Talking Comics with Tim: Jim Ottaviani
An interview with Jim Ottaviani is long overdue, on multiple levels. Ottaviani is a storyteller that has been impressing peers and entertaining/informing readers since 1997. I should have interviewed the writer a long time ago. And in fact, I did. This email interview was conducted in mid-November 2009, but logistical snafus on my end prevented me from being able to post this interview until now. My apologies to Ottaviani for the delay. On the good news front, since this interview, Ottaviani’s latest book (T-Minus: The Race to the Moon)–which we discuss a great deal–was included in YALSA’s 2010 Great Graphic Novel for Teens (ALA) list. T-Minus, as described by Ottaviani at his G.T. Labs site, “tells you what happens when you take two global superpowers, dozens of daring pilots, thousands of engineers and scientists, and then point them at the night sky and say “Go!?” So join the whole world as it counts down to sending the first men to the moon, and discover the story of the people who made it happen, both in the rockets and behind the scenes.” We also got a chance to discuss his upcoming work for First Second and Tor.com.
Tim O’Shea: You’ve been writing graphic novels since 1997, a period of time that has seen numerous independent creators come and go. What about the creative process has kept you around and interested in projects?
Jim Ottaviani: The short answer is everything about the process keeps me interested: I enjoy finding out about new scientists and subjects, figuring out whether there’s a graphic novel in their story somewhere, doing the research, and then crafting that story. And the pleasure of seeing the finished product — a story I care about realized via the skills of artist(s) I admire — never grows old.
O’Shea: Is there any science topic that you’re too intimidated to try to tackle as a book topic?
Ottaviani: A few years ago I would have said Richard Feynman, but now that a book about him is well on its way towards completion — First Second will publish it, and I’ve seen the art and it looks great! — I guess I’ll have to come up with a new answer.
The challenges of making the great discoveries in mathematics visual has intimidated me, I suppose, but I still think I’ll tackle one or more mathematicians at some point. Just have to figure out how…
O’Shea: How did the T-Minus project come together?
Ottaviani: I’d wanted to do a book about the space race for a long time, and an opportunity to write it for Simon & Schuster’s young adult imprint came along just as I was about to take some time off from my day job to work on a few other books. I wrote a pitch, the editor liked it and also liked Zander and Kevin’s art — how could they not? — and off we went. Looking back it’s kind of weird how easy it was to sell this idea! Timing and good luck are everything.
O’Shea: Did you provide thumbnails to the Cannon art team (Zander and Kevin, same last name, but no relation) or how did you map out the tale?
Ottaviani: I did for BONE SHARPS, COWBOYS, AND THUNDER LIZARDS, the first book we did together, but didn’t do much of that for T-MINUS. There are two reasons why: First, our deadline for T-MINUS was very tight and there was no time.
Second, and more importantly, there was no need. BONE SHARPS had gone so well that I had no doubt that we would quickly see the story in similar ways with or without me providing that level of direction. So I wrote a script, sketched out some page layouts and panel arrangement when what I was asking for was complicated — or just harder to describe in words than via a picture, and we went from there. And then, timing and luck was once again on our side: It turned out that I was going to be in Minneapolis for my day job just when they were starting their thumbnails, and Zander and I were at the MoCCA and San Diego conventions as they finished up rough pencils, so we were able to go over things together, in person. So we could talk things through in person, which allowed me to adjust the script based on what they were doing and give feedback on how to make things better.
And vice versa — again, Kevin and Zander are first rate storytellers. If I’d just handed them a script and vanished for a year they still would have turned it into something you would have loved. So they brought a lot of good ideas to the book, and talked me out of plenty of my own bad ideas!
O’Shea: Some of your footnotes left me screaming to myself “Dang I want to know more!” Case in point, I’d love to know what happened to Joe Shea (footnote on page 88).
Ottaviani: Yeah, sorry about that.
You should see the cutting room floor! The book was originally going to be longer, but even if it was three times as long as it ended up being you’d still be screaming at yourself — or more likely, me — for more detail. There’s one major piece that it killed me to have to cut, but I think it will make for a fine book on its own. Someday.
But I put those bibliographies in the back, and more extensive ones on my website, for a reason! Grab some of those books from the bibliography and have a ball. I’m happy if one of my books is the first thing you read about a topic, but even happier if it’s not the last.
O’Shea: When you wrote “There’s one major piece that it killed me to have to cut, but I think it will make for a fine book on its own. Someday.” What was that major piece? (I understand if you don’t want to answer, because 10 years from now, someone will be going “hey where is that heat shielding contractor story you were gonna do?” )
Ottaviani: Well, I will err on the side of being coy here, since as you say, people have long memories. I sure do…I want to read the end of Alan Moore’s “Big Numbers,” Neil Gaiman’s “Miracleman,” and Angus McKie’s “The Blue Lily” too.
