From Spiderwick to Comics: Talking to Holly Black

We recently chatted with artist Ted Naifeh about his work on the recent graphic novel The Good Neighbors Book One: Kin from Scholastic. Now we’re privileged to talk with that book’s writer, Holly Black.

Black is one of the most popular authors for young readers, best-known for her series The Spiderwick Chronicles with Tony DiTerlizzi, which was the basis for a popular film earlier this year. She’s also the author of the more teen-oriented Modern Fareie Tales series, which includes Tithe, Valiant and Ironside.

Now, Black’s tackling the graphic novel format with The Good Neighbors, the dark tale of Rue Silver, a young girl who discovers her mother’s disappearance is linked to a world lurking beneath the surface of her own – a world of faeries who are decidedly more dangerous than children’s stories have led us to expect. Black took some time out to answer our questions about her book, her favorite comics, and why she decided to get into the graphic novel game.

Newsarama: Holly why did you want to tell this story in a graphic novel format?

Holly Black: I thought this idea felt more visual than one of my novels - and because I love graphic novels and really wanted to have the opportunity to try my hand at one. I want to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn new ways of storytelling.

NRAMA: What were some of your inspirations for this story? You draw from the real-life case of Bridget Cleary -- what made you want to modernize it?

HB: The story of Bridget Cleary fascinated me because it only happened about a hundred years ago. That is so recent--my great grandmother would have been alive then--that it's hard to conceive that a man could murder his wife in front of family and neighbors, and they were all so invested in the idea that she was a changeling that they didn't stop him.

The idea that someone could be a changeling fascinates me, and the idea that people could believe in changelings so much that they would kill someone fascinates me, so I decided to try and construct a mystery where our protagonist, Rue, doesn't know if her father is the reason her mother is missing and isn't sure whether or not her mother is a faery.

I was interested in writing the story in a contemporary setting, because of some of the other things I wanted to be able to do with Rue's relationship to her family and to her grandfather's plan to take over the city.

NRAMA: How did you come to work with Ted on this project? Were you familiar with his work on Courtney Crumrin, and what made you feel he was a good fit for The Good Neighbors?

HB: The first book of Ted's I saw was actually How Loathsome, and it is still my favorite of his books, although I love the Courtney books a whole lot. Charles de Lint recommended his work to me, and I was totally smitten. He draws dangerous, androgynous, gorgeous people that I absolutely love, and his faeries capture the otherworldy quality of beings who both frighten and fascinate.

NRAMA: What have been some of the challenges in working in a sequential format, as opposed to straight prose?

HB: Coming into this, I knew that I would have to pare down the text and consider the visual elements as expansion and even reversals of what I was writing. Those were the challenges that I thought would be fun. In my prose novels, I sometimes spend a lot of time fiddling with descriptions, trying to get the right mood.

But the hardest thing is all the stuff I didn't know that I didn't know (and maybe still don't know I don't know). It's a huge learning curve to understand a new medium and I still have a lot to learn.

NRAMA: You've worked heavily in illustrated prose with Spiderwick, and now graphic novels with this. What do you feel are some of the advantages of having a visual element in a story, as opposed to leaving it all in the reader's head?

HB: I think, first of all, the visual elements give the reader immediate pleasure. Our eyes "read" pictures faster that prose and, also, the combination of two different ways of getting information can feel more immersive.

One of the things that Tony DiTerlizzi told me when we started working on Spiderwick was that he wasn't going to illustrate the parts that I described intensely; instead, he would focus on the things I didn't describe. In Spiderwick and in The Good Neighbors, what I love most is the way that the art is in conversation with the text. The illustrations expand--and even contradict--the text, creating a kind of tension that adds layers to the reading experience.

NRAMA: Your work (and Ted's) often deals with the conflict between the mortal and faerie worlds. Why do you feel that's such a fertile source of stories?

HB: Unlike lots of supernatural creatures (notably the vampire and the werewolf), faeries are creatures that have never been human. They are alien, with different morals and customs and concerns. There are also many different kinds of faeries, from the faerie courts with their beautiful and cruel royals to the lone goat-headed trickster phooka and bloodthirsty hag grinding bones in a cottage.

Faeries are associated with wild untamed nature, with art, and with death--so the folklore is rich with different stories to explore.

NRAMA: How long do you see the series running? There are two more volumes announced -- do you see this as a trilogy or as something longer?

HB: Right now, I see it as a trilogy--Kin, Kith and Kind. They are organized around betrayals; the first volume is about family betrayals, the second about betrayals in love and the third and final volume is about the way we betray ourselves. As I'm someone who changes a lot of my outline as I write, all my ideas right now are getting channeled into the next two books.

NRAMA: What appeals to you about writing the character of Rue? With the exception of battling evil faeries, do any of her teenage experiences mirror your own? I'm particularly interested in the part where they break into the buildings and take pictures -- did you ever do anything like that, or was this something you heard about?

HB: I grew up at the Jersey Shore, where there are a lot of old buildings (particularly in Asbury Park) that have been abandoned. As kids, we were a lot less organized than Rue and her friends, so we never took pictures or really planned anything, but we would try and get into old buildings and spent a lot of nights wandering around our and neighboring towns.

It is really interesting how the landscape of a place changes at night and how certain places--like an old half-built mausoleum--become these magical, luminal spaces.

NRAMA: How did you develop the environment of West City? Is it based on places you have known...again, um, minus the evil faeries.

HB: I wanted West City to be visually a small city on the West Coast--a place that I don't know all that well, but that Ted does. So, West City is visually all Ted, although certainly evocative of places where I grew up.

NRAMA: There are some subtle references to Tithe in the story -- is this set in the same universe?

HB: In my mind, this is happening on the opposite coast from the Modern Faerie Tale books, but in the same world.

NRAMA: Can you give readers any hints as to what is coming up in the next volume?

HB: Well, I always outline ahead of time and then I always change things -- big things -- as I go, so I am leery of saying anything. I guess I can say that the mystery of what happened to Nia will be resolved, but Rue will have lots and lots of other problems.

NRAMA: The book's gotten a major launch and push toward the teen market, which has proven tough to crack for American comics. What do you feel are the challenges in getting younger readers, particularly teens, interested in a comic book?

HB: I think if readers are unfamiliar with graphic novels, then that might make them wary of it or unsure of what to expect. But I also think there are lots of teenagers and adults who love reading comics and will be more likely to pick this up than one of my prose novels, so I hope it will balance out.

NRAMA: What are some of your favorite comics right now?

Well, certainly, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, Bill Willingham’s Fables, the Lucifer series written by Mike Carey, and, of course, Ted Naifeh’s fantastic and fantastical Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things.

I’ve been really enjoying Cecil Castellucci’s The P.L.A.I.N. Janes, and was very sad when DC canceled the Minx line. I also really love Shannon and Dean Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge. I read several online comics regularly too, like Elizabeth Genco’s Scheherazade (which I wish she would do as a graphic novel so I could own it) and Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself continuing to work in the graphic novel medium beyond this series?

HB: I would love to.

NRAMA: Anything you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

HB: Well, the thing about writing about faeries is that they are so often thought about as tiny girls in pink dresses with glittery wings, which is an image that was created in the Victorian era. In the older folklore, faeries were frightening beings. In fact, it was such a bad idea to get their attention that people would use flattering euphemisms for them, such as "the people of peace," "the little people," and "the good neighbors." That's where I got the title from.

The Good Neighbors Volume One: Kin is in stores now.

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