging out in malls, they used to have these pretty palace-like facades where you were supposed to spend money and forget what time it is, but in a lot of rural areas (and other places) they’re just kind of being abandoned and left to rot. So I think there’s so much room for a weird new kind of gothic there! What’s left to get all crumbling and nasty after the mall isn’t cool anymore? I also find the idea of treating this so seriously to be super funny.
JR: You used to work in a mall. What store, and did any of your experiences influence anything in this story?
AL: I used to work at a bookstore! The pumpkinhead person in chapter one is just me. At some point while I was working there, some teens upended a puck of yellow dinosaur slime onto the carpet in the back and it hardened into amber, I tried to chip it off the floor with a sticker scraper but I couldn’t even get the dinosaur out of it, let alone the whole dried puck. It’s STILL back there. I go back and visit the store sometimes if one of my friends is working there. They tried to hide the dinosaur slime puck, but I know where it is.
JR: Now I need to go search for dinosaur slime puck! I also read on your website, https://beetlebones.net/ that you’re known for your Halloween costumes. What are some of your better costumes, and what goes into making a great Halloween costume?
AL: The main thing about Halloween costumes is passion and it also helps to go with the classics. Last year I was a wizard, I made a big yellow and orange and pink beard out of needlefelt fiber and wore a pink wig and kids got a kick out of it! But a couple of years I have been a pumpkinhead, and THAT always gets em. I made the pumpkinhead costume myself out of half a carvable fake craft pumpkin carved into a jack-o-lantern face and full of those little electric tealights so it’d look like it was lit up, and I put some plastic netting inside so you couldn’t see in.
JR: That’s an awesome costume! Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
AL: I cold-emailed for agents to represent my pitch for Beetle for about a year before I connected with Susan Graham, who I instantly bonded with over our shared love for illustrated novels. Susan was representing some of my friends, so I was happy to get to know them too! At that point it was a very traditional search for the right editor and the right publisher. We were lucky to connect with some really lovely people along the way! But before Beetle was ever a book, it was actually a cartoon pitch! You can still read my storyboards for it on my website.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
AL: I always start with the seed of an idea (or a character) and then go from there, keeping in mind a couple of things: the themes I want to touch on with the story (which make themselves known as I’m writing it) and how I can make it as satisfying as possible. I like to create stories that feel like they’re coming from the heart, so a good compass is whether the story I’m writing can evoke the same emotions in me as I mean for it to do in the reader. I pay attention to what makes me cry or pine or laugh or feel joy, and if I’m writing a scene that is meant to make me feel a strong emotion and it doesn’t, I need to find out why!
JR: What’s your favorite book from childhood?
AL: That’s such a difficult question! I think I’d be lying, though, if I said it wasn’t the first two Abarat books, by Clive Barker. They were exactly the books I needed the most when I was 12 years old, and the lush oil paintings that came in the illustrated edition of the book are still an artistic influence for me.
JR: What’s your favorite childhood movie?
Another super tough one! The first thing that comes to mind is Mirrormask, which is a movie I still love a lot, and another really big visual influence for me. I really respect the purity of the feelings in that movie, it was another one that felt like it had been made for me when I was 12/13. I love weird art about earnest feelings and I really respect the intense way that kids feel things, even when people don’t think they do, or aren’t paying attention to the fact that they do.
JR: I think that’s the first time we’ve got either of those answers, so it’s nice to be exposed to new things to check out. Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
AL: I’m a self-taught cartoonist! I got to learn a lot of disciplines going to college locally, but I learned all the cartooning I know from seeing things I liked and figuring out what worked about them. I’m really glad I got to learn watercolor and collage and sculpting and pottery, on top of being useful when I apply what I learned to the art I do for work, they’re all fun and fulfilling!
JR: That’s amazing that you’ve taught yourself! What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
AL: Telling a story and writing for your job is only hard because life around it makes it hard. The pressure of trying to survive while you’re writing make a lot of people have to give up, and they don’t deserve to have to compromise that to stay alive. So if anyone reading is looking for advice: if you have to give up on writing for a while to survive, just understand that that’s because of the pressures of the world, not because you weren’t good enough. I’m lucky to be where I am, even when I’m struggling. Everything else about it is just working and making it happen.
JR: That’s great advice! What are you working on next?
AL: That’s a secret for now, but I’m excited and I hope readers will stick around!
JR: Can’t wait to find out! How can people follow you on social media?
JR: Thanks again to Aliza Layne and make sure you go out and get Beetle & the Hollowbones!