Susan Dennard, featuring Adam-Troy Castro & Kristen Margiotta
I enjoy reading middle grade, but rarely do I find a middle grade novel that forces me to stop everything I’m doing and read.
GUSTAV GLOOM did precisely this. From the charming voice to the breakneck pacing to the cleverly layered plot to the thoroughly 3D cast of characters, I honestly could not put this down. I recall describing it to some fellow Pub(lishing) Crawlers as “it’s just so delightful.”
But it was scary too. And dark. And mysterious. The only thing I didn’t like about the book was the villain, and I’m rather certain I wasn’t meant to like him. The People Taker is all sorts of terrifying–those fears you had when you were trying to fall asleep as a child? The People Taker pretty much encapsulates them all.
Okay. Enough gushing. The book is out today, and you MUST buy it. For your kids, for yourself.
GUSTAV GLOOM AND THE PEOPLE TAKER
Fernie What finds herself lost in the Gloom mansion after her cat appears to have been chased there by its own shadow. Fernie discovers a library full of every book that was never written, a gallery of statues that are just plain awkward, and finds herself at dinner watching her own shadow take part in the feast!
Along the way Fernie is chased by the People Taker who is determined to take her to the Shadow Country. It’s up to Fernie and Gustav to stop the People Taker before he takesFernie’s family.
This book has had a lot of hype, and I can honestly say it’s all deserved. As such, it should come as no surprise that when I was given the chance to interview both Adam-Troy Castro and the Kristen Margiotta, I jumped at the chance–ESPECIALLY because I don’t think we have ever interviewed anyone quite like them here on Pub(lishing) Crawl.
What makes these two different? Adam is a multi-published author in the adult fiction market who made a stunning leap to middle grade with GUSTAV, and Kristin is a fine artist and illustrator. Definitely some perspectives new to us Pub(lishing) Crawlers.
1. You originally wrote (and are published) in the adult market. How did you make the leap to MG?
Yes, I have been published in science fiction, fantasy, and horror for about twenty-five years, with some oddities along the way (i.e. a nonfiction book about a reality tv show, a ghosted novel about a service that provides alibi.) The leap to Middle-Grade came via my two tongue-in-cheek alphabet books produced in collaboration with artist Johnny Atomic, Z IS FOR ZOMBIE and V IS FOR VAMPIRE (both from Harper). Editors started asking if I had anything for younger readers, and I veered accordingly.
2. Nice way to make the leap–and it worked out so very well. The one thing that hooked me from page 1 with GUSTAV GLOOM was the voice of the narrator–there’s a Dianna Wynne Jones charm with a Douglas Adams humor…but also a Lemony Snicket “this is going to be terrifying” feel. Did the voice for GUSTAV come to you naturally from the first page? Or was it something you layered in?
The voice actually needed to be toned down from the first draft. It was a little too self-aware, too cute. Adjustments were made.
3. Ha! Glad to hear it wasn’t perfect to start–if it had been, I would just feel even more intimidated. Now, speaking of layers, are you a plotter or pantster? Did GUSTAV come from a meticulous outline, the whims of your Muse, or somewhere in between? (If it came from the whims of your Muse, then I’m amazed. It was a VERY layered and deliciously complex plot.)
I go in both directions depending on the project. For instance, my ANDREA CORT series, which comprises both novellas and full-length novels, are in addition to science fiction murder mysteries. where I was required to play fair with the reader. Accordingly, in all cases I knew exactly whodunnit, and much of what the other characters were hiding, from page one, and therefore was able to plant subtle clues throughout, for Andrea’s benefit. Some smaller elements are surprises; i.e. I wasn’t entirely sure that the supporting characters, the Porrinyards, were going to be as important as they were.
In the case of the GUSTAV books, I go in knowing a lot about Gustav’s tragic backstory — which starts unfolding in book two — as well as some of the things that need to be established at some point in order for the overall story to build in the desired manner. Throughout the series, there will also be places where Gustav and Fernie must play detective, to uncover this secret or that; again, I have to furnish them with clues far in advance of any actual deduction. Other things are as much surprises to me as I hope they are to the reader. The nasty villain of Book Four, for instance, is something I never expected. There are surprises coming up in Book Six, not yet written, that I know well in advance, but beyond that many of the developments in that volume are still unknown to me; I discover them as I go along. That’s what makes this job fun.
4. Your method actually sounds a lot like mine (which pleases me enormously). I still qualify myself as a beginner, though, so do you–as a multi-published author–have any words of advice for aspiring authors or beginners?
Oh, jeez. Lots and lots. Here’s an easy one: don’t ever hold back. I had a friend who thought his own horror story was too scary, and wasted a lot of effort diluting it, or self-censoring. That way lies madness. No editor, and no reader, ever praised a work for being mediocre.
5. Wow. So, so, so true–something I personally have to keep reminding myself. Now, last question: What would YOU name a literary pub?
If you don’t think this is too vile: The Dangling Participle.
