Actor-Turned-Author Evangeline Lilly Spins A Spooky Illustrated Story For Kids With ‘The Squickerwonkers’ [Interview]
Evangeline Lilly is a familiar name to sci-fi and genre fans – she broke into Hollywood's major leagues playing Kate Austen in Lost, she was the female lead in 2011's supremely fun Rocky-meets-Rock 'Em Sock 'Em flick Real Steel, and most recently, she's risen to new heights of fame for her role as elven warrior Tauriel in Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.
But while she's best known for on-camera appearances, acting is merely one of facet of her creative impulse. Lilly's first authorial effort is premiering at San Diego Comic-Con this week: a creepy crawly children's picture book entitled The Squickerwonkers, that tells a story-in-verse of a terrible child and the puppet people she encounters and antagonizes. It's a quick and delightfully dark read, illustrated in at once unsettling and beautiful fashion by WETA designer Johnny Fraser-Allen – and thanks to the fine folks at Titan Books, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Lilly about the long and convoluted path that this tale has taken on the road to publication.
ComicsAlliance: There's a dark, squiggly vibe to this first book that isn't something too common in modern "children's" lit. It shares elements with classic Brothers Grimm stories, and with the work of Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, and even R.L. Stine… But this is still pretty hard-edged and sinister, even by those standards. Did that cause any problems when you attempted to bring this to a wider audience?
Evangeline Lilly: It was the greatest obstacle to getting this book published. The world continues to become increasingly sanitized, especially when it comes to our young. But Johnny and I would have just as soon never published this story than water it down to suit mass market appetites. As youngsters, Johnny and I both had a penchant for unique books and, Johnny especially, dark themes. We were both huge fans of Jim Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and loved stories from the authors you named (who didn't?). Roald Dahl was a particular favorite of mine and I, personally, loved origins stories that had their roots in tribal culture. Johnny is a great admirer of Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, and Gris Grimly to name a couple more.
I think that Martin Baynton [author of Jane and the Dragon] said it best: "In recent years children's publishing has become increasingly cautious, fearful of upsetting those who think children should be kept safe in their original packaging. Not so the kids themselves, they are adventurers by nature, they love to test themselves against their fears."
Fear and love are perfect opposites. Children live so purely out of love that they have a different relationship to fear than us adults do.
In the end, the publisher who was brave (and wise) enough to take a leap of faith with Johnny and I was Titan Books It is no surprise that they are very established in the graphic novel genre, and that they also publish the likes of Stephen King.
CA: So this is the first of a series of Squickerwonker books?
EL: The Squickerwonkers is the first in a series of about eighteen books, broken up into two series. 1: The Demise of The Squickerwonkers (The Demise Series). 2: The Origins of The Squickerwonkers (The Origins Series).
In the Demise Series we will get to visit the story of each individual Squickerwonker as their vice leads to their ultimate and unfortunate demise. While the Origins Series will tell us the tale of how each member of The Squickerwonker clan came together. In keeping with the unorthodox themes in the first book, the Demise Series will come first and then the Origins Series. And, once the series is complete, you will see why. I love the way everything in The Squickerwonkers' world is kind of turned on its head, the structure of the series will be no exception to that quirky rule.
CA: Will there be continuing characters from book to book, or is this more of a series that builds an entire world, piece by piece, from different angles?
EL: This story has set the stage for the entire series. Our cast of leading characters are all introduced and the setting/world is established. The magical wagon has no bounds due to the "scene change" nature of theater and the fact that it can move. The cast that I have asked you to invest in in the first book are the cast that we will follow throughout the series. That's not to say that we won't introduce new supporting characters in upcoming books, but the main "cast" of puppets are all there. They are a troop of ten in the Squickershow - Papa the Proud, Mama the Mean, Gilligan the Guilty, Greer the Greedy, Andy the Arrogant, Lorna the Lazy, Gillis the Gluttonous, Sparky the Spectacle, Meghan the Mute and…finally, their newest recruit, Selma the Spoiled.
That was the hardest part about writing this first book: Johnny and I had to keep the entire series in mind and introduce it in precisely the correct way so that our readers would know what to expect and there would be no inconsistencies later.
CA: How did you first meet Johnny Fraser Allen? I'm aware he worked for WETA, and was involved in making The Hobbit, but usually, don't the design and effects teams work separately from the actors?
EL: I had never met Johnny until I went looking for an illustrator amidst [Lord of the Rings/Hobbit design visionary] Richard Taylor's brilliant design team. I'd been in WETA workshop for wardrobe and weapons fittings and knew that magical things happened inside those doors…that Peter [Jackson] and Richard had amassed some of the most talented visual artists from around the world in that one building. It was a great place to start. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be on the inside of that world and to have met so many creative and talented people.
CA: What made you decide that he was the right person to make this dream into a physical reality?
EL: Johnny was actually the one to decide that we would work on The Squickerwonkers together. I had showed him three of my children's stories when I was first looking for an illustrator and I hired/chose him to work on a story called The Galloping Man. But Johnny, unbeknownst to me, was keen to do The Squickerwonkers and had a very clear vision for the illustrations.
One day, mid-Galloping Man discussion, he showed me a watercolor painting he'd created for The Squickerwonkers and the moment I saw it I knew we would be changing gears. It was the story I'd always had in my mind, completed, through Johnny's mind, in one beautiful image.
CA: The dedication at the beginning of the book indicates that you've had the Squickerwonkers in the works for some time… When and how did you first conceive of this story?
