BILL WILLINGHAM p3: Prose Novels


When Bill Willingham broke into the world of prose, his novel Peter & Max was a direct tie-in to the hit Vertigo series.

But now the writer is branching beyond Fables — while kicking his prose career into high gear — with September's hardcover release of Down the Mysterly River.

And according to Willingham, there are even more novels coming soon.

Mysterly River, which is being released in September with illustrations by Fables artist Mark Buckingham, follows the story of a boy who becomes immersed in a magical world of talking animals as he pursues the mystery of why they are being hunted. Although Willingham didn't have a demographic in mind when he wrote Mysterly River, the novel is being released as a "middle grade" book, aimed at an age just under the "young adult" category.

The novel is getting some good early buzz, and it comes just as Willingham himself announced a new Fables spin-off series from Vertigo, Fairest.

As fans of Willingham might remember, a very early version of Mysterly River was released on a tiny scale 10 years ago, before Willingham's success in comics. But recently, he dusted off the old manuscript, did a major rewrite on it, and added illustrations.

In this third part of a three-part interview (click here for part one and part two), Newsarama talked with Willingham about his budding prose career and what readers can expect from Beyond the Mysterly River.

Newsarama: For fans who are familiar with your work on Fables or even the Peter & Max prose novel you did, how would you describe Down the Mysterly River?

Bill Willingham: Well, first off, the novel's title is not a typo. It's a mispronunciation, of course, of the word "mystery." And I guess I've been with it for a while because I can now not pronounce the word "mystery" correctly without stopping and thinking about it.


Down the Mysterly River is the story of a young Boy Scout detective who falls into a magical land of talking animals and needs to figure out what's going on.

It's really just a blatant move on my part to jump on that Boy Scout detective in a magical land of talking animals bandwagon, since it's so popular now. And you know, just cash in on it.

Nrama: You had written this a while ago, right? And revamped it?

Willingham: Yep, I wrote it the first time 10 years ago, when my career was still pretty much on the skids. I think I was just starting to get some work at Vertigo doing some of the Sandman spin-off stuff. And since I had the time and the inclination to see if I could write a novel, I did.

This was partly helped by the Clockwork Storywork boys, the fellows I share the writing group with. With the exception of Chris Roberson at the time, none of us had brought a novel to completion. We'd all started stuff and gotten partway through before tabling it. So it was kind of a bet or dare amongst us to each bring a full novel into completion. Down the Mysterly River was my effort in that.

I guess it's something I'd been wanting to do, because it contains many of the elements that went into Fables, which was the next thing I did after this book. You know, talking animals and magical lands and just that kind of feeling about everything.


I didn't just get the idea for Fables all at once. I sort of snuck up on it. Bits and pieces of what would eventually become Fables kept showing up in other work. And Down the Mysterly River was, I guess, the last step on that road to figuring out, golly, this is clearly what I like writing about, so let's figure out some way to write about something in that sandbox.

Nrama: How long was it lying in mothballs between when you wrote it and when it was finally published?

Willingham: It was about 10 years between when I wrote it and when my agent started shopping it around. And before that happened, I heavily rewrote it.

Those few who were able to read the first version will find substantially the same story, but much changed and, I hope, much improved in this version.

Nrama: The original version was available for purchase through Clockwork Storybook, right?

Willingham: Yes, the print-on-demand technology was just taking off at that point, so we did a little print-on-demand experiment with it. I think it sold maybe 100 copies, maybe a little more. Less than 200. So it was less than the number of "ARCs," which is what the publishing field calls the advanced reader copies that they send out prior to a real publication to get some excitement going and to get reviews. So we will call that a pre-ARC ARC version of Mysterly River.

Nrama: The book is categorized by your publisher as a book for "middle grade" readers. Was that the intent when you wrote it?

Willingham: Not really. When I wrote Down the Mysterly River, I wasn't specifically aiming at any particular demographic. I wanted to do two things: I wanted to do a talking animals story, because ever since, probably, since Reepicheep and the Narnia books, I've just loved talking animal stories, then discovered so many more in the old beast tales and fairy tales and things as divergent as Call of the Wild and Watership Down. So I wanted to try my hand at a talking animal story.