No. Definitely NOT too vile–in fact, I think it might be the best literary pub name we’ve heard yet. The Dangling Participle is definitely my personal favorite!
1. One thing that really struck me about your illustrations was how very gloomy yet pleasant they are. From Gustav’s mourning eyes to Fernie’s adorable slippers, your pictures seem to add a nice balance to the story’s definite creepy factor. Was this something that came naturally to you? Or something the publisher wanted?
This is something I keep hearing people comment on in regards to my illustration work as well as my personal paintings. I think naturally that is how I work, cute yet creepy, and when I choose to, a bit darker. As an illustrator, I naturally try to plan as much as I can, but the cute plus creepy factor just happened naturally. I’ve always been attracted to creepier, scary things, and sometimes those factors in combination with a sense of humor as well, ever since I was a young child.
2. Me too–in what I enjoy, at least. I really like when artists (such as yourself) have that eery flare. Now, I read that you work in oil paint. Is there some natural process that happens whenever you’re illustrating for someone? And was working for GUSTAV GLOOM a similar process to your usual one?
Yes, working on the GUSTAV books is no different than how I approach my personal work. I am an illustrator and also a fine artist, but the process is synonymous for me. For many people, it is not. I enjoy the planning phase from the beginning stages of sketching and research to the final execution of the illustrations. When it comes time to paint the illustration, I don’t want to worry about having to make changes at that stage, so all of the kinks are worked out in the sketch phases prior.
The illustration process begins with rough thumbnail sketches. These are loose sketches to compose the layout or composition of the illustration, as well as designing the look and placement of different characters. The publisher will review these sketches, make additional comments and suggest changes, and I move into final, more finished sketches from there. The publisher will then review this second round of sketches.
Any references are obtained for the final sketches that I mostly set up myself. For example, for many of the shadows in the Gustav illustrations, I would draw the shadow of the form, cut it out, and place it in front of a light source to create its’ shadow. I can play around with the lighting to alter the shadow which will help me render it as accurately as possible. It’s almost like setting up a mini stage.
When sketches are approved, the final illustrations are painted.
I love working with oil paint because it stays wet for a long time. This allows me to create really soft edges and transitions between values, especially when working with fog.
The only real difference for me between illustration and my personal work is that the illustrations are for someone else. The client has the idea, it’s up to the illustrator to make that happen. When I’m working on personal works, it’s up for me to come up with and execute my own paintings. I am my own worse critic, so I tend to be very hard on myself.
3. Oh yeah–don’t we all? I’m definitely my own worst critic too. But I have to say, I’ve never seen any illustrations quite like yours. It’s like Tim Burton meets the Powder Puff girls–and I LOVE it. Is your signature style something that evolved over time? Something you’ve always leaned toward or done?
Thanks so much. It’s definitely something that didn’t happen over night. I love realism and have such a strong passion for realistic drawing and rendering. During my college experience, working realistically began to morph a little bit, and became more exaggerated. At the same time, I was drawing a lot in my sketch books, trying to remember what it felt like to draw as a child. Free, no inhibitions, imaginative and just flowing. These drawings were more cartoon-like and from my imagination. I then began to explore painting these cartoon-like images in a realistic manner, in terms of applying value, using dramatic lighting, and atmospheric perspective. Even now, I’m still growing and exploring as an artist and illustrator, and I’m ok with that. I hope I keep growing and exploring to keep the illustrations fresh.
4. That’s a FANTASTIC attitude–one I’m definitely trying to adopt in my own work. I, personally, like to look to my writing heroes to help keep me on track. What about you–do you have any favorite illustrators in the MG community?
I absolutely love the illustrations by Stephen Gammell in SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK. I remember seeing the first book in the series, as a young child in grade school, and being so drawn to the illustrations and the stories. I still get the same excitement and a little bit of a chill when viewing those books now ( I actually have the complete set on my nightstand currently and occasionally read it before going to sleep ). Brett Helquist is another favorite. Love his illustrations for a SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS. Mary Grandpre’s HARRY POTTER illustrations are stunning.
5. I like your taste. Okay, final questions: Make us an artistic cocktail! When you’re gazing at your favorite illustrations, what do they have?
A tall glass of whimsy with a shot of macabre.
Whoa. Awesome answer. That’s EXACTLY how I would describe your own illustrations–and all of GUSTAV GLOOM. A ton of whimsy and a real sharp slice of macabre.
Well, thank you both–Adam and Kristen–so very much for indulging me. I am so honored to have read an advanced copy of GUSTAV GLOOM and to have had a chance to learn more about the people behind the book.
And to all our readers–do you want a chance to read GUSTAV GLOOM AND THE PEOPLE TAKER? If so, then be sure to leave us a comment below letting us know YOUR favorite middle grade writer or illustrator, and we’ll announce the winner next week!
Susan Dennard is a reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut novel, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY–a gothic young adult tale (complete with rogues!)–is now available from HarperTeen.