EL: I wrote a silly poem one weeknight when I was fourteen-years-old and supposed to be doing homework. I couldn't focus and so did what I often did when I was bored: wrote. The silly title of the Squickerwonkers was just a word that I made up and liked the sound of, so I created a poem for the word. At the time I was really into Dr. Seuss and poetry in general, and I loved the irreverent way that Seuss refused to be limited by language. I finished writing the poem and liked it, so I read it to my mom and she loved it. She said she thought I should try to publish it which was very encouraging but not advice that I really took to heart.
For the twenty years since, Mom has checked in with me periodically on The Squickerwonkers, "What about that poem you wrote? You know the one. When are you going to publish that? I just love that story."
CA: Did the concept and story change much over the years, between that initial idea and the finished book?
EL: In shades, yes. The dark and silly story of a bratty little girl who gets her balloon popped by a motley crew of outcasts who ultimately inherit her intended fortune was where I began in 1994. And it was a poem back then, only not a poem in limerick meter.
Then, as the story incubated in the back recesses of my mind for twenty years, it grew limbs. Unconsciously, I was conceiving of who and what this group of Squickerwonkers really were and that is when the concept for the series took root. As a kid I loved the "Mr. and Mrs." series, identifying with some characters more than others. I think that is what most of us look for in a story…we want to find a character we can relate to. And what could be more easy and more fun to relate to than vices? And so, I knew my series would be like that the "Mr. and Mrs." series: it would follow one character in a clan of fun, identifiable characters per book.
So, I started to understand who the Squickerwonkers were, but the question of what they were was still hazy in my mind. I knew that they weren't human, but I knew that they lived in a human world and were barely distinguishable from humans.
When Johnny came on board in 2012, he answered the what question for me by suggesting the wagon and the puppets. I knew instantly that this was always what the Squickerwonkers were meant to be. It was the missing piece of the Squicker-puzzle.
So, with a cast of characters in mind and a setting in place it was time for me to get to work on the very difficult task of re-writing the story to serve as a stand-alone book that would also set-up a very large book series.
CA: Have you always conceived of this as a book, or did you ever consider bringing the Squickerwonkers to life in other media?
EL: I consider this book a cross-pollination of children's storybook and graphic novel. Say, a children's graphic novel; an introduction to the graphic medium for the little ones amongst us. Most children's story books, intentionally, have a lot of negative space. Johnny and I created a children's book that has almost zero negative space. It's a constant visual feast. This is more typical of a graphic novel.
But to answer your question properly – I have every intention of seeing this story onto a screen or stage one day, should it be successful enough, in written form, to gain the attention of partners in said mediums. Richard Taylor of WETA workshop is first in line to produce the stop-animation version of The Squickerwonkers. The Squickerwonkers is a natural fit for the screen.
But, in the meantime, I am creating a beautiful, interactive book as an outlet for those customers who, like me, want to become more absorbed in the Squicker world through voice, song and interactive elements. Sylvester McCoy [The Seventh Doctor in Doctor Who, Radagast in The Hobbit] has lent his voice and the talented Tane Upjohnbeatson contributed his musical talents to the creation of the interactive book's soundtrack. It's a sneak peek into the potential the story has on the screen and will be sold on a variety of digital platforms.
CA: How did the Titan partnership come together, finally?
EL: The truth is…I chased them down. Last year I self-published a limited edition of The Squickerwonkers for SDCC13 and sold the books at the WETA Workshop booth. Titan were there visiting with Richard Taylor and he considerately introduced them to my book. But…I never heard from them. So, I tracked them down. I pursued a publishing deal with them more aggressively than with any other publisher because I truly believed that I'd found a good home for my book with them. But, at first, they said no, for a variety of reasons.
I suppose this story is a testament of why you should always believe in whatever you're passionate about. I presented a convincing argument as to why they ought to reconsider and, thankfully, they actually did give the story a second look. This time, instead of just the heads of the company giving the book a look, they passed the book around to the whole UK office. The response from the staff was a resounding "YES" and the whole discussion turned around. They became open to the idea.
The nail in the proverbial coffin was when they got on the phone with me and realized how passionate I was about my story, the book, the series and my career as an author. That seemed to hit a chord with Titan. They love to work with passionate people and found my passion to be infectious.
So, now, a year later, here we are together, on the brink of a journey together…both equally as passionate and excited about our first publication together: The Squickerwonkers series.
CA: Following the release of this first volume, what's next up for you and the Squickerwonkers?
EL: The best way to keep up is to follow me on my social networks, where I will always be announcing where I am and what I'm doing, and how you can be a part of it. There's my website, my instagram, my facebook, my twitter, my Pintrest…and you can even get the news delivered directly to your inbox by signing up to the Squickerclub!
Evangeline Lilly's schedule for San Diego Comic-Con includes the official Squickerwonkers Comic-Con Panel on Friday, 7/25 at 10:30am in room 6A; signings on 7/25 from 12:00pm-1:30pm at booth AA20 and from 2:00pm-3:00pm at WETA booth #3613; a panel and signing at Nerd HQ in Petco Park 7/25 at 4pm; the Nerdist Podcast Live recording at the Balboa Theatre on Saturday 7/26 at 7:30pm; and another signing at WETA booth #3613 on Sunday 7/27 at 11:30am – Book One of The Squickerwonkers will be released to book stores and comic shops on November 18.