I also wanted to make it a Boy Scout story because I grew up in the Boy Scouts. I think it was and continues to be a fine organization, and it was just getting a lot of bad press recently from those who can't understand that not every organization has to be dedicated to all of the things that are in style or in vogue at the moment. So I wanted to write a very pro-Boy Scout story.

And then I wanted to find some way to match those two desires together.

When I wrote the book, I was hoping to get younger as well as older readers. The publishers who eventually bought it, Tor Books, told me this is indeed in the category of "Middle-Grade Fiction," which is something I wasn't aware of. It's that stage between children's books and Young Adult novels. Who knew?

Nrama: People who are familiar with your Fables writing know that you've got a streak of adult humor running through what would otherwise be thought of as children-oriented characters, yet this book is aimed at a younger audience, right? Is this different from the style you use in Fables?

Willingham: The humor, what humor there is in the book, is not adult-targeted. It's a little younger, a little more innocent. I truly hope adults will enjoy this. I know those adults who have read it do. Or at least those willing to speak to me after reading it do. But there aren't adult sensibilities in the sense of grown-up humor or grown-up problems. It's a boys adventure book, and I set out to write that specifically.

After the publisher determined it was a Middle Readers book, the only thing I had to change to make it fit was one scene where one of the characters pissed down the face of a rock to annoy some dogs who were chasing it. And the word "pissed" is apparently not appropriate. I forget what I changed it to. Probably urinated. But that was it for the changes required to make it fit steadfastly into that Middle Readers category.

Nrama: Does Mysterly River have illustrations?

Willingham: Because it's a Middle-Grade book, we got none other than Mark Buckingham to illustrate it. And he did it wonderfully, which is another thing that those who saw the first version of Mysterly River didn't get.


This of course is something we didn't tell [editor] Shelly [Bond] at Vertigo, because she gets a little antsy when individually we go off to work on things not Fables, and together? That would have caused steam to come out of her ears. No, I say that jokingly. Shelly calm down.

But Mark illustrates Mysterly River and it's terrific. And I will reiterate that I will crawl across a road of broken glass to work with Mark anytime he wants to. So that was just a nice little bonus to doing this book.

Nrama: Does this project represent a move you're making toward prose, Bill? Obviously, Fables fans would love to see another tie-in novel like Peter & Max, but does this mean you'll write more novels in general?

Willingham: Yeah. As a matter of fact, you'd better. I promised my agent that they would have the next novel, which is not a Mysterly River sequel, and it's not a Fables novel. It's an adult urban fantasy thing. And I need to turn that in at the end of July.

So yes, hopefully there will be may more prose works to come.

I'm enjoying doing prose works for a couple of reasons. One, as much as I love comics and I will hopefully always do comics, the challenge of "do I know how to do this?" is no longer there. I mean, any good story is always going to be a challenge to write. But I'm talking about the mechanical challenge, like "can I learn the structure of comics? And the special language of comics?" That, for better or worse, has already been decided long ago.

So I want something that still sparks that question of, "Can I do this?" And prose work is filling that need right now.

And of course the other thing is, as I grow older and grumpier, I want to control more and more of the elements of a story, not less and less. I want to collaborate with fewer storytellers. Compromise and shared visions are one thing. But just telling the story I absolutely want to tell, all by myself, is a pretty compelling urge. And novels is the way to do that. There's really only one author of a novel.


One of the things I keep railing against is, ever since Fables started hitting the New York Times bestseller list, I've been called a best-selling author. And I'm not, because with a comic, the author is the writer and the illustrator combined. Both are needed to tell the story fully -- not one or the other. So the only "authors" on their own in comics are those that do both of those jobs themselves. Mark Buckingham and I combined, for example, are perhaps one best-selling author. I was just at the American Library Association, where they kept introducing me as the author of this and the author of that, and I kept having to correct them. In the comics’ world, we should not equate the writer automatically with the "author." I suppose I am a best-selling writer. The word "writer" is describing a particular job. So that's accurate.

But yes, there will be more prose works from me. As a matter of fact, I just sent off the treatment for the sequel to Mysterly River. And I got notes back, and my agents seem to think they can sell the sequel. I hope that's true, because I'm greedy enough and arrogant enough to think that Mysterly River can spawn any number of sequels set in the same magical place.

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