Anyway, there was an interesting side-road I would have liked to take with regards to the notorious Mercury medical exams. In the book C.C. alludes to this when talking about the ideal astronaut. Nothing came of it, but the 13 women who passed that rigorous exam are a fascinating study in the politics of the time. Someday, I hope…
O’Shea: Writing for young people, what kind of details do you leave out to streamline the story for your audience? Were there aspects of the story you would have left in, had the target audience been adult?
Ottaviani: There would have been more smoking, drinking, and swearing, but that’s about it.
Seriously, there’s nothing in there that we dumbed down just because the book was for a younger audience — we agreed early on that we were going to do a book like the ones we liked when we were 10-12 years old, which means adult stuff…but not the boring adult stuff. Or in the case of all those vices I mentioned, the irrelevant adult stuff.
O’Shea: You got to interview many of the legendary astronauts from NASA–was that intimidating at all? How much fun was that? Any chance you would ever want to do a biographical graphic novel about any of the astronauts?
Ottaviani: Yes it was intimidating, and yes it was fun. My wife said she could tell who I was on the phone with because she’d hear me use my “astronaut voice”.
But I’m not sure I want to do a graphic novel about any of those people. They’re heroic and important figures — I would bet that if humanity is still around in 1000 years, one of the few pictures from the 20th century that people will still look at is the one Neil Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin. But. There are so many good books about them already that I’m inclined to say that the world doesn’t need another one by me. Can I improve on Michael Collins’ “Carrying the Fire”? No way.
But even as I write this, I’m thinking Alexei Leonov…hmm. His book with Dave Scott, called “Two Sides of the Moon” sure is good, but it’s not all about him. Again, hmm…
O’Shea: How did the scene memorializing all those who died in the space race pursuit come about, was that your idea or one of the Cannon’s?
Ottaviani: That was in the script, and was even one of the scenes I offered as part of the story proposal. So it was there from the beginning, since we thought it was important to make it clear that there are real costs to exploring the unknown. But Kevin and Zander sure do make it sing, don’t they?
O’Shea: Speaking of death, there’s a fair share of it in pages 78-80–how did you go about how to pace these pages and what and how to show some of the tragedy offpanel?
Ottaviani: I wish I had a good answer to that question, because it’s a good one and an opportunity to make myself sound smart and thoughtful. But I don’t, so I’ll have to make something up after the fact based on how the story worked out.
So…the pacing is such that we wanted to keep the tension high as the race moved towards its conclusion, while at the same time not getting too graphic with the details. There’s nothing pretty about dying in the ways these people did, and there’s nothing to gain story-wise by showing those deaths explicitly. So we didn’t. We wanted to focus on how the costs mounted as quickly as the tension did.
O’Shea: You have self-published many of your books, but T-Minus was published by Simon & Schuster. Please explain the positives and negatives of relinquishing some of the business aspects to someone else’s worry?
Ottaviani: There are many positives, the most basic of which is I don’t have to deal with moving boxes of books all over the world. I like the folks at my local post office, and my local UPS drivers give great service as well, but I’d be delighted to never have to pack and ship a box of books again.
More importantly, S&S’s contacts in the world of publishing and reviewers is also first rate, so even though I’d had nibbles from place like the Junior Library Guild and reviews in prominent sources before, they were able to make more things happen in terms of publicity.
The only negative I can think of is that as a large publishing company, they have to be more brutal about profit and loss figures. So some decisions I might have made without regard to expense in terms of the physical aspects of the book were constrained by what their spreadsheets told them they could justify. But that’s a small thing, and as many writers and artists will tell you, while constraints often start off looking like your enemy, they often end up being your friend. And I think that was true here — a particular shout-out to our editor Liesa Abrams who, by pushing me to rethink things on more than one occasion, made sure that was the case many times.
O’Shea: Back in September, along with attending SPX, that same weekend, you had a T-Minus signing at the National Air and Space Museum? How did that go–any interesting encounters from that event?
Ottaviani: It went great — the folks at the Museum were pleased with the turnout, and I had a great time. As for encounters, above me, SpaceShipOne. To my left, Apollo 11. Upstairs, an exhibit of Alan Bean’s paintings. And a bunch of people excited about the book and asking me to sign it. Who could ask for more?
O’Shea: Is it too early to discuss your next project, which Tor has agreed to publish?
Ottaviani: If it is, you and I will never be heard from again, I guess.
It’s a story about Alan Turing, the famed mathematician, computer scientist, and code-breaker as part of a top secret project during WWII. That last aspect, when combined with the situation he found himself in as an openly gay man in post-WWII England, that makes his story such a good one — at least in the sense that a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy can be good. Secrets kept too well, secrets that could and perhaps should have been kept but weren’t, and ignorance crashing into enlightenment are the themes churning in my head as I continue to research the book. I say continue since I’ve wanted to do a book on him for years, and started seriously planning for it two years ago during a visit to Bletchley Park.
I’ve written some of it too, of course, but not enough to say much more about the details. Not so much because those are secret, but because I don’t know them myself!